Photograph by Deborah Anderson
On Saturday, August 16, Jon Anderson, the longtime vocalist of Yes, will perform at a School of Rock benefit at the Chesterfield Amphitheatre. It’s a long day of music, with young bands that have come out of the program also taking part. The evening culminates with an under-19 band performing with Anderson, who’ll be in town this week for rehearsals with his special backing group. (Details can be found at the bottom of this piece.)
Last week, Anderson was good enough to take part in a nice, long, unhurried interview in advance of the show. While some musicians at his career point might offer an interview slot of 10 minutes, or less, Anderson said right off the bat that he figured on talking for 30 minutes; it’s quite likely that he would’ve shared stories beyond that, if so requested. Possessed of a unique singing voice, the tone of his spoken voice is similar in pitch, completely singular.
While a reader can’t hear that in the interview below, what one can (hopefully) detect is certain humility. Anderson enjoys a reputation for being expansive in his interviews and a decent guy, in general. Nearly half an hour into a conversation with him, both of those traits proved true. Cool dude.
How did this particular show come together?
I worked with the original School of Rock about 10 or 12 years ago, in partnership with the one in New York. Working with these young musicians, 11 to 15 years old, was an amazing experience for me. They wanted to do Yes songs, Zappa music. Music that they love: Led Zeppelin, the Beatles. For me, it was a great experience, working with young people. I couldn’t believe they’re so good. I was so excited about this, we actually did some touring, four or five shows, which we did every year for four years. Then the franchise [went] all over America. The company arranging the franchise changed, but I always kept in touch with some of the people there, and I told them that whenever they had a show with young musicians, I’d like to be involved. It’s a part of giving back. I’m so lucky to be giving back. I like working with musicians who are so excited and I’m able to teach them a little bit about stagecraft; or I’ll tell them to slow down a bit, they tend to play very fast. When you’re putting the act together, you rehearse for three or four days to get organized. As I understand it, this show is going to feature other bands performing on that night. It’s going to be wild and wonderful.
So these kids are actually playing Yes songs with you?
That’s the idea. We’re just going to make it a part of their show. I’ll come on for 30 or 40 minutes, up to an hour, and will play with them. That’s part of the project. From what I understand, there’s also a more impromptu thing with some local people the night before, along with a meet-and-greet. I’ll play a couple of songs and will answer questions. It’ll be a really fun week.
I have to say, I’m wondering about kids playing Yes songs. Those are some complex works.
Yeah, it knocks you back on your heels. They’ve listened to the records, they’ve rehearsed and played them. You can help them and make sure it sounds good. Certain things are quite right. But I’ll tell them, “the vocals, come on and sing a bit stronger, dance around a bit.” It’s more of a fun experience. The idea is that some of them will evolve in the music business and develop. I’m still in touch with people I worked with 10 years ago.
I’d guess that it’s often parents who are more excited to meet you than their kids.
I like to take a half-hour after to relax. I’m just a regular person. I love making music. It’s the same for kids as the parents. These people are excited to meet you. It’d be exciting for me to meet Paul McCartney. So I know the feeling. I make sure that everyone realizes “let’s have fun and make some good music.”
Do you have accompaniment for the solo shows?
No, I just do solo work. Guitar and ukulele and piano. I sing songs that I like, that touch my life. We’ll start a tour in October. I get to tell stories, that’s the fun part. Instead of just singing, I’ll tell stories. I have so many that are crazy and funny. It’s my own one man show. If I could juggle, I’d like to add that.
The most-known songs are all still enjoyable for you to sing?
I love singing the songs I wrote for Yes, some of the ones done with Vangelis. Of course, I’ll play “Roundabout,” “Starship Trooper.” I love singing them, I’ve got no problem with them.
How do you go about picking tracks from such a large catalog?
Gosh, I think we did 12 albums with Yes. So you can’t revisit everything. I’m starting a band with Jean-Luc Ponty, do you know him? [Assent.] Well, we’re starting a band. In September, I’m going to Aspen and we’ll go through a list of songs, including those I never had a chance to do with Yes, so Yes fans will be very surprised with them. We won’t do whole songs in some cases, just snippets. The interesting thing with Jean-Luc is that I’ve been listening to his classic albums, his greatest hits and started singing to them. It’s a very exciting time to be starting a band.
How else to ask this? At this point in your life, did you envision yourself starting a whole new project?
I had a break from Yes for a few years. I got pretty sick and when I recuperated, I started doing solo shows. In traveling the world with my wife, we had so much enjoyment. It was an adventure in life. At the same time, I write music constantly. I opened the door on my website once, saying that I wanted auditioners. This was six, seven years ago. I got in touch with a couple of dozen players and I’m still working with some of them on different projects: musicals, music for children, some symphonic work. I’m not sitting around pretending to be a rock star. I don’t think I am. I’m an adventurous musician.
