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A Conversation with Geoff Downes of Yes

Geoff Downes released a new album with the Downes Braide Association (DBA) on 21st November, titled ‘Skyscraper Souls’. Through his collaboration with singer-songwriter Chris Braide, which has produced two previous records, the keyboardist has reached back to his pop roots. Before first joining Yes in 1980, he co-founded the new wave band the Buggles with singer and bassist Trevor Horn, and co-wrote the 1978 hit song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’.

However, ‘Skyscraper Souls’ is more than a pop record. With the help of some remarkable guest musicians, like guitarist Andy Partridge of XTC, vocalist Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, bassist Andy Hodge and drummer Ash Soan, the duo have created a very atmospheric and at times dark sound, which crosses over to progressive music.

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In addition to his work with DBA, we also talked about the recently released Yes live album ‘Topographic Drama’, which was recorded during the band’s American tour in the summer of 2016. At these shows, the band performed their 1980 LP ‘Drama’ in its entirety, plus the first and fourth sides of the 1973 double album ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, together with some famous hits, such as ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Starship Trooper’.

We also asked Downes about Yes’s 50th anniversary tour, commencing in March 2018, his future plans with the supergroup Asia, and the future of progressive music, among other things.

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How did you first meet Chris Braide and when did you decide to work together?

I first met Chris when I was working with Trevor Horn’s project the Producers, and we did a couple of gigs with the Buggles and Chris was involved in those. We started discussing the Buggles and he said he was a huge fan and he’d like to do some writing with me one day. So that’s really how it started off.

What made you think that you could work well together?

He’s very much into pop music from the 70s and early 80s, and that was a common interest. We really hit it off and I think that our writing styles compliment each other really well. We did our first album together about six years ago, when I was recording with Yes in LA. From that point, I think we’ve forged a really strong writing partnership, and ‘Skyscraper Souls’ is our third album.

You’ve been associated with the progressive rock genre for a long time. Did you have a desire to do something a little more light-hearted when you teamed up with Chris?

I’ve always been very much interested in songs. With Asia, we adopted a much more mainstream approach to song-writing with John Wetton. So it’s come a full circle: I was a big progressive rock fan when I was a teenager, and I’d got all the albums, like the early Yes albums, Genesis, Caravan – all those bands. And when I started working in the music industry in London, I did a lot of session work, so I had to have a pop sensitivity, and then I ended up back in the progressive world. Both types of music are very much appealing to me, and I think this album blends those two elements to some degree.

What was the song-writing process like for ‘Skyscraper Souls’?

I’d put aside a few ideas that I felt were very strong. I gave Chris all these ideas and he started working on them, and he also sent me back some other ideas. It was all done quite remotely, rather than two guys sitting in the same room. We started working on the album around the beginning of this year, but I think I sent Chris some ideas towards the end of last year.

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Chris Braide and Geoff Downes (Credit: TeamRock.com)

How is ‘Skyscraper Souls’ different to the other records you’ve done together?

I think we both made the decision fairly early on that we wanted to get a full rhythm section for this album, rather than using programmed drums with very basic drum and bass parts, like on the previous two albums. This album really opened up the concept in terms of the musicality that the rhythm section brought in, and the guest musicians also helped stir the album in a new direction.

Are you planning on touring with this album?

We’ve discussed the idea. Chris is very-very busy with all of his projects, and of course I’m also touring quite extensively with Yes and Asia. The 50th anniversary of Yes is coming up next year, so there will be a lot of activity. But when a little time comes up, I think we’d certainly be looking at maybe doing a few gigs, but not a full-blown tour.

A new Yes live album, ‘Topographic Drama’ was also recently released. Are you happy with the way it turned out?

Yes, it’s a very interesting album, because it consists of performances of two very different and very significant albums, in terms of Yes’s overall career. I think the defining album of progressive Yes was ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ – I think it really defined that era. It’s probably as progressive as Yes has ever got. And ‘Drama’ was a turning point for Yes into a new direction, into the 80s from the 70s, with more of a techno feel to it. So I think it’s very interesting putting those two albums together.

‘Drama’ was the first album released after you joined the band, so it must be quite close to your heart. Or did you enjoy performing both albums equally?

I enjoy the musicality aspect of both albums. With ‘Tales’, I enjoy studying the different parts of the music that Yes put together in one of the finest works of progressive rock. I never really got into the album when it first came out – it kind of passed me by, because I was doing other stuff. But when I got to look into it a couple of years ago, I realized that it’s actually a very significant and deep album.

You’ve already mentioned that next year is the 50th anniversary of Yes’s formation and you’re going on a tour to celebrate. Are there any plans for any of the original members to join the band for any of the shows?

