While he was part of progressive rock band Yes and later with Asia, Steve Howe was known for his guitar playing and inspired a generation of wannabe rock guitarists. Now as a solo artist or part of his jazz trio he continues to stupefy many with his virtuoso guitar skills.
Releasing two albums in 2008 alone, one solo and one Steve Howe Trio (comprised of Howe on guitar, his son Dylan Howe on drums and Ross Stanley on keyboards), he is now recording music on his own label called HoweSound. Both albums are very different from the work we’ve come to know Steve Howe for. On his solo album he truly is a solo artist playing his songs arranged for one guitar. The content is comprised of jazz and blues music with a focus on his acoustic guitar.
Steve Howe has been recording music for roughly 40 years and recently he sat down with Orcasound (just before he played a solo show) to muse about music, his family and playing the guitarl.
Orcasound: Have you been able to see any of Montreal during your stopover here?
Steve Howe: Yes, we’ve just been saying that the weather is nice, so we’ve been able to wander around the last couple of days. I’ve also been able to meet up with some people and do some work related stuff. I’ve always said that a musician has to think about the future while doing the present.
Orcasound: What have you been thinking about lately? Future projects?
Steve Howe: There’s group work and then there’s my own projects. I just see opportunities to make inroads to preparing a bit more of what’s going to happen in the future. I hadn’t done any CD releases for two years and having done a couple this year I feel really good. It was good to think about what I want to do next. I’ve done what I previously wanted to do next which was the solo guitar record called “Motif”. That’s out now. That’s what we’re promoting. It is twenty solo guitar pieces. Volume 2 is going to be another twenty. On “Motif” I wrote 19 of the 20 pieces. So it is basically about my music more than it is just about my guitar playing. It’s a combination of those two things.
I’ve been busy this year on tour with Asia for about three months. So we did a tremendous amount of work. The original members got back together two years ago. Then I toured with my trio back in England, which is what I’m going to follow on doing. The trio is guitar, organ and drums, which is great for communication. It’s a wonderful streamlined feeling to just be three people and make a big sound. That’s quite intriguing and that’s what we’re also promoting. “Haunted Melody ” is our fist CD. We’re kind of combining things.
Orcasound: How’s it feel playing in a trio with your son?
Steve Howe: I’ve been working with Dylan since 1993 on my solo projects. He’s played on four of my solo CDs. Dylan and I it’s kind of like destiny as we’ve always known we were going to play together. The trio is much more a collaboration then him working with me. In the trio it’s really a pooling of ideas that brought us to what we have as a repertoire. We basically got together with Ross Stanley the organ player for a couple of days and talked about what we wanted to play. Our music comes from different areas such as jazz, but not standards and then the more R&B kind of jazz and in the center we’ve got my solo music. We have quite a varied repertoire. It isn’t all jazz, it isn’t all progressive, it’s a kind of pooling.
Orcasound: Do you still have a sense of pride playing together with your son even though it has been fifteen years?
Steve Howe: Oh, mentally it’s something fantastic. It really is. It’s great communication. It’s a great opportunity. It’s a real family music kind of concept that we have. Course I love his playing. There’s a lot of sparring. You know blood’s thicker than water, so there’s sparring. It’s really wonderful. But also I play with my son Virgil as well. He’s quite young, but he plays drums as well. Working that out is really interesting. Virgil plays on one future work because it wasn’t really Dylan’s style of music. Virgil and I also write music together and make up silly tunes. We’re building up a little bit of a repertoire.
Orcasound: Do you have any other children that you play music with?
Steve Howe: That’s Dylan and Virgil, our two oldest. Then my wife and I have two daughters as well, Georgia and Stephanie. Stephanie is at university and Georgia’s just moved to New York. She’s got a great job and she liked New York so much that she wanted to try working there. She is adventurous in her own way.
Orcasound: Did they all have a bit of that music gene in them?
Steve Howe: I think they do. Georgia’s actually learned to read music, but then both of them said, “Dad, don’t think of us as going in to music.” I think Stephanie would really like to play. I think she’ll get round to it when she has got university out of the way next year. If it isn’t music we’re just as keen. A friend of mine once said, “Why get the kids into the music business it’s the worst business in the world?” And there is that. With this business you have to be tough if you’re to survive.
Orcasound: What is the bad side? The public only knows what we see. We only see musicians on stage we really don’t see what goes on behind the scenes.
