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Billy Sherwood and Citizen

BillySherwood_CitizenCover_72dpiBilly Sherwood’s inventive new concept album Citizen is available now. Each of 11 songs follows a central character, “the citizen” who is reincarnated into different periods in history, experiencing the time he’s inhabiting, whether it be as a WWI soldier, an American Indian on the trail of tears, or a stock broker during the market crash of 1929. It’s a vehicle that allows Billy to delve into many emotions with matching soundscapes, leading the listener to experience the triumphs and tragedies of man’s history. Billy plays almost all instruments on the album including bass and drums on every track but the opener “The Citizen,” which contains the last recording from Yes bass player and long time Sherwood collaborator Chris Squire. Billy also adds guitars and keyboards on many tracks, joined by an A-list of collaborators like Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, Patrick Moraz, Geoff Downes, Steve Morse, Jon Davison, Alan Parsons and more. I talked to Billy this week about the new album, and his role with Yes going forward.

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Citizen has so many guest musicians – how much of that was done in person – what was your process for getting it all on record?

Well, file-share is a big part of the world we live in. If we tried to pull together a record like this back in the day it would be a very, very expensive process, traveling around, shuffling tapes. The way we do it now is doable. I recorded Jon Davison in my house, and I went to Alan Parsons’ studio to record his vocal for “Empire.” For the track “The Citizen,” which features Chris Squire on bass, we recorded at a Holiday Inn near his home. Since I carry my mobile recording studio with me on the road, I just set up in the hotel and turned it into my studio for the day, and he did a great job.

The thing about working with artists on this level, is they know exactly what to do – I don’t need to be sitting over their shoulder saying “it’s a B-flat!” they can figure that out on their own. I really just lay out the format of the songs and tell each musician to feel free, to add anything else they want to interpret to the song, to add their stamp on the piece in any way they think improves the song. I’m always thrilled when I get these files back because they are consistently great. I sit there smiling to myself when I listen to it all; it’s a blessing to have these kinds of players on my record.

When you listen to the song “The Great Depression,” it wouldn’t be that song without Rick Wakeman adding that great piano work. He enhanced that melancholy feeling to the whole thing. I said to Rick when I sent the file, “this is about a guy who’s at the end of his rope, this citizen is reincarnated as an investment banker from the Great Depression and he’s lost it all and is about to take his own life.” It made me sad to sing that song; even though it’s a fictional character, I was feeling for that guy. That’s something about music that’s important, to evoke those emotions from the listener. The track is very melancholy and instead of a synth solo, Rick’s piano piece was exactly what I was looking for.

Everyone on the record delivered that same quality and expertise, their performances accentuated the lyrical content. These guys have been doing it for so long, they’re not playing it for their ego; they’re playing for the song. And that’s what music is all about – to make the song shine and there are many components that do that. A guitar player coming in and shredding over the top of something to show his chops is not what it’s always about – it’s about lending the right notes and vibes to the track. They know exactly what to do.

“Trail of Tears” is another standout track, and features Patrick Moraz on keyboards

Watch the video for Trail of Tears on Youtube

He played some amazing melodies that lent themselves to the emotion of the song. When I saw him in Florida recently he was raving about what the lyrics meant to him and how he loved being involved. The lyrics are kind of heavy, talking about the trials and tribulations of the American Indians and what they went through at that time, and it moved him – he was expressing that to me and so translated those emotions into his work.

I wanted the listener to be able to put on headphones with eyes closed, to have a sense of becoming the citizen, in that moment, and to be transported into that time period and feel that emotion and trepidation, or joy or whatever the case may be. I’m happy with the way it came out in that regard. It’s a concept that could be taken further with more records. There are so many amazing moments in world history. With an album you only have so much time to speak and there is a lot more that could be said with this character. I tried to key into these monumental moments in history that were not only profound for the Citizen character, but for all of us. For this record I chose what I thought would be interesting subjects and historical facts. In one way it is complete fiction, in the other it is hardcore reality. For instance when you get to “Age of the Atom” it is kind of frightening and scary because we’re talking about nuclear technology and weapons and who’s got them, particularly in light of current events.

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Do you foresee touring for this album, and if so who would be in the band?

We are going to tour it, and I’ve got management looking at gigs now. Yes has become a priority in my life, which it always has been. Whenever they call I answer. I’ve always been there for the guys – it has come in and out of my life so many times. Chris wanted me to take his position in the band and so did the other members. But there is time still to do other things, and my other priority is to get Citizen on the road. I’ve built a core band already. I will be playing bass and lead vocals. I will be joined by Scott Conner from my band Circa on drums, John Thomas from the band XNA, a band I produced, on guitars, Scott Walton who appeared as an auxiliary keyboard player on the Circa Live and Conspiracy releases. The core of the band will be the four of us, and we plan to have guests playing with us as well – there’s nothing confirmed yet but I’ve spoken to several musicians from the album, and they’ve all mentioned their desire to participate, schedules permitting. That’s the plan.

I want to say “thank you” to the fans, thanks for supporting the project. I can’t wait to get out there on stage – please come see it live!

