Throughout his career, Jon Anderson has always lived on the cutting edge—not just in music, where he was the voice of progressive rockers Yes for nearly 40 years—but also in the areas of design, audio and even technology.
Consider this: Yes was always ahead of its time with sophisticated lighting and sound at its legendary live shows. The band was one of the first to record an album—1994's Talk—completely on computer. Even the “Avatar” movie had visuals that were eerily reminiscent of Yes album covers!
The voice of Yes has had his share of challenges in recent years. In 2008, as he prepared for the band's 40th anniversary, Anderson was sidelined by serious health problems. Yes quickly —and controversially—replaced him with a singer from a Canadian Yes tribute band they discovered on YouTube.
Fully recovered, Anderson has moved on—has he ever! He recently released The Living Tree, a CD with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and has a new solo CD Survival & Other Stories, out now. He plays solo concerts around the world, on his terms. He's incorporated modern technology into his life and work with gusto.
E-Gear recently chatted with Anderson to talk about how he utilizes today's tech, and his innovative ideas for the future.
Note: The following is the complete E-Gear interview with Jon Anderson. Photos by Robin Kauffman.
I understand you're touring solo these days.
I'm just getting ready to start. Go to jonanderson.com (for tour dates). I'm also doing some singing, writing songs, working on ideas for different people and generally keeping busy. i've got an album coming out, by the way—it's called Survival & Other Stories.
What's the style of the new CD?
It's songs i've written with people via the Internet that I've been doing now for five years but I didn't release any because I got sick. So I had to spend a period of time getting better and then last year I started finishing off some songs and I finished up with a couple of albums' worth. So I'm releasing one album at a time and it's a reflection of what I've been through these last four years with getting sick, and it's a new world. My life is very exciting and I'm very excited about doing a lot of different kinds of music, especially with the people I that meet on the Internet. It's a great world studio.
How did you write with people on the Internet?
It's very simple. I tried getting the guys in the band of Yes to send me music via mp3s, but I couldn't get anything from them for maybe a year. So I thought i'll put an advert on my Web site, which I did and I got a lot of replies from people all over the world. They'd send me one minute of their music and that really inspired me because there were some very, very talented people out there. I wanted to work with them and they wanted to work with me, so we started writing some commercially ready good songs, interesting longer songs, musicals, operas, symphonies. I finished a violin concerto with a guy called Bill Kilpatrick and I'm working with the guy who does the music for South Park, Jamie Dunlap, on my new album, so you never know who you're going to meet.
What kind of music are you doing with the South Park guy?
You'll hear it on the album. We've done three tracks—two very strong pieces and then an acoustic guitar song. When you work with people, you find that everybody has so much talent and there's so much to go around, so its a very wonderful experience.
So you work together via mp3s?
Exactly. We'll do that for a while and they'll send me the files and i'll mix it and that's the album. Done.
That's how you worked with Rick Wakeman on The Living Tree?
Yeah, exactly. He would send me music and I was on tour at the time. I'd sing the songs, send the voice back to London to his producer guy, and he'd mix it in and that was it.
You were in the states, he was in London, and it was all done over the Internet.
It's the modern world, you know? And it's getting better every day. We're getting to a time where people can work with each other live, but that's always been tricky because of time problems. But it's becoming better and better, and within a year everything will be locked in so we'll have a global time zone for technology. When you watch the people on the “Today” show in the morning, they're speaking with somebody in Libya, it takes them three seconds to remember what they're saying and get back to you. Within a year it will all be in time.
You foresee a time when you can perform music with people all over the world live via the Internet?
Oh yeah, there's no question, and at the same time you can have people doing visuals and dance, theater … you'll have theater live, you'll have people talking to people, having arguments, doing theater live on the Internet, so people actually create theater, it's like watching beautiful theater on the Internet live, but you'll plug it into TV screens and your screens will get bigger and bigger, you'll have a wall screen, before you know it it'll be 10 feet by 10 feet, and then there'll be 3D in five years' time without glasses … modern technology!
Are you into 3D TV?
Not with the glasses, no. I don't want to get a headache. Avatar was brilliant in 3D, and I'll wait until they do it without glasses and then I'll be cool.
You'll know they'll get it right.
They'll figure it out. They always do. You know 100 years ago, we couldn't fly.
You used to make albums by cutting up audio tape.
Oh yeah, those were wonderful days. You do it with the mouse now!
Would those albums have been made in less time now?
I don't think so. Music takes time. This morning I was singing, I finished a beautiful song for a couple of friends of mine and yesterday I was singing, finished three songs for them and that's that. Sometimes it takes a week to get around to figuring out what you're supposed to do that day. Things have their ups and downs, you never know what's going to happen.
You recorded your parts for The Living Tree while you were on the road.
Yeah, it's the modern world. The world is a studio now. You can do the old school if you want to do it, but people have some methods to the madness.
Do you incorporate MIDI technology into your solo shows?
I used to, and I will do next year, but this time I'm just acoustic guitar, acoustic mountain dulcimer, ukulele, piano and that's my show. It's a lot of fun.
You've played before crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. How different is that from performing solo in front of a smaller audience?
It's like walking a tightrope. You've got to make sure you're good. You've got to have your show together. You've got to have everything organized, and I want to perform great and it makes me sing better because I can hear myself, because in a band you can hardly hear what you're doing. You try your best and sometimes it's great and oftentimes its “Turn the bass down! I can't hear!” But that was life on the road with the band. They're all trying to be louder than everybody else. So they're not listening to each other, after a while people just get up on stage and perform their own thing. You watch bands now and they don't listen to each other and that's not great. You can always tell a good band when they're listening to each other.
