Yestival! Bassist Chris Squire on the “Perpetual Change” of Yes

This weekend, Yestival kicks off in Camden’s Susquehanna Bank Center.  A celebration of some of the best prog rock of the 1970s, Yestival features Carl Palmer’s Legacy (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer), Renaissance featuring Annie Haslam, Music Box, and others, with a day of performances culminating when progressive rock titans Yes will take the stage with new frontman Jon Davison.

Chris Squire has been there since the beginning, 45 years ago this summer, when Yes formed in London.  The only current member of the band to have played on all twenty studio recordings, Chris spoke with us a little about the early days, his development as a bass player, and his favorite memory from playing Philly. magazine:  You guys will be here soon, along with Carl Palmer, and a few other bands for Yestival!

Chris Squire: Yes, with Carl Palmer and his version of ELP’s music.  There are some other bands, — Renaissance, a band called Music Box (kind of a Genesis tribute), and then there are some other, younger, what people call “baby bands..” Yes started in 1968..

CS: …that’s when we started rehearsing, in London, summer of ’68… … and I understand that the Beatles were one of your biggest influences..

CS: Yeah of course!  I was prime audience for that, I was 15 in 1963 when the Beatles came onto the international stage with their first album.  I was obviously very influenced by the whole thing, and I guess probably what made me want to try my hand at becoming a “pop star,” as they were called then, before they were called “rock stars..” [laughs] 1968 was kind of the height of psychedelic music, and I wanted to get a sense in your words of what was happening in London, what it felt like to be part of that scene, and how the “progressive rock” genre that Yes is so well known for had branched off of psychedelic and garage rock that was so popular back then.

CS: Obviously prior to the Beatles, the rock and roll thing began in the US with Presley, etc., and then of course the Motown thing was a pretty big influence.  That came over to England where we were all at, and my prior band – The Syn – we used to do a lot of Tamla/Motown covers as part of our show.   And then, of course, as you said, the psychedelic end of the 60s there, with the Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper, was a very influential thing on young musicians, because obviously it stretched the barriers of three-chord rock ‘n roll quite a bit.  So when Yes started, with all those ingredients at our disposal, we started to put together music that was also based on the fact that Jon Anderson and I were also pretty big classical music fans.  So, we kind of integrated a lot of Stravinsky, etc., into the music of Yes.  It was a hodgepodge of influences.  We wanted to rock, but we also wanted to kind of be musically intelligent, as well.  We wanted the band to be good instrumentally, and we wanted to have vocal harmonies as well that were influenced by the Crosby, Stills and Nash’s of this world as well that had become successful around that time.  So that’s what the ingredients for Yes were. There’s a lot of classical music influence in the Beatles’ music as well.  Throughout musical history – from rock to punk to grunge – there were a lot of bands who make it more on feeling, where the musical or instrumental proficiency is not a major part of the final product.  For you guys, by contrast, that was very important. 

CS: It was.  If there was a sort of blueprint for the band, it was that we wanted to have the guitar playing and the keyboard playing to be pretty up there in terms of proficiency.  And as I said, also, we wanted to have great vocals as well. Are you comfortable with being a “prog rock band,” is that label something you’re proud of?

CS: Well yeah, I don’t know who ever came up with that label – I guess it probably was a journalist in English or the US press, I don’t really know – but it sort of surfaced at a certain point in the 70s as a term, and we sort of have become known as the premier band of that tag [laughs], so I guess we’ve grown up together! [laughs] Usually when they do those polls that you can read on the internet, we’re recognized as being the number one band to represent the movement – and I guess you get Rush and Genesis in there as well.  Yeah, we’re proud of that! You’re the only current member of Yes who’s been on all of the studio records.  Having worked with so many different musicians, and now having a new lead singer, are you still comfortable calling all of these lineups “Yes?”

CS: It’s ironic – I actually wrote a song on the third album, The Yes Album, which is one of the featured album on this current tour – called “Perpetual Change,” not realizing at the time that it would relate in a way to the membership of Yes.  And it wasn’t really about that, but it’s kind of ironic that that has come about.  And of course, I’ve been really fortunate, in a way, to have played with so many different people, and to have been influenced by all the people who have been in and left over the years.  What a great experience that’s been for me to have been able to pick the brains of the people who have been part of the lineup.  Going back to your question about being known as “Yes” – at a certain point it became that Yes is more of a movement, and looking into the future, there could be a Yes in 100 or 200 years from now, just the way there is a London Symphony Orchestra!  And apart from some absolutely incredible medical miracle, I won’t be in it [laughs], but hopefully there will be a Yes well into the future! Talk to me a little bit about the genesis and the evolution of your bass-playing style.  We talked about your early influences, but could you tell me a bit more about how your style has changed over the years?

