Yes, Still Chasing Sounds. The Album Series 2020: Steve Howe Talks Relayer
Released in late 1974, Relayer was the seventh studio album from Yes. If fans thought the previous album Tales From Topographic Oceans was out there, they were totally blown away by Relayer. Long time keyboardist Rick Wakeman had decided to leave the band, and the band went through a series of auditions to find his replacement. Even though Vangelis was auditioned, in the end, Swiss-born Patrick Moraz landed the most enviable job in Progressive Rock.
The album sold half a million copies in just two weeks in America and has gone on to be a fan favourite. Although many bands over the last ten years have gone on tour performing one or two albums from their catalogue, Yes, however, were doing this in the mid-seventies.
Over the last few years, Yes fans have been treated to concerts in the album series, where albums including The Yes Album, Fragile, Close To The Edge, Going For The One, and Drama have been performed in full. For the first time in almost 45 years, this year sees Yes performing the fan favourite Relayer in its entirety.
Here Yes guitarist Steve Howe explains why it has taken the band so long to get around to performing Relayer, and lightly discusses the creation of the album.
Jon Kirkman (JK): Well, cast your mind back to the mid-seventies and Yes were really riding the crest of a wave, and to be perfectly honest with you, pushing the envelope regarding music and the albums that they were releasing. Now we’re looking at an album called Relayer, which came out in late 1974. Now fast-forward in 2020 and the band are going to be going out and performing that album in its entirety live. And I have a gentleman who was very, very involved with the creation of that album, Steve Howe. Steve, great to speak to you!
Steve Howe (SH): Well, thank you, Jon. Nice to talk to you too.
JK: The album for me was a real shock, and I’ll tell you why. I’d been used to Yes for a few years at that point. I got into them when I was 13, and the albums were great. You were masters of the long-form song format. And yet when I say long-form, it was very melodic, very tightly arranged, and very well-conceived. When we get to Relayer, it’s got the long songs on there, but there was one song that I found so difficult to get into. You’re probably going to laugh at this when I tell you because it’s not the first time you’ve heard it. “Sound Chaser,” it was an incredible song, and it took me a while. Once I got it, it was like, “Great!” but I really, really struggled with that one.
SH: I can’t imagine why! (Laughs)
JK: (Laughs) Well, there was never anything like that before, and there’s never been anything like that since. It’s a real one-off, isn’t it?
SH: Well, it is a real standout track because a lot of things happen on there that we didn’t really do before. I mean, Patrick might have kind of started it off with his career, slightly jazzy kind of thing, but the band power back with stabs and things. And then when we get into the song it’s at a very rapid speed, and there are guitar riffs behind it that are totally driving, but then it gets the almighty – what I call flamenco rock solo. I don’t know where that came from. It goes kind of pretty bananas out there. But I think the thing that Yes were good at doing was we went from this kind of almost like a horror film with diminished chords and lots of racing about. There’s some very sensitive stuff, and when Jon comes back in singing the main song again with different chords, it really tells you that Yes had really learned a few tricks along the way. And then we start hammering again and we go nuts again and we go crazy. There are time changes, and it’s a real minefield. But as you say, once you’ve kind of grasped it, digested it a little, then it’s probably okay. But it’s still a big listen.
JK: Let’s go back to the creation of Relayer. It wasn’t easy for Yes at that point because you’d done a hugely successful tour of America with the Tales From Topographic Oceans album. And Rick said he’d heard some of the music that you were preparing for Relayer, and he didn’t feel he could contribute to that, so he left. That was in May, and you didn’t get Patrick in until August. So, how difficult was it for you guys remaining in the band to kind of create stuff without a keyboard player? Keyboards are very important to the Yes sound, aren’t they?
