Exclusive: Geoff Downes talks Yes, Asia, keyboards + more
2017 has been a banner year for Yes fans, with the group finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after far too a long a wait. While there has been some band turmoil, with two factions touring at the same time, the legacy group featuring Steve Howe, Alan White, Geoff Downes, Jon Davison and Billy Sherwood have let their music do the talking, with their Yestival tour that has seen the group on the road with Carl Palmer’s ELP Experience and Todd Rundgren.
Yes, joined this time out with second drummer and Steve Howe’s son Dylan, has been playing music from the first decade of the band’s existence, beginning with their self-titled 1969 debut through 1980’s Drama. As the online videos and fan raves can attest, the band is delivering on all fronts. As Yes make their way north for Canadian dates, and on the heels of the Yes 50 European Tour announcement that also sees the band preparing a new live album and more, I had the chance to talk to keyboardist Geoff Downes about the state of the band, and his own experiences touring with Asia alongside Journey earlier this summer, which came not long after the passing of Asia founding member/bassist/singer John Wetton.
Andy Burns: You guys have been on the road for Yestival. How’s it been going?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, it’s going really good. The audience response has been really nice.
Andy Burns: You were on a pretty extensive tour with Asia opening for Journey before regrouping with Yes. How was that tour for you? I would think a little bittersweet.
Geoff Downes: Yeah, we had lost John (Wetton) earlier this year, and that was a real blow to all of us. We had committed to the tour even while John was ill, we were all hoping that he would make a recovery, but sadly that didn’t happen. I think it was important to go out and do that tour, we had a really great opportunity to get Asia’s music out into the open, and that’s what John would have wanted. We did a nice tribute to John in the show, and we were very well received by the Journey fans. It was just very sad that John wasn’t there to share that with us.
Andy Burns: Bringing Billy Sherwood into the Asia fold as bassist and vocalist, that was at John’s request?
Geoff Downes: It was. John had worked with Billy in the past, he produced his solo album, John contributed to Billy’s various projects over the years. They knew each other well, and when John knew he was going to be unable to (tour), he suggested Billy.
Andy Burns: Is it hard for you as a musician, you’re in these two classic bands, to step out onstage without these guys? Or can you look at it as the job at hand? How does it affect you personally?
Geoff Downes: Well, it’s been particularly tough over the last few years because, certainly, as we lost (Yes founding member/bassist) Chris (Squire) two years ago, and John earlier this year. Greg Lake last year as well. It’s been a very, very tough period. The thing that’s carried me forward is the music. I think that’s what people expect you to do. I think music should continue for generations and generations, and that’s what I’m here for, and that’s what I hope we can carry on doing.
Andy Burns: I think you guys have been doing a great job. And credit to Billy for pulling it off.
Geoff Downes: It’s very, very tough. Chris was such an iconic figure, not just in terms of his musical expertise, but his whole style and persona and even his vocal side in Yes is not to be underestimated. His vocals gave Yes its sound as much as Jon Anderson did in many ways.
Andy Burns: Absolutely.
Geoff Downes: Chris, in that field is very, very much missed. His style and his general air and musicianship simply can’t replaced. But I think Billy is as close as anybody to be able to replicate and pay homage to Chris’ incredible contribution to Yes music.
Andy Burns: I’ve been enjoying reading reviews and checking out videos of this line-up. It seems that this group of musicians that make up Yes is about perpetuating the music that’s been created, regardless of “this” line-up or “that” line-up. There’s a relevance to all the music that’s come from throughout these 50 years. Is that something you enjoy as a player, celebrating the entire gamut of Yes music?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, I think it’s such a vast catalogue of music and every musician who has come through the ranks of Yes has made some contribution to some degree. That’s one of the reasons I think its made the band what it is today, the fact that its still going, still playing concerts, still making music even. That is a testament to Yes’ strength is that it can go on and reinvent itself. We try to play the old stuff to the highest possible standard. Yes has always had a high level of musicianship.
Andy Burns: I’m so thrilled that you guys are opening the show with ‘Survival’ from the debut album. I don’t think that album gets talked about enough. Why that song in particular, why does it work as the opener for the show?
Geoff Downes: Well, I think it’s because we’re doing things chronologically from the first ten albums, that was a song that Steve particularly was very fond of. I was not very familiar with the first Yes album. I didn’t really get into them until TIme and a Word and The Yes Album. The first one passed me by, but going back and listening to that very first album, you could feel things bubbling under, that something good was happening, something original.
Andy Burns: That’s interesting. I remember reading that one of the things Chris liked about you when you joined around Drama is that you could do anything – the Rick Wakeman florishes, the Tony Kaye Hammond organ. I’m surprised that album passed you by. Is there any connection between the Yes of the 1960s and the Yes you joined in 1980 and that you’re part of now?
Geoff Downes: I particularly like the Tony Kate approach to keyboards, a very gritty Hammond sound, That’s what really hooked me into Yes in the first place, I think. Because being a keyboard player, the first thing you look for is the keyboard parts in the band. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Keith Emerson for that reason, that he brought the keyboards to a substantial part of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s sound. Tony Kaye was playing these gritty Hammond parts and some piano and things like that. And of course, when Wakeman joined, that started to take it even further, with the introductions of Mellotrons and Moogs. The keyboards became very important, and that’s what really got me into Yes in the first place. When I joined, I took the early period, the Wakeman styles and of course the Patrick Moraz styles – I was the fourth keyboard player at that point. It’s ironic – in recent times, I think I’ve had to channel just about every keyboard player since the three main ones.
Andy Burns: The Canadian shows you have come up aren’t quite Yestival shows; Carl Palmer isn’t with you. Does that open it up for more music in the set?
Geoff Downes: Yes, there will be more material. We’ll be there with Todd Rundgren. He puts on a great show, and I think it makes an interesting show all around.
Yes performs with opening act Todd Rundgren throughout September:
Sep 05 – Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, BC
Sep 07 – Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, AB
Sep 08 – Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Calgary, AB
Sep 11 – Bluestem Center For The Arts Amphitheatre, Moorhead, MN
Sep 12 – McGrath Amphitheatre, Cedar Rapids, IA
Sep 14 – Budweiser Gardens, London, ON
Sep 15 – Roc Dome Arena, Rochester, NY
Sep 17 – The Wilbur Theatre, Boston, MA
Sep 18 – The Paramount, Huntington, NY
Sep 19 – The Paramount, Huntington, NY