As the old adage goes, it’s not what you know but who you know, and within the realm of prog, there’s a grain of truth to this statement.
More and more, records are becoming judged upon the presence of a guest artist contributor just as much as for the artistic endeavours of their creator. It’s a worrying trend, but that’s consumerism-based society for ya. More will always be more.
Steven Wilson, Mike Portnoy and Ayreon’s Arjen Lucassen are among the best-connected names on today’s scene, but Billy Sherwood isn’t lagging far behind. Born 50 years ago into a musician-friendly family in Las Vegas, Sherwood’s first band of note was Lodgic, who released an album called Nomadic Sands in 1985. During that same decade his following group, World Trade, were signed to Polydor by Gentle Giant member-turned-executive Derek Shulman.
In spite of an excellent self-titled debut, global success would elude World Trade, but their similarity to 1980s-era Yes brought them to the attention of a certain Christopher Squire. This heralded Sherwood’s three spells with Yes, contributing to the Union and Keys To Ascension albums. He became a touring member in 1994, before another more formal stint during which he appeared on Open Your Eyes and The Ladder.
As every Prog reader will know, Sherwood rejoined Yes earlier this year when Squire hand-picked him to take his place during a North American tour with Toto, as Squire began battling the illness that would tragically take his life.
Sherwood’s extensive CV also includes production and sessions for artists as diverse as Motörhead, Air Supply, Toto, Asia, Nektar and even Star Trek actor William Shatner, his address book swelling further still via the helming of a series of tribute albums. So Sherwood was thrilled to accept the commission when, after he had mixed a live DVD by Yes, their current label Frontiers proposed the notion of a star-studded concept album, Citizen.
His idea for the record’s central storyline couldn’t have been any more prog-tastic. The concept of writing about what Sherwood calls “a lost soul reincarnated into various periods of history” allowed him to delve back in time and place its subject alongside Galileo, Charles Darwin and Nostradamus, even revisiting the days of the Roman Empire. The storyboard allowed so much latitude that a sequel is already on the cards.
“I’ve always been intrigued by General Patton, who believed he was reincarnated back into key moments in time while on World War II battlefields,” Sherwood explains. “That gave him the instinct to be the type of commander he was. It led to my character The Citizen, who is present at these important moments in time, and who gives a sense of them on a personal level. Also, what they meant for the world and how they changed the planet.”
Surprisingly, even allowing for the sheer volume of guests involved, Citizen was a relatively straightforward record to make, taking Sherwood a mere six months from start to finish. He played multiple instruments, sang most of the lead vocals and left gaps for the cameos, which were emailed in.
“The music guided me to whoever I thought would fit which track,” he says. “I simply told them, ‘Feel free to add whatever you believe will take the track to the next level.’”
Few artists are lucky enough to write a song and think, ‘I could do with a Rick Wakeman-style keyboard fill on that one,’ and pick up the phone to the man himself, or to rope in Steve Morse of Deep Purple/Kansas fame to play some guitar.
“Being able to do that is a blessing,” Sherwood chuckles in agreement, “but these are people that I’ve worked with before and they trust me to show them in the best light possible. So it’s a mutual thing.”
The record has some obvious tie-ins, such as past ’n’ present Yes alumni Geoffrey Downes, Jon Davison, Tony Kaye, Patrick Moraz and of course the late, great Squire, but with Colin Moulding of XTC, Alan Parsons and Steve Hackett among its other contributors, the results are colourful and varied.
“I’ve worked on several projects, including some tribute records, with Colin Moulding, so we’ve become friends… even though we have yet to meet in person,” Sherwood says with another laugh. “I know Alan Parsons personally because his band opened for Yes when I was with them during the 1990s. And the Patrick Moraz connection came because the keyboard player [Guy Allison] of my band World Trade ended up playing second keys alongside Patrick in The Moody Blues.”
Your correspondent’s suggestion that some of Citizen’s selections offer a knowing nod back to World Trade’s cult favourite debut record leads Sherwood to divulge that the aforementioned band are actually working again, having cut the first 50 per cent of a new album with all of their original members.
“Just wait till you hear it – it’s incredible,” he chirrups proudly. “It has the same sound and style as the first record, but at the same time the band has moved on. That’ll be out via Frontiers next year.”
Returning to the subject of Citizen, having once declined the chance of becoming a lead singer in Yes, Sherwood elects to deliver all but three of the album’s 11 tracks, often cloaking himself in studio trickery. There are tracks on the album such as Man And The Machine when it works really well, and others perhaps a little less so…
“I’m very comfortable with my voice,” Sherwood responds, uncaring of the criticism, “but yeah, I use a lot of vocal effects, especially on my own records. I love to pile them on. For instance, Kate Bush’s The Dreaming is one of my all-time favourite records because her vocals are so extreme.”
Over the last few years Sherwood has released a lot of different music. The short-lived Yoso, for instance, did a fascinating job of fusing prog with AOR on record, though live it all came crashing down with a calamitous gig at London’s Jazz Café.
“You were at that show? Oh my God, I’m so, so sorry,” he winces, before going off-record to make some disparaging comments about the group’s former frontman, Toto’s Bobby Kimball. Earlier this year, along with another ex-Yoso man, former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, Sherwood also exhumed Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, a group that predated Yes. Prog called the results “not as pointless as some might think”, though possibly it was a curio that could be deemed a little unnecessary?
“I agreed to become involved with that purely due to the historical link to Yes,” Sherwood responds with customary good cheer. “It seemed like too much fun to turn down.”
Given that Sherwood remains a member of Yes, filling Squire’s place, plus the release of Citizen and various other solo works, including Archived and Divided By One (a compilation and recent studio album, the latter recorded prior to the new Frontiers deal for Citizen), and now the return of World Trade, could it be argued that he’s perhaps just a little too prolific for his own good?
“Until you see me next to Khloe Kardashian [reality TV star] in the supermarket, my answer to that would have to be ‘no’, and then I should slow down,” he guffaws. “I love music and I’m a workaholic.”
Sherwood is even planning to play some live gigs for Citizen.
“Yes remains my priority but there’s time in-between,” he says. “I could never recreate the record as it stands, but I would use a core band and bring in special guests where appropriate – even some great artists that I didn’t use first time around.”
Citizen is out now on Frontiers. For details, see www.billysherwoodhq.com.