Ostensibly, Geoff Downes needs no introduction, but for all his omnipresence – as part of THE BUGGLES the keyboardist was featured in “Video Killed The Radio Star”, the first ever music clip played on MTV – the veteran’s name rings a bell only with rock connoisseurs. Strange, indeed, having in mind the hits Geoff notched with the supergroup of ASIA. And then there were YES – or, rather, are, as Downes rejoined the band he worked with in 1980. Yet being an integral part of two collectives doesn’t prevent the maestro from side projects such as DBA, with Chris Braide, a hitmaker of a more pop stripe. Their album, "Pictures Of You", was the starting point of our conversation despite the news of his other band changing guitarists.
– Geoff, let’s start not with the latest news on ASIA but with your latest project, DBA. How do you feel about this album?
I feel very strongly about that. I think that it’s a kind of a meeting of styles between me and Chris. We come from very similar backgrounds, we both come up from the same part of the world, the UK, and we just hit it off, really. We met when he was doing the PRODUCERS album, on which I did some stuff with Trevor Horn, and we said it’d be very nice if we get together and do some writing, which we did about a couple of years ago now. We started on that but it didn’t really come together until the middle of last year.
– But how do you manage to juggle all of this: YES, ASIA, DBA, solo stuff?
With great difficulty! (Laughs briefly.) It’s something I thought of when I re-joined YES. I was doing DBA pretty much in the mornings and rehearsing with YES in the afternoon, so I was doing two projects a day. But it paid off in the end, I think it was worth doing.
– Sure, I like it very much, and to my ears it’s got a kind of retro groove like ’80s are back.
Yeah, that’s what we were doing. Obviously, I’m older than Chris, and he was quite young in the ’80s but he enjoyed this music very much, particularly stuff like THE BUGGLES, and we see it as a kind of extension of that in many ways. I suppose it’s a sort of double entendre in many ways, to look back to THE BUGGLES’ stuff. We used a lot of that technological… that kind of techno approach to music, but the thing that we were very conscious about was songwriting as well, we wanted to keep the songs to the fore.
– And it’s a very English album: I don’t know many pop musicians who put “fish and chips” in their lyrics.
Yeah, I know. Some of the lyrical content is quite peculiar to England, but we both have a lot of roots in the ’80s music, and we were very conscious about making it a nostalgic trip if you like, down the memory lane, and at the same time utilizing a lot of modern technology as well. It’s something that we’re both very proud of, because we didn’t rely on anybody else, there very just the two of us.
The thing is, I’ve always found writing with certain musicians very easy; if it becomes difficult, then it’s probably not worth doing. But when I started working with Chris, we really did hit it off very well. I’ve always approached songwriting very much the same way with the people I’ve worked with, whether it be John Wetton or Trevor Horn or Glenn Hughes or Chris. We tend to sit round and kick ideas about and then develop it from there. It’s usually quite quick; the basic ideas for the DBA album came very quickly.
– Many say that in ASIA Wetton is a rock element and you bring the pop side to it, but I always suspected it’s vice versa. Am I right?
Yeah, I think it swaps really, we’re sometimes into changes, and I’m a big fan of rock music as well as pop music. And when I worked with Chris it was very much the case that he’s not just a pop guy, he’s very much a rock guy, and some of his favorite bands are YES and stuff like that. As of John, if you listened to some of the stuff that he’s done in the past, it’s quite off-the-wall: whether it’s a KING CRIMSON album or some of the U.K. material, it’s pretty sideway stuff. So when I work with a writer like John or Chris or Trevor, we have an understanding that the music in the song is the most important thing, and whatever we put around it is an embellishment.
– There was ASIA without Wetton, but why, when you started working together again, you called it WETTON-DOWNES, or ICON but not ASIA?
It was when we’ve done some stuff for one of John’s solo albums [“I’ve Come To Take You Home” from 2003’s "Rock Of Faith"], and we started to get a feel for writing again but, obviously, it wasn’t ASIA as such then. It was much more a vehicle for songwriting, whereas ASIA is much more a band, there’s a lot of different elements to be concerned with. ICON was much more a writing umbrella, if you like, for myself and John, even though we are the key writers in ASIA as well, but we do write slightly differently for both.
– And what about the ICON DVD? Is out out? I can’t find it anywhere.
No. We kind of put ICON in a slightly different light, because we were concentrated very heavily on getting the original ASIA back together again, so ICON took a back seat, but it’s a situation that we can look at again in the future and see what happens. It depends on time: I’m touring with YES again next month, so it’s pretty hectic times at the moment.
– You collaborated with many musicians, but there’s a line: John Wetton, Greg Lake, Chris Squire… Do you specifically like to work with bass players?
Yeah, and Glenn Hughes as well! And Trevor Horn: you know Trevor Horn is basically a bass player. I think there’s something about writing, that bass is the thing that can change the chords, because guitar is one thing, but when you’ve got a bass part it send you in different direction. And that’s why I’ve always enjoyed working with bass players, because – I think Sting said that – the vocal melody and the bass put a chord together. One great thing about John Wetton and myself is that we grew up on church music in Birmingham and church music has a lot of that emotional use of bass in different inversions of the chords, and that’s what makes the music I makes with those people a bit different.
– But still you were involved with GTR as a producer and also wrote one of the best songs on their album, “The Hunter”. Was it a challenge to work with a guitar-focused band?
