Earlier this month, progressive rock band Yes released their new album, Topographic Drama: Live Across America. It captures the group in all their live glory, as they perform their now-classic 1980 album Drama in its entirety, along with with Sides 1 and 4 (and a bit of 3) from their 1973 divisive double album Tales From Topographic Oceans. In a band where line-up changes have been a way of life, the group on Topographic Drama features Steve Howe (guitars), Alan White and Jay Schellen (drums), Geoff Downes (keyboards), Jon Davison (vocals) and Billy Sherwood (bass).
In 2015, former member (1997-2000) Sherwood was given the ultimate request. Yes founding member Chris Squire had been diagnosed with cancer, and asked his longtime friend to take his place in the band until he regained his health. Sadly, Squire never recovered, and passed away on June 27, 2015. Under truly heartbreaking circumstances, Billy’s risen to the challenge of standing in the shadow of a giant of a musician.
I had the chance to talk to Billy Sherwood about the new live album, celebrating the music and memory of Squire, the 20th anniversary of Open Your Eyes, his first album as a band member, and much more.
Andy Burns: Billy, I’m so happy to be talking to you. I met you once, twenty years ago, when I was a kid, standing outside of Massey Hall in Toronto, waiting to meet all the guys in the band.
Billy Sherwood: (laughing) That’s a trip, man.
AB: I was such a kid. I said to you, “You should play ‘The More We Live.’ And get them to turn your guitar up!”
BS: Right! That’s funny, man.
AB: I don’t know if you recall, but Massey Hall was really accessible. I spent two days outside waiting to meet you all. And I met Chris, and I said to him, “You’re the reason I play bass guitar.” And he said, “Well, that’s a bloody good reason, isn’t it?”
BS: (laughing) That sounds like Chris.
AB: So thanks for taking the time to talk…
BS: Thanks for hanging in there all these years.
AB: Congratulations on the new live album. To my ears, this is absolutely one of the best sounding Yes live albums we’ve ever had. The last couple Yes live albums you’ve mixed, so in terms of a Yes live album, what makes a great Yes live album?
BS: I think that for me the stand out Yes live albums are Yessongs and Yesshows. I think what makes that happen is the band having a great energy and capturing that energy that happens. We were fortunate that on the Drama/Tales tour, we just had a vibe going on that was very high energy. I’ve done a lot of Yes tours with various line-ups now, as you know, and this particular lineup that went out and did that tour was very special and had a unique spark to it. All of the shows we played had an edgy desire to be really, really on point, musically speaking. I think that translated to the recording. The energy was just happening. It’s permeated the entire record. You can feel it jumping off the CD.AB: There’s a question I wanted to ask you, but I was hesitating. I’m a die-hard Yes fan, as you can probably tell already. I missed the tour. I’m in Toronto; it didn’t come to Toronto. The closest it came was Buffalo. I was really excited about the tour, but when I found out Alan wasn’t on it, I had this moment of hesitation. It was the first time in a band where we see perpetual change, the song is the band, it was the first time I had a hesitation about what the band was doing. I think part of it was Drama is a top five Yes album for me, and the idea that Alan wasn’t going to be there, I had a real moment of pause. And then I listen to this live album and I think, “Wow, I’m an idiot. I really missed out on something here.”
BS: Yeah. Well, Alan plays on the record, as does Jay Schellen, who was brought in when Alan wasn’t feeling so hot. Alan had had some surgery he was dealing with, we couldn’t just put him up there and let him hurt himself. It’s like an athlete; you have to be careful about putting them back in the game. But that said, Jay Schellen has the same passion for Yes that I do, and obviously that you do. He was somebody who was involved in Conspiracy with me and Chris. He played with Tony Kaye, so there was a lineage into Yes with Jay. And as Chris Squire was my hero growing up playing bass, Alan White was one of Jay’s big inspiration. So Jay knew the music back and forth like I did, so when it came time to play the music, with Alan it felt great and then Jay would sit up there and it felt just as good. They both have a great relationship, it was very symbiotic, and again, I think that translates to the stage and to the recordings. I can’t even tell you who played what. When I was mixing the record file, all I had were the audio files with “kick snare toms.” I couldn’t tell who did what, I had to go back and ask them (laughs). It was that seamless.