SH: Well, you know what, basically to put my version of that, yes, after Tales From Topographic Oceans, Rick was less interested in anything we were going to do. I’m not sure if we had a lot of Relayer. I mean, Jon and I wrote “To Be Over” as a sort of Anderson Howe song, but I even think that was pretty much up our sleeve. What happened was, when we knew Rick had gone then we basically spent two weeks with Vangelis, and we tried to see how well we could work together. We loved him to bits, and he was wonderful and everything, but it didn’t really click. He wasn’t like a band keyboard player that could play “Roundabout.” He was so inventive and clever; way ahead of his time. So, I wouldn’t say we wasted time, but we took a bit of time going in and out of different situations and thinking, Well, what about you call this guy, and you call this guy? And then somebody said, “Well, let’s speak to this guy Patrick Moraz.” So once that happened, it took a little while to get even that in shape. We did an audition, and we liked the guy, and he was enthusiastic. And of course, he had to kind of ween himself off of Refugee. So, nothing was going to happen too quickly, but in the meantime songs were being created. Jon and I were working on “To Be Over.” “Sound Chaser” and “Gates Of Delirium” came out of a lot of collaborations that were possible at that time, and basically they’re very complicated. So, at first we weren’t in a big hurry. We knew this album was important. We liked the way it was shaping up to be like a Close To The Edge sort of one side is one song, and the other side is two songs. That started to happen when we had these three quite monumental songs, particularly “Gates Of Delirium.” It has the wonderful song “Soon” at the end of it, which shows again we were already quite a dramatic band. We like catastrophic stuff and then we like very mellow stuff. So, we were always giving tension and then a bit of release! (Laughs)
JK: Well, I think that’s one of the strengths of Yes and has been for a great many years. The dynamics, and sometimes the dynamics within one song, is quite remarkable.
SH: Yeah, it was one of our sort of trademark things. But “To Be Over” is more in your sort of “And You And I” and “Wondrous Stories” but bigger because it has a gentler approach, which I think I helped influence; a kind of soft rock approach. But there again, “Gates Of Delirium” was almost a precursor of the unrest and the punk, and then the Drama album, which was much more kind of heavyweight. And as you said, we come out of Tales From Topographic Oceans, which had a lot of light and brightness about it, and not exclusively. Obviously it was a very big project. So, I guess whittling down to one album we felt that “Gates Of Delirium” was a wonderful piece to start it all off with, and we talked about “Sound Chaser,” and as I mentioned, “To Be Over” then. So, then you’ve got this sort of package. I mean, really “Gates Of Delirium” was a very adventurous piece. We do things in there again inside the signatures. Yes have been playing “Gates Of Delirium” recently, but up our sleeve are the rehearsal periods for the side two, “Sound Chaser” and “To Be Over.” So, we’re really doing our homework, extensively writing enormous chord charts to ourselves and things like that, which is really exciting. I mean, the band works best when it has a challenge. It’s no good having a band, and you don’t give it challenges. It’ll just sort of stagnate and play itself round and round on the same songs. So, we over the last 10-12 years have done a lot to kind of bring that idea forward – that the band is always changing. We’re always featuring a new album, and we’re always bringing back another song that we haven’t thought about for a long time. We’re trying to make it interesting.
JK: Well, since the Relayer album came out, I think Yes have performed “Gates Of Delirium” and also “Soon,” of course.
SH: It’s part of “Gates Of Delirium.” That’s what makes it so nice.
SH: You can’t take that song out and just play it as we did, and we’re not doing that.
JK: Yeah. But as far as I’m aware – and I’ve looked this up, and I’ve done the research – “To Be Over” and “Sound Chaser” you haven’t really done since 1976. I mean, maybe with “To Be Over” since possibly late 1975. So this is going to be, again as you say, a challenge. And of course, Yes always rise to the challenge, but are you looking forward to doing the album in its entirety?
SH: Of course! That’s a wonderful format. We don’t like to be stuck in it. Nobody’s asked us to do it. We do it when we feel it’s most appropriate. But the point you’ve made is very, very interesting, that as we went through all these years with the band, we had different songs that did and didn’t work on stage. And one of the things about all the tracks in Relayer, why they weren’t played for a long time, and even “Gates Of Delirium” came along much later after we’d recorded it did we start performing it again besides the initial period. But what I’m trying to say in a very long-winded way, sorry, is that side two never got played at all. Once Patrick left the band, and we went on with Going For The One with Rick, “To Be Over” and “Sound Chaser” were never played, ever. Then “Gates Of Delirium” came back later, so along the way, just to say, I loved the “To Be Over” piece so much that I invented a solo guitar version of parts of it. And I also recorded an instrumental version, which has the whole arrangement on the album Natural Timbre. I think it’s the last track on the album. Basically, “To Be Over” is a wonderful structure, and it lends itself to being instrumental, strangely enough. But my solo guitar piece, which is shorter than the full piece, has allowed me to stay in touch with the song itself because I very much love it. But now we’re going to play the whole thing for real, so I’m much happier with that.
