Geoff Downes, Steve Howe, Alan White, Jon Davison, Billy Sherwood
Photo Credit: Glenn Gottlieb
Drummer Alan White has been with progressive rock icons and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Yes since the early 1970s. This summer, several of the longstanding members, including White and guitarist Steve Howe are touring in celebration of 50 years of Yes music. White spoke to us, just ahead of his 69th birthday in the midst of the band’s West Coast swing, about the five decades of Yes, plans for a possible new album, as well as his early experiences with The Beatles’ John Lennon and George Harrison.
Can you describe how Yes achieves their distinctive balance between compositional parts and groove?
The band is very particular in paying attention to detail. When we write a song or rehearse music we take a while doing that. The music is everything. As far as drumming, a lot of my drum patterns are dictated by the music. I just use the drum kit as another musical instrument within the music itself. Chris Squire and myself spent a lot of time weaving patterns that went through the music that created a lot of interest. I do what’s necessary for the song.
When there is a membership change in the group, like when Chris passed away, does it ever challenge that balance?
I think everybody bounces off each other within the band. Yes music is very much a band-oriented kind of music. At the same time, when the members change it changes the character a little bit. Yet, there is a core element that goes through the music that makes it Yes music. It’s what we’ve stuck to through everything.
In terms of membership, presently as you celebrate 50 years of Yes, your founding singer Jon Anderson is fronting another band with former members celebrating 50 years, as well. What are your feelings about that?
My attitude towards it is that I was in a band called Yes that I joined in 1972. I’ve been in that band for over 46 years and I’m still in the same band. I didn’t change anything about what I do. I just carry on doing what I started doing. Everybody else around us, other than Chris Squire, went off and did other things. Chris and myself were basically the core of it. I’m just doing what I did before and the band is sounding really good. I’m really satisfied musically.
Do you have each other’s blessing?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t really think about it much, to tell you the truth. It’s their thing; their version of Yes. We do our version, but really this band is still Yes. There are comments that come from the other camp, but I wouldn’t reply to the comments because I don’t need to. I just get on with what I started a long time ago.
What has enabled this music to endure for five decades?
I think the quality and the attention to detail. This is a band that doesn’t look at the horizon. They look over the horizon and come up with new things. That keeps everything fresh. I still feel like that. We’re thinking about recording new music. The guys in the band, everyone, have been writing. The name Yes stems from the most positive word in the English language. This band is very positive; just carrying forward what everybody loves about Yes; even something new and different that still sounds like Yes.
Coming up as a young player who did you look to, if anyone, as an example of how to do this successfully?
I was glad to be playing with such talented musicians. Everyone in the band is very good individually on their own. Collectively, it’s pretty amazing. When I was a very young kid playing drums I looked at Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, those kinds of things. Then, Ringo. And The Beach Boys, with their great sense of harmony. I felt The Beach Boys helped me a lot. When I was in my teens I listened to a lot of jazz fusion: Weather Report, Return to Forever, that kind of stuff. That affected my style.
But did you have any notion that you could be doing this for 50 years?
Absolutely not. (Laughs.) When I joined Yes I told them to give me three months to see if I liked it and you get three months to see if you like it, and here I am, still playing with the band. In July it’ll be 47 years. Quite amazing.
Yes music is challenging physically, as well. How have you approached that aspect of it?
I’ve been able to grow with it and keep up with it. I am a part of it, playing on every album since Close to the Edge. It’s been a very interesting ride. You develop along with it.
I think about a song from your youth, like “Roundabout”- a certified classic that every fan knows inside and out but requires a lot physically on the band’s part to do it justice.
Yeah, we tried not playing “Roundabout” for a while. We got so many complaints because we didn’t play it, we’ve been playing it ever since. It’s a really great song that’s stood the test of time.
Is there a song you look forward to playing each night?
I’m not playing the full set. I’m a lot better than I was, and playing a lot more of the set. But, I look forward to playing “Awaken” every night. That song is quite a majestic piece of music; such an anthem-type and very classical sounding. A great song to play onstage.
Before Yes you played with John Lennon on some landmark recordings as well as on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass considered one of the greatest albums of all-time. What was that like?
Going onstage with John, doing “Instant Karma,” and recording Imagine; for me, I was just getting on with my job and furthering my career. That’s what I thought in my head. I didn’t realize the impact of those albums until much later. Then, I said, ‘Wow! Did I really do that?’ But, to me, at the time I was just keeping my head down, working, and doing what I was supposed to do.
But you had to feel this was something special.
There was a sense of that. I was having a ball hanging out with the biggest stars in the world. I became part of the clan, as it were. The Beatles had a group of people that used to hang around with them and once you were accepted into that, you were just one of them. Pretty incredible.