Wednesday 29 August 2012

Interview with Trevor Rabin

This interview was conducted by e-mail in July 2012 and my thanks to Trevor. We focus on Trevor's recent solo release, Jacaranda, later in the interview, but we start with some broader questions, looking across Trevor's long career, from commercial success with Rabbitt in South Africa, to his time in Yes, and writing film scores.

If the questions seem a bit odd(!), I was asked specifically for questions away from the usual, so I took this opportunity to quiz Trevor about a variety of topics from some unusual angles. To improve readability, I have re-arranged the order of questions and done a bit of editing.

Henry: You went from being this huge success with Rabbitt in South Africa to coming to the UK and a less commercially successful solo career, and then back to huge audiences with Yes. What was that journey like for your self-esteem? Do the periods of big success carry you through the other times, or do they just make you more frustrated when every album doesn’t sell as well? Do you think of the fans of different parts of your musical life – Rabbitt, Yes, film scores – as being separate groups, or are you keen to pull them along with you as your work evolves?

Trevor: Without sounding too philosophical, I feel like each different endeavor is like stopping in at an address and then moving on to the next one. Some addresses are nicer than others. But I feel that one cannot plan too much… you have to go with it, and as long as the music is really the focus, I don't think there's much more you can plan.

South Africa has obviously been through substantial change since you left. It has a whole new spirit and approach. Some South Africans who left during apartheid have since moved back to the country. Is that something you considered? Does that new spirit in the country reach to you as an expat?

Yeah, I have family there and it still has a big place in my heart, but I'm an American now and am proud of it.

Rabbitt’s breakthrough was a Jethro Tull cover. Were you aware of the British prog scene at the time? Did you ever listen to Yes, oblivious to the fact you would one day join the band?

"Locomotive Breath" was recommended by the record company. My awareness of YES when I was in RABBITT, was hearing Six Wives of Henry the Eighth which I loved a lot.

You did your national service in South Africa in the army’s entertainment division: what was that like, being so young, being politically opposed to apartheid?

It was leave the country (which I was not ready for), go to jail (ugh) or go to the army. I spent a year in the entertainment unit. I played in the big band, had a rock band, and spent the rest of my time practicing the guitar and piano. It was invaluable. So in retrospect, I never shot anybody and improved myself.

You’ve now lived many years in the US, but you also had that period in your life when you lived in the UK. Is there anything you miss about the UK?

I really do miss London, it was a great time for me.

In the late 1970s, you did a tour opening for Steve Hillage, I believe. I wondered what you recalled of that period? Had Hillage chosen you as his opener, or was that something the record company put together?

Not sure who suggested me for the tour. But Steve Hillage was a pure gentleman.

The late 1970s also brought us Disco Rock Machine, your brief foray into disco. [Disco Rock Machine was the band name used for releases in 1978-9, produced, co-written and co-performed by Rabin. Several songs are on YouTube: I like this cover of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me".]

I had started a record company when I moved to London called Blue Chip Music, and Disco Rock Machine was done to sell. Creatively my solo albums was really my focus. Ironically Disco Rock Machine sold more.

Rick Wakeman tells the story about a planned supergroup Geffen was trying to put together in 1980 with him, John Wetton, Carl Palmer and you. Do you have any memories of this?

I remember this well. Carl Palmer, John Wetton and I had a dinner at Brian Lane’s house with David Geffen, and Rick unfortunately missed his plane. It was an interesting dinner.

It seems to have been a long journey from your original solo demos to the eventual release of 90125 as a Yes album. Several songs got abandoned along the way (e.g., "Make It Easy", "It’s Over", "Time"), there were several line-up changes. Was that a difficult journey or did it feel right? Did you weep over each song that didn’t make it to the final cut, or was that a sensible pruning process? When Jon Anderson joined the band, it became a Yes reunion. You’ve often said you never wanted the Yes name, but do you think you ended up making a better album with Anderson than without? It’s the 30th anniversary of 90125 next year. Any plans for some special re-release with alternate and demo versions, along the lines of the Pink Floyd Experience editions? Between your earliest demos and the Cinema versions, there must be enough for a triple CD at least!

