Billy Sherwood of Yes Talks New Band Arc of Life, Chris Squire Memories & Being Brushed Off By Ringo (INTERVIEW)

Yes has a long history with bass player Billy Sherwood. Once he discovered them as a youth growing up in Las Vegas, that was it and he tried his darnedest to be Chris Squire. The only band member to be with Yes from the beginning, and on every album, Squire was a legend. But in early 2015, Squire was having serious health issues and personally asked Sherwood to take his place on the upcoming Yes tour [Squire would pass away on June 27]. Although Sherwood had recorded and toured with the band in the past, it was a jumble of emotions performing for the first time without Squire on the stage, something that bandmate Geoff Downes reiterated in a 2015 interview with Glide:

“I think that’s the one thing I’ll miss is getting up onstage and standing up there and not seeing his omnipresent figure there and knowing that he was giving it his all every night and that was very much what Chris was about. When he’d go on that stage, that was HIS stage.” However, the band had much confidence in Sherwood. “I think if anybody was going to take Chris’ place in any capacity, Billy is probably, certainly the chosen one for the job,” added Downes.

Sherwood has music in his blood. His parents were Vegas entertainers and his brother was a musician. In his teens, Sherwood was in Lodgic, releasing one album in 1985, before evolving into World Trade. Conspiracy and Circa would follow, as would projects of producing, writing and engineering; most notably the 1993 Paul Rodgers homage to Muddy Waters, which Sherwood produced and which was nominated for a Grammy.  Sherwood’s first solo album, The Big Peace, came out in 1999, and he has made appearances on albums by everyone from John 5 to Asia, Def Leppard and Edgar Winter.

But Sherwood is a band guy. He likes the camaraderie of being with other musicians on a regular basis. So as the last Yes tour was on the road and playing shows, Sherwood and singer Jon Davison were sitting on the bus creating new music together. This has evolved into Arc Of Life, a band featuring old friends Jay Schellen on drums, Jimmy Haun on guitar and Dave Kerzner on keyboards. Their eponymous debut album officially releases this Friday, February 12th, following the singles “You Make It Real” and “Just In Sight.” And it is everything a Prog-loving fan could desire.

Sherwood’s internal musical heart is filled with surreal sounds and textures and he has followed that humming bird for most of his career. Nothing simple is in the atmosphere, as the music swells with illustrious melodies and floats across intricate chord sequences. Each band member has woven this tapestry from an imagination a lot of us just don’t hear, so when it hits you it’s like a perpetual garden of eden … without the evil snake, of course. Kerzner once described what he hoped to do with Prog music during a 2013 interview with Glide: “To take it further, not just dig into the past and rehash it. To bring forth songwriting elements and sonic elements of the past and incorporate that with what we feel is maybe futuristic music, or at least modern music, and give it our own spin on it.” It is exactly what Arc Of Life has accomplished with their debut album.

Last week, Sherwood talked about the new album, the magnificence of Chris Squire, working with some of the greatest guitarists in rock & roll, meeting Ringo and what he hopes he can feasibly accomplish in 2021.

 

For most of your career, you have been surrounded by Yes – the music or the musicians. How have you been able to make each of your different projects stand on their own, be their own entity?

Well, I think it comes from the songwriting and that sets the tone for a project and it just sort of naturally seems to work itself out from there, where you start writing a tune or two. Like in the case of Arc Of Life, Jon and I wrote two or three songs and we started realizing immediately this is sort of a new band sound we’ve got so let’s keep developing this.

You don’t worry about sounding too much like other projects you’ve done?

Not really, because there is a writing style that is there by proxy with other people. Jon Davison and I hadn’t done a lot of writing together so as we started writing, it was turning into a sound that was happening by proxy and becoming a very natural new type of thing. So it comes from the songwriting. That’s really where it’s born.

The new album has a great vibrancy to it, some peppiness to it as well. Did these songs come over time or in one big onslaught?