JK: You actually broke the album up when you performed it. I think you did “Sound Chaser,” which again lends itself to a really dramatic opening number, which you did at the time. And then you’d have something like “Close To The Edge,” and then you would always have “To Be Over” and then
“Gates Of Delirium,” sort of one right after the other. So, are you going to be performing the album as is? Literally the three songs you’re going to perform them like they are as an album?
SH: Yes, in the right sequence. Although what’s right about a sequence on an album is that it’s right for an album. We feel that if you go along, I know it’s a surprise, besides some of the periods of playing Close To The Edge and Tales From Topographic Oceans in 1973 did we play whole albums. But I think the real strength in playing whole albums is kind of like twisting it around. So, even if this isn’t really the right order to play them for stage, which we used to do years ago, we’d stuff them out and do a song here and do a bit there. But when you put out an album, you sort of start a different sort of journey, really, and you expect that this is kind of the format of the album and we’re demonstrating that. And I think that’s another twist to the album series, in that it’s not always quite what you think, but it certainly is the album, but it’s not always the same kind of show. It doesn’t leave you where you think you might be left.
SH: So I think that, again, is a nice side effect of doing albums.
JK: The anticipation, as you know, from the fanbase, has been growing for this particular album for quite some time now.
JK: And of course, when you announced it, the internet was literally on fire.
JK: That’s got to be pleasing for you guys.
SH: Oh, yes, very, very much so. I mean, we’ve had a lot of fans say as we’ve gone through the five or six periods of doing complete albums over the last five or six years, then people have always said, “Well, when are you going to do Relayer?” And I always say, “Well, we may get around to that one.” There’s a sort of uncertainty about it. But knowing that they want it too, knowing it was one of the most daunting challenges we could take, it made it even more exciting this year. After the 50th Anniversary and all that kind of thing, and all the things we’ve done, what can we do now? Well, hang on… we’ve come around to Relayer. We can’t avoid it now! (Laughs) And that’s why we warmed up with “Gates Of Delirium” so that we were already confident with half the album. Now we need to add side two.
JK: Well the reaction to performing “Gates Of Delirium” on the Royal Affair tour last year was incredible, wasn’t it?
SH: It was very good, yeah. It was really, really great. Really marvellous.
JK: Now I’ve been in the lucky position of watching you guys rehearse, and it’s really like fine-tuning an engine watching Yes rehearse because you will just go over sometimes maybe eight or ten or twelve bars of music just to get something fine-tuned for performing it live. And of course, it’s like you said – an album is an album, but performance is a totally different thing.
SH: Yeah. One thing we have to acknowledge is the song fade – that we have to end it. We’re not going to fade very often. In fact, sometimes we might make the ending a little bit stronger than the record because a fade is a sort of – I wouldn’t say it’s a copout, but it’s a kind of an alternative way to finishing a tune on a record but not on stage. So sometimes we rise to the occasion for an ending. The other thing we might do is basically look at the record in fine detail each ourselves. Our rehearsal is really to put that together. It’s not to learn the song. If you haven’t learned it, then we’ll get somebody else! (Laughs) You have to have learned. Everybody is dedicated to homework because it’s the only way we can get there and play together. Then, as you’re saying, we fine-tune the intricacies of it. Sometimes it’s about balance. We might be working on, “Well, that’s got to be louder, I’m not hearing that stuff,” or “I’m not hearing that sidekick somewhere.” So, basically it can be just fine-tuning balances, but also it can be “I don’t hear that quite that way.” Somebody will say, “You know, I hear that a bit different.” Even with the count in, we sometimes have to talk about count ins. “I like a six on this song, not a four.” You see, if somebody comes in after four, well, hang on a second, this is a six! (Laughs) Those things are intricate but we have to have them pretty much settled in our mind. We enjoy that level of detail. It’s terrific.
