By Roy Rahl
Billy Sherwood has walked many roads. He has numerous solo albums to his name, plays quite a few instruments, and has for decades produced and engineered albums for several well known bands. He has also bravely accepted the formidable mission of replacing the recently deceased Chris Squire as the bass player for Yes. He clearly has broad shoulders and has his work cut out for him!
The Las Vegas native has released a new solo album, Citizen. It is a brilliant progressive conceptual voyage through history that features Sherwood singing and performing on several instruments. It also has a very impressive lineup of guest musicians ranging from Alan Parsons to Steve Hackett to Rick Wakeman. It is a thoroughly enjoyable journey that is well worth the price of admission.
I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with Billy talking about a wide range of topics. He is a fascinating person who has experienced the music industry from almost every perspective. Prior to the interview we had a few laughs about my experiences living in Las Vegas now versus what he saw as the son of musical parents who worked on the Strip back before it became all spit-polished and overly corporatized.
We spoke quite a bit about what it takes to be your own songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. He was very open about the challenges and rewards of performing all aspects of the process. We also spoke about the events that led to Billy rejoining Yes as Chris Squire’s replacement. He speaks from the heart about what it was like to work with his lifelong hero, being told of his illness, have Squire’s last recording be on his title track, and how it felt to stand onstage attempting to fill the shoes of a man whose face belongs on the Mount Rushmore of progressive music.
I really enjoyed this interview. I think you will as well.
Roy: Let’s talk about Citizen. I guess the obvious question should come first. Why did you choose to do a concept album about history?
Billy: Well, the label asked me to make a concept record when they approached me about doing a solo record, and I thought it was an interesting challenge to come up with something unique. Something that hasn’t quite been done before. So I just got this idea loosely based on the notion that General Patton believed he was reincarnated on various battlefields which gave him insight into his command. I thought that was an interesting idea. So I took that idea and created this fictional character, called The Citizen, and placed him into what I thought were the interesting things to sing about from my perspective in history. Obviously there’s so much that’s done in world history that’s interesting, but you only have twelve songs to speak on. So I chose what I was most interested in and put this character right in the center of it.
Roy: Are you typically kind of a history nerd? Not everyone thinks about writing a song about the development of the machine, or the Roman Empire, or the theory of evolution, or any of those types of things.
Billy: Well, I’m not a history expert by any means, but I am always interested in history because we’re supposed to learn from these things and evolve. Oftentimes we don’t. But I find it interesting to look back on these events that changed the world in such a grand way. So yeah, I’ve always been interested in history.
Roy: I love the album. I noticed that the order of the songs on the album are not in chronological order as the album’s concept may suggest. How did you determine their order?
Billy: The concept is a reincarnated soul. That is not a chronological journey for the soul. That is, random events and where this character pops up. So it was never in my head that this has to be chronological because who knows where this soul is reincarnated, and when in time. So I thought it was okay to mess around with the timeline a bit.
Roy: Okay. So you’re kind of going on a fluidity of time type of adventure.
Billy: It’s kind of bopping around all over the place because it’s obviously fiction we are talking about here. To some it might be truer than to others. But as it’s fiction I thought it was okay to have this character popping up in different periods and play around with the timeline.
Roy: You perform many of the parts that we hear on the album and you have other guests playing on it as well. You have quite a “who’s who” of performers on this album.
Billy: Yeah. I’ve been blessed through my career to work with a lot of amazing musicians, most of them heroes of mine who have become friends over these many years. So when I run up the flag to see who salutes, so to speak, I’ve got people willing to participate. It’s always amazing to hear their work on the record. It just lifts the bar for the whole album. So I’m very honored to have this cast of characters on the record.
Roy: How did you determine which of the parts were going to be performed by musicians other than you, not only in terms of parts but which musician performs in which song?
Billy: Well, normally what I’ll do is I’ll construct the entire record myself and pretty much have it built so I can understand what I’ve got. And then I sort of back up a bit and start listening to the music and equating who I think would suit what parts. For instance, when I wrote “Just Galileo And Me” I immediately started hearing Colin Moulding’s voice on this track. And I wrote to him as soon as I finished that and said, “Listen, it’s early going but I have this track that I think you’re gonna dig and I’d really love to hear your voice on here. At this point I’ve almost custom written this for you.” [Laughs] That same application applies to all the material. Another good example is Rick Wakeman on “The Great Depression”. His piano work is just so amazingly perfect and lends itself to that melancholy sad feeling of this poor guy who’s at the end of his rope and about to jump. I had asked Rick when I sent him the files “Could you please tap into that emotion and enhance it?” And his piano playing is just gorgeous on there and does the trick. So I kind of think about who would be right for what and what their style is like, and tempos, the song, the lyrics and how that all works together. I try to make the most sensible picks that I can.
