Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Politics of Prog: Billy Sherwood on Yes, Asia and World Trade

Bill Sherwood (far left) with Yes

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Billy Sherwood might just be the busiest man in music.

At the time of my call to him late last month, he was just beginning his latest round of rehearsals with Yes, the band he first played with in the ’90s as a guitarist and rejoined in 2015 to fill the full-time shoes of late bassist Chris Squire. The night before our chat, he wrapped up a tour fronting Asia – filling the bassist/vocalist role left by the early 2017 passing of the legendary John Wetton – that saw them perform a series of dates with Journey. Additionally, his enormously full plate includes promoting Unify, the third album (and first in 22 years) by his band World Trade.

Released on August 4 by Frontiers Music, Unify is an exceptional collection of AOR magic that finds World Trade’s original lineup (Sherwood, guitarist Bruce Gowdy, keyboardist Guy Allison and drummer Mark T. Williams – son of legendary composer John Williams and brother of Toto singer Joseph Williams) recording new music together for the first time since their eponymous 1989 debut album. (Gowdy and Allison also currently play with reunited ’90s rockers Unruly Child, who will be the subject of a feature on this website in the very near future.) Last year, Sherwood reconnected with his longtime collaborator, original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, to release Valley Of The Windmill, the latest album from their project, Circa. On top of all of that, he also works as an in-demand producer/engineer – a role perhaps most notable to Hard Rock/Metal fans for his time spent cleaning up the notorious original mix of Queensr├┐che’s 2013 album, Frequency Unknown.

Sherwood’s first stint in Yes can be heard on the albums Open Your Eyes (1997), The Ladder (1999) and House Of Yes: Live From House Of Blues (2000). His current work with the band comes at an interesting time in their storied career. As of this writing, two versions of the group exist: One version (billed as Yes) features Sherwood, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Geoff Downes, singer Jon Davison and drummers Alan White and Dylan Howe; the other features original singer Jon Anderson, on-again/off-again keyboard master Rick Wakeman and mid ’80s – mid ’90s guitarist Trevor Rabin under the unsurprising moniker “YES Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman.” (Last spring, Yes issued the following statement on the matter: “While Jon Anderson has rights to use the name as one of the co-owners of the trademark, Yes’ position is that every effort should be made by promoters, ticket agencies and all involved to respect Yes’ magnificent and loyal fan base and minimize confusion regarding the use of YES Featuring Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman.”) We discuss this peculiar situation – and much more – in the following interview.

It’s been a long time since we’ve heard new music from World Trade. What brought about the reconvening of the band to go ahead and do this new record?

It was really a matter of the label stepping up and asking [us] to do it. I was doing records for Frontiers, who I work for quite a bit, and they are the ones who proposed the concept [and asked], ‘Could you get the original cast together again and make a record?’ I phoned everybody, and it just so happened that our schedules sort of worked out and we were free to be able to do it. Everybody in World Trade’s pretty busy doing stuff, myself included, so timing was an issue. But it just worked out where it was like, ‘Yeah, we can do this right now. Let’s go for it!’

Your history with Guy and Bruce obviously goes back to the ’80s. How would you say the musical connection the three of you share has evolved over the years?

It’s funny, because it really just feels like it’s never stopped. We’re good friends on that level. When the idea came around, I went over to Bruce’s to listen to stuff, and he was inspired and played me some musical pieces that he had. It sounded just like what I was used to hearing from Bruce with his writing for World Trade before. Nothing really ever changed there; everybody’s still doing what they do in the way that they do it, and it’s a familiarity thing that’s nice to have when you’re working on that kind of stuff. It’s the same with Guy, really, in his playing and his skills and stuff. He’s phenomenal. Once it came time to do the solos and stuff and getting the ear candy going, he just really rose to the occasion.

You released a new Circa album with Tony Kaye last year. What are the current plans for that project at this point in time?

Circa is really like a studio-record project at this point, mostly because getting out and touring is very difficult to do in the first place. My life has become completely complex and busy doing both Asia and Yes now. I’ve been out on tour with Asia for months; literally as of today, I’m switching gears and joining the Yes camp. The schedule on the calendar makes it such that it’s kind of hard to pull that off, but Tony and I love working together on that Circa project. We’ve had many albums now out at this point, and we always talk about making more. I think Circa will still exist in a sense of making records, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be really touring or not. I wish we were, because it’s fun to play that music live; we’ve done it on a few occasions. But as it happens now with this new Asia situation in my lap, I doubt we’ll be able to pull it off in terms of getting the calendar together.

