Billy Sherwood was associated with Yes in one way or another for a longer time before he joined the band in 1997 than he subsequently remained a band member. Conducted late on The Ladder tour, this may be the last interview with Billy Sherwood before he left the band.
The following interview was conducted after the Paris show on 28 Feb 00 by Aymeric Leroy; an abridged version was first published in French in Big Bang magazine (issue #34, March 2000). Many thanks to Aymeric for allowing me to put up this full version of the interview.
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Billy Sherwood: It’s been about seven different names!
AL: Let's go back to the beginning, and the circumstances of your meeting Chris Squire in the first place—that was back in '89, wasn't it?
BS: My band World Trade, which I’m sure you know about—Chris heard that record and liked it a lot. Yes was without a singer at that point, cause they were doing ABWH, so you had ABWH, and then you had the 90125 band without a singer. Chris was introduced to me by Derek Shulman from Gentle Giant, who was the manager of their label at the time, and we met... One thing led to another and we wrote "The More We Live", which was the first song we wrote, and that musical experience was very rewarding for both of us. When you’re a songwriter and you click with someone, you tend to want to keep writing with that person. So Chris and I wrote that song together and the relationship started from there. That’s kind of how it started.
AL: On paper it seems an unlikely partnership since you're both bassist/vocalists. You seem to write easily together.
BS: By the time that Chris and I were working, although I was a bass player in my band, I play a lot of instruments, so it was like, well, fine, you play bass, I’ll play guitar, no problem. And I’d cover the keys... And so, it was never really a problem. There were a few tracks where Chris came in and said, ‘That bass sounds great, don’t change it!’, and I said, ‘Wait, you’re the bass player’, and he said, ‘That sounds really good, I don’t want to change it,’ so we left it. But that’s a very rare case, I think that’s maybe one or two songs on the record like that, "The More We Live", and maybe another one, I can’t remember which one now.
AL: Do you think Chris, at the time, intended Yes to resurrect, one day or another, and planned to use these songs for Yes?
BS: I don’t know. It was really just working as songwriters. I was in Los Angeles, he was in Los Angeles... I’d written songs with lots of people, from one spectrum to the other. There was a song I wrote with David Paich for the Toto album Kingdom of Desire. I wrote songs with the guys from Air Supply for their record... So I was just writing songs. And that’s what I think he was approaching it as. Neither one of us ever said, ‘Wow, this is geared for Yes, this is gonna be Yes music!’ But as the Union record came up, and Jon came back, I stepped back out, and that song managed to hold its own and have a place on the Union album, and Jon sang it, very nicely...
AL: And you played everything on it but weren’t credited. Must have been a bit of a shock...
BS: Well, I’m a nice guy... [laughs]
AL: You swallowed your pride...
BS: I didn’t really want the image of that song to be that I did everything.
AL: If they didn't want to credit you then they should have least erased your vocal parts, since they're so prominent.
BS: Yeah... I know. At least on the new Conspiracy album you actually hear what it was, which isn’t far from what it ended up being, but with me playing everything and... Trevor’s not on there, and Jon’s not on there obviously, neither is Tony Kaye... so I think you get more of a feel to where the original thing really came from. The truth.
AL: Over what period of time was the album made? Has it been finished for 2-3 years or...?
BS: You’re probably right, from about ‘90 through late ‘96, early ‘97.
AL: Just before you became involved in Yes.
BS: Yes. Just before Open Your Eyes, really. All the material was done, and then we started working on Open Your Eyes.
AL: Is there a typical way you usually work with Chris, in writing the songs? Are there specific things each of you does or is it mixed?
BS: It’s mixed, it’s all very mixed. Like, Chris came in with "The More We Live". It was his idea originally. Actually, he came to me and said, ‘I have this chord progression that goes, ‘dee, da-da, dee, da-da’.’ [sings the intro motif] And that was that. And I thought, ‘Wow! ... What are we gonna do with this?’ And I just sat in my studio for a while, I didn’t know what to do... until I came up with some sort of lyrical idea for "The More We Live", and then it started taking shape, and all of a sudden those simple chords that he played had a whole other life, a whole other meaning.
And at the same time he’s gone the other way, where I’ve come to him with music, and he’s come back with lyrics... So it’s very open-ended, we don’t put any restriction on how it’s gonna be done. And fortunately, we like a lot of the same things. So it tends to arrive at a quicker conclusion, cause we both like the same things.
