Interview with Steve Howe
July 5, 2001
by Steph Perry
I chatted on the phone with Steve Howe during the rehearsal period for his upcoming tour with Yes. He has just released a solo CD called Natural Timbre, his first for Spitfire Records. Steve wrote and recorded the record in between his last solo and Yes tours. Steve owns around 95 guitars – and no two are alike. Luckily for the fans he travels with many guitars on tour. He said while on stage, he and his guitar tech have what appears to be choreography going on. You’d think by his brilliant musical style that he was born playing guitar, but he once considered following in his father’s footsteps as a gourmet chef.
One of the questions I had on my mind was why Yes won’t play certain songs live. It turns out that they do appreciate the fans requests for songs, but there are songs “some of which we may never play due to reasons even I don’t understand. But for some reason or another, here and there, there are songs that a person or may be some people in the band just say ‘I don’t really want to go there’. It’s a shame sometimes but maybe we all have that right.” I confessed to having met my husband at the Yes Union show at Worcester Mass in 1991. He said with a laugh, “so it’s OUR fault then!”
I was glad to hear about your new album. Did you enjoy writing and recording it?
The concept was to do a record without any electric guitars, so it was quite exciting. It was a challenge and something I liked very much.
Is it very gratifying to have your son Dylan as a collaborator?
It’s very nice, yes. We started doing that in 1993 when he played on my album, The Grand Scheme of Things, and then he also played on the records Quantum Guitar and Portraits of Bob Dylan. So this one was something that I didn’t think he’d be on, because originally my concept was that there would be none of that scale. But then I realized that if I was to add some bass and drum style of playing, that it would balance nicely with the other music. So I invited him to play and he’s on four tracks.
I thought it was interesting how you included the matrix of songs and guitars with cross references to your guitar book. I was wondering if you have acquired any guitars lately?
As far as new guitars go, Yamaha kindly made me AEX 1500 custom guitar. I used it last year on my solo tour and found it to be a very exciting guitar. Martin Taylor originally helped design the guitar, although his name isn’t on it.
What is the significance of the location used for the cover booklet photography?
They asked me to do an in-house sleeve because I had done a lot of Roger Dean designs and others. They thought of me being in this old power station, near London. I was curious what we would get out of it, and we got a lot of things that were a bit off-beat. So it’s almost logical that you asked me because it’s not terribly clear where I am…And then I made sure some of my ideas got in as well, and that’s where the guitar grid came in and me talking through the tracks. I tried to create a continuity in detail about what you’re listening to and who you’re listening to (since it’s not just me).
You mentioned the descriptions of the songs. I noted that some sound more personal while the others talk more technically about the guitars used and the sounds.
Yes. As I’m doing it I can’t think about all the songs in the same way. Some tracks hint of a more thoughtful — maybe lyrical — idea that kind of coexists with that music. So some songs are deeper, not to say they’re better, but they’re more intense for me.
If time allows, do you hope to tour in support of this record?
I think next year there will be some version of my touring happening. It may be the Steve Howe Band or a solo tour. It is more of a solo record since there are six solos on it. So it’s increased my solo show repertoire. I might still like to do solo shows for a while. But the band idea has definitely got to be. It’s a point which I have to reach in order to explore my music as thoroughly as I’d like.
When did you decide that playing guitar was what you wanted to do with your life and what influenced you to make that decision?
Well, when I was ten I wanted a guitar. I think when you’re that young and you want something you think it might be something you’ll do when you grow up…At ten I wanted a guitar but they didn’t buy it. So when I was twelve I said I have to have the guitar, so after being persistent for two years, they got it. But in those two years I did a lot of stuff, and this isn’t too badly documented but just to encapsulate, my parents had records by Les Paul and Mary Ford. And some other records that I’m very glad we had were by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I don’t understand his gospel material much, but his hillbilly period, to me, was just stunning. And he had two guitarists, and in those days, not one but two! Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, these two together virtually invented the guitar solo. Until then you only had piano solos and sax solos. But the guitar finally became something more important. I decided to find guitarists, not to sit and wait for them to show up. I searched in record shops and found Albert Lee, and he was one of my biggest influences, and still is. Chet Atkins is my other major influence.
Were you formally trained in guitar?
No, I’m, happily and proudly, completely self-taught. I don’t read music either. What I do have, is a slow ability to decipher music. I work from a chord chart. Looking at paper is very distracting. I suppose I’m using my imagination and not wanting to read something at the same time. Everything I learn is by practice.
Do you have any interests outside music that you’d like to talk about?
That’s a rich question. Of course I do! I like things like glass and art tremendously. I like paintings and tiles. I like artistic endeavors whether they’re huge pieces of glass by Chihuly or a small statue I have by Salvador Dali. When you walk into my studio it doesn’t just have equipment in it — it has art as well. My world is filled with, I hope, beauty and art. I like to play snooker and tennis. I’m quite interested in cars. I find certain designs absorbing, like a Ferrari. There’s a kind of art in cars. I like reading. One of my main interests is holistic medicine. The whole idea that the brain is most probably the biggest healing ingredient that the whole world has because through the mind immense healing can be done. Not only to yourself but for the good of the world. I’m a thinker. I like some philosophy, meditation, and homeopathy. That’s much more interesting than any thing on TV. Maybe I’m an alien and I can’t deal with much of what the media generally wants to give us. It’s not incompatible, it’s just indigestible.