Exclusive Interview: Geoff Downes Of Prog Rock Legends Yes & Asia Talks To Andy Burns

For over 20 years I’ve been a diehard Yes fan. If you’re a regular reader of Biff Bam Pop, you probably know this, since we’ve featured the band on many occasions. But today marks a first for the site – an interview with Geoff Downes, the bands current keyboardist, who first played on Yes’ fan favourite album Drama back in 1980 and who rejoined the group in 2011 for their most recent studio release, Fly From Here. With a pedigree that includes being a founding member of both The Buggles and Asia, Downes is one of rocks greatest keyboard players. From a completely biased fan standpoint, he also happens to be my second favourite Yes keyboardist of all time, only topped by original member Tony Kaye (I’m sure Downes would agree he’s in great company). This being the case, I’m thrilled that Geoff was able to answer some questions via email for Biff Bam Pop in this exclusive interview. Yes kicks off their summer tour tomorrow with a show at Casino Rama in Rama, Ontario, their first Ontario show in nearly four years, their first since Downes rejoined the band, as well as their first in the area with new singer Jon Davison. I’ll let you know how the show is on Wednesday; in the meantime, enjoy my chat with Geoff Downes about Yes, touring, Asia and more!

 Andy Burns: As a longtime Yes fan, I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was last year when I heard you were rejoining the band for what became the Fly From Here album. Could you take me through the chain of events that led to you playing on the album to eventually returning as a full time member?

Geoff Downes: I think it was down to a couple of things. Obviously the involvement of Trevor (Horn) as producer had some bearing. When it was suggested that they record a version of ‘Fly From Here’, as one of the composers, Trevor thought it appropriate for me to be part of the recordings. When it started to develop into the epic piece on the album, this is what paved the way for my being asked back into the band.

Andy Burns: I know you’ve obviously maintained ties musically with Steve, along with Alan and Chris – I’m wondering if you had any hesitations about joining the band even still, what with your own commitments to ASIA and the regular road work that comes with being in both bands.

Geoff Downes: I always tell people that there is a marked difference between the music of Asia & Yes. The fact that Steve and myself are involved with both may be unusual, but fortunately we are able to juggle the calendar so we are able to direct attention to both bands satisfactorily.

Andy Burns: To my ears, Fly From Here is the most artistically successful album Yes has made since 90125. The level of musicianship is strong (as always), but there’s also a strength and consistency to all the songs on the album. How did the band go about determining what would make the album, running order, etc?

Geoff Downes: I think it was high time for a new Yes album after the last (Magnification) in 2001. The expectations were such, that we all felt it was important to give the fans something they were hoping for – namely combining musicality with powerful new music. The running order was not difficult to work out. We felt the balance of the songs on there was about right.

Andy Burns: One aspect of your return that really pleased me is that you didn’t simply play on the album – your name is all over the songwriting credits, specifically with your old partner Trevor Horn on the majority of the Fly From Here suite. Could you talk a little about how you worked together on the material – does one focus on music, the other lyrics, etc? 

Geoff Downes: The majority of the FFH joint writing credits GD/TCH, were songs we had started to work on back in the Drama period. They’d kind of stayed there in, almost in a time-warp, and when the songs started emerging for the album, we went back and revisited some of these ideas as they seemed relevant to the other material on there.

Andy Burns: Along the same lines as the above, Chris Squire has a co-write on We Can Fly. Could you give an idea of what he brought to that particular part of the suite?

Geoff Downes: It was an idea that actually heralded mine and Trevor’s involvement in Yes back in the Drama period. We had been asked to make a contribution to the album back at the time, and FFH was the first song we worked on with Chris. Ironically it was never completed, hence the opportunity came to revisit it 30 years later.

Andy Burns: With regard to your own playing on the album, one thing I’ve always admired about you as a keyboard player is that, to my ears, you serve the song rather than serve yourself. So much of your work on Fly From Here feels like texture that adds to the overall experience, which means the moments where you get the solo, such as in Madman At The Screens or that very triumphant moment when the We Can Fly reprise kicks in, are that much more powerful. How are moments like those crafted – is it you saying something like “this spot here could be a good place for a Hammond solo”?; is it Trevor’s role as producer; the band as a whole?