AL: There are quite a number of different people, drummers in particular, on the album. Didn’t you try to get a full band together?
BS: That’s kind of why the name Conspiracy was chosen by the end. Because I said to Chris, ‘This isn’t your solo album, this isn’t my solo album, but you and I are the most...’ We were the cohesion. And Alan [White] played some great drums, Michael Bland played some great drums, Jay Schellen, Mark Williams, and I programmed some. It became more of a vehicle, where one thought, ‘This could be cool in the future to have a vehicle where, as long as you and I are writing songs, we could recruit anyone we want into it.’ So that’s how that works.
AL: You did do this tour in ‘92, though...
BS: We did do a tour, and at that point it was called the Chris Squire Experiment...
AL: But you were already singing lead on some songs...
BS: I was singing lead, and my band opened up for the Chris Squire Experiment on that tour.
AL: World Trade?
BS: No. The Key. It was another band that I had, a power trio. And then The Key, my band, became Chris Squire Experiment’s band—Jimmy Haun playing guitar, myself playing guitar, Mark Williams playing percussion, Alan [White] joined us on drums, and Steve Porcaro on keyboards. And so over the years that’s how we arrived at the idea that if we call it Conspiracy we can conspire with anybody... So it became the proper title for the project.
AL: Were you in any way restricted in your approach to the music? Did you choose a more radio-oriented format?
BS: We had freedom, but the one thing that Chris and I agree on is that good music doesn’t have to be judged in terms of length. I mean, Beatles songs were two and a half minutes long, and they’re fantastic. So in the Yes domain, it tends to musically stretch out because there’s more people pushing for more ideas, so I think that, now having been through the process a couple of times with the band, I can see why the long music evolves, because it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve got an idea’, ‘OK, well, we’ll just put that here’ and then, ‘Well I’ve got an idea’, ‘Oh we’ll put that after that idea’... By the end you’ve got everyone’s ideas, which have encompassed a long piece of music. Whereas Chris and I, we’re just writing songs, you know, and they ended up when they felt like they needed to be over. As opposed to ‘Ah, ah, we should keep going for another five minutes’.
AL: Do you have common influences in pop music? Brian Wilson comes to mind obviously as the seminal pop craftsman...
BS: Yeah. Without a doubt. My references are probably different things. But yes there are similarities, we both like the same kind of pop culture music. We talk about music. He’s always liked popular music, and I’ve always liked popular music. We both like Garbage a lot right now for instance. I don’t know how the other people in the band are digging that, but he’s diggin’ it, I’m diggin’ it, so it creates a communion. And I think that thinking that way, that’s how we evolved the songwriting, we didn’t mind the fact that they were heading to that kind of market.
AL: Your solo projects seem to be more balanced between the ‘poppy’ and ‘proggy’ stuff. A good example is your solo album The Big Peace.
BS: Yes. I took advantage of that solo opportunity... That was really meant to be World Trade’s third album, and as it evolved, everyone in the band except for myself and the drummer were pretty much unavailable. The keyboard player was working... he’s now with the Doobie Brothers, and Bruce [Gowdy] was working with another project that he was working on really intensely. So when I called them and said, ‘Do you want to work on World Trade’, everyone said, ‘Yeah, but when can we do it?’, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got time now, do you?’ ‘No we don’t.’ ‘OK, well...’ I’m meant to work on music, so I’d start working on music, and one thing led to another, and by the time the album was done, when I really looked at it, it was really me playing everything with Jay Schellen on drums. So I said to Jay, ‘This would be kind of unfair to call it World Trade, because it’d be unfair for the guys, cause they weren’t involved, and it’s gonna be misleading for the general public, so maybe this should be my solo album.’ And Jay agreed.
AL: What was different on this album as well was that you wrote all the material whereas Euphoria was all co-written.
BS: Yeah... I like writing with people. If there’s no-one there, I’ll still work on music, cause I’m a workaholic, and I love music, and I love working on it, so if I can set up several different vehicles, which over the years it seems I have—I’ve got the Yes thing; my solo albums; World Trade is there, if I can get it together with the other guys; The Key record; Conspiracy now... There’s just multiple ways to get music out. And that’s all I’ve ever tried to do, it’s just to keep music going out...
AL: Let's talk about your own studio—I understand most of the projects we're talking about were recorded there...
