The Big Interview / Steve Howe – taking affirmative action with his thirteenth solo release.
21 July 2020. Cover Photo: Andy Rawll
From psychedelic troubadour with ‘Tomorrow’ to Starship Trooping minstrel with Yes, Steve Howe’s six-decade career has taken him to the edge, across oceans, from Alpha to Omega, though drama and onward from fragile beginnings to move Heaven and Earth.
Steve Howe: Love Is (BMG Records)
Release Date: 31 July 2020
Interview: Andy Rawll
His unique guitar style melds the folkabilly twang of Chet Atkins, the jazz swing of Wes Montgomery, the incisive melody of the 60s beat-pop and the dynamic crunch of 70s rock. This signature six string sound has awoken some of prog’s finest moments from Yes to Asia to GTR and back-again. Yet, his parallel career as a solo artist has proven to be as musically-rich and artistically-fulfilling as his work as a band-member.
This month marks the celebration of two important dates, in the Yes man’s musical journey.
Having joined the band two months earlier, 17 July 1970 at London’s Lyceum Theatre marked Steve’s first formal gig with the line-up of Anderson, Bruford, Howe, Kaye and Squire that would record ‘The Yes Album’ during gaps in an intense twelve month touring schedule of 169 gigs that would follow. Indeed, it’s remarkable to note that the version of Howe’s catchy instrumental ‘Clap’ that appears on that epochal release was recorded at the same debut show.
Now, exactly fifty years on, Steve releases his latest solo album ‘Love Is’ on 31st July 2020 through BMG Records. Whereas his previous solo release, 2011’s ‘Time’ was an all instrumental affair, ‘Love Is’ charts a different course, with a balance of five instrumental tracks and five songs.
His twelfth solo album, since 1975’s appropriately titled ‘Beginnings’, ‘Love Is’ sees Howe in imperious form, contributing lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, percussion and bass guitar, underpinned by Dylan Howe’s drums. The five vocal-based songs are enriched by the presence of the mellifluous harmonies of Jon Davison (Yes’s vocalist since 2012).
Significantly, the album reveals that Steve’s own voice has acquired a warm and weathered character that recalls the fine, husky hues of Steven Stills and Chris Rea. Coupled with dynamic arrangements and stylistic twists and turns, this could well be Howe’s most complete and fulfilling solo release to date.
From the jazz-tinged retro pop ‘Sound Picture’ and groovy opening instrumental ‘Fulcrum’ to the widescreen psychedelia of ‘On The Balcony’ and evocatively melodic ‘Love Is A River’, Howe unleashes his full arsenal of guitar styles and sounds, in this cohesive and highly appealing collection of music.
MetalTalk’s Andy Rawll spoke to Steve about the new album and much more, including tales of Horn, Hank and how hotel hell inspired the album’s showpiece closing track.
Andy: This latest album has been a long-time coming and, in a departure from your recent solo albums, features a mix of song-based recordings and instrumentals.
Steve: “It’s a balance of both of those things, which I’ve done over the years. Quite often I do instrumental-only albums, but some of them to have a mix of songs and instrumentals. This one’s got a 50:50 balance, which I like.
“With respect to the amount of time it’s taken to do it, I’ve been so busy with Yes, as well as the ‘Steve Howe Trio’ which released ‘New Frontier’ last year. I did four solo tours of the UK in the latter half of the 2010 era.
“I’ve been busy and haven’t felt the rush to try and get something out. I wanted to get it out and release it only when I was 100% content and I felt that it was as strong as it could be.
“This is evident now that I’ve released it.”
I’ve heard the album and it’s nicely eclectic. For me it shows two things. One, it shows your roots going all the way back to the psychedelic 60s, but also has some signature sounds and styles that many of your longstanding fans will enjoy, particularly your use of steel and slide guitar.
Did the arrangements just evolve organically or did you have to sit down and decide what was best for the album?
“The process of making any album is fairly complicated and usually different from the previous one. I just accumulated material and went back to it repeatedly. I stylised and perfected it to the level that I wanted.
“I improved it as much as I could, as I went along. Production’s become very interesting for me.
“I write and play, but a big part of the way it comes out is how you produce it, so basically it’s the combination of all my interests.”
‘Headlands’ is the first track that you’ve released as a taster for the album, which has a lovely dreamy-like quality. I’d like to pick out a few of the other songs that I particularly enjoyed that people can look forward to hearing when the album’s released on 31st July 2020.
The album opens with ‘Fulcrum’, an instrumental that harks back to the beat-pop sounds of the 60s, with shades of the Shadows and some very Hank Marvin-esque guitar.
