The Geoff Downes Interview
Geoff Downes — keyboardist extraordinaire; ex-Buggle; Rick Wakeman's replacement in Yes; founding member of Asia (and the only mainstay through every incarnation of Asia); John Wetton’s musical partner in their side project Icon; prolific producer and songwriter — took time out of his busier-than-busy schedule to talk with yours truly about his career, past, present and future.
A true gentleman, Downes was most generous with his frank insights, good humor and continued good works. We started with Asia's latest album Omega and the tour entertainment centers to follow. We also touched on technology, gear, Yes and what's on the horizon.
Congratulations on Omega and the continued success of Asia. Other than the obvious passage of 25 years, how does the band feel to you now, plugging away as well as you are with the original members these past four years?
It's been good fun, an absolutely positive experience. Any kind rumblings or gripes that were in there from the early days were gone. We had a good meeting to reform, and four and half years later, we're still going. We enjoyed the initial reunion tour and getting back in the studio this second time.
I was lucky to catch you guys when you first reformed and enjoyed the show immensely. But I got to tell you truthfully, I heard many people who were skeptical that it was a 25-year reunion, one-tour kind of a thing.
Yes, we were surprised how great the reception was for us. I don’t think anyone thought we'd continue as we are. Believe me, we heard that 'that'll last 5 minutes, they'll make a bit of cash' but I think we've proved those people wrong.
What I loved in the show, one of the highlights for me, was your zany version of "Video Killed The Radio Star." Nice to see prog rock guys not taking themselves too seriously, you know?
I think the guys got a buzz out of doing it. Like you say, it was a little light relief to the show. I think that kind of fell out of favor in some of the 70s pomposity. We made a conscious effort to lighten things up and enjoy ourselves. We enjoy ourselves on stage and it comes across for the audience to enjoy themselves too.
Can you talk a bit about how technology has helped you? I read that you were listed in the Guinness Book Of World Records for having like 28 keyboards on stage at one point. And I recall seeing you on the first-ever Asia tour, running the entire width of the stage on this second tier above the rest of the guys, playing a massive keyboard set-up.
Well, yeah things have been modified a bit. I don’t have the energy to do all that running around, nor my road crew to lug all that stuff about (laughs). But we still put on a cinematic show. It's about showmanship as much as musicianship. I certainly don't need to have as much stuff on stage to make just as much noise, so that's a help, technology-wise.
It's funny, I am a fan of Midi, but as an older fan, I love the analog equipment sound.
Well, a lot of the stuff I used to bring along, the old analog stuff was fraught with problems, a bit touch-and-go. So that element has been removed to a certain degree. Now, I can create analog sounds, and mix and match enough keyboards to embrace a lot of those signature sounds, those sort of analog sounding things that's a complimentary element to the music.
You mentioned musicianship before, and that's something that I never find lacking with the older musicians, certainly you and your contemporaries in the progressive field.
Yes, that seems to be something that has been ignored in some areas of music for the past 20 odd years. The British rock foundation we come from is steeped in musical ability. To be able to create a recording, then be able to pull it off on stage, that was more or less the ethos we lived by.
That's why I feel we all still have a really justifiable place in the music scene. People like to go out to see people play their instruments, to be entertained that way, and it's one of the reasons classic rock stands the test of time.
I'd be remiss if I didn't get your take on your days with Yes and the Drama album and subsequent tour in 1979.
I'm very proud of that album. I think it has stood the test of time. Some of the arrangements on Drama I feel are some of the best work I've ever done. When you look back at how bizarre it was for two guys from a technological duo (Downes and Trevor Horn, his partner in the Buggles, replaced Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson) to get involved with Yes, it is ironic really because I believe, in a lot of ways that album was a stepping stone in all our careers.
Trevor later took Yes into a whole different, contemporary place producing 90125. For me, joining Yes was very valuable to me on many fronts. From it, came Asia, and it gave also gave Trevor and I a taste to go out perform with a big band. It was a career-changing move for us really, even though it was only one album.
I always thought stepping in to Rick Wakeman's place in Yes must have been daunting to say the least!
Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson are the guys who influenced me to get into playing rock keyboards. Then I step in for them in projects and play their music, yes it's a bizarre twist!
You have a lot of stuff going on in the next few months. Want to just mention a few of the highlights?
Well Asia's on tour, we'll actually be in the states in the summer. I play the Raglan festival in June, which is the little village where I live. I have been offering my services for the last few years, it's just a diversion of what I do with Asia. All these kind of solo projects help us keep it together; Steve's out with Yes, Carl is playing with us the first night of the High Voltage Festival, then with ELP to close the shows the next night. And John and I will be putting out more Icon stuff.
It's amazing that all you guys, as busy as you are, have time for Asia.
We have a pretty forward-thinking plan. We just put our cards on the table and we converge, see what works then go out and do it. I think because of our age, we are a lot more responsible; we certainly respect each other immensely. We all probably are enjoying Asia now more.
Back in the day, we had the pressure of having an extremely successful album and you become almost a commodity for a record label. In some respects, we have managed to lose those chains now so we go out and enjoy it. We have great respect for one another. It's quite unusual for guys with our history, but we get along, we look out for each other and as long as we're all healthy, we'll keep doing it.