Interview: Original ‘Yes’ Lead Singer Jon Anderson
Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 at 1:46 pm
In the late 1960s, Jon Anderson became one of the most recognized rock musicians in the world. Thanks to his striking voice, his flamboyant turn as lead singer of equally outrageous prog-rock band Yes led to millions of album sales for over 30 years.
Now, post-Yes, Anderson is busy creating more solo albums, collaborating with people all over the world. He’s healthy, happy, and still creating fantastic music. “Geeks of Doom? I love it!”
Geeks of Doom: So, Jon, how are you?
Jon Anderson: I’m doing very, very good. It’s a very exciting moment; I’ve got an album coming out, today!…last night there was a king snake, a three-foot king snake on my door step, which means rebirth. It’s very rare that you see them and there it was on my door step. It’s a native American totem for rebirth, which is where I’m going right now!
Geeks of Doom: I have, yes. I’ve heard “New New World” and “Understanding Truth.”
Jon Anderson: “Understanding Truth” was [from] a young guy in northern Holland, he sent me a beautiful guitar piece. I sang it right away that song. Sometimes a song comes at you”¦very fast, you know? Very much like I did with Vangelis. I don’t know if you know about Jon and Vangelis music?
Geeks of Doom: Sure.
Jon Anderson: The songs we wrote were sort of instant events. We would write three every day and at the end of the week figure out, “Hey, some of them are cool!” So what happens [now] is some people send me MP3s as music and then I’ll write a melody and a lyric and then put it away. Then after a month you’ve got about a dozen ideas that you put to different situations. Some songs feel like musicals, or, sort of very indigenous music, you know? All the music that comes to me is from different people so it’s a very exciting time in a way because there’s so many talented people out there. I [had] put an ad on my website, as you may know, and you get so many people sending ideas every week, you know, they still send them”¦it opened up pandora’s box of music and this album is just a selection. It’s the first of three albums that I’m going to put out of music and songs that I worked [on] with different people around the world.
Geeks of Doom: Were you surprised with the response you got from putting the plea out on your website?
Jon Anderson: Yeah, I think because, well, you’ve got something on your website first of all for people to get in touch with you who know who you are. They’re interested in working with you and are excited which is all you really need in a way [laughs] I got so many. The first song that you heard, “New New World” the guy [who wrote that] he does some of the music for South Park.
Geeks of Doom: Really?
Jon Anderson: Yeah, Jamie Dunlap, he sent me that music. I was in Paris last summer doing some shows around America and around Europe and he sent me that music and I sang it there in the apartment. What a great gift, every now and again you get a great piece of music to sing to, you know?
Geeks of Doom: Yeah, they’re both great songs, both quite different they’re”¦
Jon Anderson: Yeah, they’re both different people! [laughs] Each track is like a new energy sort of thing in a way.
Geeks of Doom: So after these you said you’ve got two more albums?
Jon Anderson: Yeah I think probably it will be an album every year for the next, I don’t know, depends how long people keep sending me [music]! I was writing a song, singing a song, just this morning which is a composition for the Wounded Warriors Trust. Going to perform it at Kennedy Center in two weeks and it’s like with a full orchestra.
They asked, would I sing at the Kennedy Center? I said, “Book me a ticket please!” [laughs] It’s like saying, “Would you like to sing at the [Royal] Albert Hall?” “Please!”
Geeks of Doom: Yes! Are you happy being a solo artist, do you think it suits you more than being in a band?
Jon Anderson: Well, you know, I’m 67 this year; it’s a different world for me. I’m working harder and when I do my solo show I’m on stage for nearly two hours. So I’m singing or talking which is a lot more than I did with Yes, you know. So I don’t have the baggage of a band and the problems within the band and management of a band and all that. I did it for 35 years. I think I served my country very well! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: Absolutely! [laughs]
Jon Anderson: You know, you have to deal with people who are not interested in music, but they want to force the band to do this and do that and I think that’s why I got sick. I just got sick and tired of the crap, you know? Because the music is easy and the business is hard.
Geeks of Doom: And so now have you stripped all that back?
Jon Anderson: Well it’s just me and Jane [Jon’s wife], a couple of guitars and a ukulele and I play a piano on stage. It’s like being on holiday in some ways. The traveling can be a little hard, but it’s just me and my wife and we’re in love so what more can I ask for? I still believe that I’m going to put out music that Yes fans will love and I’m not aiming for them alone, I’m trying to reach a big audience. You know, one of the songs [from Survival and Other Stories] I just found out yesterday is number one in Poland.
Geeks of Doom: Oh wow, which song is that?
Jon Anderson: It’s called “Unbroken Spirit.”
Geeks of Doom: Wow!
Jon Anderson: The music was written by a Polish composer. I wrote the melody and the lyric”¦I wrote it two years ago when I was really ill, in 2008. Which was, well, two-and-a-half years ago, whatever. But I wrote that when I was very sick. People would send me just incredible music, it was although the gods of music were sending me healing properties. There’s one [of my songs] just coming out now on an album called Prayer Cycle [Prayer Cycle 2: Path To Zero] by Jonathan Elias. Sting’s singing on it and there’s two or three very famous people [on the album] and I’m singing with Rahat Ali Khan who’s a beautiful singer from Pakistan. That music came to me after my first operation”¦it’s like a new healing energy and that album comes out this week.
Geeks of Doom: Great! You mentioned that you were very unwell in 2008 and you were unable to tour with Yes. Were you happy for them to continue without you?
