by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2011 Anil Prasad.
Perhaps no musician is more synonymous with progressive rock as Rick Wakeman. The keyboardist and composer’s grand-scale projects as a solo artist and member of Yes, and larger-than-life stage presence have drawn millions of listeners to his work. The classically-trained musician also helped pioneer the use of synthesizers in rock music during the early ‘70s. Both his orchestral performance approach and circular banks of keyboards have served as a blueprint for countless acts across multiple genres extending to the present. Superstar artists have also called upon his services, including Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Elton John, Lou Reed, T. Rex, and Cat Stevens. In addition to his music career, Wakeman is the author of the acclaimed Grumpy Old Rock Star book series, and a regular presenter and guest on myriad British radio and television programs.
His most recent project is The Living Tree, a duo album with vocalist Jon Anderson. The two ex-members of Yes have toured on-and-off during the last few years, performing Yes favorites in a stripped-down voice, guitar and keyboards format. The album uses a similar approach for its original songs that focus on the need for humans to become better stewards of the planet on which they reside. The Living Tree doesn’t take a didactic approach. Rather, it explores its core topic matter using spiritual and emotional themes, as well as recent global events and conflicts to underline the urgency of the situation.
Wakeman detailed the philosophies informing the making of The Living Tree in this conversation. He also discusses his compositional process as it relates to that album, as well as his recent solo piano efforts Past, Present and Future and Always With You. The two discs continue his prolific solo output that’s seen him release more than 100 recordings that have sold tens of millions of copies. He also delves into a forthcoming project with both Anderson and Trevor Rabin, another Yes alumnus, and collaborations with Jon Lord and Keith Emerson.
Describe what’s enabled your musical relationship with Anderson to endure for so long.
It goes back to 1976, when Jon and I sat in a pub in Montreux. I had just rejoined Yes to record Going for the One after a two-year absence. It’s been well-documented that during the first four years I was in the band, Jon and I had a turbulent relationship. By turbulent, I mean I was heading off in one direction and Jon was heading in the direction Yes was going. When it came time to do Tales from Topographic Oceans, I found I never “got it” for many, many reasons. They went on and did Relayer and then I came back to the band. So, at the White Horse pub in Montreux, after I returned, we had a real good chat about what transpired. I said “Jon, Going for the One is the sort of music I absolutely love and is where I thought Yes should be heading after Close to the Edge and Yessongs. To me, it was a natural progression. Yet, here we are now."
It was quite interesting that we agreed on everything that was then happening. We came up with this analogy in which we imagined we were both in England and going to Japan, but traveling through completely different routes. In those days, you could go via America, with a stop in Anchorage, or you could go the other way and stop in Moscow. So, that meant for a certain period of time, we would be so far apart in our thinking and where we were, that it would be almost impossible to understand where the other person was heading. But the fact of the matter is we were going to eventually end up in the same place. We learned that no matter which direction either of us was going in, at the end of the day, we both wanted the same thing. The moment we had that realization was the start of a tremendous friendship that has lasted ever since.
How did that synergy inform how you put The Living Tree together via file-swapping?
Jon and I did some duo work in England five years ago, which was great fun. One of the things I think is great between us is that I can almost get inside of Jon’s head, musically-speaking, and vice-versa. So, when we decided we should put some music together, we knew we could do it intuitively. When I sat down in my studio in England, I just thought about Jon while I was writing music. I thought about his voice, how he puts melodies together, and the things he could do in response. So, it wasn’t just writing music. It was writing music specifically with him in mind. When I sent Jon tracks, I knew instinctively that he would be able to put them on and sing to them. You could almost say they were written for him. In essence, we were writing together as a form of a mind game. It was very interesting. I would get quite excited waiting for Jon to send the files back with demo vocals and ideas. It was just so great to hear and would give me further ideas to add things over the top. It was an exciting way of working. People have asked “Wasn’t it strange not to be in the same room together?” But in a strange way, we were. I know how Jon works and he knows how I work. So, it almost was like being in the same room.
What were the challenges of taking this approach?
The challenges were, more than anything else, trying to decide what to use and not use. We had far more songs and material than we could ever use. One of the things we decided is we would go back to the Yes adage of “only the best stuff gets on.” The hardest thing was to say “I’ll tell you what, let’s leave that track for the moment. We may come back to it at a later date.” Interestingly, we both 100 percent agreed on what would go on and what would be left off.
Describe why paring down your work together to one voice and keyboards was appealing to you both.
