There are lazy musicians and there is Geoff Downes who never stops working. One year ago the keyboardist had a lot to report but this time there’s more. ASIA have just rounded off the preparations for a new album release, YES have just begun working on their next record, but Downes also came up with "Electronica", another installment of his NEW DANCE ORCHESTRA. With much more brewing up under his fingers, we discussed the latest events.
– Geoff, it’s been a year since we spoke, and the year’s been hectic for you.
Yeah, that’s right. Yes, indeed. A lot of work to be done, yeah. Much’s been happening.
– You also had a personal tragedy, you lost a daughter. Did music have a therapeutic effect on you or was it business as usual?
I’m dealing with it. [With music] it was mostly a sort of “Take things as they come” but being at work has certainly helped. So yeah, it’s been good, and it’s been a very busy year.
– Last time we talked about the DBA album, and now there’s “Electronica”, a new record by your NEW DANCE ORCHESTRA project. How would you describe it: an outlet for your more serious music as opposed to entertainment with ASIA?
It’s more of a hobby in some ways, and there’s about six or seven ORCHESTRA albums now. From time to time, when I get a bit of a spare time to myself, I start tinkering around with the synthesizers, and a lot of the ideas that I get is from experimenting with technology: I jot them down and put it all together at some point. It is a nice outlet, it enables me to experiment, and that’s something that I’m very interested in. I find quite a nice release in being able to just do whatever I want – that’s the beauty of that.
– And it sounds rather adultish. Not for nothing you use “Geoffrey” on these albums’ covers, not “Geoff” as usual.
It’s just a little change to differentiate my solo stuff from my involvement in bands. It’s very like with Dave Gilmour: he’s “Dave” with PINK FLOYD but he’s “David” when he goes out solo.
– Well, Gilmour takes exception when he’s called Dave, but you don’t mind to be addressed to as Geoff.
No, not at all! You can call me what you like – I’ve been called much worse things! (Laughs.)
– On “Electronica” you decided to drop your name from the front cover altogether.
I wanted to establish ORCHESTRA for what it was, and that was very much… not a faceless project but something that didn’t necessarily have an identity as such, because the whole idea of it is that the “orchestra” that I create does have its own identity. So I just left it off just to try and get the name to sink in a little bit more.
– The previous ORCHESTRA albums either were instrumental works or used an array of vocalists. Now there’s only one singer. Was it the original idea or you wanted more voices on it but that didn’t work out?
Yeah, I had a couple of options to put it together, but then we got Anne-Marie [Helder] do one track on the last ICON album (Downes’ other band with John Wetton. – DME), and I kind of made a mental note at how versatile she was as a vocalist. So when it came to recording the vocals [for “Electronica”], I ask her because I knew that she’d be capable of pulling off all the songs. I wanted continuity with the songs; I didn’t want to have a group of different vocalists on that particular album. That was why I opted to ask her to do it. She did a great job, and I was very pleased with how it ended up.
– Who is Glenn Woolfenden, your co-writer on this album?
He has always been my oldest buddy. I grew up with him. We went to school together when I was about eleven, and we’ve been in touch ever since. We collaborated on various songs over the years, he provided me with lyrics. He’s a writer, he’s had novels published, so he’s a very literate person.
– It’s called “Electronica” but it’s not an electronic music per se to my ears.
Well, it’s not what you class as “electronic” or what people call it. It’s called “Electronica” because the actual backing is all electronic, there are no real instruments on it. The idea of the ORCHESTRA is to try and create instruments – sometimes orchestral, sometimes new-sounding things – and put it all together, but the music is made from electronic sources.
– “Movin’ On” starts with what sounds as an acoustic guitar. Was it an effect, then, not a guitar?
No, no, it was actually a software plugin – it has a strumming effect on it, but there’s no real instruments on the album at all: everything’s from the computer. That’s why the “Electronica” tag was appropriate.
– And you wanted to make it a dance album? I mean it’s more PET SHOP BOYS than Brian Eno.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that’s very much a pop album. I grew up on pop music, and that was a parallel to it. It’s more closely aligned to the way I played the BUGGLES stuff where we opted to get any kind of instrument and fake it, to make a fake version of it. And that’s the whole idea of the whole project: it’s almost like an experiment.
– It’s not a new album as such, is it? Everything was composed around 2010?
Yeah, a lot of it I’ve had for quite some years. I’ve sort of accumulated these ideas that I had when I was messing around with a new software plugin or something like that. [The album] was only available as an online purchase from a private store, so this is the first time that we’ve actually put it out on a proper label.
– Geoff, prove me wrong but there’s a hook in “Walking Through The Fire” that’s very similar to ASIA’s “Go.” Was it deliberate, a joke for your fans?
No. I think that quite often I have things that come from the other ideas that I’ve had, so there are similarities sometimes with a melodic movement or a harmonic structure, but at least that’s not intentional, I am sure of that (laughs): it’s just I have a certain way that I write music.
– Still, this album is very different from the previous ones. But what’s more different is DECKCHAIR POETS’ "Who Needs Pyjamas?"…
Ah yeah, that’s quite funny. That’s something that I was asked to do by Lynden Williams (the JERUSALEM singer. – DME) who put it all together, and it was a nice light relief. Lynden is a very, very funny guy, and we got on very well, he was very enthusiastic, so we just had a bit of fun. I think he’s in the middle of doing another album at the moment which I’ve done some stuff on. That’s all exciting stuff – very, very good, clever writing, from my standpoint. Lynden and the producer, Rob Aubrey, effectively just let me play on it.