BS: Most of these projects have been there, yeah. Last couple of Yes albums—not The Ladder but the last three before that were mixed [there], two of them were produced there.
And now my studio is... since I’ve joined the band I’ve rented it out, I can’t get in any more! So I’m in breaks when I’m home between tours, I want to go write, I have no place to go! So I’m actually in the process of building another studio of my own in my house, taking over a wing of the house.
AL: You used to have it as your own studio.
BS: Before I joined Yes, it was my place to create and when I wanted to work with bands and produce, and if friends wanted to work with me, I had the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, forget about the big studio thing where we’re paying an amazing amount of money to stand in front of a microphone and sing, come to my place, it will be all ours’. I don’t have any assistants, I do it all myself, I don’t have any secretaries. Mostly because I found that, as I was working in studios, having other people around, even though they wouldn’t put out opinions, there was enough of an influence that you would start taking outside ideas. And I found that when I built my own place and just shut the door, the creativity was endless. The bands that I worked with in there felt the same thing, because it was just me and them, there was no distraction. So that studio served its purpose, and still is working very well for other people right now.
AL: Technically speaking, with the advent of digital technology, is there still a huge difference between recording in a good home studio and using a professional studio like the one in Canada Yes used for the last album?
BS: I don’t know how I can explain it. It’s like: you could be driving in a Porsche or in a Jaguar, you’re still gonna get to the same destinations. It’s just how you choose to drive them. So for my studio purposes, I know that I’m in my studio with technicians who’ve done amazing things to my board and to my power amps and I know what I can deliver out of my studio. It’s very, very true. I know that if I went to other studios, like in Vancouver, that those are set up to be as professional and as true, so it’s just a different flavour, it’s a different sound, but I think both have their place. I’ve had the luxury of owning my own studio, 24 analogue, 48 digital, endless effects, endless hardcore gear, that I don’t have to rent, I don’t get stuck with the bills, it’s all mine. So when bands work with me and it’s 10 o’clock, usually you’d have to be getting out of the studio, we could go on until 2 in the morning cause it’s my place! So that whole thing, all those elements combined, equal creativity at the end of the day. So I’m very happy that I had that environment available.
AL: Going back to the Conspiracy project, did you work, like, one day every six months, or sometimes for months and months...
BS: Oh, there were years that went by without working on it, actually. Mostly because Chris was busy with Yes, and I was busy producing other bands. And we couldn’t see each other for quite a while, and then we’d get together—if he’d have time off and I’d have time off, we’d start working... But as I started working on Keys to Ascension 1, that’s when I started really kicking into overdrive. Chris was in town, I was in town, and I thought, ‘Now is the time, if we’re going to do this, let’s start writing the rest of the album.’ So that’s when we really kicked into gear, with "Violet Purple Rose" and "No Rhyme" and "Red Light", and a few of the other ones.
So it’s been an interesting process, very lengthy. Part of it is Chris Squire’s... how do I put this? He doesn’t work as fast as I do... I’m a workaholic. People might say I was clinically insane at the pace that I work at, but... for me, it was slow, for him it was the natural pace. Nine years later I think it could have been a little faster... Since we’ve been working together with Yes, we’ve continued writing and we have seven songs already in the can for the next [Conspiracy] album, within the period of a year. So, now that we’re together in the same proximity, we really have been working together a lot. I think that you will see another Conspiracy album soon.
AL: Whose decision was it to use outtakes from this project in Yes projects or the World Trade album? Were you getting impatient?
BS: I got [tired] waiting for people to hear "Say Goodbye", cause I really believed that was a very special song. What I told [Chris Squire] was [what] I was gonna do, and he didn’t have a problem with it, and he always said, ‘When we do our project, we can always put the original version on’, which is similar but there are differences... And it was really Chris’s idea to let the fans hear the initial ideas of where we were coming from when we met. It’s kind of like, what you get on this record is a real true chronological history of our writing and grooving together as songwriters. And the original versions are what you’re hearing on this album, as opposed to what I did with them on mine or [what] Yes did with "Love Conquers All" on the box set, Trevor Rabin sang that one and he played the guitar solos on that and he changed it up a little bit. So you’re just getting a peek behind the curtain at the original ideas of these particular tracks.
[Then there are] three ‘ghost tracks’—those are behind a thick black curtain. Those are very behind the curtain. I had my reservations about it because it was so close to Open Your Eyes time wise, but Chris was pretty [keen on] putting them on there. So I suggested a compromise which is hidden tracks.
