Jon Anderson will no doubt always be most remembered as the lead singer of British prog-rock giants YES, but it is crystal clear in talking to him that music is something much larger to him than vocation. It’s refreshing to talk to someone who has been in the business for so long yet shows no signs of fatigue or disenchantment from it. Jon has been playing intimate acoustic shows around the world which focus on his lifetime of compositions and audiences are raving about the gigs. He’s performed at the recent London Olympics, recorded a single “Brasilian Music Sound” which is a tribute to the World Cup in Brazil 2014 (available on Amazon) and just wrapped up another summer/fall touring run for 2012. We had the pleasure of having a telephone chat with him recently to talk about his life, his music and the big picture. Read on…
Legendary Rock Interviews: You’ve had a ton of experience working with traditional rock groups and have in recent years been doing quite a bit of work with orchestras and that type of thing? I think I remember an orchestral version of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” too. Is that challenging or fulfilling for you?
Jon Anderson: Yeah, you watch orchestras perform and you think to yourself, ‘I’d love to create something for orchestra.’ I did an album back some years ago called “Change We Must” and incorporated that type of music. I’ve actually been performing some of that material at these intimate shows we’ve been doing this summer. It is fulfilling to expand your concepts of what can be created and through the years if I have learned one thing it’s that music is a journey.
LRI: I think even going all the way back to YES, one of the things that people have always enjoyed about your music is the degree of ambition with which you approach things. What’s more ambitious than Orchestra?
Jon: Yeah, on the second YES album, “Time and a Word” we actually did do a show with orchestra and some of the arrangements were for orchestra so I think even at that time I was trying to re-invent a lot of ideas about how to perform onstage. It was always the bass, guitar and drums and we were incorporating keyboards which was a development to all of that. We wanted to really broaden the sounds that were available to a band onstage by using keyboards, performing YES music wasn’t just rock and roll but a hybrid of that symphonic music mixed with rock. Symphonic rock, progressive rock, they called it. I think it was a style of music that I was always interested in going back to even those days.
LRI: You’ve always, always been a spiritual, forward- thinking guy. The rock community is not necessarily always supportive of that. There’s always the pressure to keep things pure and analog and old school. Did you ever feel any pressure over the years to maybe not dabble too much with technology and machines or push the envelope?
Jon: I was constantly ‘pushing the envelope” to crazy dimensions. Back in the 60s some of the best music was back when the Beatles went into the “Revolver” , “Sgt. Pepper” era. When you listen to those albums you realize that they were jumping into different dimensions and worlds that were never tried out before. The same thing with Frank Zappa, he might have had the occasional commercially viable song but he spent a career pushing those boundaries. One of the biggest issues in the 1970s was the corporate interest in rock and roll that developed because the problem with corporations is the level of control that they tend to exert. Subsequently, you had the punk movement which people tend to think of in certain rebellious ways but was actually geared towards making money, the “revolution” and all of that was meant to stomp out earlier types of music. Except, I think music was meant to be much more adventurous and multi-dimensional than that. Music is meant to be more than something to be packaged and produced to make money. I was interested in more than that, I was interested in reaching people and taking them for a journey.
LRI: One thing I hear again and again from newer bands is that they want to get back to that more organic thing and away from computers and pro-tools. That type of “purity in music” anti-tech belief doesn’t necessarily apply to you?
Jon: You know, that’s the last thing I think about because technology is here to use and utilize and to develop with. God is everything and God is all that is. So if you look at that computer you’re looking at God, it’s made out of crystal energy and it’s created for our pleasure and our development. There are people who feel we shouldn’t be exploring in space and to me those people are just bored, they’re at that middle aged point in life where they are just bored in general and that is sad. Experience and adventure is what life is all about. We should be going into space, we should be spending that extra one dollar each as people for us to really go into space and explore further. Why I am saying this is because if you limit your experience and appreciation for life you live a very, very dormant life. Life is all about moving forward and constantly being open to new adventures and that includes technology. When YES first started we were working with four tracks, then it was eight tracks and I couldn’t wait for sixteen tracks. By the time the big 24 track systems came out I was in heaven. I think it was about 1996 when I was in Maui and I recorded a whole album on the computer, it was one of the first ones I’d ever done like that. We were using the first systems that had allowed you to do that and it was a beautiful experience, even though the album wasn’t a commercial success it was still a beautiful experience.
LRI: You released a longform piece of music called “OPEN” digitally last year which seems to be the way a lot of acts are going anymore. It’s amazing that a garage band has the same capabilities now to record a record as a seasoned pro like yourself. The technology has really leveled the playing field in some respects.
Jon: Oh yeah, modern technology is wayyy ahead of the game in terms of creating a good recording, now it’s just a question of performing good and putting good ideas to use. It’s really helpful when working on these orchestral pieces like the ones we were speaking of. To be able to build and build on a large scale piece of music is really pretty fantastic to be able to different people add different energies to it so seamlessly. When people really have the time to sit back and listen to a large piece of music they are truly going on a journey for twenty minutes, whether it’s Mozart or Stravinsky or even me, not that I’m putting myself on that level, that’s what I’m trying to do. I like making all kinds of music but I really love making that longform music that people get and really, really love. I think over the years I have been involved in maybe nine pieces of music like that with YES and a few similar length pieces on my own. It’s something that I do naturally, I just kind of naturally gravitate towards that, I don’t sit back and think ‘Oh , I hope people don’t get pissed off at me for doing this’. I just try to do things that I feel are fantastic in my heart. I did an album called “Toltec” which you probably haven’t heard of, a lot of people haven’t but it’s a full piece of music which is about an hour long. It was all inspired by the Central American energy that I got from learning about the Toltec Indians who were a very, very highly evolved group of human beings in terms of their love and understanding of mother nature and this place called earth which is who we are. We are earth, it’s who we are and that’s how we live here. A lot of people forget that. A lot of people tend to think of all these “indigenous peoples” without realizing that we are all indigenous people and we’re all connected to mother earth. That’s why we need to start understanding and connecting with the ways of these original native people and their cultures. In America there’s still a disconnect between our culture and the Native American culture and that confuses me you know? I became an American citizen a couple of years ago and when I first came here 20 years ago I was very interested in learning about the Native culture and now I’ve come to find out that we don’t even teach it in schools. How stupid is that? It’s America’s history, part of America’s history and it should be a shared culture that’s mutually understood.
