Bassist Billy Sherwood was supposed to be on the road with Yes in 2020, playing the band’s classic 1974 album Relayer in its entirety. Instead, Covid-19 grounded the band’s touring plans, and there’s question as to whether the new dates scheduled for this April will happen. However, a creature of the studio, not being on the road hasn’t stopped Sherwood from playing and creating new music. In this case, it’s as The Prog Collective, which is as described.
Sherwood has gathered together an incredible grouping of progressive rock musicians to record new music and a few choice covers for Worlds On Hold, the third album from the Prog Collective. Among the musicians are Rock Hall Of Fame nominee Todd Rundgren, Rock Hall member Steve Hackett (of Genesis), former Queensrÿche vocalist Geoff Tate, founding guitarist of Dutch legends Focus Jan Akkerman, former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, electric violinist L. Shankar, renowned keyboardist and former Dream Theater member Derek Sherinian, and so many more!
I was lucky enough to talk to Billy Sherwood about working in Covid times, the Prog Collective’s Worlds On Hold, his new band Arc of Life with his Yes bandmate Jon Davison, and what we can expect to hear when Yes release their next studio album.
Andy Burns: First question and most importantly, how have you been doing during Covid-19 times?
Billy Sherwood: (Pauses) Other than just going completely mad from the whole thing (laughs) I’m hanging in there the best I can and everybody I know is safe and sound so I’m thankful for that, and just waiting it out like we all are.
AB: I was thinking about you, when you rejoined Yes, that’s very much a road warrior band at this point, where you were doing multiple tours a year, and touring virtually every year. Prior to your rejoining Yes I know you spent a lot of time in the studio and you also had live work, but is it difficult not being able to do much, or is there a sense of familiarity back to before you were in this touring juggernaut that is Yes.
BS: No, it’s very weird, not going back out on the road regularly, and playing live in front of people and experiencing that give-and-take you get from the audience, I miss it incredibly. I have been working in studio mode because there’s nothing really else to do. I started doing lessons because I was sitting there thinking about all the things I could do, and people have always asked me for lessons and I haven’t had the time, now I finally do, so between studio and lessons I’ve been keeping busy and keeping my mind off the fact we’re closing in on a year of this craziness, so I’ve been working in the studio on a lot of different things.
AB: Which is a good segue into the Prog Collective record, which, I have tell you man, I really, extremely love it! It was sent to me last week and I’ve listened to it five or six times now, it’s a really great vibe throughout. Tell me how this record came to be, it had been a while since you did a Prog Collective album.
BS: The studio asked me to do another one at the beginning of Covid so I started writing like mad. A lot of the lyrics of the songs reflect the times we are living in right now. I think that’s kinda cool because it time stamps what we are all going through. There was a lot of content to pull from, with all that’s going on, so it became easy to get it all together. It’s inspired by what we are going through so there’s a serious note to a lot of it.
AB: There is, and I’ll touch on some of those tracks shortly, but there’s also a sense of optimism and a lot of uplifting moments.
BS: I’m the eternal optimist, so even faced with what we’re facing, I’m looking at the light at the end of the tunnel– even if it’s taking a lot longer than we’d like (laughs) There are some optimistic views about it all, as you said, so it’s a balance between the reality and the hope we can get back to our lives.
AB: When you’re working on new songs, when the label says we’d like you to do this, do you have a process to determine what songs you’re creating for a given project, like maybe it’s a trunk song you have, or for example, could the song :Worlds on Hold” have been put on hold and been an Arc of Life, your band before this, song or turned into a Yes song, or do you write for a specific project or moment?
BS: I tend to write in the moment, I don’t have a lot of songs sitting around waiting for a home. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position in my career where a lot of the writing that I do ends up somewhere on a record. I also enjoy the idea of writing fresh material for a new project and not just dusting off old ideas. So all of [The Prog Collective] was written in the moment and that’s my process, writing in that period which frames the music. Even if it’s not a concept album, it all works together as a whole.
AB: There’s a real cohesion of sound, throughout the original material even into the covers, and as you said, it’s not a concept album, and every song is distinct, yet there’s this– and maybe you can describe it better– aural energy and a cohesion, is that a conscious effort on your part?
BS: I don’t think about that, but it happens naturally. It comes from the energy and vibe that’s put into the writing and recording. Once I’ve got a couple of tunes heading down a certain path, then I know that the project and I want that cohesion throughout the record. I don’t want you to hit song 6 and suddenly go, “Whoah, what happened here?” (Laughs.) Even with the cover tunes as you mentioned, they flow from the new and feel a part of the whole.
