Unify: An Interview with Billy Sherwood
When Billy Sherwood first formed the band World Trade with Guy Allison, Bruce Gowdy, and Mark T. Williams in 1988, he probably didn’t know that it would help lead him to his current musical situation. The band’s demos caught the ear of Yes’s Chris Squire, leading the two to work together throughout the years. The legendary bassist chose Sherwood as his successor in Yes after he fell ill and passed away in 2015.
His role in the prog community also got him in touch with another bass master: John Wetton. Sadly, Wetton passed away earlier this year. He, too, chose Sherwood to fill his shoes in Asia. With a complicated mix of emotions, he now fills the bass seat for his fallen friends in both Yes and Asia.
While touring with two of the biggest bands in the world may be enough for some, Sherwood’s own creative flow cannot be stopped. In his increasingly limited spare time, Sherwood got the original lineup of World Trade back together for Unify, their first album in 22 years.
We caught up with the bassist as he was fighting a cold during rehearsals for an upcoming Yes tour. He gave us the scoop on the new World Trade album, his incredible live rig, what made Squire a unique bassist, and more.
It makes sense that you’re not feeling well because it seems like you’re pretty much going nonstop.
Yeah, it’s been going absolutely nonstop. We just finished a huge arena tour with Journey. Asia was opening for Journey on forty-five shows. Literally, after the last show was done, I got in a car right after the show and drove here where we’re starting rehearsals for the Yes tour.
I’ve been enjoying the little daily videos you’ve been keeping fans updated with. When I saw the one with you in the car I could hardly believe it. I thought, “This guy works hard!”
Yeah. It’s fun, though. I don’t mind it.
You’re in such an incredible position right now that I think a lot of bass players could only dream about. It’s partly from unfortunate circumstances, so how are you taking it all in?
It’s gotten a little easier with Yes because time has passed, but with Asia, it was so fresh that it rekindled all those emotions I was having when I joined Yes right after losing Chris. It was the same thing having lost John and then going straight out and sort of replacing him as he wished, which was the one thing that gave me the strength to do it. It was very difficult to maintain singing some of those songs and not losing it while you’re doing it. At the same time, you don’t want to look depressed up there because that’s not what John would have wanted anyway. So it’s just finding that graceful line that I was hopefully able to get somewhere close to.
You’re switching back and forth between the roles of John Wetton and Chris Squire. How much of the bass lines do you feel obligated to honor and how much can you bring yourself in?
With Yes, I’ve known those bass lines forever because I played all those records as a kid So I’m just playing those bass lines. With Asia, I knew the songs very well but I had never sat down and played them until I was asked to do so. I took those bass lines as gospel and learned them verbatim. Then as we started playing live I just expanded and put little flourishes in here and there that I felt added to the music in a way because of my style that works. Again, hopefully by stretching it out here and there, I brought something different to the table but still respected what was there originally.
You’re in Pennsylvania rehearsing for the Yes tour, right?
Yeah, we’ve got this amazing Yestival coming up with Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s solo act. It’ll be fun to see Carl again. I miss him. [laughs]
When did you first meet Carl?
I’ve known him over the years through proxy relationships. We worked together one time in my studio many, many years ago. But we never worked in the trenches musically like [in Asia] was and it was a great experience.
You’re an incredible bassist and vocalist, but in my eyes, you’re a real multi-instrumentalist. Do you see yourself that way?
I do. I mean, I still love playing drums and I’ve played them on a lot of records at this point. I love playing guitar, obviously. I switched my own role in Circa so I could play more guitar by handing over the bass role to Rick Tierney, who was on the last two records. It came quite by accident. I was rehearsing with another band in a studio in L.A. and Rick was there. At this time I didn’t know him. He came up to me and said, “I’m a fan of your work.” I said thank you, and he said, “No, I mean I’m really deep into your solo work.” I said, “That’s a special breed” [laughs]. He grabbed his bass and started playing me bass lines from “Oneirology” and “At The Speed of Life” and other things. I said, “Wow, you really studied that. I don’t think I’d have the patience to relearn my own stuff on that level.” It was at that point I thought Rick would be great on bass and I could play a little more guitar again, which I missed.
So I enjoy playing a lot of different instruments. An extension of an instrument, in my eyes, is the console and making sounds with EQs and effects. It’s just another extension of music, so I just like to do it all.
Do you think that’s helped in your longevity in the business, especially in the prog scene? Looking at your resume it looks like you’ve worked with everybody.
Pretty much, at this point. There are three people I’d still like to make contact with: Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush. Beyond that, I’m pretty good right now. [laughs]
Speaking of your solo work, you have a pretty steady output of solo work. Are you constantly writing?
