Yes is one of the few bands who combine exploration of musical art forms with the vitality of rock music. Their arrangements are impeccable and their playing skills, superb. What’s more, those guys can cook!
Alan White is the man who keeps the band from soaring into the outer reaches of the nebulae. He says of his playing, “I’m pretty much a basic beat. The angle that I always come from when I play is to cater for every instrument in the band individually and collectively, particularly bass. If you’ve got a bass player you can’t work with, you might as well stop it right there and then because the liaison between you and the bass player is most important. It can affect the whole sound of the group and the atmosphere of actually playing with people.
“People have recently made drums much more of an individualized instrument, especially in the kinds of groups I play with. You’ve got as much control over the direction as a singer or guitarist has for certain pieces of music. That is what you should always push for, for the drummer’s role to be elevated. To be a timekeeper and give to the direction, the arrangement, the music and everything.”White says that his first priority in concert situations is to make as many people happy as possible. “Seeing so many people enjoying themselves so much at the end of the day, that’s the reward you get. I want the band to play well and everybody feel good being with each other on stage.”
This year, the band is touring with a round, revolving stage set in the middle of each hall they play. The circular stage works well because it gives the audience a better sound and view, allowing them to become more involved with the band. It is also easier for the band members to see and communicate with each other. White sits with his back to the audience so they can see his playing. He says, “It was much more interesting for people who never saw the inner workings of the group.”
White’s music career started off with piano lessons at the age of six. His uncle, a drummer himself, noticed that White was playing piano percussively and suggested his parents buy him some drums. His uncle supplemented their gift with some timely advice. He told White that the important thing was to pick up the feel of the instrument. Don’t worry so much about any certain style of playing, instead flow with it and play what you feel. White has made that advice part of his playing philosophy.
As a young player. White’s favorite drummers were Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson. “Louie Bellson’s bass drum always turned me on; the control and technique. I don’t think any of the others mastered it as well as he did.
“I concentrate on bass drum work a lot. I went to two bass drums just for awhile and I realized that I can nearly do as much with one as the effects you can get with two,” he says.
Of the double bass set up, he says, “It’s more of a solo thing. I mean, that’s the way I feel about double bass drums. They’re useful for certain things, but the type of music I play and the style at which I play, I don’t really think it fits me at all. I think the bass is a very important part of your drum kit. It’s the anchor. The whole sound of a group stems from it. That’s the source of energy. All of the other instruments push from it. A lot of people concentrate on top kit far too much now.”
White started out in bands who played the Beatle hits of the day, but became dissatisfied with playing other people’s music. He joined a showband called The Gamblers who gigged in Germany for awhile. This was his first experience playing with brass, which he loved. He says, “Even though I’m playing with Yes, brass is one of my favorite instruments to play with cause you can really kick a brass section and they catch your bass drum. There’s no other feeling like it for a drummer because of that whole power of the section behind you.”
He then joined a band playing original music. “That’s when you really start to feel your own style coming out. I always felt I had a need for complexity in the music but, at the same time keep it well anchored to the ground and still swing it. That was my basic theme as the years went by.”
In 1969, White was playing with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. He also did a lot of session work. He comments, “The studio techniques that I got were invaluable to me. I just knew all the EQ that I wanted and how to set the kit up in the studio as opposed to on the road. I played with as many musicians as possible, but all the time maintained my own group that played this complex music with horns and stuff in the background. I lived with these guys in a house, but I was going out working in the studios and supporting them all the time. I didn’t mind supporting the guys because I was getting so much fun out of our kind of music with my style as an individual coming through.
“I love playing in the studio, especially when I can get a good engineer who will give me a good balance of what’s going on outside of the earphones. I usually play with one earphone on and one off to get a natural kind of sound. Yet, I’ve always got my bass drum up a l i t t le in my ear so that I can punch it with my bass and catch all the little things that I might miss by not having it in the earphones. I always insist that everybody has a little bit of bass drum in their cans. It tends to pull the band in that punchy direction.
