Something Else! Interview: Geoff Downes, of Asia, the Buggles and Yes

Keyboardist Geoff Downes has never been busier, working by turns with each of the three bands he’s been associated with off and on since the turn of the 1980s — Yes, the Buggles and Asia.

Just a few months after helping craft a terrific comeback recording with Yes (for whom he earlier played keyboards during the Drama era), and in between a few one-off reunions with Trevor Horn in the Buggles (who crafted an era-defining early-MTV hit in “Video Killed the Radio Star”), Downes has also played a key role in what’s perhaps the best Asia album since their three-decades-old debut — appropriately titled XXX.

Both Asia and Yes are also on tour this fall. Upcoming dates are listed below.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Geoff Downes breaks down key songs from Asia's 'XXX,' Yes' 'Drama' and 'Fly From Here' - and, of course, the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star."]

Downes stopped by, in the latest SER Sitdown, to talk about Asia’s resurgence since a reunion six years ago with the original lineup of John Wetton, Steve Howe and Carl Palmer — an amalgam that seemed to arrive and then disappear with a similar suddenness in the early 1980s …

NICK DERISO: To my ears, this is the best Asia album since the 1982 debut. What clicked this time?
GEOFF DOWNES: We wanted to do something special for this anniversary. One the key factors was the fact that we never gave it a real shot in the early period. Everything was happening on a roller coaster, and we didn’t really have a chance to have a natural growth as a band. Everything happened so quickly. When everybody was available to do it again and had the appetite to do it again, beginning about six years ago, we had an opportunity to establish ourselves much more as a band — not just as a nostalgic trip for those first couple of albums. A lot has happened over the years. We’re probably a lot older and wiser, and we’ve gotten along and appreciate the reasons that we originally got together — and that was to make great music.

NICK DERISO: Your duo recordings with John Wetton as Icon seemed to pave the way for this second era of Asia’s original lineup.
GEOFF DOWNES: That was a significant aspect, the fact that John and I were working together — and we were able to restart the songwriting partnership that we had on the early Asia albums. They showed that it hadn’t gone away, that Asia could still be operational. That was one of the key factors that enabled us to open up the door, and approach doing new albums. We felt that was important, rather than just relying on those first couple of albums, to begin anew. We wanted to come back creating. That was important if we were going to go back in the studio. And we still have that appetite to make new music, six years on. We’ve done three more albums since then, so now we have five albums to pull material from in concert.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Wetton examines three of his most important musical stops - Asia, King Crimson and UK - while frankly discussing how drinking nearly ruined all of it.]

NICK DERISO: Something new since the last Asia project is your return to Yes for 2011’s Fly From Here, your first with them since Drama in 1980. How does your musical relationship with Steve Howe — the guitarist in both bands — change in the different contexts?
GEOFF DOWNES: Since I first joined Yes and worked with Steve in 1980, we’ve had a good understanding of the way that keyboards and guitars can work together. Very often, Steve is doing what he does so well, which are these virtuoso lines, and I will drop back and play more of a supporting role. I think that in many ways was one of the charms of the original Asia, and why people liked what we did together, was because we made that space. When he plays those signature lines, I will play a supporting role, or visa versa. There’s a balance.

NICK DERISO: Your return to Yes has also led to more in-concert performances of songs from that 1980 project. What, in your mind, is the legacy of Drama in the broader history of Yes? Do you think it’s unfairly overlooked?
GEOFF DOWNES: I do; I think it’s often overlooked. It was very much a turning point for Yes, and pointed the band into a different chapter for a different generation. In many ways, it paved the way for them to do the 90125 album, which was quite a different Yes from what had been there before. They ended the previous era with Tormato, and from there on, they added quite a lot more of the up-to-date technological sounds that I suppose I was familiar with particularly. I think that brought Yes to a different arena. I think Drama helped continue to legacy of Yes, but also to take it a stage further.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 'XXX' builds on Asia's long-ago arena-pop successes, adding a few notable new prog-rock elements. The results are the best thing since its platinum 1982 debut.]

NICK DERISO: John Wetton, in a previous SER Sitdown, described his collaborative relationship with you as one where you can be apart for years and then pick up again right where you left off — like brothers in a conversation. Describe the moment when you knew there was a spark.
GEOFF DOWNES: It wasn’t something that was forced. When we first got together, I had worked with Steve, but I had not worked with John or Carl. It was very much uncharted territory. When I started working with John, not only did we have similarly backgrounds — having been brought up around English church music and stuff like that — but we also had an understanding about songwriting. The chemistry evolved fairly early on in the proceedings. We wrote songs like “Only Time Will Tell” while sitting around the piano and pooling our ideas. That’s how that first album came together. It was a very, very natural process. Not much has changed over the years. It never seems to have gone away.

NICK DERISO: There must have been enormous pressure to follow up those first Asia hits. Was that part of why the original lineup didn’t initially last?
GEOFF DOWNES: I think it was a combination of factors. We really got pushed by the record label for that second album. But I think we also never had the chance to develop the way that some other bands do, because we had such a huge debut. They wanted such huge success on the back of that first album. The pressure, in many ways, got to some of us. If had been the other way around, if we had some commercial success later on, it might have been a different story. The second album was pretty respectable, and we had some great songs on that album, but their expectations were such that when it didn’t quite achieve at the same level, it felt like a let down. There was finally a chance to look at all of that, years later, and to come to an understanding. There was a conscious decision at that point to move forward, because we knew we had unfinished business to attend to. Everybody was gung ho about it, and I think that’s the reason it’s still going today. Knowing that there were things to we didn’t achieve at the time, we owed it to ourselves to give it another shot.

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Upcoming dates and venues for Asia’s 2012 tour …

Oct 11: Le Caberet du Capitole, Quebec, Canada
Oct 12: Corona, Montreal, Canada
Oct 13: Seneca Bears Den, Niagara Falls, NY
Oct 14: Ulster Performing Arts Center, Kingston, NY
Oct 17: Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ
Oct 18: Wilbur Theatre, Boston, MA
Oct 19: NYCB Theatre at Westbury, Westbury, NY
Oct 20: Keswick Theatre, Glenside, PA
Oct 21: Grand Opera House-DE, Wilmington, DE
Oct 23: Turning Stone Resort & Casino Showroom, Verona, NY
Oct 25: Ridgefield Playhouse, Ridgefield, CT
Oct 26: Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, CT
Oct 27: Best Buy Theater, New York, NY
Oct 28: Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, York, PA
Oct 30: Rams Head On Stage, Annapolis, MD
Oct 31: Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead, Homestead, PA

Upcoming dates and venues for Yes’ 2012 tour …

Aug 9: Denver, CO, Paramount Theatre
Aug 10: Salt Lake City, UT, The Complex
Aug 12: Snoqualmie Casino, (Mountain View Plaza) Snoqualmie, WA
Aug 14: San Jose, CA, San Jose Civic
Aug 15: Universal City, CA, Gibson Amphitheatre
Aug 17: Scottsdale, AZ, Talking Stick Resort Ballroom
Aug 18: San Diego, CA, Humphreys Concerts
Aug 19: Las Vegas, Pearl Concert Theatre
Aug 21: Mexico City, MX, Pepsi Center

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.