50 YEARS OF YES: AN INTERVIEW WITH GEOFF DOWNES
You know Yes. They’ve been together and releasing music since 1968. Look up Progressive Rock and you will see Yes. Keyboardist Geoff Downes joined Yes in 1980 with singer/bassist/producer Trevor Horn after Yes bassist Chris Squire heard the Buggles. After releasing Drama the band split in 1981. Downes started Asia with Steve Howe, John Wetton and Carl Palmer, creating such hits as Heat of the Moment and Only Time Will Tell, as well as two albums with The Buggles. Downes rejoined Yes in 1990 and has wrote and performed with the band ever since.
This June and July Yes will be touring the States in celebration of 50 years of classic, progressive rock’n’roll, of blowing minds with their fantastical, inspirational compositions that have inspired generations of musicians and fans alike. They’ve been inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, have sold millions of records and toured the globe many times over.
You know the songs: Roundabout, Close To The Edge, Yours Is No Disgrace, Long Distance Runaround, I’ve Seen All Good People, Owner Of A Lonely Heart, It Can Happen, And You And I, Astral Traveller, Siberian Khatru, Starship Trooper, Time And A Word, Tempus Fugit, Leave It. Songs that have made rock radio, songs that have defined progressive, classic rock, songs that have taken your mind and heart to fantastical, magical and spiritual places. And you know the Roger Dean art that has graced almost all of Yes’ studio and live releases.
Yes has included in their ranks such musician’s musicians as Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Tony Kaye, Peter Banks, Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Alan White and Rick Wakeman, with Geoff Downes, Trevor Horn, Trevor Rabin, Billy Sherwood, Oliver Wakeman, Benoit David, Patrick Moraz and Jon Davison. There have been various combinations of past and present members releasing albums and touring. But Yes is bigger than any one member.
While preparing for Yes’ 50th Anniversary tour I had the pleasure of speaking with keyboardist and songwriter Geoff Downes about his other famous bands The Buggles and Asia, as well as his most recent side-project Downes Braide Association and what has kept Yes vital for so many years.
Are you getting ready for the tour?
Yeah, I think it’s coming together really well. We all do our homework before we get out there. It takes the random aspect out of it and we just get on with it. I think with this particular tour, focusing on the 50th Anniversary aspect of it, it’s really important we put together something for the fans as much as anything else.
You have some special guests for this tour.
We’ve got Tony Kaye with us for this whole tour. He won’t be playing the whole set, he’ll be playing alot of the songs he was involved in. Which is from the very beginning. So it will be great having Tony on board, I’ve done some stuff with him before. We’ve got Patrick Moraz (keyboardist on Relayer, 1974) on a few select dates as well. We have a plethora of Yes keyboard players on this tour. We’re working on getting a couple of other people along at some point. We’ll just have to see how it maps out.
How have you and Tony worked out your parts on the songs he’s playing on?
We play some songs together, some he plays on his own. We worked it out quite well. We’ve done it before, we did the Cruise to the Edge (rooms already selling out for the 2019 cruise.) in February and that worked out really well. It’s going to be a bit of fun, I think. It’s nice for the fans to see the original members.
The more, the merrier.
I think it is important to get as many people as possible to celebrate the anniversary. We’re making that a priority this time around. It’s important for the fans that have been with us that long.
I was watching some of your early videos, of The Buggles and Heat of the Moment.
Oh, God, yeah. Those were the days.
What was also interesting was that I watched you with The Buggles from 2004 when you performed Video Killed The Radio Star live for the first time ever, for the Prince’s Trust Charity show.
That was a pretty monumental occasion. The future king of England was there as well, so we got to say hello to him and that was really cool. The songs are still something I do with Trevor occasionally, though we haven’t done it for a few years now. But we did get back together again, working together and we still do bits and pieces ever since. It’s nice to know we are still in touch and still making music together.
You’ve reached so many lives too, with with a full band, string section, Trevor Horn and original performers on the song.
It was an amazing show, it was quite an extravaganza. The great thing was to get back with the guys at that point. Not just Trevor but with the people that played on the original Buggles stuff and meeting up with the Yes guys was a real bonus as well, getting on stage and playing with and Chris (Squire, Yes bassist) and Alan (White, Yes drummer) again.
Chris is missed.
Very much so. He was a larger-than-life character in many ways. When you think about it he was very much the foundation of the band. I know Jon Anderson had a huge role with the songwriting and the vocals but Chris was a very stable influence throughout. I think he played on every Yes album. It’s quite an amazing testimony to his music that the band is still going.
I read that he was basically the one that got you and Trevor Horn into Yes.
He was very institutional in that. I think he saw something in us, that we would be a good fit. He had a vision of taking Yes into the 80’s and I think he knew they couldn’t just count on doing what they were doing, but that there had to be a reinvention. I think we were sort of the ideal pairing to come in with the fact that we had a lot of modern keyboard sounds and we had very contemporary production ideas, everything really appealed to Chris. A lot of the fans didn’t understand while a couple of pop guys would come and join their revered band. Having said that, once they heard the music and what we were doing, the way Yes were going, they were a little bit more appreciative of the fact that there was a change and it was going to be something different.
I was listening to Drama and Allan’s getting a workout, everything is uptempo, the band sounded hungry.
