Steve Howe: Working Overtime

  By Jeb Wright

Not many musicians have two full time gigs that can fill walls with Gold and Platinum albums. Steve Howe is one of few who can split his time between two major touring and recording bands and make it look, and sound, easy.

With Asia, Howe is more of a rock guy. With Yes, he is the consummate guitar player, one of the best in the world. With both bands he has forged his place in history.

Asia will re-release their debut album and go on tour to celebrate three decades since they surprised the pop rock world and went multi-platinum with a band of Progressive Rock Gods playing shorter, and less grandiose styles than their fans were accustomed to.

Howe was told he was selling out with Asia but as he explains in the interview that follows, he was just complimenting the composition and doing what was needed for each song.

We discuss Asia’s newest album, XXX, as well as how Asia formed and how their early success led to their quick demise. Now, reformed with all original members, Asia is taking their show around the globe once again.

Yes also continue to tour and record. Howe describes the difficulty of keeping up the pace but loves the fact that he is able to do so.

Read below as Howe discusses why Yes does not need two of their most famous members, vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman anymore. How Howe describes the situation may just surprise you.


Jeb: Asia is 30 years old! You have a new album as well. You are also in Yes. Steve, how do you keep up the pace?

Steve: I don’t know if can! I have been for several years. In 2008, which was two years after Asia started back up with the original lineup, and then Yes kicked in. It has been a tall order and it is not always easy. I respect that it is a great opportunity for me.

Jeb: There is a question that has been bothering me. Asia is a band that works so well with the original four, and not nearly as good without the original four. Yes, however, is a band where everyone, at one time or another, has come and gone, including you, yet it still works. What is the difference between the two?

Steve: It must be personalities. Asia had a long break where we didn’t do anything and Yes has perpetuated all of these years. That has required people to come and go and it has meant we need to get new blood sometimes, as well.

Asia is really quite different as it doesn’t work unless it is the original guys. You could claim the same for Yes and say that we should bring back the original guys, but Bill Bruford is, sadly, retired. Peter Banks and Tony Kaye are both very good musicians, but it wouldn’t be the same as what we do now, or what we did in the past. Yes and Asia are very different kinds of creatures, really.

Jeb: You are able to take your skills and apply them in different ways, which has to, as a guitar player, be nice.

Steve: Yes, but it is not a pushover; it is not easy. It is not quite as easy as you make it sound, but it is okay.

Jeb: The new Asia album is very good. The songs are good and there is a good mix of musical flavors. How did this album come to be? Was it special because it was the 30th anniversary of the band?

Steve: We lucked out going back with Mike Paxman producing this one. It was a clearer time and we had a concise agenda. We knew the label was crying out for an album that was a bit summery and up-tempo. They wanted us to not go into the ballad area, which we are kind of good at, really. We went with it and it was a good time for the writing and the recording.

I do really feel this is a stronger album than both Phoenix and Omega, although there are things on both of those albums that I really like. I also think it is ahead of Alpha.

Jeb: “Tomorrow’s World” is a great track as is “Face on the Bridge,” as is “Judas.” Geoff and John seem to be the main songwriters in Asia; you have a couple of credits, but it is mainly them. Once they bring in a song to the band how does the process continue?

Steve: The producer weighs in his opinion, and it is very respected and usually works. He is the outside guy with the outside ideas who can oversee it. He can see it from the Bird’s Eye view. He avoids us colliding and makes us very efficient about the way we use our time and the way the songs are prepared.

The way we team up on the arrangements is different on different tracks. Quite often Geoff and I have looked at them and messed with them and then Mike looks at them and messes with them, but I must say the writing comes in, in very good shape. We do not have to pull it apart and rearrange the songs. We enjoyed these songs and it really was a lot of teamwork that came together on this album and we really enjoyed that.

Jeb: You are an amazing guitar player but you also get to listen to John Wetton. Since he has gotten healthy again he is sounding like he did thirty years ago. Does he amaze you?

Steve: It impresses me and it amazes me and it makes you love him. We don’t go back and talk about how rough and bumpy it was in the early stages. It was a very slow call to get him capable and healthy and everything like that. We just love that fact that he has been able to do that.

There are a lot of guys who didn’t do that. There are a lot of guys who are not around anymore because they got so trashed out. There are also a lot of guys who are still around and trashed out and are begging for sympathy. They have to do it themselves. They have to crawl out of that hole themselves.

Some of the things that are legal, like alcohol, are so dangerous. Obviously, the drugs that are illegal are dangerous, as well, but so are pharmaceutical drugs. I think there has been a lot of avoidance in the press about legal drugs. I think there is a lot of dependence on these drugs in America, and around the world, and I think it is just not healthy.

It has become almost laughable to be healthy. People will say, “Oh, you’re a vegetarian. You eat health food? I don’t eat that junk.” I think that kind of force has become really negative. I’ve been vegetarian for forty years and it’s done me a lot of good. I am not trying to say I’m Superman and will last forever because I know I won’t.

