Still caught up in the clutches of a global pandemic preventing touring, Steve Howe has once again fallen back on his inner resources and come up with another solo album, his 22nd, following on from 2020’s Love Is. In July 2020 he stated, ‘In terms of writing and recording work, it (the lockdown) was a golden opportunity and I daresay many musicians will turn to their recording system and say ‘well, maybe I could do some more’.’ Homebrew 7 marks the 25th anniversary of the first in the Homebrew series, with 7 being another collection of snippets and curios from his extensive archives and, while his vocals don’t always hit the mark, this is largely a series of short instrumental pieces, similar to his other solo albums. As always, it varies between acoustic / electric and portrays his virtuosity, creativity, diversity and refined guitar skills.
The whole album was written, engineered, produced and arranged by Howe and, while previous solos have consisted of pieces of music of tracks and demos for the various groups or collaborations he’s done, Homebrew 7 consists of 21 songs, all but one never previously released elsewhere, and there are no plans to rerecord them in the future. All the tracks are drawn from his very extensive archives, ranging from between 1997-2016, accompanied by extensive background notes and details of instrumentation used. Steve sings on four tracks, Phil Hall plays bass on one track, Half Way, and his sons Dylan and Virgil contribute drums. Steve Howe’s more than paid his dues, and could probably get away with releasing anything, but instead he’s come up with a fine album indeed, one which shows off his extensive range of playing styles and there are some fine melodies on Homebrew 7, several of which could probably have been developed further.
As well as a new solo album, Asia’s The Reunion Albums, 2007-2012, five-CD set has also just been released, featuring the two CD ‘live’ recording Fantasia; live in Tokyo, 2007 together with the three 2007-2012 studio albums, Phoenix, Omega and XXX. The image on the box cover is previously unused, and the cover of Fantasia and the package has been designed by Roger Dean. So this is a hectic time for Steve Howe, but he agreed to talk to Velvet Thunder about both new releases, and it began with my asking, given how extensive his archives are, going back many years, how easy was it to decide on a track list for Homebrew 7 ?
‘I wanted this one to be a bit different from the others,’ he began. ‘Some of the others I’ve done were done slightly tongue in cheek occasionally, but on this occasion I thought … I’ve got this backlog of material I’m sitting on, and I didn’t wanna re-record them, I kinda liked them the way they were, so I thought, why don’t I piece them together? So, doing a running order on the music didn’t have any correlation. They usually correlate with particular projects and therefore I might mention the album, and then there’s three tracks which have something to do with some such album. But on this occasion this has been thrown up in the air, and it’s just music and, really, some of it means a lot to me as it stands, and some of it’s really quirky, so this is how I came up with the idea.’
In the opinion of this writer, I mentioned, some of the tracks on the album are pieces are far too good to have been left up on the shelf all this time – in the case of a few of the pieces, over forty years. ‘Yeah, some of them have been up on the shelf quite happily all this time, not being heard,’ he laughed. ‘But some of it was motivated by me because, in a way, some of those pieces quite justifiably exist in their own world, so I just took it on board and tried to make a nice running order which went from different kinds of moods, different sorts of layouts and levels of backing, or maybe not much backing, so it’s kind of a correlation of a different selection.’
I suggested that tracks on the album like Half Way, From Another Day and Outstanding Deal came across like they could easily have been slotted into any of Asia’s first few albums. ‘Yeah, I suppose they could have done,’ he agreed. ‘In fact, Half Wa’ is an exception to what’s on Homebrew 7 in that it was previously released as an instrumental called While Rome’s Burning, on Turbulence back in 1991, so it may have been laying around during the Asia period, but whatever it is, it’s what it is now.’ And did he have Asia in mind when writing these songs? ‘I can’t say I ever write particularly for anybody. I’ve done a little of this more recently when I’ve thought about adding music to a project, because I certainly can’t write to order. Basically I write stuff and then I might know where it could go and how or where to utilise it better. I mean, I have written stuff with Yes in mind but I don’t generally do that, I usually just write and some of it goes off into a solo project, some might go to a Yes or Asia project, and I’m always happy to see it move along. Basically, that’s why this album exists because all this stuff might have been offered or not, either because it was too personal or intimate. It’s why I keep things, so I can find a way to utilise it, without having to compromise.’
