Billy Sherwood has spent a lot of time with Chris Squire. Not only have the two recorded and performed together as members of Yes, but Billy has also worked in the studio behind the glass on several Yes albums on which he did not play. Additionally, the two master musicians have moonlighted, collaborating on Conspiracy and various other projects.
Billy grew very close to Chris over the years and it was with great sadness, but the highest honor, when Chris personally asked Billy to fill in for him at the time he discovered he was ill, giving him his blessing to carry on with Yes as his temporary replacement. Filling in for Chris quickly turned into permanently taking his place when Chris passed away from leukemia a few short weeks later.
While working through the grief of losing a very close friend and, at the same time, preparing for the complicated task of learning all of Chris’ bass and vocal parts for a rapidly approaching Yes tour, Billy was kind enough to speak to Red Hot Rock about losing his friend and to discuss the future of his favorite rock band, the collective that he has unexpectedly found himself a member of once again.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Hi, Billy. How are you doing?
BILLY SHERWOOD: Hi, man. Hangin’ in there. Hangin’ in there.
RHRM: It is unfortunate that I need to be conducting this interview with you under these circumstances. I am having a very difficult time processing Chris’ passing. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you.
BS: Yeah. It’s just been a real emotional roller coaster the last six weeks with all this. We had a memorial last night at Trevor Rabin’s house, shared stories about Chris, had some drinks. It was a nice time, but it’s still hard to picture, you know, hard to imagine.
RHRM: I met Trevor many years ago and I have had so many interactions with Chris and the various members of Yes over the years. The band has been such an important part of my life since I first got into music and a big part of my shared life with my wife since we met. We were both moved to tears when we heard of Chris’ passing and it is still difficult for us to admit to ourselves. I have had the pleasure of interviewing Chris many times over the years and of Red Hot Rock placing Yes on its cover while we were publishing the magazine overseas. Now that we have launched the magazine back home in the States, we were looking forward to a big Yes cover story in this issue before Chris had announced his illness. This issue will serve now as a tribute to Chris and his incredible talent. I thought that it would be important to speak to a member of the band about Chris’ legacy. You are the perfect person with whom to speak, having worked so much with Chris, both as a part of Yes and outside of the band. I appreciate you taking the time. I understand that it is not easy to speak about this so soon after Chris’ passing.
BS: Yeah, well, you know, I loved the guy like a brother. I’m honored to be doing what he asked me to do here. So, speaking about him is always a pleasure at this point. The shock of it is still kind of recent, but at least I can speak about it without losing it, ha ha, from time to time, ‘cause it’s very difficult. But yeah man, I’m happy to talk about him.
RHRM: You have worked so much with Chris over the years. Would it be alright if I asked you to explain how you first met Chris, how you became involved with Yes and to fill in the blanks for people reading this that may not know that much about your work. You have worked with way too many bands and too many projects to go through in detail here.
BS: Yeah. Ha ha.
RHRM: We will leave that for another time. But can I ask you to just run through the work that you have done with Yes over the years. It is a tangled web.
BS: Sure. Well, I had a band in 1987 called World Trade. And it was a very progressive rock sort of thing. And the guy who signed us to Polydor at the time was Derek Shulman, who was the lead singer of Gentle Giant, it just so happens. He loved the band. He signed the band to Polydor. Our record came out and it was doing well. And he left and became the president Of ATCO. So, when he left Polydor, he was at ATCO now with basically Chris Squire, Tony Kaye, Alan (White) and Trevor (Rabin). They didn’t have a singer. So, Derek said to them, “Well, I just have this guy in this band, World Trade, who would be perfect. You should meet him. And possibly, maybe, he’ll sing for the band.” ‘Cause at the time, Jon (Anderson) was doing ABWH (Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe). You remember that project?
RHRM: Yeah. Yeah.
