Jonathan Elias is best known to Yes fans as the producer of Union. Since those days, Elias has gone on to release the acclaimed The Prayer Cycle, while Elias Associates produces music for films and commercials and employs Billy Sherwood, his elder brother Michael Sherwood and Jimmy Haun. So, who is Jonathan Elias and what was the real story behind Union?
The interview questions are by me, Henry Potts, but were asked on my behalf by Jimmy Haun, in March 2001. Many thanks to Jonathan for agreeing to the interview, and for Jimmy's help in making it happen.
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Jonathan Elias: Originally I wanted to be a conductor and a classical composer. I went to the Eastman School of Music and so I really had a very strong background in classical music. I did not want to be a rock musician. I sort of thought I was going to end up teaching. Even through college, the first year, I thought I'd get a doctorate in composition or conducting and eventually become a teacher.
Your career has been quite varied. Am I right in saying that you began in film scores with the music for a promo trailer for "Alien" in 1979? [Available at the Elias Associates website, under 'Clients'.]
JE: Yes. I did start like that and for the first few years I did a lot of movie trailers, including "Blade Runner", "An American Werewolf in London", a "Back to the Future", "The Thing"... so a lot of different movie trailers. That's really where I started cutting my teeth.
In the late eighties/early nineties, you moved into producing film soundtracks as well, then producing rock bands; and now you have Elias Associates. What has it been like making these various transitions? Did you choose to switch from concentrating on one field to another, or were you swept along by circumstance?
JE: A little bit of both. I actually had Elias [Associates] from 1980. That's when we started doing movie trailers and getting involved in MTV. I wrote the promo for the original MTV [ident] with the man on the moon. I started building a staff of qualified composers even back then and we did a lot of different commercials. It was really in the early eighties that I befriended the composer John Barry, of James Bond and "Out of Africa" fame. And John sort of brought me along into the film world and so, while I was doing commercials, I was working with him on movies such as "Jagged Edge" and "A View to a Kill", which was incidentally the first time I really worked with a major pop band. That was my experience with Duran Duran and from that experience we went on to produce several Duran Duran albums.
Sony Classical's website credits you with “introduc[ing] film scoring and sound design techniques” for music for commercials. Is this a legacy of your career path, having come from film scores into commercials? Would this be how you want your career to date to be remembered, or are your two albums your pride and joy?
JE: Well, certainly not my work with Yes, to drag a dead horse across the tracks. [laughs] I'd like to be remembered as a good dad to my kids. As far as my music, I think I've done a lot of great work on a lot of different things. And to me, let's be honest, Yes isn't going to have a legacy, I'm not going to have a legacy. [laughs] There aren't too many people around that we really know are going to have legacies. But I hope that my legacy will be that people who work with me feel that I've been an honourable and a fun collaborator, and I think most of the people that I have worked with would testify to that.
Your first album project was Requiem for the Americas: what made you decide to make your own rock album, and how did you choose the musicians?
JE: The first rock album was working with Duran Duran on "View to a Kill". That was a lot of my work, and subsequently an album Big Thing that I did with them was a lot of my work. At the same time, I've always been interested in the plight of the Native American. I started making a little bit of a fable—a little bit of an operetta, I guess—and slowly I started to think about it in terms of it becoming a rock piece because I felt like there was really very little chance for it to be any sort of classical piece. What ended up happening was I developed it a little bit and I would play it for some of the people that I was working with at the time, and they would be interested and they would tell a friend and it sort of snowballed like that. I'd never purposefully meant to have some of the people that are on there, that ended up on the album.
How did you first meet Jon Anderson? Was it through a shared interest in Native American Indian culture?
JE: It was sort of through a shared interest and it was also through a friend of mine who was working with Jon and I sent him a tape of Requiem. Jon called me and told me that he had written words and sung a melody on something that I sent him and he hopes I like it. So that was my introduction to Jon Anderson—never met him before and he calls me and he says, 'I hope you like it'!
