On the occasion of prog-rock titans Yes–sans singer Jon Anderson, sure, but still pretty damn Yes-sy–coming to the NYCB Theatre at Westbury Wednesday night [8pm] to play their classic platters The Yes Album, Close to the Edge AND Going for the One in their entireties, we got in touch with perhaps the most important person in Yes who actually isn’t in Yes.
Yes, that would be Roger Dean: The legendary, visionary artist (and architect, and industrial designer, and furniture designer, and set designer…) whose four-decade-plus creative partnership with Yes has led to some of the most iconic and interesting album covers ever made. Surreal landscapes and worlds alien and familiar, ancient and futuristic all at once, that enhanced–perhaps even influenced–the band’s sonic explorations.
At 68, the affable, engaging Dean still creates logos and artwork for Yes and has “three or four lifetimes” of ideas for other paintings and design work he continues to pursue. We rang him up at his home studio in the U.K. the other day; here is part of the wide-ranging two-hour conversation.
I was just on the Oregon coast a few weeks ago, at Haystack Rock, and looking at the sea stacks and just experiencing the otherworldly vibe of the place, I started thinking about your album covers and artwork.
Ah. I love landscape, most of my work is landscape. I think of myself as a landscape painter. Sometimes landscapes have such a powerful choreography about them–it’s like a prayer. They’re such a strong inspiration. It’s almost ridiculous to think of inventing something when something so wonderful is already there.
I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was going to be speaking with you, and he said that, as a kid, he’d stay up until 3 a.m. staring at the inside cover of Close to the Edge, trying to figure out where the water was coming from. He said to me, “Ask him where the water’s coming from!”
[laughs] Well, it’s funny because you were just talking about the coast of Oregon and a rock called Haystack. The inspiration for Close to the Edge was actually a mountain in England called Haystacks. I took a photograph at the top of the mountain and literally right on the top of the mountain there was a tiny, tiny lake–they’re called tarns–and when you’re up there at the top of the mountain to chill out, I was imagining this lake as something grander, you know. How could it sustain itself on the tippy top of a mountain? A lake belongs in a valley. It was brilliant. Of course, the water wasn’t pouring off on every side. [laughs]
In your world, it was.
Yes, it was. [laughs]
Can you trace a lot of your work back to specific places or experiences like that?
Quite a lot of it, actually. Surprisingly. The connection is rarely mapped out in my head in such a way as I just explained to you. Usually I spend time putting stuff in and it’s there when I need it, without me actually having a logical or analytical thought process to go along with it.
Do you ever visualize the finished piece at the start and just work toward that idea, or do you really only know what your work is at the end?
The process is different from time to time. I take a sketchbook if I’m in a restaurant or an airplane, it’s with me the whole time. Some ideas that start out at the sketch stage, the finished painting — if you saw the little thumbnail sketch — instantly you’d recognize it and you’d see it develop. Other times I work in a totally different way. I’ll work on a canvas which almost looks totally abstract, and I’m looking at it and getting feedback from the paint into what it might be, and there’s no preliminary sketch and eventually there’s a finished painting and it looks as if it was planned from the beginning, but it isn’t. The abstract quality of the underpainting is feeding back ideas all the time, and it’s an exciting way to work. I enjoy that. It’s slow, though. The best painting I’ve ever done, I started before my daughter was born and she’s 25 and I haven’t finished it. [laughs]
Is that right?
It’s true. A few paintings I’ve done that — Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth was done that way. I did a painting for Yes which was “Floating Jungle” [used for the 2002 In a Word box set] which was done that way. These paintings were done without a preliminary sketch. I might have sketched details, but the grand scheme of it evolved in the painting.
So how do you ever get the sense that anything is “finished”?
Well, I’m going to give you a joking answer here. I was asked once, “How do you get that sense of space in your work?” I said, “Deadlines — I never get a chance to fill the space.” [laughs] If I have a painting that’s around, it’s never really finished. I painted a painting for Yes’s triple album, Yessongs. The big blue painting with the spiral in the foreground and a kind of mushroomy city in the background.