Tony Kaye, the original keyboard player is going to be joining us for most of the shows. Trevor Horn and Patrick Moraz might also do some stuff with us. We’re really trying to put something together that’s very-very special for the fans, because 50 years of a band is really an amazing thing to be able to celebrate.

Have you thought about what the setlist is going to look like?

I think it’s going to be different in the UK. We’re certainly going to be playing ‘Tales’, because we played that in the States last year, but the British audience didn’t get to see that. So that’s going to be part of the European tour. But I think it’s going to be a very interesting history of Yes music by taking one track from a number of albums and putting it all together. But, of course, when it comes to the States, we’ll probably revise it, because I don’t think we’ll be playing ‘Tales’ there again. So we’ll be more likely looking deeper and deeper into Yes’s catalogue, and it’s going to be very interesting for the fans, I think.

You’ll be playing in the UK in March next year, but the American dates haven’t been announced yet.

We’re looking at doing the US leg in June or July. But before that, we’ll be going to the Netherlands, Belgium and France, and a few more dates may also pop up.

Is there a chance that you’ll be playing any new material on this tour?

There won’t be any new material, but when we’ve finished this 50th anniversary celebration, we’ll probably head in the studio and start working on another album.

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The current line-up of Yes (Credit: YesWorld.com)

I also wanted to ask about Cruise to the Edge, which is in February next year. Are you happy with the line-up? It seems like a very strong one.

Yes, it’s a spectacular line-up this time. Steve Hackett and Marillion have been on the cruise before, and to have them on board at the same time, which has not happened before, is going to be pretty spectacular. Steve is a great musician and puts on a great show. And then there’s Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and Yes, and Tony Kaye and Patrick Moraz is going to be with us on the cruise, too. It’s very-very interesting to be able to present all these great acts and great music, particularly the British prog bands from the 60s and 70s.

Are you planning to do anything with Asia next year?

If we do anything, it would be probably later in the year. But we’re still very upset about losing John earlier this year – that was a big blow. We had this tour with Journey, and, you know, under the circumstances, it was very-very successful, with Billy Sherwood coming in. I think it’s important that we don’t just forget about Asia’s music; it’s a great catalogue of music that deserves to be heard, and I’m sure that John would be very happy that we’re continuing to play that great music.

I’m also interested in your thoughts on the music industry these days. What do you think about today’s pop and rock music?

Well, it’s changed considerably since I started out 40 or so years ago. It’s a different world now, with streaming, and the fact that the album itself is not really the important part anymore – people just pick tracks off albums without downloading the whole album. I think that we’re trying to be a little more purist about it; we get a kick out of making music that is for the two sides of an album, that sounds great on vinyl, and that’s not necessarily a concept album but has a concept behind it. And, you know, we would like people to listen to the whole thing in its entirety and enjoy that, rather than, as I said, pick songs. But, anyway, that aspect of the music industry has changed quite considerably, and change happens – you just have to deal with it.

And what do you think of most of the current music and musicians? It’s sometimes said that everything has been done already. Do you think it’s still possible to come up with new ideas?

I think that a lot of the modern artists are very derivative of previous songwriters and artists. I can’t think of anyone today who has a completely unique approach, whereas the bands in the 60s and 70s seemed to all have had something unique about them. But there’s certainly some great music about, but as time goes by, you’ve got more and more people covering songs, rather than looking at doing new material and new ideas. That’s just the way that it’s gone. But hopefully at some point we’ll start to see some new creative people come out again and do some interesting things.

How do you feel about the future of progressive rock?

I think there’s always going to be an interest, because it’s very much a musician’s kind of music. A lot of the pop records are put together by producers, rather than the musicians themselves. And I think prog will last because pop music is a very unforgiving genre: someone’s up there in the chart one minute and then you never hear from them again. But if a band is making solid music that can be taken on the stage and performed, then you’ve got something the people are always going to want to hear and see, and progressive music is the perfect example of that.

In your own song-writing, do you place a great emphasis on technique?

It depends on who I’m writing for. If I’m writing for Yes, I’m not going to come up with a two-and-a-half-minute pop song, because that’s not the medium. And, conversely, when I was writing with John Wetton for Asia, we were conscious of who was in the band and how those people could relate to the music. I think it’s important to be able to put a dividing line between certain types of music. But, having said that, it goes back to the Downes Braide Association, which does have a lot of pop and also a lot of prog in it, so it’s a kind of a hybrid of those two styles.

 

4 comments on “A Conversation with Geoff Downes of Yes

  1. David Watkinson

    Good interview with some hints to the future of Yes. 😊

  2. Art Menichiello

    Excellent interview and insights! I see parallels in my own music tastes and interests over the last 40 years, and I’m glad to be back to enjoying Prog Rock even more than I did as a teenager!

  3. Scott Bluebond

    That is side 1 and 4 of Tales, not side 2.

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