Another of the highlights of my Rhythm career, I’d been a Yes fan since seeing them in 1977 (when everyone else was getting into punk), and Alan White was definitely a personal drum hero.
You know you’re meeting someone special when he’s flown in to London specifically for the purpose of doing interviews, and you’re the fifth person to see him that day. As one of the two constants in Yes for the last twenty six years, (the other being bass player Chris Squire), Alan White’s position as one of the leading lights in the art of progressive rock drumming is fairly undisputed.
Actually, as a fan who queued all night in my adolescent years to get tickets for three nights in a row when the band played the Hammy Odeon, I already knew how special Alan White was, not just to my history, but to a whole generation of pseudo middle class hippies like myself who missed out on the sixties and tried to make up for it in the seventies! And now, in the nineties, after years of members leaving and returning to the fold, he and the band are still going strong; they’ve brought out a new album, Open Your Eyes, completed a successful fifty date tour of the States just prior to Christmas, and, when we met, they were soon to embark on a European jaunt, which included three sold out nights at the Hammersmith Appollo. I wondered what material fans could look forward to hearing?
“Actually, on this tour we’re doing two or three numbers from the new album, but a lot of it is some classic Yes stuff, which everybody seems to want to hear because they haven’t heard it for so long live.”
Although the band are playing classics from two decades ago, they’ve brought their sound right up to date with new technology, (mind you, it’s not so modern that the Chemicals would consider doing a mix)!
“We tend to play the older type material in very much a nineties way, it’s very much modernised the sound. We enjoy the fact that people are seeing a more digitised version of what the band seemed to be in the seventies. It sounds fresh because of that, and everything that was classic sounds modern, but it’s still got everything that everybody knows and loves about the sound of the band.
A lot of people listen to the band Yes and they think ‘Oh everything is so worked out that if anybody made one mistake it would lead everybody the wrong way.’ But it’s not like that, because although the arrangements to a lot of the songs are complex, there’s really a lot of spontaneity within that complexity that makes the band always interesting to listen to. Especially if you’re playing it, because some nights people just do different things that make you do different things, and that’s what’s great about having a framework of such classic songs to be able to do that with.”
It’s also great to have worked in the rhythm section with the same bass player for twenty six years, as it means there’s a lot of scope for shaking things up without worrying about losing the plot.
“Yeah, I don’t even listen to Chris anymore! Obviously he is a great player, he’s well respected in his field, and there are times when I know where he’s going and what he’s going to do, so sometimes I won’t play with him, I’ll go the other way just to make him turn around and go ‘Why did you do that?’ I always think there’s no reason why the drummer can’t play along with the guitar solo and bounce off the guitar solo, play along with each other and let the bass fend for himself for a while. It’s part of the nature of what we do in Yes, we try to keep things interesting for each other.”
Yes’s new album was produced by Billy Sherwood, a long time fan of the band who’s been involved with their production for the last seven years, and is now a full time member, playing guitar in the live show along with Steve Howe. When the recording first started, however, a Yes album was not on the cards.
“The initial seed of the album came pretty well from Billy Sherwood and Chris writing together, in Billy’s studio in LA, and basically he was writing a solo album, we weren’t on the road or in the studio at the time. When Chris is in that kind of mood he tends to get up every day and go to the office as it were, just go to the studio and create and write, so the seed of it started there with some of the songs, and then I got involved. I think the original idea was to do some more tracks for the Chris Squire solo album, but his album kind of turned into our next album after Jon and Steve got involved, and the whole thing took structure. It’s one of the more commercial albums the band’s made, very radio friendly, we wanted to do that this time.”
The last time Yes played in Britain was for the Union tour, a massive project which involved many of the musicians from the band’s long history playing together in the round. After a very public dispute over ownership of the band’s name in the late eighties, not to mention personal feuds amongst some members, it was something of a surprise that they ever got onto the same stage together! Alan was diplomatic when I asked him about the politics of that particular tour!
“Well, obviously the band’s had it’s own career with people leaving and coming back again” he said, with just a hint of irony in his voice! “I think when we got back together for the Union album and then tour, it was kind of like a relief to see everybody in the same room together, and doing a tour and playing together really well on stage.”
They did indeed play well, and the most enjoyable element of the Union gig was seeing Alan playing with Bill Bruford, Yes’s original drummer from the late sixties and very early seventies. But it took them a while to work fluently together.
