Interview: Jon Anderson. Creating New Spirit.
On a cool English afternoon Tim Price, connected with the legendary Jon Anderson in a sunny California. We learn how a new project with violinist extraordinaire, Jean-Luc Ponty, became a Kickstarter campaign. We delve into the works of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson and Yes and the historical content continues as two towns who helped to create history as founders of Association Football* in 1888 are discussed. We also hear about sport being the inspiration for a classic song. We may just have the answer to all those mysterious lyrics.
Jon, I am calling you at your home in LA from here in the Black Country, UK, home of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club (Wolves) who were one of the 12 founding members of the English Soccer League, as were Accrington Stanley where you were born in 1944. On a similar note Robert Plant the Led Zeppelin singer is now Vice President of Wolves; do you envisage involvement in the same way at ‘Stanley’?
I am with them in spirit all the time and I’ve got my Accrington Stanley Football Shirt in the closet which I wear now and again!
Talking about sport, the song Going For The One which is solely an Anderson composition, didn’t the idea for the lyrics originally come from when you were watching the horse racing on Grandstand a BBC Sport TV show?
Yes Siree! It was about Horse Racing, Golf, all types of sport and how sport keeps us on edge, and going for it, you want your favourite team to win, every horse to win, every golfer to win, in their subconscious millions of people will watch one game in the hope that one team wins and the other team looses and all the collective energy that people put into watching sport, it is just so cool.
Going For The One, is probably one of Yes’s faster and most shrill tracks and difficult to do really, Steve Howe even said that, but I would imagine this is an ideal track for Jean-Luc Ponty to take on with his electric violin and your new band, what do you think?
I will definitely think about that one.
Please do, so it is not currently on your track list for the future live shows?
No, I have been putting together track lists over the last couple of weeks and they evolve every day but the ones that stand out from a Yes point of view, are Starship Trooper, Long Distance Runaround and Owner Of A Lonely Heart, but of course they are very new versions of these songs and we have to up step it up the 21st Century.
Your new collaboration The Anderson Ponty Band will be playing the first gig in Aspen, Colorado on September 20th in the Wheeler Opera House, is this an old favourite haunt of yours?
I have been playing there every year for the last 4 years and I have gotten to know the people, when the new project came together, I sent them a tweet and they responded to say well do you want to use the Opera House and also the facilities for a rehearsal place, and I said that sounds perfect, it’s a good place to be away from the big cities where we can collectively spend time to get to know each other and make some music.
For this show and the upcoming album the fans have to buy into a pledge by contributing to your Kickstarter campaign. I understand as of today you have already raised $100,000 exceeding your $95,000 target.
Yes, that’s really good, it really is the case!
So the album offered in the Kickstarter pledge will be a double CD live recording of the Aspen show but could you also be adding new studio material?
It should be a live album of the show and maybe some of the rehearsal recordings. One of the ideas for the people who want to get involved with Kickstarter, they will get the chance to hear and see things that not many do: featuring the rehearsal experience, the musical ideas, there are a lot of different kinds of avenues a group needs to take in order to make music and is something I wanted to do with Yes some fifteen years ago.
Well, you had this idea way before a lot of people , weren’t you trying to do this in the 70’s, getting the fans to buy into the group to help finance the albums that way ?
Yes, I was really into all that interaction with fans and not keep it so separate but of course I was always just one voice in a bunch of guys. Rick was into it but the other guys really didn’t want to have others messing with their work, I dunno, anyway it never came off at that time.
When you left Yes the first time, I have the original Melody Maker interview, from 1980 and you proclaim “I am a musician and I am halfway through my career”. That was an incredibly bold statement to make then but you have surpassed that, you are going to be 70 in October, still going so strong and so inspirational to so many people.
Well, I’m just doing what I love doing and I’m very fortunate to be connected with so many musicians through the internet, unbelievable, and now the musical map is so wide, for me I am thinking about the next 30 years. I am thinking about working in theatre, visual art, computerisation art and things like that all connected to the idea of evolving, you know you have to evolve as musician, that is what it’s all about.
I totally agree with you, to take the current Yes for instance, they keep playing your old songs, but in exactly the way they were done in the 70’s. It doesn’t make any real sense to me, as a band they need to move forward, if that’s what they are going to do, whereas you’re going in an exciting new direction with Jean-Luc Ponty. Did you first meet Jean-Luc when he was with the Mahavishnu Orchestra?
We were very much interconnected really because the Mahavishnu Orchestra was one of the first bands I ever saw which totally mesmerized me and I always wanted to sing with them. I felt gosh, can you imagine singing with that music, that would be amazing, and now here I am singing with Jean-Luc and his friends and they are truly amazing so now it has all come a giant full circle.
So, the nucleus of the new band is Jean-Luc’s musicians?
Yes, his band which he does work with plus a friend of mine Jamie Dunlap, who I work with quite a lot. It is a very good unique time and we will just see what comes, the music should drive us which way we go, you know.
Going back to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and when you first met, would they have been one of the influences for Relayer with Gates of Delirium and Sound Chaser?
For sure, but one of the first times I saw a band that really blew my mind was the first show of King Crimson at the Speakeasy Club in London, they did their whole first album, and it was their first ever show and me and Chris (Squire) just stood there and after the show I looked to Chris and said we gotta rehearse more man!
