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Interview: Steve Howe on Asia's "Omega," Touring With Yes, and the Steve Howe Trio

Interview: Steve Howe on Asia's "Omega," Touring With Yes, and the Steve Howe Trio

Howe discusses his hectic touring schedule, getting jazzy with his trio, the gear for each gig, and his distaste for blues

In an age when maxed-out Marshalls supercharged Fender Strats to the point of electrocution and skull implosion, Steve Howe did something different. He got great woody guitar tones—you could always hear the wood of the guitars through his amps. The unforgiving sound of a Gibson ES-175 played through a cranked amp is reserved only for the superbly talented. While his peers pillaged electric blues as a vehicle for extrapolation and blues lick overkill, Howe did something different yet again. He brought country, jazz, rockabilly, and a smart, classy sophistication to Yes. He found a way of expressing himself by tastefully mixing the guitar styles he loved, and has been raising the bar and influencing guitarists for forty years.

The band Yes is such an iconic progressive rock institution that there are people who haven’t been born yet who will one day go through a long term, “I’m really into Yes right now” phase. We’ll all be long gone, but they’ll be working out the super hip chord voicings and lyrical melodic lines of tunes like “Starship Trooper” and “I’ve Seen All Good People.”

This year, Howe released Homebrew 4, a collection of home demos and nifty compositions, recorded the album Travelling with the Steve Howe Trio, and reunited with the original members of the band Asia for a new album, Omega, a successful international tour, and an upcoming US tour. In between, he’s been crossing the country touring with Yes. I spoke with Mr. Howe between tours and found him to be down to earth, highly evolved, and very likable.

You have back-to-back Yes and Asia tours. It must be hectic.

The Yes tour finishes tomorrow and the Asia tour starts in about two weeks. We’ve already played Europe and Japan this year. Asia has been quite busy working, and then the Yes tour begins. I get a two-week break between tours. I’m used to being busy. It’s not all of my life that I’ve been in two groups—I find it quite interesting that I have two positions to hold up.

Is it a challenge to organize practice time to maintain your chops for both groups?

I enjoy being organized. Organization just takes organization, and I’m a very organizational person. I’m always ready when the next thing is due to start happening, so I enjoy being prepared.

Would you call yourself a disciplined person?

Yeah. Quite disciplined. Touring in itself is a discipline. If you don’t do that then you end up being at six parties and then you can’t get out of bed. I like to be clear and organized about my life.

I really enjoyed your slide playing on the new Asia record.

There was more room in Asia for some slide guitar, and we managed to do more on this album than on Phoenix, so I’m quite pleased.

You’re known for bringing with you on the road some amazing guitars. Will you be bringing the fleet with you?

Asia is a more streamlined and simplified group. It always has been, so on the Asia tour I only used four guitars on this tour. I’m using two Gibson ES Artists. One is a backup, and I use my sunburst as my main guitar. The Line 6 Variax is a totally remarkable guitar, and I play a 700 model. I think it’s a great guitar. You switch it and it becomes every guitar you want, so that was a dream guitar for me. I adore Line 6 for getting that technology.

And, of course, I play a Martin in my solo spot, usually my own model called an MC-38 Steve Howe. Back in the ‘80s I use to play a 00-18 Steve Howe model. That was the first one. I converted to a MC guitar, which is a slimmer guitar with a cutaway. Martin kindly said, “Why don’t we do a Steve Howe model of that?” So that became the MC-38 Steve Howe Limited Edition model.

They’re still making the Gibson ES-175D, and Gibson did quite a nice job if you like a reissue of the 1964 style of 175s that I still play. I have it with me today. I play it with Yes, mainly, and exclusively with my trio. In the Yes lineup there are eight or nine guitars because that’s where I use my steel, I use a Portuguese guitar, I use a Gibson Stereo, a Fender Strat, and 175s. I actually use more guitars with Yes, and the Line 6 Vetta II amps. It has really brilliant programming. I’m very lucky.

It sounds like the Asia gig is less demanding.

The playing isn’t so varied. It’s a little bit more centralized. Asia has its own style, so that’s the style we sort of pick up on and it’s very enjoyable. John Wetton has a lot to do with that, of course, because he’s the singer and he steers lots of things just naturally. It’s good fun.

