Just typing out the name “Rick Wakeman” instantly conjures up indelible images of flowing capes, huge banks of keyboards, synths, and pianos, and a cavalcade of great-sounding organ compositions. Over the past year or so in Europe, A&M/UMG has released Deluxe Editions for a trio of Wakeman’s most enduring solo albums — namely, 1973’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1974’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and 1975’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table — that feature bonus discs with both DTX 96kHz/24-bit quad and Dolby Digital quad mixes, a practice Wakeman wholly approves. “I’m really thrilled with that,” he reports. “Anytime surround mixes of my material can be put out, I’m all for it.”
Currently, Wakeman is putting the finishing touches on The Myths and Legends of King Arthur 2016, an album that’s been successfully crowdfunded via Pledge Music and one that will have its own deluxe edition that features a 5.1 mix — as well as glorious cover art by Roger Dean. Not only that, but Wakeman has also just teamed up with two of his former Yes bandmates, vocalist Jon Anderson and guitarist Trevor Rabin, to form ARW, who will be hitting the road in the fall together to play what he calls “an evening of Yes music and more.”
“I always felt that we needed to do Yes music again, and with Jon’s vocals,” Wakeman confirms. “Also, we’re making it a little bit different, because Trevor and I are working together as a team on a proper tour for the first time since the Yes Union tour [in 1991–92]. But we don’t want to do it as how all the arrangements have always been done with Yes pieces. We want to revisit them. They will still be what they are and they will still have all the right ingredients, but we’d like to try and take them to another level. That’s the plan.”
For a story that recently posted on Sound & Vision, I called Wakeman, 67, across the Pond to discuss his affinity for surround sound, his unique in-studio game plan, and his thoughts about the passing of his friend and onetime collaborator David Bowie (yes, that’s Wakeman you hear on Mellotron on “Space Oddity” and piano on “Life on Mars”). Ground control to Grand High Wizard Wakeman…
Rick Wakeman: I like it for what I do because — first of all, for me, I can remember the birth of stereo. That’s because I’m old, I suppose. (both laugh)
The big thing was you’d have your stereo in your house, and you would really genuinely take care of where you’d put your speakers, even if you had a cheap system. And you’d sit with people who’d come ’round, you’d put a record on, and initially, you would listen to the stereo mix and how it moved, and all the things that it did. People took a lot of care with the stereo mixes back then.
And then, of course, it developed into quad — which was interesting, provided you sat in the right place. Of course, there was a lot of quad that was done pretty badly. Some people would think, “Well, as long as I put the snare drum in the back for a little ambience, that’s good enough.” But then real thought started coming into it with surround sound and the way that it was done.
To me, that’s the closest thing to having a pair of headphones on your ears, and also on the back of your head, and the front of your head. And I love it. Surround sound for me is at its best when it’s not trying to be clever where you go, “Oh, that’s clever. That’s clever.”
How can I put it? If you could have a giant cauldron with the music in it, and somebody actually drops you in the cauldron — that’s what I love.
Mettler: I totally agree with that. To me, surround is best when it either makes you feel like you’re onstage with the band and/or the orchestra, or you’re in the studio in the middle of the band while it’s recording.
Wakeman: Yes — and somebody drops you in the middle of it all! That’s it. And that’s fantastic.
Mettler: My favorite example of that is what Steven Wilson did with his 5.1 mix of your big organ moment on the title track to Yes’ Close to the Edge (1972), which made me feel like I was in the cathedral with you when you recorded it. [Wakeman recorded his “I Get Up I Get Down” sequence of “Close to the Edge” on the church organ at St.-Giles-without-Cripplegate in London, which was then floated into the final track from quarter-inch tape.]
Wakeman: Yeah, he did that really, really, really, really well. Obviously, with surround sound, there are certain things, for whatever reason, that work tremendously well. And big cathedral-type organs are a classic example of something that works incredibly well.
