Arc Of Life: Yes Bass Player Billy Sherwood On The New Yes Satellite Band
by Geoff Ford
Yes’s ‘young guard’ have collectively stepped out from the shadow of the prog giant with a bright new project by the name of Arc Of Life. Yes members Billy Sherwood (bass guitar and vocals), Jon Davison (vocals) and drummer Jay Schellen have joined forces with two other members of the extended Yes family: guitarist Jimmy Haun and Dave Kerzner on keyboards, to release their eponymous debut album via Frontiers Music.
“There’s so much music in us, we have too much for one unit”
“I think it’s a testament to the passion for music between everyone in Yes, there’s so much music in us all that we have too much for one unit,” says Billy Sherwood.
Inevitably there will be comparisons with Yes as they are all drenched in the best practice of the bench-mark prog icons. Jon Davison’s vocals capture that unmistakable signature Yes-sound but there is also a fresh and vibrant accent that sets Arc Of Life apart.
With the album released on the 12th February, some reviews have already likened the new offspring to the parent band, given their collective pedigree but, says Billy Sherwood, Arc Of Life is a quite different entity.
“It’s funny how people compare it to Yes, right out of the gate, just because we’re all from Yes. It’s nothing like Yes, really, and it’s not trying to fill any Yes-shoes, either. It already feels it’s own thing to me which is kinda cool. I call Yes the ‘mothership’ and there are many satellites that have come off the mothership and orbit around that. Conspiracy and Circa were Yes off-shoots, Geoff (Downes) has his projects and Steve (Howe) has got his trio. They are completely different but, by the same token, they come off the mothership.
“This is a very exciting project and one that was quite unexpected. Jon and I started writing some material back in 2017. We had some time together on the Yes tour in the back of a bus. We began writing some things and suddenly realised this might be taking on a bigger life than we thought. We put the band together with Jay and Jimmy and Dave. That process took about two years to pull off but here we are now with the finished album. We’re all very proud of it and looking forward to going out there and making music.”
Arc Of Life kicks off with Life Has A Way which immediately introduces, what will surely become a feature of the new supergroup, the contrast between Davison and Sherwood as they divvy-up the vocal duties. They also harmonise well, adding a third vocal dimension while the track is driven along at pace by the tight rhythm section and Kerzner’s keys.
“That was one of the things that was intriguing to Jon and I when we started writing,” Billy explained of Arc Of Life’s vocal arrangements. “‘You sing this bit, I’ll sing that bit.’ It started shaping itself in a way, like Supertramp was with two singers, Pink Floyd had two or how the Eagles throw it around. We thought this is an interesting thing to be able to do and something that we can’t do in Yes because the lead singer is the lead singer.”
You Make It Real is another radio-friendly track featuring Billy on lead vocals while Davison harmonises and Haun’s guitar gives a little taste of what is to come later.
“I love pop and part of Arc is quite pop-y in it’s way,” says Billy, “but if you look under the hood there’s some intricacies in the rhythm section and the designs beneath it to bring it back into that lane of simplicity. I’ve been describing it as ‘a simplicity meeting a complexity’ and it’s quite an interesting marriage on this album.”
Billy Sherwood as been part of the Yes family for many years, fulfilling Chris Squire’s dying wish to become his permanent replacement in Yes. Jay Schellen, the third member of the current Yes line-up, has previously worked with Billy on Circa, Conspiracy and Asia projects before deputising for Alan White, on tour in recent years, following the latter’s back surgery.
“Jay’s a good owl and part of the family. He was there for one tour and then he wasn’t, and then he was back. I told Jay ‘You’re never in Yes until you’ve been out of it at least one time!’” Billy laughs.
Completing the line-up are two of the most interesting talents in the ‘new’ progressive rock scene in the US. Dave Kerzner (ex-Sound of Contact) and his Sonic Elements project worked closely with various members of Yes on a 50th anniversary celebration of the band. His credits also include work on Steven Wilson’s Grace For Drowning album. Jimmy Haun has also featured on Yes albums in the past and contributed a large part of the guitar work on the Union album in 1991. He and Billy have been friends since childhood and played together in Lodgic, Circa and The Chris Squire Experiment.
“Oh God, yeah, life-long friends with Jimmy. It’s just great to be in another band with him, doing this was a lot of fun. He’s a great guy and a great guitar player and musician, as are the other guys. Jimmy’s really an unknown diamond in the rough. I think when people discover his abilities and his creativity, it takes people a-back. He’s so good, they ask ‘Why didn’t I know about this guy?’”
Albeit the project was born in 2017, the global lockdown has given Arc Of Life the time to focus on completing the first album.
“It’s a kind of hybrid, the way it was made. It started from the songwriting, which was me and Jon. Because we are the singers, we were singing things that we knew we were keeping. That became intriguing and, as we came down to writing, we were aware of this and exploited it where we could. I think it’s a nice balance between the two of us.
“And then we got another chance on a break in one of the Yes tours when Jon was staying out here in LA. We set up shop at his place and finished the vocals. So we had the basic structure of things and the frame ready to go. Then I got together with Jay, here in LA. We went into the studio and tracked drum and bass together, so that you have that symbiotic relationship. Dave and Jimmy did mostly file share because of the geography, Jimmy living in Utah and Dave over in Florida. Jim’s also got a pad in LA so we did a few sessions at his place but, for the most part, it was file share. It was a nice mixture of the two and it worked out quite well.”