“As far as Bill and myself playing, we had to sit down and we talked for a couple of days about who should approach what and what way, and which songs were adapt to one player and not the other. I think Bill kind of realised that he hadn’t been in the band for about eighteen years, and the way the band played certain songs was a little bit different to what they did eighteen years ago, so we had to talk about that, and it took a little while. There were quite a few what we called train wrecks, because the music is so complex, to have two drummers playing complex parts like that and to be right on really has to have a lot of concentration and a lot of give and take from both players. Bill used a regular bass drum and the electronic Simmons kit, so I tended to take the role of providing the kind of basis of the songs and the arrangements, and quite a bit of the time Bill would add the icing on the cake. But there were obviously songs like Heart of the Sunrise which are very particular to his style that he played, which is great. So we both had to compromise, we both had to listen real well and make the whole thing work.”
The matter of changing personnel during the band’s history, (they’ve had five different keyboard players, four guitarists, two lead singers, and two drummers), far from being detrimental, has probably been a key factor to their survival.
“The personnel changes have kept it fresh, because the kind of nature of the beast of Yes is a band that always wants to move on and create something new. You get inspiration from new members that go and come back, and you work in a different kind of area with somebody at one time, and all of a sudden Steve’s back and you’re working with Steve again. And I know how he plays cause I’ve played with him so many years. And even though we are playing quite a bit of older material on stage, people are thinking all the time about the current album and the next album, so that’s what keeps it really fresh.”
Before joining Yes, many of the bands Alan worked with were a lot more ‘groove’ orientated, with solid 4/4 and 6/8 rhythms throughout the songs, as opposed to the intricate and obscure time signature changes employed by Yes. His command and feel for the groove is very in evidence on his solo album Ramshackled, not to mention his work with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band in the early seventies. I wondered if he had much opportunity to just ‘groove’ these days.
“Yeah, we do it in Yes to a degree at the moment, Open Your Eyes has some groove type stuff on it, where I can actually sit back and get into the feel of the thing, and not worry about going into 7/8 time in the next two bars. So I feel as if I still get that reward, by being able to do that, at least with the last album and a couple of albums like Talk and 90125. But that interspersed with all the other stuff that Yes does just keeps it interesting for me.”
Alan has used the same drums and cymbals virtually since he started, (with a few famous add ons, like the tubular North drums that adorned his kit in the late seventies, which he still utilises occasionally for their shock value: “I do like to bring them into the kit because they do look very strange. Obviously, they don’t make them anymore, so it’s a pretty odd thing, especially when you get young bands coming up nowadays that have never seen things like that, and they go ‘What the hell is he playing?”)! For this tour, he’s using a slightly smaller set up than on the last.
“I’ve played Ludwig for a lot of years, and helped them in some development and stages of their equipment. This time I wanted to downscale a bit, and I’ve got more DW sizes, so it’s a kit that Ludwig have made called a Vintage kit, they just brought it out, and I enjoyed playing that on the tour prior to Christmas. It got a lot of attention as far as the drum sound goes, the guy who works for me tunes implicitly all the time. Every time I get off the drums he goes back and tunes them again!
And I’ve played Zildjian cymbals for the same amount of time as I’ve played Ludwig. I also downscaled on my crash cymbals this time to go with the kit, so I really went a little bit smaller, because sometimes being big gets small, and if you get smaller sometimes it gets big as far as sound goes, so the largest crash I have is a 16″ and two I4″ crashes. I also like playing inverted Chinas, for that real harsh kind of sounding element of the kit, so I have two of those, 17″ and 19″, which are next to each other.”
Not surprisingly in a band like Yes, electronics and his own keyboard also feature in Alan’s set up.
“It’s a good set up, I still use quite a lot of electronics, but I don’t trigger any drum sounds at the moment on any of the songs on-stage. I don’t like having things there unless I’m using them, so from tour to tour I change. Like I used to have timps, but nowadays you can sample a lot of that stuff. I have a keyboard kind of built in to my drum kit now, so I can actually have a lot of things, sometimes playing different vocal parts and stuff like that fit into a lot of Yes music. As regular electronics go I still have the Ddrum system, the old set of pads, that do fine work of triggering samples, like the glass guitars, and things like that, a lot of the songs I do the effects parts.”
These days a growing number of drummers employ keyboards in their set ups, but for Alan using one is just an extension of his musical youth.