Roy: Do you find that once you have a musician who’s going to be on a piece is there a lot of change in the song from your original concept to the final recording based upon their input?
Billy: No, it’s more the case of I send them the file and then explain between this point and this point is where your main solo is to do your thing. And with the rest of the track feel free to add and enhance it in however way you see fit. By doing that and giving them that creative freedom they come back with amazing overdubs. But they’re working over my track as it exists and that track remains solvent and doesn’t change.
Roy: You perform so many roles in the music industry, not only playing a thousand different instruments, and songwriting, vocals, producing and engineering. You kind of do everything...
Billy: I was driving the car on the last Yes tour too! [Laughs]
Roy: Well I hope you got extra pay for that! [Laughs]
Billy: Ha! I’m kidding.
Roy: Is there one specific aspect of the process that gives you the most enjoyment?
Billy: You know, it’s funny because I’m kind of asked that a lot and my answer is always the same, which is really, I love music. So for me it all comes under one umbrella of music. I love producing bands where I don’t play a note and I just sit there and have my opinions. [Laughs] By the same token I love mixing records for people where I can take what they’ve recorded and put my spin on how I think it should sound. All of these aspects, playing, recording, engineering, blah blah blah, it all goes to the music and I’m always trying to serve the music. That’s what I enjoy the most.
Roy: With me, the creativity part and the engineering part are two different sides of the brain. I have difficulty with that, but it seems like you’re able to integrate them into one thing.
Billy: Well it’s funny because for me I’m the opposite in that engineering has become a tool to facilitate the ultimate vision of music because it really is a harmonic instrument in its own way. The way that you’re pulling frequencies out, and the way that you’re enhancing ambience and adding color to notes by adding this ambience. Things of that nature which are really speaking to the song. It’s part of why I became an engineer because I wanted things to sound the way I knew they could and I was having trouble expressing that through other engineers. So I just took the reins and figured it out myself and it’s become a tool that’s really valuable, and for me as important as playing any of the other instruments. It’s another instrument for me, musically speaking.
Roy: That’s great that you can do that. I’m having to split my brain and I don’t get along with myself quite often.
Billy: There is a lot to it. I mean, when I sit down and talk to people who ask me “How do you engineer? How do you go about it and where do you begin?” I start to tell them about signal path, and phasing, and EQ, and, you know, there’s just so much there that eventually I kinda say “You know what, you need to go ask someone else! [Laughs] There’s just too much to get into here!” But now, I’m kind of an older guy. So by now that stuff is so second nature to me that I don’t even think about it. I just grab the knobs and do my thing. But there’s a lot in there.
Roy: As the musician I’ve fired myself from engineering many times!
Billy: [Laughs] Well I’m here if you need anything!
Roy: [Laughs] Okay! Now aside from Citizen you released another album in 2015, called Collection.
Billy: Yeah, there was a record that’s just come out, it’s a “best of” and it’s got tracks from each of my seven solo albums plus two bonus tracks. I was asked to put this out and I thought it was a good time with all these years passed and all these records made. It would be an interesting way for people who maybe don’t know what I do to get a sample of where I’ve been and where I’m going. So it seemed like the right thing to do. It’s out there and available for people to enjoy right now.
Roy: It’s a great album. I’ve enjoyed listening to it.
Billy: Cool. It spans quite a bit of time. It touches on 1994 through pretty much a couple of years ago with Divided By One.
Roy: When you’re putting together something like that are you hearing growth in yourself as you go through the years?
