Rhino Interview: Steve Howe

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015
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Rhino Interview: Steve Howe

Over the years, you’ve come to know him as a member of The Syndicats, Tomorrow, Yes, Asia, GTR, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, and Explorers Club, but it should never be forgotten that Steve Howe also has a formidable career as a solo artist. If you have forgotten, however, or if you somehow never knew this to be the case, now’s the perfect time to correct that situation, as Rhino has just released a two-disc anthology which provides a 33-track summary of Howe’s work as a solo artist. In conjunction with the anthology’s release, Howe took some time to chat about the origins of this collection, some key albums in his solo discography, and the chances of seeing a new Steve Howe album in the future.

Rhino: So whose idea was this anthology? Did Rhino approach you with the suggestion, or did you say, “I want to do something comprehensive to cover my entire solo career”?

Steve Howe: Well, that, yeah. I had the idea at a few stages in the last 10 years, say, but when I got to 12 albums, I suddenly thought, “You know, it might be good to do that now.” So I got together with Virgil (Howe, Steve’s son), we got a rough idea of what was happening, and then we talked to the people at Rhino, and it started to move forward. It was a bit slow. Last year we kept bouncing the idea around, and then we suddenly got a green light. [Laughs.]

Rhino: How was the experience of trolling through the back catalog and revisiting all of the material again?

SH: Well, you know, I haven’t totally lost touch with any of it. Periodically I like to review my music and see if it’s nonsense or if it’s any good. [Laughs.] To see how I feel about it now, because your feelings kind of change. So I just waded through it. It’s a lot to do – Virgil and I sat down for three different sessions, and they were about three or four hours each – but we took every album on board and discussed it and just kind of generally reveled in it a little.

But we were also being quite critical. You know, we were kind of enjoying it, but there comes a time when you have to go, “Hang on… I mean, maybe we shouldn’t go here.” [Laughs.] So there were things that we were intending to do, theoretically, as far as trying to pick a couple of tracks from most albums, tracks that have a general feel of what was present in the album. So it wasn’t going to be the strangest track on the album or the shortest track. We wanted to find some balance, that’s what we wanted.

Rhino: Your first solo album, Beginnings, was released at a time when literally every member of Yes did a solo album.

SH: Exactly!

Rhino: How did that situation come about? Did everyone just say, “Hey, let’s all do one!”

SH: I think there was a feeling in some of us that, hey, this might be the time to do it. We’d just done, what, about four quite successful albums? But we were working ourselves into the ground, and some of us were saying, “Why am I doing a solo album?” But I think the manager must’ve seized the moment, and he went to Atlantic and said, “Well, the guys want to do this!” [Laughs.] So incredibly – and I say that without exaggeration – incredibly, everybody said, “Yeah!” And we did it.

I was… I think Chris (Squire) and I were about the first people to release ours. Chris released Fish Out of Water and I released Beginnings more or less at the same time, which was a bit competitive. [Laughs.] But it didn’t really matter, because I think they sensed that this was a new market we were starting to build for ourselves, so it was just really exciting that not only did Atlantic take another one from me – The Steve Howe Album, the next one on the list – but also that when I called them up in the ‘80s and said, “Can my album come out on CD?” they went, “Yeah, cool, we’ll do that for you.” So we did a new sleeve with Roger Dean, and we went into CD stores, too. I guess I was very proactive by that time, thinking that this was something that I needed to do. It was in my blood!

Rhino: So was it hard to develop something defined as a “Steve Howe sound” without having it sound like Yes?

SH: Well, I suppose. As much as my earlier groups, like Tomorrow and things like that. That was where my sound formulated, I guess. That’s partly why Yes picked me: because I was playing in that band. That was my reputation. It was probably building from Tomorrow, which was in ’67 and ’68. But, no, it was an opportunity for me to kind of fantasize and be really bizarrely broad about the brushstroke I was using, ‘cause, you know, I went to hell for leather, really. [Laughs.]

