Finding renewed strength with the Anderson Ponty Band
by Sal Serio
Jean-Luc Ponty & Jon Anderson
Mystic, sage, poet, ringleader of prog-rock pageantry, Jon Anderson certainly has been an enigmatic figure in recent music history, but as this new interview clearly illustrates, the world-renowned singer is back with renewed vigor, and an eagerness to create new musical experiences along his endless journeys, which will bring The Anderson Ponty Band to play the Barrymore Theatre in Madison on Saturday, May 14.
MAXIMUM INK: Upon reflection, what do you feel was special and unique about the musical culture and environment of England in the late 60s? Both when you were first getting in to music, and leading up to the formation of Yes.
JON ANDERSON: The 60s was an incredible time on so many levels, because in the beginning of the 60s it was all sort of pre-organized pop music, and then The Beatles came along, and the Stones and The Who, all these bands from different cities around England, and it just made everybody realize, well, you don’t have to come to London to be a pop star, you can become a ROCK star, in a band… from Birmingham, if you want, you know? It changed the landscape. I was in a band with my brother [The Warriors] and we went to see The Beatles in ’63, so I just knew there was something going on that was amazing. By the time I eventually got to London, after five years with my first band, I realized there were so many different kinds of music going on… Jimi Hendrix was happening, and obviously The Beatles with ‘Sgt. Pepper’. All this great music was happening, and I was looking for a band to join. I tried one or two, but, in some ways, a lot of people were interested in Buffalo Springfield at that time, The Byrds, and two or three American bands. I liked Jimmy Webb, who is a great composer of songs. So, when I met Chris [Squire] in the bar I was working in, which was right over top of the very famous Marquee Club, we met and talked about the new album of Simon and Garfunkel, which had incredible music on it, the songs, and the recordings. We just seemed to hit it off together. He had a band called Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, and so I went and joined them, and then the drummer and guitarist left, so we got new people in. A keyboard player, Tony Kaye, and Bill Bruford [on drums. The new guitarist was Peter Banks]. By that time, 1968, there were five bands rehearsing [and] starting up… Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Genesis, and a couple of other bands, and Yes. We were one of the bands that started “performing” when we were doing clubs in and around London, and people really liked what we did. Because we just went and put on a show, [doing] songs we really liked. We did Jimmy Webb songs from The Fifth Dimension album, we did a Beatles song, “Every Little Thing” but we jazzed it up and did it more like a driving force song. We changed the songs around, [and] I think that’s what a lot of musicians were doing. They weren’t really fixing to make music for the radio, they were just making music for stage and performance. Our first tour was with The Who, Rod Stewart & The Faces, Joe Cocker, Arthur Brown, and Yes. So much energy! At the end, I spoke with Pete Townshend, just having a chat… I couldn’t believe he was speaking to me! He was very famous, you know, and he was talking about this album he was doing called ‘Tommy’. He explained [about] this deaf, dumb, and blind kid… it was just perfect!
MI: Your lyrical influences are from philosophical literature, including one of my favorite books, Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha”. Are those literary influences still with you today?
JA: Oh yeah! I’m just re-reading “The Glass Bead Game”, because I’m working on a project relating to [that book] and the Magister Ludi, which is this sacred, secret, order. I’m making the music for that, and there is a company working on a movie. So, Hermann Hesse is so strong in my consciousness. Everything I was reading at that time… there’s a lovely lady called Vera Stanley Alder who wrote some very intriguing books about the mystery of the dimensions of this planet. Once you start reading that, and go on tour… I would listen to Sibelius every day, all the symphonies, as I traveled through America, Europe, and everywhere, and I was reading “Lord Of The Rings”… and, I’m a slow reader [laughing]! “The Hobbit” and “Lord Of The Rings” took me two years! But at the same time, the philosophical world is like the opportunity to discover the mystery of the world [and] the mystery of life, and why we live. When you get famous as a band, and you’re on the road, and you’re playing to 10,000 people here, 15,000 there, every night is this wonderful array of people, and you think, well, I hope they like the songs that we’re writing. At the time, we were doing the ‘Fragile’ album and then ‘Close To The Edge’, and it was always close to the edge of realization. That was inspiring to me because there were people that were interested to listen. Obviously they had listened to the albums and read the lyrics, and I was on this lyrical/musical journey, and I am still there.