Here’s one patron who will make it a point to get to one of these shows. Last week I returned from Cruise to the Edge (CTTE), the rock festival, where Billy performed on bass and vocals, stepping in for Chris Squire who passed on earlier this year. It was a remarkable show, and Billy did Chris proud, replicating his trademark sound while still interpreting the songs anew. We talked about the Yes tours for a few minutes.

Billy, the CTTE Set list included “Soon,” a surprise track that sounded amazing. What have you experienced or learned playing and singing with Yes on this tour?

In all my other bands I’m the lead singer, so approaching the background vocals for me is actually easier to do. That said it’s also tricky, there is a lot of dexterity required for playing while singing. Delivering those crazy bass lines and singing simultaneously is a challenge. One example would be “Tempus Fugit.” You sort of have to detach the two sides of your mind and let one go one way and one go the other. If I really stop and look down at what I’m playing it confuses me so I try not to look at the fret board! That’s something I always admired about Chris – how fluid and easy he made that look, but it is tricky. And then there are the bass pedals to put into the equation!

“Soon” is a beautiful piece of music from Relayer. It is so cool the way Chris composed that bass part. As there are no drums, the tempo is derived from the bass part. When I was starting to play bass around age 16 I always tried to play to the hardest stuff I could find. “Gates of Delirium” from Relayer is an example, a bear of a track to learn. The bass line is intense and relentless. I love that record, used to play to that record every day to get my chops up.

Will the Drama/Fragile tour make it to the US?

I hope so because it’s a lot to learn! I’m confident that we will be bringing it to the states next year. There are plans to do a lot more touring around the world. Yes is my passion and priority and I look forward to the future of Yes.

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Photo Credits:

Michi Sherwood
Doug Harr, Diego Spade Productions, Inc.

Citizen Credits

1: The Citizen
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Drums
Chris Squire Bass
Tony Kaye Keyboards & Hammond Organ

2: Man & The Machine
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
Steve Hackett Guitar

3: Just Galileo And Me
Colin Moulding Lead Vocals
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Harmonica / Bass / Drums

4: No Mans Land
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
Steve Morse Guitar

5: The Great Depression
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Rick Wakeman Keyboards & Grand Piano

6: Empire
Alan Parsons Lead & Backing Vocals
Jerry Goodman Violins
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Bass / Drums

7: Age Of The Atom
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Geoff Downes Keyboards

8: Trail Of Tears
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Patrick Moraz Keyboards

9: Escape Velocity
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Jordan Rudess Keyboards

10: A Theory All it’s Own
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
John Wesley Guitar

11: Written In The Centuries
Jon Davison Lead Vocals
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Bass / Drums

Yes: Beyond, Before and Again

Yes Squire CTTE 2014 72dpiBeen thinking since Sunday about what to say after the passing of Chris Squire, the immensely talented bass player and vocalist for Yes. I’ve seen Chris play live over the years at more than a dozen Yes shows, and every time his performance has been incredibly entertaining and inspiring. He is one of the most important musicians of our time and will be sorely missed by fellow artists and fans alike, as evidenced by the outpouring of remembrances and condolences over the past week. Yet the band Yes will continue and change once again, as they have so many times over these more than 40 years. And that’s an honor to Mr. Squire, and a very good thing indeed.

Chris had been part of the artistic flowering of rock music since it’s maturation during the 1960’s and beyond. The progressive rock and jazz-fusion genres nurtured some of the best bass players of the modern era. Unlike much of mainstream rock and jazz, these adventurous forms inspire each instrumentalist to stretch out, to explore the boundaries of their craft and produce artistic music that startles and amazes listeners. Such was the case with Chris Squire and his signature Rickenbacker bass. To help describe just what makes Squire so unique, I reached out to my collaborator, author and musicologist friend Tim Smolko. He came up with an excellent four-part answer to this inquiry:

  1. Squire’s treble register. Squire spent as much time exploring the upper register of the bass as he did the lower. Utilizing such a wide pitch range gave him the ability to construct his elaborate bass lines, take solos, and interact with the other melodic instruments in the band (voice, guitar, and keyboards). Most players create intensity by developing a low, growling tone. Squire not only did that (the “Roundabout” bass line), but he created the same intensity in his upper register.
  1. Squire’s use of a pick. Squire was not the first to play the bass with a pick, but he was among the early pioneers. His use of a pick gave his playing the speed, execution, and punchiness that most other bassists didn’t have.
  1. Squire’s participation in the “emancipation” of the bass. I like to compare what players like Squire did for the bass guitar to what Beethoven did for the cello. In the Classical period before Beethoven, composers often gave cello players a boring job: just play the root position notes that underlie the harmony. Haydn and Mozart came along and gave cellists more interesting parts, but it was Beethoven who treated the cello as an equal instrument alongside the violin and viola. In his string quartets, the four instruments are equal partners. Chris Squire did the same for the bass guitar. Instead of playing just the basic notes that outline the chord progression, they created melodies of their own and became an equal partner with the other instruments. It’s as if Squire is soloing all the time, but he’s still laying the foundation for the song. Like Paul McCartney and John Entwistle, Squire stands out as a great bassist because he treated his instrument as a melody instrument.
  1. Squire’s band mates helped him become great. It’s obvious when listening to Yes that the other members never dictated to Squire what to play. He had the freedom to make his bass parts as elaborate as he wanted. Not only that, the other players “took over” some of the traditional roles of the bass guitar in order to let Squire become the melodic player that he was. Steve Howe, Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman, and Billy Sherwood often played the low-end notes and the basic rhythm of a song while Squire did something else.

