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Interview: Steve Howe Discusses Asia’s New Album, ‘XXX,’ and His Upcoming Solo Album

Do you remember exactly when and where you were when you first heard it?

I do. It was June of 1982. I was in seventh grade sitting in, ironically enough, music class during one of the last days before summer vacation. The school was a two-story brick structure that had no air conditioning, and by mid-morning the temperature in the classroom had risen to an almost unbearable level. The open windows and portable fans that circulated the hot air throughout the classroom provided little relief.

As an end-of-year gift to the class, the teacher allowed students to bring in some of their albums to listen to while we cleared out our desks. That was when this kid named Danny put it on the turntable. As needle met vinyl and the crackling hum and hiss began, it was the first time I heard that now infamous guitar riff and opening line:

“I never meant to be so bad to you. One thing I said that I would never do …”

“Heat of The Moment” became the coolest thing ever that day, and it wouldn’t be long before I became one of the 8 million other people who bought the debut album from Asia. In addition to “Heat,” songs like “Only Time Will Tell” and “Sole Survivor” would become staples of my music library.

Over the next few decades, Asia went through various ups and downs and several lineup changes. It wasn’t until 2006 that the four original members — Steve Howe, John Wetton, Carl Palmer and Geoff Downes — reunited and have since released three successful studio albums: Phoenix, Omega and their latest, XXX (pronounced “Triple X”) (Buy on iTunes), a flawlessly executed album that continues to push the barriers of progressive rock.

Thirty years after that steaming-hot day in seventh-grade music class, I spoke via telephone with Howe, who was home in the UK. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on XXX, the origins of Asia and their groundbreaking debut album. Howe also discusses the short-lived, albeit successful GTR project with Steve Hackett, his affinity for Martin guitars and his latest solo album, Time.

GUITAR WORLD: Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that after 30 years, Asia would still be a force to be reckoned with?

We certainly had great aspirations when we first started out, but we’ve done so much more now than we did back then.

The new record, XXX, continues the push of progressive rock and is the second one you’ve recorded with producer Mike Paxon.

That’s what’s been so pleasant! Mike had worked with us on the Omega album and I think it gave him a load of confidence and encouragement to be with us again. He pulled out all the stops and really brought a lot to the project.

XXX features another classic mixture of Wetton/Downes songwriting mixed in with a little Steve Howe for good measure.

Geoff and John’s writing is fantastic and perfect for Asia. When you add mine, it twists that story. It’s not the same song and it doesn’t have that same kind of shape. I think it’s a great marriage to have that kind of balance.

Specifically, your contributions include the songs “No Religion” and “Judas.”

That’s right. Another song I contribute is “Reno,” which appears on the expanded version of the album. It didn’t run quite with the other songs — it’s very gentle, acoustic — but we didn’t want to leave it out. So we added it to the extended version.

What was the song writing process like for XXX?

Shortly after we decided to go with the project, we started making plans to collaborate. Usually, Geoff will come over to my place and he’ll show me some of the songs he and John had been working on. Then I’ll play him some of my stuff and we’ll work to get the material in a way that will be accessible for John. We’ll then leave John with the song for a while to let him get the feel of it. He’s just got a style for it.

Can you tell me how Asia first got together?

At the end of 1981, Geoff and I were both in Yes, and there was talk among members of wanting to do different things. So Geoff and I assumed that meant that Yes was going to have a hiatus. A few months later, my manager called and said, “John Wetton just came into my office. He’s not sure what he wants to do next, but he’d like to do something. Do you want to meet up?”

So John and I met up in a little studio for a few days. He had his bass and I had my guitar, and we were just finding things out about each other. After a week or so, we started writing. Songs like “Without You” and “Cutting It Fine” came about. I played him “One Step Closer” and “Here Comes The Feeling.” Some of those ideas started to surface between us.

Then John said, “You know, I’d like to work with Carl Palmer. I think it would make a great lineup.” Then I said, “Well, I’d like to work with Geoff.” So we brought Carl in first and it was great. We were a nice trio. Then Geoff walks in and it was magic. We had the lineup.

How did “Heat of The Moment” come about?

That song almost didn’t make the album. We had just about finished the record when one day, John and Geoff came in with “Heat of The Moment.” And the minute they played it for us, it was like, “Oh yes, this is kind of good! [laughs].” It had a freshness to it that really became the icing on the cake, but it was also the last song we recorded for the album.

I’ve read where occasionally the band likes to perform the first album in its entirety as part of the show. Are there any plans to do that this time?

We are planning on doing the complete album on one of dates in Japan and maybe we might even do it in reverse order. I think it’s very good if you do it forward, but of course “Heat of The Moment” is the big song, and that’s what usually ends the show [laughs].

I wanted to ask you about a project that I believe doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as it should: GTR.

It’s funny, the way the GTR project came about was very much similar to the way things started with John. Steve Hackett showed up in my manager’s office [laughs]. It was during a period right after Asia fell apart. Steve and I got together and for the next six months, we just wrote and wrote. We got the whole deal together. Then Geoff came in and provided us with “The Hunter.” We had the entire package, but the only problem was Steve and I didn’t really know how it was going to be to work with each other for so long. But we both love “When The Heart Rules The Mind,” and it’s much like we talked about with “Heat of The Moment”; it’ s a song that lends itself to the success of the album.

You’ve been a big fan of Martin guitars over the years. How did you become involved with them?

I’ve been playing Martins since 1968. When I first started playing, I played on an arch-top guitar; that’s what I started on. Then I got the (Gibson) 175 a bit later, which at the time I thought was great. But it wasn’t long before I realized there were some other players — who were just starting to come out — that had a guitar sound I just didn’t have.

One day, I saw a guitar for sale in the West End for £132. I went in and discovered it was a Martin 00-18 from 1953. So I bought it and I fell in love with the guitar. It’s still, to this day, my absolute No. 1 Martin guitar. I’ve played plenty of other great guitars over the years, but the 00-18 is the sweetest, tightest sound I’ve ever found.

I’ve got a wonderful Martin collection. The current model I’m promoting is the MC-38 Steve Howe, which is taken from the MC 28 model I used to play during the ’80s and ’90s.

Tell me about your solo work.

My solo albums have always been very important to me. I’ve just finished my latest one called Time, which is my first fully orchestral album. I’ve found a great collaborator in Paul K. Joyce. When I first met him in 2007, I had various music recorded in different stages of development and over the next few years, we rethought and rearranged the pieces. Finally, we added the live orchestra. It’s been great fun.

Asia’s new album, XXX, came out July 3 on Frontiers Records. Keep up with the band on Facebook and at their official website.

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