I was sort of demonstrating as wide as possible a variety of music that I did. Some rock stuff, some country pickin’, some classical… It was a very mixed bag, and I think I’ve probably made three or four albums like that, which kind of cover a lot of things that I do, but no more – or none more, if you like – than Beginnings and The Steve Howe Album, because of the orchestral element that was mixed with the country picking and the rock ‘n’ roll. Fundamentally I’m a rock guitarist. Just one who wants to stretch out!

Rhino: I’d read that Chet Atkins was a major inspiration for you, which is something that I don’t think listeners could necessarily hear in Yes, but it’s definitely evident at times in your solo work.

SH: Well, that’s good. Yeah, I guess bits like “Disillusion” (from “Starship Trooper”) and “Clap” and other places where I incorporated the picking, there was a hint of it. But on the whole album there were just a few moments when it was there. So you’ve hit the nut on the head, really, because you can’t have solo albums unless you write them. Otherwise, where are they gonna come from? [Laughs.] I mean, yeah, you could do covers, but…it was a vehicle for my writing, and it allowed me to find other vehicles, other conceptualizations of being a guitarist. Like, “Okay, I’m in a band, and I’m a solo guy, but as a solo guy, I’m also kind of widely spreading my expectations of what I can do.”

But Chet Atkins was right there, and he kind of gave me ideas. He gave me that idea that a guitarist could be a multi-styled player. Because when I started playing, they were all playing the blues, and it was such a popular kind of guitar, but it kind of drove me crazy. [Laughs.] “Stop playing those blues over there, will you please?” So reluctantly I played the blues, and I’ve still got an element of that in me, but, you know, it’s just my adventurousness that was inspired by Chet. And Wes Montgomery. I saw him when I was 16. There are so many guitarists we could talk about, 10 or 12 difference influences, but certainly Chet was one who was kind of more a self-discovered guy that I heard. I guess I heard him on Everly Brothers records. There’s two recordings of the Everly Brothers singing “Don’t Blame Me.” I heard one the other day that was dreadful. Absolutely dreadful! But the one with Chet Atkins, the one that was the B-side to “Love is Strange,” is just phenomenal. His playing on it is totally phenomenal. So he guided them. I guess I picked a lot up from Chet, because he had his own recording studio, he was a producer… He sowed a lot of seeds. But he country picked, he improvised, and he wrote a few tunes, like “How’s the World Treating You?” or “Trambone,” that were just terrific. So, yeah, he’s definitely a major influence.

Rhino: In regards to The Steve Howe Album, how do you look back on that effort versus Beginnings? The Steve Howe Album was certainly better received from a critical standpoint, but did you personally feel like it was a step forward for you?

SH: Well, I won’t have time to go through each album… [Laughs.] Otherwise we’ll be here all day! But I’ll give you a thread to run through it. The first two albums, yeah, I threw everything at the wall. But I guess the ideas in each album were about growth and using more and more instrumental, developing my instrumental tradition so I could have Turbulence and Spectrum and Time. I’ve got albums that are wholly instrumental! And in those periods when I did those albums, I didn’t want to write songs. I wanted to have them on the back burner. Everybody’s so picky about the words…and I am as well! Sometimes I’ll find the words, but other times I’ll just get back to the music, so periodically my albums kind of revert to songs, like The Grand Scheme of Things or Elements did.

But the ones that are… I won’t say they’re more fun, but I guess they’re easier, are the instrumental ones. Also, I put my neck on the block by singing everything on Beginnings. I wasn’t planning to, but a friend of mine really didn’t get close enough to me to let him sing everything, or at least let him sing the leads. And then he went on holiday! But I was excited. There wasn’t auto-tune in those days, and I was excited to put myself in all those positions. But the ones that have stuck with me – Turbulence, Portraits of Bob Dylan – are the ones where I was the producer. On The Steve Howe Album, it didn’t say “co-produced with Eddie Offord,” like the first one did. It said, “Produced by Steve Howe.” And although I lean on and utilize the talents of great engineers, all of whom get just credit on my records, and they do plenty for me… [Laughs.] But I take the responsibility of projecting where the record goes and how I’ve got to pitch up the quality.

