photo: Hristo Shindov
The casual rock fan may have wondered what ever happened to Trevor Rabin? After revitalizing Yes and helping the classic prog rock act achieve its biggest commercial success with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and albums 90125, Big Generator, Union and Talk, he seemingly disappeared.
After his stint in Yes ended, Rabin disappeared from the album charts but the veteran guitarist, vocalist and songwriter’s music was frequently heard by millions through his work as a film composer on more than 40 films and TV series including Armageddon, Con Air, Gone In 60 Seconds, Remember the Titans, and the National Treasure film and TV series, among others.
Returning to rock and roll in 2016, he teamed up with his former Yes bandmates Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman for the touring entity known as ARW, which then renamed itself Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin & Rick Wakeman.
And now, Rabin has released his first new solo vocal material in 34 years. Playing the majority of instruments on the album and featuring cover artwork by him, Rio sounds like a 21st century Yes album that fans have been waiting for and much much more.
I discuss the new release as well as his early film scoring days, the importance of arrangements, bits and pieces of future songs running through his head and the numerous genres covered on Rio that give it an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach that unquestionably works.
JPG: Since it’s been 34 years since your last solo vocal album and 11 since your last studio effort, the instrumental release Jacaranda, you’ve been known as Trevor Rabin film composer, member of Yes, member of ARW. How does it feel discussing Trevor Rabin, the solo artist?
TR: It’s been a long time but the great thing about having done this album is, I hadn’t done it for — I didn’t even look back and see – -but you look back and one of the early movies I did, Armageddon, feels like yesterday but it’s like 30 years ago or something.
When I got into doing this album, it felt so fresh. It was like it was the first album. It was definitely an inspiring thing to do because it wasn’t like album after album after tour after tour. I felt like I had just woken up from a deep sleep or something.
JPG: The music industry has changed a lot after all these years. Album sales aren’t what they used to be. Did you approach this as a passion project and not, “I’d love to make these numbers…”
TR: Yeah, definitely. That’s part of it because you go in knowing that the whole thing has changed to the point where I didn’t even think of or look at the record company side of it when I started. I just did the album.
During that ARW tour Thomas [Waber] from Inside Out [Music] was interested in recording the band. I wasn’t interested, and he said to me, “If you do something else in the future, give me a call.” Usually, your lawyer or manager goes out and tries to procure a good record deal and place one company against the other. You happen to be lucky enough to have multiple ones interested. I didn’t even think of that. When I finished the album, I thought, “I’m not getting involved in that. I’m just going to call Thomas.” And I said, “You asked me to call you if I did anything and I’m gonna send you an album I’ve done. Let me know what you think.” He called back and said, “I’d like to release it.” And I said, “You got it!” I didn’t even speak to anyone. We just did it as simply as that. It’s definitely a new day.
JPG: I interviewed you back in 2017. That was the first tour that you, Jon and Rick did. There was always talk, and I think fans were so excited by the three of you together that they kept hoping that some music would be created by your union. So, other than the “Fragile (demo) that’s on the deluxe version of Rio and the strings that were used at the start of the ARW shows, did any other material from that period end up on Rio?
TR: No, actually not. The strings from Rio were already written and, obviously, realized before the tour and I just worked it into being on the tour as an intro.
The funny thing is “Fragile”—we were having a really good time on the road and we were thinking and writing and doing stuff, but nothing really concluded.
When we went for the very last tour, I think it was management who said, “You really need to put out a record. We can’t keep saying this is 50th anniversary. You’ve already done that. You need to release something because you’re not changing the tour much.”
I think there were couple of songs, but for the most part, the tour was the same the whole way through. We didn’t think we were doing more than maybe a couple of dozen shows, when it turned out to be, I don’t know, close to 200 shows. We didn’t really change much because we were having so much fun with it.
Consequently, I went and looked and I saw “Fragile” had been something lying around and Rick played some beautiful piano on it and Jon sang on it, and we played it at a radio station. That’s where it ended.
It was just an existing song. So, it’s not as if the three of us got in and collaborated, but we felt so good about the collaboration onstage and we were just enjoying it. It kind of started and ended.
JPG: In an interesting way, this new album, Rio, listeners can associate to an era of Yes because of the combination of your distinctive guitar tone, the arrangements and your voice but it’s also very modern and present in 2023. So, in a way, this is the ARW/Yes album that fans weren’t able to get.
TR: Well, the nicest thing you said there was that it’s fresh and 2023 because the last thing I would have wanted to do is look back and create something from before. I always try to look ahead. I’d rather fail than do something I’ve done before.
JPG: I was making notes while listening to the album — prog rock with hooks on “Big Mistakes” and “Push,” country on “Goodbye” which also reminded me of the bluegrass songs “Rocky Top” and “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the vocalizing on “Thandi” and the beginning of “Toxic” reminded me of Jeff Beck. There are so many things going on, it reminded me of that phrase, “Everything but the kitchen sink,” but in this case, it’s “Everything including the kitchen sink,” but meant as a compliment.
TR: Well, I appreciate it. Country, I’ve never really pursued that. I love bluegrass and pickin’ chicken thing and I’ve never really included it much.
When I was a teenager 16, 17, 18, 19, I was doing sessions all the time. In South Africa, with session work you had to be able to play all different genres. So, whether it was an intense reading orchestral session or whether it was a three-chord country song because country was huge and is huge in South Africa, you’d have to cross all these different bridges and play different styles, and I really loved all that bluegrass thing.
