That voice. It punches through the stratosphere, down along a sunbeam, and straight into your heart. Jon Anderson has been the lead singer of Yes, one of the most long-lived and successful rock acts in history, for more than three decades (give or take a few respites when the drama got too thick). Perhaps more than any other element in this progressive rock flagship, it is Anderson's vocals that instantly identify what you're hearing as Yes Music, a complex, giddy, positive amalgamation of rock's fire and classical music's grace. English folk, American pop, and plugged-in jazz also rear their heads on album oriented FM-radio staples like "I've Seen All Good People," "Owner of a Lonely Heart," and "Long Distance Runaround." Anderson is also the band's lyricist and his stanzas are full of light and cries for peace, wondrous journeys and whales, cosmic travelers and seafarers happily adrift. He remains one of the few people in rock that continues to espouse the same cool values that came out of the '60s social movements around the globe. His voice, a strange otherworldly thing, high and pure, never comes across as anything other than achingly sincere. He believes in the power of music to change the world for the better. He believed that in 1968 when he met bassist Chris Squire and formed a fresh idea for what a rock band might be and he believes it today with a force that's frankly pretty infectious. Talking to Jon, I started to feel that all the gunfire in the distance might actually one day be a thing of the past. It is not a thought that I'm able to capture very often and it speaks to the power emanating from this distinctive spirit.
Having reformed what many regard as the classic lineup in 1995, Yes has been busy revisiting their catalog through a comprehensive reissue series at Rhino Records and in the surprisingly candid DVD documentary Yesspeak where the entire lot of them open up about the band. The recently released anthology The Ultimate Yes-35th Anniversary Collection finds them exploring acoustic arrangements for the first time. Jazzy takes on the delightful juggernaut "Roundabout" and early gem "South Side Of The Sky" show a vital band, anxious to play with their catalog and present it from new angles. Yes has always been an exciting live act and once again North America gets a chance to visit with the band for three hours or so in each city they bless. Their newest compositions are, if anything, more shiny, more uplifting than in the past. Their mission is clearly to bring some hope and good times wherever they play. It might even be a bit too happy for some but for others this is the most personal, significant music in their lives. Yes inspires that kind of passion, a commitment to their music to match the band's own.
Jon Anderson by Robin Kauffman
Jon Anderson sat down to speak with JamBase before the show gets rolling this month. He touches on each of his bandmates, the evils of pharmaceutical companies, the role the fans play in keeping Yes going, and much more. His mind lights on ideas like a precocious hummingbird. He's possessed of a rainbow logic that makes for a very lively ride. Please extinguish all flammables, check your seatbelt, and prepare for takeoff...
Dennis Cook: It's nice to see you guys still around after 35 years.
Jon Anderson: Alive and kicking!
Dennis Cook: I've seen the phrase Yes Music in things written by the band members in the past couple of years. I'm wondering if you can elaborate on what Yes Music actually is.
Jon Anderson: It is a style of music, it is a style within itself based on structure, musical ideas, and forms but not limited by time. There are no boundaries to how the music is developed. And the lyrical content has always been very positive. It's a combination of those things. I think it's a style unto its own that grew out of those formative years of the early '70s. It doesn't get followed by many other bands but you can hear our influence in a few bands. When we started we were influenced by The Beatles, The (Rolling) Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and the like, then we sort of moved into creating our own musical territory. Bands listen and glean ideas from other bands.
Yes by Gottlieb Bros.
Dennis Cook: I like the idea of borrowing things to get your first steps going.
Jon Anderson: There are very few bands that will attempt the more intricate Yes pieces but there are bands that do. It's interesting to find a band in Japan that sounds just like Yes and a band in Germany that do just Yes covers. I know when I started I would have been happy to sound like the Beatles or Joe Tex or whoever. You want to sound like most bands, you want to sound like their records and that's how you learn your chops.
Something I'd read in the Allmusic.com bio for Yes stuck out for me. It ends with the line "Yes is doing something serious with rock music." That was that writer's idea of what the whole of Yes has been about. Do you think that's an accurate statement? Did you want to do something serious right from the start?
Yeah. Serious might be the wrong word. Inventive or revolutionary might be better. We wanted to do something different because the Beatles did it, you know? They were very pop and then they met Bob Dylan and it became very cosmic. They met gurus and it became spiritual, "All You Need Is Love" and things like that. I wanted, personally, to go along that path of inventiveness and adventure in music. I didn't want to be a pop star, and I thought I was too old anyway. I wanted to be a musician surrounded by musicians that care. If that's serious then so be it. It wasn't like we said we're gonna be above everybody. It was more a willingness to investigate the potential of being in a rock 'n' roll band and basically stretch the imagination.