The making of Union is shrouded in mystery: perhaps you can shed some light on its proceedings. You seem to have written a number of the songs for Union with Jon Anderson in the studio. Was that because of a shortage of good enough material or a planned collaboration?
JE: There was no material. Basically, what there was was Steve [Howe] was working on a solo album [later released as Turbulence] and he brought in some things. Jon [Anderson] brought in one or two faint ideas. The problem is they hated each other so much at that point. I couldn't get Jon and Steve to sit down in a room together without me and the only way that Steve would do anything is to wake up and get very stoned and he was no good for the whole day after that. So we would sit down and try to write a few chords and here are my sort of kid pop idols and they couldn't string three chords together without fighting about what they were. And that was just putting Jon and Steve together, and constantly Steve would be badgering me about how he hated Jon's lyrics and how Jon had no good ideas. And Jon would say to me, 'Oh, Steve's just so washed out and Asia was such a horrible thing—look what it did to him.' You had Rick Wakeman who… all he wanted to do was get out there in the mix. And Rick had three or four parts that he would play, the same thing on everything. I would bring a Hammond organ in—he wouldn't touch the Hammond. He said, 'That's old-fashioned.' Not realising… well, he's so out of touch—what good would it have done had he played? I couldn't get these guys to sit down and write material without other people being in the room because of the social reasons. They had just been on the road for so many years and they probably had so many episodes with each other. Half of them couldn't really play any more. I mean, it was really sad. They were just sloppy and tired and old.
How much time pressure was there?
JE: There was a lot of time pressure because, really, these guys were just doing it for the money, because they couldn't do anything else. They all tried solo careers and nothing really happened with any of the solo careers, so they realised that they were forced to be together. And the only way they could really make money was touring. They couldn't make money on an album unless it had a pop sensibility and they were so far removed from what a pop sensibility was at that point without Trevor [Rabin]. There were times I tried to push them into that, but they would just bad mouth Trevor, particularly Steve. Ooof, boy, did he hate Trevor! I thought that the stuff that he [Rabin] had done was very fresh, but both Rick, at that point, and Steve would just really nail me because they wanted to have nothing to do with him.
So what happened was we would start writing and they would stop writing. Steve wouldn't listen to one of Rick's parts, Rick wouldn't listen to one of Steve's parts. And all Bill Bruford wanted to know is, 'Is it coming in on budget?'. They didn't care about a note of music. They all thought that Jon was stealing money from them. I guess they had a manager who used to steal money from them or... who knows what creative accounting they had ever done on each other, but none of them ever trusted each other.
In the end, you are credited with co-writing nearly every ABWH song. Were you ever writing with the other ABWH members, or does this reflect your subsequent work on their initial ideas?
JE: They didn't have any initial ideas. I'd say Steve had a couple. Rick didn't have anything.
Didn't you take Steve Howe's solo album...
JE: Yeah, we took a couple of licks off of Steve's solo album and I would encourage Jon to develop them. And he would say, 'This piece of trash,' and I'd say, 'Jon, this is all that we have and let's make the best of it.' So, there wasn't really this spirit of this magical, wonderful, open-hearted feeling of the word Yes that I expected, which sort of devastated me at first. It took me a couple of weeks to really understand that. I had just worked with Duran Duran and we'd had several number one songs. These [Duran Duran] were guys who could not play their instruments all that great, but they had a good taste level. Then here I was, working with a band [Yes] that I thought technically were good, but they had no taste.
They could not write without someone there as a buffer, so I guess I ended up being a buffer. I'm not particularly proud of some of the chords, some of the melodies, that came out of it, but it was a miracle that it was ever even recorded.
How did the whole situation on Union, with Wakeman's and Howe's parts being largely replaced, come about? Was that a decision in which you were involved, or did it come from above?
JE: Well, if anyone knows anything about this band, Jon rules it like an iron hand. It came from Jon. Jon was the associate producer on the album. It came from him when Steve's parts were obviously not what they should have been. Jon said let's go to California and let's work with someone there.
