Between Yes, Asia, World Trade, and Conspiracy, Billy Sherwood has built a career playing with rock heavyweights. Now he steps out on his own with a new solo album.
Billy Sherwood admits he was never one to sit down and practice technique and scales and “all that stuff.” But he knew he needed dexterity, so, like many aspiring musicians of his generation, he would practice along to things on records that were difficult — and he played along with a lot of records as a kid. “It helped me get a grip on figuring out what I was trying to do with the thing,” he recalls. “I had a natural ability to detect what a bass line was within a song and figure it out by ear.” Among the records and artists he played along to, none casts as long a shadow as Yes. Billy’s youthful affinity for the prog-rock stalwarts would factor predominantly into his professional career, though, at the time, one couldn’t have been predicted that the music of Yes, and Chris Squire’s bass lines, were his road maps to the future.
Sherwood was born in 1965 in Las Vegas, Nevada. His dad was actor, musician, and bandleader Bobby Sherwood. His uncle was Milton Berle. He began his professional playing career in Lodgic, a band formed by his brother Michael; their 1985 debut record, Nomadic Sands, was produced by members of the rock band Toto.
After Lodgic, Sherwood formed World Trade, a progressive rock band that eventually caught the ear of Yes bassist Chris Squire, who invited Sherwood and guitarist Bruce Gowdy to join a revamped Yes, after the departures of vocalist Jon Anderson and guitarist Trevor Rabin in 1988. Though that incarnation didn’t pan out at that time, it was the beginning of a friendship and musical partnership, based on mutual respect and musical chemistry that continued up until Squire’s untimely death in 2015. Although Sherwood mostly performed as a sideman in Yes and various offshoot projects (mostly playing guitar and singing), he was officially handpicked by the ailing Squire to replace him on bass in Yes in 2015.
“I met Chris Squire for the first time at a concert in Los Angeles,” remembers Sherwood. “The Moody Blues were playing at the Greek Theatre, and at the time, Patrick Moraz from Yes was playing with them. And the keyboard player from World Trade, Guy Allison, was the secondary keyboard player. So, Guy invited me to the show because he knew I was a fan of Patrick’s, and he was going to introduce me to him. So, I’m sitting in the audience and a couple of rows in front of me is Chris Squire. After the show, he started walking toward the artist area, so I thought, I know where he’s going — I’ll follow him,” Billy laughs. “So, I did, and as we were almost to the door, I grabbed the back of his jacket and went, ‘Hey, man.’ He turned around and I said, ‘You’re Chris Squire,’ and he said, ‘Of course I am [laughs].’ He discovered soon after that he had been listening to my World Trade demos and digging the songs. We had dinner soon after that and started writing songs together, the first one of which was [the Conspiracy song] ‘The More We Live,’ which is a pretty cool and unique song. We both knew there was chemistry there.”
Nowadays, Sherwood spends much of his time touring with Yes. When he’s home, he’s usually in production and writing mode, so the focus of his bass playing is still, ironically, playing along to records. Except now, they are the ones he’s writing and producing. “If I need to get bass on a song, I’ll grab my bass and get it done,” he explains. “But then it’s back in the case and I’m on to the next thing. That said, it happens quite a lot, so I’m actually playing bass quite a bit, by virtue of that. As I’m doing that, I may noodle and stumble into a cool riff or run and make a little chunk of that for my ideas folder. I find it to be more important than just shedding, for lack of a better word — for me, anyway.”
We spoke to Sherwood just has he had completed the Royal Affairs tour, which had him pulling double duty with both Yes and Asia. He had also recently released his latest solo record, Citizen: In the Next Life. It’s the second release in the Citizen series, which follows the concept that he started with the Citizen album he released in November 2015. The songs describe the firsthand experiences of the title character (the Citizen) in a journey through time and space. Sherwood was candid about his approach to bass, his songwriting acumen, his relationships with Squire and Spector basses, and the reasons he got into producing.
Since you were playing with both Yes and Asia, how did you prepare for the Royal Affairs tour?
There’s a similarity within the music, but there are big differences between the two bands, in terms of the bass playing. Chris tended to roam around the bass neck quite a bit, whereas John Wetton kind of hung around the root note and just drove it with rhythm. So, it was a different approach for each band, in terms of the playing style. But within that, there’s this musicality: the chords, the vocals, the hooks, and the melodies from the guitar — all of that makes it interesting. And both have that similar progressive rock thread. One leans a little one way and one leans the other way, and at the center of it are these two amazing bass players, doing their thing.
Were you familiar with the material?
I always played along with Yes records, so that came naturally to me. With Asia, I didn’t really play along to those records so much. I loved them, but once I dove in and figured out what it was [that I needed to play], I just tried to stay true to it and bring a little of my own into it at the same time — for both bands, really.