“Yes, that’s even more the case on ‘Sound Picture’, which appears later on the album and is thematically more straight-ahead in certain areas.
“That opening track is about me using a combination of acoustic guitars and my melodic approach, which includes playing two strings.
“There’s not a lot of whizzing-around and saying ‘here I am, I can really play the guitar’. It’s all about the creation of melodies, partly through improvisation, and their development into a complete picture.”
The album has a completely different character to your ‘Homebrew’ series and your releases with the ‘Steve Howe Trio’. At its core, it’s an upbeat, rock-sounding record with multiple moods and stylistic changes throughout.
The next track ‘See Me Through’ has an enticing rhythmic drive and melodic appeal, with great vocals and slide guitar as well.
“Yes, that’s got a mixture. I try to add some sense of musical development as you go through album with the different sort of things that I get up to.
“Jon Davisons on vocals and bass guitar on the five songs. Dylan’s on all the tracks playing drums, while I play bass on the five instrumentals.
“Be that as it may, ‘See Me Through’ starts to head the album off from a more rock-oriented base.
“Fundamentally, I’m a Rock guitarist, with lots of other interests along the way.
“What I’m doing is introducing all those styles as we go through all of the tracks.”
As the album beds in, you have ‘Love Is A River’ which appears to provide the centrepiece for the album, with a mixture of twelve-string and steel guitar.
“Yes, it’s pretty central to the album and that’s where the abbreviated title of the album ‘Love Is’ is taken. It’s nice cliff-hanger statement.
“It means that you can interpret whatever word you like after that. In the context of the song ‘Love Is A River’, it was a chance for more exploratory instrumentation, but at the same time expressing ideas about love, in not too much the obvious way.
“We’re not talking about a cliché approach about ‘oh, how I much love somebody’, but more about the complexities and challenges of that.
“It’s also built up in the mood of the instrumentation.”
I’m delighted by the presence and strength of your vocals on the album. The song ‘It Ain’t Easy’ reminded me of Steven Stills singing with Crosby, Stills and Nash or one of his solo records.
“Thanks, that’s nice of you to say. I sing in a number of different ways. I’ve sung for years. I had one vocal lesson in the 80s, where I took a cassette tape away and did that vigorously before every time I sang and I still do my practising now.
“As I’ve got older, I’ve got more into my natural voice, which has a low to medium range and I still enjoy singing a lot.
“Sometimes, I’ve said to myself, don’t do that, just do instrumental music, but then I get an idea for a song or some lyrics and I find that I’m off on that path again, wanting to do like I did in the 70s.
“It’s about getting songs out there that have some sort of inner message for me and also an accessibility for other people.
“I’m not trying to be obscure, but I definitely don’t want to be obvious either.
‘It Ain’t Easy’ has structure, which is what the whole album should have and it’s what I like too.
“It’s a straight-ahead song, but we flip a little time-signature here and there. We have quite a lot of ideas going on through the song.”
It’s a great album of light and shade and there is a beautiful song called ‘Imagination’. That, I understand, is dedicated to your son Virgil’s daughter, Zuni.
“Yes, that’s special. It ties into ‘It Ain’t Easy’ as well.
“I’ve written music for my family, particularly for our sons, daughters and grandchildren, with a mixture of guitar instrumentals and full-on songs, which is something I just do naturally.
“There are also more universal storylines in there as well, about love.
“You see people going through the challenges that life presents and some of them are very young. I’m forever indebted to the inspiration that having kids has done to me and giving me a greater sense of family.
“Yet, it’s not for everybody, but that’s the role that my wife and I took on, so it comes out in the music.
“That’s what ‘Imagination’ is all about. Kids do have incredible imaginations.”
Talking about the sense of imagination, the closing track ‘On The Balcony’ provides a very evocative soundscape as it conjures up a panoramic sonic vista, with subtle details, like the reference to drinking Moroccan tea.
“I refer to two sorts of balcony. There’s the one when you walk out and you can hear the humdrum of the city, the police sirens and whole catastrophic sounds of the city.
“But then, if you’re out on a balcony in Hawaii, for instance, you’re looking out on a big, calm, beautiful space.
“The song leans a bit towards the second in my mind, but later on in the song, I talk about the stage being like a balcony in reverse, where everyone’s looking at you, rather than you being alone and looking out onto the world.
“As I say in the song, if you’re not ready for that, before you go out on stage, it’s too late.
“The idea of sitting on a balcony is used as a metaphor for being anywhere that gives you the feeling of space.
“In a hotel you’re lucky to get one and if you do, you can escape the prison-like effect of the four walls that you’ve got, in the midst of 200 other rooms in a hotel.
