Interview: Yes and Asia Keyboard Player Geoff Downes
Thursday, September 13th, 2012 at 10:03 am
With a new album and juggling tours with two bands, Geoff Downes is having a busy time of it. Tinkling the keys for British prog rock giants Yes and Asia for over 30 years, Downes is considered one of the finest of the genre, and rightly so. This summer, Asia released its superb 12th album, (a roman numerical reference celebrating the amount of years since Asia’s debut release), a scintillating mix of driving, synth-led rock, and sombre orchestral asides.
Before his prog rock legacy began, Downes was part of the British New Wave for a short time in the late 1970s and early ’80s. It was brief, but his and Trevor Horn’s duo The Buggles has incredible longevity thanks to the hit “Video Killed The Radio Star.”
I spoke with Downes about his rock bread and butter, touring with Yes and Asia, handling sudden stardom, and whatever else came up in the heat of the moment…
Geeks of Doom: Geoff, the new Asia album is fantastic; do you feel like you’re on a roll creatively?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, I think it’s been a pretty creative last couple of years. I think that certainly going from the Yes album [Fly From Here] into the Asia album, it’s quite different types of music in many ways. There are a couple of common denominators in the personnel, certainly. I think that it was a lot of fun doing the Yes album and the Asia album just kind of fell into place. It was almost effortless, maybe that’s the way it should be! [laughs]
Geeks of Doom: Did the writing and recording all come together nicely?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, it was a very short window because we were doing quite a lot of tours with Yes last year and myself and John Wetton [Asia, lead vocals] managed to find a month where we concentrated on writing the album and then I went back on tour and we started pretty much the beginning of the year and we pretty much finished the album by the end of March. It didn’t take us long at all.
Geeks of Doom: Did you write the music and John write the lyrics?
Geoff Downes: Well, no, we collaborate pretty much on music. I think my input on this one was greater than it has been than in the past, I think in the musical stakes, but John generally gets on with the lyrics. I think that it’s an important aspect for him that he has belief in what he’s singing, so I just let him get on with the lyrics really. We have a method of working that seems to come together quite easily.
Geeks of Doom: And it comes together very well. I would say one of the most powerful songs on there is the song “Judas” – was that about anyone in particular?
Geoff Downes: No, I don’t think so. I think that it’s a general reflection and there’s a biblical reference as well. I think that song particularly is interesting because originally it was Steve [Howe, guitarist]’s idea, pretty much the whole song, and then we kind of messed around with it. I wrote the melody and John wrote the lyrics, so that was quite a nice collaboration between the three of us that we got into as we did on a couple of the other songs.
Geeks of Doom: In this time of mostly single downloads, were you surprised at how well the album sold?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, I think it’s come as a surprise that the album has been received so well. I think that it’s consumed very much as an album rather than just a group of songs so I’d advise people not just to pick individual tracks off and actually listen to it in its complete form because I think it came together very well as an album.
Geeks of Doom: Yes it did. When it comes together so quickly do you feel that it gathers its own steam really quickly and you just have to go with it?
Geoff Downes: Pretty much so, yeah. I think that sometimes you can over analyse stuff and you end up in the same place having done that. I think the album has benefitted from a kind of freshness, you know, the fact that we didn’t actually scrutinise it too much. Sometimes you can over scrutinise stuff and you either get sick of doing it or it alters course and becomes something else so I think that we had a very, very clear idea of what this album should be and I think it helped the fact that we just carried on and ploughed on with it.
Geeks of Doom: Absolutely. If you work fast and keep it fresh it has an energy to it. Otherwise you can get the feeling of “˜too many cooks’ in music.
Geoff Downes: Yeah, indeed and I think we did benefit from having Mike Paxman at the helm because all four members of the band have done creative and dominant roles in the studio so we’re quite sort of studiofied type of people and having someone come in and actually orchestrate it all really pushed the band I think.
Geeks of Doom: I think it’s fair to say that Asia is best known for the song “Heat Of The Moment” and it’s one of those songs that won’t go away; it’s been in recent films, South Park – to the band does that become a bit tedious or do you enjoy seeing one of your songs that brings in new fans continuously?
Geoff Downes: I think it’s good for the band, I think it’s good for the profile and whatever it is I think the “Heat Of The Moment” obviously was a very kind of anthemic song particularly for American people. When it first came out and it was sort of the song of the summer ’82 I think that that buried itself in the American public and I think that’s one of the reasons why that song won’t go away. It constantly reminds people of an era and I think it’s a good thing that it does get fished out from time to time and used for various things and I have no objection to it at all.
Geeks of Doom: Cool, I’m glad! What do you make of the band “˜Asia featuring John Payne’?
Geoff Downes: I think it’s a very different band really in hindsight. Obviously I was involved in it when we worked together during the “˜90s. I don’t really understand why he would continue using that name but that’s something that’s up to him really. I think he could have done something else but that’s just my opinion.
Geeks of Doom: Has it caused you any problems?
Geoff Downes: No, no, it hasn’t caused problems. I think people know that if they want to see Asia, the original line up, then they know who it is so I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem.
Geeks of Doom: Like you said you worked a lot with John Payne through the “˜90s: why did you decide to do the reunion with the original line up?
Geoff Downes: We had some thoughts about it back at the end of the “˜90s. I don’t think everybody was available to do it then so when the opportunity to do it came up in 2006 everyone was eager to do it. Certainly a lot of people had not seen the band in its original format and had an interest to see the band and I think that the band itself, the four members, felt that we’d not really given it a good enough shot at the time when we originally formed and so we wanted to rediscover that and I think the fact that we’re still going six years later is a good indication that we can justify getting it back together again.