AB: As a listener, I can sit on the couch and just lose myself in it, it has that great flow. Maybe you can explain this to me in layman’s terms, what is the process for creating the tracks for the album. You’re a multi-instrumentalist, doing a lot of the work on your own, where do you start when you’re putting a song together to eventually working with the other artists over the course of the album.
BS: It comes from inspirations when writing from various departments of instruments, if you will. I might one day sit behind the keyboard with a chord progression or sequence and once I have a glimmer of where I’m headed, I’m off and running. I will hear a drum groove in my head and be thinking, “Ok, this could be something because it’s kind of a cool drum groove” so it comes from different instruments and what I’m playing that afternoon, to have fun for myself, mostly! (Laughs).
You gotta love what you do, and I love playing all these different instruments, I’ll grab a guitar today and see where I go, or tomorrow a keyboard or drum set. Sometimes I’ll map out a whole song in my mind, based on a drum thing that I’m working on, and go fill in the blanks. Comes from all different departments but it’s all part of the process.
AB: Let me ask you about the title track. It might sound obvious but as soon as I started listening to it, “This is so Proggy!” which is a compliment. Talk to me about creating the title track. The lyrics are pretty self-evident, but what inspired it and how did Todd Rundgren wind up being the right voice for that song?
BS: Well I knew when I started the project, I had it in mind I’m going to write a lot about this Covid experience because it’s a once in a lifetime– hopefully, God willing!– thing we’re going through, so I knew I wanted the album to start with a dark edge, an ominous feeling in the music, and I was noodling around on the bass playing that root note that you hear and then playing the melody above it (imitates guitar twang)and that’s what set me down the trail and then I just knew I wanted it to be big and powerful and bold, and part of it kind of angry, because “How the hell did we get here?” And there’s also a sense of frustration inside it, because we’re all in lockdown and frustrated, so I tried to capture that feeling in the music first and I felt pretty successful in that regard. The lyrics I had in my mind started flowing right off the page. I’m a huge Todd Rungren fan going way back, “Drive” is one of my favourite of his songs, total attitude, so I was kind of inspired by Todd in a way to go down that road and the thought came into my mind, “Man, this would be great to have Todd Rundgren singing this song.” It worked out, when I sent it to Todd he said he would love to sing this. His vocals are really edgy, raw, and angry, and that was the feeling I was trying to get out, I didn’t want it to be calm and peaceful, I was picturing fire and brimstone.
AB: Absolutely, and it delivers. It’s a really great opening track. Talk to me about working with Geoff Tate on “Two Trajectories.” You’ve got two very recognizable vocalists back to back to kick off the album. Jeff lends a great vibe to this song. Why was he the right guy for that particular track?
BS: You know they have that song “Silent Lucidity?” That was in my mind as far as thinking about a heavy voice, but sings mellower. And as I was writing the song and coming up with the melodies, they were pretty but with a mellower edge, and I started thinking about Geoff and it just made sense, so I reached out to him. I thought I had sung a pretty good reference vocal (laughs) and was thinking maybe I should keep this, because I always keep one of my vocals, but when he wrote me back, “I love this song, I want to sing it.” I said I gotta let this go; ok Geoff, let’s go and he just poured his emotions into it and I think the outcome was really good and I believe fans of Geoff are enjoying it, not just your average Prog Rock fans.
AB: Is it easy for you to let go of a vocal, or any part, when you’re working with a collective? Does it take some will to say, “I’ll let him do this.”
BS: When I know when there’s going to be that element of guest singers, rather than get too attached to it, I actually try and write it into their style so when they hear it, it sounds familiar and they can actually hear themselves singing it I did that on the first Collective with a song called “Check Point Karma” that Colin Moulding sang and as I was writing and singing the song, I was thinking “ah this would be s great for Colin” so I started putting these flashes of XTC, and again I was pretty happy with my reference vocal but again I was targeting Colin and told him, I wrote it for him in mind and he called it “custom-made” and was ready to go.I always know at the end of the project which one I want to hold onto for sure, that I want to sing.
AB: “Two Trajectories” also has Bumblefoot, who is one of my favourite guitar players. I saw you play with him on Asia when you guys came through Toronto on the The Royal Affair tour, tell me about working with him and how he wound up on [the song].
BS: He’s such an incredible talent it’s ridiculous, he sings amazing and is an incredible guitar player and super lovely, sweet dude. He’s a rocker, don’t get me wrong, he’s a shredder and a rocker, but he’s a super nice, down to earth musician and I said to him when we were on the road I do a lot of these projects with different people, would you consider jumping into one of these records and he said I’d love to, so when the time came, he did an amazing job. I thought it was a cool to extend that [playing together live] relationship into a more formal record setting.