So, on this album, as we talked about the freedom of doing it without looking at what the market’s all about I just thought, “I’m gonna broach all different areas and just have fun with it.” Putting on the old producer cap, I thought the gluing element that’ll tie it all together will…my voice is my voice, my guitar style, whatever that is, hopefully, will also help glue it all together. And then, sequencing it properly and making sense of certain things.
There’s a couple of ideas that I wanted to include but I didn’t because they didn’t fit. So, I got to a happy medium.
JPG: You mentioned South Africa. This popped into my head. Were you around at the time and was there any effect from the popularity of Rodriguez in South Africa?
TR: It’s an extraordinary thing you mentioned that because the producer Mutt Lange is from South Africa. We’re very close friends and in fact he was who first recommended me to Atlantic when I joined Yes. I think it was Mutt who recommended me, but we used to do sessions together. He was a great bass player and then, obviously, became a producer. We spoke when Rodriguez had passed away and neither of us were that familiar with him. When I mentioned this to my wife, she said, “Oh, I love Rodriguez! He was huge in South Africa.” I don’t know how it passed me by. I remember hearing some of the songs, but I didn’t realize he was such a prominent figure in South Africa, but he certainly was.
JPG: That’s interesting because the documentary on him made him seem unavoidable.
TR: Absolutely, absolutely. I think it was largely because during the time I was working all the time on sessions. I wasn’t listening to anything but things I really really wanted to hear. I was really listening to a lot of jazz fusion, Chick Corea, and in the classical world Arnold Schoenberg and some of the new atonal things. I love that. Maybe it just passed me by. It’s a little bit of a black mark on someone who wants to be a producer not to have been aware of him because he was huge.
JPG: Speaking of sessions, your Hollywood sessions, I was listening to your 1989 solo album, Can’t Look Away, and I could see why Hollywood came around because the arrangements, the guitar playing and tone all together have a very sweeping cinematic feel to them.
TR: After I finished the last Yes album I did, Talk, and decided I’ve done as much as I can do, I think I should move on. I’ve always had my eye on doing full scores. In fact, I did one when I was 19 but that was long before computers and all that stuff. I remember we literally checked into a hotel somewhere and put a sheet up on the wall because there was horrible wallpaper. Put a white sheet on the wall, had a projector that played the movie, had score paper and just wrote in pencil and sharpener, and wrote the score out. I think it took me four days and the score was done.
Today, it’s obviously a completely different ball game. You do everything on the computer and then you go in with the orchestra and do the real thing.
But yes, it is something I always wanted to do.
JPG: I’m sure with computers it makes life so much easier when you need to change keys or stuff like that.
TR: It’s a funny thing you mentioned that. Joe Bonamassa, lovely guitar player asked me to do orchestra arrangements because he was doing a show at the Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Philharmonic. So, I did arrangements for the orchestra and at one point I got a message, “Joe’s changing the key.”
There’s a song “John Henry,” he wants to change it from B to E. I said, “Well, that’s not something you can just transpose. It’s way, way different. Your voicing’s changed because it’s not just a semitone. You’re going up a whole fourth. So, the whole arrangement had to be changed.
But yes, it’s a big benefit. The nightmares when you’re in the studio and the director’s there and you have the full orchestra and he says, “On second thought I’m not really into that part.” That’s a bit of a problem because I have my guy chopping up all the computer stuff and then frantically rewriting for the orchestra so it all fits together.
So, there are benefits and negatives. Too many options. [Laughs.]
JPG: Back to what you said earlier, that’s amazing that you were composing a film score at 19.
TR: I might have been 20. It was so long ago. I remember the table. I remember what it looked like, and I put up this old crickety projector that someone had loaned me to watch the movie. It wasn’t cut properly, and there were terrible things on. And the film had been edited so there was like four feet of just white in between. It was such a mess. I just went straight from there into doing it with the orchestra, and that was the score. It was a terrible movie.
JPG: At least you got the experience. That struck me because I never read this anywhere. Do you have an educated background that you could just sit there with the sheet music paper and write out the score?
TR: I remember going for lunch one day with my father…or brunch, whatever it was, and he was with a client. He was the first chair in the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. All the kids in our family started piano soon after diapers. This friend of my dad’s was being sweet to me and said, “Trevor, you’re in school now. You’re seven years old. Are you starting to read?” And my dad almost nonchalantly said, “He read music before he read one word of English.”
So, I started that way. But I have to say, I studied a really concentrated time, and I was in the middle of doing a lot of sessions and getting Rabbitt (his second band) together, but I learned with this unbelievable professor, Walter Money. He was the Head of Music at the University of Johannesburg. He was an unbelievable teacher. I was a terrible student, I confess, but he managed to get me so incredibly inspired and into it that I went through numerous things with him with regard to conducting, arrangements, orchestration, formal analysis and all that stuff.
He also prepared me for many symphonies, the “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov and the usuals like Tchaikovsky and stuff. So, he really got me ready for it.
And I started doing a lot of arrangements. Because I was doing sessions, I’d say to the producer, “If you want strings on this or if you want some woodwinds…” and I started doing arrangements for things like that. Then, the movies came along. So yeah, I kind of trained for it. When I started doing movies here, I felt pretty comfortable that I’d be going into a place that felt comfortable to me.