An Interview with Oliver Wakeman of Yes

All images courtesy of Glass Onyion PR


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

All images courtesy of Glass Onyion PR

Recently, I caught up with veteran keyboardist, Oliver Wakeman, formally of Yes. Among other things, we touch on Oliver’s formative years, the influence of his father, Rick Wakeman, joining Yes, his newest solo work, and a whole lot more.

If you would like to learn more about Oliver Wakeman, the link to his webpage is here. Once you’ve checked into that, dig into this interview with Oliver. Cheers.

Andrew:
Oliver, as a young musician, what first gravitated you toward the keys? 

Oliver:
When I was really little, I think about four, I put my hands on my dad’s grand piano and somehow managed to guess play a perfect chord! I tried again and realized that it was a fluke as the next attempt was not as tuneful. [Laughs]. So, I went and had proper lessons on how to play, which I really enjoyed. Fast forward a decade or so, and I started playing in bands with friends and loved it all. Even though I’d been trained in piano, I also learned how to play the guitar and bass, and so I experimented with both of those instruments in different bands. In fact, my first ever paid session was as a guitarist! I played drums a few times as well but always found myself coming back to the piano and keyboards. I have continued to experiment with other instruments, but piano and keyboards have always been my natural instrument.

Andrew:
How big of an influence was your father on you?

Oliver:
When I became a teenager, even though I loved the work dad had done, I discovered Deep Purple and really loved Jon Lord’s playing, and he was a massive influence as well. I really enjoy dad’s work and, although I seem to have inherited the Wakeman musical gene, I have always made a point of not just sitting down and learning everything dad has done. I always wanted to listen to more and more musicians to understand how different people approached playing and performing music. He has been a big influence though!

Andrew:
What were some of your early gigs where you cut your teeth, so to speak?

I can remember my first gig really clearly. It was at a pub in Barnstaple in Devon, UK. I was playing with a band doing all original songs. I had a Yamaha V50 keyboard, I borrowed a friend’s bright pink keyboard and I had an old Korg SAS 20, which had been detuned slightly using the button on the back. And then this tuning button broke. The result was that it could only be used in sections where it was just the keyboard and the singer, as it would have been out of tune with the rest of the instruments. [Laughs].

I couldn’t afford a keyboard stand and so I did the gig on an ironing board. I had a great time and got paid £20 and a free drink I loved it, particularly as I was still at school at the time. I played everywhere with that band and then joined lots of jam bands, and learned a lot from improvising with other players. Often with players who were older than me, so I got to learn from very experienced players.

All images courtesy of Glass Onyion PR

Andrew:
Tell us about your new release, Collaborations.

Oliver:
I recorded an instrumental album called The 3 Ages of Magick with Steve Howe back in 2001, and then, after a few more record releases, ended up working with him in Yes. When I left Yes in 2011, I started working with another legendary guitarist, Gordon Giltrap. We recorded an album together called Ravens & Lullabies, and we toured together for about three years. 

After the success of the Yes box set, From a Page, and the subsequent box set, Tales by Gaslight, which was a collection of my work with Clive Nolan, I was trying to work out what the next box set should be. I thought about how fortunate I have been to have worked with two amazingly individual guitarists. A box set collecting this work together seemed like the perfect idea. Whilst working on the box set, I got approached by a sound engineer, who told me he had recorded a multi-track of one of the duo concerts I had done with Gordon, where Paul Manzi joined us on stage. This seemed like a perfect chance to record a live album to show the touring side of the FA work Gordon and I did together. 

Included in the box set are three art prints of the album sleeves, three sixteen-page booklets, as well as mini-album wallet sleeves for each album. I am a big believer in nicely packaged albums, and I was really pleased that the artists were happy to let me create art prints of their lovely album covers.

Andrew:
From a songwriting perspective, how have you evolved to this point? What’s changed from your younger years?

Oliver:
I am always learning and developing my songwriting skills. Probably more in the way I arrange pieces of music rather than the way I write. I have always had the approach with instrumental pieces of music that the piece goes on for as long as required, I won’t extend a piece just for the sake of it being a long track. And when it comes to vocal tracks, I always make sure the piece works when it is stripped back to just piano and voice, or guitar and voice. It has to work in this format before I start working too deeply on arrangements, as that is how I judge whether the song is strong enough on its own, and isn’t being carried by clever instrumentation.

Andrew:
How about the protection side of things? How does that work when you’re in the studio?

Oliver:
All the albums were produced by me, with all the engineering carried out by my good friend Karl Groom, who has mixed nearly all my albums. Karl is very good at making suggestions, and also always does a brilliant job with mixing and mastering.

With the 3 Ages record, Steve Howe was the executive producer, as he wanted to have more of an overseeing role on the record, making arrangement suggestions and adding guitars to the album. So, we worked very closely when I’d written a piece, almost pulling it to pieces, and rebuilding it to ensure that the piece was being presented in its best way. It was great fun to work with him like that. 

