How it is to be solo
Steve Howe must be a very fulfilled guitarist. Over the last six months or so he's been preparing his first solo album which is released this month. Called 'Beginnings' the album represents his first break away from Yes and promises to contain some fine performances. Just as he was passing the test pressings, his wife, Jan, gave birth to Virgil, the second Howe offshoot — Dylan is now six — and this even made the title of the album particularly apt.
Tell me about the album?
It's called 'Beginnings' and the title track is, in fact, on side two. It all started this year when I finally found I had the time. I had the arrangements coming along and several songs were getting ready to do, so I started getting really keyed up because I realised I had just three months to get into it.
You've been planning this album for quite some time though?
Yes, it's been a long talked about thing. I've gradually built up a fantastic catalogue of demos, Yes have occasionally done something from this collection, but most of the songs have been laying there and when the time came I realised it was almost ready to do. Initially I decided that I was going to try and play as much of it as I could myself. I realised that I hadn't experimented as much as I might in the field of totally colouring my songs with guitar and I set about doing very basic tracks to get the skeletons of the numbers.
The first thing I did was to invite three of Gryphon along and we rehearsed for two or three days. That was the basis of the first session I did at Morgan. This was the start of many guitar sessions, usually two guitars, bass and drums. That particular track is called "Nature of The Sea" and that's the third track on the album. I remember talking to you once before about the strange adventurous guitar numbers that I was writing and this is one of them. The number goes through a variety of situations relating to the sea.
We went on and did it track by track. Alan (White) and I came in and we did "Doors Of Sleep" which is the first track. The way we worked it was that Alan was introduced to these numbers really strongly on the end of the American tour last year and then I said "Well lets get in and do these." When it came down to the sessions it was very much like attempting to get a really good rhythm guitar going in a back-up guitar sense — usually acoustic. My idea was that the drums are such a foundation of a record, (you know, they're always there) I tried to convey as much as I could to Alan about the building, about the holding back and the pushing and it really turned into a drum session. I was acting out the arranger part of me telling Alan where I wanted drum fills and so on. It was terrific fun. I did four tracks on that system, totally without anybody else. Then I did two tracks like that with Bill Bruford, which were equally fine.
How was it working with him again?
It was great, he's such a character. We can agree about certain things. He didn't know what the tracks were going to sound like. He came along very open-minded and he said "Where's the group, where is everyone?" I said "It's just you and me."
Did you lay the bass down with the drums?
We rehearsed quite a lot with the bass and then he said he thought he could get off a lot more if I played guitar, because he could hear the changes better. We were doing a number called "Break Away From It All" and I was using a very old L5 — the old Scotty More type model – I plugged it in and it really started to rock. That took a whole day to do.
Was it very difficult working with such a bare framework?
Well the new dimension really was that the bass player and drummer didn't have to sit down and decide where the beats were — the drummer had the most freedom. We'd talk about the bass drum and all the drums and we agreed that if the bass drum was going in a certain place, I'd work my bass line around that. That's really what I did and I gave the drummer priority and a lot of freedom. He had to come in and listen with a certain amount of imagination, but he also had to be excited by his drum kit on its own.
It must have been a different technique with each drummer?
I think Bill and I had to establish ground which I didn't have to with Alan. That's a pretty hard thing to define, but it was getting up to date with each other. I knew Bill had progressed and I wasn't presenting him with an intricate number so far as the figures that needed playing. It was more of a continuous music idea, so it was the subtleties I was looking for — the feeling of release when we could hit verse two and realise here comes the guitar solo and we're well into it. Bill likes to work within the limits of his own kit, he doesn't want three tom-toms or anything like that and he wanted to do the second number we did together differently. This was a number called "Pleasure Stole The Night" and we tried out different things until finally we tried out a percussion and drums thing. He was just playing bass drum occasionally and doing rim shots on the snare like a bossanova and playing the maracas at the same time. The track ended up with a real nice flavour, we added string bass later.
Did you play string bass yourself?
No I didn't, I used Chris Lawrence. I come unstuck on anything fretless — I'm hoping to get better.