One of the things Jon and I thoroughly enjoyed on the last Yes tour we did was the acoustic spot in the middle of the set. It originally started as a 10-minute part of the set and became so popular that it turned into a 20-30 minute portion of the show. Many who love Yes said it was great to hear the music brought down to the bare bones. They said it helped them understand what was involved in the songs and music, and made them appreciate the full tracks even more. Somehow it made the songs even more meaningful to them. So, Jon and I thought it would be a really good idea to deliberately produce an album that was just the pair of us—Jon’s voice and me with a piano and a couple of keyboards. We thought we could make it work with that sort of simplicity. We knew the songs would stand up to whatever we wanted to do with them. One of the things Jon and I talked about was the number of bands—and this includes Yes—that have pieces which, if you take away the great playing and orchestrations, are not particularly great songs. But if you start with a great song, there’s an awful lot you can do with it. So, that’s what we set out to do. I have to say that Jon came up with some of his finest lyrics and melodies since the ‘70s on The Living Tree. I think it’s outstanding.
The album reflects the viewpoint that humanity needs to take better care of itself and the planet. Describe your perspective on that.
I think there’s a certain thing that comes with age that’s not so much wisdom, but understanding. You can look around you and say “Hold on a minute. We’re doing some absolutely crazy things.” Music has always been great at not pointing the finger or indoctrinating people, but rather saying “Hey, listen. You can enjoy the music, but there’s something to say here, look at, and think about.“
I have some great friends who are astronauts and one of them said to me when I was visiting NASA, “You know, Rick, one of the things that really comes home when you’re up in space looking down at the planet is you realize there are millions of other planets, but none of them we’re aware of in our galaxy has anything we consider true life forms.” He looked at this tiny speck we live on and realized that it’s the only place where there is life and intelligence as we know it. He also said “You can’t help but think that’s all there is and I can’t believe what we’re doing to it. If we could take every world leader up into space and have them look down and point to Earth and say ‘That’s all there is and you’re screwing it up,’ maybe it would make a difference.” I thought that was a great way of looking at things. To some extent, The Living Tree points out how important nature is and how critical the balance of the Earth is. By balance, I mean in terms of how we think and what we do to it. I think we’ve covered a lot on the album, including war and the simple things we all do in our lives.
How does the album relate to your spiritual beliefs?
In terms of spiritual perspectives, a lot of it comes down to age. Everyone becomes a bit more spiritual as they grow older. I’ve had my spiritual beliefs all my life, but they evolve as you get older and you realize how important they are—not just for you, but for everything around you. So, the album does reflect that greatly. I don’t want to tell people how to live their spiritual lives, but it’s nice to say to everyone out there “You’ve got one as well, if you want to look for it.”
I’m a Christian in my beliefs, but I have a view that I know a lot of people disagree with. It’s my own personal view that we have lots of religions and beliefs around the world, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. And in fact, there are lots of different denominations within Christianity. I believe there is just one god—it’s the same one. We all have different routes of getting to that god. At the end of the day, we all have our own beliefs in the ultimate power, but it’s the same god, with different names. When Cat Stevens converted to Islam, a lot of people said to me “You did ‘Morning is Broken’ with him and you’re a Christian. You should tell him that Christianity is what he should be looking at, not Islam.” I said “You know what? I’m thrilled he converted to Islam, because he’s found a faith. He’s found something he can believe in that he’s been looking for.” I’d be more upset if he never found anything. I feel sorry for people who don’t find anything.
What's the status of the new recording and touring project you’re pursuing with Anderson and Trevor Rabin?
It’s looking really, really good. I loved working with Trevor on the Union tour. He kindly performed as a guest on the Return to the Center of the Earth album and we got along great. I think Trevor is a unique writer and his music is astonishing. I’ve known him since he was in the band Rabbitt, going back to his South Africa days. I’ve always loved playing with Steve Howe, Bill Bruford and Alan White, but there’s one lineup of Yes, or people who’ve been in Yes, that’s never existed that I always thought would be interesting, and that’s one with Trevor and myself in the group. I know we played together on the Union tour, but there’s never been a studio album done in which we were both involved.
There’s no doubt about it, whoever you’re playing with in a band makes you play differently. So, I’m sure if we put together an album and tour that it would certainly bring out some unique things in both of us, which would be very healthy. Also, Trevor is a very generous player in how he shares the work, and that’s always very nice. With Jon there as well, there is the potential to produce something very exciting, simply for the reason that whilst we all know each other, the three of us have never specifically worked together before. There’s an amazing amount of energy and ideas that have been lying dormant, ready to come out.
