Something Else! Interview: Geoff Downes on new albums with Asia + Yes, and learning from the past

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Geoff Downes better be wearing comfortable shoes, because he’s going to be on the run in 2014. The busy keyboardist just finished a new album with Asia, and is in sessions for another with Yes — with tours for both slated, as well.

Somehow, he’s also made time recently for side projects including DBA with Chris Braide and the New Dance Orchestra’s Electronica.

Pity his poor staff. “Yeah, and they’re very, very conscious of keeping me up to speed,” Downes tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “It’s not easy. It can be a scheduling nightmare.”

To wit: Yes will tour behind its forthcoming studio effort, to be helmed this time by Roy Thomas Baker, first through Canada in the spring, then over the seas as part of Cruise to the Edge, into Europe for six weeks and then back into the U.S. In between, Asia is set to release Gravitas in March, its first album with guitarist Sam Coulson, after the departure last year of Steve Howe. A summer tour in Japan follows, before stops in Europe this September and then back to the states thereafter.

Oh, and yes … it’s that Roy Thomas Baker. This will be Downes’ first Yes project without his former Buggles bandmate Trevor Horn serving as producer — which seemed like as good a place as any to start, since we’d caught Downes in a rare moment of stillness …

NICK DERISO: Roy Thomas Baker is known for his distinctive approach to vocals, with bands like Queen and Journey. Has that played any role in the early stages of this album?
GEOFF DOWNES: He started an album with Yes back in 1979 in Paris, though not much materialized. After that is when Trevor and I joined the band for the Drama album. He is known for a bit more of the vocal thing, and I think some of the material we’ve gotten lends itself to that kind of treatment. But Yes, as much as being an instrumental band, if you listen to a lot of the albums, there is a lot of very intricate vocals — and a lot of that comes from (stalwart bassist) Chris (Squire). I think this one is going to have those elements.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Cofounding Yes bassist Chris Squire takes over our One Track Mind feature, discussing songs from Yes, Squackett, XYZ and his solo release ‘Swiss Choir.’]

NICK DERISO: Fly From Here grew out of an earlier composition from the Drama era. Was there a similar inspiration for this new project?
GEOFF DOWNES: Well, no. We had some collaborations toward the end of the last June. There was actually a lot of that, prior to us coming together. The songs that we liked, the ones that will be included in the album, floated to the top, as it were.

NICK DERISO: Describe what Sam Coulson brought to Asia, as you put together your first album project together.
GEOFF DOWNES: He’s a much heavier player than someone like Steve. Steve’s got his own style, and everybody knows what he does. He’s just a very, very original player. Sam was recommended to us by Paul Gilbert, a very, very technical player. He came through and made big contributions to the album. He has a much heavier approach, and so the music has changed to accommodate that. He’s a very different type of player, and you have to approach the music based on whoever is in the band. He’s more from the power-guitar school, so that changes things.

[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: Over 30-plus years, Asia built the bulk of its reputation on the songwriting tandem of Geoff Downes and John Wetton. How has that relationship grown?
GEOFF DOWNES: We’ve always been able to sit down and come up with things. That’s really never changed. The principle that we operate on now is pretty much the same one we always did — which is, sit down at the piano, throw a few ideas into the pot, and see what happens. And John is singing better now than he has before. He’s really turned the corner, as far as his personal life. And that’s certainly helped in bringing him to the fore. He’s such a powerful vocalist on stage.

NICK DERISO: You’ve also somehow found time, along the way, for both DBA and the New Dance Orchestra. Would you describe those as outlets for other parts of your muse?
GEOFF DOWNES: It’s more of an outlet for my technological side. I’ve always been very, very interested in keyboards, and technology in music. That really started out with the experiments in the Buggles. It’s more in line with that kind of thinking, in many ways. Most of what I’ve been interested is, I suppose you’d say, more orchestral. It’s interesting to be able to apply those things into my own work. And that’s what collaborations with DBA and on Electronica really are — experiments in that field. It’s an interesting outlet, to be sure, yeah.

[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.”]

NICK DERISO: The album with Chris Braide seemed to arrive out of nowhere. How do you account for how quickly the two of you connected?
GEOFF DOWNES: He’s coming more from the pop world, and I’m probably more in the prog vein, so when we work together, it falls somewhere in the middle. He’s a generation behind me, but he grew up listening to the Buggles, and that kind of thing. We’re also from the same part of the world. So, we have a kind of empathy that allowed us to work very quickly on that. I hope that we can do another one some time. It’s not often that run into someone that you hit it off with right away.

NICK DERISO: As those side projects arrived, I couldn’t help but think about Yes’ lengthy recent tour focusing on older albums from before your tenure. Is that a creatively frustrating thing for you?
GEOFF DOWNES: Not really. I actually kind of enjoyed it. It was a quite a challenge. These are the albums that really made Yes the band that they are — The Yes Album and Close to the Edge. There were enormously successful albums, but what’s intriguing is how different the keyboard parts are. On The Yes Album, you have Tony Kaye — and he has a very different style than Rick Wakeman did on Close to the Edge and Going for the One. It’s interesting to go through those albums and look at how it was all put together. It’s challenging and interesting at the same time. I’ve enjoyed doing that, even though I’m playing somebody else, I suppose, rather than myself.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Alan White takes us into an amazing career that’s included stops with John Lennon, David Torn and Tony Levin – and, of course, Yes.]

NICK DERISO: Did getting that deeply into the older music change the way you approached the new Yes album? Or are you focusing on your own creative space?
GEOFF DOWNES: I think it’s a bit of a combination of both. I’d never sort of ditch the grand piano, because I think it sits really well — not only in Yes’ music but generally in progressive rock music. I have some keyboard mainstays. Then, the electronic additions that you put in there are sort of icing on the cake.

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