Every week a member of YES takes your top twenty questions from Facebook and Twitter.
This week, it’s the turn of legendary drummer and percussionist, Alan White.
Brad J. Nye
I’ve read that you started playing music on piano at an early age, what made you switch to drums?
I switched to drums when I was around twelve years old. I started playing the piano at six years old. My uncle was a drummer and he noticed that I was playing the keyboard very percussively, so he got me a set of drums, and within three months I was playing drums in a band onstage. That first band, whose name I can’t remember, became the Downbeats.
You are such an influence for so many drummers, and have been for a long time. Who was you influence, or influences when you were a kid?
My first influences really were when I first got a set of drums, I listened to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, but also on the other side, rock and roll was just starting and I listened to Ringo Starr and The Beach Boys, and then when I was a teenager, I basically started listening to more fusion, jazz-type drummers like Lenny White, Alphonse Mouzon, Jack DeJohnette, and drummers of that nature. As a result, my style has jazz influences and rock and roll influences. I like to combine the two musical genres as well as some classical influences.
Alan, do you have classical training? How did you get into all those time signature changes?
My classical training was on the piano from six years old. I had a teacher, Mrs. Thompson was her name, and she was one of those old-school piano teachers, and I used to practice for a half-hour to an hour a day, and then twice a week I went to Mrs. Thompson and I would get all my classical pieces right, and do reading. She had a ruler, and if I played a wrong note she used to hit me on the knuckles. I kept on taking piano lessons until the age of fifteen, and I got up to Piano Grade 8, which is almost teaching grade. So, as a result of that, and through my teen years listening to fusion and other influences like that, I developed my own way of writing music through the piano. Also getting into time changes by listening to bands like Frank Zappa, all of those things made an impression on me, and as a result, time signatures that are of an odd meter were always of great interest to me, so I incorporated it into my technique as it developed.
I’ve seen many of your comments about working with John Lennon, but not many of working with George Harrison. What was that like and did you get a sense of George’s spirituality working with him?
I did get a sense of George’s spirituality. It was wonderful working with both John and George, they were just incredible human beings. George was a lot quieter, and a bit more studious about what was happening and what was going down on the record. John would just say to me “Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it, it’s great.” But with George, we analyzed things a bit more. I spent three weeks making All Things Must Pass and it was mostly the same group of people every day. It was an amazing experience working with George in studio and I did get a sense of his spirituality, especially playing on songs like ‘Hare Krishna’.
How did it feel transitioning from playing with John Lennon to jumping into the start of the Close to the Edge tour?
Well there was a vast difference in styles, but I was prepared for it by the fact that I had my own band in England, and we were writing original music that had lots of good time changes. We were interested in that style of music, so as a result, when going from, say, ‘Instant Karma’ or ‘Imagine’ to ‘Close to the Edge’, it was not a difficult transition for me because I could understand the whole reasoning behind it. I think it gave me a good background for solid rock and roll drumming, but it helped to also develop a more prog-rockish kind of style like ‘Close to the Edge’.
What was your feeling, having only just joined the band, then being thrust into the making of ‘Topographic Oceans’? Were you at all concerned that you had gotten in over your head? P.S. Your performance and sound on that album is some of the greatest ever.
Well, thank you very much, Martin. When we made Topographic Oceans, we spent almost six months rehearsing the whole album, because we were making what was considered a concept album, we went into the music in great depths on a daily basis. I was establishing relationships with both Chris Squire and Steve Howe and it naturally developed into a style that’s been with the band ever since. Topographic was a big adventure in those kinds of areas. I must admit that everybody thought that we were crazy to release an album with only four songs on a double album, and actually go out and play it live. By the way, the encore on that tour was ‘Close to the Edge’, so the encore was twenty minutes long. That will give you an idea you how long we were on stage [laughs].
Besides percussion, can you discuss your “other” musical abilities, Piano, vocals etc.? I’ve read somewhere that some of the tracks on Topographic Oceans and Tormato were you playing more than the drums.
I think Topographic was mostly percussion for me. It’s in more recent albums in the 90’s where I did some tracks playing piano. Because of my piano background, I’d play vibraphone and tuned percussion on some of the songs. On Tormato, I did play some piano or keyboards on one track, but that’s a long time ago. I think that was my first adventure in electronic drums because I spent an awful lot of money developing what was considered one of the first electronic drum triggering systems, which, if you looked at it today, would look like an old steam engine. The song was ‘Arriving UFO’ – that’s that noise you hear [bump bump bump bump, bump bump bump bump] – that’s all drums. On “Future Times” I used to play on a military kind of snare. It was a big one. The crowd noise on that one, I think, is a soccer crowd that somebody recorded and we added to the track. We liked to experiment with unique sounds.
Do you have your own favorite Yes songs? My fav for your playing would be Gates of Delirium I also love the great solo drum part in Sound Chaser.