I mentioned on my website that I'm not a fan of compilations. I never liked the idea of 90125 with extra tracks. By all means release the early tracks. I did with 90124 [a collection of demos, mostly related to 90125, put out in 2003: see the Yescography entry], which I thought might be interesting. Actually it was Rob [Ayling] from Voiceprint who came up with the idea. But I feel 90125 should remain as it began. As far as tracks not making the album, one must keep in mind that I was involved in this process, so I agreed on the choices, and all demos that lead to being on albums would change whether it was YES or anyone. Having said this, it was a very creative place. And Chris and I had a great time, followed by Jon’s amazing contribution. Love to see something done for the (wow) 30th anniversary.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you are rumoured to have recorded a whole album with Roger Hodgson, with the other Yesmen too. What happened? Will this ever surface?

Roger and I wrote a lot together and we recorded a lot of it, but it never surfaced. We have taken such different roads now, I doubt whether it will see the light of day.

In the late 1980s, you, Chris Squire and the others tried continuing Yes without Jon Anderson, but ultimately there was the Union. Having faced that challenge yourself, what do you think of your old band mates now continuing Yes without Jon?

I love Chris like a brother and wish only the best for him. But I think Jon is such an important part of YES, and it's not just the sound. It's the input and perspective that Jon brings. It sometimes is tough, but it's so worth it.

And, giving you’re working with Jon and Rick, but you’ve also guested with the current Yes, do you find it difficult being caught in the middle of this schism?

I do believe that Jon and Chris are mature about the split, and neither one ever talks ill of the other to me.

Many rock stars lived on the edge: drugs, broken marriages and financial disasters are familiar elements of many rock biographies, and affected even Yes. You seem to have escaped comparatively unscathed: what’s your secret?

I'm not sure why I remained relatively sane... Maybe I'm the crazy one.

You’ve talked about an Anderson-Wakeman-Rabin project. Such a project is going to be seen in the context of Yes, it will be seen as an alternate Yes, any publicity will be all about Yes. Is that a fear? How do you position yourselves?

While Jon, Rick and I are excited about the prospect of doing something together nothing is organized yet and there’s no telling when or how something will be done. We really want to. Time is the enemy at the moment.

When you are working on a film score, you are often working to a tight deadline and various requirements from the filmmakers. Do those constraints fire up your creativity, or does it become a chore? And how does that compare to Jacaranda, where you had complete freedom to do anything you wanted?

I love film partly because of the pressure. You have no choice but to work. I think while Jacaranda was given a long time to evolve, it somehow was benefited by the years of scoring.

Your scoring covers many styles and genres. When you are scoring a film set in some different place (as with "5 Days of War") or time ("American Outlaws", "Flyboys"), do you actively go and research the music of that period or place? Did you investigate, say, Georgian music?

With the help of the producers, who were Georgian, I did explore the music of Georgia prior to getting too deeply involved, and it was inspiring. And yes, I love the fact that I get to go to so many places.

Your film work is heard by millions, but as a film score composer, you are comparatively anonymous compared to the screaming fans of Rabbitt or Yes, underwear being thrown, that sort of thing. How does that difference in the feedback you get from audiences affect you?

I guess to be honest, I would love more people to actively listen to the score work, although I have to say, Varese have done a great job doing the score albums. I also think Sony did a great job on the score album for Armageddon (where I worked with my old friend John Kalodner).

In a time of global austerity, with many politicians looking inward with a nationalist agenda, do you feel you have something to say musically in response? As a lyricist, you often wrote with a political message. As a film score composer, you can't do that, although you have scored several films with a political message, and I recall you being pleased when Obama used "Titans Spirit" after a key speech. Is there a way that you can, as an instrumentalist, respond to the political issues of the day?

I am very proud of some of my lyrics. Sorrow, Can't Look Away, State of Fear ([1973 single by South African band] Freedom's Children) speaking about apartheid, or Miracle of Life, about the human abuse of animals. However, I'm a musician first, and while I care deeply about the social political state of the world, and the needless conflicts, I tend to confine my commentary to lyrics. As far as the global picture, it seems to be cyclical. Deep financial downturns seem to be followed closely by nationalism, racism, and ultimately revolution. I love doing films which I feel have a strong message, although doing fun action films are as valid in an entirely different way.

You have been through many technological changes in how music is made during your career. How often have you adapted your working practices to suit the technology, and how much has the technology adapted to suit your working practices?