When The Steve Howe Album came out, the manager who was managing me at the time, he turns around and says, “Wow, who did the production on this thing?” [Laughs.] He said that off the cuff! Now, that did a lot for me, just that somebody close to me spontaneously said they liked the sound. So I’ve gained a little confidence, not only from playing with Yes and Asia and the other bands, with Steve Hackett, and all the other things I’ve been doodling with. But the solo career is something I’m still quite happy with. I’m not trying to be, like, the new superstar for the year 2016. My solo career isn’t about that. It’s about catalog, it’s about writing, it’s about having a fanbase, and then maybe converting a few more fans from Yes and Asia to enjoy my solo music.

I’m also feeding off the young guitarists. I’m always feeding off guitarists. Lemme tell you, when Steve Morse came out with Dixie Dregs in the late ‘70s or whatever, I went bananas. I was, like, “I have to get this guy! Who is this guy? This is a hit record, right?” And they said, “No.” And I was, like, “This isn’t a hit record? This isn’t in the American charts?” “No!” I said, “I’ve got to get through to them. This is the most incredible record!” It was What If, by Dixie Dregs. It’s astounding instrumental music. The breadth of the music! Like me, he was doing other styles of music: quasi-classical, quasi-country… Steve’s a master guitar player. And I feed off the knowledge I got off these other guys who are shit-hot. The first guy like that who I saw from another country – because there are some great players in Britain – was Wes Montgomery. When I saw him, I mean, believe me, I had to rethink where I was standing! [Laughs.] So I’ve enjoyed those inspirations, and they keep feeding into my albums.

Rhino: One track on the anthology that particularly caught my eye was “Sketches in the Sun,” but the reason it caught my eye was because I first heard it on the self-titled album by GTR.

SH: Ah, yes, the GTR album…

Rhino: I can’t honestly say how that album would hold up for anyone else, but I’m still partial to it because it came out right as I was discovering Yes and the band’s extended family.

SH: Yeah, if you get into something at that time… That album never sounds wrong to you, because it’s so right at the time. [Laughs.] And it shouldn’t sound wrong to you. But there was a switch, if you like, that was going on. GTR was made in the mid-‘80s period, right as Trevor Horn and other English producers were kind of, like, getting tight-assed – driving and dance and all that kind of tightness – and we were slightly still coming from… Well, like, Asia would be kind of an arena-rock sound. When we came to do “Sketches in the Sun,” everyone was picky about how long it lasted. For me, it could’ve been longer. And it is a bit longer on the version on my album, Homebrew. But we’re talking bars, we’re not talking minutes. The sound can be nice, though.

When I did a live tour just after GTR, I played the actual guitar that was used – an electric 12-string – and it sounds completely different from how it sounds on the record, because digital recording in 1986 was a tough call. We’d come into the studio, and something wasn’t there! “There was a bass on this track yesterday, wasn’t there?” “Yes.” “Well, that track’s empty now.” “Oh. Well, what do we know?” [Laughs.] There was a lot of learning. And the texture of electric guitar recorded digitally in those early years on that… I don’t know if it was a 3M machine that we used or what it was. It certainly wasn’t a DASH, I don’t think. It might’ve been. But nobody really knew how to deal with the stuff that was there.

One other thing I wanted to say about “Sketches in the Sun” was that it was exciting for me to keep developing different ways that I could play my composition. In fact, that was a composition – or part of it was – that dated back a long time before GTR. And that’s also a story with me: I don’t always give up. And maybe that’s a good thing that I didn’t give up on that tune, because I came back to it years later and thought, “This is a guitar instrumental,” when originally I didn’t think of it like that. It was just bits of music that I’d been kicking around. So it’s funny how things change, and that’s one of the beauties of music: if you’ve got a tune, you can take it to a different style. My trio’s proved that by playing things like “Mood for a Day,” which I laughed and said, “You must be joking!” They said, “No, listen to this,” and they said, “You play, and we’ll play.” And it worked! [Laughs.] So it’s fun when you can mold the music around.