Jon Anderson by Teressa Williams
You're primarily known as a vocalist and lyricist but you also play a wide array of instruments. What does playing an instrument bring out in you that's different from singing?
I started out as the singer in the band and your formative years have you lugging the equipment around and setting up the drums and driving everyone around because you're just the singer and they're musicians (he gives the last word a nice comic gravitas). As soon as I could learn to play a guitar, which quite honestly took a hell of a long time--I was 24 when I first started playing--I realized that I could write songs. So I started writing songs for Yes and then I learned piano and I'm still learning. It's an ever-expanding thing. I'm in music school and learning every day. I'm working on ideas every day and it gives me a reason to continue. I think one of the great moments of my life was when I could write musician on my passport (laughter). I wasn't just the singer in a band.
That's a neat moment.
I could play anything. I don't know that I can play great but I can pick up an instrument and play and I just love that fact. I'm self-taught so I have no restrictions.
Jon Anderson by Edward Ajaj
Yes is still a very active touring band and I wondered if you ever thought you'd still be out on the road this much when you reformed the older lineup a few years ago? It just seems like there's a renewed energy towards getting your music out in the world these days.
Not really. Basically, you're surviving, your life is a question of survival and you maintain a standard of music over the years and you keep going. I've left the band a couple of times when it wasn't really fun for me and did other things that were very happy, very fun for me. But getting back in the early nineties with Steve (Howe) and Rick (Wakeman) was a challenge. Can we get the band into the 21st Century and how do we do that? Well, you gotta tour, you gotta play for people and let them know that you're good. It's like we're a band of brothers on tour and it's not always easy but we survive because we have our music and we have a great fan base that loves what we do. They know what we're going through, they've lived through lives what it's taken to be who we are. Like the classic guy who came up to me wearing a t-shirt that said "I've Grown Old Listening To Your Music" (big laughter). It was classic. I'm 60 this year and I feel like an elder and I don't feel anything wrong in that. I've got a lot of experience and lot of dreams to fulfill. Touring is part of that. We just got back from a trip and wherever we go there's a bunch of people--three or four thousand people, sometimes six or seven thousand people--just come and they're so into this band and a lot of them are young people who are so into the band.
You just finished a big arena tour where one of the key elements was that Yes was playing a number of songs live and acoustic that you hadn't played for a long time. What made you come back and revisit them?
We started doing an acoustic idea that we'd talked about for a couple of years and never got around to. We realized an acoustic set, playing songs we hadn't played for a long long time, gave them a new lease on life. It's like revisiting a song and playing it a bit different and in some ways I think that's gonna take us through the next few years of recording. We want to revisit some older material as well as new material. We want to embrace the history of the band as well as the future.
Jon Anderson by Robin Kauffman
That's nice. It does seem like the band in general seems to be more at peace with its past these days.
(Laughs) I think some of that comes through in the Rhino reissues and the Yesspeak documentary. You guys are talking about it in a way I've never heard Yes talk about its history before.
We know how we are, who we are, what we are, and we've matured. We still have our moments believe me but life is like that. I don't know any group that hasn't had problems all the way through their career. Even Elvis was in a mess.
Does it ever feel like you're caught up in a soap opera with all the lineup shifts over the years and such?
It's one of those things you need a pie chart on the wall to figure out all the permutations...
Someone actually made one! It's called the Yes Family Tree. But the music keeps it together. We still play songs we wrote ten years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, there's still the same impetus for these people to play and you can never ever be overly satisfied with a performance. You can say that was a great performance, I hope we do that tomorrow night (laughter).
Wakeman & Anderson by Gottlieb Bros.
Is there any material you struggle to continue performing? And also the other side of that, is there any material that you've discovered you're more excited about than you've been in a long time?
This last tour we did a piece of music we wrote in 1995 called "Mind Drive" and it was such a great experiment laid out on stage. I was just singing it this morning in my shower. I feel really good about that song and will keep on playing it. But then you attempt a piece from something like Tales From Topographic Oceans, and they're giant steps musically and if you get 'em right it's an amazing experience. We wonder, "Can we play it, how can we play it with depth and quality?" We can't just ramble through a piece of music that took us a couple months to create. If you create a piece of music and then you don't get a chance to perform it on stage it's really a shame. You spend hours creating it and just because it wasn't a hit record because it just happens to be 15 minutes long doesn't mean it's a bad piece of music or wasn't worth the trip.
The idea that something has to be a hit to be worthwhile is a sort of sad part of our culture in the West.