Mentioning compromise, did he find it easy to make a solo album like Homebrew 7 …no need to have to compromise … or more difficult, in that there’s no constructive criticism or anyone to bounce ideas off ? ‘Well, when I made Beginnings (1975 solo album), it was the beginning of a kind of super-freedom in that, outside of the bands I’d been in up to that point, I wanted to find out what making a solo album was like. Maybe I could steer it, write all the lyrics and do all that kind of stuff, and it was a learning curve, and by the time I got to releasing last year’s Love Is album, it had the long story going on it, the long work, not in a rush, just keep doing it. There’s an immense freedom in doing a solo album, there isn’t the backbiting and so on. I try to make records without problems because that’s the atmosphere they come out best in. That said, however, collaboration can’t always be easy because there are tests on your endurance working with other people, and there’s a bigger learning curve while doing that because everyone might have their own music, so it’s how you get a ration of music is the thing. I mean, Lennon and McCartney with George Harrison. He was writing really good songs and he finally got the recognition he deserved when writing Something and other high quality songs later in his career. It was like that when I joined Yes, as it was mainly Chris and Jon who wrote stuff, but then I came up and showed them I could write stuff, and that’s when Jon and I come up with great songs like Roundabout together, because there was the opportunity, and that’s teamwork. I’ve always been a team player but when my solo albums came along I thought, ‘well, I’ve got this freedom, and I love it’.’
Did the pandemic contribute to Love Is and Homebrew 7 coming into being. I wondered? ‘Not really, no, I’m a consistent writer,’ he replied. ‘I mean, I’ve had more time to look back at collaborations I’ve done with other people outside of what I’m known for, and maybe think there’s something going on there. I’ve had more time and more energy for recording than at any other point but it’s plus and minus. It’s been a terrible time, but a lot of musicians have got their heads down, and I’ve had to prioritise things as I have a few projects I can tap into and, as time goes by, I look at them and once one starts to appeal to me, and I can bring it to completion, that’s what I do. That’s the only guiding force I’ve got.’
We then moved onto talking about the release of the new 5-CD Asia box-set, and I wondered what was the attraction of Asia in the first place? ‘It was the attraction of working with John Wetton. I knew him and respected some of his earlier work, so we teamed up to find out if we could do something. We didn’t really have any ideas to start with, just a few riffs, some tunes and odd bits, but as we ventured into getting Carl (Palmer) and Geoff (Downes) involved, the whole thing just took off. John and I had already done some writing, and Geoff and John came up with some successful songs, like Heat Of The Moment, so the first album rather encapsulated what the group was, and at that time, the early eighties, the singer has to be in some songs, so if he wanted to rewrite the lyrics, that was fine, or if he wanted to keep the title but not the song, I didn’t particularly mind, as long as there was a way we could use my music as much as theirs. So, yeah, it’s all about teamwork in a band and that’s what you have to appreciate.’
Asia began life branded as a ‘Supergroup.’ I asked whether this was more of a blessing or a curse? ‘Well, you could say it was a pain in the neck, having a cliché around you, but in a way we were’, he reluctantly agreed. ‘We couldn’t really deny it, and we’d all had successful careers so we weren’t going to invest our time playing with new musicians with different thought processes. So, working with really experienced, top professionals has always been my main guide when drafting ideas, if I can count on it, that talent. Geoff, John and Carl all had successful careers which enhanced the idea of Asia, but we decided we didn’t want to be ELP or King Crimson, what we wanted Asia to be was a new kind of band, and it was, taking a different slant on the opportunity’.
Asia were a kind of ‘paradox’ band, with a Dramatis Personae of stellar musicians who’d made names in prog bands which’d helped to define the genre, and expectations were high before their first album, but many critics at the time said the band never fully stretched themselves on disc, never taking the music ‘out there’, preferring instead to coast along with a more commercial sound, playing radio-MTV friendly songs they could perform in their sleep. Did Steve think any of this criticism was justified? ‘I don’t know if you can call this a criticism, and I don’t necessarily take it as a criticism. I take it that, if you’re a long-term musician, you’re going to do a variety of different things. Yes weren’t very poppy’, he laughed, ‘they didn’t do commercial songs or repeat choruses three times at the end, but Asia did, and that was the opportunity Asia had because, in the seventies, we’d all been involved in some quite esoteric music, Carl most of all, and Asia didn’t want to do that, we were tired of holding bands together doing that kind of music, we wanted a new approach so, whatever it was, however you digest it, is what it was.’
