Last month, prog-rock titans Yes released In the Present, which is available both as a tour interview DVD (sprinkled with live performance footage) and a straight-ahead live album with uncut tracks. Despite the name of the package, the release isn’t even a proper reflection of where the line-up (featuring former keyboardist Oliver Wakeman instead of Geoff Downes, in addition to former vocalist Benoit David) is in 2012.
Nevertheless, In the Present is a fairly insightful experience, particularly the DVD and its up-close visuals and behind-the-scenes talking heads. It’s also a nice exclamation point on what has been a very productive year for the quintet, which released its 20th studio album, the emphatic return to form Fly From Here, back last June. Paste recently had the chance to speak with bassist Chris Squire, the only constant member in the band’s 40-plus-year history. Along the way, we discussed the band’s recent releases, their absolutely hectic schedule, and their controversial decision to replace longtime vocalist-writer Jon Anderson with Benoit David, the former singer for a Yes tribute band. Since our conversation, Squire has reported that David has already left the band, but it’s all part of the revolving door nature of progressive rock’s most enduring act.
Paste: When I first heard that your new live album was called In the Present, the first thing I thought was that this was Yes trying to make a statement: “This is the current form of Yes, not some kind of transitional Yes. This is it.”
Chris Squire: Unfortunately, it’s not. [laughs] Of course, it has Oliver Wakeman on keyboards. The In the Present idea was to document that tour, which had that name, the tour that we took around the States and Europe for a couple of years really, featuring Oliver on keyboards. When the idea came up from the record company—when they heard the live mixes from that tour, and they really liked it and wanted to put it out, at first I was a little concerned it was sending out mixed messages since by then we’d already made the new studio album with Geoff Downes. But then, when I thought about it, I thought, “No, it’ll be nice to document that period when Oliver was playing keyboard—and nice for him, as well, I think.” So we went ahead and said okay for them to put it out, and it’s got that interesting little documentary stuff that goes a long with it, but of course, it’s fairly out of time, really, but I’m still glad we’re putting it out.
Paste: Yes, I meant to ask you about that because when I first put it in the DVD, I was slightly confused…
Squire: I’m sorry—that was my original fear, that it would confuse people. But I guess I thought people would figure out that’s what it was.
Paste: Well, it’s probably my favorite Yes DVD, especially with all the behind-the-scenes stuff. Also, I own a few Yes DVDs, and I have to say that this is my favorite in terms of visuals. I really like the way the cameras are there, right in your face.
Squire: There’s something else about this, too! The original project for this was filmed in 3-D! So down the line, the whole concert was filmed, but the DVD here I believe only has “Roundabout” and “Machine Messiah,” but the whole two-and-a-half hour set was filmed, and I’m sort of waiting for the time when the 3-D TV comes out where you don’t need the glasses, which I’m told is imminent. So by the time that happens, we’ll do a whole mix of the concert footage in 3-D and put that out. The DVD is mainly a documentary, with interviews. But there are two complete songs on the DVD—”Roundabout” and “Machine Messiah,” and there are live excerpts from other songs, and then you have the full-length versions of the songs on the CD.
Paste: Given the revolving door nature of Yes’ line-up, I realize this is probably a hard question to answer, but do you envision this current line-up of the band lasting for awhile?
Squire: You know, whenever there’s a change in personnel, I think that! [laughs] I think, “Okay, this is probably the last change that will happen!,” but of course, I’ve been wrong about that 17 different times. [laughs] Someone told me the other day—they worked it out, and there have actually been 17 different line-ups of Yes. I’m hoping very much so, without saying “This is it forever,” which is hard to do—I’m really do hoping that the same group of people, including Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, of course, will be able to make a follow-up to Fly From Here with the same personnel. One of the things about the making of that album is that everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and it went very well. So I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do that again because that was a very rewarding thing to have in a studio environment which can be taxing, and usually when you get to the end of an album, there’s always somebody who’s not as keen on it as somebody else. Strangely enough, at the end of Fly From Here, we all ended up liking the album. And Steve Howe even mentioned on the last day of mixing, that “I think we just made an album that we all like.” So let’s hope we can do that again.