JK: Well, the current lineup of Yes is working really, really well. And I think when people see the band live they go, “Oh yes, I get this now.” The band seem in a very, very good place but I know that obviously we have Jay Schellen playing the drums as well with Yes at the moment as well as Alan. And we’ve got Billy Sherwood and both Jay and Billy are really, really big on Relayer. So that’s kind of good for the band as well, isn’t it, the new members essentially.
SH: Yeah, it’s tremendous. They’ve really got a hunger for it, although we presume that Alan is going to play at least “To Be Over.” Of course, he’ll appear at the end of the first half in Europe. Some of it’s up our sleeve, but Alan is doing everything he can. We think that’s great. But like you say, Billy has got an album to play from Chris that is monumental. I mean, the bass work on Relayer is astounding, but he’s risen to that occasion, and he absolutely loves it. And in fact, as we’ve gone through the recent years with Billy, he’s often at soundchecks and other times he’s kind of played a bit of anything from Relayer he can think of, bits of “Sound Chaser,” and I’ll go, “Yeah, I know that one” and I’ll join him, and I’ve got to do my homework before I play the rest of that piece, thank you very much. And we enjoy that familiarity. And Jay’s the same. He’s loved that album, and he likes to step up to the game.
JK: But Yes have always stepped up to the game, in fairness. So, what’s the score then? Following the Cruise To The Edge, we have a European and a UK tour, and everywhere I go, I see American audiences and fans going, “Are we gonna get this?” And I’m thinking, well, they obviously don’t understand the way tours are put together, and you can’t announce anything or do anything until all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. As Yes tour America literally every year, I would imagine they’re going to get this as well. I mean, I’m not asking you to confirm it, but I would imagine I would be right in thinking that they are going to get this tour.
SH: Oh, we are very excited to be bringing this tour to America after having done Europe, so it’ll be beautifully run in as well. We’re going to take the summer off this year because we’ve done most probably every summer in the last eight or nine years. We’ve really pulled the stops out for the summer. We’ve done that, and we thought, no, we’ll sit down for the summer, and then we’ll come back a bit later and have our own shows, probably mostly theatre shows, but can feature this in the context it was originally presented in.
JK: Yeah. Well, of course, when you first toured America with Relayer, it was in November. The tour started in November, so I mean, you can tour any time you like I guess, but the timing has to be right, doesn’t it?
SH: Yeah, well this time we wanted to change from the highly competitive amphitheatre kind of style of things. We don’t often do albums in that mode so regularly. But certainly, when we get our large theatres, and we’ve got our captive audience and there’s no daylight and there’s no outdoors, we can really hone in and get that room to resonate.
JK: Yeah, and I think the band feed off that, don’t they?
SH: We do. We’re used to playing everywhere and anywhere, but we certainly like the level of intimacy and the excitement that happens when we’re that close.
JK: Well, it’s nearly 46 years since I saw Yes perform Relayer, and I love the fact that you guys are up for the challenge of doing this. I really do think it’s an album that stands on its own. Maybe it’s a bit early to ask this, but are there any plans to record this tour? I really think it needs to be documented.
SH: Oh, yes, we always record. We never not record.
JK: Oh, okay.
SH: We don’t make a thing out of recording like you do with a film. Basically, we keep an archive going of all the material that we’ve got. We’ve got the Royal Affair tour. We’re not giving anything away, but we’ve got stuff. We always record.
JK: Well, another thing I’d like to ask if you can give me an answer on this, is of course, as we know, Yes were filmed, I think it was the BBC that filmed you at QPR, and I’ve actually got a version of it, and the sound is not great. And I was told that the reason is because it was recorded multi-track, but the tapes were lost. But then I also heard a few years ago that the tapes were found and you expressed an interest in perhaps mixing that. Would that be the case?
SH: Well, I love that QPR show. It’s bloody great!
JK: It is!