In this economy it’s wonderful that you have two jobs. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah. This year I’ve already done a tour with my trio. I mainly play in the UK just because it’s affordable, economical, and nice. My trio is an organ-drum-guitar trio, and my son Dylan plays drums. A guy called Ross Stanley plays brilliant Hammond organ with the bass parts.

It’s interesting that you’re covering Yes songs in a jazz organ trio context. What kind of response do you get about the new arrangements?

It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of people grip onto an arrangement. When Yes plays the ‘70s material, I’m very much the advocate of saying, “This has to be played like in the ‘70s.” I think if you’re going to be close, you may as well play it the same. But if you’re going to be totally different, then that’s what the trio offers me. We can take something and completely reshape it for a different lineup. I’m very flexible and I enjoy that reinvention of a song for a different lineup, or for solo guitar. I do that with some Yes tunes as a solo guitar piece. I like taking something and making it something else, but with the basic storyline of the original.

Your trio record, Travelling sounds like New York bebop cats playing Yes songs. [Laughs]

[Laughs] It does. Funnily enough, the trio seems to have rubbed off because I got a very good review when Yes played in Philadelphia about two weeks ago. The guy actually said that I was playing like an amazing jazz guitarist. [Laughs] That’s the first time anybody ever said that when I wasn’t playing with the trio. Maybe the whole thing kinda rubs off and I improvise better now. The trio is a vehicle for improvisation, so of course we take something like “Siberian Khatru” and there are about three bits we never touch, but we riff out on some of the parts. Then, we open up other parts you wouldn’t expect to open up. That’s what’s so good about improv. It takes everybody by surprise, even the player. It goes to places he didn’t know he was going to go to.

I remember reading somewhere about your lack of interest in blues guitar because it created legions generic sameness in many players. Care to comment?

I’d like to fix that statement. What I’ve always said is that in the late ‘60s when I was still carrying on playing psychedelic rock, every lead guitarist always played in the blues style. I found that so disappointing and so annoying! The originality of all the other inspired guitarists like Scotty Moore and James Burton…They both had more of a country influence and they brought that to rock, and you had Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. Loads of guitarists did that. Frank Zappa did that. He came in and had a strange style. He was determined to be that. Yet, so many people just went, “da, da, da , da, da.” [Sings main riff from “Hoochie Coochie Man.”]

I find that really annoying, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate great guitarists like the early work of Buddy Guy and B.B. King. I’m really a country blues fan. I like Big Bill Broonzy. For me Big Bill Broonzy is really inspirational. He’s a blues guitarist. So that contradicts what my general output is about blues. It’s just that it got to be overkill in every kind of bracket and racket you can think of. The important thing about rock is originality, and I think it’s all very well enjoying Eric Clapton. He’s a model guitarist. He’s been successful in ways that many of us admire and attempt not to envy. He’s been so hard working and deserving of his success. He’s a thoroughbred blues guitarist.

I guess I’m talking retrospectively really. That was all what was going on in the beginning of the ‘70s. There was a sort of inner battle. I had to keep my originality and not just become a regular blues player.

There’s all kinds of blues guitar playing, and it’s not all electric or from Chicago.

That’s exactly right! I think that’s a fixation that people have got. When they’re playing in that style, very few of them are aware that there are other styles. Some of them are very valid and very exciting.

Any upcoming Yes releases we can look forward to?

We’re planning to start recording some music in October together. We hope to finish up by early next year, then we would think there would be something out next summer. No guarantees, but there’s a feeling that we’re going to move on to it. We’ve been writing material, we’ve been talking to producers, and basically we think we’ve got something happening.

Will this include Jon Anderson?

It won’t include Jon Anderson. Benoit David is our new vocalist from Canada. Basically, it works, it’s practical, it’s friendly. It’s very constructive and it’s working. We can’t keep going thinking we’re going to go back to something. Back is old. Back is problem. Back is baggage. Forward is adventurous and revealing. We say to people that this is the Yes that’s working. This is the working Yes. You can have all the other lineups you like in your mind, but this is the line up that actually goes out and does the work. We’re the perpetuation, the continuation, and the saga of Yes.