Mettler: Did you and Steven interact personally about his goals for that mix?
Wakeman: No, not at all. I knew it was being done, but to be honest with you, I didn’t contact Steven at all. And the reason for that is I have so much confidence in what he does. When you have people involved in the things that you do, you go, “Hey, they’re really, really good. They can take things to a stage that perhaps I can’t.” So you leave them to it. What’s the point of trying to tell somebody who’s excellent at their job how to do it? I thought, “I’m just going to sit back, and wait and see.” (laughs) And, proved right — I mean, what he’s done is very brilliant.
Mettler: Any other favorites of what Steven’s done with the Yes catalog in surround?
Wakeman: He’s done quite a few, but to be honest, I haven’t heard all of it yet. The problem is, I’ve been quite busy, and I don’t have the proper time to sit down and really listen. I’ve got piles of stuff — I’d just like a week to sit down and listen to what people have done.
Mettler: Wouldn’t we all? On a related note, I also love listening to the quad mixes of your ’70s-era solo albums. If they’re going to keep at it, I’d love to hear one for No Earthly Connection (1976) next.
Wakeman: That would be nice! That would be nice. I can’t tell you if it’s going to happen, but it would be jolly nice if it did. I don’t have any rights to those anymore in any way, but I’m just pleased they’re doing them.
Mettler: Who did the surround mix for Myths and Legends 2016?
Wakeman: I had two guys involved with the version we did, both incredibly experienced engineers and producers. One is Erik Jordan, who did [the new] Journey with me and the  re-recording of Return. He’s been around for a long time; really excellent. And the other chap is Toby Wood. They’re both highly regarded for doing this sort of stuff.
And how I work is, after the recording and everything is done in the studio and with the orchestra and the choir, we’ve got a format for the way we like working. After we’ve done everything, what we do is we sit down, and we continue to have conversations that have been going on from Day 1. And that’s about how I see the overall music finishing, how I envisioned it, and what I’m listening to.
With this Myths and Legends, I very much wanted the finished article to be, shall we say, more symphonic rock than the original. The original was a proggy album with an orchestra. I wanted it to have all of the elements of the original and more. I wanted it to flow more, after I had a chance to revisit it.
After we had these discussions, they went away and spent the first 2 weeks putting together very good quality mixes. I then spent a day listening to them and making comments here and there. And they would go away for another 2 weeks, and I would come back, and listen again. I think there were only a couple of minor changes after that, which was all that I needed.
The reason I work like that is because there’s one thing no musician or artist can do, which is listen to the music for the first time. You’ve already lived with it, so what I’ve found with every musician who sits through every mix is that they get fixated on a couple of things. They get fixated about a guitar being too loud or a drum being too loud. And what happens is, that’s all they end up listening to. Whereas, if you go away from it and come back, you can listen to it as a whole, and then make real observations on the bits you don’t really like, or the bits you really love that you’d like them to do more of.
So that’s how I work with Erik and Toby, and it’s a great way of working. Of course, it’s not like the old days when, if you didn’t like something in the mix, you’d pull it all apart and start again. Because of automation, it’s very, very simple — you bring it all back up, make the changes, and away you go.
Mettler: Do you have a favorite Myths and Legends surround mix? I can’t wait to hear what the new mix for “Merlin the Magician” is going to sound like.
Wakeman: (laughs) “Merlin” is crazed; it’s completely over the top! Funny enough, one of the new pieces that I really like is called “Morgan le Fay.” Morgan le Fay was a woman who was a bit of a nasty temptress who did a little bit of, um… (pauses)
Mettler: In other words, she’d fit in perfectly on Game of Thrones.
Wakeman: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, she would! I mean, there are five new songs on there, and I’m pleased with them all. What pleased me immensely, when we did the live performance at the O2 [at the Stone Free Festival on June 19, 2016], is the audience obviously knew the original material, even though it was done slightly differently. They didn’t know any of the new material at all, and what pleased me was the reaction to the new material, which was as good if not better than the stuff they knew.