I get this question a lot. I always find it difficult to answer because every album with YES has been in a different era of band’s career and I have my favorites and not-so-much songs from each era. I think in general, I enjoy all of the music. Seeing as you’ve pulled out ‘Gates of Delirium’, ‘Gates of Delirium’ is actually one of the harder songs to play on stage that Yes performs. It’s a very exciting piece of music, when we play it right. Once we’ve done it a few times on stage it really takes off and becomes it’s own element, especially the drum battle scene between the drums and the keyboards at the end of the song – it’s quite something to see on stage. In the studio, Jon Anderson and I built a rack of percussion instruments entirely out of car parts and springs and we would play all of these different noises in different parts of the song. Some of them we used, some of them, not. In the keyboard-drum battle in that song, we were in the studio and I pushed the whole thing over one day while Patrick Moraz was playing a very strange chord. You can actually hear it on the record. The whole thing goes crazy when I knocked our percussion creation over and it made a huge clattering noise. It’s called dynamic recording [laughs].
How was making Relayer different from other projects you have done in the past. Your work on this album in particular was amazing.
Relayer was made in Chris Squire’s studio in his house in Virginia Water in Surrey, England. Everyone would travel down to the studio every day. We’d start around lunchtime and work ‘til dinner. It was more kind of a home-recorded type experience, but it was a beautiful studio and very professional. We all went to Chris’ house and we all had a lot of fun. Every morning, Jon and I would stop at a junk yard – I wish someone had a video of that – Jon crawling under cars and banging pieces of metal and springs to get particular sounds.
I was so happy to have seen you and Bill play together on the Union tour. What was your approach for two drummers on this music and how did you and Bill divide the drum parts?
I get on very well with Bill and we spent the first week of rehearsals talking to each other a lot figuring out who was going to play what. There were obviously landmark songs in the set like ‘Heart of the Sunrise’, which is very much a Bill Bruford style song, and I said “well, you have to play this song on stage”. So there were a few songs where Bill played drums, but I played the main drum kit for most of the set and Bill put the icing on the cake with his electronic drums. We were both happy with the way we gelled playing together and we had fun. I think it made for a good show.
What were the pros and cons of the “Union” tour playing with two drummers, two guitarists, and two keyboardists, and is there a chance of ever repeating something like that? I for one loved the energy present in those shows.
[laughs] Yeah, except there are more people now that have been in the band since then, so we’d have to have two busses to transport everyone… and a very large stage! If we ever get invited into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’d be so many people on stage, it could be kind of a nightmare. There’s some talk so there may be a possibility in the future, but I really am not sure. On a sadder note, Peter Banks just died, so he will be absent and missed, but we have other guitarists that have played in the band, both Trevor Rabin and Billy Sherwood. I wouldn’t mind at all if it happened again. It would be quite an exciting thing to do. We’re rolling right now and we’re all enjoying the current line-up and what we’re doing. The biggest difficulty in putting that group together was deciding who was going to play what solo on which song, but after a while it became obvious what solos should be done by which individuals. Remember that Trevor and Steve were both on that tour, and Trevor had been playing those songs for a long time, and obviously Steve had too, so they had to work that stuff out. As did Bill and myself. And Rick had to do the same thing with Tony Kaye. On the plus side, we had just one singer and one bass player so that made things a lot simpler.
Ramshackled was such a different album than anything you’ve been part of – what prompted the wise variety in musical styles, and do you think you might be part of such a project again?
I guess I was heavily influenced by a lot of different kinds of music, and I had my own band then, ‘Griffin’, so we put together with an eight piece band to record the album. We had a horn section, and everyone was interested in lots of different kinds of music like Frank Zappa – extreme kinds of music as well as classical music, similar to the music Yes were listening to at the time. Jon Anderson was also writing a lot of music similar to the music we were composing. So the influence came from a lot of areas and as a result, the songs we were writing had many changes in style, within the songs, and from number to number. The fact that I’m a Gemini, I have different sides and might do things differently at one time or another, so I guess it was that extreme change where one day you’re this person, and the next you’re another person, playing reggae [laughs]. We made an album with ‘White’, which had similarly focused areas and a variety of musical styles when we constructed that album. We’ve started writing and working on a new album but it’s taking time due to my commitment to YES. The band is so active that it’s been hard to find time it’s to fit it all in.
What songs did you find most challenging to re-learn on the current 2013 tour?
Actually, at rehearsals it all kind of fell into place pretty quickly, We haven’t played ‘Close to the Edge’ in quite a few years, so that’s a song that if you don’t play it exactly right, it doesn’t sound great, and we were opening the show with it, so it had to be a very dynamic number. After a few days, it got to where it was really coming along. When playing “Close to the Edge” it takes a while to get into the right nature. You have to concentrate and methodically go through all the pieces. There was only one song that we’ve never played live and that was “A Venture”, which is not an extremely demanding number to play – it’s really just a bass drum. Funnily enough, it became kind of a quirky part of the set and I have really been enjoying playing it.
I always have loved the White-Fish portion of the shows I’ve seen, over the years. I hope to see that return to your set before too long. What song do you and Chris have the most difficulty staying in synch for? It blows my mind at times how effortlessly you guys play the most difficult passages of music. The last tour was phenomenal! Thanks for all the Yesmemories! You guys are so awesome!
