The Alan White Interview
By Shawn Perry
Alan White's resume reads like a Who's Who in rock and roll. He's been keeping time for Yes since 1972, but he's also logged plenty of hours backing the likes of Joe Cocker, George Harrison and John Lennon. Indeed, his ability to keep it simple, yet powerful on "Imagine" defies the didactic, radical rhythms of Tales Of Topographic Oceans. It's hard to believe the drummer is featured on both. As the consummate pro, White is still on his game, sitting in with a variety of other musicians and friends when Yes isn't working.
During the summer of 2008, Yes was forced to postpone their planned 40th Anniversary tour when singer Jon Anderson suffered a severe asthma attack and was diagnosed with acute respiratory failure. Rick Wakeman had already stepped aside, and was quickly replaced by his son Oliver, but the possibility of Yes touring without Anderson seemed unlikely. Not quite.
In September 2008, it was announced that White, guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire were moving forward with an "understudy" singer and Oliver Wakeman for the 'In The Present' tour. Although Anderson expressed concern early on, the tour eventually gained his blessing, and the group has hit the road, as Squire explains, to "honor the music of Yes for the fans who have waited for the past four years to see us perform." During our chat with Alan White, you definitely get the idea that no matter what happens in the world of Yes, the show must always go on.
So, you're working in Los Angeles at the moment?
Yes. I'm rehearsing for the Yes tour.
Before heading out with Yes, you're going to North Carolina for a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame benefit. What can you tell me about that?
Originally, the band's name was the Red Sox, and they work in Europe and they do benefits or corporate shows. The bass player — he's actually a director of the Rock And Roll Fantasy Camps, and I guess he has something to do with the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame now — asked me if I wanted to play. So when the band does shows here in the U.S.A., they call it the White Sox because I'm playing with them I guess (laughs).
The band changes all the time. Usually, it consists of Spike Edney and Jamie Moses, who play with Queen, Bernt Bodal is the bass player, I'm the drummer, and we've had a few different singers. We had one of the guys who sang for Journey for a while (Jeff Scott Soto). Anyhow, there's different people that come in and out of the band when we do these kind of things. This is a benefit for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and John Entwistle Foundation. They basically asked me if I wanted to do the show. I guess in this band, we're going to have Eric Bazilian from the Hooters. We'll do our homework and put it together the day before we play.
You said you're rehearsing with Yes. Does this mean Jon Anderson is doing well?
No, this tour is going to be without Jon.
Jon has been pretty sick. He's on the mend as it were. It's not like we're tossing Jon out of the band or anything like that. When Jon is well enough to come back and sing with the band, he can. Until that point, people want to see Yes on the road again. And we had no idea when that might be. So we're going out with an understudy. (Editor's note: three days after this interview, it was announced that the "understudy" chosen was vocalist Benoit David, a Montreal, Quebec, native and vocalist who's sang in several Yes tribute groups. He was discovered by Chris Squire on YouTube.)
Is Oliver Wakeman still on this tour as well?
Have you worked with him yet?
I haven't. What we're doing right now is everyone is rehearsing individually and putting all the parts together. So when we get together, it's going to be a relatively short amount of time before we can kind of knit the whole thing together. I'm working with Chris this week. Then at the end of the month, I'm working with Chris and the singer. I think Oliver's flying in too. We're kind of putting things together in pieces. Then we all get together in mid-October for two weeks for full rehearsal every day. Then we go on the road in November.
I read that one of the stipulations Rick Wakeman had when he rejoined in 2003 was that Yes would make a new studio album. With Rick apparently gone and Jon sidelined, has the band made any progress in that area?
We're always writing. Chris has songs, so does Steve and so do I. We've been talking about putting something together, but whether we can do it prior to this tour or not…it may be in January. We're going on the road from the beginning of November to the middle of December. And then we're starting up again in late January, then going into February, and then probably to South America to do the whole bit.
Is Rick Wakeman coming back?
He said he'll come and do certain shows. He just doesn't want to do the full-blown tours. He wants to come and do New York and L.A., which is fine. We're just going to carry on being Yes like we've always done. The band has changed around so much. There's quite a few versions of the band it seems. This is just another version of it.
Would you consider the band Circa another version of Yes?
The music is a little bit like Yes, but it's kind of different. I know Billy Sherwood and Tony Kaye are in it, and I'm in it, but it's one thing I can't really carry on doing because the conflict between some of the shows. I have to stay loyal to Yes. I've been in that band for 36 years so it's not like I'm going to give that up. The Circa thing has been put on hold. I think they're gonna use another drummer when I can't do it. They're gonna do some gigs, and I think Jay Schellen is gonna play. I know Jay and he's a pretty good drummer. It's really too hard for me to do both of these things at once. Just to fit it into the schedule.