John has a lot of people who almost gave up on him, but, in the end, he proved he was a real fighter. I don’t think I’ve known anyone that has been able to overcome his types of difficulties. He mostly put himself through it all in the first place, but addictive people are all over the world and John has an addictive personality.

I am really proud to work with John. He is a great lyrist, a great storyteller, a great vocalist and his bass playing is great. He is actually capable of much more on the bass than is needed in Asia. John always provides the bass that is just what Asia needs. We treat John with the utmost regard in all of those areas.

Jeb: How are you going to mix the new songs with the old and still get enough of the first album in to celebrate the anniversary? Has anything been discussed?

Steve: It has been discussed but it has not been resolved. It won’t be an enormous problem. Like Yes, Asia is building a bigger repertoire. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. We, sadly, won’t be playing the whole of the first album every night, as we won’t have time. We may have one show in Japan where we play the whole album. I think if we did that in the States we would clog up our set and not be able to play enough off XXX or Phoenix or Omega. We are only going to dust over the two albums. Basically, we are going to put the focus on the first album and on XXX.

Jeb: Was there ever a time after you left Asia that you thought you would not only be a member of the band again but would be recording new music with them?

Steve: No, no…it seemed it was pretty much dead and buried. Geoff and I stayed in touch. I was able to meter, if you like, when Geoff told me that John was solving all of his problems. When Geoff told me that, it was the first time that I ever had any hope that we may reunite.

As it became quite a popular trend for bands to get back together, I started to think that if John got healthy again then we might be able to do something. I certainly wasn’t shy to do it. As when I went back to Yes the first time, it was a bit of a stop and start type of event. When I rejoined in ’95, I realized that you can re-join a group and make it work. I had the same hopes about Asia.

Jeb: You are not shy about the fact that you are one of the best guitar players ever. You have a huge fan base of guitar players that follow you because of that. With Asia, many argue that you play down and do not give what you give to Yes. How do you deal with that?

Steve: I get asked this question a lot and I don’t mind talking about it at all. I have my own trio where I play solo guitar that is much jazzier than anything I would play in Yes and Asia. However, because I play in all of these bands, I am always flexing and changing my approach. I think I have to kind of turn a switch and it really becomes automatic. People want me to do it all, but it really comes down to the theme and the musical ventures opportunities that each occasion brings.

From the guitarist point of view, I don’t purposely avoid one thing or another. Out of interest, on XXX I did use the Gibson ES175D a lot more than I usual do with Asia. I think that gives the album some strength from the guitar department, as that is a sound that I am often identified with.

I can’t just switch off part of my playing because I’m in a certain environment. Perhaps that is what I learned from Chet Atkins all of those years ago, when I was 13 and I heard Chet play on the first album I bought of his called Teensville. When I heard Chet play, what I imagined was that this guy is already out there and he is cooking. I really admired him.

Chet showed me versatility. He would play jazzy stuff and he played country picking and everything in-between. I wanted to emulate that. I didn’t want to copy him but I wanted to explore what he aroused in my mind about versatility. I love the entire guitar family, therefore, when I go in different bands I don’t particularly go in with one particular style. I like to add color and texture and have different kinds of sounds.

Going back to my first answer, the environment is the most impactive thing for me. It depends where I am in the song and what kind of song it is. Asia clearly requires a certain kind of guitar work. Yes also requires a certain kind of guitar work. I helped invent that, although I give credit to Peter Banks, as he was there before me. Peter had a pretty good approach as to what Yes was. Like me, he played in a broad style, and that is what I do, too. Yes needs that color whereas Asia is slightly more limited. I still can voice my musical influences in Asia anyway that I want.

Jeb: I enjoy that you are a guitarist that thrives on doing different things.

Steve: I really do. I think that comes from when I first listed to pop and rock, which was, at the time, the only world that I knew. My parents had Les Paul and Tennessee Ernie Ford records, which have great guitarists on them. I heard that, but then I heard the pop and rock.

My mother and sister didn’t like it at all and they said I needed to listen to jazz and classical. They didn’t force me to listen to it but I went ahead and did and I realized there was a lot of great guitar playing there. Maybe if I hadn’t done that then I might have taken a different road, but they, along with Chet Atkins, got me there.

Jeb: Your latest album is very classical.

Steve: My latest album, Time, was done with an orchestra and has three classical pieces reinterpreted. I have an arranger and we didn’t want to just do classical pieces, we wanted to do our own compositions as well.

Time took four years to make. I wanted to do an album that I was going to be really proud of. It was done with a lot of boldness. I worked with other writers and we collaborated, but I had the freedom to be the voice and go into the single voice of leadership. The orchestra was built around my guitar parts.

If you don’t own Time then it is time that you got it. It is released on Warner Classic, which is a crossover label, which I am very proud to be on. The album came out in the beginning of the year.

