Immortality and rock ’n’ roll: a conversation with Yes’ Trevor Rabin

Trevor Rabin onstage during a performance with his band, Yes. Rabin will take the stage of the Fox Theatre on October 10.
Trevor Rabin onstage during a performance with his band, Yes. Rabin will take the stage of the Fox Theatre on October 10.

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An idealized view of artistic motivation sees an individual driven by thoughts of immortality: works are created in the belief or hope that they will give their creator a life after death, cheating the materiality and physical labor of which they are made. This vision is, however, largely one imagined by art historians: a means of adding existential heft to the latters’ subject matter (and thus to themselves). More realistically, aging artists continue to paint, write, chisel, compose, or perform for just the opposite reason: recognition of their mortality. With each passing year, one realizes that one’s opportunities to create art are slipping away. It was largely this earthly consideration that led Trevor Rabin to return to touring after more than 15 years working in film scoring.

He and his former Yes bandmates Jon Anderson, and Rick Wakeman will perform (with Louis Molino III and Lee Pomeroy) on October 10 at the Fox Theatre as ARW.

The long, tangled history of Yes’ personnel changes can be read elsewhere. The immediate reason that Rabin — who pursued a highly successful career as a composer for film following his 1982 to 1994 tenure as guitarist/keyboardist for the band Yes — signed on for another “Yes-like” tour was the death in 2015 of Yes’ co-founder Chris Squire. This event (and illnesses of Wakeman and Anderson) made it clear that opportunities to perform this material with these people would not last forever.

I interviewed Rabin via phone in Florida where the group was gathering to begin tour rehearsals. We talked about his early life in South Africa and the influences of his family on his musicianship and temperament, his feelings on art as activism, thoughts on film scoring, the upcoming tour, and the new material the group is working on.

Yes during a concert in Indianapolis, August 30, 1977. Image via Wikicommons.
Yes during a concert in Indianapolis, August 30, 1977. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

ArtsATL:  It’s been really fun researching for this interview, and I did look at some other interviews you’ve done recently and I’m trying to maybe ask some questions you haven’t been asked a thousand times before, but I have to say it’s not easy. You’ve given a lot of interviews over the years.

Trevor Rabin: You know it’s funny. I spent many years doing film and I almost, I don’t see the point of a composer doing any interviews for film. It doesn’t really do anything or help anything, other than a possible ego check. It’s kind of not necessary, so I really didn’t do any for many years. This is almost like a new thing again for me.

ArtsATL: I suppose the questions you might get as a composer would maybe be a little more technical, less about promoting the film as about your compositional process.

Rabin: Absolutely. I’ve done some kind of teaching on film composing and I actually did a session at USC, questions and answers and just talking a little bit about film composing and the nature of what it means writing for orchestra when you’re doing films. It was quite funny because half the questions were, “Well, what’s Rick Wakeman like in the morning?” Like, I thought we were going to be talking about legato string lines or . . . it’s quite funny.

ArtsATL: This is sort of an unusual question I suppose, but have you ever thought about, or maybe the opportunity hasn’t come up, the process of playing music for silent films which is quite like scoring a movie?

Rabin: It’s quite fascinating that you ask that because just as an exercise, I scored a couple [silent films]. Actually, one was a Charlie Chaplin movie. I can’t remember what the other one was, and actually it was kind of an exercise in orchestration, and a little more than that; but I would write on piano, because they used to have the pianist at the theater playing piano to the film, just improvising many, many years ago. And I kind of did that and then I took that music — the improvised music — and orchestrated it, really just to keep my chops up. I think it was just two times in between [composing music for] films just to keep my skills polished, if you like.

ArtsATL: But no one heard that? It was just your own exercise?

Rabin: No, I’ve never played it to anyone.

ArtsATL: It’s kind of in-between film scoring and performance. If you’re playing for a silent movie you’re also playing for the audience: you’re reacting to them and feeling the energy in a room, and maybe emphasizing certain parts whereas in film scoring you don’t necessarily have that advantage.

Rabin: One of the points I made when [teaching] at USC was [that] although your music is background music, the music is the heart and soul of the picture, and always to keep in mind there’s an audience watching the movie. It’s not a performance, but certainly it’s something that is being built and constructed for an audience. But it’s not an immediate thing. And to be honest, one of the most exciting things for me about doing a film is collaborating [. . .] with the director and getting to the orchestra and counting them and then coming in and hearing the music really for the first time with an orchestra: it is almost as exciting as playing live.

