Exclusive: Oliver Wakeman Discusses the New Yes Box Set From A Page

In the fall of 2019, Yes fans were given a massive, unexpected present. From A Page Studio Tracks Plus Live From Lyon: In The Present is a collection of previously unreleased studio tracks from the Fall 2008-Winter 2011 lineup of the band, featuring longtime Yesmen Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White, along with vocalist Benoit David and keyboardist Oliver Wakeman. This material was originally worked on in the early 2010s prior to Wakeman leaving the band and Geoff Downes returning to the fold. In my Holiday Gift Guide entry from a few weeks ago, I wrote that the four songs contained “26 minutes of previously unheard material which also happens to be some of the best music Yes has made in the past 30 years. The four songs contained work beautifully together and demonstrate that both Wakeman and vocalist David were more than capable of living up to the band members whose shoes they had stepped into”.

Oliver Wakeman

Oliver Wakeman spearheaded the From A Page project, with the complete support of Yes’ Alan White and Steve Howe. Oliver was kind enough to answer questions via email and take us through the creation of this new Yes event. 

YesAndy Burns: First of all, as a massive Yes fan, thank you for making From A Page happen. It’s a great gift for us. Tell me how this project managed to come together with the support of Yes.

Oliver Wakeman: That’s very kind, I’m glad you are enjoying the record! With regard to how it came about, I have to go back quite far back to when I first left the band. When I was no longer in the band I decided I didn’t really fancy listening to Yes music for a bit. A few years went by and I hadn’t really thought about Yes for a while and then I heard that Chris was ill and so I dropped him an email and just wished him well and hope everything was ok and that he would get better soon.

A few months later I was about to move house and I realized I hadn’t listened to the Live from Lyon album at all since I received my copies. For some reason, as I was packing up my studio in my house, I thought I’d put that record on and have a listen to it. So I put it on and I can’t remember exactly what track was playing, but I’m sure it was a track that is quite heavily bass-driven. Anyway, I went downstairs and my laptop was on the dining room table. I looked at the screen and there was a message from Paul Silveira (who was the tour manager) and the email told me that Chris had passed away that morning. I was shocked as I could hear Chris playing on the record upstairs. A strange moment indeed.

When I left the band, they sent me DVDs with the files from the recording sessions of the songs that I’d been working on with them. I decided that once I’d moved house I would have a listen to them and see if there’s anything that was usable. So I moved into the new house, set up my studio and then opened up the files (starting with the “Gift of Love” because that was originally from a song that Chris and I had written) and I put a lot of time just pulling parts together and going through all the takes and trying to see what there was.

I started to pull it into quite a good shape, I added some more keyboard parts and additional vocals but the majority of the track was there from the original sessions. I decided to do this work in memory of Chris and also to have a Yes piece just for me so I would always remember that we had been a creative recording lineup, not just a touring entity. For a long time, it was just my own private Yes track!

Fast forward a few years and I kept listening to the “Gift of Love” track over and over again and I thought there must be something here if I keep listening to it!

I think I just put a tweet out on Twitter that said I’d just been listening to a new and unreleased Yes track which I really liked and the Yes management got in touch with me. We had a phone call and went through a few different variations of how it could be released. It was then decided that the best thing to do was for me to get all the tracks into shape and then have a meeting with Steve Howe to talk about the project.

I did the rough mixes and then met up with Steve and we talked about the options for releasing the track and in the end came to an agreement and that’s how it came together really.

Andy Burns:  You’ve got four complete songs here and to my ears its some of the best work the band has released in 30 years. Your liner notes give us lots of details so I don’t want to tread on those, but I do want to explore the creative process. At the time of recording, Yes hadn’t been in the studio since the early 2000s with Magnification, which was done without a keyboard player. Was there any discussion during the creative process of the importance of highlighting your instrument in the new material?

Oliver Wakeman: Yes, there are four songs and it’s great that you think it’s strong Yes music! I’m very pleased with how the record came out. When we were working on the record, we were just making sure that we could bring the best material that we had to the table. I brought along quite a few different pieces. Some I discarded along the way, pieces that were good, but just didn’t quite lend themselves to a Yes arrangement. So those pieces I kept back, but there were a few that I felt really could work with a Yes like arrangement. But there was no particular thought about the fact that Magnification hadn’t had a keyboard player, it really was literally just bring what we’ve got and let’s see if we can make the best record we can

We had been touring for about a year and Chris wanted to start recording but Steve wanted us to spend a bit more time on the road to make sure we were fully gelled before we started recording anything. He always said we shouldn’t just go into the studio and start recording, we should get some experience of working together on the road first. I think they were keen to make the keyboards heard but there was no specific aim to highlight one instrument over another. The aim was just to make the best record we could.