I feel technology is something that's always excited me ... I'm always looking to see what's on the horizon. The Talk album was quite tough however. I think I embraced a nonlinear digital format slightly before it was ready. But I think on balance, it was a net benefit.

There have been persistent rumours that not all of the bass and drums on Talk was by Chris Squire and Alan White. Any comment?

It was a totally new experience from a recording point... Alan and Chris had strong input, but I believe it was the most fun Jon and I had together.

I can turn on my computer, start up Spotify and legally listen to most of your Yes albums, numerous score albums etc., and you get paid very little. All of Jacaranda appeared illicitly on YouTube soon after its release. What is it like for a musician working in this modern digital world?

Yeah, I'm disappointed with the current level of "the business of selling music". Outside of a reasonable live environment, which is there for a small percentage of acts ... recorded material is in a disgraceful mess... and I really say this not for myself, I've done OK. But for new, inspired talent, it really, really worries me. I hope it doesn't lead to young talent choosing to do something else because of the near collapse of the record business. I just hope people continue to follow their musical dreams. It's important.

You are supporting Ryan as he launches his career, and you were supported by your father when you started yours. But isn’t rock’n’roll about sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ youthful rebellion? Does that fit with dad coming along on tour?

I always was a bit irritated with the shallow chant... “sex, drugs & rock’n’roll”. While that's what does happen on the road, it was never ever why I'm a musician.

In the words of Steve Howe’s drumming son, Dylan, do people come up to Ryan and ask, “How’s your dad?” How does Ryan define himself as being more than “Trevor Rabin’s son”?

I don't think Ryan needs my help. His band, Grouplove, just hit number one on the billboard alternative chart, the band are doing great, and having a wonderful experience. Ryan is definitely not in my shadow, and has never used that.

The titles of the pieces on Jacaranda hark back to growing up in South Africa. Are you nostalgic for that time?

No, not nostalgic, but it does bring inspiration to the table.

I would describe Jacaranda as mostly jazz/fusion, but unlike much jazz, there doesn’t seem to be any improvisation on the album. It's composed through and through. Are you interested in more improvisational work?

Actually a lot of it was improvised and then assembled. I think I love both disciplines equally, improvising and composing. I treat them pretty much different parts of the same family.

I spent quite a while playing with Hennie Becker (one of the most ridiculous musicians I've ever come across) where I really learned to improvise with jazz that involved extremely complicated jazz chord progressions. It was certainly not one-four-five stuff.

Jacaranda made #6 in the US Jazz Chart – congratulations! I wonder how you relate to genre? So, when you were writing a piece like “Anerley Road” or “Zoo Lake”, do you think, “This is a jazz piece, so it will develop in a certain way,” or, “This is a jazz piece, so the listener will expect it to develop in a certain way and I’ll do something different,” or do you just not think about genre at all, that’s for the marketing department and the chart compilers to worry about?

I think the only vague rule was that it would probably be instrumental, that I wouldn't restrict myself by genre, and that I was to challenge myself as a player and writer more so than I had prior... I never expected the album to chart, but I'm delighted where it got to.

One of my favourite tracks on the album is “Killarney 1 & 2”. Did you sit down intending to do a piano piece, or did you have a melody, an idea, and it seemed to fit the piano best?

The piece was written for piano. My chops were a little rusty, so it took some practicing for me to play.

“Through the Tunnel” stands out as one of the rockier tracks on the album, reminiscent of past pieces like “Sludge”. That’s also one of the tracks where you worked with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. How did that collaboration work? Did you have the piece worked out and were fairly clear how you wanted the drum part to go when Colaiuta came in? Or did you develop the piece around what Colaiuta played?

On this track, I talked to Vinnie about the groove and that it was in 20/8. I had written the broad stroke idea, but had not recorded anything. So Vinnie went in and gave me around 6 minutes with certain fills. I then played on top, and later edited his performance. Vinnie did one take. He's ridiculous ... and the nicest guy.

In one interview you did about Jacaranda, you talked about a jazz club back in South Africa you attended when you were young. I wondered how much the particular style of ‘60s and ‘70s jazz in South Africa was still an influence on you today and on Jacaranda. I also came across this long out-of-print album by Mike Makhalemele & Winston Mankunku Ngozi called The Lion and the Bull and featuring Trevor and Rabbitt bandmates in 1976 [see here] – good stuff!