ArtsATL: Some of your early songs were anti-apartheid songs when you were associated with the band Freedom’s Children. First of all, tell me how it is that that band came to be an anti-apartheid band, whereas prior maybe they were more of a psych-prog type band?

Rabin: It was a kind of prog rock band and the lyrics just came about because things were getting — everyone was a bit agitated by what was not happening in South Africa. It became . . . [despite] subtleties which were attempted in the beginning, it became horrific, basically as horrific as when it started in 1948. As time went by it just became so incredibly offensive, and once I joined the band it just became something we did. I remember the first song I wrote was a song called “State of Fear,” and that was what the tour was called. I don’t think the government liked it much. I remember the lyric was:

Shackled minds of darkness | Do you still refute the truth?

Blinded by madness | not accepting blatant proof.

In his name we were made | One the master one the slave.

. . . I wasn’t very popular.

ArtsATL: I haven’t been able to find that song despite the vast resources of the internet. I can’t find it anywhere.

Rabin: I’m still trying to find tapes of it somewhere, even live tapes, because we did a pretty extensive tour.

ArtsATL: I’m always happy to hear about artists who take their role maybe a little more seriously and see that their voice can be used for something other than merely pop songs, let’s say.

Rabin: Most of the time when I hear political statements by musicians I kind of get a bit cynical, like, “When did you become an expert at this? You know, you play guitar.” But it’s not really fair because some people read. And some people are aware and I certainly was, almost whether I liked it or not. Sir Sydney Kentridge [Rabin’s cousin] was the the barrister who represented the Biko family. So I grew up in a very active family if you like; [. . .] Donald Woods [South African editor-writer whose friendship with Biko is chronicled in the film Cry Freedom] was my mother’s first cousin. And I remember the conversations; she would be on the phone crying because something had happened to them and then he left. He just kind of skipped the country and kind of became somewhat of an icon. [So] you know I didn’t really have much choice. That’s how I grew up. It’s like music: my dad was the leader of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. I could read music before I could read English.

ArtsATL: I certainly appreciate that you grew up in a musical and ethical environment and it’s formed your character. It’s beautiful to see that those two elements were present. Now I want to ask you briefly about growing up in South Africa and listening to music; what was the environment for encountering African music?

Rabin: I was a fan of basically two musics: my number one and to this day it remains my absolute passion: classical music. I’m not talking about —  I’m not really a big fan of Mozart, although obviously, I recognize the genius — but I love Hindemith and Schoenberg and then some of the more beautiful — Benjamin Britten and Rachmaninov — they’re just so wonderful –– Liszt and Chopin. I love classical music. I don’t think anything compares. But I also really loved rock and roll, but mostly from England. You know I love the kind of regeneration if you like of American blues by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Cream. I was delighted that Jack Bruce came and played on one of my solo albums, which was quite an honor. There was a lot of English influence. Cliff Richard and the Shadows who really didn’t do much [in America]. It was huge and I was actually a member of the Cliff Richard fan club. That’s kind of where my influences came from. There were very few American bands that really you know rock bands  that hit hard here — “here” [laughs]. In South Africa.

ArtsATL: Yes. I appreciate hearing about Schoenberg because that was one question I had for you. You’ve said he was one of your influences and I wondered how that came about. And so maybe it leads me to ask if you keep up with contemporary classical music at all?

Rabin: Definitely not as much as I should. But Schoenberg I’d say was a major influence, and not so much his 12 tonal concepts which was a big part of his life for so long. There’s one piece of music: it’s written for a sextet, I think, but if you listen to the orchestral version of “Verklärte Nacht” it’s one of the most extraordinary — it’s atonal a lot of the time but it’s just so beautiful, and to be able to take what some people refer to as ugly music, but to take the concept and implement these incredible, beautiful melodies is . . . he was just incredible.

ArtsATL: So let me talk to you about the tour. First of all, what’s your state of mind and emotion about it right now?

Rabin: I’m really excited about it because to be quite frank, I didn’t see myself doing it again . . . I think the catalyst was when Chris Squire died. Jon Anderson had been coming to a lot of my film scoring dates. He’s fascinated by orchestra and Rick and I had always promised ourselves we’d do one more tour together. I remember actually [in] Atlanta, at one of our better shows, Rick and I made a pact that we’d work together again [. . .] and finally we’re doing it. And once we started there was really a feeling of, “Oh my God, why didn’t we do this earlier? This is great.”

