Jon Davison's path to rock stardom is a story that's become the envy of every tribute band singer ever born. From growing up in South OC, he wound up singing in a Yes tribute band, to then getting picked up by an original progressive rock band (Glass Hammer) and then ultimately discovered by the real Yes in 2012. It's been four years and one album (2014's Heaven and Earth) since the whirlwind that changed his life. But as a diehard Yes fan himself, it's supplied the satisfaction of not only performing Yes material that would be challenging for any mere mortal, but also going through and digging up older (and often forgotten) material that might even fluster the band itself.
In keeping with their series of full album shows, the band is revisiting Tales From 1973's Topographic Oceans (Parts 1&4) as well as 1980's Drama. As any Yes fan can attest, songs on these albums represent some of the most conceptually rich and musically demanding material. Backed by an immersive, special effects stage show, Davison's take on these beloved albums will be offer a live, spacey, progressive rock masterpiece for the ages. Following the album performances, Yes will also perform a selection of their greatest hits. Before the show tomorrow night, we got a chance to talk to Davison about the significance of these albums and his continuing contribution to the band.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): Talk about what made the band decide to do this particular combination of albums (Tales From Topographic Oceans 1&4 + Drama) and how you went about getting yourself prepared for it?
Jon Davison: We were just following the pattern of the album series which we started in 2013 and we were always projecting what would be the next albums in line that we wanted to play and the fact that we have Geoff Downes in the band helped prompt the idea of doing Drama which is something that Jon Anderson was never interested in looking at. And the band band is now taking advantage of the fact that I’m in the band and am passionate about the Drama album, as is Billy [Sherwood]. Really close to Steve’s heart is the Tales album, he was so instrumental with putting that album together. It’s been hard not having Alan [White] on board because that was Alan's first studio album and he was really looking forward to bringing it to the stage with this particular lineup. And that’s unfortunate, however, it’s been really a blessing to have Jay Schellen on drums who is really a big Yes fan and has listened to Tales for so many years, and he’s brought a passion for it to the stage and that’s been exciting to witness and share.
I’m sure you can relate to his experience having gone from being a fan of the band to now playing with them. What’s it like to see a new person go through that?
It’s amazing. And I think of all the years where I was listening to Tales as a fan and how it was soundtracked to many of my years growing up and how it spoke to me. So being on stage singing it and sharing a stage with Steve Howe and to think that I’m participating in the Yes experience and sharing it with all these people is a moment that hits me when I’m performing and I remember listening to them performing and where my head and heart were at the time I was discovering that music. There’s that definite connection that’s very sentimental for me and nostalgic.
Didn’t you actually discover Yes in high school during the 90125-era?
Yeah, that was what I absorbed initially because it was on the radio. And I just have an older brother Chris, but we shared the same social circles so we were just aware of what was popular on MTV or the radio. My parents had no clue about most of the ‘70s music that was out there so I didn’t have that advantage of having a Yes album passed down to me, I had to go out and discover it myself. The initial door opener was 90125, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Then I went to Tower Records near where I lived that time but the album I pulled off the shelf was Tales from Topographic Oceans. I remember playing it and feeling perplexed because both albums were the same band, but couldn’t sound more different. That’s the far spectrum of what Yes covers. I couldn’t get my head around it—I wondered if it was even the same band. I could recognize John’s voice, but it was just so incredibly different. It sounded spooky almost, from the artwork, to the titles of music, to the music itself. But I ended up loving that album as an introduction to classic Yes.
What excites you about the Drama record?
I guess it’s the fact that Trevor Horn was in the band for such a short time and he never felt quite 100 percent comfortable in that position, it gave me some leeway to cultivate my own take on it. It needed development, whereas the classic Yes material the band has played performed for so many decades. So the Drama album was really undiscovered territory as a live piece. So that gave me a lot of leeway to make it my own and give me space to interpret things.
Talk about the visuals during the stage show and how it brings it to life.
We’ve been getting rave reviews about that. Andy Clark who is our projectionist and Don Weeks who does the lighting, they really uped the ante on this one. They rose to the occasion. Just as Tales is more in depth, with longer pieces with more girth in the sound, they also felt they needed to add that into intensity and the dramatic effect of both projections and lights. It’s an amazing production, I feel like we’ve reached a new height in that respect.
Growing up in Laguna Beach with Taylor Hawkins, talk about your earlier experiences in bands in OC.
When Taylor and I were about 12 or so, he bought his neighbor’s drum set and was listening to Queen’s album The Game and he was like “I wanna be a drummer and you should be a singer.” I remember him calling me and saying “we gotta start a band.” I started with guitar and moved to bass because we were getting more into progressive rock and I wasn’t as fluent with electric guitar so we needed somebody who could handle more challenging music, so I moved to bass and we started learning Rush songs. That was our common ground—he wasn’t quite a Yes fan at the time, but Rush was a common ground for us, we could both relate. We also had a few cover bands in high school, played at a few dances in high school more ‘80s popular stuff, and we made a little bit of money doing that and played as much as we could. In the late ‘80s we both got into Jane’s Addiction for a while. Then he joined Alanis Morrissette and I’d gone up to Seattle to go to school so we wound up growing apart—not emotionally, we were still good friends—but just in different places.
What led you to become a singer for Yes?
I didn’t really find a niche in my voice as a singer right away, but I took to singing Yes material much easier. The reason I got into that was because there was a lull musically in my life and I decided to join a Yes tribute band called Roundabout when I moved back to OC from Seattle. And that led to me singing in Glass Hammer which saw me singing Yes songs online and then I wound up singing for them and that’s what the real band Yes actually discovered. So one thing led to another.
Now that you’ve been in the band for a while, is it hard for you to write new songs on the road?
I actually do. I identify and get inspired by being a musician on the road. There’s a lot of downtime when we’re not touring when the normal things in life can take over. I find that I get a newfound zeal when we’re on tour. So I’m always jotting down lyrics on tour.
After doing a record with the band, do you find that getting into that flow in the recording studio is a lot easier?
Yeah I do, we’ve just gotten to know each other better and the dynamic is more diverse. What I learned from doing Heaven and Earth is that we need to allow ourselves more time as a band. We kind of rushed into the studio to do Heaven and Earth because we were so busy touring and there were feasible restraints, so people brought in their own ideas and said “Hey, here’s my idea, let’s work this up as a band and take your idea and work it up.” I’d rather take time to write our material as a group. I think that’s what Yes did in its best moments and that’s what I’d like to carry on doing, if possible.
Yes: The Album Series (Drama+ Tales of Topographic Oceans 1+4) is tomorrow night (Aug. 26) at the City National Grove of Anaheim. 8 p.m. Full ticket info is available here.
Nate Jackson is the gatekeeper to your dreams of local dive bar stardom. If he writes about you, expect your band to be offered at least one more drink ticket than the rest of the bands on the bill. Get his attention with some groovy tunes and he might just do it. Then, boy will you feel special.