Paste: And when you hit the road for a Spring tour, is this current line-up the one fans should likely expect?
Squire: Yeah, yeah, for the moment. Geoff Downes is the keyboard player, and that’s what we’re looking at going out this year, definitely promoting Fly From Here, going to New Zealand, Australia, and Japan in the Spring, and we’re looking at doing a U.S. summer tour and doing more promoting of the Fly From Here album, basically.
Paste: What has the fan response been so far to the shows with Benoit? Obviously, many fans were greatly disappointed with Jon Anderson’s departure, but have you noticed a gradual change in the fan response when Yes plays live?
Squire: Oh, yeah, over the two-plus—actually three years since he came in in 2008—in the past three years that Benoit has been with us, he’s gotten more used to the idea of doing that job, and he seems to become more comfortable with it. He did have a little hiccup in Norway and Sweden, where we were working in such cold temperatures that he did have some voice problems, but I don’t hold that against him. That just happens to singers. But apart from that small hiccup, he’s been doing a real good job. I think he sings great on the Fly From Here album, and I think he’s probably quite proud of himself of how great he sounds on there.
Paste: Yeah, he sounds great on the album.
Squire: Yeah, thank you very much.
Paste: I’m curious, whenever he went into the studio for this album, he obviously had giant shoes to fill. Did it take him awhile to—
Squire: Well yeah, apart from the fact that it was the first actual studio album that he was making with us, I was afraid that Trevor Horn would come to me and say, “This guy’s a piece of shit!” or something. [laughs] But fortunately, they got on real well, and I kept my fingers crossed, and that went real smoothly. The relationship between vocalist and producer—that was a big relief for me to know that that was going well, and it did!
Paste: I know it took you guys awhile to gradually introduce the Fly From Here material in a live setting. But this last batch of touring, when did you exactly get to the point of playing these live? Are you planning on doing more of it?
Squire: I tell you what—we did “Live from a Film Set” and the whole long “Fly From Here” suite, all 23 minutes of it, and we were also playing “Into the Storm.” So a good 40 minutes worth of music, and by the time we get to the U.S. In the summer, we may even add a couple more songs from the new album, so we’ve just been adding as we go. It wasn’t easy—it’s never really easy trying to put together the live versions! [laughs] Because obviously, in the studio there are a lot of things you do, overdubs, etc. Then you’re faced with, “Oh, now we have to do this live, and there are only five of us!” You have to figure out a way of getting it right and sounding impressive, so it takes a little while to get to that point.
Paste: I would think that was especially tough with the title track.
Squire: Well, yeah, but we got there, though. We definitely got there, and of course, by the time we perform it in the U.S. in the summer, you’ll have the advantage of us having already gone through the difficult part in Europe, so there you go.
Paste: I’d like to step back a second and talk about Fly From Here, if that’s okay with you. I had the chance to review the album, and I absolutely love it—I think it’s the best Yes album since the late ’70s. And because of writing that review, I’ve had the chance to interact with a lot of fans and other critics, who feel the same way. Of course, there have been a lot of mixed emotions surrounding the album given Jon’s departure, as well.
Squire: I think it stands up, is all I can say. It’s always difficult to say, “Is it better than that album or as not as good as that album?” but all I can say is that when we finished it, we thought, “We’ve made an album that’s worthy of being called Yes album.” And it does have a good feeling about it, so we were satisfied, and we obviously hope it does as well as it can.
Paste: Obviously parts of the title track date all the way back to The Buggles, but I have no doubt that this 20-minute behemoth underwent radical changes since then (particularly with Steve’s “Bumpy Ride” section). I know it may be difficult to pinpoint specific elements, but could you take me on the journey of how Yes approached that track and developed it into what it is today?