All keen and valid observations; thank you Tim! It’s particularly important to understand that his bass melodies share the sonic palette as an equal partner with the other instrumentalists. In addition, the other aspect of Squire’s talent as a musician was his powerful vocals. Chris could almost be called the co-lead vocalist of Yes, so frequent was his simultaneous harmonic pairing with Jon Anderson, Trevor Horn, Benoit David, and Jon Davidson. The signature Yes sound relies in large part on these vocal harmonies. At every show I attended Chris was consistently in strong clear voice, and it’s an important part of his legacy.

Yes Squire White 2009 72dpiWhich brings us to Squire’s longevity and legacy in general. Provided one does not count the Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford, Howe album as Yes, Chris has been in every incarnation of the ever-changing Yes lineup, enduring for over 40 years. Other band members have come and gone, some with fairly prolific solo careers, particularly Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson. Yet with the exception of his outstanding 1975 solo album Fish Out Of Water, and a few other collaborations, Squire’s primary focus had been Yes. He poured every ounce of his focus and his talent into it’s many incarnations, helping drive the relentless touring schedule that has kept the music alive.

yes troopersAnd it is important that Yes does live on and endure, as they have thus far when other band members have passed on or have left the fold. The fundamental reason for this is clear – the band has produced a huge catalog of music, rife with stellar compositions and virtuosic musicianship. This music should and will be played even after the original and long standing members are no more. As evidenced recently when Squire first announced that his illness would preclude his involvement in the upcoming Yes tour and he indicated his support for collaborator Billy Sherwood to carry on in his stead. “The other guys and myself have agreed that Billy Sherwood will do an excellent job of covering my parts and the show as a whole will deliver the same Yes experience that our fans have come to expect over the years.” I for one am very interested to see who will fill in for Chris over the coming years and what kind of interpretations they will do of his work.

Yes Squire band CTTE 2014 72dpiWhich leads me to the broader question, one often debated amongst fans on Facebook and other social media sites, as to what gives a musical group it’s identity. This is the point recently raised by Geoffrey Himes in a Smithsonian.com article. Mr. Himes poses a valid question about rock bands, “How much can you change its personnel before it’s no longer the same band,” suggesting there is both a legal angle and a fan’s perspective to consider, and continuing with other valid points. It’s interesting fodder when considering a group like Yes. I’ve read posts by fans adamant that “Yes is not Yes” without Jon Anderson, who so embodied the band’s core vision and spiritual leadership. But I would argue that like the classical composers of the past, progressive rock music should be played in concert into the distant future for generations to come. In fact, Chris said it best in a 2013 interview with Jason Saulnier “I believe that like a symphony orchestra there could be a version of Yes in 100 or 200 years from now, honoring the music and presumably creating new music as well. That would be a nice thing I think.”

Yes Squire Keys (c) Owen1996  72dpiLet’s celebrate the fact that progressive rock music, particularly as composed by bands such as Yes, is that good. That it is a valid and viable form of music and it can continue to be interpreted for original and new audiences, just as has been the case with classical and original jazz forms. While any original members survive and are able, they should be part of the family that continues in this pursuit. While I can still catch Steve Howe, Jon Anderson and the other band members, either together or solo, and while they can still play, I will continue to attend their live shows, and will continue to recommend others do as well, provided they still enjoy the results. As new musicians come to the fore and perform this music, if they do it well, I will be there to enjoy their mastery of these works and honor the memory of those who came before them.

Like all fans, I was terribly disappointed when Jon Anderson fell ill just before the summer of 2008 tour, as I had 3rd row tickets to the cancelled show in Mountain View. But the band soldiered on, with new vocalist Benoit David, then Jon Davison and we’ve seen every tour since. We’ve also seen Anderson live in solo tours including one with Wakeman in Scotland, and we loved every minute. Last year Davison again took lead vocals for the band at Cruise To The Edge and put in an astounding performance. He hit the most powerful sustained note I’ve seen by any Yes singer for “Heart of the Sunrise” on the refrain “I feel lost in the city….”

The band are on tour this summer with Toto, then hosting the third annual Cruise To the Edge voyage this November and they will begin a tour of the UK and Europe next year, having announced that the set list will include all of Fragile (1972) and Drama (1980). Both of these albums showcase some of Squire’s most intricate bass leads, and so it’s fitting timing that these will be the focus of this upcoming tour. We were all deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the great Chris Squire and I for one will be at the upcoming shows and beyond, to celebrate his life’s work and continuing legacy.