Interview with Rick Wakeman
by Lorraine Kay
Rick Wakeman, to those of us who are prog rock fans and fans of the band YES, is one of the most incredible keyboardists of the 20th Century. Most of us remember his appearances with Yes, but who can forget the multi-media extravaganza of “Journey To The Center Of The Earth”. Those of you too young to remember should definitely check out the 30th anniversary of the performance in Australia on DVD. It is a must see.
Rick is still playing keyboard these days, but has branched out into television and stand-up comedy. (Who would have guessed?) But on the keyboard side, he is still recording and touring with his old friend from Yes, vocalist Jon Anderson. We got to talk to him about that and his television appearances in February 2011.
LORRAINE: You’re filming a TV show?
RICK: Yeah, I do a lot of television in the UK. Various programs which I suppose have been going on. For about 15 – 20 years I sort of got more and more into television. I’ve got my own spots on various shows. All sorts of things, everything from sort of comedy shows to consumer affairs shows. So it’s doing pretty good because it’s mostly through the BBC, so it gets national stuff, which is great. It’s sort of given me another perspective over here in a strange way because of all the television exposure I ended up doing books and big corporate events and other sorts of things. All sorts of shows apart from the prog rock shows. I do a one-man stand-up show in which I do a lot of comedy stuff over here. So it’s really weird – I have about 4 or 5 different hats to wear in the UK, which doesn’t happen anywhere else – really.
LORRAINE: With respect to television what are the different hats that you are wearing?
RICK: Well, I do comedy stuff – I hosted an alternative comedy show called “Live at Jongleurs” for 8 years. I was on a hit TV series over here called “Grumpy Old Men” which I did every single program, which is sort of a comedy program, which I was quite lucky to be part of that because it was just absolutely huge in the UK and had massive audience figures I do all the quiz programs. Because if you do television programs and main stream stuff and comedy stuff or whatever, you get invited onto the various quiz programs and that kind of thing, which are great fun, plus all the chat programs. The only things I won’t do – I won’t do the reality shows. I get asked virtually 2 or 3 times a month to do one of the reality shows and I am just not interested.
LORRAINE: Are you just a performer? Or do you do get into any or the production end of it?
RICK: I have a television production company. We produce children’s programs, which we are in the middle of at the moment. I also do a radio show. We produce radio shows. I do one for England and one for an Irish rock station. That’s a prog rock program which I do. So it’s a real mixture of stuff. And of course, I still get a chance to go out, a part of the smaller one-man show, I still get a chance to go out with my band and the prog rock extravaganzas as well. It’s a win-win all around if you know what I mean.
LORRAINE: I saw a bit of your stand-up comedy on youtube. I wasn’t aware that you did that.
RICK: Oh, there’s all kinds of stuff on youtube. It’s really funny, to some extent to a lot of people especially to people in their 20s and 30s – I am more known for the comedy perhaps than the music.
LORRAINE: Somebody said that. Because I said something about how I didn’t know that you did stand-up comedy and someone from the UK said that you’re better known for comedy than music over there, nowadays.
RICK: We still have a great following for the prog stuff, which is great, but there’s a whole different audience for the stand-up stuff and it’s really quite strange. Sometimes, like on the one-man show that I do, which is a mixture of piano – 50% piano and 50% silly stories, the piano stuff is where I’ve taken – in fact a lot of the music is just dissected down to the piano and I tell stories – I’ve really silly stories. I actually do get people after the shows, and to my amazement – I put a lot of it down to the power of television and it’s a great business – I get a lot of people that come up after and say “I had no idea you played the keyboard.” Yeah, there you go. It’s quite funny, but that’s the power of television, you see. It really is. It really is phenomenal. So it’s great fun. I am still lucky enough to be able to make the music I like to make. None of this happened by design – it sort of just… It’s almost hard to pinpoint just why and how it happened, if you know what I mean. It just sort of did.
LORRAINE: Do you miss playing with Yes?