It started in 2017, when we were on the road, and Jon and I, we had a bus on the Yes tour and I had my studio set up in the back, and we just started writing songs back there. As I said, we kind of knew instantly that we were on to something bigger than we’d anticipated in terms of when we started writing songs.

Did you know right away who else you wanted with you on this project?

As soon as we started talking about the band concept, that’s when I mentioned that Jay was perfect and Jon went, “Of course.” And I said, “You don’t know this guy Jimmy Haun, my buddy, but this guy is going to blow your mind.” So we kind of imagined who it would be from the get-go and it was just a matter of connecting the dots, which we managed to do quite swiftly once we were really on the case.

Jimmy has been with you for a while

I’ve known Jimmy forever. My parents and Jimmy’s parents were entertainers in Las Vegas, Nevada, when we were growing up and Jimmy used to babysit me when I was two and he was five or seven or something (laughs). So we go way, way back. He’s an amazing guitar player. He was in my first band Lodgic, he was in Conspiracy and Circa with me. He’s just been a great ally throughout my career, and continues to be, and now we’re back in a band together.

With all the different textures that this kind of music has, how long did it take to put this album together?

Well, this record took a couple of years, mostly because Jon and I were very busy on tour with Yes most of the time and there wasn’t really time to sort of sit down and dedicate a few months to making the record. So we kind of did it when we could. That said, the songs were there and the frame of the house was standing, so we knew what plot of land and which way the kitchen was going to face and all that stuff before we got too deep into things. And it evolved into exactly what we thought it would.

What was the process of recording? What came first?

In this regard, it was the songwriting. We were in the back of the bus with some drum loops and click tracks, just to make sure what we recorded was at tempo and we could come back at it. Once we had that framing together then it was a matter of coordinating studio time with Jay, for instance, where we set up drums for a week and he and I recorded the basic tracks. Then Jimmy and Dave Kerzner, unfortunately due to geography, they did their stuff file-share and not in person. But it didn’t change the level of commitment and artistry they brought to the table. So it all worked itself out quite well in the way that records are made these days, you know.

When did you have this actually finished?

Probably 2019-ish. Then we got our ducks in a row to figure out what label we were going to go on; you know, take care of all the business-side. If you don’t get that part right, it’s not going to help you much. So we took our time and flirted around with a few other labels and then we finally made a commitment and got married, if you will. 

What can you tell us about the song “Until Further Notice”?

That is a song that came from sort of personal trials and tribulations of mine at the time. I came up with the title and started writing some of the words. I was going through some stuff and some of my friends were reaching out to me, I was just kind of MIA for a while. And finally when they got a hold of me, “What’s going on with you? Where are you?” I said, “I’m gone until further notice.” (laughs) And that became the song, kind of going crazy in your own mind and just checking out for a while, you know.

What about the track “There For We Are”?

Well, Jon and I were really into this film called Ex Machina that is about AI and the idea of when these AI robotic creatures can be made so human you can’t tell the difference and at that point when they start thinking for themselves and they start feeling for themselves, when they power down, what would they dream about? Is dreaming what really defines the human soul? And those kinds of questions we were asking each other. So that’s kind of what it plays around with, those notions and all the stuff that comes along with developing AI and the questions that remain.

Do you think we’re getting closer to that?

I think we are, it’s the inevitable, and I think it’s both amazing and scary as hell at the same time. It’s just one of those things but I think the evolution of AI is certainly coming rapidly.

You’re working again with Jay Schellen. I remember Jay from his Hurricane days. He’s a rock guy so what about his playing do you think has made him a perfect fit for this Prog-type music?