“I don’t think anybody can really write for drums in the studio. You can’t write for me, I know that. I’ve tried. I can read drum music, but what they write is so…I don’t know. I wouldn’t feel it the way they feel it. You’ve got to be clockwork to do that, and that’s not the way I play drums. I play to what I hear. I won’t premeditate anything. It’s just a feeling between me and the musicians I’m playing with.”
White still keeps his hand in the studio scene and enjoys playing with different musicians. “To me,” he says, “playing the drums with a band is like having a conversation, but musically. To talk to as many people as possible is always best.
” In 1972, White joined Yes when Bill Bruford abruptly left the band. He was immediately launched into a worldwide tour baptism by fire. He says, “I was really into my own direction which prepared me for Yes incredibly. They asked me to join their band, I think, because I could play the complex time signatures. Yet, I had some kind of roots and down to earth feeling. It fitted into that whole situation, yet in between I would go and play with Joe Cocker where you got your 2/4’s and you just knew how to push the band. To play with a band like Yes takes a little bit of a different kind of thing cause you’ve got to swing it in 11, swing it in 7, swing it in 5, but still have that meat in it.
“You just try to get all the reigns and pull it back and say, ‘Look, you’ll disappear over the universe if you aren’t careful.’ I love Bill’s drumming. I thought he was just getting a little too flighty in the band. He was concentrating on top kit totally. He was playing the bass drum sometimes, like a danceband drummer, just an odd occasional beat here. He wasn’t kicking anything which is where I feel the whole punch of the band should come from. Just different approaches.”
The band’s latest album, Tormato reflects a move back in the direction of straight rock. White comments, “We’re having a little fun for awhile. The complexity in the instrumental music is always there. In this album, it’s more in the arrangements than the style of playing. You can really have a good time making the thing swing and drive if you always know that the complexity is there, the interest. We just went and had a ball. There’s no reason that that element of the band shouldn’t be brought out as well as the techno-flash side, which people call it.”
Recently, White has become more involved in writing for the band. “I’ve always been involved with the arranging. This band is a five-piece arrange thing, we all get into it. I’ve written stuff with Jon Anderson that catered for my style as a drummer a little more than some of the other guys’ writing.”
He has been writing material inspired by jams with Chris Squire, who plays bass for Yes. These jams have produced patterns that provided direction for the rhythm section and given birth to songs such as “On the Silent Wings of Freedom” from Tormato. Says White, “It’s a whole bass/drum jam. We went into the studio and recreated the jam and then the song came out of it. But, there’s a theme that the song always returns to—the theme of the jam we got into.”
“Release, Release” on the same album features a drum solo that sounds as if it (the solo) was recorded live. White explains, “We just cast the drums out. We put ADT (artificial double tracking) on the drums so they sound as if they were in a giant auditorium right in the middle of this tight rock and roll song. It makes people think a little about what they listen to initially.”
Alan is planning to record another solo album to follow his Ramshackle lp of a couple of years back. “I have a stack of about 30 cassettes of pre-recorded material from the last two years that I have to sift through and sort out. The kind of album I’m thinking on doing is a more instrumental-type album—Les McCannish as far as blowing. Some have arranged sections, but I’d like to have a more blowy kind of Crusaders-type thing. I really feel that I want to do that this time. My last solo album had a few complex tracks and it had some meaty ones as well, which was what I was into. I find it’s just how you feel.”
He’s still keeping his piano chops up, too. He says, “I’d love to take more theory lessons because I think I need to upgrade. They’ve changed the style of the way they write theory a lot recently. Instead of majors and minors, they write plus and minus now, especially in jazz. I just need to be refreshed.”
White has been playing Ludwig for 15 years. He uses a 22″ bass with 18″, 16″, 14″ and 13″ toms and a 400 snare. “I have used a new Black Widow, a black chrome snare that they’ve got out. They’re nice, but they’re harder to tune in on stage so I like to stick to my 400.
“I use a Speed King pedal. They take a bashing, but Speed King’s have been pretty good to me. I enjoy the kind of weight and the action I can get out of them. I use a Slingerland hi-hat and I have an Orange hi-hat. That’s a French one. It’s really heavyweight—lots of good action on it,” White explained.
