Interview - Alan White, drummer with YES
Words: Anthony Firmin
Is it raining there? asks YES drummer Alan White. It’s always raining when I go to Manchester he states after explaining that I am calling from ManchesterRocks. I live in Seattle so it is notoriuous here for rain too! Although from Newcastle in the UK, he now resides in Newcastle in Washington state, just north of Seattle, they changed the name of the city three months after I moved here, I tell people they changed it just for me.
YES have a new live album being released on 24th November, Topographic Drama, Live Across America, featuring Drama and sides one (The Revealing Science Of God) and four (Ritual) of Tales From Topographic Oceans so the plan is to have a chat about these periods of the band. It is late afternoon here in the UK and but for White the day is just starting on the north-west coast of the USA.
We start off our discussion by rewinding back to 72/73 when White had just joined the band I don’t know whether I can remember that far back he says laughingly. He only had three days to learn a fairly complex set of music before a US tour started, however, this must seemed a luxury after learning John Lennon’s set on a plane to North America along with Eric Clapton amongst other notable musicians. Although they were booked into First Class, the back of the plane was empty so they just jammed out the set down there. As you know I live near Seattle and there is a local band called Applejam who I sit in with sometimes and they wanted to do the first half of Live Peace In Toronto and they said we need to have a rehearsal. Rehearsal, what do you need a rehearsal for? We never really had one for the gig!
Although the triple live album Yessongs was White’s first release with YES, the incredible yet divisive Tales from Topographic Oceans was White’s first foray into the studio with the band, a whole different beast to what he had previously been playing with John Lennon: we spent an awfully long time making that album, a lot of thought went into it, basically it was an adventure in music. Nobody else was doing that, a lot of people though we were bloody crazy but I think that album is one of the most respected in certain ways these days.
Being presented with these four momentous pieces by Jon Anderson and Steve Howe must have felt overwhelming. Jon and Steve had some of the melodies and some of the chords but Chris Squire and myself did an awful lot of work on that album, there was a lot of work all around. If you listen to side three (xxxxxx) its basically us two with bass and drums that we worked out different patterns for and although Jon and Steve were commanding everything, we all got into it.
Although uncredited, White contributed some lengthy sections and bridges between the various parts of the album back in those days if you provide the melody line and wrote the chords then you wrote the song. Unfortunately with YES music, the songs have a thousand parts to them so it was a little bit unfair back then, we didn’t complain about it and eventually we did get a little piece of the cake.
After the first tour the band has periodically revisited sides one and four over the years but not sides two or three other than Leaves Of Green I know what you mean, I like the whole album. Sides one and four give a reflection of what the album was all about, the drum thing on side four is really the culmination of the message it is putting across.
I ask that consideration could have been given to a 40 minute “Best bits of Topographic Oceans” that could have encompassed everything? We were still working on how to present things in different ways he says.
Moving forward to 79, Richard Branson took White roller skating resulting in the drummer breaking his ankle. Recording sessions were put on hold, eventually seeing Anderson and keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman exit the band. Enter The Buggles’ Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes who breathed a new and exciting lease of life into the band resulting in (at the time) a modern and challenging album: Drama. That was one of the most under-rated albums we made says White, nowadays people absolutely love it.
Personally it is one of my favourite albums, although I was a die-hard YES fan in the later half of the 70’s the musical landscape was changing and I was finding myself listening to more industrial and pop-synth, new wave music. Drama kind of bridged the gap. It was heavy, industrial, stark in places but with six very individual pieces, it was a return to form for the band having seemed a little lost on Tormato. There is a hell of a lot of great playing on that album from everybody in the band reflects White.
Integrating two very different people into YES, especially a new singer, must have proved challenging it just happened overnight he goes on to explain, they were rehearsing next door to Chris, myself and Steve and Trevor came up to us and said “I love you guys, you are my favourite band, I wrote a song for you and do you want to try it out”. Jon Anderson just wasn’t around at that time and they slotted straight in, we sounded like YES so we decided to remain YES.
They performed the whole of Drama live on the UK tour in 2016 and we witnessed the third performance at the Manchester Apollo and although that show was far from perfect the recording on this album is stellar. Yeah, the recording is fantastic.
Talking briefly about the album series I ask if we are likely to see it go further, perhaps with Relayer being performed in it’s entirety? Ohhhhhhh, welllllll, we’ve been talking about it, he pauses, he isn’t giving anything away here. It’s not an easy album to play as I am sure you know. I wouldn’t be surprised if we try to venture into something like Sound Chaser. For the English tour Patrick Moraz might be floating around so it might be a possibility to do that one.
Finally I ask about his back as he had to take some time out, replaced by Jay Schellen for one tour and then sharing drum duties with Steve’s son, Dylan Howe for the last US tour. It was good to have a backup he says. I had surgery 18 months ago and it didn’t really work so I had it done again and had a fusion done and I haven’t had any problems since, it has kind of cleared itself up, I am pretty good now.
White continues next year we have the 50th anniversary so we may consider some diverse YES songs and play some songs people want to hear. We are working on how to present that right now. I am now getting my body in shape for a long year of touring next year, I am feeling pretty good about it and looking forward to it.
Are we playing the Apollo in Manchester? I respond in the negative (they are playing the Bridgewater Hall) but we still have a short discussion about the acoustics of the Apollo and the legendary bottom end sound the theatre has before we conclude with a brief discussion of the Aspley Cottage, the pub around the back, that backstage door is far too close to it though, the crew keep slipping out there!
YES play Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on Saturday 17th March 2018.