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All in Good Time: Yes Drummer Alan White Talks Yestival, Hall of Fame and Keeping the Rhythm

Alan White of Yes
Alan White, drummer for Yes, performs in Paraguay in 2010. Credit: Leticia Chamorro. CCA 2.0

“I’ve been in this band called Yes for 45 years. I’ve been in Yes the whole time along with Chris (Squire). We were the only two that kept the thing going, really.”

Yes drummer Alan White, along with guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Geoff Downes, bassist/guitarist/keyboardist Billy Sherwood and vocalist Jon Davison are going on their 31-date North American Yestival tour, starting August 4 in Greensboro, NC. The trek, which runs through a two-night stand September 18 and 19 in Huntington, NY, will feature special guests Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, as well as a sprinkling of very special “Evening with Yes” shows. And, as a recently announced added bonus, White will welcome Dylan Howe, son of Steve Howe, into the band’s rhythm section for the entirety of the tour.

With so much going on around Yes – including their long overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – I could have talked to White for hours. Alas, unlike so many of the band’s classic, epic and extended opuses, brevity on my part was the order of the day. Here then, in a word: Yes!

Click here for a list of Yestival tour dates

Alan, good morning, it’s Jim Villanueva with All Access Music.

How are you, man?

I’m great. How are you today?

Pretty good, thanks.

I know we’re a little pressed for time. It’s pleasure to talk to you again. Let me begin by congratulating you on your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Can you tell me where you were when you got the call?

I was at home, actually, and I knew and heard it was on the books, but nobody really knew.

I would imagine that you reflected (on the day of induction) on what you thought that perhaps the late great Chris Squire was thinking that evening.

Oh well, you know, I mean, like I said in my speech I just want to acknowledge that Chris was a big part of this band for such a long time, and I played with him for, like, 45 years. So, I just said I feel his spirit here with us tonight, and something of that nature. But then, he actually didn’t seem that interested in whether we got nominated the last time, and stuff like that. He said, “Oh, that thing” (laughs)! He didn’t really care about it that much, but I’m sure if you get inducted, then it becomes more interesting.

I’m sure he felt proud.

Yeah, absolutely.

Well, let’s shift gears here and come to the present. According to the latest itinerary I’ve seen for your upcoming 2017 Yestival tour, the tour gets underway August 4 in Greensboro, NC, and in the majority of the cases that I saw you’ll be playing amphitheaters and theaters. Did you want these shows to feel a little bit more intimate than the countless arenas and stadiums you’ve played?

Yeah, well the amphitheater thing is usually what we do in the summer. It just depends on the routing, and if it’s a theater, usually most of the time it’s a larger theater, and stuff like that. So, those are the kind of things that are gonna turn up. You know, the last couple of years we’ve really been playing those kind of things in the summer.

I think those venues are great for longtime fans, too. They’re comfortable, intimate enough and they always sound good, too. I understand you’ll be playing some of the greatest hits off your first nine studio albums. Why limit the setlist to just those nine?

Well, it was Steve’s idea to play something from like every album from the beginning of Yes until the 80s, so that’s the idea behind it. Because it’s a Yestival, you know there’s more than one band on – there’s like three bands – so, our setlist is being cut to about an hour and 45 or two hours. We usually play longer. And then Todd Rundgren is playing with us, and then opening is Carl Palmer doing that tribute to Greg Lake (and Keith Emerson).

Yes, indeed. In fact, thank you for the segue to my next question, which I had teed up here. Indeed, Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy are also on the bill. So, can fans maybe expect Todd and Carl to join you guys for a song or two?

I don’t know whether that’s gonna happen in this case. Who knows what will happen after we get the show rolling. I mean, first of all, we gotta get ourselves on track (laughs) and play some of these songs that we haven’t played in a long time. But I must admit most of the songs I’m seeing on the setlist we’ve done numerous times. It’ll be a little bit like riding a bicycle.

Before we continue to move forward here Alan, I wanna take the opportunity to take you back just for a second to, I guess, where it all began. Did you have what I often refer to as the proverbial – or in many case, literal – Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment? By that I mean, looking back, was there a moment, a song (you heard), a concert you went to, or an album you had that after experiencing that, you knew that music was going to be the path (you took) in your life?

