May , 2012
By David Huff
An Evolving Sound, A Solid Band
An Exclusive Interview with an Extraordinary Guitarist and Songwriter
Trevor Rabin is no stranger to musical success. The son of a first chair violinist father and a classical pianist mother, he grew up with dreams of someday being a famous composer and conductor. But a funny thing happened on the way to the orchestra hall - he became a rock star. Not only did the native South African enter the realm of rock, he jumped headfirst into the legendary progressive rock band YES, and almost single-handily re-energized the group with song writing, guitar and vocal skills. Rabin's musical input saw the band achieve its greatest commercial success as a unit. The result saw YES surge in popularity with sold out world tours, a number one single ("Owner of a Lonely Heart"), and an improbable Grammy award.
After ten years with YES and its various incarnations, Rabin and the group would go their separate ways. The guitarist still had those dreams of being a composer; little did he know it would come in the form of movie soundtracks. To date, Rabin has scored 40 motion pictures since leaving the confines of his progressive rock past. His ten films with director Jerry Bruckheimer have resulted in over $2.4 billion in ticket sales. His music has been heard on Major League Baseball, the NBA on TNT as well as the Olympic Games telecasts.
Amidst all of his success, Trevor Rabin is still a guitar player and musician at heart. He has just completed his first solo album in 23 years, in which he plays every instrument except the drums. That challenge was handled by noted jazz/rock drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, longtime Rabin drummer and collaborator Lou Molino III, and his son Ryan (of the hit band Grouplove). The new recording, entitled Jacaranda, will be released in May 2012.
JAM: Coming from such a musical family, what with your father being first chair in the Johannesburg Philharmonic and your mother being a classical pianist, there's obviously a great deal of musicianship in your blood. Did you feel any sort of obligation to pursue a career in music?
Trevor Rabin - It's funny, I never considered anything else. My brother is about three years older than me and at the age of nine, he was playing unbelievably advanced violin pieces for his age. He would go into competitions and wipe the floor with guys twice his age. So here I was playing piano and I was not as good as him, but I was only five or so and my hands hadn't even really developed yet. I kept thinking I had to get as good as my brother or my parents weren't going to notice me. That continued for years until he was about sixteen and had a motorbike accident and had to give the violin up. My brother was also a drummer, and I was in his band when I was around twelve. I had just started playing guitar and was sort of learning to play while I was in his band. We played parties and stuff like that. Then I left his band. I was still playing piano and doing it well, but still felt like I was in his shadow. Though I was actually pretty accomplished by the age of 15, I remember my dad telling me I could not have a guitar unless I practiced really hard and did well in a piano competition. That's how I got my first guitar.
I taught myself guitar and then met with a teacher. But after a bit, I realized his ears were not very good, so I certainly didn't want to learn from him! So I just took all of my piano exercises and translated them to guitar (hums a few scales). That's how I established my technique and just sat with it until I could play as fast as I needed to. So, as far as ever doing something else besides music, no I didn't. By the time I was seventeen, I was already doing tons of session work; sessions every day. I'd go to school, and then go do sessions - mostly guitar, but I did also do piano sessions.
JAM: So you really did know early on?
Yes. I remember talking with my dad at a football game. He was also a lawyer, and my brother had gone into law as well. I said to him, "Dad, I guess I should start thinking about law." He said he thought I should seriously consider continuing to be a musician. I was blown away by his answer because you'd think the lawyer would say to give up the music and make sure you have something to fall back on. As we continued the conversation, I told him I really wanted to conduct and write for orchestra. So he put me together with an incredible professor who later became the head of the string department at a university in Toronto. This man was just a brilliant musician, and taught me so much in just a short period of time. He knew what I wanted to learn - orchestration, conducting, arrangement, formal analysis, etc. At that point, even though I was still doing a lot of sessions and playing out a lot with the guys that would later become the band Rabbit, my passion was to be a conductor. I wanted to write for orchestra. I wanted to be a composer. I began to try and do little arrangements in my session work, strings and stuff like that. That's really how it got started.
JAM: It sounds like your father did a great job of encouraging, recognizing and nurturing your passion, as opposed to making you feel obligated to pursue music.
Yes, indeed. He knew I didn't have the academic patience to deal with a lot of what I would have had to do in order to obtain let's say, a masters or a doctorate. To this day though, I continue to learn. I recall speaking with my dad once again and telling him I wanted to give everything else up and become a composer. He pulled me aside and said if I really wanted to be at that level, like a Leonard Bernstein, the amount of work would be incredibly substantial. I'd have to put in hours and hours a day with no guarantee of reaching the level of success I wanted. Continuing piano studies, on top of all the other study required, would be a lifelong thing. He was great at focusing me in many ways.