AB: You guys were so great, that version of Asia felt very natural. You have this really big Rolodex of musicians (laughs) that you can call on. When I’ve seen you play, whether it be with Yes or more recently with Asia, you always seem really in synch with the musicians you’re with, and I’m not asking you to name names, but you produce so many records with so many names, have you ever been in a position where you’re not in synch with a musician and you have to work for an extended period of time together?
BS: Not so much, because I think music comes from working together and hopefully getting along and coming up with something great. I’ve heard horror stories of the producer-hates-the-artist and vice-versa, they end up at war, and it compromises the album. I’ve been fortunate not to have had that experience. I’m a peaceful man, I try and keep the peace (laughs) and make music and I guess that vibe comes across. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are willing to jump into projects I do, and I’m thankful for that, because these guys don’t need to do that, and yet they do. That speaks volumes about the way I go about doing what I do, to be inclusive and respectful, to get the best out of them. By the same token, I’m no wallflower, if I have a disagreement about something I’ll let them know, but I’m not walking around on stage or the studio trying to pick fights!
AB: So you’re no Phil Spector, waving around a gun (both laugh).
BS: I had an experience early on in life, where before I was in Logic I was the roadie. I watched them in a session with a producer who lined up the band up on stage and then came in and read them the riot act and his opening line was, “You don’t have to like me, but we’re going to get this done.” And I remember as a young guy, that is such the wrong way to go about your introduction, man! What is this guy thinking?” So I’ve always tried to be peaceful, cooperative and willing to work with people, but I’m also a very opinionated guy when it comes to music, so it’s finding that balance.
AB: Let me ask you about one more of the original songs, “Anything But Goodbye” with Jon Davison, your Yes bandmate, and Patrick Moraz. Last time we spoke, I spent a good chunk of time raving about Open Your Eyes to you. To me, this song had a very Open Your Eyes vibe to it, to the point on first listen, (I thought) it’s not Jon Anderson is it? Because Jon Davison seems to be going the extra mile with his vocals there. Tell me about that track and how these two players wound up on it.
BS: When I was writing it, I thought it has a Yes vibe to it. I just knew Jon would knock it out of the park and it wasn’t a choice because I wanted it to sound like Yes, it was this guy’s the right singer for it and he did an amazing job as you can hear. Moraz, I’ve known him a long time, he’s a good friend and one of the best keyboard players on the planet.
AB: Does it ever blow your mind that you can call up Patrick Moraz after being a Yes fan for so many years and say, “Hey can we play on this together?”
BS: I’m still a superfan of Yes, I’m always in awe of these guys. You have those moments of reflection. I did an interview yesterday for Bass Player magazine and they were asking me what favourite top 4 albums I’ve played on, and I had to tell them the last live Yes album, because I was a fan from age 12 when I lived in Las Vegas, worshipping Yes, and then here we have this live album from Vegas, which I thought was really cool. Here I am sadly replacing Chris who passed away, but at the same time honouring his legacy and tipping the hat to Las Vegas, where it all started. In those moments, you think about all these things.
From the the outside looking in, [the music business] is massive, but once you’re in it, it’s pretty tightly knit. So I have those feelings of professional to professional, and also fan to professional (laughs).
AB: There are some great covers you’ve chosen for the album. You have the knack to reinterpret and freshen up these familiar songs for new years. I’m the guy who spent the first ten years of his career in rock radio. The songs you chose are ingrained in our blood, how do you determine what songs you want to cover, is there any criteria?
BS: I have to give credit to the label in this regard. Brad Perera, the president of the label, is also a huge music fan, a music almanac basically, and he chose those songs based on what we were doing and what he thought would blend with the kind of material I was writing. He gave me a list of about 10 songs, I narrowed them down to 4. I thought “Eye In The Sky” would be interesting because it’s a great song obviously to reinterpret, but Alan Parsons was on the first and the second Collectives, he couldn’t participate in the third one due to his schedule, so I thought that was an interesting way to include him, by proxy.
AB: Let me ask you about one song in particular–“Solsbury Hill,” the one I was most familiar with. Genesis and Peter Gabriel are huge, especially here in Canada. My first thought was, “Oh Solsbury Hill, I’ve heard that song a lot.” But then, as I’m listening to the whole album in sequence. As it starts, I thought wait a minute, this sounds different. Even though I know that song, it felt really good to hear it in a new light. How did you come to that arrangement and how did Roine Stolt from the Flower Kings and Transatlantic wind up on that track?