Squire: Well, originally, I suppose it did come from a Buggles creation—I don’t know if they took it anywhere or if it was actually released, or whether it was just released on some demo thing on Youtube. I don’t know much about the history, but I do know that when I first heard it and we expanded it into the first six-minute version, where I worked on expanding thew writing with Trevor and Geoff, lyrically as well as section-wise, I became a writer on that version as well, so when I went to see Trevor in 2009 to see if he wanted to work with Yes again as a producer, and he seemed favorable to it, we started talking, “Oh, you remember that track ‘Fly From Here?’ Maybe we should properly record that!” Because it had really only been a Yes demo for Drama, and it had never gotten made back then, even though we did do a live version of it from Madison Square Garden, and it does come up on the Yes compilation live album The Word is Live, which was released around 2003 or something, and ti sounds pretty good on there. But we didn’t just want to do that again. We said, “Let’s expanding it even more and try to turn it into a classic longform Yes piece of music and try to put a good Yes stamp on it. And then we went back into other things. I said, “Trevor, did you have other things that hadn’t gotten used around the time that you’d originally written that?” So “Sad Night at the Airfield” kind of comes from an idea Trevor had back then, but there were modern ideas that we had as well, that we came up with at the time in the studio, “Bumpy Ride” being one of them, along with various sections. So although its roots are in the past from when it was originally written in basic form, a lot of how it ended up was present day.
Paste: The rest of the album (minus Steve’s solo composition) appears to be very collaborative, according to the liner notes. Was a lot of the material worked on as a group, or was it a case of people bringing in different pieces and presenting them to the rest of the band?
Squire: Well, other tracks on the album—“Into the Storm” was very much a brand new thing based on a riff that I’d written while I was messing around with Alan White in a demo studio when we were just coming up with ideas for things. And then I came up with this riff, and Alan and I put down a bass and drum track, and later, we added another section, which I believe Oliver Wakeman contributed to, and yet another section of that came from just jamming in the studio. And then I wrote the melody for it, and then we all sat down and collaborated on the lyric. So that is a very collaborative song, and I think it turned out real well. And of course Steve had a couple songs; “Hour of Need” was a song he’d written pretty much lyrically and melody-wise, and of course, “The Man You’d Always Wanted Me to Be” was a song that I’d written lyrically and melody-wise and chord-wise—the whole thing, really. So there were songs that just came from people’s libraries, if you like, and then songs like “Into the Storm” that were real collaborations.
Paste: I’m in something of a unique position given that I’m interviewing you, and I also had the pleasure of speaking to Jon several months ago. In that interview, Jon and I talked about his exit from the band, and he mentioned that he almost felt sorry for the guys in Yes, and I believe he specifically mentioned Steve, because you all are so constantly on the road, touring, living that nomadic life. Obviously touring is a big drain physically and mentally, and it’s quite impressive how often you and the guys tour.
Squire: It’s like anything in life—if you’re used to doing it, it’s easier. It’s always a little more difficult after taking a few years off, which we did from 2004 through 2008. It’s more difficult to get the machine in gear again, but when you become used to it, then it becomes easier. And everyone enjoys downtime at home, I’m sure, for various reasons, but I find the whole system of being out there and doing shows for people—the more of it you do, in fact the more energizing it is, for me individually. And it kind of makes you feel good about life, so I think I have a slightly different point of view from Jon about that.
Paste: So if you guys take a year or two off from touring off, I guess you just really get that itch to get back out there…
Squire: Well, we did do that! We took 2004, 2005 off, and we wanted to go back on tour in 2006, but because of Jon’s problems he was having with his voice and his breathing, we weren’t able to. And that’s why really, when we got to 2008—we wanted to go out, and Jon got really bad at a certain point, so we realized we were probably going to have to make the decision to get somebody else to do the job.
Paste: I guess this is a slightly premature question, but have you and the guys given any thought to another album at this point?
Squire: This year—2012 is going to be a year of still promoting Fly From Here. By the time you get to all the different corners of the world, and the end of this year starts to roll around, we’ll have been pretty busy promoting the album, but ask me again at the end of this year! [laughs]