Asia is a band that has a wealth of amazing work and material to draw from, and there are all these great moments that John brought to that band over the years. Now that you’ve had some experience in that role and have performed that material, which Asia songs in particular resonate most for your now?

I really enjoyed performing ‘Wildest Dreams,’ ‘Sole Survivor’ – the stuff from the first album, which was my favorite of all the records. [I also enjoy] the song ‘Ride Easy,’ which was a B-side of [‘Heat Of The Moment’]; it wasn’t actually on the record, but that’s one of my favorite Asia song. We got to perform that a few times at some gigs we did alone without Journey. I love that the first album is loaded for bear with a lot of great material; it’s always good to play. That said, it’s all great music to play and a lot of fun. The history of the band is an amazing thing to be a part of. I’m honored to do it. In the same way Chris asked me to do Yes [before he passed away], John wanted me to do Asia. The whole thing is just a surreal, mind-blowing kind of trip.

Your current career is based around performing with bands that have lengthy histories in this business. Having been in Yes and Asia and been around the Journey camp, what do you think it is about acts of that level that they’re still able to tour successfully 40-plus years into it and maintain considerable careers in an industry that’s not really known to foster those anymore?

Well, they were established a long time ago with some serious foundation [with] the music. I think the music has resonated with people for decades; it’s in their hearts, and they took it in at an early age and really enjoyed it. They tend to want to keep hearing those things. We’re all creatures of habit in our way in terms of what we listen to musically, and I think that stuff just stands the test of time. It resonates with people, and they turn it on to their kids and so on, and it keeps growing. I met young people on this Asia tour; there were 11-year-old kids coming up and telling me how much they love Asia. It’s a trip; it keeps perpetuating itself mostly by the music and songwriting that’s there to be listened to.

It’s been 20 years now since the release of Open Your Eyes


Looking back at that particular point, what are your thoughts on the album now in terms of its material and ultimate place in the history of Yes?

I like the record. Of course, I’m partial because I helped write it and was there, but I think there’s a lot of strong material on there. It’s got an attitude about it, that record. If you take it at face value, I think it’s a very enjoyable record to listen to. ‘New State Of Mind’ is a real kick-ass song; the vocals are great. ‘Fortune Seller’ has amazing bass parts, great moments and guitar flailing around. ‘The Solution’…‘Universal Garden’ is a beautiful song. I think it’s really good. I know people who didn’t like it at first and then 10 years later, decided, ‘This isn’t so bad!’ (laughs) Maybe it’s just a slow grower; I don’t know. I’m happy to have been involved with it and very proud of it. It’s not Close To The Edge, but it wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to try to get Yes back on the radio, if you will. There was still radio in that era, and we wrote those songs geared more towards that sort of commercial format. To that end, we had success; [the title track] ‘Open Your Eyes’ did really well at radio, and then they followed it up with ‘New State Of Mind’ and ‘No Way We Can Lose.’ They were just simpler kind of Yes songs, but they still have complexity and depth inside them. Whenever I post one of the songs [from that album] on the page and have a listen – because I don’t listen to the stuff [regularly] – it’s quite good.

Clearly, Yes has had many different eras, shapes and tones over the years. What is your favorite era of Yes music?

Oh, God! I can’t put my finger on one or the other, because there are so many eras that mean a lot to me in terms of what I was thinking and hearing musically growing up. I love the classic Yes lineup, and I also like the 90125 lineup, with whom I had the pleasure of touring in ’94. But I guess an easier answer to that is [to mention] my all-time favorite Yes album. I love them all, but Tales From Topographic Oceans really hits a chord for me. In terms of a piece of art, that’s an album that I think is just phenomenal. There’s nothing else like it out there.

There are two incarnations of Yes touring and doing things. I’m curious how that has impacted the band in terms of what you’re doing on the road, the reaction from fans about what’s been going on and ultimately how that situation has been working.