BS: As far as the arrangement goes, it’s driven by that four-on-the-floor bass drum in the original. What’s interesting about that is the four-on-the-floor disguises an odd metre to your average listener, who doesn’t know what that is, they just feel music. A lot of people feel music in 4-4 because it feels natural, that’s why sometimes you play something in odd metre to someone who’s musical tastes aren’t necessarily Prog and they’re looking at me kind of confused… I knew that component was important but I didn’t want to duplicate just having that, so I thought to start breaking down the rhythms in half time and letting this thing develop in an unusual way. I think it worked out quite well and gave it a good spin. Roine told me Gabriel is his favourite of all artists, I really want to sing this song, and I thought someone who is that dedicated to it is going to knock it out of the park and we know what he does which is great. He kept emailing me saying I know I’m supposed to only sing it and play a couple of guitar things but do you mind if I do this… I said record what you want and he did a lot of work on it, all what you hear, he really put his heart and soul into it. That’s the most important thing about music, bringing passion and sense of truth. It worked out magically.
AB: It really did. As someone who knows that song inside and out, to be able to hear it sound familiar yet in a new way.
BS: Hopefully Gabriel is cool with it! (Both laugh.)
AB: So even in quarantine and Covid-19 times, you’re still having a very busy year, what can you tell me about Arc of Life.
BS: Arc of Life is a new band with myself, Jon Davison, Jay Schellen, the additional drummer from Yes, Jimmy Hahn who was in Logic and Circa, Conspiracy for a little while with me and Dave Kerzner, a well known Proggy keyboard player with his own career developing in as we speak. It started with Jon Davison and I on the bus during the 2017 Yes tour, I had my studio at the back and we started knocking ideas around together, for no other reason than we were bored, but once two or three or four songs are written by a unit, it starts to take on a life of its own and Jon and I discussed it and said it’s shaping up to be a band. I’m very proud of the record and the band. Under other circumstances we’d be playing Vegas by now, we look forward to taking it on the road as soon as there’s a road to take and play live.
AB: When you go on the road, I’m sure the crux of the show would be new material, but don’t you think you probably have to play The More We Live?
BS: (Laughs) That’s the funny thing, you kind of don’t want to because it’s the obvious but at the same time it’s what people want to hear, so it’s a fine line and I think we’re going to have to find that line as we go, but I’m not opposed to playing that song or any other material that Yes is not really playing just to play some interesting music. There’s a wealth of material that I can bring to the table from other projects, Circa has some great songs, Conspiracy… by now people know those songs so we’ll have to see where it goes.
When Circa was formed, our first show’s dilemma was they wanted us to play for two hours but we only had this one record, so at that point I came up with the idea of the Chronological Journey…
AB: I’ve seen it, many times!
BS: I thought, we will play Yes music but not the way they did, let’s do something different, and I came up with this concept because every Yes song has some iconic instrumental components to it and I thought let’s grab those instrumental components and link them one after the other in sequence as they were written. That became The Chronological Journey which took 40 mins to play. We might find ourselves doing something interesting and different once Arc of Life gets on the road. Songs from different areas of our pasts.
AB: I will always wave the flag for The More We Live, (laughs) whether it’s Arc of Life or Yes when you guys get back out on the road.
Inevitable final question, from a Yes fan talking to a member of Yes, this week Alan (White) has talked about a new album potentially being in the mixing stage and that it’s been worked on.
BS: Was he supposed to do that? (laughs)
AB: Well, it’s out there now, it’s all over the place. Now, I don’t want to make Steve angry because I know he plays these things close to the chest.
BS: I’ve wanted to talk about it forever, I get asked about it all the time.
AB: What could we kind of expect? Can you give us an idea of the sounds of themes that might be part of whatever you guys have been working on.
BS: I know that there’s drums, bass, guitar…
BS:… and they all sound really quite cool.
AB: I feel that’s a given.
BS: It’s a new Yes album. Each album is different than the last and the same thing can be said here. I’m excited that I’m involved with it, It’s going to be a special album for me, no matter what happens here because it will be the first studio Yes album that I’m playing bass. I never in a million years thought it would come to this place, but it is, and that is a very high honour.
I can tell you when I played the basslines that I was thinking about Chris a lot and I wanted to make sure that that feeling of Chris was conveyed into the recordings from my perspective, without imitating him and emulating him. It has those feelings and i think that was important.
Everybody has brought their A-game. I’m enjoying what I’m hearing a lot. We’ll just have to see how we proceed here and when it comes out.
Thanks to Billy Sherwood for his time, Billy James for making this interview happen, and Alyssa Daniells for her help.
Worlds On Hold from the Prog Collective is available now from Cleopatra Records.