We decided not to bother about making a record until we’re ready to make it. Even if we do make it we don’t want to do a record deal and be shackled or hindered by influence or input from the record company. I did an instrumental album a couple of years ago and I didn’t even look to a record company until I finished the album. With the pressures of doing film — where you have this time and that time and every day you’re faced with a blank piece of paper and you’ve gotta write. It’s constant and it’s an incredible discipline to have to write. With stopping [that] and getting into the rock ’n’ roll so to speak, I enjoyed the luxury of not having that kind of schedule. And consequently, you know, we haven’t finished what you’re doing from a record standpoint, and the tour came up. But I’m happy to say all the decisions on this one are made by the musicians and by what we want to do rather than “Well, we’ve got this going on and you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that.”

So consequently, once we agreed to do a tour we were kind of not completely together enough to have the album out first. The idea was to take the Yes music that we all know and are pretty familiar with and approach it in completely different ways.

People will recognize the music but you will be surprised by a lot of changes within it.

ArtsATL: And I’m sure that the freedom and control that you guys have is gonna come through; you’re gonna seem more comfortable on stage and happy about what you’re doing maybe.

Rabin: Oh, absolutely, and given that we’ve done this thousands of times there’s going to be a vitality about it and an excitement but also it’s a real feeling of command, if you like and knowing what we want to do.

ArtsATL: When you recorded Talk, it was the first direct to hard drive recording by a major act. Have you kept up with music technology?

Rabin: I was working very closely with Apple Macintosh and I became one of the testers. And when I did talk they had one of their kind of MIT people there taking notes on everything. The software wasn’t working properly for me, I became really, really inside that, and I remember one night doing a lecture as one of the speakers about digital audio, and then I saw who was sitting there: all these brilliant software developers and scientists, and I felt so out of place.

But luckily there was Thomas Dolby [. . .] and Peter Gabriel. I remember Peter coming to me afterwards and saying ”rather you than me, mate.” It was somewhat intimidating — my wife said, “That is the worst thing I’ve ever heard. You said more ums and ahs than anything else.” She said, “You embarrassed me [laughs].” No, I really wasn’t equipped to be talking to them, but I am very involved in that side of things and it’s one of the reasons that led me to thinking film would be a natural place for me, because I understand the technology and you know I’m pretty versed in writing for orchestra.

ArtsATL:  Over such a long career, you’ve avoided many of the clichés of the super rock star and the Hollywood player. Does it ever frustrate you to exist in these worlds in which people tend to be very over-dramatic or self-involved and self-important?  

Rabin: I just really think what I do and what anyone does is — you know, if I can write a song and people enjoy it, to me it’s no different to a guy coming to my house and agreeing to build a table from me, and if it’s a beautiful table I think he’s he’s achieved in no less ways what I’ve achieved: he’s built something that he’s really proud of and that’s really good. So, who are we to think this is anything more to what we do than anyone else who’s zoned in on the craft.

ArtsATL: That’s lovely. I appreciate hearing that. And now, just a couple of very short answers — these are kind of Teen Beat-style questions. Is there a guitar within 25 feet of you?

Rabin: There’s one right now . . . here it is [sounds of strumming] on my bed. My son just bought me a brand new Fender Telecaster which is incredible.

ArtsATL: What is your preferred way of practicing the guitar?

Rabin: I do a lot of scales because I started as a pianist. There’s a book by Schmidt and there’s a book by Cherney and it’s just scales and I love to practice those things. I’ll be watching TV — I got very heavily into basketball because some years, 16, 17 years ago now, I was asked to do the TNT theme for the NBA and I usually sit watching basketball and practice.

ArtsATL: What is your favorite type of beer?

Rabin: I’m not a big beer drinker but if I am to drink probably . . . what’s it called? It’s the name of an English town . . . ?

ArtsATL: Newcastle?

Rabin: Newcastle. Yes. That’s my favorite beer.

ArtsATL: And the difference between touring in the United States and in Europe?

Rabin: I find the U.S. audience to be there to have fun. And in Europe a lot of times it’s a little more judgmental.

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