Tremendous, so which year was that then when you first saw King Crimson?
That would be ‘69
You later sang on the King Crimson track Prince Rupert Awakes, a superb guest vocal.
Thanks very much, and so of course when I saw Mahavishnu for the first time this was my second awakening, here was a band of incredibly talented people and we were at the same show, they opened up for The Kinks and we (Yes) were the next on the bill and after the show I just stood their in the dressing room and wanted to meet them all. Then Billy Cobham came over to say hello and I froze and just said “hi man” in utter awe.
Billy Cobham, he just played the Cheltenham Jazz Festival back in May his year for a celebration of his 70th year, he spent a lot of time talking about the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the jazz perspective in all the media interviews, a very cool time Jon.
Yeah, that’s brilliant, just brilliant.
As you guys get to this period in your lives, it really suits just how you go about everything, still delivering so many new influences to the people. I read a piece about how you are exploring African music and particularly Ethiopian territory. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
When you study music, you start to realise where some of the rhythms came from and with Ethiopia, there is an old school music which is very fascinating to me, very Reggae, very Ska, very Blue Beat very up music the singers are almost ridiculously ruthless, especially the girls, the unique praising is amazing and it is something when a musician hears that and just does it, it is fascinating to me and even Baka, from the Congo, they are singing and playing rhythms in the river, it’s water drumming, making rhythms just bashing water around.
In that Melody Maker interview of Sept ‘80 you said even back then, that someday you want to record an album just using the sounds which your voice can create and set to rhythms, but without using lyrics. Expanding on the indigenous themes you have already explored many of the South American sounds with your work on Deseo.
Yeah, you get into it, and it’s a wonderful adventure more than anything.
You have for many years worked with Trevor Rabin and I understand you recently received an MP3 file from him exploring Rachmaninov as he was composing some classical music. You were writing your own classical pieces parallel to Trevor but where do you see classical influences being used in Anderson Ponty?
Well, it is kind of natural the way we discover things. The way it worked with Trevor, I was studying Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, liking some piano music and Trevor hadn’t a clue that I was doing this, and in the meantime he had wrote a beautiful amazing piano concerto for Lang Lang, one of the foremost pianists in the world.
It blew my mind that in the same week I was working on this piece, not copying Rachmaninov as that would be impossible as his compositions are so extraordinary and diverse but it was just the idea of his music, the structure, I studied it and understood it. Then Trevor sent me over his track written for Lang Lang by MP3 and that was also heavily Rachmaninov influenced without any prior knowledge of what I had been up to.
It’s like anything, every year I’ll listen to someone different, with Tchaikovsky, I still listen to him quite a lot but I’m actually listening through different ears these days almost like listening to certain works for the first time. Tchaikovsky was amazing with the string section, he would make them work so hard and then the opposite to that is John Adams, who is one of the foremost composers in America, his idea of rhythm, of orchestral strings and rhythm is so cool. I have started to work on all that as well, so I am always building and learning stuff each year.
You have a massive repertoire for your Aspen show, so is there a percentage of Yes back catalogue, Jon Anderson Solo, Jon and Vangelis, Jean-Luc Ponty material, the new collaboration material, how you are going to deal with all this for the live sets?
Well, we have just try, and somewhere in there you have The State Of Independence, as it is such a special song but we are going to be doing it in its simplest form, in a more acoustic form, and just see what comes, its totally organic and developing, we’ve not yet got too many new songs but we just have to have a happy balance and let the audience come away feeling well satisfied because that is worth doing.
Will you be coming to Europe on Tour with the Anderson Ponty Band?
That’s the plan for 2015, we not sure when but first Asia, then Europe and then onto America, it’s all being channelled at the moment, but we will be in Europe before the USA, but one thing I gotta say: Go you Wolves!
Aha, so now you have finally come round to the soccer again!
The Molineux (home of the Wolves) was one of my favourite places to look at, I had never been there but the ground was at head level at one time, I thought it was amazing that they could actually build it like that but, hey, that’s life.
To bring this also full circle, talking about Wolves and then African rhythms and so on, there is a song which is played before each Wolves game which is a ska reggae song called the Liquidator, are you aware of that one?
No, I am not sure I do, I would probably know it right away, but not sure which one it is!
Well, Chelsea Football Club use it too but The Liquidator is written by Harry J Allstars, a calypso and reggae song which has a lot of ska in it, so you check that one out.
Fabulous, love it, very cool!
Jon, back to your team, unfortunately, Accrington Stanley are currently bottom of the English Football League right now and they even had their football boots nicked out of the dressing room after their last game, so it is a pretty bad state of affairs!
Well, it’s the story of my life!
Jon Anderson, I thank you very much for your time and incredibly forthright words.
Take care now Tim, Bye-Bye and Goodnight
Interview Tim Price with Jon Anderson / August 22nd 2014. Wolverhampton – Ca, USA
*The Football League was founded in 1888 and those 12 clubs were, in alphabetical order; Accrington Stanley, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Clearly the geographical heritage of this new sporting fascination for the then media was a line north of Birmingham, at that time there was not a wealthy London club in sight.