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(Credits: Far Out / Gottliebbros)


Far Out Meets: Steve Howe discusses ballads, Beatles and playing guitar with Queen

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted, completed and written before the death of Alan White. As such, the interview represents a musician who was still thriving in the present, and Steve Howe’s answers reflect that. In order to be truthful to the intent of the interview, we have reproduced the piece as it was intended to be released. Jay Schellen will perform in White’s place for the upcoming Close to the Edge tour, which now doubles as a tribute to White.

Steve Howe is disappointed in Brexit. He’s disappointed that his country’s vote has made it harder for him to travel to Europe with Yes – the pioneering progressive outfit who have carried the banner through seven singular, disparate decades – where he can learn more about his culture. And mostly he’s disappointed because he senses how much of an impediment it’s putting on my native Ireland.

Yes aren’t particularly known for their political proclamations – they’re too recondite for that – but Howe sounds almost apologetic discussing the situation that is pushing England and Ireland further apart after decades spent reconciling past wounds. Because any guitarist of Howe’s stature – whether it’s playing the bellowing riff for ‘Heat of The Moment’, or guesting on Innuendo, Queen’s most satisfying album since 1982 – shouldn’t feel duty-bound to apologise for anything, especially since his back catalogue is rich with contrast and dense, diverse guitar hooks.

“I have a good memory,” he chuckes, which comes in handy, because I’m interested in hearing about everything from Tomorrow to Asia, by way of a possible quote about Rory Gallagher. Howe says he must have performed with Gallagher on a select number of occasions, but admires the musician’s approach to guitar. The Cork native made an impression on the world, inspiring everyone from Brian May to Andy Partridge. In an interview with Far Out, May revealed that Gallagher gifted him his “sound”, and although Howe can’t regurgitate the sentiment, he is happy to name three formative musicians that inspired him to pick up his instrument and soar.

Steve Howe names his three favourite guitar players

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“Well, if I’m to give you three, I’ll go with Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery,” Howe reveals. “Chet Atkins was a great country player, and came up with a great country picking style; he played on The Everly Brothers stuff. But he also made a lot of great solo records, and was a very versatile player, so he inspired me to become a versatile musician.” As it happens, I recognise Atkins for his work with Mark Knopfler, the former Dire Straits frontman who has spent much of his solo work dedicated to replicating troubled instrumental passages, that honour the Celtic traditions (Local Hero and Cal are exhilarating in their ambition).

But given the crackled line – Howe’s calling from England, while I’m typing in Dublin – I ask if it’s the same Atkins who performed with Knopfler. “You’re absolutely right,” Howe says, sounding impressed at my knowledge. “Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins teamed up on a few occasions. But over time, I came to pick up other influences, such as Albert Lee. But the three guitarists – Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery – were very good musicians. I discovered Les Paul through a collection of 78’s my parents had, and they were very inventive records. And Wes Montgomery was an incredible jazz guitarist.” Howe says he’s looking forward to the upcoming Yes gig because they haven’t been to “Ireland in years”.

Yes are due to perform in Vicar St. on June 22nd, bolstered by Jon Davison’s scintillating vocals. Yes mainstay Geoff Downes will be familiar to fans of the band, but the group also boasts Billy Sherwood, who has adeptly filled in for the late Chris Squire since 2015. Yes have always been interesting, because they didn’t write from the perspective of a keyboardist (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis) or a lead guitarist (Pink Floyd, Rush), but tailored the music to accommodate for both instruments.

Listening to The Quest – Yes’s most recently produced work – Howe and Downes work as if creating a dialogue, allowing one person to speak, before another takes over, and brings the conversation to another point. Howe and Downes have form, having worked in Yes and Asia, creating some of the more indelible hooks in British rock. I ask Howe what Downes is like to work with.

“That’s a loose question,” he says, humming to find the appropriate response to the question. And then he steadies himself: “I first started working with him in 1979. It was during the Drama album. He’s a great musician: Geoff was using samples long before they were popular, and these days he can play his stuff, or Tony Kaye’s stuff, or anything Yes does.”

Howe vouched for the keyboardist to bandmates Carl Palmer and John Wetton, and the quartet formed Asia, a confluence of prog, pop and blues hooks, laced under one tidy banner. The last to join, Downes was also the only member to play on every Asia release, but Howe sounds buoyant when he recalls the 2006 concerts that reunited the original four members.

“Geoff sang a lot of high parts, and I sang a lot of lower harmonies. I did a lot of singing on ‘One Step Closer’, so it’s almost like a duo. There’s a lot of good harmonies on the first album, but there was less on the second album, because it was so distanced from the original. I didn’t do much singing on that one – I probably wasn’t invited to either.”

Howe’s joking, although he’s more serious when he says the record label seemed to highlight Geoff Downes and John Wetton as the writers, when the band was a more sophisticated cocktail of past influences, spanning pop, prog, blues, ballad and Beatlesque melody. “I tell you what we didn’t sing on was ‘Heat of The Moment’,” Howe reveals. “John wanted to sing all the harmonies himself for that one, so he did.”