CS: Sure!  Well obviously, once again, going back to the Beatles, and Paul McCartney, and then of course Bill Wyman and the Rolling Stones, and Jack Bruce [from Cream] – all these guys were huge influences on me as a young teenager learning to play bass.  Of course then I became a huge Who fan, and John Entwistle was a major influence on my sound and my style.  So I had all these really talented people to borrow influences from, and, you know, put it all into my own package.  Over the years, obviously, I’ve matured in some ways as a bass player, and my style keeps evolving – the way I play, how I play – that’s just a natural thing that happens to a working musician.  I wanted to ask you about that too – you’re 65 now, and you’ve been playing for a long time – in what ways do you feel you’re still evolving, and do more modern musicians – Les Claypool, for example – still influence your bass style and evolution?

CS: Les Claypool’s an interesting one!  I’ve met him and talked to him, he’s a real nice guy.  And of course we all know South Park [laughs]. Yeah, even after I became famous as a bass player, Sting brought another element in with the Police and the reggae thing – I think you just tend to notice what’s going on with other players over the years, and you can’t help but sort of hear something you like, and borrow from it, and also put it into your library or vocabulary of musical tricks.  I always keep my ears open, and if I hear something I like, I’ll definitely wonder if I might have a version of that. In terms of touring – you guys are coming to Philly soon – do you have any specific memories of playing in Philadelphia that you could share?

CS: Oh, yes, we’ve had fantastic shows in Philadelphia over the years – of course, the most memorable being the American Bicentennial in 1976, when Yes played at the JFK Stadium, when it was still standing, and we had 130,000 paying audience, which was actually the biggest paying audience in American history.  Of course also, we got quite lucky that that was the year that Peter Frampton broke, and he was the support act on that bill, so that obviously swelled the attendance.  But that was an incredible show.  I’ll always remember that. That must have been a pretty big rush for you guys to take the stage to 130,000 people.  Do you still feel the same rush playing live shows after all these years to a screaming crowd?

CS: Yeah!  Well of course, obviously the numbers aren’t quite that size these days [laughs]. But yeah, I still get enormous enjoyment from playing in theaters.  Of course we do a lot of shows outdoors in the summer to quite big numbers.  The Yestival thing that we’re putting together, we’ll probably see maybe 10,000 people there or something.  It’s still a great experience. Jon Davison joined about a year ago, in 2012 – are you guys comfortable with him yet?  How did you find him?

CS: More and more, by the day, we become comfortable with him.  He improves exponentially all the time, and it certainly has made it a more enjoyable experience playing with him since he’s come on board.  He really has been a great asset to the band.  Actually I knew about him for years because I’m friends with Taylor Hawkins – the Foo Fighters’ drummer, have been for years – and Taylor always told me, “hey you know, if you ever need a guy to come in,” – he was in school with him, when they were like 5 years old or something – and he said, “I know this guy who’d be great to sing with you guys..” Of course he told me that at a time when I wasn’t looking for anyone, and then when Jon Anderson had respiratory problems about six or seven years ago, and we realized that we might have to get somebody else in, I think Taylor reminded me again then, but I’d already gone down the road with Benoît David, a Canadian guy who came in after Jon Anderson.  After a couple of years working with us – and doing a very good album with us with Fly From Here, as a vocalist – he did a great job on that – but he decided that he really didn’t want this life.  So that’s when Taylor once again said to me, “hey, remember my buddy, do you want to try him out?” So that’s when we came to hook up with [John Davison]. Will there ever be another album like 1991’s Union, which had reunited all the members who ever played on a Yes record?

CS: I wouldn’t say that anything’s impossible.  I still stay in touch with most of the guys that had been in Yes, and of course Trevor Rabin was a big influence when he joined Yes in the 80s as a guitar player, and we went down some interesting paths musically with Trevor.  It would be nice to work with him again at some point.  And of course, Tony Kaye’s still around, he was part of the Union thing.  And Rick Wakeman of course, and Geoff Downes, who’s been with us for a couple of years.  I don’t know if anything exactly like that could happen again.  But I won’t say never!

Catch Chris Squire and Yestival at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden tomorrow, August 3rd.  Get tickets here.  For more info, visit Yesworld.

Photo by Rob Shanahan