Sure. Of course.
If you’ve seen the album, you can see footprints in the sky–cat paw marks. I exhibited the painting in New York I suppose two years after it was done, but it had never been exhibited since — until a couple of years ago. And people were looking at it and said, “Well where are the cat paws?” [laughs] Well, this is how things work. I have a deadline, I finished the painting, I was going to take it on the train to London to get it photographed, and overnight the cat walked over it and I tried to paint out the cat paws by adding clouds and it didn’t work. The paw marks are a little bit greasy, and it was watercolor. It was photographed and used for album covers, posters, calendars, books, everything, for years. That evening, I brought the painting home, I killed the cat, so to speak, removing the footprints. But the footprints, as it were, were fixed in time. But the painting itself, perhaps only for a couple of days it had those paw marks on it. If i’d know how famous they were going to be, I’d have kept them. [laughs]
A bit of the reason I wanted to talk to you is because Yes is out touring now and revisiting old works, playing Close to the Edge and a couple other albums in their entirety, so thinking about those albums naturally got me thinking about your artwork. You’re so closely associated with one another, but in one sense you diverge because here they are sort of going back in time and swimming in nostalgia and revisiting old glories, whereas you, from all that I know about you, you’re always forging ahead and working on new ideas and new projects.
What you said is a fair comment, except in a way it’s surprisingly unfair on them. They would enjoy nothing more than endlessly doing new material. They’re endlessly writing it. They all have new songs they want to show off, but the way their career is now, there’s a big demand for the classic pieces and milder curiosity about unfamiliar pieces. If Yes did a concert with more than a certain percentage of new material, they’d have trouble with their audience. I know it drives them nuts, but that’s just the way it is.
I get that.
Let me put this differently. Are you an opera fan?
Sure. I’m not an expert by any means, but I enjoy opera.
I have been to Madame Butterfly, in the last few years, perhaps three or four times–different productions. I would very willingly and very enthusiastically go and see Madame Butterfly again and not be in the least disappointed that I’d heard it before.
I know what you mean. Are you still close with the band?
I’ll see them in Camden, New Jersey on Thursday. I would say I’ve been a friend of Steve [Howe]’s for a very long time, I’m friendly with Rick [Wakeman]. I get on very well with Alan [White]. I would say with Chris [Squire], I’m friendly, we have a friendly relationship, I wouldn’t necessarily call him a friend, but he’s not an enemy. I enjoy working with them. They’ve been very good for me, no question about that. I hope it’s been mutual. I hope my involvement with them has been as useful for them as it has been for me, and I’ve enjoyed it to no end.
Can you describe the working relationship you’ve had with them over these past four decades?
Well, I have lots of friends who are essentially fine artists and lots of friends who work with authors, and they have art directors who presumably have read the book before them and tell them what they want. They give them the book and they have to do something that depends on the book and the art director. And I have been very aware that for me, my experience with Yes and others has been brilliant because I’m working with extremely talented people who are absolutely non-expert in the field of art [laughs], know they’re non-expert, willing to give me as much freedom as I want, and we can work together with that and it’s been terrific. The couple of times I’ve been asked by art directors to work on projects has been so disastrous — they’ve sketched out what they want me to paint and I’d say, “You’ve come up with the idea, you’ve done my job, you don’t need me. You just need someone who paints.” I hate working with art directors. Fortunately, I don’t have to! The bands are non-expert, but talented. It’s a fabulous combination.
Obviously the way music is packaged now, if people even buy it in physical form, is for the most part so vastly different from when you started working with bands.