Geoff Downes: It’s important to keep the balance of the instrumentation in fairly equal measures to me. Part of the skill I suppose of being a musician is knowing when to play a supporting role, and when to take pole position. This is particularly important in a band like Yes, as the level of musicianship of each member is very significant to the music as a whole. Quite often the ‘solo’ areas dictate themselves. Of course, this is usually at the discretion of the producer – that’s what he’s there for!

Yes In 2012 (left to right) – Chris Squire, Alan White, Geoff Downes, Steve Howe, Jon Davison

Andy Burns: Moving onto Yes in a live setting – I know last summer’s tour really just featured We Can Fly in the set, but things picked up more in Europe in the Fall and then in Australia earlier this year, with a heavy focus on the new album. What’s been the experience like playing the new songs in concert? As challenging as one would think?

Geoff Downes: Of course, Yes’s music is a challenge. It’s highly complex, and there is little repetition between sections – so it requires learning the whole piece rather than a ‘cut and paste’ type application to the music. It was great playing a big chunk of the album on recent tours. It’s important to incorporate new music, rather than dwelling entirely on the old classics. Not just from a fan standpoint, but also for inspiration for members of the band.

Andy Burns: Along with the new material, and some of the tracks the band has been playing off the Drama album, much of the set features music first created by previous Yes keyboard players. How much leeway is there for you when interpreting parts created by Tony Kaye or Rick Wakeman? 

Geoff Downes: I think both Tony Kaye & Rick Wakeman made huge and significant contributions to Yes’s music in different ways. They are different types of players. Hopefully I’ve brought something to Yes’s history as well. It is such an incredible catalogue of music over the years. To me, it’s important to be faithful to all these Yes recordings as possible live.

Andy Burns: Is there any Yes song that you’ve yet to perform that you’re hoping to at some point?

Geoff Downes: Well, it’s a learning curve that’s for sure. ‘To Be Over’ might be interesting (and challenging), but there’s surely plenty to choose from. I’d quite like to have a look at something from 90125 as well at some point. Maybe something like ‘Changes’, which is an interesting combination of Prog and 80s AOR.

Andy Burns: There’s been lots of talk about a new Yes studio album sometime next year. Can you shed any more details on that, and if you’ll be apart of it? Along the same lines, do you know if we’ll see a live document from the current line-up of the band.

Geoff Downes: As yet, this is not high priority on the agenda, and there’s a lot of discussion to be had about what’s planned for the future. Suffice to say, the idea has not been dismissed, but has neither been discussed actively. I think we’ll all have to ‘wait and see’.

Andy Burns: I was sad to see former lead singer Benoit David go, as he did a stellar job on Fly From Here, but what I’ve seen so far from Jon Davison is really very positive. How has it been working with him this year? 

Geoff Downes: Yes, I think BD did a fine job on the FFH album, so it was a shame for him that he got sick at the end of last year and couldn’t continue with the band. But in Jon D, I think this has brought a great influence in developing yet another chapter in the band’s history. He’s very inspirational to work with.

Andy Burns: In the meantime, while you’re on the road for the summer with Yes, ASIA is getting ready to celebrate 30 years with a new studio album, XXX, that’s out now. Face On The Bridge is a great single; I especially love the groove that’s happening in the verses. Is there anything you can tell me about how that particular song came together?

Geoff Downes: The songwriting between John Wetton and myself has always seemed very natural. We wrote the majority of the album over a couple of weeks. ‘Face’ was one of the ideas that came about from our usual amalgamation of ideas – he has a verse, I have a chorus, there’s the song! It’s that simple!

Andy Burns: At Biff Bam Pop, we cover a wide range of pop culture genres, so I must ask you, did you enjoy Supernatural’s use of Heat of the Moment?

Geoff Downes: Got to be honest, wasn’t aware of this one.

Andy Burns: Finally, what does the rest of 2012 look like for yourself.

Geoff Downes: Full on Yes for the next 2 months, then full on Asia to December. First day off – Christmas Eve 2012!

Thanks to Geoff Downes for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop! As well, thanks to Maria Lundy at QEDG Management for making it happen. Find out more about Yes at www.yesworld.com, Asia at http://originalasia.com/, and Geoff at his own website, http://www.geoffdownes.com/.

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