Andy Burns: When you were in the studio with Steve, Chris, and Alan, though you’d now toured for some time with them and you’d known them for a while, and clearly you have the ability, was there any intimidation at all for you going about creating new Yes music?

Oliver Wakeman: Not really. I think because we’ve worked together for quite a long time, we’d spent a lot of time together and we were all quite comfortable with each other that it felt like a natural progression. I felt comfortable in the Yes world and also I had worked with Steve many times before. Firstly with him on the Yes 35th-anniversary record and then on my 3 Ages of Magick album. I also played keyboards on his Spectrum album. So we had spent quite a lot of time working together in the past in a studio environment. I had also spent a lot of time hanging out with Chris and his wife Scotty and so felt very comfortable with him. Alan and I had spent a lot of time at soundchecks just jamming and coming up with ideas, some of which ended up on the album Fly from Here. For example, the chorus on “Into the Storm” was something that Alan and I came up with during a soundcheck – I also came up with the ending instrumental section of that track.

All I had in my mind was that I had to make sure that I bought the best songs I could to the table and play to the best of my ability.

Andy Burns: “To The Moment” has so many quintessential Yessims – that great intro, the classic keyboard sounds, Benoit’s vocals certainly maintain the Yes sound that Jon Anderson established. Could you give me the story of how that song came together – from its gestation to the final version we hear on From A Page?

Oliver Wakeman: I wrote this song after coming back from a tour when I was particularly thinking about how my family was getting on whilst I was away on tour. The song was essentially written about somebody going away from home for a period of time to support their family but the children having to be left behind and for children, it’s quite difficult to understand why the parents are away. This was my way of explaining to my son why I had to be away. Having said that it can be about anyone having to be away from their children to earn a living and create a stable base for them to grow up in. I
worked on the piece at home for quite a while and had a few different versions of the verse and I made lots of different lyric changes.

When we went into the studio, I had this idea to create a call and response across the guitar, keyboards and bass instruments during the verses using a lighter version of the main opening riff. When I did the final keyboard solo I enjoyed doing a variation of that riff for the final few notes of the song!

Andy Burns: I’d ask the same question as above regarding “Words on a Page” – how did that come together?

Oliver Wakeman: I felt some of the best Yes music was written when the Yes musicians would write music, not traditionally based on chords, but with the instruments all playing lines. And those lines working together would create the chords and feel of the song which means that you end up with a lovely arrangement of instruments that really help a song create an identity. I wanted to have this approach for “Words on a Page.”

With regards to the lyrics, I knew that I wanted to write a song that was lyrically in the style of Yes but I also didn’t want to just copy and pretend to be Jon and write words that were ethereal for the sake of it or unusual just to pretend that I was sounding like Jon. So I thought about how I could approach this and I came up with the idea of writing a song about somebody reading a book. And in that book, you could create all these wonderful unusual phrases and places but it was all based on the thoughts conjured up by reading a book. I love how reading a book can take you to so many different places so that’s where the idea from that song came about.

I remember in the studio asking Steve if he had his pedal steel guitar around. He did and so I asked him to do the solo and it’s one of my favourite solos that Steve has ever done

Andy Burns:  “From The Turn of a Card” is such a beautiful piece of music – and it highlights what I believe (correct me if I’m wrong, please) the natural timbre of Benoit’s voice, deeper than where he usually sang when doing Yes music. It also features just you and Benoit. Was this always the original intent for the song?

Oliver Wakeman: During the middle of the recording sessions everybody decided to have a few days away from the studio. Benoit went back to Canada, Chris went back to Phoenix and Alan went back to Seattle. But because Steve and I lived in the UK, we thought that by the time we got on a plane and flown back to the UK we would only get a day or two at home before we had to turn around and fly back again. So we stayed in Los Angeles. Benoit had left his acoustic guitar behind and I decided to start trying to write a song on the guitar.

When I play the guitar I approached the instrument with a less theoretical approach (as I am primarily a piano/keyboard player) so I was able to make sure that this song was completely driven by melody. I played it to the band they liked it and we were going to start looking at it when we came back from the South American tour at the end of 2010

As history shows, we never all got back together because Trevor Horn came on board and took the band in the direction of working with Geoff Downes. I took the song and worked on it on the next album that I did which was with Gordon Giltrap (the well-known guitarist) and was called Ravens and Lullabies.

It has a full band arrangement on that record but for the Yes record it was planned to be more piano-driven. I decided that I would take his vocal from the Ravens album and add the piano part that I’d been working on in the studio in Los Angeles and therefore that made it into the starting point of a piece that would have been worked on with the other members of Yes. However I really like the piano and vocal version, it has a certain charm to it.