I mentioned that many fans were expecting Asia’s debut album to be more proggy… ‘Well, it had prog elements, but it didn’t acquire the auspicious reputation of being vague or indulgent or whatever. None of us had ever done anything like Asia before and that’s why I suppose Asia was like it was, because it was an opportunity to be different and to show a different side of our abilities, and certainly it moved me from my fairly static, though excitable guitar ideas, and taught me more about performing outside of the music, and something visual, though it didn’t mean doing the duck walk every day,’ Cue laughter… ‘I was made to feel this was a different idea of music, not higher, but different, and that’s where the goal was, to be different and if we got some radio play out of it, well, we didn’t think this was a bad thing. We’d had the other kind of success, the album success, and now suddenly we’re singing Heat of the Moment, so basically we didn’t take too much offence at the criticism, some of which was predictable, because we didn’t want people to say ‘oh, this is just another take of Yes or ELP,’ so we kind of established our own style.’ Asia stopped in 1985, reconvening in 1991 with Geoff Downes and a revolving door of guest musicians, releasing a series of albums, until the four original members of Asia reformed in 2006 with the band finally securing the rights to the name, after John Payne’s Asia. At the time, Steve stated ‘This is the real Asia. There have been other incarnations of the band, but this is the one the public fully embraced.’
Asia currently have a 5CD box set being released, containing Fantasia, a 2CD ‘live’ set from Japan in 2007, plus the three albums Asia released between 2007-12. How did the Asia of this period differ from the early eighties model? ‘Well, we were the same people’, he laughed, ‘and we’d learned much more about careers and how to reinvent Asia at that time, and that’s what we wanted to do. We’d got off the ground, we’d reformed, we’d done the first album quite a bit and done career music in our show which was quite original, but doing a new album gave us the opportunity, and I think Phoenix is a good reunion album in the sense it does carry on with the multi-writer facet kind-of thing with songs from the three main writers. Not a lot of drummers write, though Don Henley might, and Carl’s not so much of a writer, but he does help in the collaborations, which gets him a credit here and there, so basically we designed it and found our feet again as a new act, which gave it the appeal of our being back both as a ‘live’ act, and as a recording act, and the three albums show we were quite determined in that, and we quite enjoyed the opportunity to work together again in new ways which didn’t require all the old ways. Bands don’t prepare themselves in the same way now. We all get to know each other’s songs and find ways to build the story up, as opposed to in the sixties when you could only get this when you played, but now we’re in the high tech area where you can mock things up and add details. That’s how Cream made all their records, they’d get a rough idea of the tune, put it down and then detail it, find out what to replace or update, and I guess that going on with these three albums as well. We were able to reinvent them, rethink them, transplant different ideas here and there and try to make a good album.’
And at the same time, you were still playing in Yes, weren’t you? ‘What happened was, 2004 was the last time Yes toured with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, and that era kind of closed down, even though Rick had been in and out of Yes too many times to remember, so 2005 to 2007 were inactive years, but by the time Asia had reformed and 2008 had come around, there were plans to reform Yes with more of the original guys, but it didn’t work out, which is why, in November, Chris (Squire), Alan White, Oliver Wakeman, Benoit David and myself went back out on tour with Yes, playing songs we love to play, which was why I suddenly found myself in two bands at once and having to spread my time between the two, which was exciting but I was only able to do it for six years because I was ignoring other projects, including the Steve Howe trio, which was something I enjoyed very much, so I had to do some re-balancing.’ Steve finally stood down from Asia in January 2013… ‘There was gonna come a time at some point when it all became unworkable, but Asia had a terrific run and we made three great albums. In fact, I think XXX is a fantastic album.’
Steve Howe, as part of Yes, is a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer, and Prog Magazine elevated him to “Prog God” status in 2018. After a career spanning more than fifty years, how gratifying did he find these accolades? ‘Well, it is gratifying’, he agreed, ‘it’s nice to be understood and appreciated, mainly from the fans obviously, but when the industry shows respect, that’s not a bad thing, and it’s all very nice but, at the end of the day, it’s all about keeping yourself consistent and using your talent in a productive way. I mean, it doesn’t help anything much apart from status. It’s all very nice getting awards, and I don’t knock it, it’s something I appreciate.”
Lastly, I wondered if there was any likelihood of Steve collaborating with Steve Hackett again on another GTR album? ‘I don’t know’, he came back with. ‘I mean, Steve’s a great guy and a great writer. We kind of moved away from that kind of thinking. There was an idea once to reform GTR, and you can never discount it, but you try something, you do it and you get it finished and then you move on. You can’t always do everything again, besides which, it takes time and geography, where you are, though this isn’t really an issue with the internet, but it still takes the initial planning and the desire.’
That’s certainly true, and it is also true to say that, at this stage in his long career, Steve Howe doesn’t really owe us anything – he has given us fifty years of great music, and who can argue with that?