It’s interesting and strange at the same time. I haven’t really been paying too much attention to it because we keep staying on our track and going down [that]. As I’ve said before in other interviews, I’m happy to hear as much Yes music in 2017 [as possible] from the participants thereof and see the music thriving. There’s the obvious political push and pull that goes on in Yes; it’s always been that way and will always be that way. But for me, when Chris asked me to step in and do this and I said, ‘Yes,’ I was serving under the Yes banner. So that’s where my loyalty remains, and I’m happy to be a part of it despite whatever the chaos at the moment is. With Yes, there’s always much chaos and many moments to have it. (laughs) It’s really not surprising that we’re in this current state of affairs, but we go forward as Yes doing what we do. I really have nothing but love for the band and want to keep it going. That was the mission statement, and that’s what Chris and I spoke about – keeping it going. So that’s what we’re doing.

Obviously, you’re following in the footsteps of a musical giant here. In your mind, what is Chris Squire’s greatest legacy in the history of music?

It’s multi-pronged. Some of the greatest bass lines in Progressive Rock, for openers – on a composition level, not just chops. That’s what always intrigued me and drew me to Chris’ playing over everyone else. It was not so much the flash and the speed or the dexterity of things, but it was this idea of coming at the bass as a part of an orchestra within Rock ‘n’ Roll and really making the bass sing and have its own place inside of the music. Chris was so, so good at doing that. Going back to Tales, playing Ritual/Nous Sommes du Soleil’ on the last tour was really an amazing thing, because it’s one of my all-time favorite Chris compositions. It’s just built on so many great parts and so much musicality. I would say that’s the main thing about Chris that drew me in. Another component would be his voice; I loved his texture and his style of singing – that same application of harmony being not the classic thirds, fifths or whatever you would do if you were just thinking harmony, but finding those unique notes and that texture that made the chord just all the more beautiful. Chris was a master of that as well. He knew I was hip to both of those components and loved it, and I think that’s why we had the kind of relationship we had. If you listen to the first World Trade album, there’s so much harmony on there; there’s so much melody going on. That’s when we first met; he was intrigued by what I was doing as well. I think we kind of shared that thing, and he knew that I had a deep love and respect for those components. Those are the two things, and then obviously his presence on stage was just always entertaining as hell to watch. (laughs) You put those three together, and do you have a monster figure up there. It was a bit intimidating to stand in his spot on the first tour; it was extremely emotional and all of the above, but it gave me strength to do it knowing this was what he wanted to happen. What an amazing honor that is.

I’ve been following your work for a long time, and I’ve always been impressed by the fact that you have remained working – and in very eclectic ways. For you, what has been the key to maintaining an active career in this industry to where you’re quite literally bouncing from one tour to the next and keeping the ball in the air in that way?

I’ve always followed my own path and done what I really want to do – which sounds kind of selfish, but in a weird way, that’s what has been the sustaining factor for me. Not only working in bands and playing and signing and writing, but I became a producer/engineer very early on in my career; that also afforded me opportunities to think about projects I wanted to do and pitch them to labels. If they wanted to jump in with a budget, then off we went. I’ve had good relationships with various labels over the years and continue to, so it just propagates the whole thing. A lot of these labels that I’ve worked with trust what I do and how I do it, so they want to jump in. I just had my solo album Citizen out on Frontiers and invited all these great artists on board. Because of that, [Frontiers] asked me about Circa, and we did Valley Of The Windmill and what we’re talking about here today with World Trade. For me, it’s just been [about] focusing on what I really want to do in music and just stay tuned in with that and not try to do something that doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. It’s a blessing that it has worked out and led to some unique places in my career – the most obvious being the fact that I’ve replaced Chris and John in these two huge bands. I think that’s just a bi-product of doing what I want to do and staying focused. That genre and style of music is where I really want to be; all roads kind of led to the same place here. But perseverance is a big factor – and not really paying too much attention to some of the trolls who are online. If you did that, you’d stop immediately! (laughs) Part of it is defiance; it’s like, ‘Oh, really? Okay, well, I’m going to do this more then to piss you off!’ (laughs) That would be it.

* Portions of the above interview were edited for space and clarity. 

World Trade @ Frontiers Music

Official Asia Website

Official Yes Website


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