MI: So many of the classic-era prog, fusion, and more intelligent psychedelic bands from the 60s and 70s have really inspired an attitude that lives on today with younger touring bands, taking the cue that, as you said, it’s all about the live concert experience rather than having a hit song. Wouldn’t it be great if the younger audience came out to this tour to taste from the well of a couple of the originators?
JA: It’s one of those wild things, you know? I was working with a deejay about three years ago, sort of like EDM music. So, I got in to dance music, simply because of the modern sounds, the incredible drum sounds and quirky sounds that come around because of that kind of music. It inspires me, actually. I was really inspired in the early 70s [by] a couple of electronic musicians from the 60s, [and] that’s followed through now in to dance music. In the scope of progression of music, I’m very aware that there is an audience that’s very young, that love to dance and nod to that incredible volume [laughs], and all those light shows, and I wish I was one of them! Because I was in to lasers and all of that with Yes, and to do that kind of dance music is very familiar and very inspiring. I’m actually working with a guy called Chris Adams, who had just been to Burning Man, and he was playing the Anderson Ponty Band’s tracks! [laughing] And people were dancing, you know? They’re dancing to Jean-Luc’s violin solo, and you think, we’re going to reach people! That’s all you ever really want to do with your music is reach people, as many as you can. That’s the idea of music.
MI: You’ve worked with so many different musicians, from a wide variety of genres.
JA: That’s true. About ten years ago I put an ad on my website, “musicians wanted, send me a minute of your music and I’ll get back to you”. I got 200 one minute pieces. I picked out all the good ones, and I got in touch with these people. One of them was, I think the keyboard player, from Dream Theater. So, I was working with him on a track. Then he said, we’re doing an album, would you do some singing on [it]? And I said yes! Because what I believe is, you’ve got to be cross-pollinating all the time. You must reach out. In the early days I sang on King Crimson’s album [‘Lizard’] because I was a big fan of the band. I’ve always been very open to work with anybody. It’s just the idea that you learn something. You’ll have an experience with someone, and at the same time, you never know what’s going to come through. It’s funny, I don’t really go “out” to listen to anything. If I’m driving I’ll put on local radio and hear what’s going on. I listen to Sirius radio, deep tracks, and new musicians. And, it’s like you hear a song, and go, that’s a hit! And you hear a voice, and say, that’s not dissimilar to the way I sing, sort of. So, there is this ongoing fusion of artists. You know, you learn from other people. I learned from Nina Simone, one of the most wonderful singers ever. Or, Paul McCartney. These are singers that I learned everything from. Then, as the band Yes became more famous in the early 70s, I found that my style of singing and my lyric writing worked. It actually reached people. It’s a silly story, but, when I started with my first band in ’63 / ’64, of course we had to do the Top Ten, so we would do “Goldfinger”, and I remember reviews that said, “Jon Anderson, the Shirley Bassey of Rock!” [both laughing] So, you learn from so many people along the way, and I’m sure a lot of people will learn from my musical stance, my musical projection, songwriting, lyrics… but, my work is not what you’d call commercial, in a sense. It was a different road that I took, and I was very fortunate to work with a band of musicians that would come up the mountain with me.
MI: It’s interesting that you and Jean-Luc Ponty had first discussed working together in the 1980s, and now decades later it’s finally happened. Had you always maintained contact?