He’s a rock guy but in his heart he’s a Prog and Fusion drummer, you know what I mean. It’s funny because I met Jay through Bruce Gowdy, who is the guitar player for World Trade when we made the second World Trade album and Mark Williams wasn’t available. So we were looking to fill that slot and Bruce said, “You got to meet this guy Jay, you’re going to love him, he’s a great guy.” So we went out to lunch and my first question to Jay was, “Who is your favorite drummer?” And he said Alan White and I said, “I’m going to love you.” (laughs) “You don’t need to play, I just know this is going to work,” because he’s as much a fan of Alan as I was of Chris and I just knew that groove is instinctively going to be in this guy and I was right. That’s why I brought him into the Yes world, because when Alan needed assistance, this was the perfect guy. And he’s proven that time and time again. And he’s just genuinely a real sweet, mellow dude and fun to work with. We relate on drums in so many ways because I’m a drummer too and I speak the language and we’ll just sit in there and talk about all of our favorite drummers while on the drives. He’s a very cool character and he should be on the cover of Modern Drummer any moment now cause he’s a monster.

Billy Sherwood

So who was your favorite drummer way back when?

Alan White was my role model drummer. Jay and I used to laugh because I said I used to wear the Stan Smith tennis shoes just so I could think I was playing more like Alan was, cause that’s what he wore (laughs). And Jay said, “I did the same thing!” (laughs)

As a producer, what is the most important thing you need to remember when working with music that has so many intricacies?

Don’t lose sight of the emotional impact of the song, whether it’s coming from the chord structures, and making people react through the emotion of chord changes, which really is quite doable. People who don’t know music don’t understand why they feel sad when they hear a minor chord and why they feel happy when they hear a major chord. And also the lyrical and the melodic content that is on top of that plays into that even more. And just not losing sight of the song inside all of the trickery that you’re trying to create around it, you know. It’s a fine line where simplicity meets complexity but that’s kind of the razor’s edge I try to get on.

Which of these songs took the longest to get down in the studio?

Probably “Siri,” because I had actually recorded the whole thing and Derek Shulman, who was working on the record with me in kind of a production capacity and helping me see things I might not have seen because I was too close to it, he kind of said to me one day, “I love this song ‘Siri’ but it’s just too slow.” And I went, “What?” (laughs) He said, “You need to rerecord it a little bit faster, man,” and I was like, “Oh my God, really?” And he said, “Trust me.” And he was right! So that one probably took the longest because we actually re-recorded it. But maybe that’s a good thing because we dialed it in quite well and I’m happy with it. 

Did you play only bass on this record?

I played a little bit of acoustic guitar and some splashes of keys here and there. But for the most part, it was each man to his own station.

Which bass did you use primarily?

I used a combination of my arsenal that I use live. My Fish bass with the fish scales that I have, and the fretless is on there, some of my other basses. I think I used a Rickenbacker on one thing for fun. But yeah, everything that is in my cases, my normal arsenal.

When you first started learning to play bass and guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

Well, I guess playing and singing at the same time while playing some tricky things was challenging as a younger man. I have since figured it out and it’s not an issue now (laughs). I don’t even think about it. I compartmentalize, one half is for singing and the other half is for playing. But I don’t really worry too much about that stuff now. But when I was younger, the coordination of the two was like a difficult version of walking and chewing gum (laughs).

Were you a pedal guy from the beginning?

Yeah, I’ve always been into effects because all my favorite guys used these effects. Chris’ bass is just drowning in it on so many of the records and it’s great, I love it. I was always listening to like Del Palmer from Kate Bush who had all that chorusing on his bass guitar, which was great, or Jaco with all that beautiful reverb. So I was always interested in effects because they just take the sound to another level. The direct bass just doesn’t excite me so much.

Where the most do you see your similarities to Chris and where do you see the most difference?

That’s a tricky one because my playing was modeled so much after Chris. There was a point where Chris looked at me on one overdub I was doing and he said, “You sound more like me than I do.” (laughs) So it’s hard to differentiate. 

You know, it’s like we were both Pisces, our birthdays were only days apart and we have the same sort of desire to have a joyful laugh as much as possible. So it’s hard to define where our worlds weren’t similar because that’s what made us such good friends, you know. We just knew exactly what each other was thinking. And his commitment to having a band, being a band guy, that was something I had instilled in me long before I met him. I’m a band guy. So yeah, it’s a tricky one to find where we’re not sort of similar in that regard. It’s hard to think about.