JAM: I'm sure as time moves forward there will be plenty of musicians studying your body of work.
Well, that would be great. I know it's a cliché, but I do have to say the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.
JAM: As you grew up in South Africa, what were some of the influences you had. I'm not speaking so much in terms of the music you were listening to, but were there any instruments, or styles, that were indigenous to that area you benefited from as opposed to having been raised in say Europe or the United States?
Well, sometimes I'd go to the black areas called shebeens, which was an illegal bar. It's also the name of my publishing company actually. I'd go there and listen to Bukunga music and jive music. I was very friendly with the black musicians. Unfortunately, one night I was playing at a licensed club and these kind of sorted looking guys came in. they weren't rude, but said I could not play there with blacks because it was licensed and I was white. It revolted me. I have a family very steeped in anti-apartheid activity. Given that experience and situation at that bar, some of my lyrics have gone there, but I'm not going to say I'm hugely political. I was selfishly into the music, but I did concern myself with that quite a lot. Some of my influences were a sax player I produced in South Africa by the name of Mike. Unfortunately I can't spell his last name. There was also a brilliant keyboard player by the name of Henny Becker. Those would be the local influences I would say I had. However, because of my family background, dad would always be listening to Beethoven and Brahms.
JAM: Let's skip ahead to the point where you arrived at what would soon become the reincarnation of YES. It's my understanding that you were initially reluctant for the band to use that name.
Well, I had basically written an album, which later became the basis for 90125. I had written the music while I was on Geffen. The label dropped me because they wanted me to be on a record with some big names. I told them I was not interested in that; I just wanted to do my album. Geffen had signed me to do that and it's exactly what I wanted to do. They didn't agree, so I started shopping the tapes around. I had moved to Los Angeles, and Ron Fair over at RCA was really into what I was doing. He was a junior A&R guy at that time and didn't really have enough influence to make a deal that would allow me to survive and do a solo record. I sent the tapes to Atlantic as well, which Phil Carson got a hold of and in turn, sent them over to Chris (Squire) and Alan (White).
On a side issue, I had also sent my tape to Clive Davis, who listened to "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and wrote me a letter. It said, "While we feel your voice has Top 40 appeal, we feel the music you are writing is way too left field for the market today." I've still got that letter. Back to Phil Carson! He told me to head over to London and just jam with Chris and Alan and see what happens. To cut a long story short, that's exactly what happened. The first time we got together was rough, but you could tell there was something there between us. The three of us really pushed each other and enjoyed playing together. So we continued for awhile, eventually got the songs together and then brought Tony Kaye into the picture. We started recording an album under the name Cinema.
JAM: I understand there were some problems with the name.
Yes, there were some legal issues surrounding the name Cinema. Around that same time Jon (Anderson), whom I had never met, came in to listen to the stuff after Chris had played it for him at a party. He was really blown away and said he'd love to come and sing on it. You know Jon doesn't think beyond what he's singing on. It's the passion that always gets him first. He came in and sang on a few things. I was blown away and said that if he wanted to come in and sing on the whole thing, I was totally into it. Chris then joked that I would be fired as the singer. I told him that was more than fine with me. Jon liked my voice, and that's why on the album a lot of my vocals remain. It was a really good situation and we had a ball with it. When Atlantic heard what was going on, they immediately said, "We have to call this YES."
JAM: How did that suggestion sit with you?
Well, I thought if we called ourselves YES, I was then becoming part of something that really was not me. At the time, I still thought we could still go ahead and move forward as Cinema. You see, I didn't want the music to have that kind of history to be compared with. I wanted it to be judged on its own. Here we are now some 30 years later, and I still would have rather called our project something else.
JAM: It's easy to see where you'd be apprehensive to jump into that situation. YES had quite a musical history and a die-hard fan base. You would have to contend with all of it.
Absolutely! It was quite funny because going into rehearsals, I hadn't given any thought to us playing any of the old YES stuff. Chris had called me and said that there were songs they were thinking of playing from the old days. Atlantic had sent me the entire YES catalog, and Chris said to listen through and see if there was anything I wanted to do. I didn't have that luxury. It was only two days before rehearsals so I just took the tunes Chris had talked to me about and basically sat on the plane, without a guitar, kind of jotted down some things and learned the music on the plane.
JAM: Did you feel any obligation to stay true to any of Steve's (Howe) original guitar parts, or did you just want to keep the foundational aspects and add your own flair to the songs?