RICK: No. I never look back on that respect. I look back on the good things, I think the future. If you take the best of the past and the best of the present and you add that together, that helps you to make the best of the future. I think the last tour that the so called classical line-up did 5 or 6 years ago, whenever it was, I don’t think that the line-up could play any better. I remember coming back from Mexico on the very last day, I thought “You can’t top this. Everybody is playing at the top of their game. You can’t top this.” People forget that I am a fan as well. I know the tours and shows where it wasn’t what it could be. And what it really should be. I truthfully think the band peaked there. I don’t think it could go above. In fact, I know it can’t. The classic line-up could never play better than it did then. So, perhaps, that is the right moment to say it peaked then, it played phenomenal, everything was right, so maybe, well for me, that was the last stepping stone.
LORRAINE: Getting to “The Living Tree”. I’ve listened to it and I find the music is very different from the other stuff I’ve heard you play. But in your words how do you feel it is different in respect to your fans – what do you think you’d like for them to know?
RICK: Well I think the thing that I’m pleased with is that it is everything I’d hoped it would be and more. This isn’t something Jon and I did on a whim. This started 5 or almost 6 years ago. Jon and I were talking; we were very frustrated that there hadn’t been any new material around for a long, long time. And it was just because you have got to get together with people. And Jon and I, we said “What with this wonderful world of the Internet and the things that you can do, we can send each other music – it’s almost the same as if we were in the same room. So that’s really how it started. Jon said “Send me some stuff and let’s see what happens.” So I sent him some music and Jon would come back and say, “I like that bit, I think I can work on that.” So we just kept flying stuff backwards and forwards. And when we did the first duo acoustic tour together about 5 years ago, we tried out four of the songs. We ditched a lot of stuff; we said, “No. That won’t work. We went back to the old days of sort of saying that’s not good enough. That’s not good enough, yeah that is, that’s really good, that kind of thing. And we put four pieces together and we trialed them on that particular tour. And we were quite genuinely astonished at the really good response we’d gotten from people, because this is music they’d never ever heard before. So we thought about putting that tour out as an album because it would have the new stuff in it. But then we went, “No, no, no, the music has got to develop more and we need more music.” So we never set ourselves a time limit.
I would send Jon music over and he would send stuff back. We would talk, stuff would go backwards and forwards. I think it really took about another 3 years to end up with the music we were really happy with – pieces that we were happy with. We ditched a lot of stuff. Some were sidelined, “We said no, no, no.” So by the time it came to putting the tracks we wanted on the CD we were both 100% happy with everything that we’d done. We knew the pieces could develop more on stage, and in fact they did – when we went out and did the tour. I think Jon has actually produced quite literally some of the finest lyrics he’s done for years. When stuff came back as his sort of first draft of words and things that he was doing, it sort of inspired us to change things around and do things again. That was really good, because I had no idea what Jon was going to do – the same way he had no idea what was going to arrive on his computer.
It was just so much fun. And the proof of the pudding for us was when Jon came up and we started rehearsing for the tour, it really sort of came together so quickly there was no problem in doing it, which is always a good test that the music is right. I mean some of the music we pushed to one side – we both said, “Hey there’s nothing wrong with this piece we’re putting together, but you know what? That’s for a band. That’s not an acoustic piece, that’s a band piece. So we put stuff to one side that’s going to be ideal for a prog rock kind of thing. I‘m truthfully thrilled because it was exactly what it was. We wanted it to be a sort of an acoustic/electronically gentle orchestral type of album. But that sort of said a lot about the music that we like. And I think I’m proud enough to say that we achieved it. And in general, some 95% of all reviews have been unbelievably positive. I think it surprised some people, but the reaction to the music has been tremendous so I’m really happy.
LORRAINE: I think it was about 5 years ago that my husband and I met Jon at the NAMM Show in Anaheim and we had just finished the first Inquisitor Betrayer album that had taken us 5 years over the Internet, never having ever met the other band members, and we told him about how we had done that. Jon was really interested explaining how difficult it was for the two of you to get together and asked Dale to explain how we were able to accomplish it. I am so glad he followed through and pursued it fuller, kind of makes us feel like we had a hand in this project.
RICK: Yeah, I mean Jon is really good at embracing new ways of doing things. The one thing about Jon, he’s like me, he likes working with people. I don’t think it particularly works in any band, or if somebody just comes in and says, here’s the song – this is the finished article, play it. I mean that is fine if it is a solo artist, if you know what I mean, but when you’re working with a band, you can’t do that.