All images courtesy of Glass Onyion PR

Andrew:
Going back now, take me through your indoctrination into legendary prog-rock outfit, Yes.

Oliver:
I was asked to join by Steve Howe back in early 2008 for the 40th-anniversary tour called Close to the Edge and Back. Unfortunately, Jon [Anderson] became ill, and so that tour didn’t happen, but then Benoît [David] joined and we started up again. It really was just a phone call from Steve asking me to join. I think the fact that Steve and I had worked closely together before – I also played on his solo album Spectrum – helped as he knew what I was able to bring to the band. 

Before Jon left the band, we had worked closely together putting together ideas for the set. I was particularly keen on playing “Holy Lamb,” as I always loved that track. After Benoît had agreed to join, Steve, Chris [Squire], and I met up in London for a meal and had a good chat about the approach for the show. We then all met up in Hamilton in Canada for two weeks to rehearse, and then we were on tour. It was great fun, and the tours were such good fun.

Andrew:
You were only a member of Yes for a few years, but your time was fruitful, and certainly in keeping with its legacy. What led to the decision to move forward on your own?

Oliver:
I was with the band for about three and a half years, and I had a great time. I really enjoyed myself. Unfortunately, when we started recording the new album, Trevor Horn was keen for the album to feature lots of music he wrote with Geoff Downes, and he wanted to work with him. Therefore, my position in the band became harder to keep and in the end, the band had to choose between keeping me or going along with Trevor’s vision. Unfortunately for me, they chose Trevor’s path. I did get to keep all the recordings from those sessions, however, which ultimately led to the release of From a Page in 2019.

Andrew:
Looking back, comparative to the rest of the band’s catalog, how do you feel From a Page stands up to Yes’s earlier records?

Oliver:
I am very proud of that record and think it really showed a positive frame of mind the band was in when we were working together in the studio. I wouldn’t dare to compare the record I worked on against the amazing catalog Yes has, but I can say that all the amazingly complimentary emails and messages I get about that album do show that the fans really enjoyed it. A lot of people rate it very highly against other major Yes albums, and I am honored that it means so much to people.

Image credit: Leandro Vivas

Andrew:
Your songwriting partnership and general kinship with guitarist Steve Howe are apparent. Do you plan to continue working with him outside of Yes? Is there a chance we see you with Yes once again?

Oliver:
I would love to work with Steve again. We had so many ideas when we were in Yes about what we wanted to do, but as I explained, that project didn’t go the way I hoped. It would be great to revisit some of them with Steve at some point, as I always enjoy working with him. As to whether you’ll see me with Yes again, who knows? There are no plans, and they seem very content with their current lineup, but who knows what the future holds.

Andrew:
What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?

Oliver:
I love really good artwork. I find it very inspiring and love seeing artists create. I have some drawing ability but not to the level of really good artists. I am very lucky to have spent many hours talking to artists such as Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, Anne Sudworth, and Peter Pracownik. I am also very lucky to also be able to call them friends. Their work has helped inspire pieces of music and I am honored that each of them has created artwork for my records at different points throughout my career, for which I am eternally grateful. The best example of this was when Rodney asked me to perform and write on his album Trinity. A whole album with music based on his artwork. It was great fun to have the artwork in front of the piano whilst working out the parts for the song.

All images courtesy of Glass Onyion PR

Andrew:
What sort of gear are you using in the studio vs. the live setting?

Oliver:
I use a lot of virtual synths in the studio at the moment, but I always use my Dexibell H7 as my main recording Piano, and I also have a very nice Korg Kronos. Pride of place always does to my Moog Little Phatty which often finds its way onto sessions. 

With regards to live, it changes depending on what show I am doing. I will often use my Dexibell S7 as the piano sounds it has are amazing. The little Phatty often comes on tour too, and then it’s often a mixture from my collection as to what fits the need. For example, the rig I used for the Ravens and Lullabies tour was different from the rig I built for the King Arthur show I did with dad at the O2. Generally, it’s a lot of Korg synths though, as they are great at covering a lot of the requirements for most shows. 

Andrew:
Last one. What’s next on your docket, Oliver?

Oliver:
I am looking forward to playing live again. Getting out and seeing people at a show and performing. I am also looking forward to getting on with the next few album releases. There will be another box set next year, as well as a new album. I currently have four projects in development, so it will be the one that comes together quickest. My dad always used to say to me that there weren’t enough hours in the day – I didn’t understand this as a child but as an adult, I completely agree!

All images courtesy of Glass Onyion PR

Interested in learning more about Oliver Wakeman? Hit the link below:

Be sure to check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vwmusicrocks.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Inspired by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, and Eddie Trunk, coupled with an immense passion for music, and a disposition for writing, freelance journalist Andrew Daly moved to found VWMusic in 2019. Over time, VWMusic has grown into a bustling music outlet harboring a staff who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles, interviews, and more. In addition to running VWMusic, Andrew is also an accomplished freelance journalist, currently writing for Copper Magazine, as well as a drummer, and lover of all things guitar.
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