Billy: It’s hard to judge one’s own journey, you know? I just hope that I’m making it better each time. That’s all I can say. I do not worry about the laws of commercial music when I’m working on my solo things. I’ll put those rules into play when I’m asked to if I’m producing something that’s a little more straight ahead. I’ve done work with Ratt, Motorhead, Air Supply, and other bands. Obviously you don’t even want to begin to get a progressive music quest because it’s not their genre. So I apply those rules. But when I’m doing my own thing I really throw caution to the wind and just try to get as creative as I can. And as selfish as it sounds, I’m doing it for myself, you know what I mean? I want to enjoy it, and if I enjoy it hopefully someone else does. The creative process for me is ongoing and ever changing. Sometimes you find yourself repeating certain things, but that’s okay. That happens. Sometimes you find yourself going into new areas that you’ve never been before. New sonics, and tricks, and arrangements and whatnot.
It’s interesting. I just finished remastering my first solo album which is going to come out again, called The Big Peace, and that’s I think a little more than two decades old now! I listened to the production and I think to myself “God, what was I thinking? How did I do that?” [Laughs] But then I remember, “Oh that’s right, that’s analog tape. That’s why you had to do it that way.” So the technology that changed along the way has changed how I do things, that’s for sure. But I think at the end of the day my desire to do what I want to do creatively hasn’t changed. I just try to make it better.
Roy: But playing for yourself or writing for yourself isn’t really selfish, is it? Isn't that how you’re going to get your true creative expression? Being true to yourself versus trying to write for somebody else?
Billy: Yeah, that’s the end game. But when you’re in a band you can’t think that way because you’ve got other individuals to deal with. So, I don’t come in as a dictator when I’m in a band and say “Hey, here’s my song. Do not change it. Play it this way. Here’s the part.” I don’t work that way. When I’m in a band I’m very much about equality and wanting everyone to get their expression out. But with the solo album I don’t have to turn to anybody and say “What do you think”. So in that way it’s very selfish and I like it that way for my solo things.
This is the first solo album I’ve made in a long time where other people are involved, to be honest with you. Citizen has all these other amazing artists which I’m really happy about. I didn’t tell them what to play, as I explained before, I just kind of laid out “Here’s where your solo is, do your thing”, because when I’m working with other people I want to hear what they have to offer. But the majority of my solo albums are made by myself. I don't have to ask anybody what they think, which I like! [Laughs]
Roy: You just recently completed the Cruise To The Edge, where Yes hosted a cruise ship performing alongside all kinds of other progressive rock bands. That must have been interesting.
Billy: It was a great time. We played two nights and the crowds were amazing, and really rallied around Yes, after what we all know happened with Chris. It’s just made it difficult for everybody. You know, no one was sure if Yes was going to continue, with me at the tip of that spear. I wasn’t sure. Will these people accept me in here? I mean, I understand the pain, but will this work? And to my surprise, and I’m very happy to say the vast majority of Yes fans are rallying behind the band right now and a big showing of that were on the boat. Lots of love and support and well wishes for Chris and his family which I found amazing. At the same time, the same emotions and feelings for Yes moving forward and me doing what I’m doing with it. So, it was great, and as you said there were all these other great bands on board so it was a musical adventure at sea, which is fantastic. It really was quite amazing.
Roy: And you have a lot of interaction with the audience during the cruise, I assume, right? As you’re all on one boat...
Billy: Well you can’t help it as you’re getting your bacon and eggs in the morning. [Laughs] At the buffet it’s like “Listen, that was my strip of bacon right there!” So you are interacting in a peculiar way! But it’s so much fun and the people are so sweet and respectful. It’s just an amazing thing, and Yes fans are a unique breed. I consider myself one of them because I’m a fan going back to twelve years old. So, it’s great to interact with everybody and you’re right there on the boat. It’s just a hell of a lot of fun.
Roy: Pun intended, you and I are in the same boat when it comes to Yes. About a year ago I told Steve Howe that my brother was playing Close To The Edge when I was twelve. I heard it and Steve was the one who made me want to play guitar. So I’m one of those die-hard Yes fans.
Billy: [Laughs] I can better that. My brother Mike and his friends Jimmy Haun and Gary Starnes and all these great musicians, who later became Lodgic, when I was a kid, they were seventeen and I was twelve. At that age difference it makes it a little weird to hang out. I remember wanting to get in the garage and play Close To The Edge with these guys and I was the younger brother who wasn’t allowed in! The tables have turned now. [Laughs]
Roy: How do you like me now! [Laughs]
Billy: Exactly! It’s funny. But my inroads to Yes were directly through my brother and Jimmy Haun. They were the first ones to turn me on to Yes. It all worked out in the end.