LORRAINE: Well, I really liked it, one of the things I noticed, obviously is that it is so much more simple than anything I had experienced of your music before. I remember “Journey” where you had stacks of keyboards and a full orchestra and you were all over the place and for the most part this sounded like just straight piano, even though there are bits and pieces or other sounds. How many tracks did you put on each song?
RICK: Some of them have got maybe a dozen or so, maybe even more tracks on some of them. There are some pieces where there might be sort of like a harp literally for 4 bars. Or there might just be like a little oboe for 6 bars or something like that. I didn’t want to clutter it, so there is actually – there is probably overall throughout the album – there is probably about 20 different sounds, electronic orchestral sounds sort of hidden in there. It’s almost like a picture that the more you look at it, you go, “Oh, I didn’t see that before!” It’s one of those. I had to be careful. I didn’t want to clutter it. Because Jon’s lyrics are so good on this and the melodies I’m really pleased with. So it was important that it wasn’t sort of cluttered if you know what I mean.
It’s simply quite funny because I’ve had the feeling that I was at the web site doing things. We’ve been where we’re a band and we’re trying to do some of the tracks off of “The Living Tree” and we thought it was going to be easy. But we can’t work this out or that out, what happened there? It is one of those things. I’m pleased with the way it sounds, that was one of the important things as well. There are a fair amount of changes and things within the music, but one of the things Jon and I were desperate to make was to make it slow. We didn’t want it Jerky or to be fragmented. So it came out the way we hoped it would.
LORRAINE: Are you planning on performing more of it live?
RICK: We did about 5 or 6 tracks on the last tour. We also recorded that tour live and that did come out extremely well, because we’re going to put some of those tracks with some Yes stuff that we have been involved with, which we did completely different acoustically. So we’re going to do it probably later, much later in the year we’ll put the live album out which will be nice. We wanted to film it but we felt it wasn’t ready to film. Visually it wasn’t ready to film. Musically, we’re happy with the duo show, but we’ll wait because if we’re going to do a DVD it’s got to be something a bit special, so we’re talking about that. But of course, the difficulty is, I have a full diary, Jon has a full diary, so it is a matter of trying to slot things in, you know. But there’s no time limit on anything. Everything will get done that we want to do. We have such great fun working together doing anything that it will happen.
LORRAINE: So as it is, you feel the music works with just piano and vocal?
RICK: Yeah, I took two cables out with me and that was pretty much it. Just like everything you change things around. We changed a couple of the arrangements around for performance purposes. We added a few things and took away a few things, yet one of the nice things is that yes, they can all be played and they’re all very adaptable too. So that went well.
LORRAINE: When you tour with Jon, does he play an instrument as well or just sing?
RICK: He has his acoustic guitar with him and he probably plays on about 50% of the pieces, but some are just keyboards and Jon’s vocals.
LORRAINE: Did you do any vocals on this album?
RICK: No. And I wanted it so. I’ve done BVs before and various stuff but I don’t like singing. I am one of those people if you’ve got somebody – I never understand why if sometimes with people in bands where they’re doing an album it’s “I did the drums, I did the bass, I did this or that.” Why? If you’re a guitar player, well why play the bass or the drums? Get a great bass player into play. They’ll take it a space further. Get a great drummer into play. I can sing in church and that is about it. I don’t like my voice. I don’t think it’s a good voice. So you work with people who have got great voices.
LORRAINE: Now Jon wrote all the lyrics and you wrote all the music – kind of an Elton John, Bernie Taupin thing?
RICK: Yeah, we all know what our roles should be and we should do the roles that are best for us. I think sometimes bands make mistakes of going into areas which are not their expertise. I mean I enjoy writing lyrics. I really enjoy writing lyrics and I do it for my own stuff and I’m happy with it for my own stuff and I’ve got various other lyricists that I use people like Tim Wright if I feel I need to go into another area. I would not write lyrics for Jon because I feel Jon is at his strength when he is singing the lyrics that he understands and he is comfortable with and he writes, and he is the best at what he does. He has found a way in his style. There is nobody like him, so why on earth would I want to do that? In the same way, yeah, Jon can thump out a few chords and things on the piano; I think he uses the same, “Why do I want to do that on stage when I have somebody that can play?”
LORRAINE: It seems like the lyrics on this album, coming from Jon, have a real message to them – very positive things.
