YES Approaches 50 Years: An Interview With Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Drummer Alan White

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When one thinks of YES, the angelic voice of Jon Anderson, the nimble guitar fingerings of Steve Howe, or the genre defining bass lines of Chris Squire might most immediately come to mind. But YES drummer Alan White has been there for the long haul of 45 plus years, replacing original YES drummer Bill Bruford in 1972. While his tenure is impressive so are his rhythmic contributions to one of rock’s most spirited and adventurous songbooks,

While White has performed on over 50 albums throughout his career, including those by John Lennon, Joe Cocker, Ginger Baker, and The Ventures, he’s certainly the most workmanlike prog drummer of his era. While YES had endured numerous lineup configurations, White has been the steady drum de force, that has helped keep the songbook intact with the YES legacy. In addition to his drumming White has contributed music to the catalog (“Changes”) and remained one of the most respected sticksmen of his craft.

Most recently White and YES were spearheading the 2017 YESTIVAL summer tour that also featured Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Experience. The shows spotlighted a track from each YES album from their debut up to 1980’s Drama and featured Howe’s son Dylan on drums to accompany White.  Due to to the sudden tragic death of Howe’s son Virgil on Sept 11, 2017, the band had cancelled the remaining YESTIVAL summer dates, but still plan to embark on a 10 date European 50th Anniversary Tour in March that will feature not only many of the band’s classic hits, but performances of Sides 1 and 4 and an excerpt from Side 3 of their 1973 album, Tales From Topographic Oceans.

Glide recently had the chance to talk with White about his past, present and future endeavors and his thoughts on being one of the newest members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Alan, you’ve been on tour for a few weeks now, can you tell me about the Yestival tour a little bit.

We are, well, actually I have been on the road about a month now but the actual tour has been going on for about three weeks now…and it’s pretty good.I mean we’ve been doing a lot of gigs all over the place and the set list has really warmed up now. Todd’s (Rundgren) doing a great show. He is in front of us and in front of him is Carl Palmer who is doing the old ELP stuff and then we go on and we play our music.  Our set list this time around…we are playing one song all through the 70’s to 1980.

Can you tell me the idea behind doing a festival versus doing say the “Album Series” which is kind of the way things have been going the last few tours?

Yeah well we have done that for a couple of years and we wanted to step out and maybe do something a little different and I think when we tour for the 50th Anniversary next year, we will be doing a similar kind of thing, a good cross section of great classic Yes songs that everybody loves.

50 years…that’s really amazing.

You know, that really amazes me too because I’ve been in the band 45 of those 50 years so it’s really incredible.

You’ve done 15 studio albums with them also. That’s an incredible number.  Were there any songs on this tour, any songs that you wanted to play other than what was on the set list?

Um, No. Not really. I was intrigued to see the setlist.  After being in the band 45 years, there’s one of the songs (“Survival”) there that was a very early number which we play early on in the show, which I’ve never played before. I know the studio version of it and I’ve played an acoustic version of it.  Now we play the whole song and it’s quite an interesting song considering it was one of the first YES songs.

There were members of ASIA spread out through a couple of bands. Is there any chance we see an Asia performance on this tour?

Yeah well Steve hasn’t been in ASIA for an awful long time, and um, Billy was playing in ASIA on this last tribute tour they did for John Wetton who passed away, with Journey earlier this year.

We seem to be losing musicians left and right here.

We seem to lose a lot of bass players. We lost Chris Squire. That was one of the biggest losses of my life. I’ve been playing with Chris Squire for 45 years.  It was a big loss and you know Billy is doing a great job. He played with Chris. Chris was his mentor when he was learning to play growing up and, um so he pretty much knows all of his stuff and learned his harmonies too. He’s doing a great job, about as good as you can get, I think.  But you know, obviously it will never be anything like Chris Squire; he was one of a kind.

Tell me about Dylan Howe. What is it like having him on stage drumming beside you?

Um, Yeah well you know I had back surgery of course. I had the first operation a year ago, last July. I was waiting for months and months for it to fix itself but it never did and then they did a fusion on my L3 to L5 and I’m feeling a million times better now, I’m walking pretty well and, funny enough about the drums, playing the drums has never really been a problem.  It’s really a matter of pacing myself.

So, what we did with two drummers, just in case, one night something happens to you like I have incredible pain or something but that has not happened on this whole tour; so I think I’m on the mend. So hopefully, eventually, next year I’ll be playing the whole set. But I’m playing quite a lot of the set at the moment. Dylan came in because Steve wanted to try his son out playing some of the music with us which is, fine.  

It sounded great. Now I would consider Dylan to be more like a “Blue Note” jazzy, 60’s drum sound.

Yeah, Dylan is that kind of player, you know he does a good job. You know, we have now kinda gotten into that mode, with Billy and all of us, that we now play the music like arena rock type style of YES music and it’s changed to that over the last 45 years you know. That style took the band to bigger heights and into big arenas and big shows, you know. So we will be dealing with that until the end of the tour and we will see how I am because I have a few more months to still go over this before we approach next year.

Well, it’s great that you have these different drummers backing you up. You had Jay Schellen backing you up in 2016 on the Drama/Tales tour who did a really masterful job.