Rhino: The material that came out on Atlantic is probably the best known to the casual fan, but as far as the later albums, do you have particular favorites that might serve as an entry point into your more recent solo work?

SH: Well, before we jump to closer to now, Turbulence was one of my most successful records, because Yes had reformed with the Union tour, and there was quite a lot of activity, so at the time that was also quite successful. But I guess in a way my goal is just to make high-quality solo records and not make them all the same. I don’t want the last one to be like the next one, you know? And that’s why I took a little break after Spectrum: I had a couple of years when I didn’t do a record. Spectrum was fun. It was one of the records where only Dylan and I play on it, like Natural Timbre. Well, there’s a couple of guys on that one who play wind instruments and things. Andrew Jackman is on it, who’s a terrific arranger. But for the most part, Dylan and I play certain records together. He’s a fantastic drummer. But I take care of everything else and he can drum, which I don’t attempt to do… [Laughs.] The world is a better place because of that, I think. But Dylan’s spent all his life playing the drums, and we worked very, very industriously together. Spectrum and Natural Timbre are two examples of a very different way of working, but I think Alex De Grassi’s often said that collaboration is the best and only way you can learn about making music.

I’m not often sitting in my bedroom, doing everything on my own. I’ve still got an awful lot to learn. Because although, yeah, you could do, but music needs to have other perspectives weaved in, not always just yours. And that’s why I give credit to engineers that I work with and the co-musicians I work with, like Dylan, and the other players. Like, I’ve brought in Tony Levin, I’ve brought in other bass players, I’ve brought in other keyboard players… So there you are: I think mixing at the level that I mix with other musicians on my solo albums really sweetens it and really helps. So I don’t really go in a room on my own and shut myself off…although I need to do that to get quite a bit of stuff ready. But the people I work with know that there will be times when I’ll say, “What do you think about this?” [Laughs.] And you can learn a lot by being willing to tackle those moments when you’re not sure and get something from somebody else that sort of pushes you forward again.

Time, which I suppose you could call my last solo album, was another album which I sort of periodically worked on. I’d love to make another record like that, but the way it was constructed took a long time. But that’s because I made lots of mistakes and we fixed them, and we got rid of stuff we didn’t like, and we invited the music. And I think that shows in the way we stamped an orchestra on it and said, “Well, there you are. This is what I do.” That was tremendous. So when people asked me, “How do you make records?” it’s really befuddling to think that there’s any particular pattern. I mean, there are certain things you’ve got to do, but they really are very, very individual projects. Time is unlike anything else I’ve ever done, and that’s partly why I did it. [Laughs.] And so’s Skyline. Skyline’s really nothing like other record I’ve made. So I do like to make records and do these recordings, but I’m trying to enter into new areas all the time.

Rhino: On that note, looking beyond the compilation, has there been any movement toward a new solo album? I guess Asia is no longer a going concern for you, but Yes still is.

SH: Yeah, I haven’t got Asia, because I left that two years ago. The reunion was just great – I mean, we had five or six years, we made three albums, we did endless touring – but… [Hesitates.] Sorry, how did you phrase the question again? [Laughs.]

Rhino: Well, I was just wondering if there was any talk of another solo album, or if you even had the time to contemplate one.

