An Interview With Oliver Wakeman, Formerly Of Yes

Oliver Wakeman Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of Glass Onyon PR

By keyboardist Oliver Wakeman’s own admission, being the son of Yes’s legendary keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, doesn’t hurt. Famous bloodline aside, though, Oliver has set forth on his own journey, releasing a ton of outstanding solo work and, like his dad, holding down duties with Yes from 2008 to 2011.

Yes aside, Oliver Wakeman has been a member of Strawbs and has collaborated with boatloads of fantastic artists over the years. But most recently, he’s been at it as a solo artist again, with his latest record, Adam Cara, due in May 2024.

Be it as a solo artist or in collaboration with other artists, as long as Oliver Wakeman is milling away, the modern progressive rock scene is in good hands. To that end, Oliver dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to talk origins, songwriting, influences, gear, new music, and more.

What inspired you to be a musician? 

When I was about four years old or three years old, I walked into the lounge of our home, and there was a grand piano. I put my hands onto the keys, just to see what would happen, and somehow, I hit a perfect chord, and it sounded wonderful, and I remember thinking, gosh, that’s amazing, so I did it again.

The next time, it sounded terrible because, of course, I was just little and guessing how to play, so I decided that I needed to learn how to do it properly.

I started having lessons at about the age of five, where they would put stars on my fingers and teach me all the notes. It was great, and ever since then, I’ve just wanted to play. Obviously, growing up with my dad being a musician was very influential as well.

Who were your greatest influences? How do they remain within your sound, and how have you diverged?

I think a lot of people will assume that Dad is obviously the influence on my work. However, I was also influenced by other musicians as I grew up and discovered their bands.

I was a huge fan of the band Styx, and I’m still a huge Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Shaw, and James Young fan to this day. I particularly love all the Styx records, but The Grand Illusion was the first one that I discovered, and I still love that record to this day.

However, I also loved other bands over the years. I’m a big fan of the Dan Reed Network. I thought Dan Reed wrote some wonderful songs. I was also a big fan of Deep Purple when I was growing up as a teenager. Jon Lord was a wonderful organist, and I love the way he played the organ, so I have often tried to think of how Jon Lord might approach something when I play organ parts, as well as Dad, obviously.

Do you remember your keyboard or piano? What did that rig teach you that stuck?

My favorite keyboard will probably be my Moog Little Fatty. It’s a small Moog soloing keyboard, which I used on the Yes tour and the Strawbs tours, and I still use it to this day. It’s a wonderfully expressive keyboard, and I really enjoy playing it. It always has pride of place in my keyboard rig.

However, I have other keyboards that I like as well. I’m a big fan of the Roland XP 30 which I’ve been using for years, and it has some sounds on it that are just wonderful. In fact, I’ve used some of the sounds on the new album Adam Cara.

How big of an influence was your father on you?

He was an influence because I really enjoyed his music, and I admired the way he played piano and keyboards, so I’ve always enjoyed listening to his music. Although to be honest I don’t talk to him about music very much.

We’ve only played together a handful of times, which I quite like. It allows me to go on my own musical path. I also enjoy watching his musical path develop over the 50+ years he’s been playing. I’m a big fan of a lot of his albums, and No Earthly Connection is probably my favorite.

And how does his sound remain present in yours? How have you diverged?

I think I naturally play in the style I play. It isn’t a copy of how Dad plays. I just played and learned how to play, and maybe genetics has something to do with the ability to play in a Wakeman style.

However, I’ve grown up listening to different music to the music dad listened to when he was growing up, and I think that has made my style change a little bit as I have different musical influences to the influences he had when he was growing up.

So, I think that is probably one of the factors as to why we sound a bit similar but then a bit different at times as well. This is particularly true in our songwriting style.

What was your first professional gig? What did you learn?

My first gig was when I was about 17, and I was in a band where everybody in the band was about 15 years older than me. It was all original material, and I only had two keyboards, one of which the tuning had broken and was slightly out of tune, so I could only use that keyboard when it was just me and the singer, or it would have been too obviously out of tune!

I also borrowed a bright pink keyboard from my friend who had one as I needed a third keyboard. However, I didn’t have enough money to buy a keyboard stand, so I borrowed my mum’s ironing board without her knowing! It was a great gig; I earned a few quid, and they gave me a drink at the end of the night, and I thought I really liked this life.

How do you view the way you play today versus the past? What has changed most? 

I think my playing has improved over the years. I’ve learned a lot more. My dad always used to say to me that being a musician was the world’s longest apprenticeship as you’ve never finished learning.

I never think I’ve learned all that I can learn. I’m always happy and keen to learn more. However, I do think that as time goes on and you learn more and gain more experience, your songwriting and arrangement skills improve.

When you first start writing, every idea you have is new. It’s very hard to keep coming up with new ideas as you enter decade after decade of writing, but I love that challenge. However, as I said, the arrangement skills improve over time and allow you to create more musical versions of the stories you’re trying to tell.

Tell me about your writing process. 