And when we had our Paris experience with Rick, which was a fiasco because we couldn't get him off of the TV... I still think that's why he hates me because I made him stop watching TV, more than even his parts were being replaced, because he certainly didn't care about the project. He was just doing this to bide time until his next solo album was coming out. I guess then he realised that his fan base had really gone and then he started to care a little bit more.
So what happened was, Jon and I were searching for a guitar player and a bunch of people brought up this name Jimmy Haun. We ended up meeting Jimmy. Jimmy's the best thing that happened to me out of the album. We became best friends and I have nothing but wonderful things from that experience. Jon ended up using Jimmy on all his solo stuff that he was doing around then. If he really didn't like Jimmy, he wouldn't be on the album.
As far as the keyboards, it was Jon's call. Jon said let's work with Steve Porcaro. Hence we worked with Steve Porcaro. If anyone ever thinks it was me who brought in any other keyboard player, all you have to do is scratch the surface—you know that Jon runs that band.
What of the keyboard parts on the ABWH songs did you play; and who were the other main keys players you employed?
JE: I didn't really play that many keyboard parts. I played several, but they were really just the parts that I had played with Jon and Steve in the writing process and Jon wanted those exact parts on there. He didn't want them to be clouded with some of the other parts that Rick had played, because it was pretty obvious when we got the tapes back that Rick hadn't listened to Steve's parts. We started out working with Steve and then we went and worked with Rick in Paris and Rick didn't want to hear Steve's parts. So that gives you a window into how this band is really not a band. They were really just there to put something out so they could tour. And some of the other players that we ended up using really cared more about the project than the players that were in the band. Tony Levin was a lifesaver for me. He was the only person who had any rationale in the whole project.
What did the session percussionists add to the music?
JE: Well, the session percussionists, they really added the same thing that all the extra musicians added. They cared about the project. No-one in the band cared about the project, with the exception perhaps of Jon, and Steve, to a certain extent. It's just that Jon's vision, Steve's vision were two totally different things. There were a lot of personality conflicts there. Steve and Rick just would bad mouth each other all the time and it was really difficult to be stuck in the middle of Jon not really putting his foot down and telling them, 'This is what I want.' This is Jon's band and I certainly feel that Trevor [Rabin] and Chris Squire did a lot better job than these guys ever did.
… and Billy Sherwood?
JE: And Billy Sherwood is another example. There's someone who really cared about the band, tried to revive it, and got backstabbed by the whole band.
It's sad, because I once thought that these guys were great players, but they can barely play their instruments and they play too many notes. [laughs] Look, it's ten years later, twelve years later, something like that. I've done very well for myself with many, many things. I've worked with Alanis Morissette, James Taylor, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and had some great collaborations. So, looking back on the whole experience, it really was a good thing for me because it got me off producing records and it got me into other things, where I really could do what I wanted. The whole experience was kinda sad. It was a babysitting experiment... And you really saw that, if it wasn't for Trevor [Rabin] in the mid-eighties, they would have disbanded a long time ago.
Most Yes fans have very negative feelings towards Union and you would agree with them on that. However, many Yes fans blame you and the extra musicians for what happened with the project—how does that make you feel?
JE: I don't really care about having Yes fans not like me. That's water under the bridge. What I care more about is the concept that the negative feelings towards Union were because of the extra musicians. The truth is it wouldn't have been done without the extra musicians. Because the level of distrust between Steve and Jon and Rick again, they just wouldn't work with each other, so we had to put up a guitar track that Steve had done and get a musician to play along with it. It was constant situation with that—their parts had nothing to do with each other, so we really had to bring in the players in order just to get the project physically done.
What do you think of the other tracks on Union and about Yes's work since Union?
JE: I have a lot of respect for Billy Sherwood and for Trevor Rabin—always have, always will. I don't know how Trevor did it. I assume that Trevor sort of just went off and did most of his writing and production by himself and then brought the guys in, because that's how the tracks sound. I can't imagine it being any other way and the same really is true with Billy. Billy's a wonderful musician and I was able to see how they shafted him along the way.