Yeah, it was. A brief was that were no keyboards, so I was sidelined there, but it was an interesting album to make with Steve Hackett, an extremely talented guitarist, and Steve Howe. They played very well together, and they had a very good bass player in the band as well, Phil Spalding. But there was difficulty with trying to make an album of melodic rock: without any keyboards it’s quite a challenge.
– Steve Howe has just left ASIA, and you have a new guitarist. How will it affect the band?
Our last album was released last year, and that in many ways closed the chapter of that particular version of ASIA. Steve has his reasons for wanting to move on and concentrate more on his solo material. I mean he’s been pretty much on the road for the last six or seven year and having the extra pressure for doing YES and ASIA as well as his trio and solo stuff, so probably something had to give as Steve was concerned, and he felt it was time to try other things, which is fine. We’ve had a very good run with the original line-up for six years, and everyone was very happy with the way it turned out: we did three great albums, we did a lot of touring – four or five world tours. I think we did together a very good show. But there’s still a plan to go on as ASIA: as long as John, myself and Carl [Palmer] want to continue with that, there’s a very good reason for it to continue making albums and continue working together.
– But you still will be working with Steve – in YES.
That’s right, yeah, yeah.
– When I spoke to Chris Squire recently, and we agreed that YES’ last album, “Fly From Here”, had a strong pop element. Could it be down to you and Trevor?
Well, I think we had some influence on that, but YES has gone through various periods where it has had more poppier sounding records – say, in the ’80s – than they had had in the early period. But YES is a fantastic band, it’s been going for 44 years, I think that we’re looking forward to going through doing those early albums again [“The Yes Album”, “Close To The Edge” and “Going For The One” in their entirety in 2013]. The next YES album might be a bit more reflective of some of the stuff that had those early albums they put together.
– How different for you is the situation in YES now to that of the “Drama” period? I love “Drama” but it was, so to say, not a very vocal album, and now the band has a singer…
Since Jon Davison came in, it gave the band a whole new lease of life, he’s added a new musical element into the group, and that is a very a good thing. YES plan to make another album at some point, and it will benefit from the fact that there are different musical influences on that. But everyone is quite looking forward to getting in and doing those early albums now.
– How do you feel about doing old stuff that Rick Wakeman played on? I know you’re a fan of Rick and you can play like him, but do you intentionally try to play differently?
When you’re playing the original stuff, it’s important to remain faithful to the parts in the way that they were put together. For instance, when I look at “The Yes Album”, at Tony Kaye’s parts, they’re very much period pieces, but whatever music we’re doing by YES, I try to remain faithful to the original recordings. That also goes for “Fly From Here” and if we did “Drama” stuff, it’s important to present the music how it was written.
– Then how do you think you could change the jazz rock sound of ISOTOPE had you stayed with Gary Boyle back in the ’70s?
That was a different era. I was studying jazz rock at college, so I was quite influenced by that at the time. I think the way that keyboard playing has gone [is] the technology has changed, and a lot of scope for keyboard players. In my days, you could have had A Fender Rhodes, an acoustic piano, A Hammond organ or a Minimoog and not much else, but now there’s a whole host of stuff you can do now. It’s a lot more exciting for keyboard players, because you’ve got so much control and so many sounds at your disposal.
– What about lyrical side of things? I’d say there’s a certain parallel between THE BUGGLES’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” and ASIA’s “Voice Of America”.
There’s a little bit of a nod to radio more than anything else, but I think if you looked at the way we’ve written songs, you can’t help but notice we’ve been adding some things in the lyrics that had actually given us ideas to write the songs. And technology, obviously… With the BUGGLES’ stuff, there was a lot of technological sides to it, but if you’re looking at the DBA album today, there’s a lot of technological sides to the album, too, that it’s impossible to ignore.
– But back to these songs, what did you think when QUEEN came up with “Radio GaGa” with the same subject?
Yeah, the subject is the same but it makes a change from songs about love. Relationships is one thing, and you’ve got thousands and thousands songs about relationships, so it’s nice to have a song about something different. Certainly, when I work with writers, I try to do something that’s a little bit sideways so it’s just not a standard procedure.
– With so many brilliant melodies that you’ve written over the years, which one are you proud of the most?
Erm… I think the stuff on the DOWNES-BRAIDE album has some great melodies – Chris has come up with some great melodies as well. It’s hard to say but I think “Only Time Will Tell” on “Asia” was very melodic: I’m very proud of that melodically, because I think it’s an interesting song in the way that it’s structured and, I suppose it has a strong melody, but it’s all about how… I’m a big chord man, and I’m playing keyboards more to create orchestrations rather than a lead part, while someone like Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman is very much known for that sort of single-handedly playing their stuff. My stuff I suppose is a bit more worked-out, a bit more orchestral.
– So can we expect more from DBA?
Yeah. I was talking to Chris shortly before you came on, and we’d like to do another album, that’s for sure. We have a very natural… The whole thing about songwriting is to feel comfortable with the person you’re working with. And that’s how I think the best songs come out. We always seem to come up with something when we’re working together, so we’ll continue.
– And what can we expect from you personally in the nearest future.
I’m going to do some different promotion for the DBA album, trying to get some different angles to get it presented. Then I’ll be out with YES for about six months this year on and off. Then there’ll be work with John Wetton again writing some material for another ASIA album, and later in the year I’m doing some dates with a new guitarist, so all around it’s a pretty busy year and it’ll probably go on to the next year as well.
– As if it ever were different for you!
I’m not retiring just yet, but give it four, five years, and I might think about it. There’s nothing I love better than sitting in the studio and working on material and getting up and doing it live, so I’m very happy that I’m able to do that.