LRI: I think it’s interesting that you draw that connection between respecting modern technology and respecting ancient cultures and see the overlap. Most people would sit squarely on one side or the other of the fence
Jon: It’s something I’m learning. As we get older we learn more and more, at least we should hope to. I try and find a way to take some of the things I learn or experience and put them into a song form so that people who know me or know of my music can take something from it. I’m not teaching anything, I’m just passing it on. There’s no need to view things in such black and white terms. In some ways it’s incredible that there are so many different ways of life still to this day. We have our modern world and we also have people living in caves in Chihuahua, Mexico, the Tarahumara Indians. They live in a place called Copper Canyon where they are literally living in caves as we speak, they are wonderful, intelligent and very colorful people but they still live in caves. We have bush people living in Africa, we have Aborigine people, who are not just native to Australia but are all over the world. It’s something I’ve studied, along with their music and their way of life. There are even lots of theories about these native peoples bordering on sci-fi and their connection to the alien civilizations. It’s kind of interesting stuff. If you wanna find out more you just have to use Google (laughs).
LRI: There’s always been an otherwordly thing about YES music. Do you believe in aliens?
Jon: To me there’s no question. I remember Chris Squire (YES bassist) and I talking about those things and looking at photographs of spaceship lights and captures and he said “Well, we’re just looking at our future selves” and it really tripped us out. It’s really quite trippy if you think about it in those terms, that our future selves are coming back to check us out. There are other dimensions in this world other than earth and I’ve always been interested in that. I’m interested in the great mystery of life. Music, all music, is just connected to the journey that we’re all on. I look back at all the music that I’ve listened to over the years. I listened to Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and all these greats who inspired me and I realize I’m still getting inspired every day.
LRI: Do you think some of the music business establishment and entities like Billboard or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have turned music into some sort of sport where there are winners and losers. Do you think some of that has turned some of the public off?
Jon: I don’t know. I’m not too concerned about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If it happens for YES, I’ll be very happy but if it doesn’t I’ll be happy just the same. I’ve got more reward in heaven then I could imagine, I’ve got grandchildren and my second wife Janee and I are so in love, we’ve been together twenty years and it feels like it’s only been a couple of years because we are so happy. We have so much fun together and we’re very excited about every day.
LRI: It’s not just YES who’ve felt the snub of the Hall of Fame but bands like Deep Purple and on and on….
Jon: Yeah and The Who just got in a couple years ago which to me is crazy because they are as important as anyone in my mind. The first tour that YES ever did was with The Who. The lineup was The Who, Rod Stewart and the Small Faces, Joe Cocker, Arthur Brown and YES if you can imagine that. Backstage was great and Pete Townsend who I knew from him coming to a bar that I worked at in London. He’d come up to me “Hey Jon, how’s it goin? I’m working on a project called Tommy about a deaf, dumb and blind kid who plays pinball” and I’m looking at him like “Pete Townsend’s talking to meeeee!!” (laughs) and he’s telling me about Tommy. I’m thinking “Who the hell is Tommy?” (laughs) and then the album came out a year later and it changed the landscape of a lot of things and was just this amazing event in the world of rock and roll.
LRI: The shows that you did this year are really special in that you perform in a truly stripped down, intimate setting and interact with the audiences much more than many performers do. Is that almost as rewarding for you as it is for the people who come out?
Jon: Absolutely. We’ve had some really, really good people come out to the shows too, which is nice. It’s me singing and playing guitar which is how much of this material started originally and the shows include a lot of the classic YES songs that people love to hear and it’s incredibly rewarding for me and so much fun. You know, I’m 67 this year and to be able to get up onstage and perform and sing and have the audiences sing along is unbelievable. The shows are on average about two hours and we sing and talk and tell jokes and the best part to me is that it just covers so much ground from the beginning to the end of YES to of course some of my material. I sing a song about the time me and my brother went to go see The Beatles in 1963 before they became famous and all we wanted to do was go onstage at the Cavern in Liverpool. There’s so many stories behind so many of these songs.
LRI: Thanks for talking to us. I once read an interview with you where someone was asking you about returning to YES or performing the YES songs and you replied by saying that “YES is forever”. Is that still the case, will that always be the case?
Jon: I think so. I work with a lot of young musicians and a lot of them will want to play a couple YES songs and I always say “Okay” and it’s always amazing to me. These great young players will be playing a YES song from 1969 or something and they’re practically teenagers. It’s kind of unreal to me but it lets me know that no matter what troubles the band itself has the music will always survive.
Sites That Link to this Post
- JON ANDERSON: Alien Theory | Prog Sphere | November 14, 2012