I don't think much of Yes any more. I don't listen to them. I don't think anything about it, to be honest. I've moved on to working with people like Alanis Morissette and James Taylor and people that I think have a little bit more of a meaningful statement and have an impact on the year 2000. Yes is stuck in 1980 with Asia... and that's really where Steve [Howe] is just locked up and he can't play guitar any more.
OK, enough about Union. What about Elias Associates? What is it like going from writing or producing a whole film score or album to making the music for an advert a mere few minutes long?
JE: Well, commercials are a lot of fun to do, actually. You get to work with directors that are doing the best pieces, the best films and they do the best commercials. We, my company, is the most awarded commercial company that there is. We've won more awards of excellence in our field, so we work with directors that are pretty amazing. Among them, David Fincher, Ridley Scott. We've worked with quite a few wonderful directors. So the commercials we do are very, very high end. We get to work with philharmonic orchestras. We get to work with wonderful musicians. Jimmy Haun recently did a duet with BB King and we're working with Bowie shortly. It's pretty great stuff that we do, so that's a lot of fun. Going from that to doing a movie, to doing a few of my own album projects are a lot of fun.
Music is fun. It's hard work and interesting and it's always been fun for me, whether I was working with Grace Jones or Yes or Duran Duran. It was fun [with Union], it was just the politics of Yes that weren't fun and how much they hate each other and I know for a fact that they still do. They revolve, there's a level of distrust with Jon—they think Jon's stealing all their money. And they're all scared of him. And so they blame the manager, blame the producer, blame the extra guitar player, but the truth is they just don't like each other. The shame of it all, and the truth is, I still like Jon. He's a character.
Do you view your advert work as something that has an artistic value, or is it more of a technical challenge with your real voice coming through albums like The Prayer Cycle?
JE: No, I look at is as both. I certainly think it is artistic and I think a lot of the work we've done is artistic and if you don't look at what you're doing as artistic, I don't think you do it very well. And as far as the technical challenge, technical challenge is there too. I think that my voice comes through whatever I work on... except for Union. [laughs]
How did The Prayer Cycle come about?
JE: It was like when I was working on Requiem, it evolved into what it is. I had been working on an orchestral piece. I was about to have my first child and I really started looking at myself and looking at the world. I felt we were living in a sort of dark world and I really wanted to do something as an artist that reflected that. And Prayer Cycle is a collection of prayers from singers such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, again Alanis and a lot of different singers from different societies woven together. And we have people like Ofra Haza, who recently died, from Israel. Yungchen Lhamo, who’s on Peter Gabriel's label—she's a Tibetan singer, wonderful.
The Prayer Cycle seems to have received better reviews than Requiem for the Americas. Having done the former, how do you now look back upon the latter?
JE: Requiem was fifteen years ago, so I don't really remember much of the reviews. I think, if it didn't receive good reviews, it was probably because people didn't like the combination of people on there. Prayer Cycle received wonderful reviews and probably sold twice as many albums as the last Yes album and I think it received great reviews because it was very genuine. And I think that early Yes was genuine.
I wondered whether you were familiar with Karl Jenkins? As someone else who has worked in adverts and then made a quasi-classical album in Adiemus, I can see some parallels with your own work and The Prayer Cycle.
JE: I don't know Karl Jenkins, but someone else recently told me they want to get us together, because they said that we'd have a lot in common and we'd like each other. So, I would love to meet him and I'm sure our paths will cross one day.
What are your future plans?
JE: Right now, Jimmy [Haun] and I are working on an Irish artist [Noella Hutton] and we're going to be finishing her album. Then we're actually moving next to Jimmy's daughter [Lindsey Haun], whose a very, very talented singer and we expect great things from her. And then, I'll be doing the next Prayer Cycle album—I've two more albums committed to Sony Classical. It's funny, I worked with John Williams on this Prayer Cycle album. He certainly had one of two funny stories to tell about Steve Howe.
And don't forget the Unknown project with Billy Sherwood…
JE: The Unknown is a project I'll be working on with Jimmy and Billy and, so far, what I've heard of it and what we've done so far is better than anything I've heard in the last couple of years from Yes.