AL: What about "The Evolution Song"?
BS: "The Evolution Song" has a different B section and a couple of different textures that I changed when I worked on it with World Trade. And when it came time and Chris said, ‘Can we put that on this album?’, I went back and dug up the original tapes. That’s the original version, of how the song was kinda written, with Chris singing the B section... Couple of subtle changes, but there’s a couple of bigger changes as well.
AL: Let's talk about The Ladder and your contribution to the writing. The first impression one gets is one of a collective writing process, with lots of ideas being brought to the table by each member of the band and then being worked on collectively.
BS: We spent six months living together and writing together, making the album in Canada, so you can’t help that thing to happen. And as you said, everyone contributed; certain areas of material came from certain individuals. For instance, "Homeworld" came from myself, the guitar parts, the verses; the choruses came from Igor, the chords; and Jon wrote all the lyrics from the melody on the top. Steve came up with the middle bit—ding, gedding, gedding—the shuffle thing. So we put it all together.
Chris and Alan came up with that groove on "The Messenger", the kinda reggae feel. They started playing that, and we all jumped in on that. "If Only..." came really from Igor and Steve, and Jon, mostly. "Finally" was a song that I had that was heading for my solo album The Big Peace, called "I"—‘I can be...’, ‘I can change...’—and Jon took that idea and changed it around, and it became "Finally". Actually the ending was Steve’s bit, but the chord structure of the song, up until that point, is just a copy from the song that I had, and the band put their stamp on it.
The song "To be Alive" started with the harmonic sound. Being on a 12-string, tapping, which was the sort of thing that I was playing a lot at rehearsals, and never had at home... and as we were in the studio I said to Bruce, ‘I have this song, and out of all this Yes music that goes everywhere and changes, what about having one song where there’s like this hypnotic thread that just keeps carrying on, and we don’t go to another section, and we don’t change it up too much.’ And it was a bit of a struggle, but at the end of the day I got that idea through, and Jon wrote some great lyrics and great melody over the top of it, and Chris and Alan came up with some really good stuff. And then at the end of the day it made it to the album, so I was quite happy with that. "Good Day" is another interesting thing because Igor and Jon had been working on a song that had ‘ting, ting, ting, ting’ [opening melody]. I had a song that I wrote when I was probably 14, which was the changes, ‘dum, da da, da da da, dum’. And I was playing that in rehearsal, and Jon started singing what he was working on, ‘ding ding ding ding’ over the top, and those two ideas merged and became that track.
"New Language": the beginning is a jam, but actually that is a piece of music that Chris and myself and Alan had recorded for Open Your Eyes that didn’t go on Open Your Eyes, that intro. So when it came time to do The Ladder, the three of us were jamming on that track in the studio, and Steve was playing over the top, and he wrote a little bit, and it ended up being the intro to "New Language", so finally it had a home. And then right up till that intro is done and you hear the Rhodes coming in, from there on it’s pretty much Igor, he had a lot to do with that. And Jon as well.
"Face to Face"—‘do di da da da di do...’—that’s definitely Steve’s bit... and it came from all over the place, but it was interesting because no one guy had complete control over how the song was gonna go. It was really just a matter of, ‘Is everyone digging playing on this? Yeah? OK, let’s carry on!’ And we worked on so much music that didn’t make it to the album, we let Bruce sort out the good bits from the bad, and this is what he chose.
AL: That's very nice to hear it was done like that. I would say it is surely the most intelligent way of making a Yes album.
BS: That’s the most politically correct, I can tell you that!
AL: The results speak for themselves.
BS: Yeah. A lot of people like the album. It’s very good.
AL: Do you think the guys made a conscious decision of working like that, knowing if was going to lead to better results?
BS: The funny thing is that we talked about it... Yes hadn’t written that way since, like, the first couple of albums. I don’t really know if they did it then. The Yes Album, I think, was the last time that they were all collectively in a room working on some things. Beyond that it was just—Jon and Steve had ideas, they come from them and kinda moulded those ideas. Chris and Alan and whoever, Rick, you know, brought things to them. 90125, Big Generator, Talk, were very much controlled by Trevor Rabin, which had a different flavour as well. Keys to Ascension, they all worked on it together, but not really, because Rick wasn’t really involved with songwriting, and Jon had more of a heavy hand. This truly was the first time where we decided and said to each other, ‘Look, nobody brings any baggage to the table, nobody brings any hard and fast ideas, if you’ve got something that you’re dead set on, do it on your solo album. Let’s just give and take and work here.’ It wasn’t always easy, but often times it was more enjoyable than it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.