His hi-hat set is custom made. “I took two 16″ cymbals, a very weighty one and a light one and made my own set. They’ve got a really good slap together. But they wear out at the edges a little faster than the ordinary hi-hats. They’re really good for loud playing.”
All of White’s cymbals are Zildjian including an 18″ crash and 20″ Chinese on his left and 22″ ride, 18″ crash, pang cymbal and 20″ sizzle on his right. He also plays two octaves of crotales. Finishing off his kit, he has a gun metal bell tree, vibes and two tymps.
On the road he carries two spare snare drums, one supersensitive and one 400, “purely because I think snare drums are very important, especially on the road. I change the tension between numbers, and you can lose something. If it gets past where I can’t control it any more, I just change my drum. I’ll tune another drum up ready just to put in the place.
“I just changed my sticks this year to Pro Mark. I’m going to make my own sticks now because I know the length, the weight and how thick I need the shank at the end. I can’t find a stick that does that. The nearest at the moment is the Pro Mark 5A.
“I used to use Premier C’s, but now I’ve changed my drum kit. I spread it out a little more. I just need the extra reach that the Pro Mark gives me.”
For the past four years, White has been building his own computerized synthesizer. He explains it briefly. “It works off actual microphones. It takes the frequencies of the drum and makes a sound out of them.
“I just mike it normally. There’s one feed that goes straight through the synthesizer and the other feed actually goes into the synthesizer. I can click it in and out when I feel like it. It’s monitored behind me.
“The synthesizer consists of envelope generators and filters like a normal synthesizer, except you tune it into the keys you want it to play with a drum. It has a keyboard, and I can program the computer a certain sequence of chords. I can change key with the band while I play.
“I’m verging on discovering how a drummer can play in tune with the group as well as the rhythmic part of it all the time. It can also jump from harmonics.
“It’s an experiment. Another two years should see me advance it a lot more to the extent where I’m going to have a lot to say electronically. But, it’s a style. You’ve got to build it to the actual person who’s playing the drums.”
On the subject of electricity and drums, White mikes his snare over and under the drum. On miking he says, “There are about 14 mikes. I like to use four overheads to get that really live sound on stage. I use eight channels when I’m recording on 24 track. I use it to get that big spread among the speakers. I’m really into live sound. I don’t like that studio control-type stuff.
“Here they try to dampen everything down. They tune the bass drum really tight. I see this in the studios a lot and I t h i n k you hear it. It’s the engineers a lot, but the drummer always falls in place and goes along with it, unless they’re very adamant about wanting a large sound. I always have because I like that open, big sound on the speakers. I know a lot of drummers in England who feel that way about having an open, wide sound. I think it’s just a question of environment.”
Alan would like to start a drum school in the future. “I haven’t the time at the moment,” he says, “but eventually I’d love to come out with a book and a method of teaching that will bring out what a drummer has inside of him above all the technical aspects.
“Just to feel comfortable is the main thing. It doesn’t matter whether you hold your sticks half an inch forward from where your tutor’s holding it. You have to grab hold of the sticks and just go with them and feel as if you’re comfortable.
“There’s another aspect to it which is more in tune with the way a drummer plays with a group rather than the way he plays by himself. It’s more of a feeling, I think, between musicians.
“We’d have sections in the book on how to play with a guitar, a bass player, a keyboard player and listen for what they have to say musically and incorporate the style that you’re playing along those lines. It’d be an interesting kind of thing for a book on learning how to play drums.
“They’ve got to be comfortable and they have to feel as if they can have a relationship with other musicians first of all. You play it by ear a lot in music today.
“It’s a strange business. You’ve got to grow up and handle it. You should never let money supersede artistic creation.
“Music is the be all, end all of saying anything. If I didn’t have my music and I had a lot of money, I’d be lost. I’d have nothing to latch onto in my head. I’m a musician through and through. The music will always take care of that area in my mind.