I'd like go back to the day when you were 20 years old and you got a call from John Lennon to go to Toronto and play a concert. Why do you think he called you?
He saw me playing in a club in London. This is what I've been told because I never actually saw him. I knew a couple people who worked at Apple, some of the guys who worked for George Harrison, and he respected me as a drummer. I guess John saw me too and that's how he knew how to get a hold of me, so he called me. I thought it was a friend playing a joke on me because it was a ridiculous thing to get out of the blue — a phone call from John Lennon. I said, "Fine. Joke's over." And I kind of put the phone down (laughs).
Then he called back five minutes later and said "No, no" repeatedly, "This is John!" Then he said, "I saw you play and I'd like you to play with me at the Live Peace In Toronto (aka Sweet Toronto Peace Festival). We're leaving tomorrow and I'll send a limo to pick you. We'll just rehearse on the plane and take it from there." I said, "Yeah, absolutely." It was the chance of a lifetime.
What was the rehearsal on the plane like? You just played a few oldies, right?
Yeah, some of it was kind of standard stuff. I was just playing with a pair of sticks on the back of an airline seat, and Eric (Clapton) and John were playing acoustic guitars. Klaus Voorman had his bass guitar on the plane. We just went through some standard stuff and came up with a set. When you listen to the album, John says, "Well, we've never played together before." And it was true. Quite literally, I sat down on the drum stool and they built the drum kit around me and it was 1-2-3-4 and we were into the first song.
You're obviously a fast learner because you played under similar circumstances when you joined Yes.
I guess you impressed John Lennon enough because he brought you in on "Instant Karma," which was literally written the day you recorded it, right?
Yeah, it was all done in one day.
What do you remember about that session?
I thoroughly enjoyed it. We got in there. I was interested in taking drumming to where you do a certain kind of rhythm but when you do a drum break you play it out of meter with the rest of the song. John kept saying, "Whatever you're doing Alan, keep doing it. That's wonderful." He never told me what to play any time I ever did anything with him. He just kept saying, "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it."
Did that lead to you playing on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass?
Was he like Lennon in the studio?
Pretty much. He was a little bit more directive, but it wasn't that much at all. He seemed to enjoy whatever you came up with. Really pretty easy to work with. And really a great group of people. You don't realize what a closely knit family all of the Beatles organization was. Everybody was friends with everyone. I felt like one of the family.
You also had Phil Spector on All Things Must Pass, as well as on Imagine.
He was great to work with in the studio. He'd sit and talk to John for awhile, and he'd put us all in the studio, and we all came with our ideas, and he'd sifted through them. And he'd say, "This is a good idea. We need that piano on it, except you need four pianos, not just one." He was the kind of guy who'd get 15 tambourines and make them sound like one. It's that wall of sound kind of thing.
He didn't do anything out of ordinary when you were around, did he?
No, not really. He was mostly concentrating and talking with John and George. He totally worked on the session, making sure it was right. He was really a worker. He was never the crazy guy you're lead to believe he is. I was there actually when, at the end of the whole thing, John turned around and gave Phil Spector his car keys. He said, "Here. This is to my Rolls Royce. That's how good you've been."
You played drums on the song "Imagine." Did you have any idea at the time that you were recording one of the greatest songs of all time?
John played us the song and we did a demo run a couple of times. And then we got into actually recording it. I think it was the second or third take we ever did of the song, and everyone knew that was a really great version of it.
I was talking to the drummer from the Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl) yesterday — he came to the studio to say hi — and he said, "'Imagine' is just…boy!" and I said, "Look that's one the easiest drum beats in the world, but that's all the song needed." And he said, "But the way you played it. It has so much feeling and it attaches itself to the lyrics and the meaning of the lyrics." And I guess that's what you listen to, to make it such an iconic song.
Was there ever any talk of you being part of the Plastic Ono Band for the long-term, perhaps touring and making more records?
Not really. John's idea of the Plastic Ono Band — he used Klaus Voorman and myself pretty much all the time — but it was also a band for whoever was there and wanted to play. We never talked about putting the band together for a serious tour or anything like that. John obviously had done the whole Beatle thing, and it was just if certain things came up that he wanted to do, he'd pull us all together. Like when we did the Lyceum Ballroom in London. I got a call and they said, "John wants to play the Lyceum Ballroom tonight." And I said, "OK." And I put my drum kit in the car and went down there.
