Music Interview: Prog-rocker Billy Sherwood and His Passion for Yes

“Hey, the more Yes music being played in 2016, the better.”

YES, circa 2015. Photo: Glenn Gottlieb

Yes, circa 2015. L-R: Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison, Steve Howe, Alan White, and Geoff Downes. Photo: Glenn Gottlieb

By Brett Milano

Billy Sherwood occupies a special place in the tangled geneology of prog-rock stalwarts Yes: The first American to join the lineup, he’s been in the band three different times on three different instruments — first as backup keyboardist in 1994, then as second guitarist/backup singer in 1997. In both cases he was there at the behest of Chris Squire, Yes’ bassist and cofounder, who made Sherwood his main collaborator for projects outside Yes.

Sadly Squire became ill with leukemia and died in May of last year, insisting the band carry on with Sherwood in his bass slot. This means there are no founding members left in Yes; guitarist Steve Howe is the only one remaining from the ‘70s (longtime drummer Alan White, who’s undergoing back surgery, is on leave). Still, Yes will hit the Lynn Auditorium on August 4 with a dream setlist for diehards: They’ll be playing all of 1980’s new-wave influenced album Drama (the first with current keyboardist Geoff Downes) and two sides of 1973’s epic double album Tales From Topographic Oceans. Meanwhile three of Yes’ most famous alumni — founding singer Jon Anderson, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and guitarist Trevor Rabin — have launched a rival band, ARW, that plays the Wang Theatre in the fall.

Arts Fuse spoke by phone to Billy Sherwood on the eve of the Yes tour.

Arts Fuse: You and Chris Squire were friends and longtime collaborators, so I would guess that there were a lot of tough emotions around stepping into his bass slot.

Billy Sherwood: Yes. When things started happening I had just recorded Chris for an album I was making, called Citizen. I hung out with him in Arizona. He was in great shape and we had a good visit. We were supposed to get together to do some writing and he told me, “I have a problem with my white blood cell count, it’s not so good.” At that time they were going to do the Yes/Toto tour and I said to him, “Well, you’re Chris –They’re just going to have to wait for you.” A couple days later we reiterated that conversation, and the third time he called me he said, “Look, we have to talk to (the band) about this.” I kept saying “Don’t talk that way, you’ll make it back,” but he was more in touch with his situation than I was willing to be. I was pretty taken aback at what he was asking me to do, but he was adamant about wanting Yes to go forward. Six months later we lost him. The first show was pretty strange, I was having to hold onto my emotions and that’s been a constant thing. But I have a passion for Yes and always have, so here I am.

AF: Yes is doing another full-album tour this year, but in the past the albums have been the most commercially popular ones. Now you’re doing Drama and Tales From Topographic Oceans. Serious fans love that album, but with four 20-minute tracks it didn’t get much airplay.

Sherwood: Just thinking of myself, it’s my favorite of all Yes albums. I grew up with pop music and I’d been listening to a lot of R&B, the Ohio Players.Then I discovered progressive rock and I heard Yes. And nothing grabbed me as much as Topographic — Maybe because it was the summer and I was jet skiing on the lake in Arizona. But it was super intriguing to me, how a band could put out a double album with only four songs. I had the patience to start connecting all the themes, and it became a real important album to me. The band is known for taking chances and this is great music to play. And when we finally hit Relayer I will be super charged up.

AF: You really think you’ll eventually do Relayer [the 1974 album that followed Topographic]? For fans who prefer the band’s most progressive and challenging side, that’s really the ultimate Yes album.

Sherwood: Hey, I’m up for anything, you just have to get it past the other guys. This is still a democracy in a lot of ways. I’m up for making a new album as well, but right now it’s a delicate time — we just lost Chris a year ago, so rushing back to the studio isn’t really the point. I’d rather people get to see what this lineup is capable of.

AF: You were involved in a mixing capacity with the last Yes album, Heaven & Earth. It’s safe to say that the fans weren’t all delighted with that one.

Sherwood: Yeah, but I think that’s a great record in its way; like every Yes album it has its own unique trademark. The politics of the day will always determine how people view music. When I joined the band in the ‘90s, I went in with the best intentions and we came out with Open Your Eyes — I know that one wasn’t very well received either. But that’s the politics again: Rick Wakeman had just left the band, and people didn’t understand what was going on. We all have our favorites, but I don’t draw a hard line between anything a band might do musically. And I’ve had this very same conversation with Genesis fans who refuse to listen to anything they did after Peter Gabriel left.

AF: Speaking of such, there will be dueling Yesses on the road this year, with ARW going on tour. Is the official Yes concerned about that?

Sherwood: I can’t speak for anyone else in the band, but I’m not. Hey, the more Yes music being played in 2016, the better.

Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat. His latest book is Don’t All Thank Me At Once (125 Records), a biography of the unsung pop genius Scott Miller, who led the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts