Interviews & Features

Steve Howe Stays Positive

Yes guitarist talks about his son’s death, their new album and, yes, Yes too 

By Gary Graff
December 15, 2017

This should by all rights be a celebratory time for Steve Howe. Back in April, the veteran guitarist was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Yes and has the group’s 50th anniversary looming in 2018. And in the fall he released Nexus, a duo album with his multi-instrumentalist son Virgil. But the year took a dark turn on September 11, when Virgil died unexpectedly at the age of 41. So it’s with a sad but stiff upper lip that Howe calling from his home in London resolved to make sure the gentle, ruminative Nexus, and Virgil, get their due and also make sure that Yes’ upcoming anniversary is truly golden…

FGPO: Nexus obviously means something different now than was intended when you made it. What are your thoughts about the album?

Howe: It’s become kind of a memorial to him, his legacy. It’s hard to kind of think about it at first; we thought: ‘Well, shall we hold off?’ But we decided to go ahead with it, and it’s a great opportunity to pay homage to him, because this is a side of his work which is largely unreleased and unknown, this pianistic approach. Basically nobody knew that was something he had, and this kind of puts it out there for people to hear.

FGPO: Can you listen to it? Is it a sad experience now?

Howe: You know, it gives me pleasure because it’s very warm. It’s a record that’s made with great pleasantry and great ambitions and didn’t have an endless amount of problems. Now it’s had a big problem, if you like, in the fact that Virgil can’t be here to see the reaction, but basically I enjoy it immensely.

FGPO: What was it you set out to do with Nexus?

Howe: We have worked together quite a lot, in different ways; for instance he’s also the drummer on 11 of the tracks on the third CD of the Anthology Vol. 2: Groups and Collaborations. But what happened is he’d been giving us these tunes over the years. He’d be like: “Look dad, I’ve got a new tune,” and I would be: “That’s nice. That’s really nice.” So in 2016, I compiled all these, and I said: “Well, you’ve got absolutely loads of them. Why don’t I pick the ones I feel I can play on more or less immediately, ’cause they’re so open for a guitar contribution.” He said: “You’d like to do that? If you’d like to play on them, fantastic.” So I started to get tracks down and just find ways of bringing a guitar texture in a way I wasn’t just providing one sound but, like him, I was providing a sort of textural approach to the album. It was a very joyful record. It’s a very gentle sort of musical invitation, if you like.

FGPO: So you were kind of a sideman in this endeavor, in a way.

Howe: We shared the writing. Primarily he did most of it, but obviously I brought a melodicness, and some of the ideas I brought and some was developing his ideas. It’s the kind of record I can adapt myself to because there’s an opening and it was a pretty big opening, so I could bring things to it that he hadn’t thought about yet, or just some textures.

FGPO: Talk a little bit about how he approached these songs and how you reacted to what he’d done.

Howe: I’m very used to working with somebody who says: “Look, I got this far with this. What happens now?” He’d say to me: “How about this track?” and I thought: “Well, if you had some sort of George Benson sort of guitar on this it would be good.” So I did things like that, stylistically, and I’d jammed on things of Virgil’s before, so this was fairly easy ’cause I could hear the melodies. It is a bit like: I’m a session guy, but I’m kind of there in developing the framework. On something like “Leaving Aurora,” for instance, I heard Spanish guitar. I didn’t hear the electric, I didn’t hear steel, so I go with those instincts about: “Well, what’s the texture here? How about if I did this?” and if they work I move on and never really look back. It’s really been easy working with (older son and Yes second drummer) Dylan and Virgil, always, on their projects, and it’s always been so special.

FGPO: How did a guitar virtuoso like yourself wind up raising drummers?

Howe: [laughs] Yes, isn’t it funny? For a long time, I didn’t say, but originally I kind of fancied the drums myself. Of course I took to the guitar, but in the back of my mind it was always there, and then we got a drum kit in the mid-70s, which started Dylan off. He took it very seriously after awhile, and then Virgil kind of joined in his footsteps, although he was always the keyboard guy in our trio, ’cause there was a Moog synthesizer in the house and he loved the sound of it from the time he was a young child. But I love drums and there’s a very substantial connection, and of course over the years I’ve worked with Bill Bruford, one of the most astounding drummers and one of the most individual drummers and unlike other rock drummers. I think that affected Dylan and Virgil both; Dylan in particular had lessons from Bill and a few tips from Carl Palmer. Of course I liked Chico Hamilton and Art Blakey and other jazz drummers all the way along. I played with Aynsley Dunbar and people like that. I was always connecting with drummers, and maybe that spilled across.

FGPO: Is there more material from Virgil that might see the light of day?

Howe: There is. Initially when I said to him: “Look, you’ve got all these tracks,’ it was about 20 or so.” So since Virgil’s passed away, I’ve done an update on what’s around. There’s a fair bit of material there that could be developed into the same sort of area, ’cause I wouldn’t like it to be too radically different (than ‘Nexus’). But basically there is sufficient music for another adventure.

FGPO: Yes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April. How was that?

Howe: I must admit, that took our breath away a little bit. It was a lot of people in the room, and the television broadcast and I wanted to make it a strength for Yes, a dignified thing. The award is quite special, I must say. It’s a one-time invitation. You don’t get it twice. It’s a fairly big deal, and I think we got through it fairly unscathed.

FGPO: You distinguished yourself by playing bass, something we haven’t seen you do before, on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.”

Howe: I can’t explain how I ended up doing it, but I was very proud in the end. I learned every single note Chris [Squire] played, every little fill he did, and I did them all. But then I duck-walked to celebrate Chuck Berry at the end because I come from a rock background, and Chuck Berry means so much to me. He was the first rock guitarist I could really understand. He had the package — the songs, the singing and that guitar style, so I paid my own little tribute to Chuck. But mostly I thought it was an honor and a privilege to play Chris’ part note-for-note.

FGPO: Everybody was warm and friendly that night, but right after was when Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Trevor Rabin announced they were changing their group’s name to Yes featuring the three of them. That was kind of bad form, don’t you think?

Howe: [sighs]  I don’t say a lot about this — sometimes I don’t say anything. That’s an unstoppable force to us, and to some extent we welcome this. They’re quite entitled to do it. Anybody can play the music; if they want to get up on the stage they can do anything, so why wouldn’t guys that have been in Yes want to do that? I can’t say a lot about it, because we don’t want to put any fuel on any fires. We don’t want to fuel any flames. We basically have a discretionary agreement that they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. They’re not gonna change their mind because of what we think, but in a way only time will tell if they did the right thing. All I can say is…good luck to them.

FGPO: So what’s on the docket for Yes in 2018?

Howe: Well, we have our cruise early next year, and we’re doing England and Europe after that, which will really kick our 50th anniversary into gear. Those will be part of our Album Series shows, doing the [Tales Of Topographic Oceans] excerpts that we did in the States [during 2016]. Then in the summer, June and July, we’ll do a sort of witched-on 50th tour for America and bring some music we feel is important and isn’t necessarily music we’ve been playing a lot. We’ve already got a short list of, say, three or four songs that we haven’t been playing for a long time and would be nice to bring back, and maybe even step outside of Yes, just to the peripheral of Yes, too. We’re making those decisions now.

FGPO: Any prospects for new Yes music?

Howe: We’ve got an interim period where we’re going to be fairly secretive about what we’re up to. Maybe we’re building up repertoire for future projects, but we can’t say. We’ve got ideas. It’s going to be 10 years of this lineup with Alan [White] and Geoff Downes and Billy Sherwood and Jon Davison. There’s an interesting freshness about our band that I think keeps the flame burning.