Apart from playing all the guitars on the album, what else did you do?
I did all the arrangements except "Beginnings," which is the only orchestral piece on the album. Patrick (Moraz) worked on that with me. He did all the orchestrations, based on tapes that I made and discussions that I had with him. I did odd things like playing organ on a track called "Lost Symphony". I had the old Leslie going and I just loved playing it. I fiddle a bit on keyboards and I also did a bit of Harpsichord on "Nature of the Sea."
If I'm playing an instrument I'm not competent on, I only do very simple things. I couldn't play every major chord on the piano, I'd have to stop and think before I could play F sharp which makes me quite poor. I did three pieces of Moog work on the album. They weren't Moog solos and I feel I have a way of doing it how I want it. Patrick played Moog on "Beginnings' which needed a virtuoso Player.
You've always recorded as a member of a band. Was it easy to resist the temptation to put everything on when you were recording solo?
I think I managed to resist the temptation, greatly because I'm very self critical. I was working on a number which is called "Willow The Wisp", which is the longest number on the album. It has lots of instrumental passages and I'd done some guitar solos. I listened to the whole thing from the beginning and all of a sudden in came this ridiculous guitar and I though, "Oh no! that's got to go." I took the first step occasionally but I realised that although the ideas might have been good I was overdoing things. I really wanted to reach some degree of subtlety on the album, to make it gentle. It wasn't until the thing was two thirds of the way through I was even allowed to let loose. There were a lot of little steel parts to do, things like that, just to add colour, and after all the various parts were laid down, I went out and laid down the overdubs. That was probably the longest section of recording because I worked through all the tracks at once.
How hard was the album to record — how difficult are you to satisfy in recording?
Jeremy, one of the engineers I worked with, said to me yesterday that I was very different in the studio. It wasn't like I walked in and just said "get on with it", I had to get to know the people I was working with because I need to rely on them. For that reason I don't find any difficulty in recording, I find it very satisfying, even if I'm putting on something very small.
I surprise myself occasionally by doing something I didn't think I would be able to do. Like I played washboard on one track and it was really great. I'm percussively minded and I did do a bit of percussion on the album. When I knew I was in the studio and I had something important to do, that's when I rested most on my experience.
There was a certain amount of risk in much of the album but when I came in to do the guitar it was the biggest test. After everything else I'd done had gone reasonably well I had to pull something special out on guitar. I needed the spark to be able to improve things which is possibly my strongest drive. It's usually not something I can do 24 hours a day, because you have to organise something and then play it. I wondered whether I was going to have that drive and I was very pleased to find I did. I would have worked constantly on the album if other people had been able to do the same. Tours and things like that interrupted the recording. I was just starting to do the guitars and we had the American tour to do, then the English tour. The interesting thing there was that I was forced to look at the recording from a distance. I couldn't work on the album for five weeks and at first I was disappointed but then I had time to consider it. I did some more work and then I had to leave it again. This really had its benefits. I pushed the deadline completely out of the window and decided that it was finished when it was finished.
Did you come back and change everything?
I improved on things, yes. There came a time when we were prepared for mixing that we had to decide whether we were going to throw something out. I wiped out certain guitar tracks and put in different things.
How long is the album?
It's roughly 20 minutes a side. Side two is 22 minutes.
For that reason did you have to leave a lot of material off the album?
I see this record as just the first of a series really. It has only used a very marginal amount of material. I only recorded one track that isn't on the album.
Because you did so much on the album yourself by overdubbing, did it turn out to be a very expensive album to produce?
Yes, quite expensive. I haven't got the final figure yet but it will be about £30,000. It doesn't bother me that it cost a lot. I tend to think of the studio like running a car. You need a car, you need to go there and you have to pay what it costs. There's the other alternative you can take which is to never go into a studio but to buy your own. But I value people more than machinery.
Are you intending to do any playing to promote the album?
I'll be more than happy to get back on stage. We go through a great rigmarole to get our shows up to a high standard and, without using tapes which isn't my idea of a live show, it would be very difficult.