JA: No, I think we bumped in to each other a couple of times, but for me, I’m 70 years old now, it’s one of those things where you think, time is flying, and in my mind, what I was doing 20 years ago seems like last week. So, I was very interested in Mahavishnu Orchestra, it was one of the wonders of modern music for me. I always thought I’d like to sing with them, in a very jazz-rock-fusion [way]. When I spoke to Jean-Luc last year, I said I’d been writing a couple of songs on top of your music, I’ll send them to you, and hope you like them. That was the energy we started off [with]. For two or three months last year we actually wrote a couple new songs, and we had these ideas of getting together and performing as band. He had great musicians with him. So, I went to Aspen and met with him, and it was like meeting my musical brother. I’ve been talking to him on and off [for] six months. We have a very strong relationship, and feel we’re embarking on a project that’s very, very, interesting.
MI: The new CD is called ‘Better Late Than Never’, and contains those new compositions as well as revisiting some of the classics from both your careers. Was that a conscious decision, to maintain a connection to your respective fan bases?
JA: Yeah, I think the obvious thing would be [that] we’re going to put on a show. You want people to come and enjoy themselves, so, why not sing three or four songs they know? Especially for me, if I want to do a show with a band, I want to do “And You And I”, “Wonderous Stories”, “Roundabout”, and why not honor [them]? When this band started playing “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”, wow, it was just so wild, you know? And of course, Jean-Luc is a premiere maestro of the violin. It’s nice to be able to be in a band like that, because you know a lot of people are not going to come for a sort of satisfied Yes experience, but they’re going to come to a new experience, which has some of Jean-Luc’s great music, and some of Yes’s great music interwoven. Again, you’re putting on a show. I think when I started Yes, with Chris, [we thought] we’ve got to put on a good show. You don’t think about getting a hit record or the radio, you just think about putting together a good band, and putting on a really good gig.
MI: Will there be a significant visual experience as a part of this tour?
JA: Not really. At the moment I think we’re obviously going to put together something visually nice. You know, what’s goes on these days is pretty far out! If you want to get in to that world of visual projection, it’s a delicate area. I’ve done it a couple times in my solo shows, and I enjoy it. But, I think the best thing for me and the band for the moment, is, we’ll put on a nice theater show, lights and everything, but we’re not going to go crazy. We want the music to stand out first.
MI: The U.S. portion of your tour goes throughout late November. Are you planning on Europe and other parts of the world in 2016?
JA: Yeah, we’re getting offers already for Asia and Europe next Spring, and then in the Summer, festivals, that kind of thing. I think it will give us the chance to grow on tour, because we only did two shows together, a year ago. We sense the potential. Jean and I are even talking about working with a full orchestra later next year, and doing a more evolved idea on a piece of music, I don’t know exactly what it will be, but you never know what you get up to when you get on the road. You start writing songs together, putting ideas together, because of the way the band moves, and so on.
MI: And, health-wise, you feel up for the touring?
JA: Yeah! I’ve really got myself very strong, and am working out a lot. I just went through a two year period where I was really very, very, sick. And I think it was something where, you’re on tour with Yes, and everybody wants to keep touring, and I was getting exhausted, and the doctors weren’t really understanding what’s wrong. Eventually they figured it out.
MI: If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask about Chris. With your long friendship, and both you being the founders of the band [Yes], it must have been really devastating when we lost him in June.
JA: I was in touch with him. One of the things I did say was, Chris, to be honest, without you, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. We were definitely connected right [from] the beginning, and he said the same to me. You know, you go through life… I spent 35 years with him. It’s a lifetime. The ups and downs of being on the road, the ups and downs of the business… but no matter what, on stage, we performed. And, we always kept up our standard, 80 percent of the tour has got to be brilliant! He understood that. And he was one of the great bass players of all time, one of the most melodic bass players. And a great singer! He came from a choir. He was a choirboy like me. There were times we were working on a song… he liked to work late night. I would finish my work in the evening, and then he’d carry on. I’d come back in the morning and hear this glorious vocal! I was so thankful! When he got to that point where he was passing, in my meditation, I was with him. God bless him.
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