by Morley Seaver
I didn’t like prog music when I first heard it back in the early ’70s. I was used to snappy two-three minute songs and an immediate melody. My friend Dave was a prog freak and played me stuff all the time. I was always like “….What?” I was looking for a concise hook and not finding any and couldn’t understand what he saw in this stuff. It took a little while but eventually Dave’s persistence paid off and I was basking in ELP, Genesis and especially YES.
Over the years, my love for the bands have deepened to a degree that I would never have imagined back in my youth. There are many elements that are integral to prog music but to my ears, none so much as the golden voice of Jon Anderson. As vocalist and lyricist for YES, Jon has a way of pulling you into each song. He had been a cornerstone of YES since forming in the late ’60s and is responsible for some of the genre’s most adventurous and beloved songs like “Roundabout” and “Close to the Edge”.
For the last several years following a severe respiratory illness, Jon has been a solo artist. Although he has reunited with fellow YES comrade Rick Wakeman from time to time, he has spent most of the last few years working on a series of solo records. He has adopted a unique approach for these records, collaborating with strangers over the Internet.
The first of these records is Survival and Other Stories, an excellent record that sparkles from top to bottom. The songs are top notch and they are capped off by Jon’s sterling voice.
After nearly 40 years of listening, it was a tremendous honor to get to talk to Jon by phone recently to discuss the new record. This interview is dedicated to my friend Dave who helped open the gates and start me on my way with this kind of music.
antiMusic: Congrats on Survival…. It’s an amazing record and by far my favorite solo record by you. It’s a very interesting concept that you developed for this record. Tell us how it went from a germ of an idea to reality?
Jon: Well, first of all I put an ad of sorts on the website and said I wanted to collaborate with people and I got all kinds of responses. So basically I started working with people once or twice a week and within two years I had a lot of people that I was working with and am still working with on the albums.
Eventually I ended up with a lot of songs in a lot of different styles. Finally I had enough for one album, actually three albums so I decided to finish it and put it out and I was curious to see how people would react to the project.
antiMusic: How many responses did you get and how many of them were actual serious entries?
Jon: I think I had over 100 but I ended up finishing up with about 20 people that I work with on a general basis. And every now and again someone will send me some music through the website that just fits somehow — I just got something interesting a week ago — and so I’m working with different people on different projects.
antiMusic: So you’re looking at this as an ongoing project, not just limited to a one-time cattle call sort of thing?
Jon: I think it will be an ongoing thing because there are a lot of very talented people out there and I’m very happy to work with them. So we’ve opened up some new avenues for me musically to work on, you know? So I’m very, very pleased at how this is all developing.
antiMusic: So the people that sent in the music were actually the ones that were composing the music and delivered what we hear on the record?
Jon: Oh yes. The first track is by Jamie Dunlap and he makes music for the TV show South Park so he was interested in working with and so he sent me some music which I liked and we went from there. The second song is by a guy from Holland, Peter Kiel. He sent me a guitar piece and I sent him back to him and we developed something. So it’s a real spontaneous event.
antiMusic: You are credited with the song as well as lyrics, obviously. Did you have any of the melody lines or song shapes in place in your head prior to receiving the input from your contributors or were they inspired after you heard the music?
Jon: Basically, I’d put the music on and within the first 10 seconds or so put the microphone on and just sang what came to me spontaneously. So the music would be the way it was and so it was just a matter of crafting the lyric. So it was a very interesting way of putting together a song.
antiMusic: How much back and forth went on for the average piece?
Jon: I’d say maybe half a dozen to a dozen times we’d send it back and forth. It would just be a matter of different ideas like “Could you put some hand drums on this track?” Eventually, then I’d just say, can you send me the file and I’ll mix it here because I’d do all that here in my studio.
Some tracks like “Incoming” took a long time to visualize and we’d start with the music and it was a very delicate idea so we took a bit longer. So some tracks would take longer than others.
antiMusic: Were there any pieces of music that surprised you or were not quite what you were expecting?