When exactly did you meet him?

Probably around 1987, I want to say, somewhere in there.

You must have been so humbled when he asked you to take his place, but also sad at the same time.

Yeah, it was an emotional rollercoaster and it hit me like a ton of bricks. You know, he kept calling me saying, “Well, they really want to keep touring.” And I would say, “You just tell them to wait, Chris. Get your health in order and they’ll wait.” And he’d go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Then he’d call me the next day, “So they really just want to keep going, man.” “Yeah, but they can’t do it without you so just tell them to wait.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And the third time he calls me, I said, “Dude, how many more times do I have to tell you to tell them to wait.” And he says, “You’re not getting it!” (laughs) And he says, “I want you to take my spot here while I’m gone.” And I was like, I couldn’t really speak. I was sort of floored, not only for the honor of being a musician and having the honor of a guy like that saying take my spot, but the reality that he was facing this mortality is what hit me like a ton of bricks and had me speechless. My friend is dealing with this, it was just heavy. And it didn’t get any easier. The touring was difficult for me that year, and for the band, but the fans were amazing and were so warm and inviting. I think they all knew my history with the band and with Chris so had it been a stranger, it might have been different. But I think they knew where it was going, like Chris did.

Were you nervous about that first show you played and him not there?

Oh God, it was such an amazing amount of different emotions. I mean, incredibly scared, incredibly sad, incredibly excited, incredibly depressed. All those things running through my head like every other minute while I’m playing and trying to concentrate on how to play this music. Very, very difficult. The fans are the ones that gave me that feeling like this is going to be okay, cause quite frankly, my biggest concern was if this doesn’t work, it’s going to all be my fault. Fortunately, it did work, which is what Chris wanted and he wanted Yes to continue and I said I’d do it. That’s where we are and I honor his wishes and try to bring my A game to the best of my ability to keep it going.

It probably took a lot of stress or worry off of him because he loved that band so much, that it will be in good hands with you.

He did and what an amazing testament to who he was, because most of your rock stars who reach that point, they wouldn’t want you to touch it. But he actually wanted it to continue and to thrive. He was concerned about the fans, he was concerned about the crew, these guys have livelihoods; he was concerned about a lot of things. I kept telling him, “Chris, you need to concern yourself with your health.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I know that part but I’m really worried.” All roads led back to Yes for him in every conversation we had.

You made an album with Paul Rodgers and you got to work with so many awesome guitar players on that record. Who gave you goosebumps when you heard them play?

Jeff Beck. They are all phenomenal guitar players, as you know, but something about Jeff Beck’s approach to how he records and the stuff he’s playing, when you get to hear that in solo, which was just me and the engineer when we got his stuff back, we just sat there and listened to his performance. Absolutely mind-blowing! And still blows my mind to this day when you listen to “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and these other tracks he played on. The guy is just from another planet, you know what I mean. He’s coming from another place. He’s definitely way up there on my list of incredible, unique guitar players.

And Paul, all the vocals on that record were from the tracking session. He just knocked it out of the park while the band was playing and it was like, talk about mic drop stuff; just unbelievable.

Why didn’t you become a blues guy?

I didn’t find enough adventure in a blues progression (laughs). It’s kind of funny cause I was speaking to Carl Palmer about this and he goes, “The thing is, once you know those twelve bars, man, that’s it.” (laughs). I understand it and I do appreciate it as a genre and I love to listen to the guys who were great at it. I mean, Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of my guitar heroes. For me, nobody plays the blues better than Stevie. Then you’ve got BB King and the original deal. 

But, I don’t know, it’s a genre that has certain bylaws, which is why I am in Progressive Rock, is that there are no bylaws. You can take an empty canvas and paint it however you like and call it your art and I think that’s kind of cool; whereas with the blues, there’s an expectation of the structure and the bylaws to be maintained because of the way things are. It’s just a personal thing and there are guys who do that great and I leave them to that (laughs).