Well, in the very beginning when I joined Yes. One of the greatest moments for me was when John Lennon called me. That’s gotta be a highlight. And, next thing (I know) I’m playing onstage with John Lennon in his first band he had since The Beatles. So, that was a kind of special part in my life back then. And, you know, obviously with Yes, having to learn the repertoire in three days and getting up there. You know the first gig I did I pretty much got everything right with only three days rehearsal, but the next three gigs weren’t so good, and then finally it all clicked. And that’s one of those moments.

Thankfully, you passed the audition, as I believe Ringo once said.

I said, look, I’ll give you guys three months to see if I enjoy playing with you guys, and you give me three months to see if you enjoy me at the helm, on the drums. And, well, here I am 45 years later, so I must have passed it (laughs).

Indeed! With flying colors. Do you remember, Alan, what the first concert was that you attended?

With Yes?

No, no, no, as a kid, as a teen growing up.

The first concert I saw when I was a kid I think was Tommy Steele [regarded by many as Britain’s first teen idol and rock and roll star]. It was Tommy Steele with The Shadows backing him. I was really young when I saw that, but that was one of the first things I saw. But, you know, by the age of 17 I was playing with some notorious kind of bands, like Alan Price [original keyboardist for The Animals]. I played with his band for 18 months. And then I played with a guy called Billy Fury for about two or three months, doing all the cabaret stints around England. So, I had a lot of diverse upbringing playing all kinds of different music.

Billy Fury, wow, that’s a big name in England.

Oh, he was huge back then, but he never made it over here. Him and Alan Price, they were one of those people who didn’t like flying, so it didn’t happen for them. I think Alan Price came to America once, but he took the boat, which took seven days to get here at that time.

That’s a rough itinerary, there (laughs).

I know. Definitely.

I see we’ve just got a couple more minutes here, Alan, and again, thank you for your time. Speaking of concerts and tours and such, of course I have to ask you about the recent announcement about Jon (Anderson), Trevor (Rabin) and Rick (Wakeman) mounting their own tour as Yes…

(Laughs) Well, don’t say you have to ask me (laughs). I usually get it in every interview (laughs).

(Laughs) Well, so I guess I’m just doing my job (laughs)!

Yeah, yeah! They can do whatever they wanna do, you know. It’s their prerogative what they wanna do. Yeah, I’ve been in this band called Yes for 45 years, and I guess that’s what I’m still doing. I didn’t wander off and go into other bands and do different projects for quite a few years, and then come back. I’ve been in Yes the whole time along with Chris. We were the only two that kept the thing going, really.

Yes, indeed. In fact, quite literally you have been the foundation of the band continuously. [NOTE: Here is the official statement the band put out on April 9: “While Jon Anderson has rights to use the name as one of the co-owners of the trademark, Yes’ position is that every effort should be made by promoters, ticket agencies and all involved to respect Yes’ magnificent and loyal fanbase and minimize confusion regarding the use of Yes Featuring Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman.”]

Yeah, it’s been a great journey, really. Obviously, it has its wear and tear a bit after being around for 45 years, and playing drums for 50-something years. But at the same time, I feel okay. I had a problem with my back last year and I had some surgery and it’s slowly going away, but I think by this summer it’ll be fine.

Good. Well, we wish you well, certainly. So, final question for you, Alan. I was honored to have been given the opportunity to write and produce the world premiere radio broadcast for the 2002 In a Word: Yes five-CD box set, hosted by radio hero, and I’m sure your longtime friend as well, Jim Ladd.

Yes, that’s right.

So – in a word – how do you sum up celebrating so many years in rock and roll and selling 50 million albums along the way?

(Laughs) Well, at least in some sense it’s achievement, and I guess it culminates when you get an award into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But, you know, I don’t believe it ends there. We’re gonna still carry on making music for a while, I mean the way I’m seeing things. Steve’s pretty healthy, and everybody in the band is gung-ho to keep moving forward. We’re actually contemplating playing (1974’s) Relayer next year, which is no easy feat itself cuz it’s not an easy album to play.

Very cool! Well, no time to stop now. We want you to continue. So, best of luck on the tour and…

Try and come and say hi.

I absolutely will. I was gonna say I look forward to saying hi again, because as I said earlier we’ve done this once or twice – or many times – before…

If you’re in Sacramento, we’re probably playing that winery up by the beach there.

Wow, that doesn’t sound tempting at all, does it (laughs)? That sounds great.

Alright, man.

Thank you, have a great weekend, safe travels on the tour, and we’ll talk again soon.

Alright, thanks man, bye bye.

 

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