Yes/Asia: Only Time Will Tell

By: Dennis Cook

Two of England's finest art rock ensembles, Yes and Asia, have just begun a North American tour that will run through August. Tonight they perform at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, CA, followed by a performance at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday night. Last year Yes celebrated their 40th anniversary and the original lineup of Asia reunited in 2007 to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Just by the numbers, it's clear these are veterans that disprove the idea that rock is purely a young man's game. And though often uncredited, both bands, particularly Yes, are part of the primordial soup that produced the jam culture of Phish, moe., Umphrey's McGee and many others, providing a blueprint for combining stratospheric musicianship, complex composition and populist angling with rock's more remedial pleasures.

JamBase was fortunate to speak with some of the principles involved with a tour that will see guitarist Steve Howe doing double duty in what promises to be some of the more high end melodic rock on the summer circuit. While Yes' lead singer Jon Anderson has been sidelined for health reasons - surprisingly ably understudied by fresh find Benoit David (though no one this side of Middle Earth really sounds like Anderson) – Asia will feature all four original members – Howe, King Crimson vet John Wetton (bass, lead vocals), Geoff Downes (keys) and drum god Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame.

Drummer Alan White was already a respected session player in the British rock scene when he was invited to join Yes in 1972. He'd played on the Plastic Ono Band's Live Peace In Toronto, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and John Lennon's Imagine. It's his gutsy swing you hear on "Instant Karma," a potent percussion voice that reverberates right through the Yes catalog to this day, putting heft crisp snare pop to classics like "Owner of a Lonely Heart." In a band with a head-scratching amount of membership turnover, White, along with bassist Chris Squire, has remained a constant since his induction. He's the one guy who still gets along with the vast majority of their alumni, and he's definitely the least prone to showing off his technique. White is pure class and pure chops, a drummer's drummer, and we were chuffed to get a few minutes with the man.

JamBase: One hears the phrase, "Give the drummer some," but you're usually the last guys to get press. Given your stellar work in Yes over the years, I wanted an opportunity to put a spotlight on your contribution to the band.

Alan White
Alan White: It is a different perspective, but it's pretty much a democratic band. Everyone is equally talented in everything they do in their individual instruments. At least we approach it that way.

JamBase: The energy in Yes can get really wild and yet there's your presence in the back to keep things anchored.

Alan White: Well, it needs it sometimes [laughs]. It's good because you can keep things from becoming a racket, but at the same time I can be as active as the rest of them. Sometimes they just need a firm crutch to lean on.

That balance of elements is one of the things that's long caught my ear in Yes. As big and dynamic as you can be at times, there's a solidity to it.

I think that's something the band has built up. You listen to the first albums and the band could be quite flighty back then. I think the band wanted to get more of a foot on the ground, not be as flighty and twiddly with notes everywhere. It now has some kind of solidarity to it, always moving the music forward with our eye on something holding it all together.

You have to keep track of a lot of tempo changes in Yes.

That's the one thing I kind of taught myself as I was drawn into Yes in my teens, as it were. I started with The Beatles and the Stones and all that and then moved into jazz-fusion and a very diverse variety of music, which I then tried to adapt, keeping some solidarity to the rhythm but also being able to play 5/4 and 9/4 time signatures. And also playing so people feel they can dance to it; so really, really making it swing extra good so it feels as if they're listening to normal music.

If you go to a Yes show you'll see people moving a good deal even though on the surface this doesn't seem like dance music at all.

Vintage Alan White
Yes, exactly! We want you to feel you can tap your foot to it. And people can dance to it but they might stumble around a bit sometimes [laughs]. It's like, "This one's in 5/4 but it sounds like it's in 4/4." So, if you trip up it's because of that extra beat.

It's the sense of play in this band that's brought me back year after year. It's very high-level musicianship but you still seem to have a lot of fun together.

A lot of people think when they go to a Yes concert they're seeing a show that's absolutely, ridiculously worked out, which a lot of it is, but you'd be surprised at how much improvisation we do. There's a lot of improvisation amongst the organization.

You couldn't be careless with this music though. It seems hard to be too improvisational in places given the complexity of many compositions.

Some things certainly have to be the same because, believe you me, if anyone gets anything wrong then the whole thing falls like dominoes. You have to play the organized parts absolutely spot-on.

The audience has expectations and if certain pieces, say "Yours Is No Disgrace," don't hit their marks exactly they're disappointed.

And that's one of the easiest ones we play! I think we could all read a book and play that one.

The longer this band goes on, the more attached fans become to what they regard as the "classic" material. That presents a challenge in getting across new material, but Yes has kept on making records, actively resisting beings a "hits" band.

Alan White
Obviously, I love playing the classic stuff we did but personally, I enjoy a lot of the newer stuff, including 90125, of course, which everybody loves to hear. But when you get to albums like Magnification [2001] and The Ladder [1999], they've got some very, very interesting things on them. I think Talk is the most under-estimated album we've made. There's some really incredible playing on there.

You're all very engaged, creatively, on this newer material. It's not as if you're putting out "product" to tour behind.

Exactly! No, no, no. We move together and we move how we all feel. It's the way we move forward and approach new things with each other. We have an idea and we take it to a person, who then has an idea and takes it to another person, and all of the sudden we come up with Yes Music.

That's a phrase you all seem to use. It came up the first time I spoke with Jon Anderson [see our 2004 feature here]. It's not strictly rock; there are elements of classical, fusion, jazz, etc. So, you just have to give it that general heading don't you?

It's the kind of thing where there's not many "clone" Yes bands [laughs]. A lot of it is very, very difficult. There's a tribute band in Sacramento called Parallels, and they're actually damn good and they play some pretty diverse music. When all of us [in Yes] come together it just has this natural sparkle.

When I first encountered Yes as a young man you all seemed vaguely superhuman to me as musicians, and that feeling remains to a lesser extent to this day. It just seems like a form of magic what you do. You even had a keyboard player for many years [Rick Wakeman] who wore sparkly capes!

Rick has been in and out and in and out. This time we're out with Rick's son Oliver, and he plays pretty much exactly like Rick but he's 25 years younger! He plays with Ozzy, too. He's a professional guy.

Is it somewhat daunting to realize you've just celebrated Yes' 40th anniversary?

I really don't feel like that. As far as energy levels and all that goes, I'm ready to go another 10 or 15 years.

In the late '70s Rick Wakeman did a cartoon that we put in the program, and it's our manager Brian Lane with the whole band in a meeting telling us that when we next go out on tour we're not going to make any money. And that was the opening ploy. By the end we're on stage and Jon's in a wheelchair and Chris is on crutches and I've got some nurse holding me up. It's a bizarre cartoon, and that's what we thought in the late '70s!

I think we're being asked to come to terms with musicians who began their careers in the '60s and '70s who have no intention of giving any ground they don't have to as they grow older.

Jagger still moves around like he's a little boy. What's the guy, 64 or 65? It's kind of strange how we can just keep on going.

Continue reading for our conversation with Asia's Geoff Downes...

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