AL: The result is that you're playing quite a big chunk of the album on the tour.
BS: Because everybody’s involved, so everyone feels good about it. That’s a big part of it.
AL: Where are you headed next?
BS: We’ve got to go through March 26th , we end up in Bucharest, Romania. Beyond that, there’s a potential to tour in June, but then there’s an idea of maybe not doing that tour and maybe working on a symphonic record with the Boston Pops possibly, playing with Yes and doing a PBS special kinda thing for American television.
AL: With specially written material or...?
BS: Well, classics as well as maybe some of the new stuff on The Ladder and maybe a new piece of music. We don’t know. But we’ve been working really, really hard since... I know they were working hard on Keys to Ascension before I got involved. They didn’t tour it because Rick did... whatever he did. But it really has been non-stop since that, since I got involved in... Keys to Ascension 1 stuff was done and Rick gone, I said to Chris, ‘I’m interested in helping to keep this going if you are.’ And we started writing songs for Open Your Eyes. The intention was to keep Yes going, and that’s what we’ve done. And now we’re three and a half, four years later, it’s been non-stop—tour, write, tour...
AL: I’m not sure if any previous line-up of Yes has existed for so long?
BS: [laughs] They’ve all had lengthy journeys, that’s for sure. 90125 had an intense life, because it was such a big album, that the touring had to be done, on a grand level, so even though what it seems to me like a lot of work right now, [it] is probably nothing compared to what they’ve already done, but I’m a virgin in this department so this is a lot of work!
AL: Do you have any projects in mind for yourself?
BS: Working on another solo album, you know, in my obsession of working on music. In addition to that, Chris and myself, like I said, we’re working on another Conspiracy album.
AL: So you have seven tracks ready...
BS: Seven are done...
AL: How many do you need?
BS: We need three more. And we’ve got the germs of a couple going right now. So that’s a reality and that’ll be coming, something to put out very soon...
And Trevor [Rabin] and I talk about working together all the time. I mean he’s incredibly busy doing film scores, but I see him all the time, and you know, whenever we’re cruising round in the car, listening to each other’s music and singing ideas over the top of that... That sounds really good.
AL: He’s recording a lot of music but he doesn’t sing his own songs.
BS: Yeah... So you never know, there’s the potential for work with Trevor in the future, which I’d love to [do]. He’s always been one of my favourite musicians.
AL: As part of the Conspiracy project?
BS: Maybe with that, or maybe doing something else. You never know... And in addition to that I’m looking forward to just, like I said, building my own studio and just diving into there. Coming up with something, who knows what?
AL: If you were to record another solo album, would you keep the same guys, like Jay Schellen...?
BS: I would probably have Jay there.
AL: Would it be more or less a continuation of World Trade?
BS: Kind of in that style. Because there’s so many vehicles for pop music that I thought I could have a solo vehicle that’s just completely for artistic sake and not worry about having a single at all, just create... So Jay is a very big part of that for me, because he’s an incredibly talented drummer. There were things on The Big Peace that I mapped out with the drum machine and I programmed these intense things that were happening, and he came in and I said, ‘Jay, you’ve gotta be able to, like...’ He’d say, ‘Man, that’s physically impossible,’ and I’d say, ‘Try it’, and he got there and he tried it. And he [would] look through the glass with this big smile, like he’s got it and it sounds amazing! It’s rare to find musicians who are willing to work with you like that, and who are as easy to work with. Cause Jay is really, really easy to work with. And he’s a really sweet guy and I love working with him. So I definitely will be working with him on the next solo album.
AL: Could there be a Conspiracy tour?
BS: We’ve been talking about it. It would depend on what’s happening with the Yes schedule, as well as depending on if we can book enough gigs to afford to be able to do it. Cause obviously it would be a smaller level, but I know that the last time we toured, people who saw it really enjoyed it and we sold out everywhere we played, and they were decent-sized places.
AL: Where did you tour with that? I remember reading about California, Hawaii...
BS: Yes, Arizona, and... I think we made it up to Seattle, maybe, I can’t remember. And they were always really good gigs. So you never know, if we can pull that off, we’ll probably do that.