You mentioned the response your fans give you in different places. There has to be time, or two, when even you’re surprised by the strength of your support in a certain place.
Yeah, I’m always surprised. There’s a pocket of 500 to 1,000 avid Yes fans in any major city. I’ve never performed in Africa, China, or India. I dream of being able to perform in all of these places. I was in Australia earlier last year. It was wonderful to perform to 500 people who sing along, like the stories. You realize that Yes music has reached a lot of people, especially in the ’70s and ’80s. We were number one around the world with 90125 and have sold around 30 million records. That’s touching a lot of people. And then there’s the Internet, of course.
Where are the most enthusiastic fans?
Gosh, yeah, there was a tour of Argentina. A dozen shows. The people went crazy. I was standing there with a guitar, seriously having a great time. I’ve been to Japan a couple of times. I had a wonderful time in Iceland. There was a concert with a local band, very famous in Iceland, Todmobil. We did Icelandic Yes music with a full orchestra in a beautiful, big opera house. I was actually just watching a video of that on YouTube yesterday. It was “Awaken,” one of the most-beautiful pieces written by Yes in the late ’70s. It’s a magical piece of music, a very famous Yes song and it got a great reaction.
I found out about Yes like a lot of kids my age, watching “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on MTV, when in high school. I imagine that story's true for many. But can you talk about “finding” stories from fans? You have to hear all kinds of stories from people about how they came to your work.
It happens. It’s interesting that some people will request songs that I did with Vangelis. That [project] didn’t sell that well in this market. But it did well in Canada, all over Europe and the Far East. I’ll do a show and someone will ask for that music. There’s “Legend.” Someone may say, “I remember that song you sung with this band called Tangerine Dream and I found out you were a singer in a band called Yes. And that day, my life totally changed.” There’s this incredible history of Yes music and it’s not always about “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” There’re young people coming to me after shows. They bring the “Closer to the Edge” album and say the music really helped them. Well, it was made with harmony and a feeling of adventure. It wasn’t to do with radio or making money. It was to do with making music, and having an adventure in life. When you got that record, there’d never been anything close to it.
Can you talk a bit about the songs and their length?
I think that’s what started the band. I’m really into structure in a song. You can do it in a nine-minute song, or a 10-minute one. The way we started doing songs, like “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper,” we realized that we were making songs for live performance, rather than making them for radio. In ’70, ’71, especially, FM radio really came over big in America. We were touring a lot of university gigs and those stations were playing all of these songs from Close to the Edge without blinking. This was so cool, as we were making longer forms of music. We felt we had a vehicle to present this music. Sadly, within some years, most of them stopped. There was no revenue from advertising songs that go on. We, as a band, said we wouldn’t play four-minute songs. We created music for stage, and for the musically adventurous. As entertainment, we could go perform in front of 20,000 people, and they’d sit and really listen. That was the adventure for our band.
I have to say this: I heard the song “Love Will Find a Way” on YouTube some weeks back and I keep listening to it. Do you like the songs from that pop era of 90125 and Big Generator? Do you play them?
Yeah, I still like the songs. I don’t perform them that much, because I wasn’t as involved in the writing of those. I sing the songs that I created or when I wrote on the song. There’s actually a beautiful song that Trevor Rabin and I wrote, and just yesterday I was working on songs, to get chord structures right through rehearsal. That’s one that actually would work onstage, as well. But there are songs more important to perform. I could be up there for five hours.
I re-found “Love Will Find a Way” through YouTube. Do you enjoy that way of listening to music?
Correct. That’s what I do. If I want to hear a song, say a Sting song, I’ll go to YouTube. Or I’ll go listen to something of a technique; like water drumming. There are people who play percussion on the water, using its surface for their drumming. The world is full of incredible music.
One last thing. Do you have any direct mental connections to St. Louis? Any specific memories?
It’s funny, I do remember this theater in St. Louis. It was probably one of the best two gigs we did in America. I cannot think of the name of it. [We trade names, like the Ambassador, the Arena, the American, before he recognizes Kiel Auditorium.] It was the Kiel, a very solid-looking building. Boston Garden was also one of the great rock 'n’roll places. But Kiel Auditorium was always a place for great shows. The energy was magical when we were playing that venue from ’71–’76.
From the organizers: “The School of Rock U-19 Bash is a one-day musical event showcasing many of St. Louis’ under-19 musical talent while raising funds for the national organization, The Rock School Scholarship Fund. The event will also serve as a drop zone to help raise back-to-school supplies for KidSmart. The highlight of the Bash will be the inclusion of two special performances with the School of Rock House Band. Steve Ewing, lead singer and the front man of The Urge will perform a special set of Police songs. The end of the evening will include a closing set with Jon Anderson, the iconic voice of Yes, one of the ‘70s most influential bands in rock-and-roll.” Ticket and time info can be found here.