The one thing about Yes is that you’ve really got to have your chops together to be in this band, and I think Jay really rose to the occasion and held it together and supported Alan in a great way. We’re about to go out tour again and Jay’s going to come out with us and support Alan in the same way again. Our favourite bands, when we lose a member by virtue of life and death situations or someone wants to leave the band, we’re all very precious about how these things work because we want our bubble to remain untouched. But that’s not how life works: baseball teams change players, hockey teams change players, bands change players. The one thing about Yes that I’ve always respected is that, while I’ve always been one to follow the band through the changes and not put up a wall and say, “Oh well, he’s not there, I’m not listening anymore,” is because of the quality of the music and the musicianship is such that you just know it’s going to be smoking.
AB: As a fan, I learned my lesson listening to this album. There’s something about Yes that I don’t think any other bands have. For all the virtuosos that are in the band, for all the distinct elements, it’s the music that becomes the star, and it’s the music that’s worth perpetuating. There was that comment, ironically from Rick Wakeman back on the YesYears video, about his sneaking suspicion that there would be a Yes without any original members and yeah, you can see it, because it’s really about this incredible catalogue that everyone who has come through the band and is in the band continues to celebrate and perpetuate.
BS: Yeah, by all means. It’s about the music, as you said. It’s timeless. It’s got to be maintained and protected by those who are willing to take it to the highest level and keep the integrity of the music. It’s playing has got to be as great as it can be, and that’s the challenge. To keep it at that level, and one I love to involved with, that challenge.
AB: There’s a new live album out from King Crimson from Chicago, and I know after that night in Chicago, Robert Fripp went to management and said, if you’re looking for a hot show to put out, this one is amazing. As the Topographic Drama tour was going on, did you yourself make mental notes of any really great shows that you played and that wound up on the album?
BS: I did, between myself and the guy who was recording it, Dean, who was also our front of house mixer who recorded all the stuff. I would say to him at the end of a particular show, “Do me a favour and just put a star beside that folder.” And so when the time came for me to mix it, I had at least ten stars to choose from that tour that I felt, just go to these first, these are no brainers, they’re great takes. And sure enough, that’s how it came together.
AB: For the layman out there, can you explain the process of mixing Topographic Drama? You get these shows with the stars beside them and then what do you do when you have all this music to make your way through?
BS: You have audio files; back in the day it would have 24-track tapes. I have a hard drive with each show. It’s a very lengthy process. It took be about three weeks to sift through all the various shows and decide what was what and the best takes to take. Just loading in 80 files per show from a three-hour show, that was a three-day process! After you go through all that, I make my mental notes and my paper notes like “Ritual from this show is killer, Machine Messiah from this show is great,” and then start editing those together into the form and the shape of the show. And then it’s just a question of mixing, which is something that I quite a lot of and comes easy to me. I know how Yes is supposed to sound after all these years of being involved in it and mixing the band that I can get into the zone pretty quickly. Once I’m in the zone, and I feel like I’ve got it to where I’m digging this, I send it around to the guys in the band and they’ll come back with their notes. Usually, each guys thinks he’s not loud enough (laughs), so you take that into consideration, you rebalance the thing and you put the final mix together, you master it and it’s a done deal.
It’s tricky. It’s easier to mix a studio album that’s recorded from scratch than it is a live record. With a live record you’ve got microphones, you’ve got things bleeding into each other, it becomes a different style of mixing. But at the end of the day, the clarity and the energy and the punch, the tone, is all the things I’m looking for when I’m doing it.
AB: It’s really got a great flow to it.
BS: The idea of taking one show was where I started, but you get into this thing for me where I want perfection. Why not put it together this way and make it the best it could be? You know, as great as Yes plays, nobody’s perfect. I got out there to pitch a no-hitter, but if someone gets a piece of the ball, I can’t help that. It’s human nature. I went to it where each song is a no-hitter, lets use that one.
AB: When you’re listening to so many versions of the same show, do you pick up on subtleties from your bandmates that you may have missed? I know for Steve Howe, it’s very important to nail this music as accurately and honourably to the source material as possible. I don’t see Yes as a band that improvs. Do you notice subtleties?
BS: Yeah, you’re painting within the lines, so to speak. 90% of that is painting within the lines, then there’s that percentage left over where things change a little bit from night to night, song to song. Those subtleties are beautiful. I notice them in the recordings, when I’m listening to the tracks, and I think, “Oh, that was really special, let’s use this one.” Those make up the magical thing about Yes, those subtleties you’re talking about. You can’t improv over “Starship Trooper,” but by the same token, when you do the bass solo, it’s not going to be the same every single night. There are certain things about it that are magical, and then other nights it’s “I tried to get that….”(laughs).
