Interview: Yes Keyboardist Geoff Downes

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There is a real buzz of excitement around the widely anticipated UK and European tour that Yes are about to embark on. After all, the Grammy award-winning progressive rock band have been wowing their fans for forty-eight years and are about to head out and perform two of their most iconic albums in their entirety; the highly acclaimed album Fragile and for the first time ever Drama.

© Geoff Downes
© Geoff Downes

Having sold tens of millions of records over their four-decade career, this double-album tour will be yet another achievement to add to the bands repertoire, who are known for their esoteric lyrics, complex, lengthy compositions and live stage sets. Fans can look forward to hearing some of the long-time favourites performed in the order they appear on each corresponding studio album, including Roundabout, Long Distance Run Around, Heart of the Sunshine, Machine Messiah, Into the Lens and more. Some tracks haven’t been performed live in 30 years!

The current line-up is made up of singer Jon Davison (2012), guitarist Steve Howe (1970), keyboardist Geoff Downes (1980), bassist Billy Sherwood (1997) and drummer Alan White (1972).

I talked to Geoff Downes, keyboardist extraordinaire, current member and part of the Yes line-up throughout various chapters of their impressive history. At the age of 63, he is still on top form with his enviable resume of keyboard playing. As well as being a member of Yes, he is co-founder of the supergroup Asia, new wave band The Buggles, has many solo projects in the bag and has worked extensively as a songwriter and producer.

Hi Geoff, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I’m really looking forward to Yes’ concert at Manchester Apollo on the 30th April. Hailing from Stockport, do you feel some sense of nostalgia coming to play a home town gig?

Yeah I did, see it’s all a bit strange going back there. It’s been such a long time since I actually lived in the North of England. I moved to music college when I was about 20 and I never really went back to live there. I’ve still got some friends up there and family so it’s a bit of a homecoming in some respects.

You are about to embark on a tour of the UK and Europe. Why have you chosen to play the albums Fragile and Drama in their entirety?

The last couple of years we’ve been doing quite a lot of Yes’ music in terms of playing the entire album. It’s quite a popular choice with the fans because I think they sort of see it as a way of rediscovering the albums that they bought back in the day and actually hearing them as they were conceived, rather than just hearing the individual tracks. It’s been a really positive response to it, it’s nice to actually do that.

The reason for picking these two albums is that I was very heavily involved in Drama, as were Alan [White] and Steve [Howe]. And with not having Chris [Squires] there it’s kind of nice we can actually go out and do that with members who were actually on the album.

Going back to the Fragile album, I think it was one of the first albums, if not the first album where Yes really stretched out into more of a classical rock band rather than a just being a pop band. They stretched out into longer arrangements. I think that album is quite significant really.

I read that your favourite track is ‘Machine Messiah’ from Drama. Any particular reason?

Because I think that’s what bought us together. I think when Trevor Horn and myself joined Yes at the time there was a great deal of consternation from the more loyal fans who thought Yes were selling out to a couple of pop guys. You know, I think the reason they called us in was because Steve [Howe] and Alan [White] really liked our album. And we were managed by the same company.

Machine Messiah was really the first track we took in as an idea to see if they would be interested. It developed into quite an epic piece, so I’m actually really proud of that piece that we put together.

So you and Trevor Horn joined Yes from your previous band The Buggles. Am I right in thinking ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, one of the bands most famous hits, was the first-ever music video to be shown on MTV in the US in 1981?

Yeah it was, it was the very first. It was a bit strange really because when someone told us about it I think it was about two years after it had been a hit. So when someone says “there’s this cable channel setting up in America and they used your video as the opening”, I didn’t really think too much of it. Then in the space of about six months MTV went sort of viral, you know, and became a very important aspect to music. Particularly in the early 80’s when bands were making video promos and spending enormous amounts of money on the videos and record labels were investing heavily in the bands in those days, because it was the all important thing to get on. No longer was it just radio or magazines, all of a sudden you had this new medium that was really really important and extremely popular with the whole young demographic audience. It was very meteoric, the rise of it, it started off in just I think the New York area; it was just a cable channel in New York and it got such good reviews and such ratings it just spread across America like wildfire.

Wow – so at the point it aired on MTV you had been with Yes for a year?

Yeah, well at that point I’d actually formed and started recording with Asia. I think it was during the Asia recording sessions–that first album–that someone told me about it. I didn’t attach any significance to it, just thought “that’s nice”, you know (laughs).

