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Alan White

Interview by Sean Mitchell // October 02 2008
Alan White

When YES got a Grammy for Cinema, they only gave us one. And they said, “We’re going to mail the rest to you guys." So they mailed the Grammy to me, and it was like a building set. I had to build my own Grammy at home.

Alan White can no doubt be considered one of a rare few. The soft spoken Whiteis a true giant among his peers. Known primarily for his workwith prog-rock pioneers Yes,White has been a master of manygenres, playing with the likes ofJoe Cocker, Ginger Baker andJohn Lennon. Alan’s true brilliance is not hard to hear as you go deeper into hisaccomplished body of work, andhis story is the stuff legends are made of. If ever a musician epitomized the true English gentleman, it would be Alan White.

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Alan, what have been your favorite Yes tunes to play over the years?

My favorite Yes tunes, wow. There’s so many of them. I enjoy playing some of the stuff from Relayer. “Gates of Delirium” is very challenging. “Heart of the Sunrise” and “Close to the Edge”.

You learned the entire YES set in 3 days?!

Yeah, they asked me to join the band on Friday or Thursday evening, something like that. I said, “Well, look, let’s give each other like three days and see if I like playing with the band.” And they said, “Yeah, but we’ve only got time for one quick rehearsal and we’re playing a show on Monday.” So I had to kind of jump in the deep end. You must enjoy the learning process and being under pressure. I had my own band that had been working on odd time signatures, and we’d been playing jazz and rock ‘n’ roll odd time signatures, so I was kind of schooled a little bit in that whole area for the two years before Yes.

This being your 40th year with no break-ups or major hiatuses, what is the secret to YES’ longevity?

Don’t talk to each other pretty much, most of the time. (laughs) I don’t know. I think it’s the original idea of the band. It is a band that kinda sees a little bit into the future and tries to create new things all the time. And then if you do that, I think the music becomes a little bit timeless. A lot of people listen to Yes’ music and model themselves on it. It’s not easy to play a lot of the tunes. You don’t find many Yes clone bands. It’s just a challenging band to play with, but it pays its rewards because it feels so good when you see all those people standing on their feet having a wonderful time.

You did quite a bit of work with John Lennon. What was your initial impression of John upon meeting him?

I guess he kind of took a liking to me. He enjoyed me being around. He was always very nice to me, very warm, and he said, “Whatever you’re playing, Alan, keep playing. It’s wonderful.” (laughing) That’s what he used to say to me. I think he took me under his wing a little bit, kind of like he was really glad he had this young drummer playing with him. I was only twenty years old.

Tell me about your first gig with Lennon at Live Peace in Toronto, 1969.

You know, we never really played together before. John kind of picked songs. Some of them were classics that I’d heard but not played, and some of them I had played before with different bands. That part was easy, to a degree. But we just kind of busked it at the end. It was kind of like an okay, heads down, see you after the show kind of thing.

For interest’s sake, where does someone like Alan White keep his Grammy?

It’s actually in my studio in a cupboard. I’ve got a funny story about the Grammy because when YES got a Grammy for Cinema, they only gave us one. And they said, “We’re going to mail the rest to you guys.” So they mailed the Grammy to me, and it was like a building set. I had to build my own Grammy at home.

You have a great sense of melodic expression in your playing. Where does that come from?

When I first took up drums, I had already been playing piano. But I bought a violin that had one string on it, and I put a little pickup on it and played it through my tape recorder. So when you put it in record, you could hear the violin come out the speakers. I’d play along with the Beach Boys’ records and their harmonies, and just feeling out those harmonies kind of made me have a more melodic sense on playing music with Yes.

Alan, this amazes me. You are thirteen years old with three lessons under your belt, and you play your first gig!

The guy that was teaching me, I felt, was trying to make me play like him. He was playing in a dance band and all this kind of stuff, and I said “No, I’m just going to play these records. It’s better for me to do that.” And that’s what I basically did and turned it around the other way. I started playing my own individual style by myself at a very early age. I said, “No, I can do this, and I can incorporate orchestral music and jazz and everything all into one style.”

 

Visit Alan online: http://alanwhite.net/




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.



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