Roy: I understand that on the cruise there was a special tribute to Chris Squire.
Billy: There was. Mike Portnoy did a tribute with a bunch of great bass players and it was really something to see. I must say that the thing that stuck in my mind was how amazing Pete [Trewavas] from Marillion, the bass player, just nailed “Hold Out Your Hand”. I mean, it just totally had the spirit. It was great.
Roy: Chris played on your title track, “The Citizen”. Without even knowing any of the credits at my first listen I went, “That’s Squire”.
Billy: Yeah, it’s got that big fat bottom down there. It’s great.
Roy: As fate would have it that is his last recording. That makes a fantastic tune become quite profound.
Billy: It does in a very bizarre, fate-filled way. I’m just so happy that I had that chance to hang with Chris. That was right before he told me that he was sick. I had gone up to hang out with him just to get him on Citizen, and just hang out and go grab food and just do what friends do. There he was in my Holiday Inn suite that I had with my portable studio set up. He came in and played my five string and just nailed it. It was great, you know, larger than life and funny. You know we laughed more than anything whenever we’d hang out. It was just an amazing thing to have him on there. Then unfortunately this happened. We all know the rest. So it makes that track really, really special. I wouldn’t have done it just because Chris is on it, but as it happens to be the first track on this record I think it’s pretty important.
Roy: I know you’ve been asked this a million times. Taking his place must have been a great honor, a devastating moment, and a huge burden thrown on you all at once. What was happening in your head during that first performance?
Billy: Oh man. You know, as you just said it was an honor to take that position. It was really sad at the same time. It took me a lot of that tour to comprehend what was going on and to be able to perform in a way where I wasn’t just kind of standing there spaced out, because oftentimes I was. Just playing the notes, thinking about Chris, looking at the audience and knowing what they’re thinking. It was a lot of different weird emotions. I guess surreal is the word that encapsulates it the best. I know Chris well and he didn’t want me to get on stage with Yes and be depressed. He wanted me to get on there and shine. To that end I’m trying to do that as best as I can and respect the music.
I went back to the original records and listened to his compositions that were recorded as opposed to where he kind of ended up playing in the later part of his life. I went back to the source and really tried to adopt those notes, note for note. And then interpret it in my way.
So yeah, it was just bizarre. A lot of times I was just thinking to myself, “My God, how did my life lead to this?” But I kind of don’t question it anymore. I mean, we were friends of thirty years and Yes was always my favorite band. And I was amazed when I met him the first time back in the late eighties. Wow, I’m finally meeting my hero, Chris Squire! What’s gonna happen here? I wonder if we’re ever gonna hang out again.
And then, lo and behold, here we are in 2015 and this guy’s calling me and telling me he’s deathly ill and wants me to take his position. It just floored me when he told me that. I had to step back and I told him “You’re gonna have to give me a minute to comprehend what we’re even talking about here.” So, it was heavy on so many fronts. I don’t know what to say other than the whole process was surreal. There’s a lot of adjectives you can use, but to me that’s the best one.
Roy: Wow. Yes has had a long history of continuously changing band members. You were with them in the past as well...
Billy: Yeah, I have a couple different jersey numbers at this point! They retired thirteen in 2000. I don’t know what number I am again here!
Roy: You get the same number, I think. It just gets reused.
Billy: Lucky thirteen!
Roy: But even the other founding members recorded albums together but never under the name Yes without Chris Squire.
Roy: I imagine it threw the band off more than usual even for a band that’s used to changing members.
Billy: Yeah. The shockwave went through the band and a shockwave went through all of the other alumni. When I first got the news on that Sunday that Chris had passed away I immediately picked up the phone and called all my Yes alumni friends who live here in LA , Rabin and Tony Kaye and some of the crew guys and said “We should get together and go have a couple of drinks and toast to Chris”. Everyone was in shock and I think it’s still pretty raw for a lot of people and pretty mind blowing.
None of us expected it to be so quick or to happen at all, to be honest with you. When I talked to Chris it was about filling in for him. It wasn’t, you know, “You’re replacing me.” It was filling in for him. But as things progressed in that conversation over those six weeks and he got closer to his mortality I think he was more in touch with reality than I was. In his way he was prepping me for, you know, “You are going to take this. Are you prepared? Do you promise me you're going to do this? Tell me you’re into it.” All these things.