My ambition is to do two albums so that I really have something to play to people and then do some shows. I've found myself playing songs from the album thinking; well I might do this or I might do that; but I wouldn't want to do anything that would risk my reputation. I'd rather get on stage and play some good old numbers.
Do you miss the casual gigs when you could turn up at the pub and plug in?
I haven't done them for a year or so, but I do enjoy it when I play for somebody or something like that. I sometimes wonder what it was like and I feel like nipping down to pubs I used to play at to see what it's like. I suppose I think far more about the advancements that can be achieved with other musicians, I don't think it's the place — it could be a community centre — it's more an attitude of mind. Then I ask myself "Do these places still exist as they did?" and I don't think they do. Certainly the pub market has changed a lot. It's got more pressured, it used to be very casual. When you think about work in pubs, it's been advertised a lot recently and it's become almost part of the music business.
I jam a lot at home with Dylan (his elder son). We go through all the hits. He plays drums, he's only six but he's quite good. I plug in and we're off and we play some rhythms. Dylan particularly likes Elvis Presley and occasionally we do something a bit wild.
I really love the old numbers, the old rock hits. I think they mature with age. One can play these numbers in a new context, especially a three piece group context. I'm following up a few angles at home — Moog guitar offers a lot — and I've been reviving some old songs just because I've been hearing them again.
If you listen to "C'Mon Everybody" it's a very good record. You've got to re-interpret these numbers. My family used to say to me "Oh you'll hate Cliff Richard in 20 years time". Well, I'm not so keen on Cliff Richard, but a lot of people of that time I really still dig. I'd like to give some old songs new arrangements. At that time the ideas about guitar breaks and general arrangements were so rudimental that there's now room for lots of different things in the songs.
To talk about you as a guitar player for a moment, how long is it since you sat down and deliberately tried to play an exercise?
Quite a while I suppose. My mind occasionally flashes on scales I used to do, but they don't interest me that much any more. That's because I started going in a direction away from scales.
Just the other day Ivor Mariants sent me a song book to show me the chords to a number I didn't know and embarrassingly I couldn't play with Les Paul, so I enjoyed looking at the stuff. The song that really got me going was one called "I Can't Get Started". It's a fantastic song, harmony, style, riffs, it's great and it started off a whole remembering thing. My whole association with learning is the chord symbols because I don't think about chord symbols at all. So to have a mass of chord symbols in front of me was almost like going back five years. It jogged me to recall a time where you think about possibilities.
As one becomes more busy things slip away. There's a lot one can learn from one's past. I have times when I concentrate on different aspects of my life. Looking at the book I realised I'd forgotten what a G7th flattened 5th looked like in the first shape. Then again on the album I used B flat with a flattened fifth and I knew, so the thing I always come against in the learning attitude is that I only learn what I use. The main thing it does is to allow a guitarist to express his work in chord shapes.
Do you like old fashioned chord solos?
Yes, very much. I wish Barney Kessel still played them, he does in one way but not like he did originally. Joe Pass kind of carries on like that. But on the guitar drive — having discovered a couple more Tal Farlowe records — I can lean off in all these different directions. I've got the Duane Eddy special double album which I think is great.
To move around the chords is definitely the most interesting part of the guitar. I don't think I've stopped trying to learn about trying to get from one chord to another but sometimes the chords get changed. Just working with other people can be stimulating because you're forced to use their chords. I suppose the jazz direction is the one I'm going in at the moment. The problem is that word, it's got two z's that word. I'd like to do the same thing in jazz as I have done in rock, not play anything too conventional.
I really rate Tal Farlowe very highly. The way he plays right across the melody is just incredible — he's so fluid. He plays right off the top of his head and I think some of the runs are just licks to him. I was going to do this Tal Farlowe-type thing on 'Topographic Oceans' but Yes said, "Do something more crazy, or wild" but I really liked the guitar piece. I got so much out of learning that riff of his. It was in "Chuckles" in the days when Tal Farlowe was just playing with bass and drums.
Possibly the most confusing thing about my kind of musical education is that I've grown to like all kinds of music. I particularly like Stravinsky — he wrote an incredible amount for small groups and this is really where my musical interests lies.
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