Exclusive Interview: Geoff Downes of Yes Discusses the Band’s New Album “The Quest”

This Friday sees the release of The Quest, the twenty-second studio album from progressive rock band Yes.

Nearly fifty-five years into their career, the band still manage to deliver a few firsts with this new release. Sadly, The Quest is Yes’ first album without founding bassist Chris Squire, who passed away in 2015. As a result, it’s the band’s first without any original members, and the first to feature Billy Sherwood on bass (Sherwood previously was a member from 1997-1999 where he supplied guitar and background vocals). It’s also the first album by the band to be produced by revered guitarist Steve Howe.

The current line-up of Yes features Sherwood and Howe together with longtime member Alan White (drums), vocalist Jon Davison, who joined the band in 2012, and keyboardist Geoff Downes, who first played with Yes in 1980 and rejoined the fold in 2011. This version of Yes has been together for six years now and has gelled in a way that wasn’t always the case with the various other line-ups. Simply put, this Yes features musicians that genuinely like one another and enjoy playing music together – you can see it in their live shows, and you can hear it on The Quest.

I had the chance to talk to Geoff Downes about the new album. Highlights include:

How The Quest came together remotely: “(it was) done through file exchange […] So it was not particularly difficult for me […] We had all the ideas really well and truly prepared, I think, before the pandemic hit . So we were kind of in fairly good shape in terms of, y’know, how we saw the whole thing… eking out…It was all fairly much loosely in a framework before, before we got involved with the whole pandemic thing.” 

On the idea of Yes working with an orchestra: “It was something that was bubbling under. I think Steve had mentioned […] that he was in touch with this orchestra […] [The] album […] very much, it features acoustic instruments […] so it was a natural development […] of that […] There’s a lot of acoustic piano on the album, there’s a lot of acoustic guitar. This […] makes it […] almost a sort of urbane feeling that Yes has gone back to its roots in some ways and so, you know, if you go back to say Time and a Word […] [the orchestra i]s a big feature on “No Opportunity Necessary” […] I think that the key thing is for me was […] having that orchestral feeling of the music already, it […] really pointed towards maybe having these other acoustic sections that were played by an orchestra.

On how the keyboards and orchestra work together on The Quest:” I’m a very orchestral player […] I come up with these soundscapes and the layers of keyboards that, you know, I became more known for. So my whole thing is that […] when I look at the orchestra, I don’t see it as a me versus them, […] but […] I think it’s an addition. […] I think it’s something that, in this case, I’m not saying it would be […] on any future albums, per se, but […] in this case with this particular album, I think it’s very, very appropriate that, you know, it’s on there.”

On the song “A Living Island”: “I think that the ideas […], they’ve been around for a while and certainly the end section for that was… I think it was a grandiose theme that I’ve been working on for some time. In fact, there’s a little snippet of it on the beginning of the DBA [Downes Braide Association] album [Halcyon Hymns]. Y’know, I felt that with a band like Yes, you should really make this just go bigger and bigger. And as a finale to the album […] Yes are known for these big major chords, you know, you’ve got something like “And You and I”. […] they take “Awaken”, something like that, it is this sort of spiritual experience almost for the listener. And so, that’s really what I was trying to achieve with that is that you get that big majestic chord sequence coming out and I think it’s a great way to finish the album.”

On incorporating the new music into live shows: “I think that […] some of the more delicate tracks on there will […] you know […] amidst some of Yes’s more powerful big fanfare type songs like “Parallels” or something like that, is to put one of these songs in there after it […] in a way that we did with, say, I suppose “Madrigal” […] It’s a nice little release from some of the great full blown Yes sounds […] [I]t’d be nice to open with […] something like “The Ice Bridge”, which has got a big powerful entry […] We’re not going to play the whole album. You know, there’s nothing worse than trying to turn people on to an entire album in a live setting when they come to see see you play Yes’s big hits.”

With 2021 marking a decade since he rejoined the band, Geoff also reveals what song from the Yes catalogue he hasn’t played live yet that he’d be up for – and it’s a good one.

Take a listen to our conversation below:

Thanks as always to Geoff Downes for his time. You can learn more about Yes and their new album The Quest at yesworld.com.

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