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Ringo, at the Burbank airport, when I was like thirteen. I went up to him to get an autograph and he shooed me on and my mother wanted to kill him (laughs). I mean, he’s Ringo, everybody was asking him for autographs, and I came up to him and said, “Hi, do you think I could get …” and before I could get to the word autograph he said, “I don’t sign” and he kind of just blew me off. It’s kind of funny because my buddy Steve Lukather, who is in Toto, plays with Ringo all the time and they’re best mates and I said, “Just tell Ringo, I just wanted an autograph!” (laughs)

What was the first song you totally obsessed over as a kid?

“Tell Me Something Good” by Chaka Khan. If you can figure out that groove, then you’re better at this than I am, cause I still listen to it and I can’t figure out where the hell 1 is in that song (laughs). But it’s funky and it’s soulful and super unique and original in the writing and Chaka’s voice is amazing. Quite frankly as a young kid, there was something really sexy about that song that was almost kind of nasty to listen to (laughs).

On your first solo album, on the song “Lesson To Be Learned,” you tap into different things, like the funk and a little blues and Prog. Is that the DNA of Billy Sherwood?

My first love of music before I discovered Yes was R&B. I was listening to Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament and Funkadelic and all that stuff. That’s what I was really into and that stuff has never left me, that funky thing. It’s kind of a funny thing because when Chris and I met, we started talking about bass players and he was like, “Bootsy Collins,” and I was like, “Yeah!” (laughs) So Chris had the funk too, even though it was kind of an English version of it. Chris was very funky in his way. We used to kind of joke and laugh about that, how important that is to bring to the table regardless of the genre you’re playing; just to have some of that soul in you to be able to manipulate the corners with a groove. So yeah, those R&B influences remain and I don’t doubt they surface.

Which Yes song took you the longest to learn?

Well, that would be probably “Gates Of Delirium,” which I had down and then the tour got canceled and now I can’t remember any of it (laughs). So now I have to go back to the drawing board once Covid is done, cause we’re going to go out and tour the Relayer album, that’s the next one. But I mean, I literally had the whole thing down and because I’m working a lot I don’t just sit around and play “The Gates Of Delirium” every day. It kind of slips away, you know what I mean (laughs).

Why Relayer next?

I’d like to think it’s because I bugged everybody so much to do it that we’ve finally done it (laughs). At the soundchecks or at rehearsal I would every now and then throw out a little riff from “Gates Of Delirium” and see if anybody wanted to jump in and jam on it. We started playing little bits and pieces over many years, never really committed to it, and finally Steve Howe kind of looked at me one day: “I think we got to start going down that road.” So it’s just something that I think maybe the band feels confident enough to pull it off. It’s a big one, it’s a hard one, but I think the band feels confident enough to pull it off now and be able to pull it off well. I think that’s it, you know, a combination of my constant nudging and Steve’s notion that we can pull it off.

So now you’ve really got to relearn that song. You did this to yourself.

Oh my God, yes! (laughs) There are chunks that I will never forget and I could play them in my sleep but it’s the other 70% that the attention to detail is pretty intense. There is a lot going on there.

Other than the new album coming out, what do you hope you can actually accomplish musically this year?

My real prayers are for live shows to come back; not only to do the Yes thing again, which we will, but to introduce everybody to Arc Of Life and get that band out on the road and play shows with Arc Of Life. I can stay in the studio forever, I’m used to that, but I find the joy and the payoff of all this stuff in the studio is getting out in front of people and playing and getting that visceral reaction of a crowd and just having fun. I think we also took concerts for granted but man, as soon as they come back, it’s going to be like a starting gun and everybody is just going to be running for it. I have a feeling it’s going to be a very exciting time once it comes back. It’s going to look like Black Friday at the Wal-Mart (laughs).

 

Portrait by Erik Nielsen; live photos by Leslie Michele Derrough and Andy J Gordon

 

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