Not many, actually because we’ve both played the majority of these songs for over forty years, so if we don’t know ‘em by now, we never will [laughs]. After playing with the same bass player for the last – its forty-one years now – you tend to know what he’s going to play and when he’s going to play it, and I think it’s vice versa, so there aren’t many songs that we don’t know what each other are doing. There are certain things like ‘And You And I’ that’s got some time changes and percussive changes in the anthem parts of the song where I have to watch his feet play the bass pedals and we both have to be right on together, or it doesn’t work at all. A certain amount of that goes on between the two of us. It’s just a quick look, and after you’ve done it – the tour we were on, we just played twenty-seven shows, so sometimes we didn’t even look, we just knew where it was gonna be.
Chester F Blaszko
What do you enjoy more now – composing your musical part of a piece or performing an existing piece live?
Composing is always interesting. I like the creative process in the studio. It’s always challenging to come up with new ideas and a new adventure in the rhythm section when composing songs with YES. We’re always searching for something new. But when you’re actually performing for people on stage, there’s nothing like playing in front of a live audience and seeing so many people with smiles on their faces, having a good time.
What determines the timbre of your kit/cymbals, and do they change with live performances?
It depends how you play them. With my ride cymbal, I use a 22 inch K and a 20 inch K, depending. And the reason I do that is because it’s more of a rock and roll kind of cymbal, and on a stage performance, if you use something that’s got too much of a ring to it, they then tend to mix them down because the sound of the cymbals get in the way of the vocals. So there’s a fine line in how heavy you play them and where they’re put. So you have to think carefully about how hard you’re playing the cymbals and things of that nature.
Gary Cronkhite @corndike
I’ve scrutinized many photos of your Ludwig kits. What size bass drum do you prefer?
I’ve always used a twenty-two inch bass drum because my beliefs are that it’s not really the size of the bass drum, so much. I occasionally have played a twenty-four inch; but with a twenty-two, if you record it right and tune it right, you can get all of the sounds you want out of it. I have a Jazette kit at home, it’s just got a twenty inch bass drum, but I can make that sound good, too. It’s how you tune it, and what beater you use, and things of that nature.
Hi (Greetings from the North East of England!): I have always wondered if you had to adapt your pedal technique after you broke your ankle (rollerskating!) some years ago..?
[laughs] I broke it roller-skating with Richard Branson one night in Paris. It was two in the morning, and we were roller-skating in a nightclub. In fact, I didn’t have to adapt because after I broke my ankle there was no technique. I couldn’t play for almost 3 months. It was right in the middle of an album we were making in Paris when it happened, which abruptly put an end to the album we were making at the time. I guess I was out of action for about six weeks, because it wasn’t really a broken ankle, it was just a crack in the bone in my right ankle.
Hi Alan. I have read many comments online from fans/critics regarding your drum sounds on different albums. I absolutely love your drums on Big Generator, Drama and Open Your Eyes. Do you have any personal faves (simply re: drum production) and are there any that you feel could have been done much better? Thanks for your signature style, I can always pick an Alan fill!
Drama was recorded really, really well. It was a great experience. Steve, Chris and I started writing together, creating song material in a studio in London. Meanwhile next door, The Buggles were recording. By chance they were big fans of YES, and they kept popping their heads in the studio where we were working. Then all of a sudden their equipment was in there, and it became a new version of YES. Songs like ‘Machine Messiah’ and ‘Tempus Fugit’ are all really great to play, and there was a lot of focus on creating particular sounds on those albums. We’d spend an awfully long time making the drum sound just right. Back in those days, we might spend an entire day just getting a drum sound for a particular track, so attention to detail was in force on all three of those albums.
Alan, do you still own the set of North toms that you used on tour years ago? You are the reason I own a set to this day. Thank you for being an inspiration to me, and so many others!
Yeah, I still have them. They haven’t been used in a while, so they’re more like decorative pieces in my studio now. I also have the bass drum but I haven’t been able to locate the snare drum. I’d love to try and find one to complete the set! It was a very interesting kit, but I never used the kit as whole kit on stage, I only ever used the toms with my regular drums.
What have you done with all the drum kits you’ve gone through in your career? Is there some warehouse full of drums, collecting dust?
[laughs] There’s actually one quick answer to that: Yes there is! …and we won’t talk about my monthly storage bill! I have four storage units and I would guess in all I have about twenty-two kits between Seattle and Los Angeles, and a few scattered drums in England. People keep offering to buy them, but I keep them for nostalgia’s sake. I look at them and it brings back memories of where and when – the experience of making certain albums and touring. I’ve had a good partnership with Ludwig drums for over 40 years so I’ve acquired quite a collection during that time. I still have the silver sparkle Ludwig kit that I used on ‘Imagine’ and the white kit that I used on ‘90125’ is here in Bellevue at Donn Bennett’s Drum Studio on permanent loan.
Next week… Chris Squire.