Yeah, I write a lot of music and get a lot of ideas. Sometimes I’ll be setting up for a particular session and I’ve got the bass in my hand or the guitar. As I’m trying to get the sound I’m looking for, I’m noodling to find it. Then I’ll stumble into a phrase or a part or some chord progression that I really like and put it into a folder on my desktop called “ideas”. Eventually, I’ll come back to that folder and start looking at things and knitting them together. I’m constantly in that creative mode. It’s just where I live.
When you write are you a theory guy or just whatever comes to you?
I’m very much not theory, no. I just like freeform. Throw paint at it and see how it comes out, then start to mold it into something.
What led to the new World Trade album, because it’s been twenty years since the last one?
We wanted to take our time [laughs]. Basically, I had made an album on Frontiers Music called “Citizen”, which was my last solo album that was out. Then they wanted the new Circa record, so Frontiers put out “Valley Of The Windmill”, which is a really cool record. Then they asked me, “What do you think about reforming the original World Trade to make an album?” I said, “That sounds fun, let me talk to the guys.” I called them all and they said let’s go for it. We happened to have the right timing where I was between Yes tours. Everybody else was free to some work, too, so we all committed to it and did it.
You’re listed as the main songwriter. How much of it is your tunes and how much was collaborative?
It’s really 50/50 with Bruce Gowdy and I. Bruce handles the musical side and gets the arrangement together and the chordal structures and whatnot, then he’ll present me with some music. As I’m listening to it I’ll start to hear melodies and lyrics. That’s how we write. I attribute a big part of the sound of World Trade to Bruce, really, in his initial crafting of the songs.
Is there a central theme to this album? I know Citizen was a concept album.
The idea of “World Trade” always struck me as some geopolitical concept anyway, so that’s really what the lyrics steeped in. It’s politics in one way another, whether it’s talking about terrorism or world peace or bridging the gap between the haves and the have nots of the planet. I’m not one to tell someone who to vote for and what to think, but I like to have an edge in the lyrics where you can see both sides. Sometimes it’s got a sarcastic slant to it. “The New Norm”, for example, is kind of a sarcastic way of saying, “Are we really going to accept this level of terrorism in our life or are we going to deal with it?” This kind of thing has been going down through the ages, but I find it interesting to sing about and write about, so World Trade is the perfect setting for it.
With an album title of Unify, I want to believe you have a hopeful slant on it.
Yeah, that’s the idea of the song, too. We had better figure this out because we’re only one people and one planet. It also was a metaphor for us coming together as a band and being unified on what we were going to do. That’s how that lyric came to me originally, but it took on a dual meaning.
Can you give us a rundown of your rig?
I play Spector basses, which I’ve played forever. I’ve got some beautiful basses made for me, including a gorgeous eight-string that Stuart made for me back in 1987 or 1988. I’ve got a host of other Spectors, too. The latest one I have is the one with the fish scale inlays running up and down the fretboard. It’s gorgeous and a kind of way to honor Chris as we go forward. I use Line 6 pedalboards to generate the effects and the tones. Those are collectively put through a mixer – the Behringer X32 – and I mix those sounds together and EQ them the way that I want them to be, then I send that signal out stereo to the front of house. That’s what you hear in the audience. On stage for amplification, I split that signal and run it into my Tech 21 amplifiers, which are smokin’. They make some great stuff that just sounds killer. I have two 4×10’s for the bass and then two 15’s for the Moog Taurus bass pedals that I use. I use Rotosound strings on my basses and Dunlop picks without my name on them. People always ask me for a pick and I say, “It’s just a black pick! You can have it but there’s nothing special going on here. Knock yourself out” [laughs]. For vocals, I use the TC Electronics Voicelive 3 unit that they’ve created.
So that combination of that whole rack is what gives me my sound. I love it. I operate the whole thing from my iPad on my mic stand so I can get all my blends together the way I want without moving. By the same token, that X32 console becomes my in-ear monitor and I mix my own monitors on stage with the iPad.
You’re like your own self-contained unit there.
Well, there’s a name for it – control freak. Which I admit to [laughs].
What advice do you have for up and coming bassists?
Play to the people who inspire you. Play along with their records and try to learn the harmonic value that they bring to the table, not just the chops and speed. It’s not just how fast you can play, it’s about what the bass notes are doing to the actual piece of music, which is where Chris was such a genius. You listen to those Yes records and he’s playing these substitute notes where it should be a root note but Chris put in the third or the fifth or the ninth of that chord. Those are the things that affected me to Chris’s style more than the flash playing, which he could easily do. It was the composition that did it for me.
It’s not about how much you can shred. It’s about what you’re contributing to the track and how you can break away from following the guitar player’s root note and find your own space in the track by having your own voice in it