Chris and Jon were so generous in the way they let me interpret the music. They told me to do exactly as I saw fit and not worry about staying true to anything. Really, I didn't have the time to even consider doing certain things my way. There were already chords I was changing, not out of arrogance, but out of a lack of time. I found the music to be quite simple to play. Seriously, it wasn't that difficult for me to learn. I wasn't given some brief about staying close to what the original guitar parts were. Some fans enjoyed it, but there were others that thought I'd ruined the music.
JAM: I'm sure that for some fans, much like with sports teams, they had a hard time getting behind the "new guy."
That's right. As a guitarist, my personal love was always for people like Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis. Obviously I loved Hendrix and what Zeppelin did. But YES was not a band where the guitar parts was something I was drawn too. I liked the band a lot with Jon's voice and Chris' playing. Rick Wakeman's keyboard work also blew me away. I was drawn to YES music because of those things, not so much the guitar. When it came time to play the guitar parts to the earlier music, I didn't have that concern. It's not like I needed to treat my parts with kid gloves. I'm sure there are certain areas where I could have been more sensitive to how Steve played the music, but hey, it is what it is.
JAM: Was there any tension having Trevor Horn producing 90125 since he had been a member of the band at one point, or did you see it as more of a benefit?
Well, being a producer myself, I think I wrongly gave him a really hard time for about the first three months.
JAM: In what way?
I really didn't give him an inch. Eventually we got on well. In fact, he would have more disagreements with Tony Kaye's parts rather than my own. Tony basically left and ended up not really working on the album. Trevor Horn came to me and asked if I would play keyboards on the album. Since I had played the keyboard parts on the demo, Trevor said he liked the way I performed, so that was it.
I said, "What about Tony?" and Trevor said that it really had not been working out so Tony had gone back to Los Angeles. So I was feeling bad for Tony, I mean I told Trevor that he can't just get rid of someone in the band without telling me. I'm in the band!
We carried on and I ended up playing keyboards. When I came back to Los Angeles after we finished the album, I called Tony to tell him we were going on the road and we wanted him back. He wasn't too happy, but he said he definitely wanted to come back. So that's how it all went down. But I must say at this point, Trevor Horn and I are dear friends. After 90125, he started booking me to work with Tina Turner, Seal, Frankie Goes to Hollywood; I even did a Cher song with him at some point. I've played a lot of guitar on his behalf and we love working together. He's a gem.
JAM: I'm sure you have discussed it many, many times, but the opening riff to "Owner of a Lonely Heart" along with the opening riffs to ‘Start Me Up" by The Rolling Stones and "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks, are probably the three most distinct and recognizable openings to any songs in the rock music lexicon.
Oh, well that is very kind of you.
JAM: Those three riffs, anytime they are played, even the most casual listener instantly knows the song. Did you feel anything special when you first laid that part down? Was there anything on the technical end that made that tone so distinct?
When I started doing the demo for that song, all it was for about five minutes was getting off on that groove (vocalizes the opening) and just playing without anything on it. For ages, I'd listen to it, maybe add a thing or two, but I always came back to that riff. Part of me, when writing the song, thought maybe it was too simple and I should have been adding something. Then again, the fact that it was so simple, you know, if I changed it it would kill the song. I'd never really thought of it before in those terms, but boy, I'm very flattered by your comment.
JAM: Calling you today from northern Virginia, I'm actually thirteen miles from TC Williams High School, which as you know was the location for the film you scored, Remember the Titans.
Wow, probably my favorite film.
JAM: I was about to ask you if all your film scores are like children, in that you love them all but in a different way, or if you had distinct favorites?
I do love them all in the same way, though I believe there are some that were not my kids! (laughs) I won't mention which ones! I loved working with Jon Turteltaub with whom I did the National Treasure films with; I absolutely loved working with Boaz Yakin on Titans. Some of my other real favorites are The Guardian, Flyboys and The Great Raid. I have to say that in the early days, it was invigorating doing Armageddon and Con Air, Enemy of the State. They were just so over the top, I really enjoyed working on them.
JAM: How do you approach writing a rock song as opposed to having to paint the landscape of a film score? Do you prefer to work alone, or is it more of a challenge if you don't have band mates per se to collaborate with?
