Photo: Glenn Gottlieb

Onward: The Trials (and Tours) of Yes

On the eve of a US tour with Toto, Yes bassist Billy Sherwood talks about the band's past, future, and the phone calls that forever changed his life.
Frontiers Music

It all started simply enough. Chris Squire and Billy Sherwood were friends and sometime collaborators who’d known each other since the ’80s. They’d recorded albums under the name Conspiracy, and Squire even appeared on recordings from Sherwood’s Prog Collective albums. So Sherwood thought nothing of asking if Squire would guest on one of his upcoming albums.

The bass innovator was only too happy to help out his friend, and so Sherwood traveled to Squire’s adopted home in Arizona to do some tracking and hang out. With the tracking done, Sherwood returned home and the called his friend a week later, just to say hello and to thank his old friend for the hospitality. Squire said he hadn’t been feeling well but the friends made plans to do some more work later in the year.

A week after that conversation Sherwood’s phone rang again and this time Squire had horrible news. He’d been diagnosed with leukemia and needed to undergo treatment immediately.

“I flipped out,” Sherwood says, speaking from a Connecticut hotel room just as Yes is about to kick off a series of dates with Toto. He was worried about his idol—he’d grown up learning bass by listening to Yes albums and now they were close friends and collaborators. Close enough on both accounts that Squire rang several days after his diagnosis and said that he didn’t want to hold up Yes’s late summer tour.

The rest of the band and crew had committed to dates, there was a live album and DVD on the horizon and fans in the US were eager to see the group performing again. Shutting down wasn’t an option.

Squire asked Sherwood to stand in for him, saying that he would come back when his health was better. It would mark the first time since the Yes’s inception in 1968 that the bassist would miss a gig. Through the ever-revolving door of keyboardists, guitarists, and even vocalists Squire had been the once constant. Squire—who died on June 27 at the age of 67—acknowledged in a mid-May press release that although it pained him to step aside he was confident in Sherwood’s abilities.

And rightfully so.

Sherwood’s history with Yes dates back to the ’80s when he and friend Bruce Gowdy were temporarily slated as replacements for a departing Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin. Although that plan went pear-shaped rather quickly, Sherwood did score a credit on the ill-fated Union album in 1991 and toured with the band in the 1994-95 era behind the Talk album. He fulfilled various roles in the studio and on the stage with Yes for the next two decades, essentially working in every possible role except bus driver and private chef.

He was a natural fit.

And someone who’d lived Yes’s music long before he was in the band.

“This is the stuff I cut my teeth to,” he says. “I was always playing complex things so that I could get my chops together. Yes was always my favorite band so I did it with their albums the most. I knew the music backwards and forward before I’d ever met any of the members. It came very naturally because I was always modeling my sounds after Chris’s trip. A lot of my bandmates, in the early days, would say, ‘But the bass is so busy.’ I would say, ‘Yeah, but Chris Squire does that!”

But knowing the music was one thing. Yes’s internal politics are legendary and bringing in someone who could navigate those waters carefully was surely another factor in Sherwood’s arrival. “You gotta be a special guy to survive eight hours around here,” he says with a laugh. “I’m very well aware of where all the landmines are and how to sidestep them and come out the other side so to speak.”

This moment, however, is different than any other in the band’s circuitous history. Squire is the first sitting member of the band to have passed and only one other—original guitarist Peter Banks—had preceded him in death.

“I’m coming in with my own perspective of what I know the fans are looking for—that feeling and that emotion that used to get me. That’s what I’m striving to deliver as far as the live performances. As we move forward into the studio and talk about new music and stuff—that’s when I’ll kick into my own mode. I have my own views about how music should be made, so I wouldn’t be necessarily looking at it through the Squire lens at that point. I would be wanting to get my own stamp on the music.”

That Yes would be touring with Toto is significant in another way for Sherwood. The latter band was instrumental in kick starting his recording career. Toto’s Steve Porcaro and David Paich produced the 1986 album by Lodgic, Nomadic Sands. “They had just won seven Grammys for Toto IV and we rehearsed right next to them. They popped in, listened to the music, and said, ‘We love this band. We want to help you guys out.’ That’s exactly what they did in a very, very big way and I will never forget what that did for me. We’ve remained friends ever since.”

The Nevada native went on to co-write one tune on Toto’s 1992 album Kingdom of Desire, one of many credits he’s amassed in a career that also includes credits with Todd Rundgren, Paul Rodgers and even Deep Purple. “It’s such a weird bit of fate that I should be touring with the band started my career as I’m joining the very band that I used to worship and follow from age twelve on,” he says. “There’s something going on in the stars. This is a weird destiny that. It used to blow my mind at every turn and now I’m just accepting that this is how it was meant to be. Chris, in his way, has made this happen. I will never forget what he meant to me and how inspiring it was for him to have him hand me his position is just bizarre.”

Sherwood’s schedule outside Yes will be full this year—he’ll issue a new solo release, Archived, shortly as well as an album with Citizen, featuring Yes alums Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye. He’s also recently been in the studio with good friend William Shatner to work up a Cramps tune for a Dr. Demento tribute record. He’ll also prepare for a trek on the Cruise to the Edge this fall. There are Yes dates already on the books for early 2016 and although it’s early to talk about the when and where of it, there has been talk of new Yes music somewhere in the schedule.

“That’s the beauty of Yes,” Sherwood says. “It doesn’t relent in that regard. A lot of the heavier conversations I was having with Chris toward the end were about his desire for this thing to go forward. He kept reiterating that to me and I kept telling him, ‘Yeah, I understand that but were going forward with you in it. I’ll produce it. But you’re going to be the guy playing on it. He kept telling me, ‘No matter what happens, Yes needs to continue moving forward and make great music. So promise me that that’s something you want to do.’ And I have to keep making music. It’s just what I do. And,” he adds, “I’m a fan of the band and I want to see it thrive and that means new music.”

Although it might be unthinkable for some that Yes would continue without Squire, Sherwood points out that his mentor wanted Yes to survive well into the future—with or without familiar members.

“At the core of this band is the music, so maybe one day I’ll be calling someone saying, ‘Hey, you’re the perfect guy to take this bass gig.’ But that’s the idea that Jon [Anderson], Chris and Rick Wakeman have put out there publicly, that they felt that Yes was like an orchestra,” Sherwood says. “Bach and Tchaikovsky’s music are still being played by the London Symphony Orchestra and others all these years after being written and that Yes could be a version of that. I’m just very honored and excited to be part of that coming future. This is next generation stuff.”

Yes’s Like It Is: Yes Live at the Mesa Arts Center CD/DVD combo is out now as is Progeny, a set that is available as a 14-disc boxed set with seven full shows from the group’s 1972 tour or as a two-disc compilation.