Geeks of Doom: Do you feel like it was you four that started the Asia story and it will be you four that finishes it as well?
Geoff Downes: I think so, yeah. I think that despite a lot of things that people said at the time when we got together – it was kind of a manufactured band of made up from rich and famous bands – and it didn’t really seem like that to us. I think that we did a lot of work together in the early period before we even started the first album. We were in the rehearsal room for nearly a year before we started the first album so we did build up a kind of musical bond I suppose that wasn’t going to go away. But I think that when we did have that opportunity to get back together again everyone was up for it.
Geeks of Doom: And it was because you were great songwriters and had great songs that you exploded especially in America when you started.
Geoff Downes: Well I think that certainly helps. I think we had a lot of things on our side, you know, I think we had the right material, we had the right personnel in the band. I think the timing in the marketplace was good for our kind of music that we were making … so there were a lot of factors that really did point us in a musical direction but nobody actually knew how successful it was going to be.
Geeks of Doom: Did it take you by surprise how quickly that success came?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, I think it took everyone by surprise because I think that at that time and the way the business was it wasn’t something that was necessarily predictable. I think that we booked a fairly modest tour, you know smaller venues, and all of a sudden the album burst into the charts and there was a hot demand for us to move to much bigger places. So we did the first leg of the tour then we cleared back out and did all the arenas and all that kind of thing so it was a very quick ascension to work out and I mean, yeah, it took us by surprise. But, you know, you got into it.
Geeks of Doom: This year it’s 30 years since the first Asia album – do you have any special plans for it?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, we’ve got quite a lot for it. Obviously we’ve got the new album, we’ve got a tour planned; September through to December we’re going to Japan, the States and finishing up in the UK then we’ve got a box set coming out which is a reissue of the first album and a live album as well from the last tour … we’re really pushing Asia hard I think.
Geeks of Doom: Excellent. Also this year it will be 10 years since Mike Stone, producer of the first three Asia albums, passed away. What was it like working with him?
Geoff Downes: He was a real inspiration to work with, Mike. I think he got the best out of us. Certainly on the first couple of albums he just had a natural instinct how to record things and so it made life really effortless in the studio because you knew you had somebody there with the ears to make things happen and that’s what he did, he made everybody happen. So it was a great loss I think to the music business as a whole and to rock music that Mike passed away because he was a truly talented producer.
Geeks of Doom: Yeah absolutely. Like you said between Yes and Asia you’ll be spending most of the rest of the year on the road – do you still feel the same excitement touring now as when you did 30-something years ago when you started?
Geoff Downes: Oh yes, it’s in your blood really. Certainly performing-wise it’s always a challenge and you get stuck into it and when you feel you actually click with the rest of the guys it’s a different experience and so those are the things I really look forward to. Travelling for me can be a bit tiring sometimes but generally speaking everyone’s got their comfort zone so you’re usually reasonably well catered for so it’s always fun. It’s always good to meet people that have been dedicated to the music for so long and it’s all you can ask for really.
Geeks of Doom: Do you find it easy to switch between Yes and Asia? Do you have to adopt a different mindset for each project that you’re on?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, I think so. I think they are two very different bands. Yes has got this huge legacy of music that goes back 45 years and there’s a very, very varied catalogue. I think if you look at the various eras you can hear, although still undeniably Yes, they are all very different types of music encompassed within that. But I think Asia’s always been much more straight-ahead rock, although with certain signature twists here and there. But I’m not saying it’s necessarily easier to play because there’s some obscure moves and things to get across. In Yes I’m playing three different keyboard players’ parts, that tends to be a bit more complicated in that respect, but I enjoy both. Certainly playing with Asia’s been part of my mainstay from the beginning so obviously that’s very important. It generally has been all my music or certainly mine and John Wetton’s music so it’s very important to me.
Geeks of Doom: And another one of your earlier projects The Buggles has come out of retirement a couple of times. Was that just a bit of fun or were you testing the waters there?
Geoff Downes: I think we never really played live with The Buggles and it’s something I know Trevor [Horn] and myself wanted to look at at some point. So we had the opportunity to do a few live shows over the last few years and it’s been a lot of fun. I think that if something comes up he’ll give me a call and say, Look we’ve been offered to do this, blah, blah, blah, do you fancy doing a Buggles show? and if I’ve got the time I’ll say, Yeah absolutely. Again it’s something that I started and they’re not things that really go away and “Video Killed The Radio Star”’s still played all over the place and something that people instantly recognise and so it’s nice that I’ve been associated with a few songs that still retain a profile in the music scene.
Geeks of Doom: Another fantastic keyboard player in rock music was Deep Purple’s Jon Lord. Did you get to work with him?
Geoff Downes: Unfortunately never got to work with Jon. Unfortunately he died recently but he was a big inspiration as a keyboard player to me because when I started getting into it there were probably four or five bands that really did feature keyboards like for instance Yes or ELP, or The Nice as it was then, Deep Purple … obviously some of the Canterbury bands like Soft Machine and Caravan … Procol Harum: these were the bands because they were featuring keyboard players in this rock context. Deep Purple were definitely up there with one of them, certainly Jon Lord was up there with them all.
ASIA’s new studio album XXX is released by Frontiers Records and available on CD+DVD, CD, and MP3. The band embarks on their 30th Anniversary UK Tour on December 15th at Tavistock The Wharf.
Tavistock The Wharf (Dec 15)
Holmfirth Picturedrome (Dec 16)
Edinburgh Queen’s Hall (Dec 17)
Salisbury City Hall (Dec 19)
Birmingham Town Hall (Dec 20)
Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (Dec 21)
London o2 Shepherds Bush Empire (Dec 22)