Scoring a film is really quite daunting to be honest. First you work through where you're going to do it, where the music is going to be, etc. You'll have a music editor write down, say forty or fifty instances, where they expect music to happen. You might get thirty seconds for one cue, whereas another section might need to be seven minutes. Then you start composing, sitting there with a blank page and people talking. You have to figure out what you're going to do, then stay at it every day, or you're not going to make it. So it can be terrifying. Once I come to terms with my themes, and I can see how they are going to interact within the film, I know I won't be painting myself into a corner. Its when the music coincides with the themes of the other characters, that's when it starts flowing a lot better. Writing with pictures has its definite benefits, but writing a rock song, well, you really have to close your eyes and kind of imagine something.
JAM: So when you compose your scores, or as you said "write with pictures", are you composing to the dailies and rough cuts, or are you still along with the script?
You know that's a good question! I get dailies and while I watch them, I'm still building those themes, an ‘underture' if you will. It basically nets all those themes I am writing, so if I have say an eight or nine minute orchestral piece, before I start writing out all the parts, I'll play it for the director and we'll have a conversation about it. The music is my point of view, so if he likes it, well I'm a step ahead. Then when I start writing the overall concept, it's already understood that for instance this will be, for example, Nick Cage's theme in this or that environment. Then the music obviously grows from there.
JAM: It sounds like once you have received the thumbs up from the director, you have a bit of freedom to move forward with your thoughts for the music.
Yes, and to anyone who may be starting off in film, I would recommend you not touch anything until you have your themes ... or you are going to lose.
JAM: Let's talk about your new release, Jacaranda. Tell me a bit about how you came up with that title.
Well, as you well know, I grew up in South Africa. There are thousands and thousands of these Jacaranda trees. It's just an explosion of purple and it is really just as simple as that. Some say it's a tree of knowledge. I'm not too sure about that. My studio is called The Jacaranda Room, so I really just thought it appropriate.
JAM: So if Barbara Walters was to ask you her proverbial, "If you were a tree what type of tree would you be" question, you'd answer Jacaranda!
JAM: On Jacaranda, just as your first solo album, you play all the instruments except the drums. Do you prefer to work that way?
No, I didn't mean to or contrive to record that way. I didn't have a record deal when I wrote the album. I hadn't even looked at getting a deal. There had been some people who wanted to do a follow up to Can't Look Away, but I was busy with film at the time. I didn't think I was ready. Then I decided I was just going to do something for me, something I would really enjoy and that turned out to be an instrumental album. There were people who told me I was cutting off half my sales by not having me singing, but I didn't care about that. I just wanted to play.
On film scores, you're an architect building the music. You play some, think about it, but you don't really challenge yourself from a playing point of view. I mean my hands are blistered from this album. It was really tough going. I wanted to play and I did. Honestly, I looked at this as an opportunity to grab the instruments I love the most, forget the orchestra that I have been just swimming in for forty films, pick them up and play. I didn't intend to play everything; I just wanted to get it done, if you know what I mean. I loved absolutely every minute of the process. There was nothing I was doing where I felt pressured. I was just having a great time.
JAM: That's evident right off the bat on the first track, "Spider Boogie", hearing your voice there in the studio saying "Alright, here we go". It really set the tone that you, as well as the listener, are about to have a good time.
JAM: It must have been special for you to have your son Ryan play drums for you. Has he always been centered on music, or is somewhat similar to the situation you experienced with your father?
Yes. My son is very centered, sensible and smart kid. He's got phenomenal ears, is a great drummer and produced his band's debut album. When I asked him play on my record, he just came into the studio and approached the music in such a natural way, I mean one track is in 7/8, and he just took to it like a fish to water. He was perfect.
JAM: The whole album is a swirling mixture of rock, jazz and more that showcases your all around musical ability. Was that a goal, to play just a bit of everything you love, throw it into the mix, or did the music just evolve naturally?
It really just evolved into what you hear. I love playing so many different guitars, jazz guitars, even the dobro which I love, that it's all featured quite a bit. This was an opportunity to kind of stretch myself on piano and organ as well.
JAM: On the last track, "Gazania", about the half way point there sounds like what might be a loop of Trevor Rabin?
No, that's me, just a little vocal. (laughs)
JAM: I thought might be leaving a door open by saying this project is finished and here's a hint as to what might be coming up next. You mentioned working with Rick and Jon. There are a lot of rumors about the three of you working together that's circulating on line. Anything you care to discuss about that?
Nothing I care to discuss as of yet. Rick is supposed to be sending me something pretty soon for us to work on, so we'll see what comes of it.
JAM: Any plans to tour in support of Jacaranda?
You know I'm hoping to, but it's going to be a tough one to get together since I'd need two or three guitarists who can play the stuff and get rehearsed. But I absolutely want to get out and play it.