Biff Bam Pop Exclusive: Geoff Downes on Asia’s Gravitas, Yes’ Heaven and Earth and more

Geoff DownesProgressive rock giants Yes are currently touring across Canada with their 3 album tour, playing their classics Close To The Edge, Going For The One and The Yes Album (in that order). Reviews have been stellar, and the band is on fire (you can read my review of last year’s Toronto show here). In the meantime, the group have announced a summer tour of the U.S. along with their new album, Heaven and Earth, the first to feature new vocalist Jon Davison and second in a row to include keyboardist Geoff Downes.

Downes has got to be one of the hardest working men in music today. Along with his commitment to Yes, he and his colleagues in Asia have just release their new album, Gravitas, a memorable collection of songs that once again highlight the special songwriting tandem of Downes and bassist John Wetton. Geoff was kind enough to talk to us via email about Asia, Gravitas, being on the road with Yes and much more.

Andy Burns: Thanks for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop again, Geoff! 2014 is already shaping up to be a big year for you – the new Asia album Gravitas is about to drop, you’re continuing the Yes Three Album tour, and there’s a new Yes album in the pipe. First question – how do you manage your time?

Geoff Downes: This year is particularly hectic, and it’s a credit to the management teams of both Yes & Asia for managing my time in this regard. Despite the tough schedule, it’s really exciting for me to have the two albums coming out, and of course performing on the tours as well. I think I can adapt to each band fairly quickly, but this year will certainly raise a few challenges.

Andy Burns: The new Asia album, Gravitas, is big and bold and confident, which is great considering you have a new, young guitarist in the band. How did you discover Sam Coulson?

Geoff Downes: I think it’s a very strong album, and both John & myself are really pleased with the way our compositions turned out. It’s always something of an unknown area when we start writing an album, but eventually the bits all start to fall into place. Having Sam (who was recommended to us) on board has also helped really bring the project to life.

GravitasAndy Burns: I think you’d agree that not just anyone can fill the shoes of Steve Howe – considering that Sam is a different style of player and significantly younger than Steve, was it a conscious decision to find a player that wasn’t a “big name”?

Geoff Downes: We weren’t necessarily looking for a ‘big-name’, more for someone who could open up another chapter in the book. And more importantly, someone who could give us a different slant on the guitar profile. As you pointed out, Steve is a unique talent within himself. When we heard Sam’s playing, we all felt it was perfect for the direction we wanted to head in.

Andy Burns: What was the writing process like for Gravitas? Do you and John Wetton sit together when composing or do you each bring in somewhat finished material?

Geoff Downes: Largely our collaborations are approached via short sketches that we play to each other, and then we construct the songs from that point. It’s fairly straightforward from there on – just a case of filling in the blanks over the course of time. Once we have the corner pieces of the jigsaw in place, it’s a matter of ordering those other elements to complete the picture. The hard part is establishing the arrangements, and making it all as interesting as possible musically. We try not to stick to any formulae.

Andy Burns: One can’t help but notice the amazing vocals that kick off the album with Valkyrie – how did that particular track come together?

Geoff Downes: Ironically this was the first song we wrote together when we embarked on the album. It was a classic John chorus he played to me at first and we thought it was so strong, it was worth kicking off the track with. Originally it was going to be the album title, but then Gravitas emerged mid-stream and we felt this was a more encompassing title for the album.

Andy Burns: The title track at 8 minutes long veers into epic territory, much like that other band you’re in – could you tell me a little about how that song came together?

Geoff Downes: It’s fairly clear that there is a strong classical influence in this piece. The name ‘Gravitas’ suggests depth and seriousness. We felt it was appropriate to bear this in mind whilst constructing it. It’s sectional by style, with a prelude and then into a more conventional song format. We wanted to stretch out a little more on this piece rather than feel limited in any way.

Andy Burns: Since the original Asia regrouped, the level of consistency when it comes to your studio albums has been amazingly high. Not only have fans noticed it, but critics have been giving the band its due as well. What is it about this group of musicians that brings out the best in one another?

Geoff Downes: Since the reformation, it has enabled us to view in a different light what we achieved back in the early 80s. The fact remains that this particular group of musicians makes a certain unique sound that is instantly identifiable. When we got back in the studio, I think we all felt a commitment to each other to come up with the best we could possibly achieve. This is the key to the band’s longevity, I believe.

Yes-2014-tour-620x400Andy Burns: In the meantime, as Gravitas is being released, you’re also on a cross Canada tour with Yes for the Three Album tour, which I saw last year in Toronto, and will be checking out a few times on this run. The endeavor has been a huge success – were you surprised at all the demand for this tour?

Geoff Downes: We are currently about half way through the tour, slowly moving West to East, and it’s been great playing in front of the Canadian audiences who have been hugely receptive to the 3-album show. I think we only did one Canadian show on the last tour, and so it was good to have the opportunity to bring it to all the fans right across the width of the country this time.

Andy Burns: As a big fan of the work you’ve done in Yes, I can’t help but wonder, does doing a tour where there’s nothing from Fly From Here or Drama bother you at all, since you were on those albums? Or do you find pleasure in playing these songs and interpreting the work of previous Yes keyboardists?

Geoff Downes: A couple of years back, we did do a substantial amount of touring including the Fly From Here album and some tracks from Drama, so I had ample chance to play myself there. It is very interesting and fun however to address the keyboard parts of Kaye & Wakeman who were both major influences on those early Yes albums that were the backdrop of my college life.

Andy Burns: What song on the Three Album tour do you particularly enjoy performing?

Geoff Downes: The Yes Album – Starship Trooper, Close To the Edge – And You And I, Going For The One –Awaken. All great songs with dynamics, twists and challenges throughout, and all culminate in huge climatic endings, which is truly what the Yes tradition is all about. These are some the songs that helped shape the band, and put it more into the area of classical music rather than rock.

Andy Burns: Yes has been in the studio with Roy Thomas Baker – how have the sessions been going for the new album?

Geoff Downes: It’s been very inspirational working with one of the great British record producers of all time. The old school approach on certain things makes you realize how great those early albums were in construction and recording techniques. The album is an interesting mix of hi-tech and vintage, and it’s been great to have contributions from Jon Davison on his first Yes album.

Andy Burns: What has the songwriting process been like this time – collaborative? Or have members brought in completed pieces?

Geoff Downes: There was quite a long period to the end of last year where ideas were tossed around between various members, so there has been a general collaborative feel to the making of the album. We had a good idea of what we were going to record prior to going in to the studio, and worked closely with Roy on the choice of material.

Andy Burns: Can you give us an idea as to how Jon Davison is doing in his first studio album with the band?

Geoff Downes: It’s been very good for Jon to be involved creatively. He has really stepped up to the plate, and we’ve seen what a talent he truly is, not just as a vocalist, but also in an all round musical sense. We anticipate good things ahead, and are very much looking forward to playing this album live.

Andy Burns: Finally, in between Asia and Yes and all the studio work and touring, what does Geoff Downes do when he has some time off?

Geoff Downes: Well as I pointed out earlier, there is not going to be too much time off for me this year. What time out I will get, I will of course be spending that valuable time with my friends and family. Sometimes it’s good to switch off, and watch some sport, or go out for a meal or something like that. Everybody needs a bit of ‘chill’ time now and again.

Thanks to Geoff Downes for once again taking time to talk to Biff Bam Pop. Gravitas, the new album from Asia, is out now and can be ordered here. Yes’ new album, Heaven and Earth, is due out July 8th. Yes is currently on the road across Canada. You can find their tour dates at Yesworld.

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