If you go to my website then you can see three songs that I did with the orchestra. We didn’t go the whole hog and make the entire thing classical, but the writing that we did for that is very nice. Anyone reading this interview that enjoys my playing should really check it out.

Jeb: History says that Asia was one of the biggest super groups ever put together. How did you get involved way back when?

Steve: That is a misstatement as Asia was not a put together band. Yes, through our own choices, was defunct at the time. I was sitting in my manager’s office and I had nothing to do. He was talking to John Wetton and he said, “Steve Howe is in my office. Would you like to meet him?”

John and I sat in a room for days and we just blared away. We shared ideas and we talked about how much we loved the theme from The Man with the Golden Arm and we just jammed on stuff. We jammed for a couple of days and then we started writing together. This was the very, very early days of Asia. We wrote “Here Comes that Feeling” and “Without You” and I was playing John things like “One Step Closer” in its embryonic stage.

John said, “I’d really like to work with Carl Palmer, as I think he is a great drummer.” So, we reached out to Carl Palmer. I said that I’d really like to work with Geoff but they said, “We just want to keep it a three piece.” I said that they had to hear what Geoff does. We went into a room with Geoff and they walked out and said, “You were right.”

It was not a business decision to form Asia. It was actually respectful musicians trying to get great guys to play with them. I think that clarifies it a bit. It was called a Super Group and everybody thought that we were put together, but it actually started with John and I and then we sort of spread our wings with Carl and Geoff.

Jeb: In 1982, people were not lining up to buy Asia’s style of music. Did the initial sales shock you?

Steve: I don’t think we were shocked, we were delighted. We were very elated about it. The record has a great producer in Mike Stone. He was a real strength. Roger Dean came in and did the cover. David Geffen came in and saw the entire package of the cover, the songwriting and the sound of the record and he said, “This band is going to do it.”

When we came out, we were launched by the record company. It was really inspired by the quality of what we had done and the fact that we delivered, to Geffen, a really solid record. In a way, it was more about great packaging and bulldozing us out there during a time when the industry was starting to lend itself towards digi-drums and stuff that didn’t really have a lot to do with what we were.

Asia was very fortunate that we weren’t overly Prog. We weren’t really arty and farty. We didn’t allow ourselves any indulgences on that record; there were no indulgences on that album at all. We, basically, tightened up the ship and came out and it floated. We were really, really pleased.

The scale of the acceptance and the scale of the success nearly pushed us over the edge. It was a hard act to follow. We shouldn’t have tried for a few years. Some of these record executives – I’m not talking about David Geffen—but some of these other guys pushed us a lot to hurry out with a second record. It was the worst thing they could have done, as it created a rush to put out Alpha. But, the first album…it was great and that is what we are celebrating.

Jeb: “Heat of the Moment” starts out with a big, bombastic guitar part. It is not typical Steve Howe type playing. Do you remember coming up with that big, distorted guitar opening?

Steve: It was really nice for me take something like that find a way to present it. I played it on a Gibson Les Paul Junior, single cut away from 1955. We blew up a few amps recording that because we tracked it several times. After two or four times, you get a bit tired of tracking.

At one point there was smoke in the studio. I said, “Something is smoking. My amp is burning.” We actually burned it up. We tried the guitar out of three or four different amps. We used powerful amps and funky amps and other amps and when we put it all together it made that really strong sound. It is a very key part of the song. Basically, it came right from John and Geoff’s song and it was just how I interpreted it.

Jeb: For my last question, I am going to switch over to your other band Yes. I saw you guys with the new singer and he is amazing. But Yes fans want to know if they will ever see the day when Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson all play together as Yes again?

Steve: Well, how in the hell do I know? I wouldn’t particularly say that it is on the agenda. People have said the cliché like we have burned bridges and all of that.

We are realistic people, so in the sense of realism, for Yes to evolve, we had to be a strong group and we had to have people who were committed to it to warrant a position in the band. In other words, if you come in and say to Yes, “I play the drums but in Yes I am going to play the bongos.” We would say, “But we want a drummer.”

You’ve got to be able to provide the full story. What Yes needs now, and we’ve proved this by doing Awaken and America, is that everybody in this group needs to accept that we look at the entire career of this group. We don’t just look at little pockets when certain people were in the group—we don’t do that anymore. We look at the group as a whole. Of course, we do focus a lot on the ‘70’s but there were a few lineups there.

In a way, that is the commitment. It is not about Jon and Rick now. It is about who can do these tours and who can perform the repertoire from 1968 to 2012. If you can do that then you have an opportunity to be in Yes. I’m not going to say Rick and Jon can’t do that. I will say that I don’t think that is what they want to do. But that is what Yes demands. We want artists who can come in and perform with an open heart right across the board. I guess that is the key to it.

Jeb: Your new singer, Jon Davidson…WOW. I will just end it by saying that. WOW.

Steve: Yeah, I say the same thing! He is capable and he has a very rich sounding voice. He was a great find.