SH: That’s how we got the idea of revitalising “Sweet Dreams” was from that performance because Yes played “Sweet Dreams” there. We play the same arrangement now, or similar. We’ve maybe even improved it a little now. But we’ve kind of brought that sensibility that that song doesn’t have on the studio record. Now, if the tapes were available and it became an affordable project to do, we would love to do that, because I know the QPR, I think I’ve got it on laserdisc, and I don’t have a machine anymore. It’s a bit of a loss. There’s a bit of a bootlegging thing going on, I think. But to have a full quality proper mixed version would be very nice. So, I’ve made a note of what you’ve said, and I’ll see.
JK: Good! (Laughs)
SH: I know somebody who’s on that stuff, and I’ll ask him if there’s any news on it. I’ve sort of forgotten about it, as one does, and I’ve moved onto other things, but I’ll make a note.
JK: It’s weird, because obviously I have a bootleg like many, and it’s part one and part two, two separate DVDs, and it’s even got a Roger Dean cover. I don’t know how they’ve done that, but there’s obviously some kind of composite, but it looks absolutely amazing. It’s in a Digipak. And what I’ve noticed is the first part is, knowing the technical side of it, is what they call a scratch mix. The second disc actually sounds a lot better, and I’m thinking if they had the multi-tracks to this, it would sound amazing!
JK: And I think you’re the man to do it.
SH: Do you know what label attempted to release that? I don’t think it’s a bonafide release like you say.
JK: No, it’s a bootleg, but having said that, you’re right about the show. It’s thrilling, quite frankly.
JK: And I think if you could get the multi-tracks, I know a lot of people would be really chuffed to bits, as they say, over it. So, let’s hope that something can be done with that. Now, the show isn’t obviously just going to feature Relayer as an album. There’ll be other songs from the Yes catalogue involved in the live show. Are you going to make a decision beforehand, or do you make a decision when you start the rehearsals?
SH: No, it’s already worked out.
JK: Oh, good. Okay.
SH: But just to clarify for the timeliness of this conversation, the cruise and the shows before the cruise in Florida and South Carolina won’t have any Relayer. We’re not playing any Relayer in America at that point.
SH: So that when we start in Europe, we’ll be doing a show that’s got two halves. The first half obviously won’t have Relayer. The first half will have what we consider to be our favourite selection of songs and we’re bringing a few surprises in there too.
SH: And then we’ve got a slightly different format, but after a little bit of music that we’ll be playing, and then we’ll go and finish the second half, most probably with the said album. And then continue on and throw in some encores.
JK: Brilliant! Well, I know that people are going to love this. Finally, I speak to you guys all the time, and Geoff said, “Yes, there’ll probably be a new Yes album,” and people are talking about a new Yes album. You’ve always been very measured and said, “Well, you know, when we’ve got the right material, when we feel the time is right, we will probably do another Yes album.” But it seems to be closer now than it’s been for a few years, and I think it’s always cause for a celebration when Yes do record a new album. Do you have anything on the far or maybe even close horizon?
SH: Well, yeah, I’m not in a position to say yes, certainly in any way at all. I guess what we’ve been doing is we’ve been making a concerted effort to arouse material and do a little bit of collaboration. But basically we’re still building a sort of pot, I suppose, of things. And until that’s kind of there and we’ve got that sort of worked out, then we’ll start talking about that we’re actually doing it.
SH: But until that point, we’re not doing it. But as I say, we’re making concerted efforts to see what it would be and how it could be. So, it’s mildly being processed.
JK: Watch this space! (Laughs)
SH: Watch this space! (Laughs)
JK: Well the great thing is that you guys are still out there doing it and you’re still kicking it. I’ve got to say, it’s always a great experience seeing you guys interact. And as I say, the current lineup that you have now with the band has been in place for a while, and I really think that you’re really pushing the boundaries again, which is great.
SH: Thanks very much! We’re glad you and others enjoy us. That will be a wonderful thing to carry on.
JK: Well, 2020 is going to be very busy for you guys, and I’m part of it because I’m going to be on Cruise To The Edge as well.
JK: We look forward to it, and we look forward to the tour dates. Steve, great to speak to you.
SH: Nice to speak to you, Jon. Thanks so much. Lovely talking!
Yes perform Relayer during the UK tour in May. The concerts will be in two halves with the first half comprising of selected songs from the Yes catalogue. Relayer will be performed in its entirety in the second half of the show.
More details and meet and greet packages can be booked at the band’s website www.yesworld.com.