– So, from your standpoint, who needs pyjamas?
(Laughs.) It’s just a very much tongue-in-cheek kind of comment. It’s pretty mad, and Lynden comes up with this stuff, it’s almost toilet humor, which is quite amusing. It shows that you don’t need to take yourself too seriously. But, having said that, I think that some of the material is very progressive and very interesting.
– More so, it’s not that often that you play hard rock.
Yeah, occasionally. I like all kinds of music and I like to get involved in anything that appeals to me.
– So you have fun when you take part in Billy Sherwood’s projects.
Ah, yeah, yeah. He normally just sends me the stuff over and I put my stuff on there and give him some alternatives. It’s all good projects.
– Is it challenging to find your personal take on songs by, say, THE DOORS or Steve Miller?
Not particularly, no. I think it’s something that comes quite naturally. Obviously, Billy gives me some direction and say either to stay close to the original or just do something different. He keeps a fairly open book on those projects.
– One more collaboration we didn’t discuss yet is your work with Greg Lake.
I spent quite a lot of time working on that album (as the RIDE THE TIGER project. – DME) with Greg. It’s never actually came up as an album but a few of the tracks we used: ELP used “Affairs Of The Heart” and I used “Love Under Fire” on one of the ASIA albums (the original recording is available on Lake’s archival release. – DME). So we got something out of it – that was quite interesting.
– Is there a chance that you’ll finish it or release the original tapes?
Er, I don’t know, I’m not really in touch with Greg. I’d imagine at some point there’s a possibility of putting that out, but we only wrote about six or seven songs together, that would be interesting. You’d have to ask him.
– You met Keith Emerson recently.
I’ve seen him a couple of times since I’ve been over here, recording the new YES album in L.A. Here’s a great guy – very, very funny guy – and a good company.
– You also spent some time at NAMM, while you’re there, didn’t you?
It’s a good way of bumping into people, keeping in touch with everybody and keeping in touch with all the new, latest equipment. So for me, being technically-minded, it was a very interesting thing to do.
– As of the new ASIA album, it’s ready for release, right?
Yes, it’s coming out in April, and that’s exciting: it’s a very nice album and the fans are going to like it.
– Its cover looks quite different from the previous ones: the dragon is there but this time it’s a Russian landscape.
The beauty of Roger Dean’s artwork is that he comes up with different things each time, and I think it’s a very, very interesting cover, actually. Obviously, the serpent’s still there – that’s something synonymous with ASIA: some call it a dragon, some call it a serpent.
– I heard it’s a dragon because there’s “dragon’s wings” in “Heat Of The Moment” from your first album.
Yeah, but technically, it’s not. It’s actually a serpent because it’s in the sea, and the sea dragon is called a serpent.
– So you do have a definition of a dragon!
There you go! (Laughs.) It’s a technical issue!
– The new album is called “Gravitas”: does it have a great pull to it?
There’s a depth to it, a certain seriousness to some of the sentiments of the tracks. John [Wetton] came up with the title and I instantly recognized where he was coming from with that.
– So you’re not playing with the idea of starting your albums’ titles with “A” anymore.
Oh, no, no, no, that’s long gone. We’ve had “Phoenix,” we’ve had “Omega,” we’ve had “XXX,” now we’ve got “Gravitas,” so yeah, that idea is long gone.
– How did the band’s dynamics change with a young guitarist in the ranks?
No, not really. It’s good for Sam [Coulson] because he feels that he can learn a lot from us, and sometimes it’s good to have a young guy around. It’s working out very well. The music is slightly different, obviously, because Steve Howe’s a very definitive guitarist with his own style. It’s a slightly different direction now: the guitar features a little bit heavier, because that’s how Sam plays. But it’s still very much ASIA music, it’s still very much what people hopefully might expect come out of mine and John’s songwriting.
– You shot a video for this album as well as for the last one, and there was none for a long time – since the ’80s I guess.
It’s requested from the record label these days, because they found a useful way of giving other countries and other territories a look of what we’re doing. It’s a promotional weapon rather than anything else. And, of course, the videos aren’t as expensive as they used to be, so that makes it more realistic – the price of making a commercial DVD or video is much less now.
– One of the new songs, “I’d Die For You,” was written around 1987, wasn’t it?
That’s right, yeah. That’s the only old song on the album. We felt that that would really set in with other material we were doing on the album, and it’s never been officially released, so we thought it would be a nice inclusion and made a new recording [of it].
– What about the YES album. You’re working with Roy Thomas Baker?
Yeah, he’s a legendary producer and it’s very exciting to be working with someone like that. Mike Stone (producer of “Asia” and “Alpha”. – DME) was actually his protégé, so it’s a comeback even further to the roots. It’s working very well, he’s very, very thorough, and he has a very good ear for stuff, so it’s a real pleasure working with him.
– Is this choice of a producer an attempt to harness grandiosity?
No. I think the choice was… YES worked with Roy Thomas Baker but the album never got finished, that was in 1979 (the infamous “Paris Sessions”. – DME), so they feel that there’s a point to prove, that they can actually achieve something great with him.
– Who’s the main writer now?
It’s about equal. Everyone’s contributing, it’s good to have Jon Davison contributing as well. He didn’t put much in the last album [“Fly From Here”] but this one is shaping up very nicely.
– Are you going for a big, huge prog album or something more short and melodic?
It’s going to be a combination of the two, really. There’s going to be a lot of variety on that, the people are going to enjoy the shifts and changes that happen in the music. But at the moment it’s still fairly early days.