Billy Sherwood talks new Circa album, the loss of Chris Squire and his return to Yes

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Circa will be releasing their new album July 8, 2016. (Photo Submitted)

There is a wistful, mournful poignancy to the photo on the cover of the new album by progressive rock band Circa. It shows a dilapidated old-style windmill standing with seeming stubborn resilience alone, surrounded by a lush valley that no longer has a need for its services.

The imagery of this silent sentinel of a bygone era suited some of the moodiness and could be said to have inspired some of the tracks on the album, including the title track Valley of the Windmill. But it’s the story behind how this image was chosen that is the most emotionally profound. The album itself will be released on Frontiers Music worldwide on July 8.

It was dreamed up as Circa co-founder Billy Sherwood, a noted producer and bassist/keyboardist of extraordinary talent, proclivity and pedigree, was journeying to the Arizona home of his long-time friend and former Yes bandmate Chris Squire to record him for what would become Sherwood’s 2015 solo album Citizen.

“As you make one turn on the freeway you come into this valley where there are hundreds of windmills, the one’s generating electricity. Some of them are moving in the wind and some of them are not. And for some reason when I experienced this first image of the valley, the question popped into my head, ‘why are a few of them not spinning when the other ones are?’ Then I got this idea about a lonely windmill that just can’t get itself going but wants to. So I turned on my iPhone and started singing the melodies and quickly all the words just kind of came to me. Within a 10-mile span I kind of composed this thing,” Sherwood told Music Life Magazine.

“As for the cover, my wife actually took that photo and when she showed it to me I said I was thinking of the more modern ones. But then I saw that this old windmill had character and it was fitting exactly what I was thinking. It’s sort of beautiful and kind of sad because it’s broken down. It had multiple meanings to me and I just kind of dug it.”

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Circa. (Photo Submitted)

Sherwood contacted Circa co-founder, and another former Yes-man, Tony Kaye (who was the first keyboardist of Yes from 1968 to 1971, rejoining from 1983 through to 1995), and the song became the spark for Circa’s third album.

But to set that narrative aside for the moment, the other great significance of that trip to Arizona is that it would be the last time that Sherwood would see Squire alive. Another co-founder of Yes, and the only person to survive every single iteration and configuration of the legendary prog rock edifice for more than 45 years, Squire died not long after being diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia in June of 2015.

“When I went there to record him he seemed healthy and was playing great. We hung out and had dinner and a great visit. It was a great time. So I went home and I called him a couple of days later just to say thanks, that it was great to see him and that he played amazing. We were talking about getting together again and doing some writing. And he said, ‘yeah, you know we talked about me coming next week for a writing session, well something’s come up. My white blood cell count is kind of weird.’ As soon as he said that my heart sunk a little bit, because when someone is talking about white blood cells it’s rarely good,” Sherwood said.

“I said we’d talk again soon, but as soon as I hung up his wife called and said, ‘I know you guys are close and he didn’t want to blow your mind but he’s got this serious rare form of leukemia and they’re giving him about a year to live if he doesn’t deal with it.’ Chris called me a couple days later and I tried to encourage him and he sounded pretty positive and said he was going to beat it. And from that conversation until he passed away was about six weeks. Inside those six weeks he called me to check in and I was also checking in with him. And he kept saying how Yes had this upcoming tour with Toto and he wanted to make sure the band went out. I said to him, ‘well you’re Chris Squire, they can wait.’ He did that a couple more times and it never occurred to me what he was driving at.

“The third time he called I told him that the conversation was getting kind of old, that they would have to wait for him to get better. But he said that this call was different. ‘We have been speaking within the band and we think we have an idea and I want to ask you if you will step in for me.’ And I just sort of lost it. I said I needed a minute to process it. I said of course, how could I now do it. He felt very strongly about wanting the band to continue as planned and for me to do it. I gave him my word that I would, but it was under the understanding that he was coming back. ‘You are going to get healthy and come back. I am just filling in’ I told him.”

The death of Squire caught practically everyone off guard, since it happened so rapidly after the initial diagnosis. For Sherwood, who lost his own father as a young man, the blow was devastating.

“It’s probably one of the biggest jolts I have had in my life since my father died. It just rocked my world in quite a profound way and it took a lot to recover from it mentally and actually be able to start studying the Yes music because every time I would look at it, I would just lose it. But I knew in my heart that this is what he wanted me to do, and I am doing it. It’s been an amazing honour and the fans have been so incredibly kind and warm and receptive and supportive that the band is actually working a lot. We just finished a tour of Europe and I am about to go back out and do an American tour and then we have Japan and they’re already talking about more Europe next year,” he said.

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Bassist Billy Sherwood returned to Yes after the death of his good friend Chris Squire. Sherwood is also releasing a new album with his band Circa on July 8. Sherwood and former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye co-founded Circa. (Photo Submitted)

“And I am so grateful for what Chris did and the way he did it. How many guys on that level would hand another guy the keys and say ‘promise me you will keep this car going?’ It’s a testament to his character and a testament to our friendship. I am honoured to have known him for 30 years and I really miss him. He was like an older brother. For some reason when we first met we just clicked and became fast friends and musical allies. For three decades we did quite a bit together, in and out of Yes.”