BS: So, he was doing ABWH. I got a phone call from Chris Squire and, you know, was just amazed. It’s like, wow, this guy’s my hero, you know, I’ve been studying this guy forever and he’s on the phone. He said, “Hey, man. I heard the World Trade demos and I really dug ‘em and I want to meet you. You feel like going out and having some food?” So, we went out to eat and, you know, we just hit it off immediately and became fast friends. From there, our relationship just kind of maintained. I mean, I never wanted to be the lead singer of Yes. It’s just not something I wanted to do. And, you know, at the time, I was the only one who seemed to be thinking that. Everybody else was saying that this was the perfect fit, but I didn’t think so. And, obviously, it didn’t work out that way, anyway, which was fine by me. Jon came back and they did Union. But in that period, I had written a song with Chris, the first song we wrote together, a song called “The More We Live”, which was on the Union album. And it’s a pretty cool tune. Then I thought, we both thought, well, man, if this is where we’re starting, we should continue this musical relationship here and see where it goes. So from there, I ended up kind of behind the scenes, if you will, and I ended up touring with the band in 1994. Trevor Rabin called me and said, “Do you want to come out? We just made this album called Talk. There’s a ton of parts and we would like you to come play a lot of this stuff with us, you know, play some guitar parts, play some keys.” And I actually did a double bass thing with Chris on the beginning of “Endless Dream”, for all the Yes fans who know the catalog. We did this double bass thing at the front end of “Endless Dream”, which was really cool. And, but, you know, I was a sideman at that point, just kind of going out and touring with the band. And when that tour was over, that version of Yes, if you will, they used to call it Yes West, broke up and they returned to the classic lineup, which is with Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman. So they are now in San Francisco, working on this record called Keys To Ascension. And one thing leads to another and I got the call to mix the album. So, the guys came to my studio and I mixed the album. We were all hanging out and having a great time. And then the next thing I know, I get a call from Chris saying, “Listen, the band enjoyed your work and your company and we want you to produce this next Keys To Ascension record we’re gonna make.” Which was Keys 2 with “Mind Drive” and a couple of other things on there. So I did that and, you know, worked with the classic lineup intimately. Shortly after the record was finished and I was mixing it…you know, the recording was finished and I’m mixing the record at my studio. Jon Anderson was on the phone and I looked over at him and he hangs up the phone and says, ‘Well, that’s that.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, Rick Wakeman just quit.” Ha ha ha. So Jon said, “I’m going to Hawaii.” And Steve went back to Devon and Alan went to Seattle. And there were Chris and I, sitting in the studio. Ha ha ha. And I said, “Man, it’s really heartbreaking for me to watch my favorite band breaking up before my very eyes. I don’t know if I can take this. What are we gonna do here? We gotta do something.” So, Chris and I started writing material in the style of Yes, thinking, well, let’s just screw around and see what we come up with. And we started writing material for what became the Open Your Eyes record. Sent files to Jon Anderson. But at the time it was tape, I suppose. Sent tape to Jon Anderson, who sang a bunch of vocals in Hawaii in his studio and sent them back to me. And Alan came and played on it. And before we knew it, we had the shape of this sort of Yes-sounding thing developing. And by the time the record was done, you know, and Steve put his stuff on there, it was kind of obvious to everybody. And they said, “At this point, you’re in the band. So let’s go out on the road.” And we went out and toured it. And that’s when I officially joined the band and played guitar, actually, uhm, doing the stuff that I’d composed myself and also then covering the Rabin parts. ‘Cause at the time, Steve was really not so keen on doing any of the Trevor Rabin stuff. It’s great music. It had to be played, anyway. You can’t go out and not play “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”. It’s just not gonna work. So, you know, I covered the Rabin parts. And then we made The Ladder. After that, we went to Vancouver and made The Ladder record, which Yes fans kind of seem to dig. And that’s where we are in 2000 when I left the band and decided to kind of go back into production and full throttle the sort of production studio thing that I was developing. A bit of time went by obviously and then I just recently got a phone call from Chris saying, “Listen, we’re kind of in a pinch and we need some sort of production, if you will, to get these backgrounds together on this new record we’re making called Heaven & Earth. Would you be into coming to the studio and working with the band again and kind of recording the background vocals with us, arranging and whatnot?” And so I said…
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Photo credits: Michi Sherwood