RICK: Oh, yes, every single one of them. It was great getting them back. It was absolutely great getting them back, there’s no doubt about it.
LORRAINE: So you didn’t add anything to the lyrics? You just kind of let him go for it?
RICK: Absolutely not. Not a single bit. I genuinely like them so much.
LORRAINE: Jon told me what The Living Tree meant to him. Is there a meaning of it for you?
RICK: It’s another stepping stone. I class everything I do as stepping stones; you could almost say, to infinity, there’s no destination. Because musically, I think it is a journey for everybody, a real musical journey. And you need to go through stepping stones. Sometimes you go sideways not going forward, sometimes people even go backward a bit. So for me it’s just another step forward in the musical journey of what two people are capable of doing working together. I think that there is no doubt about it. There’s more stepping stones for us to come, both working together and the pair of us working with other people as well. I think it’s proven a point that there is a path for musically, I mean, it is almost a shame that we didn’t venture down it earlier, but it is never too late. There’s no time in it.
LORRAINE: I know Jon had a real health scare a while back and you kind of had one not too long ago as well. Did that have any effect on pursuing this project?
RICK: No, to be brutally honest with you, no it didn’t. I mean Jon, he was, he was very ill and I do understand. I’ve been down with the health issue road myself and it’s not nice, and that’s when what was important for me was that Jon came back to work, to play, to sing, to write, when he felt physically and mentally it was the right time to do so. And that was the only criteria ever having Jon, which was, you know, if you feel well enough to do shows – and he was on top of his game – he was good, and we worked it very carefully so that there was plenty of time for relaxation and rest so that he was absolutely on top of his game on stage and that’s important. None of us is 21 anymore and even though we might think young, you have to take your body into consideration and I think Jon certainly over the last couple of years has really realized in perhaps the same way that I have – that it is very, very important to look after your health. So as you get older it does become a major part of your life.
LORRAINE: Do you find yourself structuring your time either because you are older or because of health?
RICK: I don’t know. I’m a very early riser. I’m always up before 6 every morning. And I’m working in the office or the studio or filming or whatever. My days are full and I actually need to find more relaxation time. I do need to make more time for myself and for my fiancé. We need more time. We actually haven’t had a holiday in three years and that’s crazy. That really is not good. So this year I’m already starting to sort of grab the odd day in the week and say, right, I’m not putting anything in. It’s hard not to do it, but not do anything; you know and just have some relaxation time. That is important because it helps you to recharge your batteries, to help you to use creative time.
It’s important. I think we should all, I think sometimes we should learn not to listen to other people, but listen to our own bodies and minds.
LORRAINE: How does the new strides in technology effect the way that you are creating music? I know that you have always appeared to be on the leading edge with synths and such, but there has been a lot of new equipment come out in last few years, has that effected anything that you do?
RICK: Basically, I deliberately do not class myself as a technician. I like all the technical things I use. I’ve got an engineer friend, Larry Jordan, who is a very, very talented man, as regards all electronics, recording, whatever. He was involved with all of the “Lord Of The Rings” and other stuff. He’s a very clever guy. And basically, as technology comes about he’ll come into the studio and he’ll say, “We can do this, this and this.” And I’ll go, “Great.” And he says, “Do you want to know how I do it?” And I say, “NO.” I just want to play and I don’t want to know the technical side. As long as we’ve got it and it’s there.
So I very much turn myself back to playing. It’s like when your keyboard comes out and your sounds come out. I’m quite lucky. I never read instruction manuals. I just go to Korg or whatever and say “Give me a quick demo, show me what this does. I don’t want to know why it does it or how it does it, just show me. And that’s what I do. I think you can get bogged down with the technical side of things and then you can fall into the trap of making use of it just because it is there, not because it compliments what you are trying to do.
LORRAINE: What other projects are you working on besides the TV show right now?
RICK: I am about to release a box set of all of my solo albums that were originally out on A&M. We have re-mastered and added lots of stuff and that hopefully will be available in May. It’s a really nice package we’re calling “The A and M Years” that we put together with lots of additional stuff. That’s being worked on at the moment. So between that and the TV filming we have a live album coming out here which I did on a tour a few years ago with my band called “In The Nick Of time”. That will be out in about a month or so. There is just so much going on I need a new brain, really.
Interview for DPRP by Lorraine Kay