Did you change anything tone-wise between the two gigs?
No. It’s the same rig and the same basses. I did make a select patch list on my Line 6 Helix just to have a different bank, but they were very similar in tone.
What’s your signal chain?
I plug my Spector bass into my Line 6 pedalboards — I have a couple of them. In the studio they get linked up in a Behringer X32 digital mixer, where I make the final adjustment. I have the flexibility and the EQ between those two units to really dial in whatever frequencies, or punch or clarity, I’m missing. For Yes live, that sends out to the front-of-house stereo, where they open up the channels hard-left and hard-right, which sounds amazing.
Live, do you use amplifiers?
I use amplifiers because you have to have some speakers onstage moving air, so I use Tech 21 [VT Bass 1000 head, B410-DP cabinets] to do that job — but the sound itself, the effects, like the flanger, the chorus, the tremolo, the delay — is all programmed in the Helix. Between the Line 6 [POD xt], which I just can’t let go of, and the new Helix, it’s great. I can get really creative and do some cool things with that stuff. And the sounds are amazing. The simulations of amps within the Line 6 work, for me, anyway.
You’ve played Spector basses for ages. Why Spector?
Going way back to 1982, when I bought my first Spector bass, a red fretless NS that I still use in Yes. I love the sound of that bass. I was just randomly in a store, playing basses, and I fell in love with that bass. And, as we were making the first World Trade record, somehow a message came through that Stuart Spector was digging what we were doing, and he wanted to have a meeting. And so, I became a Spector endorser back in the late ’80s. Stuart built me this beautiful custom 8-string that there’s really only one of, and I use it with Yes on “Going for the One.” I have played other basses along the way, but the Spectors were always the ones I considered my main guys.
Are there specific tone characteristics that drew you to Spectors?
While there’s a similarity in each one, they do sound different from bass to bass. The electronic side shares this consistency, but the wood, and the nature of the construction, changes the outcome. So, I have certain basses in my rack for certain things. My white Spector, when you play a low E and you don’t put any rhythm [guitar] behind it, it’s just nice and round and warm, the perfect utility for that job. Whereas this other one, which has fish inlays running up and down the neck, is a really fast-playing bass. It’s got great tone, but it just plays fast, so for “The Gates of Delirium” that works better. I have many of them, but each one has a specific role for me. It’s kind of cool.
Live, are you able to mix and match basses with your rig without having to adjust your settings too much?
Here’s how I arrived at it. I’m sort of weird and analytical and want things to be a certain way — it’s an engineer kind of mindset. I’ll take the main bass that I know, direct into my studio here, and I’ll record playing a riff on that bass, with the volume and tone knobs exactly where I want them. The Spectors have such a wide range it’s dangerous, because if I dial that knob and miss, all of a sudden 30Hz is killing my sound. So, I find the sound for me that’s like, “There it is, right there. This is what I want that to be.” Then I’ll tape the knobs down on that bass, in those spots. Then I take another bass and I’ll record the same riff, and tape those knobs down, etc. That provides a general sense of the input range of each bass, so when I plug into my Helix, that’s when the effects really do their work.
The benefit of it all is that they are all coming in at the same input level, with the same general shape and structure EQ-wise, so it’s hitting all of the effects in the same general way and making them react the same way. The tonal differences of the bass itself are what become different about using, for example, patch 2A with one bass versus another. But they’re consistent. That’s really important live, so the FOH mixer isn’t chasing bass levels all over the place. And also, because we record live, when I’m mixing the stuff later, it doesn’t create a nightmare. It’s a weird method, but it’s what I do [laughs].
Tell me about the 8-string Spector and why it’s one of a kind.
It’s basically a 4-string with an 8-string saddle. Stuart said, “I’ve never built one, I don’t know…” I said, “Couldn’t you just grab one of your basses?” So, he did that. He took a normal bass, put the saddle on and drilled four banjo pegs on the top — they are behind the headstock — that you can’t really see. If you didn’t know it was an 8-string, you wouldn’t know, looking at it. It’s so rock solid; the tuning is remarkable, and the intonation and whatnot. It holds its tuning, which is an incredible feat for an instrument like that.
Between Asia, Yes, and your solo material, are you mostly playing with a pick or your fingers?
With Asia, it’s all pick; with Yes, it’s 90% pick, 10% fingers. Usually, if I’m playing with my fingers, it’s for something that’s a little gentler, and I tend to be playing the fretless on things like “Onward,” “Soon,” and “Nine Voices.” On stuff like that, I’m channeling one of my other heroes: Jaco Pastorius. So, I’ve got my fretless world with the nice reverb, sort of like Jaco had on that Joni Mitchell live thing [Shadows and Light]. It’s a different approach, and I’m not great with my fingers with faster things, I’ll have to admit, which is why I use a pick. I can find the time and articulate with a pick much easier. But for slow things where it’s these nice, long legato lines or melodies, the fingers mellow out the attack.