Jon Anderson: Well it was a drag of course, I’m not stupid! [laughs] It was a drag; “What the hell are they doing?” Well if that’s what friendship’s all about, forget it. You know who your friends are when you get sick, you know? They didn’t bother to get in touch with me. Alan [White] gave me one call, but Rick [Wakeman] kept in touch and that’s why we’re still good friends. We’re going on tour later this year doing our duet show.
Geeks of Doom: Cool. What do you think of the two Yes albums that you did not sing on – Drama and Fly From Here?
Jon Anderson: Well, they’re not what I call Yes albums. Obviously I don’t think of them as Yes albums. It’s just a bunch of guys who are very talented doing what they want to do and they just happen to control the name Yes and that’s life. You just say, “ok, well let them get on with it.”
Geeks of Doom: Obviously people know you best from your time in Yes and as part of Yes you were part of a select few bands who really created progressive rock music. Were you aware of creating that whole genre at the time?
Jon Anderson: I think Frank Zappa started [progressive rock] and there were other bands, you know, Vanilla Fudge, Buffalo Springfield, there was a lot of bands, [the] Beatles, who were doing progressive music. It was incredibly commercial. I mean if you listen to Revolver and obviously Sgt Pepper [‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band] it is very, very, beautifully put together progressive. But when you get in to the early “˜70s who was going to carry on that? Well Pink Floyd were way, way, way ahead. So I wouldn’t say that we started anything, I think we just followed through with a lot of other musicians that were doing already music that was more inspiring than being Cliff Richard!
That was the whole thing we grew up on, you know, Cliff, Alma Cogan, people you don’t know about. But it was all pop, it was this thing called pop and it was people that were dressed [smartly] and had the Brylcreem on and went on TV and they were popstars. And when the Beatles came it was like, “hey, you can just be regular people and still be famous!” So everybody in the “˜60s wanted to be Beatles or Rolling Stones”¦when the “˜70s came it was all to do with the music because I was 26 when I started Yes and I thought I was too old to be a popstar for one thing. I didn’t think I looked like a popstar so I thought what I need to do is to do music that’s just different. I was listening to all sorts of classical music, you know, Stravinsky and I was reading Lord of the Rings and listening to jazz and Frank Zappa and Weather Report band, things like that. It just spurs you on that you’re part of a whole new energy of music. So in a way when people say, “you’re prog rock” I think it’s bullshit, you know? Really I really do. There’s always progressive music, you can listen to it now. Did you hear Nero and the Dubstep Symphony?
Geeks of Doom: No, I don’t know that.
Jon Anderson: You should. BBC [Radio 1] Xtra, you should check it out”¦he just did it last week at Salford, you can go online and watch it. It’s quite amazing stuff, it’s very adventurous. There’s always good musicians doing adventurous stuff it’s just that the record companies were never interested in them. So thankfully the internet has come and musicians can explore and make money through the internet and god bless them.
Geeks of Doom: You’re originally from Accrington”¦
Jon Anderson: Accrington Stanley, mate! We nearly got into the first division [npower League 1, at the end of last season]
Geeks of Doom: I know, so close; just missed out on the play-off final spot.
Jon Anderson: It always bloody happens! [laughs] I used to be the mascot you know when I was 9″¦used to run on with my shorts and my red shirt and kick the ball around and get half a crown [old British coin demonetised in 1970] from the referee. I was a ballboy there any way because it was only like 200 yards from my house. I was the ballboy, I used to clean the boots, you name it I did it.
Geeks of Doom: Wow, there must have been some good players around in those days?
Jon Anderson: Yeah, [but] we got kicked out of the league, we had no money! Story of my life! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: [laughs] So growing up in Accrington, what are your musical memories of growing up there? I’ve heard that the first 12-string guitar in the town was the one you owned.
Jon Anderson: No, really? Who said that?
Geeks of Doom: I must confess that we have a link to Accrington: you went to the same school and worked at Burco [metal spinning factory] with my Great Uncle, Les.
Jon Anderson: [laughs] I remember that name! My god. That’s freaky. Yeah I went to St. Christopher’s school, patron saint of travel [laughs] and that’s what I do!
I couldn’t play guitar until I was twenty [something]. I might have got one thinking I was trying to be able to play. I couldn’t play a bloody note and I didn’t pick up the guitar until probably about [the age of] 24, 25. [I] went up to London, got a guitar, and started practicing. I started writing songs and they all sounded terrible and then all of a sudden I wrote “Time And A Word” and “Starship Trooper” and “Long Distance Runaround.” Oh, I was off and running!
Geeks of Doom: Was that around the time you were in The Warriors with your brother Tony?
Jon Anderson: No that was 1969 when I started Yes with Chris [Squire]. I was with The Warriors in ’63. We played at the Cavern, you know. We all went to see the Beatles just before they became famous and it was an amazing moment, believe me. They were amazing and we all wanted to be Beatles. [Adopts Liverpudlian accent] used to talk like that a lot, you know, like this! My mum smacked me over the head; [puts on very broad Lancashire accent] stop talking like that, we don’t talk like that up here! [Back to Scouse] I want to be a Beatle, mum! [Back to Lancashire] well piss off! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: [laughs] When you were with The Warriors you had a look very similar to the early Beatles look.
Jon Anderson: Oh yeah, you know, everybody wanted to be a Beatle. I dyed my hair black and it looked terrible! But, you know, that’s life. You try things out, you keep going. Here I am working on some new music, I’m writing some new music this morning. So I’m very excited about what I do, I’m thankful for what I do, I’m blessed for what I do and I’m healthy and I’m in love with my wife Jane.