Whether it's the mind-blowing progressive rock of Yes or the slicker pop stylings of Asia, guitarist Steve Howe has always been a team player. At 65, he's been bending strings with the best of them for the better part of four decades. And although he became a legendary guitarist with Yes, Howe is now out on tour with a reunited Asia, pumping out those early '80s hits like "Heat of the Moment" and "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes."
Speaking from a tour stop in San Francisco and in anticipation of Asia's gig on Friday night at the Granada, Howe spoke about everything from being a vegetarian to indirectly being responsible for punk rock.
It's been awhile since you've been to Texas. Yes, that's true. I guess it has.
Perhaps we can rustle you up some barbecue. Well, it needs to be vegetarian barbecue. I am a vegetarian, been so for 40 years. I've brought up children who are vegetarian. They could do whatever the hell they liked once they grew up, but at least they knew what vegetarian food was.
Do you ever get tempted to eat meat while on the road touring? No, 40 years is a long time. I don't care for meat or fish. I don't have a problem with people around me eating meat either. I know what I like and I know how good it is for me. It has definitely benefited me being vegetarian.
Do you think being a vegetarian has helped you, especially on the tours when you are playing in both Asia and Yes at the same show? My wife was not very happy when I decided to do those tours. She thought I was taking on way too much. She thought it was going to drive me into the ground. But I am very organized and I said that if I was going to do this, it had to be this way. The max time I was on stage with Yes was two to two-and-a-half hours. I told my wife that it was not any different dividing that time up between two bands. It was exactly the same time on stage. It helped her understand what I was doing and it helped me understand that I wasn't working any longer. Instead of having an interval and coming back with the same band, I was having an interval and coming back with a different band. A Yes/Asia tour may never happen again. It wasn't an easy thing to pull off. There were some complications, but musically, it was a successful tour.
What events led the original version of Asia to get back together? In 2006 and I got a call from a guy who was looking after John [Wetton] and Geoff [Downes], setting up projects for them. He told me that they wanted to know if I wanted to play with Asia again. John and Geoff were the glue to this team and Carl [Palmer] wasn't doing much with ELP. The central agreement was that we would play the first album. We missed playing that album. It was a great album. It was very successful. That was the main reason to get back together at first. Then, it was about making a new album. And now we have made three albums, with the newest one being XXX.
The new album has gotten some good reviews even though the first album back in 1982 did not. Has the response to the new effort surprised you? Yes, and I am delighted. I am very pleased. You never know when you are listening to an album. I was kind of the secret weapon on the record. I'm not one of those guitarists that wants to be noodling all of the time. Even with Yes, there were places where I wasn't even playing. It was just keyboards. When I came back into a song, I was noticeable. It's all about being a part of a bigger story.
I know Barney Kessel was an early influence on your guitar playing. What other guitarists did you find influential? Barney was one of the early guitarists I discovered when my brother said rock was nonsense. He said I was never going to remember who any of those guys were in a couple of years. We listened to classical and jazz. I was only playing for a year or so when I discovered Chet Atkins. He is my mentor and my inspiration. He didn't have borders. He could play any style and I like to think I can do that as well. He went anywhere and that's where I went. I became a researcher of great guitarists. I wanted to find players that other people didn't know. That guy that stood out a million miles was Albert Lee. He was one of the greatest inspirations in my career. He was booked for a long time by Eric Clapton. Albert could play any style from classical to country. I have a great admiration for Albert Lee.
Do you think you will ever play on another Yes album? We released Fly From Here last year, but it's something that I kind of fight myself about. You take bands like Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones, bands bigger than anything I've been in, and they make new records and nobody really cares. The people want to hear "Satisfaction." That goes with Yes as well, because people want to hear Close to the Edge. We like playing it. We love it, too. We love the new music but it doesn't have the familiarity. It is questionable what effect a new album has on well- established bands. Sometimes, you have to step back and ask yourself what you should be doing. I think The Who had one of the most disappointing results when they put out that last album. It was practically ignored and they are The Who. If we were to come out with something even as good as Close to the Edge, that would be a major achievement. The collaboration on those early records between Jon Anderson and I was amazing. There was a remarkable sense of teamwork. I don't know how we did it back then. It doesn't work the same way now.
I interviewed Jon Anderson a while back and he was quite upset that Yes toured and recorded without him. We were upset for several years when he wouldn't tour. It wasn't only because he had not been well. We were very sympathetic to that. When he was well, he went out and did Yes songs on his own. I'm not saying it is tit for tat. What I am saying that the circumstances have changed. Yes has toured with Jon Davison singing and it was very successful. We are going to continue with Davison next year. I know people would love to see Jon Anderson, but it's about does it work. Do we want to honor each other's position? Nobody leads Yes. Yes does not have a single, solitary leader who says I am the leader of the band. It's a team. We have pushed forward and we haven't had anyone going home unhappy or asking for their money back. We deliver what Yes is supposed to do.
A lot of original punk bands often claimed they formed to combat the dinosaur rock of bands like ELP and Yes. At the time, what did you think about these claims? I guess they wanted something to be against, an anti. They could only play three chords and they could hardly stand up on stage because they were pitching beer out of their mouths. But their music was a new kind of twist and we had to respect that. We suffered the indignity of being called rock dinosaurs because some punks came along playing three chords, most of which were not in tune. There was an energy there because young music has to come forward. It has to burst at the seams. I was there when rock and roll started, when it was Little Richard and Bill Haley. I was actually there. I never knock punk, although I don't mind having a little fun with it. Punk music is allowed to happen. Young music has to happen. Now, it kids with laptops. You can do a lot on a laptop, with a drum that's never been hit.
Asia performs Friday, November 16, at the Granada Theater.