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.
Hi Alan, thank you so much for the inspiration! I study at a music conservatoire in London now and I can honestly say that I’m not sure I would have ever picked up the sticks in the first place if it wasn’t for you! One thing I’ve really noticed about your playing is the differences you make when bringing the songs into a live setting. Often there are parts where in the studio you played hi-hat and live you changed it to ride – e.g. much of Machine Messiah. Can you give us an insight into this thought process? Cheers and thank you for answering all these questions! Robin
Hi Robin. In the studio the cymbal tends to get in the way of vocals, so it makes a cleaner recording to use the hi-hat. However live, when you move from the hi-hat to the cymbals, it opens up the music stage-wise and it adds more dynamics to the performance.
Alan, you’re just superb, and then and now and tomorrow. How hard was for you to learn all Yessongs tracks in just a short time? What memories you still got from that period?
YesSongs was a hard album because I didn’t even know that the band was going to record an album – I’d only been in the band two or three months at the time. With YES music, it takes longer than two or three months to fully work in all the dynamic parts to all of the different pieces. It was a difficult period, but I did a lot of homework and a lot of listening to music and how I would approach it individually and develop it into my own style and develop it with the band. It was difficult, but I got on with it.
James A. Rodriguez
What was the moment when you realized “Wow, I could really do this for the rest of my life”?
Good question. I think when I was very young. In my mid teens I started to get the feeling that the instrument was becoming pretty much part of my body and how I felt about music, and how I extended my feelings through an instrument, especially drums, which is never an easy way to go. I started realising that it was a great form of expression of feelings and emotions for music, and I thought ‘this would be great to do this’ because it was satisfying to create music and play music by other people, and it was fun as well. You have to make it fun, it brings life to the music.
Hi Alan. How did you manage to achieve the great drum sound on the Tales From Topographic Oceans record? The tom toms especially sounds really good, and your playing is excellent through out the whole album. Really inventive stuff!
Yeah, that was a period of experimentation for everyone in YES. We were experimenting with our instruments to see if we could come up with different ways of doing rhythms, and different avenues to go down musically with lots of music changes inspired by lots of music worldwide – like Jazz, R&B and Classical music – which we all listened to quite a bit. All aspects were drawn into that album. We were feeding off inspiration from all areas and we just rolled it all into one piece of music that happened to be Topographic. It was an absolutely wonderful experience making something that was so adventurous in the business. Eddie Offord, our producer at that time, gets credit for all of the drum sounds. He was into the music as much as we were, so we spent a long time, sometimes a whole day getting drums sounds for particular tracks. Attention to detail was a big factor.
What was the most difficult drumming you did on a Yes song or album. I have seen Yes perform many times over the years but the show I saw in Atlanta when you all performed Close to the Edge and Tales blew me away. I thought your percussion work was unbelievable. Thank you.
Well that was live, the Close to the Edge thing, because, as you know, Bill Bruford played on the original and I’ve been playing it live ever since. I think some of the most difficult tracks for us to reinvent on stage is some of the drumming and bass playing on Relayer such as Sound Chaser. Also, The Gates of Delirium is particularly difficult to play, especially the passages in the middle of the song.
When did you start adding electronic percussion to your studio/live kit?
I started adding electronic percussion to my kit at a very early stage when other drummers were starting to add them. In fact I built my own, investing a lot of money in a small company that built a drum synthesiser that worked off of microphones. Nowadays it would be considered a steam-driven electronic music centre because it was very slow in reaction, and to get any great sounds, the rack was huge; it was like one of the really old Moog synthesisers from the past. Anyhow, as things developed over the years, I incorporated electronic drums into my kit, mostly for triggering samples and effects so that, if you could get the right sound on the sample, you didn’t need to carry things around the world like gongs and bells and different percussion like that. They are less dynamic on stage, but at the same time it made it much easier for bands to access those sounds. And that’s basically how I approach it to this day. I use a Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12 and DTX pads incorporated with my acoustic drums, which works perfectly for my needs.
Alan! I saw you in Long Beach during the Tour of The Americas in the Spring of 1979. As a drummer myself, I’ve wondered if performing on the rotating stage was a challenge, perhaps disorienting over the course of a concert performance or, for that matter, night after night? I would think that the direction of rotation might need to be reversed on occasion! I appreciate your drumming…..both technically and artistically.
The rotating stage was difficult to get used to in the beginning, and you are right, it did turn three times in one direction—clockwise—and then three times counter clockwise, otherwise there would have been a lot of cables messed up under the stage. It seemed to help to some degree, however I was perched on the edge of the stage with my back to the audience most of the time and the stage was in front of me. You were aware that people were looking at your back most of the time, seeing the inner workings of the drum kit. It wasn’t easy to get used to, but once the band got used to it, we enjoyed performing on the circular stage—it was something different. I’m not sure, but I think we were one of the first bands to begin using it in that way and people seemed to like it a lot. Who knows; in the future we may do it again.
Have you ever had shoulder tendonitis or any issues with your shoulder from playing the drums? If so, any tips on a healthy recovery? You are one of my biggest inspirations on the drums, by the way!!!
Luckily, touch wood, I have never had any tendonitis problems of even inclinations of it. I seem to be physically fine for playing drums and really it hasn’t affected my playing at all up to this point.
What are the musicians Alan would like to work with on his future solo projects?
There are a lot of musicians I admire in the world. Even though I work with a great bass player, Chris Squire, I just did a thing with Tony Levin that I really enjoyed immensely. There’s such a wide spectrum of great people out there who play different forms of music, and I’ve been very lucky to work with really, really amazing musicians in the studio for most of my career. There was one idea I had a couple of years ago for a project involving ten or twenty drummers all making an album together, so I wouldn’t mind doing something with some drummers that I admire like Lenny White and Ginger Baker, but its getting the time to do something like what, which would be an immense project. Also, guitarists such as Buddy Guy; there are so many people; it’s really a hard question to answer.
Which songs that are no longer played live do you miss playing the most? Personally, some of my favorites to hear you play are City of Love, The Calling, and, of course, Ritual. They are a just a few examples of why you are my favorite drummer! Oh, and I would love to see a Yes show with the glass kit! Thanks for your time.
Yeah, City of Love’s a very easy, easy, basic drum track, as far as YES music goes, but at the same time, it’s got a lot of feeling to it and it’s one of my favourites from that album. The Calling and Ritual, of course has the full onslaught of the drum solo with all the theatrics that go with it. All of these you miss playing live, but there’s no reason we can’t play them in the future. There’s a lot to be said for being able to stretch out your imagination in different areas of drumming and approaching things differently, and really, as I’ve said many times, you take the song and give it the drumming that it needs; you fit yourself into that song, and being at the fulcrum of the band, having some control over the feel of what the track is. Hopefully we’ll continue more musical adventures when we make the next album which could possibly be later this year. I’ve been playing Ludwig drums for forty years now, they’ve always given me a great product so there’s never been any reason to change. The glass kit isn’t a Ludwig kit. it’s an amazing instrument but also a work of art, it was made specially for me by a glass artist named John Orlich. I’ve played it in the studio on occasion and it has a great sound, but it’s not practical to take on the road. I sometimes use it for special appearances like the annual Woodstick event in Seattle, however I don’t think it will be on any of the YES tours.
Read previous #askYES Q&As here.
Next week… Chris Squire.