Mettler: That must feel good as an artist, because some audiences don’t react that favorably to new material.
There are always problems when you do things like this. For example, I had two singers on King Arthur, Ashley Holt and Gary Pickford Hopkins. Sadly, Gary is no longer with us. [Pickford Hopkins passed away from cancer at age 65 in 2013.] So I did what I did with Journey, and that was, instead of getting another male vocalist trying to emulate Gary, I got this fantastic female singer, Hayley Sanderson. I gave her all of the new songs to do, and got Ashley to do the original stuff. And it’s balanced out. It couldn’t have worked better if I’d have seriously planned it that way.
It’s been lots of things that have worked in our favor, plus, everybody involved has given more than 100 percent. It’s the only way these kinds of things work. They’re so ludicrously expensive. It is quite expensive to do these kinds of projects, so everybody has to throw in far more than they’re asked for to make it work.
Mettler: I imagine you must have recorded that O2 performance as well.
Wakeman: No, we didn’t record it, and there are various reasons for that. But we do want to record a live version, and sometime next year, we’re going to take it to a place called Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, which is one of the castles of King Arthur. It’s a medieval site. There’s a Norman castle there now, but the whole village and town is devoted to King Arthur. We’re going to do an open-air King Arthur down there, and we’re going to have jousting tournaments. It will be a medieval symphonic prog rock weekend.
Mettler: That sounds great! Sign me up!
Wakeman: It will be outrageous, I promise you!
Mettler: Looking forward to that. On a different note, it’s sad about the passing of David Bowie, but I really like the Life on Mars Macmillan Cancer Support EP you put out earlier this year. [Bowie passed away from liver cancer at age 69 on January 10, 2016. Wakeman recorded new versions of two Bowie songs he played on the original recordings of — “Life on Mars” and “Space Oddity” — plus his own composition, “Always Together,” on a Steinway D Grand Piano at The Granary on January 18, 2016.]
Wakeman: I did so much work with David, and I learned so much from David. We were neighbors for nearly 5 years when we both lived in Switzerland, and we saw each other a lot.
It’s amazing, the outburst of sympathy and love for David that came out after he passed away. I’ve just done something that’s wonderfully bizarre. You know the astronaut Chris Hadfield, who, at the International Space Station, sung “Space Oddity” on the day that David died, and it became a massive viral hit [32 million views on YouTube and counting]? In the last week [of June], I was at a big festival in The Canary Islands called Starmus, which is a mixture of astrophysics and music, something Brian May [guitarist for Queen] is a major organizer of putting together, since he’s an astrophysicist. This year, it was to pay tribute to Stephen Hawking.
I was down there to play, and Chris Hadfield was there. The organizer said, “Look, we want to do a tribute to David Bowie as well as Steven Hawking, as Stephen loves David Bowie.” I said to Chris, “Why don’t you sing ‘Space Oddity’ as you did up on the International Space Station?” And Chris said, “Why don’t you play with me, since you played on the original?” It was fantastic. We went on with just a piano and an acoustic guitar and did “Space Oddity,” and then I stayed on and did “Life on Mars.” Those two pieces, and the others I had done with David, have become very much a part of my life.
Mettler: This ties into what you told me earlier: how you felt about the passing of [founding Yes bassist] Chris Squire [who died of leukemia on June 27, 2015] — the outpouring of emotion from the general world outside of the music world, which was probably bigger than many people expected, myself included.
Wakeman: I’ve lost so many friends in the entertainment industry in the last 8 or 9 months; it’s quite terrifying. Brian May and I, we see each other quite a lot; we’re really close friends. And when we were down in Tenerife in The Canary Islands, we were both saying, with the loss of people around us — Chris, Lemmy, David, the list goes on and on — suddenly, you become really aware of your own mortality. There’s so much more we want to do.