The club was the Branch Office. Hennie Becker was a giant in South Africa regarding jazz, and I often played with him at the club. I learned a lot from him, and guitarist John Fourie who died recently. I worked a lot with Mike Makhalemele. He was a gentle soul and a wonderful player.

Listening to Jacaranda, you have these intricate, fast-moving pieces and then, bam!, “The Rescue”, this complete change of pace. Was that contrast something you deliberately wanted on the album?

Yes, The Rescue was the last addition to the album, and I thought it helped shade the sequencing quite well.

I am curious about the process of composition for Jacaranda. Where did you begin? Did you tend to start just fiddling around on an instrument? Did you write yourself scores while composing Jacaranda or when working out some of the more complex arrangements (like “AnerleyRoad”)? Or do you use technology a lot, recording multiple ideas and manipulating them on the computer to see how different arrangements or passages work?

There wasn't a lot of searching blindly, which can be a useful tool, but while the arrangements sound quite worked out, there was a lot of improvisation. Not a lot of takes on the floor, and a very intentional goal was that everything would be 'humanly' played, warts and all. ...and yes, the album evolved during breaks on film work, and then last year I focused on finishing the album.

I know some musicians go into recording with a clear idea of what they want to do, and then they fill in the pieces. But others work more iteratively, trying something, then changing it, then something else. Which are you? If we took a look at your hard drive, would there be a hundred different versions of each piece on the album, all subtly different?

While there is some modular repetition used, I had a good idea of where I was going, but I always trusted myself to change at any time. There are different versions on the hard drive, but mostly you would find that each version would be a development and a move forward.

On some film scores, you’re the composer and the music is performed by an orchestra. On Jacaranda, of course, you’re largely doing all the performing yourself. When composing a score for an orchestra, you sometimes have to bear in mind what it’s practical to play and adapt to the limitations of the performance, but what do you do when you’re also the performer? Does the composition process drive you to perform better? Or is the composition of an album like Jacaranda so rooted in performance that the distinction is moot?

The distinction is somewhat moot, however, I feel strongly that arranging for orchestra is part of writing, and that to write confidently for orchestra, one should be aware of what the different instruments are capable of. One must also have knowledge or at least a good instinct as to how the various instruments work together as well.

Obviously, in the past, you’ve made albums with a record company breathing down your neck, wanting results. With Jacaranda, you made it in your own time, on your own terms. How do you decide when to stop? How do you get over that inner perfectionist saying, “Let’s just try something else?” I know some artists who like having deadlines because otherwise nothing ever gets finished!

Firstly, thank you for astonishingly relevant and pertinent questions. Yes, I've made many albums with record companies nagging to "end it already". This time we're breathing down the record companies neck. I didn't even think of who or how it would be released until it was all done. I think, I hope I knew when to stop (maybe). I have been in a position where I allowed music to get stale due to not letting go, so it's important to let go at the right time. But on Jacaranda, I seemed to have a good idea when it was complete.

The deadlines on movies are so hurried in so many ways. I have no choice but to be extremely prolific. I did 3-4 albums during 15 years in YES, and an average of 60 minutes a movie on thirty nine films, which is highly technical as far as linking to specific film, constantly catching up to the latest edits, with film editors who don't care that the endless new cuts they make screws the composer up. So in contrast to the amount of inspiration that hit YES in 15 years, I have done 39 movies in 12 years on film, the equivalent of 39 albums. Of course it's a different kind of focus, but no less relevant.

You’ve tantalised us with hints of another solo album, this time with vocals, of a guitar concerto, of working with an orchestra… What is the next step for your non-score work? What does the future hold? Will it be difficult doing solo albums in parallel with film scores – the film scoring work seems very demanding of your time?

I am so motivated by Jacaranda it certainly won’t be 20 years between albums again.


  1. Clever questions, and some very clever answers lol

  2. I enjoyed reading it. Probably the best Trevor Rabin interview this year.

  3. Excellent interview. I might have started off only knowing Trevor from Yes but I've definitely reached a point where I'm excited to hear any new music from him.

  4. Nice job Henry... Trevor gave some great answers, as well as being rather cagey on some ;)


  5. His answer about drums and bass on Talk was very clear, reading between the lines. Jacaranda is a wonderful album.