Songwriter Interviews

Chris Squire of Yes

by Dan MacIntosh

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Chris has been with Yes since they formed in 1968, the only member who has been part of every lineup. He's their rock: an intricate bass player with a fount of ideas and a penchant for perfection.

His musical dexterity and attention to detail helped Yes create one of the most durable discographies in modern music. Their biggest hits came in the '80s with songs like "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" and "Leave It" (both co-written by Chris), but their '70s material is most enduring. It's what the fans still want to hear, and what the band delivers.

Yes kicked off their Three Albums tour in March 2013, playing The Yes Album (1971), Close to the Edge (1972) and Going for the One (1977) start to finish. That tour wraps up in June, 2014 in Europe; a month later they'll release a new album, Heaven and Earth, and launch another tour, this time playing all of Fragile (1971) and Close To The Edge, along with selections from the new album capped by an encore of fan favorites.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You're doing older Yes songs on this tour, and will be again on the next one. How do you keep the music fresh and interesting?

Chris Squire: Well, we're in Canada right now and we're going to be heading over to Europe in a month's time approximately. It's the first time we've ever done three albums in their entirety, in sequence from beginning to end. That in itself makes it more interesting for us. And I definitely know the audiences respond real well to hearing the music in that format. It reminds them of when they first heard probably what was a vinyl album. But there's a lot of younger kids who come to the shows as well, so it's a nice experience for them.

Songfacts: Do you have any particular songs you play that are favorites, that you look forward to coming up in the set list?

Squire: Nah, not really. I just try and enjoy the overall show. I know that at certain points the audience is going to get more excited, then they're going to calm down a bit for the more thoughtful, intricate pieces of music that are generally not so rock & roll as the others. They'll get up and jump around and there's that aspect. But overall, it makes a good blend of music between the different intensities of the songs.

Songfacts: I understand that when you're not exercising on the treadmill [Squire was just finishing his workout routine when I called], you're reading a lot. I'm curious if the things you read ever make their way into your songwriting?

Some of the Yes songs Chris wrote or co-wrote:

"Starship Trooper"
"I've Seen All Good People"
"The Fish"
"Heart of the Sunrise"
"And You And I"
Squire: I'm not quite sure where you got that information [from an older interview with Chris]. That doesn't really sound like me. I'm probably more apt to be watching Fox News or something. I read a bit. But I'm not a huge reader. I'm sure there have been some instances over the years, some books I have read and ideas have been implanted in my mind, so I would definitely agree that that's a source of material.

Songfacts: Well let me ask you this, since you're more of a news junkie, can you think of instances where something you've watched on the news has made its way into a song?

Squire: Quite possibly. I can't put my finger on any one situation. I mean, I've never actually gone, 'Oh, I'm going to write a song about that or the other,' or some particular thing that's happened. Generally, the ideas collect into my brain, so somehow they'll come out in my songwriting.

Songfacts: Are there any songs where you've written lyrics for Yes songs that you're particularly proud of, that stand out in your mind?

Squire: Well, obviously, some songs are better than others. But songs are like children; I'm proud of all of them. Once again, not one particularly stands out.

Songfacts: You wrote the lyrics for "It Can Happen," correct?

Squire: Yeah.

Songfacts: Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired the words to that song?

Squire: That was a message of hope, and just making a way through the world looking for the good route - the one that suits you and leads on to better things. That's generally what that song's about.

Songfacts: Yes has changed lineups, but has remarkable longevity. What do you think it is about Yes that makes your band appeal to generation after generation? What is it that's special about you in your mind that maybe separates you from other bands?

Squire: All I can say is that I'm very grateful that we've had an enduring career. And that is down to the fact that we have very keen fans who are happy to buy our concert tickets over and over again, and therefore make us viable entertainment - promoters like it when people come to the shows.

So we've somehow managed to fall into a category that not many bands manage to, especially for such a long period of time. There are other artists that share that route, but we're lucky to be one of them.

Original Yes lead singer Jon Anderson left the band in 1980, but was coaxed back for the 1983 90125 album, which contained the #1 hit "Owner of a Lonely Heart." After their 1987 Big Generator album - another commercial success - the band fractured. "I was ready to leave because nobody was happy," Jon said in our 2013 interview. "We were scrambling to try to make a hit record, and the record company, the management, that's all they talked about."