Andy Burns: “The Gift of Love” is the longest track on the album. When the band was working on it, was there a conscious discussion on creating a longer piece of music or did it just come out the way it did?

Oliver Wakeman: “The Gift of Love” started off as two pieces of music; one of Chris’s and one of mine. Chris worked with Benoit on lyrics for his part of the song and then we joined the two parts together. Then the rest of the band got involved in adding new parts, more arrangements and more solos to the piece. It just kept developing and going through arrangement ideas, key changes and various melodic variations on themes.

Alan and I had also been working on some ideas and so I started working on an arrangement of that idea for the introduction and then once the introduction had been put together I felt that it would be a good idea to redo the introduction as the ending with more of the themes played on top. It really was a wonderfully collaborative piece which really did develop and grow in an organic Yes-like way

Andy Burns: There are elements of “The Gift of Love” that eventually made it into Yes’ 2014 track “The Game”. I’m curious if you were aware that this occurred and your thoughts on it either way.

Oliver Wakeman: I had never heard of the track “The Game” before From a Page was released. I only heard about it once From a Page had been released and someone mentioned that some of the chord structure from Chris’s part had been re-used.

Andy Burns: The box set also contains Live From Lyon, the live album from the In The Present line-up. I was there for your first two shows, in Hamilton, Ontario and Toronto, Ontario. What were your memories of that live debut of a new Yes? I recall fans being very supportive.

Oliver Wakeman: I remember the first show very very clearly. It was a bit nerve-racking but very very enjoyable and the fans were amazing as they were so supportive and so friendly and I was made to feel very very welcome. It was quite a long show (I think over 3 hours) and I had quite a lot of material to remember as we only been rehearsing for a couple of weeks but it all went ok. And the next show in Toronto was really good as well and then we moved into the US for the rest of the tour.

By about show five, the band was really firing on all cylinders and I loved every moment of that tour and have very happy memories.

Andy Burns: One of the things I loved about this line-up was that we finally heard tracks from Drama. Tell me about your experiences playing “Tempus Fugit” and “Machine Messiah”.

Oliver Wakeman: I remember the band was very keen to play pieces from Drama as they hadn’t been heard for such a long time. Obviously, Jon had never sung either of those pieces and so having Benoit and me in the band offered a perfect opportunity to play these tracks for the first time in a long time. They were good fun to play and involved me having to learn how Geoff Downes approached playing the keyboards as opposed to Dad and Tony Kaye who both have very different styles.

In fact, the whole tour involved me learning lots of different keyboard players’ styles as well as adding a few bits of my own personality into the mix. This was great fun and I learnt a great deal from doing it. It was also nice to see the reaction from the fans to pieces of music from Yes history which hadn’t been heard in a long long time! This was also true of “Astral Traveller” which hadn’t been heard for a long time either, and it was particularly nice to hear Steve play the end of the guitar solo in the style of Peter Banks.

Andy Burns: Ultimately this collection has been beautifully curated and crafted. It feels joyful. So many years after the music was created, how do you look back on your years on the road and recording with Yes?

Oliver Wakeman: I look back at my time with Yes with very very happy memories. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the band, I enjoyed being on the road with them, I enjoyed their company socially and I really enjoyed working in the studio. I will always have a slight regret that we never got to put our record out whilst I was in the band but hopefully From a Page goes some way to rectifying that. It also gives the fans a real idea of what Yes sounded like with Benoit and I working with Chris
Steve and Alan in the studio.

It was a very happy and very creative time for the band and I loved it all!

Andy Burns: Finally – what is your favourite Chris Squire memory?

Oliver Wakeman: When we were on tour in 2009, we toured around Europe. Usually, when we toured around America we would use planes or drive to different shows however in Europe because of the distances which were not so great, we travelled on a tour bus together.

I suffer a bit with insomnia, and Chris always stayed up late, so often on the tour bus everyone would have gone to bed and Chris and I would be the only ones awake and we would spend hours talking about the new music we were going to create. To listen to Chris be so enthusiastic about creating new music with Benoit and I was very inspiring.

I specifically remember him looking at me once and saying, “Do you know what? I don’t think there’s one song in the Yes repertoire that this line up of the band couldn’t do justice to”. I took that as a tremendous compliment and that comment will always stay with me. I miss him a lot and I really enjoyed working with him.

When he died, I remember thinking “The next time I hear loud thunder in the sky I’ll know that Chris is up there somewhere and he’s just plugged in his Rickenbacker…”

Thanks to Oliver Wakeman for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! You can follow all his work at his website, on Facebook and Twitter.

From A Page: Studio Tracks Plus In The Present: Live From Lyon is available exclusively from Burning Shed. You can order it here.

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