Jon: Well, most of the music comes and it’s a surprise right away and you like it and you’re grateful that it came to you. I suppose there were some instances where you would think, “Well gosh, where does that come from?” There were some times that the music would inspire a certain energy to sing about something lyrically and that was always an interesting development. So it’s a really interesting way of working with people, by way of meeting them through the Internet, you know?
antiMusic: Which was the first piece that you received that actually became something you used on the record?
Jon: Oh gosh, I can’t remember. There were so many in those first couple of months. I think the song “Love and Understanding” came from a guy in Australia who had been working on a whole musical which was a rock opera and it was kind of long. We had been working on a couple of things but that first track, “Love and Understanding” was, I guess, five years ago now.
antiMusic: Was there one piece that helped shape or shift the project from what you initially envisioned?
Jon: Not really. I think when you put together an album…my wife Jayne, she loves music. She knows music. She was very instrumental in making sure that the tracks that would be on this first record were the right songs for this time. So she asked that I mix certain tracks either a little louder or stronger or bringing up the piano here or could we have less basses here or should we have more harmonies here? It was just a very, very wonderful way for making an album with someone you love.
antiMusic: In my nervousness off the top, I forgot to ask you how your health is these days?
Jon: Oh, a lot better than it was three years ago. I’m very, very happy. We just finished touring so I’m a little tired now. But I was on the road for three to four months. So I’m having a break now which is really cool. Then later this fall, I’m going to go on tour with Rick Wakeman which will be fun.
antiMusic: Do you think that putting the record together this way, geographically speaking, removed some of the barriers, in particular the intimidation factor? I mean I can’t imagine being one of these musicians and standing next to a legend across the studio glass or even more frightening right next to me as I played?
Jon: Probably yeah. I don’t think about it too much. But it’s something you get used to. Standing in front of somebody that you really look up to can be very daunting. But I’m just a person. I was just at the School of Rock and those kids had to play in front of me. I’m just a guy who makes music. I’m as regular as anybody. After awhile they just became cool. Because I’m very open about what I do. I’m very easy going, you know? I like to challenge people but that’s part of life.
antiMusic: Tell us about a couple of the songs, either about the lyrical ideas or how the song came together. The first one I’d like to talk about is the opening song “New New World”. It’s the closest to Yes territory that you venture mostly due to that bass line and obviously the percussive elements. I assume that the new world theme at least in part talks about the open road in front of you as a solo artist.
Jon: Well, that’s true, but it’s actually an idea that we’re living in a new world with the Internet. We are living in a very exciting time where things are changing so fast and people can see it instantly around the world. Globally we’re changing. So we’re living in a new world and that’s what I’m singing about.
antiMusic: Despite my love of some of the more convoluted music that you’ve been involved with in your career, one of my favorite songs is the straight-forward “Big Buddha Song”. What can you tell us about that?
Jon: Well, the verses are really about the confusion of war and how corruption is a very bad element of the human condition. In order to open up our state of mind, we need to examine some of the great people like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and of course Gandhi, Martin Luther King…people who said things that sometimes we didn’t understand and that’s what the song tries to explain. That we’re all committed around the world and we should wake up a little bit.
antiMusic: One of my other favorites is “Effortlessly”, just a beautiful vocal. How did that one come together?
Jon: Well, Jamie, the guitar player just sent that guitar piece. He’s also the guy who did “New New World”. I just sang a vocal straight away and said, “This is so cool.” It was just like the title, effortless to put together…a rare kind of thing.
antiMusic: By far my favorite track on the record is “Cloudz”. My god, what a beautiful song, Jon. What can you tell us about that?
Jon: Well, Paul who is a musician in Vancouver, sent me that piece. And I sang that right in the middle of the operations that I was having. And it was just such a delicate tone and when I was coming out of those operations and after one of them I was waking up and was in this cloud and was trying to think “What just happened to me?” and then I saw my wife lying next to me. We were both on this beautiful life experience and she really helped me through these really difficult times. And when you spend as much time in hospital as I did, you realize there’s so many people in hospitals around the world and there’s so many wonderful doctors and nurses who try to fix you. And the song relates to survival and that kind of thing and how we’re all together in this human experience.
antiMusic: What was it about “Just One Man” that made you want to revisit it here?
