Billy Sherwood Says Yes to Taking Circa Into the Hi-Fi Valley

Billy Sherwood is a man who wears many hats — and all of them fit quite nicely, thank you very much. These days, the multi-talented, multi-hyphenate musician — bassist, vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, producer, mixer, and engineer are among the many caps in his sonic haberdashery — is spending the bulk of his time as the bassist in Yes, having been handpicked by the late Chris Squire to be his replacement. “That was his wish. It was his plan, not mine,” Sherwood says, somewhat modestly, of taking over for Squire after he passed away in June 2015. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to think about, but that’s how Chris wanted it.”

Yes is currently on the road delivering the latest incarnation of their ongoing two-set Album Series, this time around featuring 1980’s Drama in full and Sides 1 and 4 of 1973’s far-reaching opus, Tales From Topographic Oceans. Sherwood’s favorite song to play on this tour is Tales’ ever-sprawling “Ritual,” due in no small part to that fact it has “a great bass solo” — which I can report firsthand Sherwood does great justice to and with, having seen Yes at the Bergen PAC in Englewood, New Jersey on August 10.

As rewarding as being in Yes is for Sherwood, his passion project is his other band, Circa, in which he plays guitar and sings lead vocals. Circa also features original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, drummer/percussionist Scott Connor, and bassist Rick Thierney. Valley of the Windmill (Frontiers), the band’s fourth studio album, builds upon their earlier prog-leaning promise with the propulsive acoustic-to-electric-and-back-again movements of “Silent Resolve” to the expansive palette of the 18-minute album closer “Our Place Under the Sun” — a song that would make for a perfect album side in itself, in the hopeful eventuality of the album seeing a vinyl release somewhere down the line.

During a Yes tour stop in Massachusetts, Sherwood (third from left in the above Circa band photo), 51, called me to discuss his goals for the overall sound of Windmill, what it’s like backing up William Shatner, and what the future may hold for Yes. As Sherwood himself sings a few times in “Our Place Under the Sun,” all roads lead to tomorrow.

Mike Mettler: Valley of the Windmill is one of my favorite records of the year so far. Naturally, one of my first thoughts after hearing it was, “Can we get a surround sound mix, please?”

Billy Sherwood: (laughs heartily) Ahhh, God, if only there was time! (continues laughing)

Mettler: If you had the time, would you be interested in doing one?

Sherwood: Yeah, if there was time to pull it off, I would have a go at it. But I can tell you the stereo mixes were the ones we slaved over and worked hard to make sound the way they do. It was a lot of work. I’m quite happy with the stereo version now, but if there was an opportunity to do surround, yeah, I’d take a stab at it.

Mettler: It’s a very rich mix overall. Was Windmill done at 96/24 [i.e., 96-kHz/24-bit]?

Sherwood: I’m still working at 48. That works fine for me. It’s recorded at 24, but ultimately, it gets down to a CD, so no matter what, you’re heading backwards to 16. That’s the format that’s the standard, so it is what it is.

Mettler: Is vinyl important to you at all?

Sherwood: You know, I really don’t hold vinyl as dear as others might, simply because you can’t push that bottom end on the vinyl like you can in the digital world. For me, there’s a compromise there. I think vinyl is cool and has its place, but it’s more of an emotional attachment kind of thing, rather than an audio attachment. On a pure audio level, you just can’t get those frequencies going on there en masse like that. The grooves would be too big! (both laugh)

Mettler: Is Frontiers doing vinyl for this album?

Sherwood: I don’t really know. To be honest, I’m not sure. But it would definitely have to be spread out, because of the tones.

Mettler: Yeah, it would have to be a double 180-gram LP, especially given the breaks on “Silent Resolve” where Tony [Kaye] comes in on the organ, and then those two acoustic segments of yours...

Sherwood: Yeah, there are a lot of dynamics involved in that record.

Mettler: Speaking of dynamics, I first saw you with Yes last year at NJPAC [in Newark, New Jersey on August 8, 2015], which was right at the beginning of the tour you did with Toto. I thought it was a great show — and in a great-sounding venue, too.

Sherwood: Yeah, and Toto’s so great too. It was so fun to have them out there.

Mettler: I know you’ve worked with some of the Toto guys before on some of your other projects.

Sherwood: Those guys are responsible for starting my career, when I was 17, 18 years old. They [Toto keyboard mavens Steve Porcaro and David Paich] produced the first Lodgic album [Nomadic Sands, released on A&M in 1985]. That was what basically started the whole thing of me getting into the music business. [Billy was in Lodgic with his older brother, keyboardist/vocalist Michael Sherwood, who later worked on 2015’s Toto XIV and co-produced and wrote songs for Steve Porcaro’s 2016 solo album, Someday/Somehow.]

Mettler: Have there even been a proper reissue of Nomadic Sands?

Sherwood: Not that I know of, no. It was a limited print run because it wasn’t a big hit. They pressed as many as they did, and that was that. There are still a few vinyl copies floating around somewhere, but they’re hard to find. Those who have them tend to hang onto them.