AB: What’s your favourite song to play off Drama and why?
BS: Ahh, Drama. I love all those tracks, it’s hard to say. “Into The Lens” is an interesting one. Rhythmically there’s some tricky little things between the bass and the drums that are very subtle. There’s one riff that’s on the beat and then it’s off the beat and then it’s on the beat. So there’s challenge within that song that as a bass player I really like. Selfishly, that would be the one for me.
AB: In 1997, you were in the band playing “The Revealing Science of God” as a guitar player. Now you’re in the band, playing it as the bassist. Tell me about that song.
BS: Tales From Topographic Oceans is my favourite album, and I love that track. It’s stunning to play it on any instrument. I was happy to play it on guitar, playing rhythms. I already knew the bass part, looking over Chris’ shoulder all those times (laughs), so transitioning into the bass part was pretty seamless for me, and easy, because I knew it so well. But playing Chris’ stuff, having lost him, is something incredibly special and emotional. At times it makes me sad, playing it. And at times it makes me really happy and excited that I’m playing it. It just runs the gamut. That album in particular has a special tug on my heart strings. I love it.
AB: You mention losing Chris, and one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is a bummer for me. I recently lost a close friend of mine in the past two weeks. It’s the first friend that I’ve ever lost, and it’s really fresh for me. I think about him all the time, he helped me with the site. I feel his ghost, it’s so fresh to me. And when I’m working, I think about my friend, he’s not there, and the work I’m doing, I think about what he would think of what I’m doing. Knowing how close you were to Chris, how he was a mentor, I wonder how it is, because you’re literally in his shoes now. Does being the bassist in Yes, that request from Chris, does it make dealing with the loss of your friend easier or harder for you?
BS: I never imagined it, for openers, in a million years. As long as I’ve been involved in Yes, I never pictured a Yes without Chris. The thought of doing what I’m doing, it never crossed my mind. When Chris got sick and he was hinting around for me to do it, I didn’t even pick up on the hint until the third or fourth phone call when he said, “You’re getting it. I want you to go and fill in for me while I’m sick.” And I said, “Woah, hold on a minute, let me process this.” From that point forward, it was a very special honour and privilege and duty almost, to make it as best as I could be for him. The idea would be that he would come back and unfortunately we lost him very quickly, which was incredibly sad. The shock of it, the speed of it, the lifestyle change. I was in the studio making records and now I’m the bass player in Yes. It was all very intense and fast-moving. The very first tour I did was very difficult, to look out into the audience in that position. I felt guilty that I was standing up there, because that should have been Chris’ spot. Then I felt honoured because I knew this is what Chris wanted. I kept looking at the audience and wondering, “Are they accepting this? Is this a problem?” because if it would have failed, this idea, it would have been all my fault. So I wanted it work, and I wanted to know that the fans were accepting of this, which is amazing. They’ve be so warm and loving and wanting this to continue, as Chris did, which is what his wishes were. That gives me the support and the desire to drive and push back and keep going.
After that first tour, I realized that this was working and we’re going to be ok, it became a bit easier. But that said, there’s always moments still, even on the last tour, during particular passages and I might be looking at the audience while I’m playing it, and something just hits me that makes me really, really sad and I have to turn away and gather my thoughts and come back at it. I feel like he’s still here with me, but he’s not. That’s the sad fact of life, that we lose people we love, but carrying on is the best thing we can do. The idea that he wanted this to carry on and be fruitful and positive and going forward is a testament to who Christ Squire was and his vision for the band. Those are the things I try to honour when I’m out there playing or when I’m mixing the record. I picture him over my shoulder going, “No, that’s not it yet. Fix that or EQ that.” For all those reasons, it empowers me in a positive way to go forward.
I also have the support of the band members as well, I can’t discount that. I’ve got the full support of Steve Howe and Geoff and Alan and Jon Davison. Nobody’s on my case, so to speak. It’s very natural and fluid. I also think the fans know that Chris and I had a relationship outside of Yes. We had Conspiracy, we were musical allies not only in Yes, but outside as well. I think that’s afforded the fans an acceptance, rather than if I was just some random guy picking up a Rickenbacker standing up there, trying to do that. There’s a lot of history that plays into how this is taking place. But like I said, all that history leading up to that moment, I never imagined in a million years that I’d hear Chris Squire say, “I want you to take my spot.”