No doubt inspired by The Beatles, Howe’s work dipped into the far corners of rock, each riff and harmony vocal pushing the expectations of the audience in question. He’s clearly a fan of their work, although I sense his eyebrows are arching when I tell him that when someone asks me to play “something” on guitar, I play the opening chords to the George Harrison standard. It’s a groaner of a joke, but it does lead us on to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, a pulsating ballad Tomorrow – a 1960s power group that Howe was a part of – re-produced in a style that was more barren, brusque and rollicking.

“I don’t remember too much about it,” he chuckles. “But it’s a Beatles song, so it’s hard to go wrong with it? It wasn’t really characteristic of what Tomorrow was doing, but I liked the sound of it. It’s easy to do a good song in a variety of different ways.” And what of his work on ‘Innuendo’, the storming Queen that was arguably more powerful than the equally ambitious ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?

“Queen played me the Innuendo album, but they saved the ‘Innuendo’ track until last,” Howe admits. “John Deacon wasn’t there: it was Brian, Roger and Freddie. Brian had formulated all these parts on the sort of Gibson guitar that I played, and asked me to play on the track. Maybe Brian didn’t feel up to it, but I’m sure he could have come up with something.”

Ultimately Howe wasn’t going to turn down a challenge of this magnitude. “I think they wanted something like Paco de Lucia, but I can’t play like de Lucia. But I’m a player, so I was happy to improvise something, so I did.” It’s a distinction Howe should be proud of: John Deacon, Roger Taylor and Freddie Mercury each played guitar on record, but Howe might be only person outside of their orbit to lay down a guitar backing.

And the guitars bristle against the backdrop, padding the way for the ferocious frenzy of drums to follow. “I realised early on that my music is defined by the drummers,” Howe explains. “I learned it from people like `(Tomorrow’s) Twink and John Melton, who played in my first band, The Syndicats.” His son, Dylan Howe, provides the backbone for much of his solo output, lacing the work with a selection of muscular back pedals, in a style that feels like a hybrid of Carl Palmer’s barrelling, backpedals and Bill Bruford’s more nuanced style of drumming.

And then there’s Alan White, who has served as percussionist for Yes, fleshing out the band’s melodies with a selection of bouncy, Beatlesque, drum fills (fittingly, White played on John Lennon’s Imagine album, including THAT song.) “Alan isn’t a showman like Carl is,” Howe explains. “But he has great stage presence. Carl’s a real powerhouse of a drummer, and he’s different to Bill Bruford, who’s more of a minimalist player.” Howe points out that the stage layout is deceptive: Drummers traditionally sit behind the singers and guitarists, yet they count the beat in, cementing the soundscape for the frontmen to strut their stuff. “Secretly,” he chuckles, “they’re leading everybody.”

His comment makes sense: In the Get Back series, John Lennon and Paul McCartney look back at Ringo Starr to count them in, just as they prepare themselves to sing in front of an astonished audience, walking across the streets of London. “And the real star there is Billy Preston,” Howe replies. “The cameras don’t show him on the roof, which is a pity, because he changed the way The Beatles were rehearsing. A lot of the chord shapes were inspired by Billy. He was not unlike Stevie Wonder in that way.”

But no matter the importance of drummers, Howe agrees with Bill Bruford – whom Far Out interviewed before speaking to Howe – that nobody has “the complete upper hand.” This brings us to The Quest, which to my ears, is the best Yes album of the last 15 years.

The guitars are crisp and warm; the keyboards are coiled and sensible, and then there’s a sense of journey to the lyrics that fit the album title. Howe explains that while the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t ideal, technology made it easier for the group to record The Quest. “It’s all changed during the last ten, 15 years,” he says. “Sharing files has made things easier. Tony Levin sent me over half of the bass for my solo album, Spectrum. Fantastic.”

Howe is credited as producer, a task he stepped up to for the sake of the work in question. “We needed an inhouse filterer and producer,” he says, explaining they needed a “guy who was there gathering the ideas.”

Everyone chipped in from their studios, and Howe credits bassist Billy Sherwood with composing some of the keyboard hooks on the album. “He’s probably the most well-rounded musician,” the guitarist explains, pinpointing his harmony vocals, and strong ear for melody. “He was initially only supposed to fill in while Chris Squire was in hospital, but sadly Chris passed away, so it was a fairly intimidating position for Billy.”

Sherwood needn’t have worried: The Quest showcases a bass player who honours the work of his immediate predecessor but imbues a great deal of his own personality into the work. The album is flush with potential and opportunity, creating a sense of atmosphere that will compensate for the Brexit vote that has disappointed many, including the guitarist.

Ever the professionals, it’s unlikely that this setback will be an impediment for the fans, and buoyed by the importance of legacy and legend, Yes are no doubt prepared for the challenge ahead of them. And unlike the Brexit vote that has caused many in England to question their future, Yes are comfortable in their abilities to carry the legacy on into the future.

I ask Howe what Yes fans can expect from the upcoming gigs, and whether or not the band are going to use pyrotechnics. “We know how to present ourselves,” he replies, “We’re not just going out with just amps.” Howe says the band will use “animation” onstage, but the lighting will be arranged in such a way to show Yes for all their glory. And judging by the recent album, the finished results should be glorious.

Postscript: This piece was conducted and written before Alan White’s untimely death. Yes’ Close to the Edge tour will begin on June 15th, and will perform across Britain and Ireland. The band are dedicating the tour to the departed drummer.