Mettler: Who has the rights to that record?

Sherwood: I think A&M owns it; I’m pretty sure. You get lost in that conglomerate thing.

Mettler: Well, we’ll have to get Universal/UMe, A&M’s parent company, to look into re-releasing it. Will Circa get to do any live dates to support this album?

Sherwood: Right now, I’ve given my priority to Yes, as Chris [Squire] asked me to promise him — which I did. So Yes has the fast lane, and if there’s time to do other things, we’d love to, because Circa is a great band live. We’ve done it before.

That said, it’s no easy task getting it up and running. It’s not like a 12-bar blues jam. There’s a lot of time and preparation that would have to go into it. With Yes, we’re constantly on tour or on a 6-week break, then we’re coming back at it again. So it’s hard to say. But we’d like to if we got the chance to do it, that’s for sure.

Mettler: I remember Circa did some Ponder the Mystery dates, supporting William Shatner [in California on October 23-25, 2013].

Sherwood: Yeah, those were great. But on a Circa to a Ponder the Mystery ratio, it was a lot easier to learn those songs. Shatner has more “regular” songs, where Circa has to put a certain investment into rehearsing in order to get 18 minutes right. (laughs)

So, yeah, we did Ponder the Mystery with Shatner live at sold-out shows, and had a great time. Bill’s fantastic. He’s a wonderful guy. It was a great little hybrid there for a moment in time. I’m glad we did it.

Mettler: Did you have one burning question you just had to ask Bill about his career?

Sherwood: (laughs) I didn’t hit him with any Star Trek stuff, because I assume that’s the last thing the guy wants to hear. But I did probe him on some of those early Twilight Zone episodes.

Mettler: Yeah, see, I’d do the same thing — I’d ask him about the “Nick of Time” episode, the one in the diner with the fortune-telling machine [Season 2, Episode 7, which originally aired November 18, 1960].

Sherwood: For me, the diner is the best one. The thing on the wing is a really famous one [“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” Season 5, Episode 3, which originally aired October 11, 1963], but his acting in the diner is so subtle, like the eye movements to his wife [played by Patricia Breslin].

Mettler: It’s one of those psychological episodes, where he’s on the brink of falling apart...

Sherwood: He unravels! (chuckles) I love the way he’s looking at his wife, because she’s not on his side.

Mettler: She’s like, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Sherwood: Yeah, exactly! (chuckles some more) It’s a good one.

Mettler: I totally agree. Will you be working on new music with Yes at some point?

Sherwood: Yeah. I was getting those questions the first week out on the first tour [in 2015], and my reply remains the same, even though a year has already passed since Chris passed. It was just a bit early to think about and talk about then.

But it is the inevitable for a band like this. That’s what Yes does — it makes records, and it tours. So I can definitely see a new record at some point down the road. I can’t tell you when, but we’ve had light conversations about the idea. No one is objecting to it, so I think that’s where it’s going to go.

Mettler: I’m always of the mind that, especially when it comes to the Yes collective, these are some of the most creative people in music, so if you want to make new music, it should not be disparaged. Why should musicians not be “allowed” to create, no matter what stage or age they’re at?

Sherwood: Oh yeah, yeah. You’ve got to create. That’s the whole point of art. I enjoy playing this classic music from back in the day, of course, but the other half of that artistic side wants to create. And that’s where a new record comes in.

Mettler: You also produce other people’s music too, like the Dale Bozzio/Missing Persons record you did [2014’s Missing in Action].

Sherwood: God, she’s great. I love her. That was fun to do. But, yeah, I have my own studio, and I’m constantly working. For example, I just finished the second record for Days Between Stations. It’s really good.

I find time to do what I can do when I can do it. My schedule’s gotten a lot busier over the last year, so it’s changed what I can do, but I still do it.

Mettler: If you had a dream project for someone whom you haven’t yet worked with, who or what would it be?

Sherwood: I’ve never worked with Sting, Peter Gabriel, or Kate Bush. Those are the last ones I haven’t made contact with. But they’re doing fine without me. (both laugh)

Mettler: Well, I did feel a little bit of a Peter Gabriel presence in your vocals during the back half of Windmill’s opening track, “Silent Resolve.”

Sherwood: Yeah, people say I sound a little bit like Gabriel. I used to sound like [original Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson, apparently, but now that I’m older, I sound like Peter Gabriel, I guess. But I’ll take that. That’s a compliment.

Mettler: To borrow a lyric, why do you think the time is now for Yes?

Sherwood: Regardless of any personnel changes, at the center of all of it is the music. As long as the music is being represented with integrity, grace, and respect, I think the fans appreciate that — and they want to come see it.

It’s a two-way street. We come to do our best to represent these songs, and they come support it. The two worlds collide, and that stimulates the thing to keep moving it forward. It’s just a real special time for Yes right now. I’ve been around it a lot. There’s a renaissance going on here that’s quite cool — and who woulda thunk it for Yes in 2016?