This is Sherwood’s second stint in Yes. The first official one happened from 1997 to 2000, and encompassed writing, recording and performing on the albums Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Ladder (1999) as well as on the live album/DVD, House of Yes: Live from the House of Blues in 2000. Sherwood had actually nearly joined Yes in 1991 when he began writing and jamming with Squire, drummer Alan White and Kaye after singer Jon Anderson and guitarist/vocalist Trevor Rabin had left the band. But when the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe project melded with the remnants of Yes for the 1991 Union album, Sherwood would be just a hired sideman for the live shows, and was credited with playing on one studio track. But it was there that he grew closer to both Kaye and Squire, striking up friendships and collaborative musical partnerships that continued for many years.

Kaye was actually enjoying a blissful retirement when Sherwood, who had collaborated with an innumerable number of other artists over his impressive career, decided to create a new prog rock project.

“In the mid-2000s I was making a lot of tribute records and around 2004 or so I was remaking The Wall in its entirety and asked Tony to play on it. He said, ‘oh man, I have retired, I don’t play anymore.’ I said, ‘that’s impossible. Get over here.’ And he did. So I coaxed him out of his world of playing tennis and just chilling and had him play some synths and keys on the record and we had a great time. We had been friends for years already and I said we should form a band or something and make some original music.  And I was also doing some sessions with Alan White too. Alan came over one day and did a session and I casually said, ‘oh you know Tony and I are messing around with some music, do you want to hear it?’ I played it for him and asked him to play on it. So Circa kind of formed that way. And then Jimmy Haun, who has been in many bands with me and is a good friend, came in to play guitar. So that was a little less than 10 years ago,” Sherwood explained.

Circa 2007 was released in, well 2007, and a short tour followed featuring an extended instrumental medley of Yes hits, since there were three ex-Yes members in the band. White left in 2008 to focus on a revamped Yes and was replaced by Jay Schellen, who left in 2011 to work with Asia Featuring John Payne. Scott Connor is now Circa’s drummer, while Haun also left and his slot on guitar has been filled by Ricky Tierney. A second album, Circa HQ was released in 2009, and a short tour took place, featuring former Toto singer Bobby Kimball.

A live album, Live From Here There & Everywhere came out in 2013, and preliminary work on what would become Valley of the Windmill started in 2014.

“I don’t think we have ever expanded the sort of proggy nature of the arrangements like we have on this record. The first Circa record had some juicy long pieces and then HQ maybe is a little more song oriented but there were still some quite lengthy things on there. We have never done a record where, when we were done and I looked up at the clock and said to Tony, ‘we’re at 58 minutes and we’ve only got four songs, so we’d better stop.’ But the songs and arrangements came quite naturally. It isn’t like we were intending to end up with an album like this. It just naturally happens because of how Tony and I work in the studio. We’re not looking at the clock, we’re just ensuring that we’re entertaining and we’re enjoying it ourselves and hopefully everyone else does too. Music is a subjective art form, so you never know how people are going to react. But if you’re not happy with it, then guaranteed no one else will be either,” Sherwood said, adding that the uniqueness of Circa’s sound comes from the mix of Sherwood’s talents with Kaye’s experienced virtuosity.

“Tony and I are the core. We’ve had other members come in and out, and each individual who has been in Circa has put their passion and their all into it. But it starts and ends with Tony and I, and Tony’s importance can’t be understated. He has such a unique style and sound. I couldn’t imagine doing Circa without him.”

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Sherwood said there aren’t any live dates scheduled for Circa because he is so busy with Yes, although if a slot opens up, he wouldn’t hesitate to book some shows with Kaye, Connor and Tierney.

“My whole world changed paths once Chris passed away and I promised him what I promised him. Yes is the priority in my life and it’s as busy as hell, but if there’s a window of opportunity and an opening in the calendar I would love to do it. Circa plays brilliantly live and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I love Yes. My passion has always been for that band. It was my favourite band growing up. My favourite record of all time is Tales From Topographic Oceans, which is where I kind of came in and discovered the band and lo and behold, we’re about to go out and do that record in its entirety on tour this summer. Again, as I sit here studying the music for that, I can’t help but have some moments where I need to put the bass down and regain my composure because I just reflect on what an influence Chris Squire was on me and how strange life is that I am here, back in Yes,” he said.

Yes is a very interesting band that has had so many different people in and out of it. I think I was number 13 when I joined officially in the 1990s and now I think I am number 33. It’s a passion and I think anyone who has ever been in Yes has experienced that feel. It’s just the politics of the day – and bands are like that – that sees all these lineup changes.

“Honestly, I never thought I would be in Yes again. When I was asked about it I would always say I can’t say one way or another, but in my mind I truly never imagined I would rejoin Yes, especially in these circumstances. That being said, the current lineup is playing great together. Jon Davison sings like a bird and is a lovely guy. Steve Howe’s shredding and Alan White has been playing great and so has Geoff {Downes, keyboardist]. The band is extremely happy working on the road together, so it’s working.”

For more information on Circa, visit https://www.facebook.com/circahq, or http://www.billysherwoodhq.com.

For more information on Yes, visit http://yesworld.com.

* Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at jimbarberwritingservices@gmail.com.

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Comments

  1. Kim Goldsberry

    July 11, 2016

    A true talent Billy is….cheers to him…Keeper of the Flame..

  2. Kurt Schweizer

    July 11, 2016

    Hello, Great article…seriously! Blew me away really.

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