Yes re-formed for the 1991 Union album and remained active until 2004 - the last year Anderson was associated with the band. These days, Jon spends a lot of time with nature, which has always been an influence on his lyrics. He records in a garden cottage on his property and tours as a solo act, often playing acoustic performances.

Vocal duties for Yes are now handled by Jon Davison, who was once in a Yes tribute band called Roundabout. The rest of the band is Steve Howe (guitar), Geoff Downes (keyboards), and Alan White (drums).
Songfacts: We started by talking about how you're playing a lot of the older music again, and I wonder if the song meanings evolve for you. Are there songs that mean something different now than when you were a younger person and green to the whole music scene?

Squire: No. Jon Anderson wrote most of our lyrics in the '70s. A lot of his lyrics were fairly abstract, anyway. They were based more on the phonetics and the way things sounded. They weren't rooted to one particular idea in one particular decade, so they're kind of fluid lyrics, and they seem to stand the test of time. People just like the sentiments and the way that it sounds.

Songfacts: Have there ever been instances where Jon came to the band with a lyric and you ended up saying, "Jon, what the heck are you talking about?"

Squire: Oh, I think there were many times. I think oftentimes he was asking himself the same question. [laughter]

Songfacts: Have there ever been instances where you thought he was talking about one thing, and then realized he was talking about something completely different?

Squire: Probably. I can't name anything off of the top of my head, but I'm sure that has happened. I've definitely run across other people – audience members and fans: "So, in that song when you sing about this that and the other," and they quote a lyric and it's not even the same lyric. It's just the way they think they're hearing it.

Songfacts: As a musician, what makes Yes a special outlet for your playing. It would seem to me that there's just so much room to stretch out as a player, more so than, say, a standard rock & roll group.

Squire: Our music has always run the gamut, borrowing from basic rock & roll and also from classical music and injections of various styles from different members, including country and blues, jazz. They've all been absorbed into the Yes history at one time or another. So, it's kept it interesting as a player, and it's kept life interesting for me. It's great to still go out on the road and perform this music, and people seem to be really fond of it.

Songfacts: You cover Simon & Garfunkel's "America."

Squire: That's correct, yes.

Songfacts: That seems to me like an influence that would surprise some people. Are there influences and inspirations that maybe the band was listening to that would surprise people?

Squire: I don't see why not. When Yes first formed, Simon & Garfunkel were very prevalent hit makers at the time and both myself and Jon Anderson were big fans of them. That's why we covered the song "America." But we did it differently than their way. I always thought that was quite a good clue for audiences when we were starting: If you took somebody else's material, and then put your own treatment to it, then the audience would recognize more what you did; what the style of the band was because they were already familiar with the tune from the original artist. "Oh, that's how Yes did it." It indicated our modus operandi, really, how we wanted to expand things, which is basically what we did. When pop tunes were expected to be three minutes long, our mantra was, "Let's make them 10 minutes long." So that was really what we did.

Songfacts: You were talking when we started about how you were on the treadmill, so what are the keys to staying healthy and vibrant and still be able to rock all these years later?

Squire: It requires a certain amount of fitness. When I'm at home, I do it religiously – the treadmill every day. But I can't do it every day on tour because of traveling schedules, etcetera. I try and do that, and balance that with some of the more indulgent things in life.

March 27, 2014. Squire passed away on June 27, 2015.
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Comments: 5

  • Kim Todd from Milton Keynes EnglandAnother sad day when a star fades
  • Pelosi Galore from New Orleans, LaSaw Yes for the first time during the GFTO tour, but have been a fan since '72. Always a great show....never a disappointment.
  • L0ud from NmI'm thankful for the opportunity I had to see YES live in 2001, still with Jon Anderson in the ranks. One of the best shows of my life. Chris Squire is a legend.
  • Jimbo from Dear Green PlaceYes are one of my favourite bands. But - you just knew that was coming, their version of America owes an awful lot to a band called Clouds.
  • Steveaux from Harvey, La UsaChris Squire is the best electric bass guitar player to ever pick up the instrument!
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