Is your solo set tightly organized, or more free-form?
It's well-organized. I do songs from Yes, Jon & Vangelis, some new songs, I'm doing three new songs on this tour, and some old songs I've never tried before that I'm doing on mountain dulcimer from an album Olias of Sunhillow that I did.
I'm actually going to perform it next year with an ensemble, a group of people out of New York and an orchestrator out of San Francisco. They want to do a production of it and I think, “Go ahead. I'll get up and sing it.” And … poof!
I've heard you're working on a sequel to that album, part two to the story?
Oh yeah! Part two is Zamran. It's very exciting because it's a large-scale project and large-scale ideas but the technology isn't ready for what I want to do. I have the music and it's slowly cooking in the oven and it's coming along. It's about three hours of it now and it's going to be probably a five-hour project. People will be able to go into the realm of Zamran and they can choose their path every time they go in there. They don't have to take the same pathway so they can choose different pathways and hear different versions and different styles of music relating to the same theme that carries on all the way through. It's about the discovery of how the earth works. That's all.
Is that going to be CD?
It's going to be an app. At each juncture you find about more about the mysteries of the planet earth and then more about the mysteries of the human condition, and then more about the inter-dimensional condition of this planet and how many inter-dimensional beings are out there that we don't see. And then of course, the extension of that is the inter-galactic people that we don't see. But they're here, don't worry. They're here. They've always been here.
The app will incorporate visuals?
I'm working with three people at the moment—one guy in Poland, one guy in Canada, one in Brazil—and we're just creating slowly these projects and visual arts. It's looking really good. It takes time. It's something that's so different and so revolutionary. Because gone are the days of records, CDs, etc. etc. In five years' time, we will be using “mind drive”, don't you know.
This will be an app for smartphones and iPads?
It's an app for everything—an app for your computer, to your wristwatch, whatever you want to do. Because you'll have an implant and you can actually watch it in virtual reality with your Ray-Ban virtual reality glasses, when they actually make them. So that's the way it works.
What was your favorite era with Yes?
There's been so many really … the beginnings, the first album, the second album we did with an orchestra, Time and a Word, of course Fragile, Close to the Edge. Getting to know each other, learning to work together. There was so much beautiful harmony, we were excited about life and that happened again when we did an album Going for the One. 90125—we were rock n' roll superstars for 10 minutes, which was fun, and then in the 90s we did the Talk album, which I love very much.
Me, Trevor (Rabin) and Rick (Wakeman) want to re-perform that next year. We're working on songs, but we're talking about doing songs from Talk and Big Generator and 90125. It takes time, we can't say exactly what it is, but we're talking. We believe. We're all busy. Timing is everything. My new mantra is “It will happen when it happens”.
That's still an active project, with you, Trevor and Rick?
Oh yeah, we were working on songs last week. It's slowly moving, it takes time.
You're trading files back and forth?
Trevor's in L.A. doing movie soundtracks.
Oh yeah. I went to see him working on “I Am Number Four” about a month ago. It was great. He's a good guy, he's very brilliant.
And you'll do shows together?
And new music.
Oh yeah. I would never just go on stage and do the old stuff. I would rather do some new stuff with the old stuff and make people aware that music is timeless, and we shouldn't be judged on what we've done, more what we're about to do.
It would be great if you revisit Talk; that was such a wonderful album.
Oh yeah, we were singing … (sings) “it's the last … time … telling myself everything.” Trevor and I were singing that together on the phone. We love it.
It would be great to hear that music live again.
We will. We'll definitely be doing it.
Rumor had it you were getting Bill Bruford back on drums.
Well, we asked him but he doesn't tour anymore. You never know, he might say, “Hmmm, I need some money”. You never know!
As you've shown in your career, you just keep on playing, right?
What else are you going to do?
Do you foresee Yes getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Oh yeah, we're going to be wheeled in and it will be fun!
You should've been inducted years ago.
Oh well, it's no big thing. People love what Yes has done musically and I'm a big fan of what we've done and I'm very proud of what we've done musically. That's all I've got to say about that really. When it happens, it will happen. My new mantra.
Do you envision yourself working with Yes again in the future?
Probably when we do the hall of fame.
You'll get up and play together?
Oh yeah. There's probably about 20 of us!
There are a lot of guys who've been in Yes!
Oh yeah. We'll see.
What about your future plans with Rick Wakeman?
We're touring. We're going to be at Carnegie Hall this coming November I think. We're practicing. We're going to tour the east coast in October and November. It's a funny show. The new album is beautiful to sing and perform. It's very different. People are not ready for it. They think, “Oh it's going to be whatever, and then they hear it … you've got to listen to it. You have to listen to it two or three times and then you get it. People say it's really nice and they like it.
This show will just be the two of you, not a full band.
Yeah. It's good fun. Life is for fun.
I hear Rick is a big TV star in England.
He's a mega-star, bigger than Simon Cowell.
Getting back to technology, what kind of gear do you have at home?
I just use the normal stuff, Apple Mac Pro and a couple of computers that I set up. I work with Logic (Apple's recording software). The new album, I mixed it six months ago and I haven't listened to it since, and I listened to it last week and it's mesmerizing, just the whole emotion of listening to that album, how it came together … it's a wonderful experience.
Are you doing some songs from it in your solo shows?
Yeah, I do three songs from it acoustically, because I'm just playing my gee-tar. When it's number one (on the charts), I'll go out with the band.
Here's hoping that comes to be.
Hey, why not? Think positive!