When a band loses its last original member, it’s typically the signal for the remaining members to call it quits. In the case of Yes, which began in 1968, the musical legacy outshines the sums of its parts. Yes is a band that was always destined to continue after Phoenix resident and founding bassist Chris Squire died from leukemia in June. Squire’s desire that Yes “keep it moving on,” was made easier by the fact that guitarist Steve Howe has mostly been with the band since 1970, and drummer Alan White has been a constant force since 1972.
“It will never be the same, but we’re trying to move on because Chris wanted us to move it on,” White says.
While the band hit its peak in the 1970s, such timeless songs as “Close to the Edge,” “Yours is No Disgrace,” “Roundabout,” “And You and I” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” among others, have kept the band touring regularly through the decades. It has “gone the way of classical music, like Bach or Beethoven. It’s just something people remember.” The August 2014 Mesa Arts Center performance was memorable enough, White says, to be recently released on CD.
New Times caught up with White in Biloxi, Mississippi, to talk about Yes’ history, Chris Squire’s passing and what it means going forward, and the enduring legacy of the band.
Yes is scheduled to perform Friday, September 4, at Talking Stick Resort.
New Times: Let’s start with the beginning of your career with Yes. I read that when you joined in 1972 you had three days to master the band’s catalogue. The music sounds rather complicated, so are you that good of a drummer, or is the music simpler than it seems?
Alan White: You work it out. I’m still here 43 years later. (Laughs). It was obviously a task. I hadn’t played any [Yes] music before and had to pretty much go straight on stage. I was a lot to learn in a short space of time, but sometimes you rise to the occasion.
In that regard, that a 14-CD box set, Progeny, of all the concerts the 1972 U.S. tour was just released? That was your first tour with the band, so obviously things clicked right away.
I was just starting with the band, but it’s interesting to hear how my approach to the music changed, how my style changed to suit the band, as the tour progressed. You can hear that develop.
What changes and discoveries did you make along the way?
Oh, just how to approach playing things. The dynamics of how to play the music.
After all these years, are things still changing in any way?
(Laughs) I think after 43 years I might have developed a way of playing it by now.
Considering that release, and the fact it’s considered Yes was at its peak in the 1970s, how does that Yes compare with what we’ll get today? Given the nature of the music, fan expectations must be high.
There are high. The standard of playing in the band has always been at a very high level of musicianship. Back in the 1970s, that time in music, a lot of bands were striving to find their own sound, a music that went in a new direction. You had Genesis and Pink Floyd and all those bands were discovering new forms of ways of using their instruments. That’s what was exciting about that time, all these bands discovering new directions within their own style.
Did you find that as the music changed around you—punk rock, new wave, etc.—that it was struggle to get a foothold and remain relevant?
We just carried on what we were doing. We weren’t affected by the other music and what others were doing. Yes became more of cultish kind of thing. We had many dedicated followers like the Grateful Dead. People just kept coming back. Quite frankly, it didn’t really enter into our world.
Bassist Chris Squire passed away recently and you were probably closer to him than anyone—the rhythmic backbone of the band. How are you getting along without Chris? He’s seemed rather irreplaceable?
He’ll be missed by so many people. I formed a relationship with him over 43 years where each one of us knew where to go all of the time, to anticipate what the other was going to do. We were not only bandmates, but also friends. Make no mistake about it; it was really hard to lose that. He was just a fantastic musician. It will never be the same but we’re trying to move on because Chris wanted us to move it on. He said, “I want you to keep it moving on,” and that’s what we’re going to do in his name.
Since Chris was the last original founding member, was there ever a consideration to hang it up?
No, not at all.
You’re coming back to Phoenix, which is where Chris lived and passed away. Is anything special planned?
We do tribute to Chris each night at the beginning of the show. If people really want to see that, they should be there for the beginning.
In July, Yes released Like It Is: Yes at the Mesa Arts Center, a complete concert from August 2014 featuring performances of two complete albums. What’s special about playing in Arizona—or was it just one of those special nights?
I just remember that being a particularly good show. The band was on a roll having been on the road for a little while. You know, it always takes any band a few shows to get warmed up and this band [with new bassist Billy Sherwood] is really sounding good. It came together a lot quicker than I thought it would and the band is playing excellent right now. Were getting a lot of appreciation from fans that we’re trying to keep things moving.
What will fans get for this show? More complete albums, or a mix of songs?
We’re doing a show that’s great for Yes fans to hear. It’s a lot of memorable songs from two different eras of Yes.
The band is performing only vintage material these days, and you’ve been playing it for 43 years, what makes it so timeless?
It’s hard to say. A lot of the initial songs are very memorable, and have been played a lot by classic rock stations. Even when we play places like South America, people sing along to a lot of the songs. Being around for so long, it’s just something that’s gone the way of classical music, like Bach or Beethoven. It’s just something people will remember.
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After 43 years, it still fun performing this material? At 66, no one would slight you if you hung up the sticks?
Am I 66? I wish you hadn’t told me that.
I take it you don’t feel 66?
Well, I still have to play a full show every night. This show is by no means easy. It requires a lot of energy output. … But, I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t doing it. It becomes part of your life.