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© Rob Shanahan
The lead singer spot in Yes has been a bit of a bouncing ball lately: Following the 2008 departure of longtime frontman Jon Anderson (who himself has skipped from the band from time to time), the progressive rock giants continued on with vocalist Benoit David, who had to bow out in 2012 due to a respiratory illness. On the group's forthcoming album, the Roy Thomas Baker-produced Heaven & Earth, the singing duties are handled by a new recruit, Jon Davison.
Heaven & Earth sees most of the core classic lineup of Yes intact: Along with founding member and bassist Chris Squire, there's drummer Alan White (who joined in 1972, replacing Bill Bruford) and guitar virtuoso Steve Howe. Rounding out the band is keyboardist Geoff Downes, a onetime member of the duo The Buggles (which featured the short-lived Yes vocalist Trevor Horn, who would go on to produce smash albums for Seal, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Yes, among others).
Howe sat down with MusicRadar to talk about how Davison joined the band, performing the classic albums Close To The Edge and Fragile live, working with Roy Thomas Baker, prog rock and what he would like in return from all those who download Yes music free from the internet.
So there’s a Foo Fighters connection to your new singer, Jon Davison. I understand that Taylor Hawkins recommended him to Chris Squire, who then pitched him to the band.
“You know, I don’t know how that happened, really. I know that there are some friendships there, yes. Before that went on, I think Paul Silveira, our manager, recommended Jon, and we looked at him on the internet. Then, I think, some of the guys said, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s really good.’”
What was the process of him joining the group? He was in a Yes tribute band called Roundabout, right?
“Well, he wasn’t, actually. He did some work doing some Yes songs; he was in Glass Hammer, which is a prog band, not a Yes tribute band. He’s done a variety of things. He’s not always been a lead singer – he’s spent a lot of time being a bass player. I mean, I guess he did something in a Yes tribute band, but that wasn’t his primary musical venture. He’s had quite an illustrious career, and some of it was singing a bit of Yes. That’s what we saw in a medley.”
The new album – I wouldn’t call it prog rock, although the last song, Subway Walls, is total prog.
“Well, yes, I guess so. But see, when somebody at Mercedes-Benz goes to work, they don’t ask themselves if they’re an Audi or a Volkswagen. They know they’re a Mercedes-Benz. When Yes goes to work, we don’t ask ourselves if we’re another band. We’re Yes. But that’s a pretty broad stroke.
“I mean, when you look at Open Yours Eyes or other albums we’ve done – including Talk, which I wasn’t part of – you can see that we deviate from being just another straight-ahead, thoroughbred prog band. After all, you have to remember that we took nothing but criticism in Europe and England for being a prog band. [Laughs] So you can’t blame us for sometimes wanting to edge away from it. But we don’t do that because we want to; we do that because of the material we’ve got.
“It was the same with Fly From Here: When we started it, for good or bad, we didn’t say, ‘Oh, we’re not gonna make this record ‘cause it’s not prog.’ Or ‘We’re not gonna make this record ‘cause it’s too prog.’ Therefore, we would have upset everybody who thinks we’re indulgent, technical show-offs. We were never that. Right through the ‘70s, all we were was an honest band that did what we did. And that’s all Heaven & Earth is.
“We can’t change our mold. On this record, we’ve just got those songs. Some of them were a little bit dangerously close to being accessible, but some of them might not be dangerously close to being accessible. We don’t have a mold. I mean, I love the Keys To Ascension and I love the ‘70s, but we’re not always there. We just have to accept that, and so does our audience."