Jon: Well, actually I wrote that with Jeremy Cubert and we work on different songs all the time. He’s a very beautiful musician. And I recorded that a couple of years ago. And I also recorded that with Rick because I thought it was very good for his style of piano. I just thought it was a very strong song to be sung.
antiMusic: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you have enough for two other records. Will they be thematically or sonically different than “Survival”?
Jon: I don’t know for sure but I think they will be, yeah. Because the songs are not actually the same. I mean they might not sound the same but they’ll just be a different version of the idea.
antiMusic: I’ve always been curious. You were (and still are, I presume) a major Beatles fan. How does somebody who listened to concise chorus-heavy pop gems like that, conceive and work out pieces like “Close to the Edge”? What was the initial spark that led you to go, “I want to go over there”?
Jon: It’s so funny. Back…a few years after we first started, FM radio was just beginning to take off and they would play some of our recordings. I think it was around the time of The Yes Album or Fragile. So all of a sudden, doors started opening for longer pieces of music and I was so into that. Because I just loved the idea of recording pieces of 10 minutes, 15 minutes without doing long solos. You had to set some musical structures. So I just wanted to experience that for me…on stage and take the audiences on these journeys. So that’s how we got into Close to the Edge and then …Topographic and “Gates of Delirium” and “Awaken”. These, for me, were very, very exciting experiences to record and also to go on stage and perform. And so the whole concept was because of FM. And then all of a sudden, FM disappeared (laughs). So there was no one to play our music. And everybody was like “Uh-oh! What are we going to do now?” But I said, well the concept still works, we should still continue to do long-form music. I don’t think there’s any point in changing it. And thankfully the guys in the band agreed with me.
antiMusic: I’ve waited almost 40 years to ask you this since I’ve never seen an official explanation by you or the band. What the heck is a Khatru?
Jon: Well, it’s a real juxtaposition. I work in metaphors all the time. Khatru is pronounced ha-trew and is actually Yemin for “as you wish”, “take everything as you like”. A bird of prey when it’s catching its prey is not thinking it’s horrible. It’s thinking that it’s life — it’s a beautiful experience. So there’s so many metaphors on that song. I mean, even Siberians goes through the same emotions that we do. They’re people like us just geographically distant from us. But we’re all basically the same.
antiMusic: For somebody that has always steered away from the commercial alleyways, what are your thoughts now looking back at the 90125/MTV era?
Jon: Well, it was very exciting. When we started touring that album — which I love — because I love that production and I love the idea of that album. And my idea was that OK, I’ll do this record and then on the next one I’ll go back and help steer it back to longer songs because I loved the idea of more people getting exposed to longer-form music. But of course the guys didn’t want that and the record company didn’t want that. So they kept me out of the way for Big Generator and I did an album or two with Vangelis. But I was glad I was in on 90125 because I thought the recording was amazing and the production was amazing. And then I went to see a movie called Spinal Tap and that changed my whole concept (laughs). But it was beautiful. It was good in one’s lifetime to become a mega-star for ten minutes, you know (laughs). But I wanted to take them on the next direction…another journey. I had so many dreams and ideas but they didn’t want to do that, so ….
antiMusic: You mentioned touring with Rick this fall. Do you have any plans for another record somewhere down the line?
Jon: Maybe. You know, The Living Tree is a really nice record. It’s really good on stage. It works. Doing those songs on stage is really a trip. And we’re also going to do “Awaken” which will be like a shortened version of the idea but we’re going to be doing that. As far as recordings, we’ll just have to see what happens. You never know.
antiMusic: Well, I could talk to you all day but I know you have to move on. I thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I just have to say you have no idea what your music has meant to me. It’s enriched my life in so many ways and even though I know your career still has a long way to go, in case I don’t get to speak with you in the future, thank you so much for all the music you’ve made.
Jon: Thank you so much for being so honest about life and stuff, Morley. I wish you well. Take care.