Steve Howe: What I’m talking about is the business side. What I’ve been through has taught me that you have to look out for yourself and you have to make sure that you have real contact with the business side. A lot of people want there to be some sincerity (in music). They’ve got to understand what people have been through in this business. I think you’ve got to really read between the lines on that. A musician is standing amidst an array of people who are kind of working for us. You have to coordinate that and make sure it all runs smoothly. It’s a really big fine art. It all seemed to be going right, but behind the scenes there were people that were being taken advantage of. Some people are not as honest as you would like them to be. You sort out the good from the bad.
Orcasound: You’ve been playing professionally for around 40 years, which is incredible, does it seem like just yesterday when it all started?
Steve Howe: Not at all. It does seem like it’s been quite a long road. Because there have been different stages. The length of my career is amazing to me really. When I was young the perspective of a musician’s career was you would pack it in at 50 and retire. I think a musician wants to keep going. Music stirs you up and keeps you excited. It’s tiring and you’ve got to be dignified. As you get older it’s something you ought to do in a dignified way. Over the years I’ve done some pretty mellow things. But every now and again the rock influence stirs up in me again. Or the jazz as it is with the trio.
Orcasound: What do you attribute to the mood that sways you over into the rock idiom or back into a jazzier format?
Steve Howe: It’s finding the time to do it. The trio has allowed me the time to get a little more jazzy. It’s always been there, but I’ve never found the time or the outlet. I guess that’s the same with solo guitar. When I fall back on solo guitar I realize this is one of the fundamental things I’ve always wanted to do. When I was about 14 and I heard Chet Atkins I just thought that’s what I want to be. I just love that style of country picking guitar. When I combine that with my Spanish guitar and steel guitar that’s really one of the central things that I do. That’s also what I take to groups. That’s what I take to Yes. That’s what I take to Asia. I try to draw on it all. That’s basically because my brother and sister, Paul and Stella, did not like pop music. They kind of influenced me and told me to listen to certain things. They showed me jazz and then it was classical. It’s not unusual. I think if you love an instrument you love everything you can play on it. Whether the guy is playing it behind his head or something. There was a guy on tv that used to do that. I think it was Joe Brown. I used to think, “Yeah, I’m going to learn how to do that.”
Orcasound: How did you get started? What kind of advice can give to the young players out there?
Steve Howe: Well, I was stuck because at the time I was a bit of a rebel at school. I thought school was a pretty daft idea. So music was not going to be anything like school. The idea of being taught was repulsive. Also there wasn’t anybody who could teach me. I didn’t know anybody who taught. What I did was and what I would recommend any guitarist do is getting a chord book. I don’t read music. I have a knowledge of it, but I don’t read music. Chord charts is how I got by. I got a tutor, but I couldn’t even get past page one. I didn’t want to learn like that. Everything I did was by ear. I listened to everything and even slowed it down. Changed the speed so I could learn. All the guitarists I listened to had something going for them. They had their own thing that they brought to it. I just sat down and looked at the chord book and thought that this was the only thing I could deal with. The first thing you have to learn is how to change from one chord to another. Because I wasn’t being taught or trained as to what was right – I think that is a great thing to be – I went my own way. It wasn’t easy. I kind of climbed up the steps gradually. Then people started noticing. That was encouraging when I realized that I’d learnt the guitar from a particular perspective which meant that when somebody played me something I could interpret it and play on top of it. I didn’t need somebody to tell me.
Orcasound: How do you compose your songs?
Steve Howe: It must be just sounds I’ve heard. Things I like to hear on the guitar. I saw Wes Montgomery when I was sixteen and I heard it more than I saw it. I started writing with my first band on the first recording we made. I wrote the b-side of the first release. Then Keith West and I started writing songs. Our first song was called “Revolution”. I was very shy. I wasn’t that confident. I had these ideas. I think the first tune I ever wrote I never recorded. When Yes came along the confidence I gained helped me. Two years later I wrote “Roundabout”, which was our first song together. Writing was just part and parcel of it. The 70s was just filled with places where I added things to people’s music. It taught me that if you’re writing then the guitar works so much easier. I won’t tell you I knew what to play, but when I came to play things that I had written it was a joy.
It’s great to create music. Writing became a key. Not so much in Asia and that’s partially where I went wrong. Asia started with a share of my music like “One Step Closer” and a few other songs. Which we really enjoyed playing. We wrote another album this year called “Phoenix” which has got some co-writing on it.
In a way writing does allow my guitar to be more integrated. It isn’t just a layer that gets added on. I didn’t always get it right, but I enjoyed playing it.
Check out the Steve Howe Trio when they play a show on October 7th at Le Theatre Plaza (6505 St. Hubert).