AB: On a happier note, this year marked the 20th anniversary of Open Your Eyes. I had that CD cranked up in my car yesterday, and I think that’s a record that people have only begun to appreciate over time. The most amazing thing on that record, and I blame you for it, is how freaking amazing those harmonies are across that entire record. If you guys hit the studio next year, I implore you to make those harmonies sound as good as they do on Open Your Eyes. Twenty years later, how do you look back at your time in Yes, your first stint, and how do you look back on the album?
BS: It’s a funny thing. As a producer or writer or artist, I’m proud of every record I’ve ever made or I wouldn’t have made it. I would have stopped and said, “This sucks. I can’t do this.” (laughs). I’m as proud of Open Your Eyes as any other record that I’ve made. It came at an important time. They’d just finished Keys To Ascension. I was producing Keys To Ascension 2, I was producing that. We were mixing that record, and they had a tour coming up and Rick Wakeman decided to quit…
AB: Oh, surprise, right?
BS: That left the band sort of shattered and went in different directions, and I looked at Chris and I said, “You know, I’ve been around this a long time. Let’s take the initiative and start writing some songs, and see if we can glue this back together.” Which is what we did. For me, regardless of what the fans think, I know that album served its purpose in rejoining the band and getting it back on focus and back on the road. For that, I’m proud of it. And musically speaking, I think the record stands up.
AB: It does.
BS: It’s just a different kind of Yes record.There’s no way I’d go into the studio with Yes and say, “Let’s do Close to the Edge” again. That’s just not my style. I want to do something different. Plus, Keys To Ascension had really long, epic tracks on it that were proggy and deep. Honestly, I said to Chris, “Wouldn’t it be cool to get this band back on the radio? And generate more people sitting in the audience and expand the Yes crowd? Let’s try to touch on that sort of spirit.” I think that songs like “Open Your Eyes,” “New State of Mind,” those songs hearken to that period of radio, and we did it. We got on the radio, we had success with “Open Your Eyes,” and we started touring and the spike was going up. For me, it was mission accomplished all the way around. I understand the Yes fans are looking for Fragile 2; it’s not my job to do that. I would never even try. When you’re chasing that kind of thing, you never really capture it. And then it becomes something you’re not really into at the end of the day.
AB: You mention “New State of Mind,” and it’s such an incredible opening track, it’s so good.
BS: A song like “New State of Mind” was composed, not just specifically for the Yes fans, but to the world, that this is a new state of mind for Yes, heading into the new century, and off we go. The album was designed for a purpose, and it did it. If it takes people twenty years to dig, that’s cool (laughs).
AB: Give me some hints as to what we can expect from the Yes 50th Anniversary celebration?
BS: At the moment we’ve got this Cruise To The Edge coming up, which will be a lot of fun. Then we go to Europe in March. And then there’s a summer tour coming, and I believe Japan is on the radar, and some other territories. Yes is going to be touring quite a bit this year in the spirit of the 50th anniversary. And we’re going to have some guests along the way here and there. For instance, Tony Kaye, the original keyboard player and dear friend of mine, bandmate in Circa, still with me, is coming out on the road with us. He’s going to play a couple classic things with us. Obviously, Geoff Downes is the main keyboard player in Yes, but Tony’s going to come up and do some guest spots. And hopefully along the way, there will be a spark and we’ll start looking at making a new album, which I would never be opposed to.
AB: Final question: how are you going to spend the holidays?
BS: I’m actually working on a Chris Squire tribute album, that has a bunch of great artists on it. I’m just mixing the stuff through the holidays, because it’s nice and quiet. I’m working on that right and enjoying the season.
AB: Well, thank you for your time. Speaking as a fan that loves this band, someone who trucked all the way to New York City to see the band go into the Hall of Fame, who has bought every album probably about four times at this stage in my life, thank you for helping keep this band going. Much respect and love to you, I really appreciate what you guys are doing.
BS: Right on, man. I look forward to seeing you somewhere out there.
Thanks again to Billy Sherwood for his time, and to Bari Lieberman for making it possible. Topographic Drama from Yes is available now.