He told me at one point “If there’s any of my gear that you need let me know.”
Roy: Oh my God...
Billy: I said, “Chris, I got my own stuff. Don’t worry about it.” He said “I know, but I just wanted to extend that to you.” You know, things that were coming up were speaking to a different outcome than I wanted, that’s for sure, or what anyone wanted. But life is a bitch, as they say.
Roy: I can’t imagine sitting there hearing Chris Squire say “Do you want any of my gear?”
Billy: Well it was very, very tough to sit there and take. I was trying my best to not lose it on the phone with him because I knew he needed support. But as soon as the phone went down I was a mess. I was a mess for weeks. Months actually. I went through the whole process of him telling me “I just got diagnosed” all the way up to talking to him about four or five days before he passed away. It was shocking too because on that last phone call he told me “I beat the cancer. The chemo has worked and it’s looking good.” And that was the last time I talked to him. He told me in that conversation “Whatever you do, make me proud and be yourself. Don’t worry about being me. Don’t worry about imitating Chris Squire. That’s not what I’m asking you to do. I know you can do this the way you can do this, and that’s what I want.”
So, to that end that’s what I’m trying to do.
Roy: Well, that’s ... uh ... I can’t imagine being in that position. I just can’t.
Billy: I never imagined it myself, trust me. When I was fourteen standing there watching him doing Tormato going “Oh my God, this guy ... who is this guy? I’ve got to do something. If I can be a tenth as good as that!” What I respected about him was his musicianship, the composition, the singing quality, and his stage presence. Those were the things I was looking at as like a model. I always tried to do my best to have that kind of musical integrity in whatever I was doing.
Believe me, a lot of the bands that I was playing with early on were like “Goddamn, do you have to play so many notes? It’s just a G”. I said “Yeah, I know. That’s the problem, it’s just a G! Chris would do it, so I’m doing it!” [Laughs]
Roy: I always said Chris never played bass. He just played melody at 800 hertz.
Billy: Yeah, I know! I remember once showing a picture to my father who was an amazing musician and big band leader, Bobby Sherwood. He came in one day and I was listening to Yes and he said “This sounds really good. Who is this?” And I said “Well it’s Yes, and this bass player, you gotta check him out.” I showed him this picture of Chris. And of course it’s one of those pictures where Chris is at the top of the neck in one of those moments. My dad looks at me and goes “He’s not a bass player! He’s nowhere near the low end of the instrument!” [Laughs]
Roy: He was probably playing The Fish solo or something.
Billy: Yeah, “Silent Wings” or something. Funny!
Roy: One last question for you before I let you go. It sounds like there’s a good fit going on. I have to assume there’s another Yes album in the works.
Billy: I do too; and with that we’ll just see where this goes. But I don’t think Yes is done producing new music. I am known for being one who pushes forward with new music and the band wants to, I’m sure, move forward too. It’s just a matter of the timing and when. Obviously, with Chris’ passing it’s very fresh for everybody so it’s not necessarily a topic going on right now. But the evolution of Yes is always about new music. It’s not just about touring. So I’m excited to think about what could happen and see where it goes on a composition level and a production level. I would love to make a statement with this band that shows vitality and forward thrust. That’s my goal.
Roy: Are you guys going to be touring?
Billy: We’re doing April and May in Europe and I would imagine there will be more of it coming online. There’s already great conversations going on behind the scenes which I can’t really speak to beyond that. But I can say that the conversations are very positive. You know, everyone was a little concerned when I jumped in. Where’s the curve going to go for this band? Is it going to go downward or upward without Chris? And as I said earlier, with the support of Yes fans and them knowing my relationship with Chris and the history, they’ve been so warm welcoming of me to come back in. Also, they’ve been buying the tickets, and without them we have nothing. They’ve been buying the tickets and our tour was very, very successful and I’m happy to say that the curve has been going up. So I don’t see anything but a positive future for Yes, which I’m happy to be a part of.
Roy: Well I hope you guys do another tour in the US and you come back to Vegas. We’ll go hang out at Red Rocks or something. [Laughs]
Billy: We’ll go the Peppermill. [Laughs] You gotta know Vegas to know the Peppermill!