Jay kind of plays exactly like I do. He modeled all of his drumming style off of me so it’s kind of funny being on the road with him because it was like watching myself.

Did you give him any advice before he took over the tour? I know that he was only given three days to learn the material for the Close to the Edge tour. Did you give him any ribbing, anything like that?

No No No, He was really well versed on how I play. He has been listening to me for at least 35 years and knows how I play.  He was about as good a stand in as you possibly could have gotten I think.

Yeah his work on “Ritual,” specifically from that tour was just amazing.

I was playing the end of “Ritual” for most of it to the end. I was doing the hard part of that song! We might be actually doing it in Europe next year.\

Let’s talk about the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame for a second. Do you think that Yes has felt any kind of resurgence of interest since you made it into the Rock Hall?

Oh yeah, of course, it’s better for the band.  Our meet and greets after the shows have become pretty big. 75 People per night. We kept it a limit of 75 people because there is too much to do after a show. We don’t go to bed until 1:30-2 AM and sometimes we have to get up at 8:00. You tend to get really worn down with those traveling schedules.

Can you give me any insight as to why progressive rock bands have more problems getting recognition from the Rock Hall?

I never knew the reason but it obviously has something to do with some of the board members, in particular the guy from The Rolling Stone.

Jann Wenner, I believe

I don’t think he was an advocate for these older bands that never saw the light of day. At the same time, progressive music changed the style of lots of bands and I think YESin particular changed and influenced a lot of bands that sprung up the last 30 or 40 years, and you know, we had lots of advantages in the studio. Steve Howe could really play that stuff; everybody in YES was a really good musician. We had really high standards and we tried to keep it like that.\

Finally, I think the Hall DID see the light of day and you know, I went to see Heart get inducted. They are old friends of mine from Seattle. So  I went down for the induction, went to a pre-show party at the hotel. I was talking to the guys from RUSH and I was talking to Geddy Lee and he said “You know what. We can’t understand how we (Rush)are getting into the Rock and roll Hall of Fame, when all of our early music and all we were listening to when we were starting out was YES music. You guys influenced us so much. You are not in the Hall and we are getting inducted. Isn’t there something wrong there?

Yeah, It’s a crime. It really is.

Well for many, many years, lots of people said “You guys aren’t in the hall of fame and we had that coming at us for about  15 years you know. So anyhow, we finally got in, though it was unfortunate that Chris never saw that. And you know he really deserved to come and see that.  You know what actually, when I think back, Chris actually lost interest even getting in there. He thought it was a load of rubbish anyway.

He was a little jaded, I’m sure.

Well, that’s Chris for you. All he cared about was playing great music.

Now, you have played with all of these lineups over the years, the Wakeman Anderson lineup, Horn Downes, Rabin.  Is there any particular era you are fondest of?

Ha., I always get this question and it is one of the hardest questions. I’ve been through all shapes and forms of Yes since 1972 and each kind or different version of them has its own era, has its own album. You know, it’s really hard to pick one because they are all kind of great in their own way. Obviously, the Relayer tour was fantastic….

And in ’76 and the Topographic era. That was a great decade of music that we turned out. Then in the 80’s of course, we did Drama. Then we went and did 90125 with Trevor, Chris and myself that started the whole ball rolling and it was gonna be called “Cinema.” Then Jon Anderson came along and said “can I try singing on these songs”. Turnabout would have that, of course, we were gonna call this band YES and have Trevor Horn produce the album. That album sold more than any album and probably sold more than all of our other albums put together (laughs).

It was so meant to be, the way it all worked out like that in 1983?

Yeah. Of course it had “Owner of a Lonely Heart” which is a great song that probably went number one in 18 different countries.

“Changes,” “Hold on”…it had so many great classics on that album.

Well, I have the proud ability to say that I wrote “Changes.” I wrote “Changes” with Trevor and when it came out, it got an awful lot of airplay.

You know, last year I saw the other project with Trevor perform “ Changes” and it was a highlight. On that note, I know you’re the type of person that doesn’t want to get himself involved in the day to day politics of what’s happening between the two bands. My only question for you is …there are two different bands calling themselves YES. Is that good or bad for the fanbase?

Well, it’s funny you should say that, because just a few days ago someone told me that it seems that fans are going to both shows. I know that our ticket sales have been pretty good throughout the whole tour and I’m not sure on the other band but maybe they have sold as many tickets as we have.

You know what, as far as I’m concerned with the whole thing, to me, when Chris Squire was on his deathbed he said ” Alan, I really want you to try and keep this movement going. This is YES. It will always be YES.  And you gotta keep moving forward.”

So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m still in the same band I joined in ’72. I’ve never left it. I’ve never done anything else, except for my own group, but I’ve always been there for YES. So, for me, I don’t get into all of this pulling, punching and taking sides.  It bounces off me so I carry on playing YES music.

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One thought on “YES Approaches 50 Years: An Interview With Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Drummer Alan White

  1. Eric Turner Reply

    Great interview Drew! Drew was raised on Yes thanks to growing up in a rock and progressive-rock endearing family, some of which still perform! Great going, Drew!

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