What Was it Like Playing Keyboards for Yes? A Conversation with Tom Brislin

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Tom Brislin's work as a professional keyboardist has included touring and recording stints with Renaissance, Meat Loaf, Debbie Harry, Glen Burtnik and many others. Brislin was also the founder, lead singer and songwriter for the band Spiraling — but his enviable career kicked up a notch in 2001, when Tom landed the gig as the touring keyboardist for Yes.

In addition to having monster keyboard chops, Brislin is a gifted songwriter, producer and singer, which he clearly demonstrates on his 2012 debut solo album Hurry Up and Smell the Roses. Written, produced, performed and recorded by Brislin, the album features guest contributions from guitarist and songwriter Clint Lagerberg, vocalist Annie Haslam of Renaissance and theremin synthesist Shueh-li Ong.

What was it like being on stage performing with Yes? Did you have to pinch yourself?

It was a bit surreal and I’m really glad I had some experience on big stages prior to playing with them. Yes was a band where I had posters on the wall and I was very well acquainted with their music. I was sort of taking mental snapshots and thinking: Yeah, this is really happening!

How did you get the gig with Yes?

I had to send them a CD with two audition pieces. With any other band, that would be fine, but with Yes it was two 20 minute songs."

They came to me and asked, “Would you like to do this for one year?” Because they knew that Rick Wakeman was out on tour and was coming back the following year. I had to send them a CD with two audition pieces. With any other band, that would be fine, but with Yes it was two 20 minute songs: “Close to the Edge” and “Gates of Delirium.” They went for the jugular! They figured if I can handle that, I can probably handle the rest of the set.

What was the most challenging Yes tune to pull off live?

I think “Gates of Delirium” had the most advanced vocabulary and was also the most challenging in terms of time signature. I was a little puzzled with some of the parts going in. I knew what they felt like, but if I wanted to get technical about it and count everything down, it was open to a little bit of interpretation at times. I think that piece, to me, covers the whole gamut of emotions and whole spectrum of what Yes is about. So for me, that was the most challenging.

How much creative leeway did you have when playing live?

Very little. The thing is they didn’t know me and I hadn’t earned those stripes yet, so they wanted me to start off giving them what they were familiar with. Once we got a little comfortable, I was able to make a left turn here or there on a solo. Chris was very particular about the harmonies. And John was very concerned with the emotional impact of the sound.

Who’s your favorite Yes keyboardist?

Rick Wakeman is one of the figures who got me interested in playing more than piano. I loved piano, but I wanted to expand and get into all these cool sounds with Moog synthesizers, organs and Mellotrons. He had such a crisp orchestration and he was such a showman that he was an early inspiration. Then, when I started getting more into jazz and becoming serious as a player, Patrick Moraz arrived at just the right time. I was getting into Chick Corea and Jan Hammer and clearly he was into those guys too. It’s not an either/or. I want all of them! I think Tony Kaye is underrated too. I think he is a really good rock ‘n’ roll piano and organ player who has the right feel and tasty parts and I like what he did as well.

What was the funniest moment on the Yes tour?

Well, I think it was funny when we got to Europe and the DVD producers were insisting that we perform Yes’ biggest hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” but this was a ‘70s Yes lineup and a ‘70s Yes show and Steve Howe wasn’t too interested in playing ‘80s stuff. So, to persuade Steve to get on board with this, they sent me in to talk to him because they knew we got along well. I suggested to Steve that I do the guitar solo on synth and he said OK. It was just funny that he knew from the moment I walked into the room that they sent me.

What gear did you use with Yes to get vintage sounds?

Moog Minimoog

Moog Minimoog

One of the first things I did when I was confirmed to have the gig was go on eBay and bought a 1974 Minimoog. But the band discouraged me from bringing it because they didn’t want to deal with the delicate stuff and they didn’t want to have to worry about tuning issues and things like that. Yeah, I saw their point, but I was thinking this is Yes and I gotta have a Minimoog. So the Andromeda comes back into the picture because that gave me a window into the vintage sounds.

What was Chris Squire like?

He was fun to work with. I always thought of him as an imposing force, a big guy with really bold statements on the bass. That force was one of originality. He was really original. I’m sure he loved their commercial success as a band, but he always wanted to get an edge into the music that really brought the music to its own place.

What do you think of modular synths?

I’m sort of drooling from afar. It’s a little bit overwhelming. For me, it goes back to the Moog modulars, the Keith Emerson beasts and Wendy Carlos. To me, that is so incredible. When they started producing them again and I got to play them at the NAMM show, I started playing and instantly it was like “Star Collector” and then “Lucky Man.” The sound was just pouring out of the speakers. I guess my gear lust for that modular stuff always comes back to the Moog system, but what I think all these small companies are doing is pretty amazing. It’s a community — an ecosystem. As much as I love to craft sounds, I still lean towards stuff that has a keyboard that’s playable as much as possible.

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If you had to choose: Rhodes or Wurlitzer?

This question would be answered differently depending upon what period of my life I’m in. I’m in a Rhodes vibe lately, although I use both. I think if I got into a heavy classic R&B gig I would use the Wurlitzer, but the sound of the Rhodes is something that’s appealing to me right now and always has been.

Who were your favorite bands growing up?

My siblings’ generation of music was what I was first exposed to, which was album oriented ‘70s rock including Foreigner, Pink Floyd, Yes and Led Zeppelin. When I started listening to music on my own, it was the ‘80s new wave stuff, such as Men At Work and The Police.

I can certainly hear some of that ‘80s new wave influence in your writing. In fact, as I was listening to your CD Hurry Up and Smell the Roses, I was thinking I heard a bit of XTC as an influence.

I love XTC! And what’s interesting about that comparison is that if you look at XTC’s history as a band, when they stopped playing live it took certain pressures off so they could do whatever came to mind in the studio and not worry about how to replicate it live. When I was recording my CD Hurry Up and Smell the Roses, I played about 90% of the instruments and parts on it and so there was no concept that this is a band and we have to replicate it live. I ended up performing songs mostly solo and it was fun to rearrange it.

Where do you get your inspiration from when writing and composing?

I’ve always been coming up with melodies, chord changes and sounds. That has been the most natural part for me, but the refinement, arrangement and lyrics takes me a little bit more time. When I was with Spiraling, we lived most of our existence as an opening act, which had a way of influencing the writing because we had to get people’s attention quickly to win them over. But when I started working on my solo album, that pressure was taken off and I wasn’t worried about getting someone’s attention in five seconds. This record has an overarching theme about the struggle with the concept of patience, as with the title Hurry Up and Smell the Roses. I wanted the music to have a little bit more breathing room.

On the instrumental track “The Outskirts,” what gear did you use for the eerie lush pads?

Alesis Andromeda

Alesis Andromeda

The main pads and atmosphere are coming from the Alesis Andromeda, which is sort of a mythical creature and is no longer available. I got mine around 2001. I had just gotten the gig with Yes and I really wanted to have something that was analog that had a classic feel to it. It’s been a big part of my palette ever since.

What other gear are you using now?

In addition to the Andromeda, I’m using a Casio PX-5S digital piano, a Nord Electro 3, a Dave Smith Instruments Pro-2 and a MacBook Pro running MainStage. Each is very powerful in its own way and quite easy to tote around when inspiration strikes.

Casio PX-5S

Casio PX-5S

Nord Electro 3

Nord Electro 3

Nord Electro 3

Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2


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