“I played keyboards from six years old, so basically I’d go to a keyboard lesson, come home, and my uncle was a drummer and he noticed I had a pretty percussive style of playing the piano, and I was pretty good at timekeeping, so my parents bought me an Ajax kit when I was twelve. I think I had that kit about two months and then I went big time and bought a silver sparkle Ludwig, the best thing I ever did. I was like the new guy around at that age and virtually within three or four months of starting to play I had a couple of guys who used to come round and play guitar and bass in our living room, and within three or four months I was starting to work on stage and play gigs. I got write ups in the paper, ‘the youngest drummer in England,’ all this kind of stuff, and we used to do a show based primarily on a lot of Beatles songs, so by the time I was fourteen I was working six or seven nights a week. I was still trying to go to school, I did a paper round in the morning and I’d walk to school, do school, walk home, have my dinner and I’d go out and gig, then I’d come home eleven or twelve at night, then do the whole thing again.”
Alan was obviously blessed with very understanding parents and long suffering teachers. It struck me as somewhat portentous that a man whose career started doing Beatles covers should find himself playing with John Lennon…..
“I remember playing a gig at somewhere like Durham City Working Men’s club years ago. We finished the whole set and then after the set I was in the dressing room and one of the committee members came in and said ‘You’ll play with the Beatles one day lad,’ and I was like, that’s nice of him to say that, never dreaming at the time I’d ever do anything like that. That always sticks out in my mind as being kind of funny.”
Yes are the kind of band who people either love or loathe, there’s not much middle ground. One of the main reasons for this is undoubtedly the band’s approach to their music. When they first started, an unsuspecting audience was just coming out of an era where classic pop songs were the order of the day and, although the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Nice were beginning to take music to another level, no one had approached popular music in a truly classical way, with all the tempo changes, movements, counterpoints and time signature variations that a lot of classical music is based on. Obviously to play in a band like Yes one has to be able to draw from a lot of influences.
“At an early age I used to listen, and still do listen, to a lot of diverse kind of music. I think from playing the piano at an early age and just developing into drums at like twelve, I tended to start developing a style of playing pretty melodically, within the music drum-wise, which has contributed to my style as I’ve gone on through right up to a band like Yes. I listened to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, my father had me playing along with that kind of stuff, and then of course Ringo, I remember with Ringo, I said ‘Dad, he can do the double bass drum beat, and I can’t do it,’ but the day I was able to go boom cha boom boom cha, I was like ‘Hey, Dad, I can do this now!’ So it was a building process. From a very early age, mid teens maybe, I started listening to more jazz orientated players. I used to listen to a lot of different kinds of music and get the input from that to try to create my own style. That’s all part of the learning and growing process.”
And Alan is still learning and growing musically, keeping abreast of some of the newer acts via his children.
“Yeah, you know what, my son’s fifteen now, and my daughter is fourteen in July, and they obviously bring a lot of the new kind of material into the house, so I listen to everything they listen to. And I do like a bunch of the stuff. I went out to dinner with Chris last night, and his daughter is a DJ, and I said ‘I got this thing in America last week and I’m kind of really into this band, they’re called The Future Sounds of London,’ and she says ‘Oh, that was early nineties’, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry!’ But I like that kind of techno, very small drum sounds. She started to tell me about a couple of bands I’ve never heard of, and I gave her fifty quid and she’s going to buy me some albums. It’s great, because I like the input of all this new stuff. I think you get influenced by everything, especially being in a band like Yes, there’s influences from classical, jazz, rock, R&B and everything, and roll it into one style, and the musicians are of such a high standard they turn it into something else.”
And whilst we were talking about new bands, I had to find out if he was aware of the ‘other’ Alan White.
“Yes… actually there’s a very funny story about that. I was in America and I got a phone call from my mother. She said ‘What have you been doing?’ and I said ‘What do you mean?’ She said ‘How come you’ve been breaking up hotel rooms and stuff like that? It was in the Sunday Mirror!’ I said ‘Mum, it’s not me!’ She goes ‘Well all my friends are ringing up and going What’s happened to your Alan, has he flipped out or something?’ And I go ‘Mum, it’s not me, it’s a guy in a band called Oasis, it’s a new band.’ So it was kinda confusing that day.”
Confusing, Yes! But when you’re Going for the One, you’ve gotta Roll With It, Whatever the Wondrous Stories might be!