What it was was an incredibly ephemeral experience where the world of art and the world of music combined. Both of our worlds — where the currency is, if you like, the “gift,” music is about a gift culture and art is about a gift culture –the two worlds briefly came together for a period that lasted barely two decades, at most, where you could give somebody a gift of music wrapped up with art, and it’s been almost the only time in history where you could give music as a gift. You could take someone to a concert, but then it was gone–they couldn’t experience it again the next day. But the recording and the packaging, it made the perfect gift. And it was brief. And it’s absolutely gone now and it didn’t exist that long ago, either. In the ’40s it didn’t really exist. It has that incredible quality of a gift from I guess the beginning of the 1960s until the middle of the 1980s, that was it. Then the record companies destroyed that. When CDs came along, people would say to me, “Isn’t it devastating for you that the format is so tiny?” Well not really. Tiny works. What doesn’t work is the crappy packaging. Atlantic Records put Close to the Edge out without the painting for 10 years. Can you believe it? For 10 years the CD was available in a cheap and nasty plastic jewelbox with just a single sheet of paper with no painting and the track listing in black and white. I mean, give me a break. The record companies were saying, “We’ve got no respect for the customers, we’ve got no respect for the music or the art, we’ve got no respect for what we do, we’ve got no self-respect,” and as this was a gift culture, you can’t bring that attitude to it without destroying it. It wasn’t the CDs that destroyed it, it was the attitude of the record companies — that arrogant indifference. It was hard to understand why the record companies were doing such dumb things.
Has there always been a camaraderie between artists like yourself who worked in the industry creating album covers, particularly as that era first came about and then went away, or was it more of a competition? I was thinking especially in terms of your relationship with Storm [Thorgerson, who created iconic covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and others and died this past April at 69 years old].
Well, Storm and I, I think of him as a good friend and I hope he would think the same. We worked together on all kinds of things, but not album covers. We tried it once and it was a complete failure. [laughs]. Storm and I lived in the same building when we left college. He was on the first floor and I was on the third floor. We had Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd living in our apartment. Storm asked me to design the logo for Harvest Records, so we knew each other. He was a filmmaker and I was a designer, I did the interiors of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. I had no idea that I might end up painting for a living, I didn’t imagine it. And I don’t think Storm had any idea what he was gonna end up doing. We weren’t really in competition at all, which made it easier for us to be friends. Later in our career, there came a point where professional graphic designers took over the business, and it didn’t really get seriously underway until CDs were around. I remember I had quite an issue with graphic designers, I used to think of them as the Helvetica zealots. [laughs] These designers would come up with these packages and they’d all be in Helvetica and I’d say “Why have you done that?” And they’d say, “It’s clean, modern and cool.” And I’d say, “That’s what YOU think. The buyers think it look corporate, gray, dull and institutional.” You know what astounded me about graphic designers?
They would think the public are wrong and they needed educating. They thought it was irrelevant whether they liked it or not, and I’d say, “You’re not in the business of education, you’re in the business of selling something to somebody and you’ve got to be a little more warm and cuddly.” Here’s the problem: Corporate and institutions are the primary buyers of graphic design. You get Helvetica shoved down your throat everywhere you go.
Well, you’ve certainly designed logos in a different way, like the curves of the Yes logo that people have savored.
And that has caused me some embarrassment. [laughs]. I did a signing one day and this kid said, sort of sheepishly, “Oh, could you draw the Yes logo on it?” And I said, “No.” [laughs]. I drew the square one and he said, “No no no, I want the classic one, the bubble one,” and I said “No, I can’t do that.” And he said, “Aww, come on, why not?” I said, “Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear — I don’t know how to do it.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I can’t remember how it goes!” He said, “That’s rubbish, I’ve done it a thousand times in my schoolbook.” I said, “Yeah, but I haven’t. I only did it once!” [laughs]
Still, what’s it like to know that that logo, and all the paintings and other things you’ve done, are such an indelible part of music history and art history, such a part of so many peoples’ lives?
It’s an odd thing, actually. It is a privilege. I don’t really know how to describe the feeling, but I guess it makes you feel like you exist in the way your parents make you feel like you exist, if you know what I mean. I don’t know if it’s necessary, but it’s a very nice existence. I know a lot of people who would work for free just to see their work in a record store. It’s an odd thing. Walking down the street and seeing it, I loved it. I still do, I must admit.