Like management will say that wasn't a great album because it didn't make it on radio but you can still take it on tour and make it better and better because it was given musical birth in the studio. You can't knock it until you've tried every which way to make it work. When you're in creation you should not judge it by what other people say. Only judge it by what you feel in your heart. Sometimes we let a piece of music go by but because we did "Mind Drive" on this last tour I think the rest of the guys are realizing we should look back to Topographic because there are some beautiful songs in there. We'll maybe do an acoustic version of that piece, not the whole piece but some of it. It gets everybody's musical juices flowing. You start thinking, "Why not?" Who's to say why we shouldn't play a piece of music? Yes Music doesn't live in the natural order of things.
Jon Anderson by Robin Kauffman
There's something removed from the regular order of radio play and trying to exactly duplicate that sound in concert. Often bands are recreationists now.
We never set out to become an "album band." We just set out to be a good band. It's only that fate gave us that chance and we stood by it and decided to work harder to create two ways, two roads. You become successful, you become a celebrity, you become a superstar or whatever. Or you become successful and you dig in and you create and you become a career person. I don't go out to celebrity things. I like the idea of it but it's not my game.
It's fine that it's out there but you don't necessarily feel like you need to participate.
I don't need to. Maybe one day I'll go to one of those things and it'll be fun, but I don't go. People go every year to be there, to be part of it. That's their celebration. My celebration is being home and being quiet and then going on the road and checking it out. Going out there and standing on stage and saying, "This is who we are. This is what we do and you better believe it." I believe it.
Jon Anderson by Teressa Williams
It's clear you do. There's a sense that comes through, on the most recent work actually, that this is what you were put on Earth to do.
Yeah. We did an album called Magnification and the record company went bankrupt. The music is still good but unfortunately a couple of the guys in the band had a tough time with that album. For one reason or another they don't want to do songs from that album on stage. I do. I just did a show with the Cleveland Youth Orchestra and I did song from that album that will only get played as long as I'll sing it because the band won't play it. It's just the way things go, a quirk of nature. I am always impressed with the music we create. And that's not like saying it's the best or the shiniest. It's just part of the musical world. Who's to say that yours is better than mine or whatever? It's always a question of learning that music is a beautiful, beautiful part of life and it shouldn't be overly judged or caved into emotionally. It's a part of life. It's there, you hear it. In fact, you can hear it but you don't have to hear it. I can walk to the disco, boom boom boom, a rave thing and I dig it but I'm not going to go into the bloody room! You know what I'm saying?
I do, I do (laughs).
I'm not going to do my head in. What for? I like it. I love X-Games music. Those wild bands (breaks into a grungy, high energy scat).
There's something very appealing about that kind of aggression.
I love it!
It sounds like you're able to appreciate a wide range of things without feeling you need to be a part of them. (Pause) I want to talk a bit about your solo work but it differs from Yes. From your own perspective, what drives you to do projects with Bela Fleck or Mike Oldfield or some of the others you've collaborated with?
It's anything I'm asked to do. If people ask me I'll do it. I wanted to tour with Bela Fleck but I could never get managers to sort it out so I got in touch with Bela and he said, "Do you want to sing on this song?" and I said yes. Same with Mike Oldfield and I've done a couple albums with Vangelis (Chariots of Fire composer and electronic music pioneer). It's like cross-pollination. If I can find somebody to work with I will. I was down in South France and I was working on a project I've been doing for 25 years now about the life and times of Chagall and the guy I was working with turned out to be a crazy wack alcoholic. So, I'm stranded there with my wife in the south of France and I went to a bar where I met a keyboard player from Cameroon and he was so good. The following day I wrote six songs with him, went to Paris and we made an album. Because I was guided toward doing it, this album, The More You Know, is kind of a funky album.
Jon Anderson by Robin Kauffman
Do you feel a drive to keep working at all times?
Yes. I was talking to a guy an hour ago about a project I've had in my head all summer and he's going to come over next week and help me. I'm getting into trance music for some reason. Cosmic trancing. Not rave but trance.
Well, the word "trance" has a much different meaning than "rave." There's a lot you can read into both of those words but trance has something of the shaman in it.
That's where I'm heading for the next year probably. I can hear and I just don't know how to play it but I know what it is and I feel it and I can actually see it at times. There's an audience ready for that kind of music and it's going to be very exotic and it's going to be transforming and transcendental.
And you're already used to performing pieces that are ten, 20 minutes in length. So you already understand the nature of the elongated composition.
I heard about this great music from India that lasts seven days. I love that, that it would last so long. And I start thinking, that's what I should do! I can do that! I've got a thousand songs. I just got in a trunk full of songs I've written over the years and there must be a thousand songs there. And I start wondering what am I gonna do?