It was gonna be John and Yoko and Klaus and myself. George Harrison was gonna come along and play some guitar. And Eric Clapton. When George and Eric showed up, they brought the whole of Delaney and Bonnie's band with them. So we stalled the show for another half-hour, got a whole other set of drums. Jim Gordon was playing drums with me. Then all of sudden, Keith Moon gets up and starts hammering away on the tom toms while I was playing. We didn't have an organized set list. It was like a riff that came up and everybody started playing it. I think we played it for about 35-40 minutes. That was the show. It was a very funny get-together of musicians jamming around this one lick. It was one of those songs that the lick would go on and on, and different people would take solos. I learned, as a young kid, the only way to get out of those long jams when nobody knows where the ending is gonna be is to just to play it faster. So I started speeding up and speeding up, going so fast that nobody could play it any more, and it all became one note. And that was the end of the song (laughs).
Then you're on the road with Joe Cocker and out of the blue, you get a call to join Yes?
Yeah. It was the last day of the Joe Cocker tour. I was doing a three-month tour of Europe with Joe and the band, which had two drummers as well — Jim Keltner and myself. That was a really good experience learning to play with two drummers. Jim was really, really great. He's older than me, and he taught a lot about how to play with another drummer, and be forgiving and let the other drummer find his own place in what he's doing. Give him a chance to shine as well as yourself, instead of trying to hog the limelight. It was a good lesson.
Anyhow, I was in Rome on the last night, and I got a call from a business manager of theirs, and he was also a business manager for Eddie Offord, who was Yes' producer. I shared an apartment with Eddie in London. So I get a call from Tony Dimitirades, he actually manages Tom Petty now, and he said, "Yes wants you to come back and join the band." Two weeks prior to that, I was in London and Yes were rehearsing Close To The Edge to make the album. I guess Bill (Bruford) was having problems with the band and they were having problems with Bill. He left, but I already had my own band in the English countryside that played a lot of different kinds of styles of music wrapped into one. And in a lot of different time signatures, like Yes plays. So I was kind of prepared for that. It was the way my drumming was kind of developing.
The first song I played with Yes was "Siberian Khatru" in that rehearsal. They said, "Why don't you jump in here, we need to finish rehearsals." And Bill went off to have dinner, I think, with one of the guys from King Crimson, which he joined after that. I guess I must have impressed them because a couple weeks later, they asked me to join the band.
You weren't exactly a "progressive rock" drummer like Carl Palmer or Neil Peart. Did you foresee any problems in adjusting your style to play this kind of music and following in Bill Bruford's footsteps, or did it come naturally?
I told the band, "Look we'll give each other three months. You guys give me three months, and I'll give you three months, and we'll see if we can make this thing work." I played the music like I wanted to play it. I guess the band was looking for something that was a little more rooted. It's funny you should bring up Neil Peart because Neil and myself, nowadays, get compared a lot (laughs). It's bizarre. And I've known Carl (Palmer) for years and years. We all have things we've developed over the years where you can play a wide variety of styles. And you have to have a wide variety of styles to play with a band like Yes. I draw influences from jazz music, classical music, R&B, all kinds of different music.
According to legend, you learned the entire Yes repertoire in three days.
We didn't really have a rehearsal, we just had a meeting and they played some of the music — I didn't play anything that day. I spent like half the night listening to it, with my own kit at home. We only really had one rehearsal. And then Jon said, "OK, that's great. We'll check each other out. And by the way, we have a show on Monday." So I had the weekend to learn and we left for Dallas, Texas, on Monday.
And a lot of those first performances from that tour are in the Yessongs film.
You know that was a little unfair to shoot a movie and record the whole thing, and I had only just joined the band. It takes awhile to get used to playing that kind of stuff. It seemed to work. A lot of people like the album, But I wish I'd had just a little more time to settle in with what I was playing. It came at me fast and quick again, like the Lennon thing.
Like I said, you must be a fast learner (laughs).
I just jumped right in.
The first studio album you made with the Yes is probably considered their most controversial and complex, Tales From Topographical Oceans. I know Rick Wakeman wasn't too crazy about it. How do you rate it?
I thoroughly enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to do some creating — coming up with different drum patterns, working on some more ethnic kind of rhythms, and developing it as a band of very talented players.
Did John Lennon or George Harrison ever come out to see you with Yes?
No. Shortly after I joined Yes, John moved to New York and I kind of lost touch with him. He went into his New York City kind of thing. And, of course, with Yes, I seemed to be touring all the time, so I never had a chance to get a hold of him. From what I understand and from what people have told me, John was a really a big fan of the band. He really liked all the stuff I was doing with Yes and he really liked the music.
In the mid 70s, everyone in Yes made a solo album. You made Ramshackled. And then you made another self-titled solo album with Geoff Downes in 2006.
Geoff came out to Seattle. We put a band together called White and we did an album, and Geoff came in and played on it. We thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it's a great album — there's some great stuff on there.
I know you've written lots of stuff for Yes, but do you write a lot of music just for yourself?
I get involved, working in conjunction with other people. With the White album, there were a couple of tracks written by other people, but mostly we worked on it together, bouncing off each other. It was a collective kind of thing.
