Alan White has an enviable pedigree as a drummer. Having played on John Lennon’s Imagine album and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass opus – together with work on countless studio sessions – Alan’s impressive CV also includes work with musicians as diverse as Alan Price and Ginger Baker.
However, Alan’s best-known role is for his skills as the long-serving drummer of Progressive Rock legends Yes – the band have just released their nineteenth album with White in the drum chair. He is now the longest serving member of the band, and the only one never to have left and returned.
Alan spoke to DR’s Andy Hughes, from his home in Seattle. The conversation included staying with the same drum company, playing things backwards, and always looking for something new in music.
It’s quite a feat Alan, to have remained with Yes for nearly fifty years.
I know, if someone had told me in 1972 that I would still be here this long after, I would never have believed it! I think the reason I have stayed with Yes is that the band has continually developed and progressed and is always looking to move forward. That keeps things interesting for everyone, and it’s the reason why we still love making music together.
Do you think your playing technique has developed over that long period of time with Yes?
It has, but it’s not a conscious thing to be honest. I am never really aware of the way I play, and the things I play actually changing, but when I look back, I can hear that things have altered, as indeed they must.
Bill Bruford who was the drummer before me, was very jazz-based and a very musical drummer. I was far more of a beat-keeper in the old rock-and-roll tradition because that was the style I grew up with. I feel now that I have developed a mixture of the two styles, I hold down the beat for the band, but I do it in a very technical way. It’s a way of playing down-to-earth rhythms with five-four-time signatures. I think of it as being complex to play, but easy to listen to.
Are you a fan of big drum kits?
I have always loved big kits. For albums like Relayer and Tales from Topographic Oceans, there was a lot of complex percussion involved, lots of different drum sounds and tones, so that meant a big kit to encompass everything I needed to play when we recorded those albums, and of course when we took them out on tour as well. For the Topographic Oceans tour we had a really elaborate stage set based on the shape of a butterfly, and the drum kit was the centre-piece of that. I think Yes have always been about visual spectacle as well as complex music, and our fans have come to expect that now, so a large kit is part of that visual appeal, as well as being necessary to play the different tracks from different albums on tour.
When you start working on new music, do you have a set routine for how you work out your drum parts?
Well, nowadays, everything comes on sound files, so I listen to those, and more often than not whoever has written it, or started the idea at least, will have programmed a drum track onto the file to give me an idea of how they think the rhythms will work.
What I do is listen to the drum track in the context of the music it is accompanying, and work out if I feel it fits or not. If it does fit, then I will work on ‘humanising’ the drum sound and making it mine, while keeping the essential root of the rhythm in place. If I feel the drum beats don’t work, I will work out what I think fits best, and then send it back to the writer or writers, and then we can have a discussion from there, and work out a way that suits everyone.
Is it easy to know when a drum part is finished, or are you tempted to keep tinkering with it?
You know, there is something to be said for the old way of recording when I started out with Yes. In those days, you had a set time in the studio, and time was money, so when the red light went on, you played your part and you got it right first time, every time, because that was the way things were done. Now, with modern technology, you can work at home for as long as you want, and you can dip in and change a single drum beat at a time if you want to, so you have to discipline yourself and know when to stop and just leave things alone, otherwise you’d never get any albums finished.
Do you record as a band, or individually?
Well once again, recording systems have changed. Years ago, everyone would convene in the studio and we would play together as a band, and get a rough version of a song down together, then tinker with it, and add and take away bits afterwards. Now, the same as in the writing process, the band no longer need physically to be together in a room, they can play their parts and bounce them back and forth to each other. It’s a different way of working, and everyone has got used to that way now.
When you write your drum parts, do you have part of your mind on the notion of reproducing it live in concert?
Oh yes, I think everyone does. Yes have never recorded anything that they can’t take out and play live to an audience; that’s an unwritten rule and we stick by that now.
Have you ever decided on a drum part for a song, and then changed it completely when you worked towards the finished version?
I have, and I have done it a number of times with Yes, and I am sure the rest of the band have done the same as well. We have always been a band that doesn’t believe in musical limits for any of us, and that’s why we have kept going for so long because there is always something new out there to try out and see what we can get from it.
We are fortunate that we have had record labels that have allowed us free reign to go where we want, which is exactly how Yes operates as a band. Sometimes I have changed a drum part around completely, and played it ‘back to front’ because it sounded better, and I am sure the other guys have done the same in our long career.
Who is your drum company?
It’s Ludwig, and it’s been Ludwig since I had my very first kit when I was twelve years old. It was a Silver Sparkle set, and I played that kit on Instant Karma and Imagine, and All Things Must Pass, and I’ve never seriously considered playing drums made by anyone else.
I have been approached by other companies over the years, trying to get me to try their kits, but they leave me alone now. I think they have realised that there’s no point in asking because I am just not interested.
Ludwig call me up and ask me if I need anything, and I tell them that I’ve got about thirty kits already, and I honestly don’t need any more. They have made custom kits for me the past and they have always been fabulous. I am very happy with them.
Do you use many effects?
I’m pretty old-school when it comes to drums, I think the acoustic drum kit is like an extension of your body, that’s how it has always felt to me. So, I am not a massive user of effects, but when you play the sort of complex music that Yes do, then I do need triggers to bring in keyboard and guitar sounds here and there, but for the most part, what you hear is me playing.
Do you contribute a lot to the music of Yes?
We are very much open to ideas and thoughts from everyone about everything and I think that’s a really good way to work for any band. No-one should feel that because they are the drummer, they can’t venture an opinion about a keyboard sound or a guitar line. Sometimes, I do come up with time signatures that lead the band into composing around them. Sound Chaser on the Relayer album started out with the drum part. It’s a five-four timing and the band built the rest of the track around it. I get questions about that all the time.
I think we all look for different and inventive uses of time signatures to find new ways to create our music. The band are all virtuoso musicians, so everyone has ideas all the time.
You must be looking forward to going out on tour in 2022?
Absolutely! I think anyone who makes their living playing music in a band has missed being able to get out and travel and play music to an audience. We are really looking forward to taking the new album out and playing it to our fans.
Do have any ideas for the next album yet?
We do, we always have ideas going around, and as soon as we complete one album, we start to think about ideas for the next one, and start sending things to each other and chatting about the next direction. That’s part of what makes being in Yes so exciting, it never stands still.
Do you like top push your limits as a drummer?
Oh yes, constantly, I think everyone does in Yes. There are no limits in music unless you place them on yourself, or your band puts limits in place. I think any drummer should always be pushing and trying new ideas and techniques. You may find that you don’t get all of them down, or that they don’t suit the band you play with, or your individual technique, but you should always be looking and trying to find out what’s out there for you.