I wouldn’t say we’ll do loads and loads of touring, because Trevor is extraordinarily busy with all his film work, Jon is busy with his solo work, and I do a lot of television and radio work, as well as having quite a few good-selling books. So, my life is extremely busy too. Going out and doing 20-week tours won’t happen for any of us. What I think will be great is if we put together a small number of shows to go with a lot of new music. The shows would be something really special rather than a whole bundle of touring.
I would like to think the album will be done by the end of the year, and then we’ll start looking at slotting in shows around the world according to everyone’s schedule next year. It’s not something ruled by a record label or management saying “You have to do these shows in September, so the album has to be out by August.” It’s something the three of us decide upon. We’ll work out what’s best for all of us and the project.
Many are going to compare this project to Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and see it as a response to Yes, which continues without your involvement or that of Anderson. How do you feel about that?
Everyone’s got their own view on what’s happening. Personally, I can’t ever understand how there can be a Yes without Jon singing. That’s my blunt take. Can you imagine Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant or The Who without Roger Daltrey? The voice is the most standout thing about any band. There are certain bands for which it is just impossible to replace that voice. For me, there isn’t a Yes unless Jon is singing and that will always be my perspective on things.
To me, the Yes sound is all about the musicians and whatever they’re doing. Certainly Chris Squire and Steve Howe are very important, but the vocal sound of Yes is a major part of what makes it Yes. My own view is it’s great that the guys are going to carry on, but I thought they could play some Yes stuff, go off in a different direction, use a different name, and create something new. They could still do some Yes stuff and that would be absolutely fine.
Many have been intrigued by the fact that you’ve been critical of Yes carrying on, despite your son Oliver serving in a post-Anderson lineup.
I got Oliver the job. [laughs] People forget that. Chris Squire called me up and I said “I will not play in the band if Jon isn’t singing.” Then Chris said to me “Who would you recommend to do it?” I said “I know two people who could do the job and they’re both my sons. One is Adam, who you won’t get because he plays with Ozzy Osbourne. The other is Oliver, who works with Steve Howe as well. They did an acoustic album together and he could do it.” I’m not being critical. What anybody wants to do, they can do. But when I’m asked, I will explain my feelings.
Can you describe the tenor of the conversations you had with Oliver about his involvement in Yes?
There were none at all. I speak to Oliver two or three times a week and we don’t talk about it. I think Oliver knows it’s probably best left alone. [laughs]
I understand Bruford was asked to be part of the new group with Anderson and Rabin.
Bill sort of retired. He decided a couple of years ago that enough is enough. I think he does some fun jazz playing here and there, but he decided it was time to call it a day. I love Bill to bits. He’s a fantastic guy, but once he makes a decision, it’s very, very rare that he changes it. I can’t even think of an occasion when he’s changed his mind, actually. Bill does some lecturing and teaching and I think he’s extremely happy. I think he may well have been tempted by the idea, so who knows? He may just come onboard, but it’s unlikely.
What do you make of how Bruford chose to close his musical career?
I don’t think I could ever do it. Everyone says it would be great to quit while you’re at the top, but nobody ever does, so you carry on playing regardless of your status. To just close the piano lid is something I don’t think I can do. I was on a radio show and they were talking about what people have put on their gravestones. W.C. Fields said “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” I said I’d put “It’s not fair. I haven’t finished yet.” [laughs] So, I couldn’t do what Bill has done. Bill’s a different character from me. I think if he felt he’s done all he can do in the area of music, I can understand why he said “That’s it.” He’s now imparting his knowledge to others and that’s great.
Your solo musical output remains prolific, despite your many other activities. Describe the creative process that enables you to maintain that pace.
It’s interesting, sometimes I go months without writing anything and that’s not because I don’t want to. It’s just for whatever reason, I sit at the piano nothing inspiring comes out. Then, suddenly, I can have a mad rush for a week in which loads of ideas come out. I hastily write them all down and play them. In terms of the output, I think it’s related to the mere fact that I’m allowed to create in all sorts of different contexts, whether it’s orchestral, solo piano or big band albums. I feel extraordinarily lucky that I can still do one-man shows or big orchestral shows around the world, both of which I thoroughly enjoy. I suppose I’m a musical adrenaline junkie. There’s no greater buzz for me than to sit and perform at the piano or keyboards, play with other musicians, and write stuff. It’s such a great honor. I wake up every day with a big grin on me face. First of all, I can’t believe I’m still alive. And then I think “What can I do today?”
Are you always on the ready to capture ideas as they emerge?