“It’s a topic that I dared to go to, as it had filled my touring career with some distaste and occasional pleasures, when the hotel knows how they should treat you and how their rooms should be presented.
“All my songs and instrumentals are vehicles for my music and my guitars.
“What I get up to is fairly decisive and I wanted to go out with a bang at the end of the album that reminded me that fundamentally I’m in touch with something I’ve always been in touch with, ever since I got into music, which is the Rock and Roll drive of music.
“I think Dylan does a great job on that song.”
Talking of travelling and hotels, let’s look forward to the potential plans for Yes to return to the road in 2021.
“It’s hard to speculate on live gigs right now. We’re making plans, that we hope that we can fulfill.
When my label BMG and I got together, they understood that it wasn’t all that foreseeable that I’d be able to get out on tour with my band and play this.
“They knew that I would promote it and include it when I do one-man shows and I’ll figure out a way of talking about it and playing things from this album.
“My general experience is that this was to get into the nice position to be able to play some solo shows with a band around it.
“I did this many years ago with the album ‘Elements’ and we did a ‘Steve Howe’s Remedy’ tour.
“I’m actually a lot happier doing solo. Playing solo is one of my favourite kinds of guitar playing.
“As I mentioned earlier, I did four consecutive tours in the mid-2010 era.
“If this album was to get a nice foothold, that would certainly open up the same kind of channel.”
If we turn our attention to the resumption of Yes’s touring plans next year, this includes a new date for the show at the Royal Albert Hall that is now scheduled for 24 May 2021. It will finally provide European audiences the chance to experience the album ‘Relayer’ in its entirety live.
“Yes, that show is near the end of the revised dates for the tour. Before that, we start on 11 April in Portugal and work pretty hard for six weeks across that period.
“We’ve been doing the album series for about ten years, where we do one or two or, in one case, three albums in one show.
“We love doing that. Albums are made to be joined-up and played together. It’s very nice to do that, but we can’t do it all the time.
“Some of the time we can do that, particularly when we’re touring alone and there’s no support act or we’re not part of any kind of package.
“‘Relayer’, side 2, if you like, ‘the B side’ of the album, had never been played since 1978.
“We know that that music is much-enjoyed by Yes fans and we love it dearly, as well.
So having already got ‘Gates of Delirium’ ready in 2018 and then played it in 2019, it’s a simple stepping stone to add the next two songs, which we were preparing to do this year. But we’ve got a little more time to get ready for next year.”
In 2018, as band, Yes celebrated its 50th anniversary. This month sees your own 50th anniversary with the band.
“Yes. Although there was the 80’s gap, since 1995 I’ve been onboard for the whole time.
“Even while I was in Asia and various other groups. I’ve been juggling that even more, because Yes has always carried a lot of my music within it and it’s always meant so much to me.
“The lasting quality and the great team spirit isn’t dissimilar to the Beatles’ shorter period of 10 years together.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie and a certain humour. There are a lot of things that join a band together.
“The strength that the Beatles had was phenomenal. Yes had a lot of strengths.
“We went through a lot of troubles, all bands do, but we’re still here, which really says something.”
In addition to bands and musicians with which you’ve worked, there are also songs, where you’ve featured as a guest musician, of which the flamenco-style solo on Queen’s ‘Innuendo’ is perhaps the best-known.
Perhaps, less well-known are sessions that you did with your one-time bandmate Trevor Horn for the Frankie Goes To Hollywood album ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’
“That’s right, I also played on ‘Liverpool’, the album that followed. Trevor and I have always got on well since we first met in 1979, before we did the ‘Drama’ album.
“I think we’ve got a great deal of respect for each other, which is lovely.
“Occasionally, I was the go-to guitarist with Trevor. I played on the album by ‘Propaganda’ and several other things that Trevor was doing. I like doing that type of thing, where I don’t have the responsibility and don’t have to write the music. I just went in there and I guess I picked-out out a Dobro (resonator guitar) and said “I’ll do something here” – that’s how the Frankie stuff came together.
“It was a little bit more complicated on the second album, when I played electric guitar and twelve string and things like that.
“It was really a thrill doing that. I even played with the guys from Frankie at an ‘Produced by…’ event that Trevor did.
“Unfortunately, their singer didn’t show up, but we went on and did it with their guest singer, but I’ve enjoyed that sort of stuff.”
And there’s a wonderful sense of completion as Norman Watt-Roy played on the early sessions of ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ and of course Dylan’s got the connection with Norman, as the longstanding rhythm section for both the current Blockheads and ex-Blockhead Wilko Johnson’s band.
There’s a lovely sense of coming full circle
“Yes, it’s a small world.”