SH: Well, the answer is that I’ve always got a backlog of music, as you know, and sometimes it’s so enjoyable to go back and say, “Oh, I’ve got these couple of songs that kind of go together…” Or maybe they don’t! And then when somebody wants some music, I’ll pick something out that I’m not too precious about and I’ll play it to them and say, “Is this the kind of thing you’re looking for? If it isn’t, I can play you another piece.” But if it is, then I won’t play them the other piece. [Laughs.] So I create a sort of nest egg of things, if you will. A nest of music and song that I can back to. And they’re most probably going to be on another solo album, because once I start to become secretive or very introverted about them – because they really are personal, certainly if there are lyrics, but even if nobody is going to know they’re personal in the end – then I’ll tweak ‘em an awful lot, I’ll go back loads of times, and think, “Well, you know, I just want this to be something else. How’s this going to live up to my new expectations?”

So certainly there is a work in progress, but I’m not terribly clear which way it’ll go. But as you prepare, eventually you start to spot that you’ve got tracks that really are going in a startlingly different direction, and I think that’s what I’m waiting for. I’m not going to make another Turbulence. [Laughs.] Even though it’s a nice album!

But what I will do is develop as a guitarist and as a writer and hopefully have other ideas. So the style of the music, I haven’t put my big toe in so deep yet. It might be that I’m waiting to see enough material in another style – and I’m not going to mention what it might be – and just say, “Well, when I feel it’s there, then that’s the album I’m going to do,” and I’ll start really building that album. I mean, the pressure about it is that I haven’t got to ask Tom, Dick, and Harry if it’s all right to do: there’s no Tom, there’s no Dick, and there’s no Harry! It’s a nice way to work. But I’m fully appreciative of groups, and, as I say, collaborations are vital to musical stimulus. But we have almost finished – and it’s only a hairsbreadth away from being finished – a new Steve Howe Trio album. But we’re not in a hurry. We’re not trying to work ourselves to death. We’re just going to take our time….which is the opposite of what Yes did this year, which was to write an album, record it, and release it. [Laughs.] They were in some sort of hurry, and I don’t know why. But I like to be the opposite. So, yeah, there’s a Trio album, and we may be looking at much later in the year to release that, but if the album’s not ready ‘til next year, we won’t release it ‘til next year. I’m not really pushed to do anything. It’s opposite from life in a group, where it’s all about push, pull, and are they going to like some of my ideas. [Mock excitement.] Oh, they like some of my ideas? Great! [Laughs.]

I’m trying to find a balance, because, you know, I’ve got my years of experience, yet I’ve got people saying [In a surprised voice.] “You’re still doing music! You’re still touring! You’re still working!” Yeah, remind me, just because I might suddenly go, “Hang on, should I really be doing this still?” But while I want to play and while I love the guitar so much and while I’m doing that, I’ll just get on with it. But, like, Bill Bruford, he got to a point where he left the music business and was, like, “Well, I did this and I did this and I did this. I did these things, I’ve done it, and now I’ll get on with something else.” He’s still studying music, but in a different capacity. All I can say about Bill, though, is that he’s an incredible musical talent…and he saw the end. But isn’t that what good actors are supposed to do? Isn’t that what good conductors are supposed to do? When you’ve got to be propped up to wave your arms around, that might be another way of saying “stop.” [Laughs.] But I’m very energetic still!

Rhino: In closing, I know you’ve got the tour coming up in Europe, but has there been any talk of doing any live dates in the States?

SH: Yes, there is! I haven’t had a look at the dates, but there’s something being pieced together for me, and I’m very excited. Again, we can’t say it’s definitely going to happen, but if it can, it may have legs, this idea. I haven’t done America solo since 2008, I don’t think, which is quite a long time. So knowing that later in the year Yes are quite busy, I’m obviously not looking at prolonging the idea too much, but it’ll be something similar in length to the UK dates. I juggle whether to do Japan or Australia or America, and I have a loyalty to come back to America, obviously. Or Canada! I’ve probably toured Canada more solo than I’ve toured America. But sometimes that’s just in the way it’s come out. Certainly, though, I do like solo shows. They’re challenging, but I don’t find it a stressful challenge. Yeah, it’s something I definitely have a need to keep doing. That gives me a lot of premium and a lot of exploration of what my music is about, thank you. [Laughs.]