Yes, very much so. It hasn’t got to where I don’t get that buzz anymore. If it did, I’d join Bill Bruford and quit. But I can’t see that happening, to be honest. I carry a Dictaphone wherever I go. I have one in the car too. And if I’m in my studio or office, it’s easy to capture ideas quickly. I also always have manuscript paper in my bag. I’ve even scribbled things down on napkins in restaurants. I’ve learned if something comes into my head that I need to get it down really quick, because I may never remember it as it was the first time I thought of it.
You’ve focused on solo piano on your recent albums. Describe how you take a piano piece from start to finish. And how do you know when it’s complete?
[laughs] That’s a good question. The answer is when it automatically feels like it’s coming to an end. I don’t set out to create something of any particular length or pre-determine how something should be. Sometimes a piece of music develops over months and months. Other times, it comes together very quickly. I never really look at why or how it happens. I’m just grateful that every now and then, an idea comes along. I love sitting at the piano and playing. I’m very lucky to live close to probably the finest piano restorer in Europe. He has 25 concert Steinway grands of all different sorts. I’ll just go down to his place with my engineer and just sit and play and play and play on a particular Steinway I adore, and record it all, and then have a listen later to see what happened.
How do you sift through those ideas to determine what qualifies as the building blocks of a composition?
I’m very fussy. If there’s something I think isn’t particularly good, it’ll get ditched. And if I think something isn’t very good, but there’s a good line in there, I’ll take it out and put it to one side, because you never know when it might be able to get used somewhere else. Sometimes I think “Okay, that’s four minutes long, but it’s only good for 30 seconds.” But that can be very useful, because I do a lot of corporate and film work where you need something that’s 20-30 seconds long. I also work very closely with an engineer named Erik Jordan. We’re good friends and he can be brutally honest with me about what’s working and what isn’t. Sometimes I’ll do a solo and say “Great” and Erik goes “No, you can do better than that.” Invariably, he’s right.
What are some musical contexts or desires that remain unexplored for you?
Oh crikey, there’s a massively long list of projects I’m working on in my own time. I’m also reviving old ones. I recently acquired the rights to my old A&M back catalog and we’re putting together a special set of them, all remastered and redone with a lot of additives. Promoters are now coming to me again saying “We want you to do Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur.” So, there will be those events, but they will be done in a completely different way. I’m also working on a project with Jon Lord. We’ve decided to join forces and we get on great anyway. I’m also halfway through a ballet I’ve been writing the music for off and on for four years. There’s just so much. There will never be enough time in my life to do all I want to do.
What else can you tell me about the project with Jon Lord?
We’re going to see what fun we can have in the orchestral area. Jon’s done a lot of stuff with orchestras, as I have. He goes out and performs with various orchestras around the world, and I do exactly the same. We often follow each other into places, working as guests with orchestras. [laughs] So, we decided it would be great to do something together. We’ve had discussions about the whole thing and it’s a project that will find its own time to realize. As with the project with Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin, we’re our own bosses. We don’t have management telling us when to have it done.
You’ve been talking about a duo tour and recording with Keith Emerson for several years. What’s the status of that partnership?
Keith and I are really good friends. We’ve talked so much about doing stuff together. He’s really busy. Again, it’s one of those things we have to do on our own terms and not on management’s terms. We were going to do something earlier, but management really put their spoke in it, and it immediately ground to a halt.
You’ve mentioned your dissatisfaction with dealing with management several times in our conversation. What are the core issues you feel need addressing when engaging their services?
I can’t stand management. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, management has done more damage to bands and musicians than good. I’m not suggesting they’re all villains and crooks, but they always have their own means to an end. They always say “You have to have an album by this date, go on tour here, do this, and do that.” Hang on a minute. Do I have a say in this? Management gets a percentage and I have no objection to that if they do the work. But it begs the question of who works for who. Does management work for the band or does the band work for management? My view is management should work for the band. The way I work these days is I have managers that I call in to look after various projects I do. I’ll sit down and say “This is what’s happening. Here’s what I want to do. Will you look after it?” And if they say “Right, we want it done by next week,” I’ll go “Great, I’ll get another manager then.”
You must get suggestions for grand-scale projects from all over the place. What are a couple of the sillier ones you’ve rejected?
[laughs] I was once asked to write an ice suite for a glacier, and then perform it on a glacier near Iceland. I asked “What’s the electricity situation like out there?” They said “Yeah, we’re working on it.” Several people have said “Why don’t you do a concept album based on the Bible?” I respond “Have you read it? It’s pretty long, you know.” [laughs] So, I’ve had my share of daft suggestions I must admit.