I think because we were the young guys, the new guys, the other guys worked extra hard to try and make it work. I think that is what you’re pointing out, the energy that is on the Drama album is that the rhythm section is on fire and Steve’s guitar parts are incredible. I think they started to up their game considerably for that very reason.
You also redid 2011’s Fly From Here with Trevor Horn on vocals. (Trevor produced the album and co-wrote it with Downes.)
That worked out really well. Trevor did a fantastic job on that. It was something that I never thought of. You do an album and you think ‘That’s it’ and then you move on. But Trevor had this thing in his head that because a lot of the material on that album had been written by the two of us I suppose he wanted to give his stamp on it. So he kind of ran off with the project and came back to us and said “What do you think of this?” I said ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ the way that he’d reworked it and reworked all the vocals. With respect to Benoit (Davis, vocals on Fly From Here), but this was Trevor’s music and I think that was the reason he wanted to do it.
While listening to Drama I realized Trevor was singing, not Jon. His voice is close.
He’s done a few stand-ups with us in the European tour we just did. He did a couple of London shows and Paris as well. He’s still great, he’s still got the enthusiasm for it. We’re all getting along so it’s good to know someone who still has that enthusiasm.
From the time you joined Yes to now, what is it that keeps you excited and challenged?
I think it is because the music is quite demanding. Well, very demanding, really. You really have to concentrate. It’s such a great catalogue of music and it’s a joy to play it because it’s very original, it’s unusual. It’s wonderful music to play.
Hearing a song, I’ll get choked up, even if I’ve heard it 50 times.
I think that is the beauty of Yes’ music, why it’s lasted as long as it has, is because it has an emotional effect on people.
Were you at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?
Yes, I was. They had a limit on how may people they’d let in, I think there’s been 20-odd members of Yes over the years, so I don’t think they were in the market for 20 members onstage. I think it was fair enough they selected the people who had probably the most influence on Yes over the years. So that was OK.
It must’ve felt pretty good knowing you’ve been involved in that history.
It feels great, it was long overdue.
Tell us about the Downes Braide Association.
That’s a project I’ve been involved in in recent years. Chris is a great writer and we hit it off straight-away and decided to get writing together. It was a really good combination, I think. He’s a very talented guy, very bright and we enjoy working together. It’s a nice project to be involved in.
Did you get to come out to his studio?
I did, I think he lived near Bel Air at one point, that’s when he first moved (to California). We were working in his studio at home. He’s moved to a larger place since then.
He’s produced some contemporary acts but also has people like Marc Almond, Andy Partridge and Kate Pierson guesting on the new album. It must be nice to have that outlet.
We’re actually doing our first gig, in England in September, so that will be fun.
What words do you have for those youngsters out there learning piano or keyboards?
It’s a shame that in the UK the Arts have been forsaken. Quite a lot of funding has been pulled away from the Arts and I think it’s a great shame because learning an instrument is an important aspect of education. Music is a very important part of peoples’ lives. There should be more people taking up a guitar or keyboard or trumpet or whatever. I think it’s important to learn an instrument because it’s like learning languages, it’s a whole different world. I think that everyone is effected by music in some degree. I hope that young people do take up the instruments and start feeling the love of music.
What song would you suggest to learn?
Radio Killed the Video Star would be an interesting one. Probably Close To the Edge. That would take some time to figure out.
Fly From Here – Return Trip is available from PledgeMusic. The #YES50 Tour is this June and July.
(by Bret Miller)
#YES50: Celebrating 50 Years of YES
06/05 – St. Charles, IL @ Arcada Theatre
06/06 – St. Charles, IL @ Arcada Theatre
06/08 – New Buffalo, MI @ Four Winds Casino Ballroom
06/10 – Kansas City, MO @ Midland Theatre
06/11 – Denver, CO @ Paramount Theatre
06/13 – Boise, ID @ CenturyLink Arena
06/14 – Woodinville, WA @ Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery
06/16 – Bakersfield, CA @ Spectrum Amphitheater
06/17 – Anaheim, CA @ City National Grove of Anaheim
06/19 – Los Angeles, CA @ Ford Theatre
06/20 – San Jose, CA @ City National Civic
06/22 – Wendover, NV @ Peppermill Casino Hall
06/23 – Laughlin, NV @ Edgewater Hotel & Casino
06/24 – Temecula, CA @ Pechanga Resort & Casino
06/28 – Interlochen, MI @ Kresge Auditorium
06/29 – Grand Rapids, MI @ 20 Monroe Live
06/30 – Detroit, MI @ Fox Theatre
07/02 – Cincinnati, OH @ PNC Pavilion at Riverbend Music Center
07/05 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall
07/06 – Jim Thorpe, PA @ Penn’s Peak
07/07 – Montclair, NJ @ The Wellmont Theater
07/10 – Boston, MA @ The Wilbur Theatre
07/11 – Hampton Beach, NH @ Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
07/14 – Atlanta City, NJ @ Tropicana Casino
07/15 – Staten Island, NY @ St. George Theatre
07/17 – Peekskill, NY @ Paramount Hudson Valley
07/18 – Westbury, NY @ Theatre at Westbury
07/20 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Fillmore
07/21 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Fillmore
07/23 – Washington, DC @ Warner Theatre
07/26 – Clearwater, FL @ Capitol Theatre
07/27 – Orlando, FL @ The Plaza Live
07/28 – Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Symphony Hall