I don’t have a process as such. I generally always try to start with just the piano or an acoustic guitar and get the bare bones of a song. The melody and the chord structure are key. You have to make sure that the song stands on its own two feet.

Playing just one of those instruments with a single voice often is enough to know if the song has merit. Once I have that, I feel happy to build up on it and use the arrangements to help pull on the emotional strings.

I do, however, also like writing all the time, but I never start an album, write ten songs, and finish. What I tend to do is write a song and then think, “Oh, that’s a sort of rock song idea that goes in my rock song folder,” and then I might come up with another piece of music that is more of a Celtic piece of music.

Okay, that goes in my Celtic folder. Over the years, I have built up a collection of music that I think will work together on a record rather than just creating a record full of my ten latest songs. I’ve always done this, and I think it suits the way that I create my album very well.

Tell me about your gear. What goes into those choices?

I always have to have a very good electric piano. I currently use a Dexibell piano in my studio and on stage. It’s a wonderful instrument, and I really love it. As I’ve mentioned, my Moog little Phatty comes everywhere with me, and I use that a lot. However, I also use a lot of virtual instruments now in the studio.

I use a lot of IK Multimedia’s software as well. They have wonderful orchestral sounds, and they also have a wonderful virtual piano called Pianoverse which I use a lot as well. I also have a lot of Korg Keyboards. I currently use a Kronos in the studio.

I recently did a film soundtrack and used the Kronos a lot on that film. It was great fun to use. But I also have lots of old Korg keyboards, such as M3, CX3, and 01W. I love them all. Anything that helps me make music I like using.

Which of your new songs best represents who you are today as an artist?

I particularly like the song “Here in My Heart” off the new Anam Cara record. I think the arrangement is particularly good, and the emotional build in that song is very strong as well. It particularly builds nicely to the big keyboard solo, which I think is one of my best keyboard solos as well.

It just came to me one night. Also, I changed the vocal line very late in the mix as I felt it could be better. So, I took a chance to completely change all the vocals at the last minute, and it worked so much better. I was so pleased I did that. I think that song shows a lot of who I am today with my arrangement skills, playing ability, and ability to be brave as a producer.

How does the sound of Yes remain present in your music, if at all?

I don’t know, really; I just write how I feel. Some music can generally become a little more YES-like due to the experiences I obtained when working with Yes. Sometimes, I might think about how a piece of music has to develop.

Yes often wrote in lots of lines of music working together to create their sound rather than one instrument creating all the tone for the song. For example, Steve would play accompaniment to something that I was playing.

And Chris [Squire] would add another line of bass notes, and together, it just helped create that ‘Yes’ sound. I do try to employ this approach at certain sections in my songs, but I don’t start every song thinking that way.

As I said before, it’s all about the song. If the song needs complication and clever bits, it gets it. If a song needs just a piano or an acoustic guitar and a voice, that’s all it needs. I let the song guide me in the way that it needs to be written.

What did that gig teach you? What does it mean to you, given your family history?

It was fantastic to be a part of Yes. It was wonderful to be a part of their history, and it is wonderful to have kept the Wakeman name in the Yes history for longer. I particularly enjoyed my time working with them all, especially now that Chris and Alan [White] have both passed on.

I got to see an awful lot of the world, meet an awful lot of fans, and have a wonderful time, and I’m always grateful for that period in my life. I’m also pleased that I got to be represented on a live album and a studio record to show that we were a creative writing force as well as just a touring entity.

Has having a famous musical parent been a hindrance or a help?

I cannot deny that having the Wakeman name does make people show some interest, and it can sometimes open the door just a little bit. But the downside is that, because Dad is so well-known and so good at what he does, if you are unable to do what is expected of a Wakeman keyboard player and songwriter, then the door is going to close pretty quickly.

So, even though it does help a bit, it also means that the expectations are very high, which means I have to work particularly hard to ensure that everything I do is the best it can possibly be.

What advice would you have for young musicians?

The best advice I can give any young musician wanting to start out is to play live as often as possible with a variety of different musicians of different ages and styles. That way, you learn stagecraft, understand more about how music is constructed, and learn how to work with other musicians.

Above all, it teaches you to trust other musicians, as you have to rely on each other to present the song to the audience in the best way. It’s also a great way of learning how to perform, how to have solos, and how to interact with an audience and other band members. It was the best learning I did when I started playing with bands at a very young age.

What’s next for you in all lanes?

The album is due out on May 10, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the fans’ response to it. I just finished a headline show at the festival with a band I put together to perform music from the new album, and we also performed [Yes’s] From a Page.

It was a great show, and it went down really, really well. So, I’d like to start planning some more shows for the band so that we can see more people and keep performing this music to people.

After that, I’ve got to do some music writing for a friend of mine, Rodney Matthews [the world-famous artist]. He and I are working together to create a couple of albums based on his artwork, and I’m very much looking forward to that, along with other sessions I do for musicians throughout the year.

And after that, I’ll probably start working on my next record and see which direction that music takes me in.

An Interview With Oliver Wakeman, Formerly Of Yes article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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