I read a review of White, and the writer commented that the older you get, the harder you hit the drums. Do you agree with that?
I don't know (laughs). I've never been a firm believer of somebody who absolutely plays the hell out of a kit. I haven't broken a drumstick or head in about 18 years. I tell some of these guys who play really hard, "You know what? There's a microphone on that drum. All you have to do is turn it up a bit. You don't need to play that loud." I guess I play relatively hard still, but it depends on how you play.
Before Trevor Rabin came along and Yes changed course, you and Chris Squire jammed with Jimmy Page on a project called XYZ. What happened with that?
Chris and myself were in the process of trying to think what Yes should do because Jon and Rick were both doing their solo stuff, and then Steve was doing the thing with Asia. Jimmy Page just called up Chris and me and said we should play together. Most of the material we did was written by Chris or myself. Jimmy was getting off joining in. We recorded a bunch of tapes — in fact, there's a bootleg tape out there, somewhere. I have no idea how it got out there, unless someone from Jimmy's studio made it.
Anyhow, those were the beginning of some songs that ended up on the next Yes album any way. It was a good, fun time. We just had fun in the studio every day — just playing, recording, writing. I think it was over a four or five week period. We just hung out at Jimmy's and made music. It was a lot of fun.
Yes was reborn in the 80s and became very successful. What are your memories of those days with Trevor Rabin?
It was absolutely great. Obviously, the style of the band changed somewhat with Trevor playing. He was a great songwriter, as he is today. I'm still really, really good friends with Trevor. I call him every time I'm in town. We actually started by calling the band Cinema, We were actually eight months into the project, writing and then we started recording. We had pretty much most of 90125 recorded, and then Jon heard a couple of the tracks and called Chris and said, "Look I think this music is great. Can I try singing on a track?" He came down and sang on a track, and there was nothing we could do except to call the band Yes again.
Then the whole band got back together for the Union album and tour. You got to play with another drummer again. How did you like that tour?
I loved that tour. It was great. Me and Bill — I'd met him quite a few times. I knew Bill was a character and was pretty friendly with him anyway. We sat down with each other and I said, "Obviously, there are some songs here that are your kind of playing. And on the other hand, for the last 18 years, the band has been playing the songs this way as well." We had to meet halfway on some of those things. Seventy to eighty percent of the show, I played most of the drums, as it were, and Bill would play his electronic kit and add the icing on top of the cake. Songs like "Heart Of The Sunrise," he would play. He just played a couple of songs by himself. It was a lot of give and take, but it was great and we worked it out.
I saw one of the shows on that tour, and it appeared as though you guys complemented each other.
Absolutely. We just knew how to stay out of each other's road.
After Union, Yes was caught in an identity crisis. You did Talk, but then the classic lineup reunited. What were your feelings at the time about the direction the band was going in?
Everybody wanted us to go with the classic lineup of Yes, which we did. Some people still tell me today that the last time we toured, which has been a few years now, that they thought the band was as good as ever on stage. We had a pretty hot show going on. I think this time we're going to put on something pretty dynamic.
The classic lineup of recent years has stayed clear of the 80s stuff, although Steve Howe told me you have to do "Owner Of A Lonely Heart." Do you wish you'd play more stuff from the Trevor Rabin period?
Steve and Trevor are two different guitarist. With Steve, he has his own stamp on the style he plays. And with Trevor, obviously his style doesn't cater to that era. But I personally like playing some of the stuff from that era. Steve called Chris and myself and he sent out a tentative set list and "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" was in there, so obviously Steve is building up to playing that on this next tour.
Do you have a favorite era of Yes?
It's very hard because we're so diverse, in those eras and the style of music we were playing. I enjoyed the beginning, the Topographic era. The Relayer era was really cool — especially with Chris and myself, and the kind of bass and drum work we did on that album. The 80s, it was great and that band was pretty hot. When we got back with the Yes classic lineup, all this stuff started coming out again and we got on a roll. So there's a bunch of different eras like that really stick out to me.
By the way, you mentioned Talk, and I think Talk is one of the most underestimated albums we ever did.
I agree. What's the big suite on there? "Endless Dream"?
Yeah, "Endless Dream."
That track is killer.
That is a killer track and there's some great drum stuff. I did most of those tracks in Trevor Rabin's studio in his house.
Once Jon gets better and he rejoins you, how much longer do you see Yes going?
I really don't know. We have new management now and they're planning at least a five-year program for us. Obviously, we're thinking about the music. Chris, myself and Steve are ready to go. We're all pretty healthy and ready to get back on the road and do the whole thing again.
Does that mean you don't have any plans to retire and kick back on your boat up in Seattle?
No, they won't let us retire (laughs). We wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if we did.