Roger Dean Is the Most Important Person in Yes Who Actually Isn't in Yes
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.
Yes, Closer to the Edge
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]