What was the writing process like for Citizen? Do you write on bass?
I came at it from different angles for each song. There was a guitar riff I had in mind for the “The Partisan” before it became “The Partisan.” I knew it could be something, so I started working on the riff and building around that. Then there are other things, where I was sitting at a keyboard noodling around with various chords, like the song “Sophia,” where I was playing around with these weird chord inversions. And other tracks, as I’m driving down the street, I’m humming melodies. For instance, I wrote “Mata Hari” on the freeway one day. I heard this melody in my head and just started singing into my phone, and when I got home, I translated that thought into a production. So, it comes from different areas, not so much just one instrument or the other. Sometimes an idea gets sparked and that’s where it begins — especially lyrically.
What made you include “Amazing Grace” as a bonus track?
Chris played bass on the first Citizen record, on the first track, the song “Citizen.” And that’s the last Chris Squire overdub that we have. He died shortly after that. So, I thought it would be nice to have him bookend these two records, cosmically, if you will, and get his spirit on the record. The best way was to do “Amazing Grace,” because it’s his well-known solo from the ’80s. Rather than just making it about the bass, I thought singing those two little bits would tie in my history with Chris. It’s putting Chris as the Citizen in that song and honoring him there.
You channel the spirit of Chris Squire’s playing very well.
Thanks. We were close. I used to watch him play, very closely. He was funny. I was talking to Jay [Schellen], the drummer on the last tour, who was in Conspiracy with me and Chris. We were working on a bass track for the last Conspiracy record, and there was this one little bit that I added to a song. I did a little demo of the part for Chris to hear, and as I was playing it he said, “Oh, cool — that’s almost exactly how I’d do it.” So, I said, “Here’s the bass, go for it.” And he was like, “No, no, no, you’re so close; just keep doing it. But I would play it like this at the very top.” And he might have put some vibrato on one of the notes or something, and I was just like, “Here, just play this — you’re here,” and he was still like, “You’re so close” [laughs]. It was just one of those things. I was always sort of driven toward that bass style, and because I was able to look over his shoulder on all of these tours, I had all of his little nuances pretty well down, except for this little wiggle [vibrato] that he wanted at the top of the riff.
Why do you think bass players seem to make such good producers?
Because, as bass players, we always get turned down in the mix, so we finally figured out how to get the bass where it’s supposed to be — and we’ve grabbed the reins and we’re not letting go [laughs]. Your question triggered a memory I hadn’t thought of in ages. The first record I ever made was Lodgic, and we were on A&M. After all the years of sweat and finally getting in the studio and getting it right, we had the final mix to do. I get my coffee, go into the control room, and it’s the guys from Toto producing — David Paich, Greg Ladanyi, and Steve Porcaro, and they all looked at me like, “What are you doing here?” And I was like, “I’m ready to help mix this thing.” And they were like, “No, we got this.”
The band wasn’t allowed in?
As newbies, rightfully so, but I remember thinking at the time, “I have to become the producer, because nobody can kick the producer out of the session” [laughs]. I was really worried about the bass level while roaming the hallway like I was having a kid [laughs]. I remember asking Keith Olsen, who mixed the World Trade album, “What’s the key to a good mix?” And he said, “A lot of bottom, a lot of middle, and a lot of top” [laughs]. I thought, “I get it.”
I always ask singing bassists about the key to developing that skill.
There’s a rhythmical component. The ultimate challenge there is the second verse in “The Gates of Delirium,” where the bass and the bass drum have this distinct rhythmic pattern. It’s this thing, and it has to be there. And on top of that, there’s a whole other vocal counterpoint thing — it’s just a mind-bender. I always come to the table with the bass more prepared than the vocal, because applying the vocal comes easier. Maybe it’s a drummer mindset: being able to have the right hand do this, while the left hand does that, and the foot does something else. In terms of being able to play some very weird rhythms and sing something totally different over the top, I kind of get behind it easier than most. “Tempus Fugit” is another weird one: to get all of that under your fingers and sing it. You have to be able to not think about one over the other. The real trick is flipping your iPad so you can follow your lyrics [laughs]. –BM
Basses Spector NS-2 (4- and 8-string, fretted and fretless)
Rig Tech 21 VT Bass 1000, Tech 21 B410-DP speaker cabinets
Effects Line 6 Helix processor, Line 6 POD xt
Strings Rotosound RS66LD Swing Bass 66
Billy Sherwood, Citizen: In the Next Life [2019, Frontiers Music, Srl]