The album is very accessible with the afore-mentioned radio-friendly numbers which should have a wide appeal in the way that made Asia, another Yes off-shoot, such a success 40 years ago.
“There’s a few tracks which, for the lack of a better word, could be hits. I’m happy with that because I sometimes like simple things that are just fun to listen to. For instance, The Police was a really great band but, to my ear as you listen through their catalogue and career, they were very progressive in their way. When you listen to Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity, they have some seriously proggy things going on We have found that balance and I’m really happy that there are some things that could be termed a hit.
“All of the songs have their special core meanings, in a way. One of my favourites, because it’s quirky and different, is Talking With Siri – never really written a song like it. People always talk to me about Yes but this, to me, is more of a Gabriel style, almost a Kate Bush-thing, without being derivative. It has those flavours in the rhythm section with that sort of breath of space and reminds me of Tony Levin, who I love, and just the funky rhythms of it. But the lyrics are what I like the most about the track because it was a real thing that happened to me.
“I was coming home from a Yes show in the UK. It was really late at night and I had been in hospitality, enjoyed it a bit too much,” he laughs. “I came back to the room. ‘Siri, can you set the alarm for 7.30am?’
“And she said ‘Yeah, the alarm is set.’
“I said ‘Well, thank you.’
“She said ‘You’re welcome.’
“I said ‘What are you up to?’” Billy and I both laugh.
“I’d been having a conversation with this computer for a couple of minutes! I started asking deeper questions just to see what it would say. I asked ‘Do you dream?’ and it said ‘Electric sheep but only sometimes.’
“Wow! I wrote that down on a piece of paper.
“‘Do you love?’ And she said ‘Who, me?’
“And it was at that moment I sketched out the frame of the lyrical concept. I took it to Jon the next morning. ‘Jon, you’re not going to believe the night I had, it was so weird!’” he laughs again. “’But I think I got a song out of this.’
“And it became Talking With Siri, which I’m so proud of. I think out of everything on the record, that’s the one for me that’s just a little bit different to everything else.”
There are also enough tracks of a more complex nature to keep the progressive faction happy and, returning to familiar territory, one cannot help but compare Until Further Notice to the 90125 era. Billy’s stomping bass underpins the complex vocal harmonies and Kerzner’s synth string arrangement, while the classic prog influences ramp up on The Magic Of It All.
The slower pace of Just In Sight showcases Billy’s credentials as an outstanding bass player and gives Haun the opportunity to unleash some tasty guitar. I Want To Know You Better is another pleasing and accessible refrain. Billy’s lead vocal, with Davison’s harmonies, lean a little towards the Gabriel timbre and Kerzner’s keyboards add another intricate level of interest.
Davison takes the lead vocal for the topical Locked Down as we head into classic prog territory. A complex arrangement is driven forward by Billy’s bass while Haun and Kerzner both shine. Schellen’s drumming is exemplary, as it is throughout the album.
At 9 minutes 45 seconds Locked Down is the longest track on the album and is followed closely by Therefore We Are and The End Game both of which also display the Arc’s classic prog pedigree.
“The album was meant to start on a simpler format and blossom into a little more of the expansion of where we are going,” Billy continues, “and you can feel from the first track to the end, it just blooms. This is a surprise for any of the nay-sayers, ‘It’s just too simple to get into.’ But, wait a minute! To get to the best part of the movie you have to watch the movie first!”
The album was released a few days before my conversation with Billy and reviews have been generally positive.
“They have,” he acknowledged. “I’m happy about that, and surprised. Being in Yes, everything you do gets this critique: ‘Well, it isn’t Yes, it doesn’t sound like Yes!’ That’s where they start!
“Well, it wasn’t supposed to! Maybe that’s good,” he laughs. “It gets crazy and annoying after a while but, for the most part, music fans and music lovers, which is the majority of the people, have accepted it as its own thing and are enjoying it, which I’m happy about. You know, music is to share. As an artist you make music in a selfish way, you want to please yourself first. Once you, or the band, are happy with it, you want to release it to the world and see what happens.
“It’s been a very, very nice reception and very supportive, so I’m happy – with the exception of a couple of people online in some Yes-threads – for the most part it’s been very positive.
“(Comparison) comes with the territory of being in Yes and it has, with me, for a long time. Strangely, it was happening to me before I ever met any of these guys. I’ve always had a flavour for that style and I guess it has permeated through the music that I make. I’m used to it now. I wear it as a badge of honour – because there are other bands I’d rather not be compared to!” More laughter.
“We definitely have plans to get on the road as soon as there is a road to be taken,” he adds, “which I hope is sooner, rather than later. That was one of the first conversations we had as a unit, that this is not just a studio thing. If you are a member of the band you have to commit to the concept of taking it out on the road. Everyone really wants to do that.
Arc Of Life’s debut will undoubtedly please a broad swathe of fans with both complex and grandiose prog influences alongside the more commercial elements that should draw in a broader audience. The band want to offer ‘creative, challenging, and ear-pleasing music that pushes boundaries.’ They have achieved this well creating a very accessible album that promises to reveal more layers with repeat listens.