Steve Howe: Why I Had To Leave Asia
Steve Howe began thinking about leaving Asia months before he finally shocked fans with his announcement, he’s revealed.
The guitarist felt a calling to return to solo work, which he’ll be doing for much of the year – so fans can look out for new music, a “unique” music retreat and at least two tours.
And he admits he was horrified when it was said that Yes had banned frontman Jon Davison from appearing with his own band Glass Hammer.
Howe – who’s been replaced by Sam Coulson in Asia – tells Prog: “I’m going to keep most of it to myself. But on the American tour they discovered that I wanted to stop doing the reunion. There was a fair amount of surprise inside the camp, but basically there wasn’t any way they could change my mind because I’d made it up.
“After six years I thought it was time to focus on some other things. I guess I got a calling to follow a different train of thought. I couldn’t ignore that any longer.”
The pressures of attending to the requirements of two large-scale acts was also getting to him, he admits. “Over the last year I started to think, ‘Boy, when Yes extend a tour then Asia start a day early, I’m the guy getting squeezed.’ I couldn’t do it much longer without feeling that I was running on autopilot. I want to be in control of my musical direction and follow my calling.”
That calling will include the Cross Styles Music Retreat, during which Howe hopes to share his passion and experience of guitar with attendees. But he’s wary of the “unique” label: “It sounds like I’ve set myself up for a fall there,” he laughs. “All I’m saying is: I’m not educated, I don’t read music, I didn’t go to music school, I don’t have the theory. All I have is my experience, and presumably people want that, otherwise I wouldn’t be selling any tickets.
“I’ve done these things before. I walk in and say, ‘Don’t talk to me about demi-semiquavers. Don’t talk to me about time signatures.’ I play. Everything I do and everything I’ve learned is by ear.
“You don’t have to drive yourself mad reading dots. If you want to play classical music you should; but where I’m coming from, improvisation, composition, I’m bringing in an unschooled – I wouldn’t say rebellious, but individual – approach to guitar.
“I’m not going to pose that it’s going to be anything else. You get me, I play tunes and I talk about guitar. I’ve managed to make that interesting for myself for over 50 years, so there must be something!”
Howe states that he’s never believed in straight-out practising. “Playing scales would have driven me stark raving bonkers,” he says. “That’s not what I call music. It might be an essential part of keeping your muscles and fingers in good order and I don’t say it’s terrible. But my central thing is improvisation. Play stuff – make stuff up. That’s how I keep interested: by interacting with it, not just being a mechanical, physical observer.”
He didn’t enjoy his school days, finding London’s Holloway School “oppressive, violent, mixed with racial and religious prejudices.” But he’s never found that a lack of a “proper” musical education held him back – except when he tried to learn to play flute and discovered it was too distant from guitar to make the transfer comfortable.
As a result of being self-taught he does encounter people who are better technicians than he is. “But I don’t feel particularly threatened,” he explains. “What I feel is: ‘They’re very advanced in their technique – how advanced are they in their general view of music?’
“Guitarists can get fanatical about guitarists; but in the end we’re musicians. We make sound. It’s the sound that’s got to be pleasing – not how you made the sound. Who cares how you play it? What’s important is what comes out the other end.”
And one of the key lessons he hopes to impart at Cross Styles is: “Musicians are lucky; we can break the rules. There’s no such thing as the ‘music police’ – they’re not going to come round and say ‘You shouldn’t have played a D-flat, it should have been a D. You can do what you want – live and die by the musical sword!”
In addition to the retreat he’s planning a solo tour and a new Steve Howe Trio album and tour. “We’re just about to launch some dates. I’ve got two or three weeks of solo dates in June, which I haven’t done in a very long time due to my demanding schedule of keeping two bands happy. In September we’re doing the trio again. We should have a new recording before that.”
His desire to move away from the band environment is much more than just a whim, Howe notes. “My solo guitar work is pretty central to my musical existence. I’m not a blues, rock or jazz guitarist – I’m a guitarist, and the central thing is solo playing.
“I like my solo world. I’m a lot happier in there – there aren’t any gremlins, there aren’t any arguments, there aren’t any decisions I have to run by six people before they’ll agree. I wrestle with group life and it’s something I understand and I’m committed to; but if I didn’t have these excursions to musical freedom I’d go a bit more crackers than I’m going.”
It’s possible that one of the decisions he’s referring to is whether Yes should record a new album. Bassist Chris Squire has previously reported work is underway with Davison – but Howe says the deal is far from done.
“Chris keeps going round saying, ‘Oh yeah, Yes is going to do another album.’ I keep saying, ‘What do you mean?’” the guitarist reports. “There’s people in bands who want to make new albums irrespective of the downsides. I notice bands doing albums and that they don’t have any effect. Considering the abuse on the internet, people getting everything for nothing – you go to the trouble of spending our money making a record we believe in, then it doesn’t spread the news far enough.”
And he adds of their 2011 studio work: “Fly From Here was a nice record. It had certain repercussions that are going to take a while to sort out.”
His thought process, in part, comes from performing three albums in full on their current US tour. “It’s something we’ve picked up and run with – and thank God. I’d been saying for some time we should do it. When you’re just doing a show with songs in it, it’s one thing. When you set course to play an album, especially with Yes music, it’s really quite riveting.
“That’s how we designed them to be heard, but current audiences aren’t so familiar with what an album means. You had to have songs that weren’t fillers. It’s reaffirming that when we did an album like Going For The One, the balance of tracks is great. I’m pretty proud of what Yes achieved.
“I got a kind of awakening that tells me that to have these albums that people still enjoy, that’s quite an achievement. What are we trying to achieve by doing another one? I’ve got mixed feelings – I’m not opposed but I’m certainly cautious.”
Yes recently completed their Cruise To The Edge floating festival, which started with a cloud over it after it was said the band had forbidden Davison to sing with Glass Hammer on the ship.
But Howe calls the story an “exaggeration,” explaining: “There was a decision: we jointly, as a band, decided not to water it down – let’s all be Yes at that time. I won’t dabble with my thing and no one else will dabble with other things.
“When I saw how it had come out I went, ‘Yuck!’ I was uncomfortable. It should have just said – and it would have been more honest if it just said – ‘Yes members are only doing Yes on the cruise.’ It would have said the same thing in a much better way.
“There was a lot of logic in the decision and it applied to everybody, not just him. If we hadn’t make the decision we’d have been doing masterclasses, lunches, tap-dancing, using whatever other skills we had!”