Of course it’s all gone full circle now, they don’t even play music anymore on MTV. I think that someone who works there or the station told me that if they’d not had that program Jersey Shore that the station would have folded, so maybe that’s an indication of where peoples heads are at these days (laughs).

Talking of TV, you did advertising jingles when you were starting out in London didn’t you? Do you remember any in particular?

Yeah that’s right. I did an Orbit Chewing gum one that I remember, that’s one I did, which did pretty good.

That’s actually how I really met Trevor Horn, through being a musician around London and we were both doing the same kind of thing. He was doing more production work, small projects and I was doing a lot of jingles. We kind of knew each other and then moved into working together and that’s really how The Buggles formed. We got fed up with playing other peoples stuff and thought why don’t we do something ourselves (laughs). That’s really how it transpired into being something a bit more solid.

You said before that you think you got called in to join Yes because Steve and Alan liked The Buggles album, what is it like to work with such an incredible guitarist as Steve Howe?

I hit it off with Steve almost straight away when we worked together with Yes and then I think we had a common place between his style of guitar which is pretty original and unique and my kind of orchestral side of keyboard playing. I think we had a very good understanding of that, and not all bands have got that between the guitar and the keyboards and being capable of directing the harmonies as well as the lead parts.

We had a very good understanding from the beginning and that carries right through to Asia. Steve was with Asia for a number of years and then we reformed Asia about 10 years ago and did a lot of work together and then he bought me back in to Yes about 5 years ago. So we’ve always had a very close not necessarily social relationship but certainly a musical relationship.

I have a lot of respect for Steve, he’s shown he can apply himself to virtually any kind of music. He’s a terrific musician, I’m honoured to have had the opportunity to work with him for so long.

Can you tell me what is the most challenging Yes song to play?

Well they are all pretty challenging, even the ones I was involved in. It’s been interesting going through some of the stuff in the last few weeks, some of the intricacies that we’ve put into it are really quite intense, it’s not easy stuff (laughs). But I think if we’re looking at probably some of the older Yes stuff, certainly ‘Close to the Edge’ the album. And the song ‘Close to the Edge’ was a very demanding piece and took me a long time to learn it.

A couple of other tracks on the album ‘Going for the One’, particularly a long, huge piece called ‘Awaken’, a 12-13 minute piece, was a very demanding piece of music to play (laughs). That’s what Yes is all about, keeps you on your toes.

I believe Rick Wakeman to be one of the greatest keyboard players in the world. You joined Yes after he left, can you tell me what it feels like stepping into Rick Wakeman’s shoes?

I don’t really see myself in that way to be honest I think that he is a different kind of player to me. I think that he’s an inspiration in many ways. I don’t see myself in any way taking over from him.

Yes have had four other keyboard players and each person has made a certain chapter in Yes’ history. Tony Kaye is the original keyboard player and without him I don’t think there would have been a Yes that Rick Wakeman could have come and joined. I think that you look at it long term and you look at the career that Yes has had, and the fact that it has had all these different musicians come and go is what helped to keep it fresh and keep the longevity.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

Mainly, funnily enough, the three projects that I was involved with, or rather the three bands I was involved in at the turn of the 70’s to 80’s. Obviously I’m still involved with all three, I’m still working with Trevor Horn on some stuff and doing some writing for Asia and of course touring with Yes, so that sort of keeps me pretty busy, as you can imagine. But at the same time I’ve got other projects I like to do, a couple of albums with Chris Braide [An English singer-songwriter based in LA]. That was good fun working with someone that’s really from a different genre.

There was a rumour that you were entered into the The Guiness Book of Records for the most keyboards on stage in one performance, 28 keyboards. Is this true?

Yeah that’s what they tell me, I did a big show with Asia in Japan back in 1983 and someone put me forward and said I had a ridiculous number of keyboards so they entered me for the record. I don’t actually know how or what happened to it. Maybe it’s one of those urban myths. I think someone put me in for it, whether it got sanctioned or not I don’t know.

You know, it was pretty over kill, I’ve calmed it down a bit since those days. I can do quite a lot more with less, I’ve got about 10 on stage! I’ve cut down a bit.

I’d be interested to know about your involvement in the humanitarian effort to raise money for the Spitak Earthquake, the Rock Aid Armenia project?

Back in ’88 there was an Armenian earthquake and it completely destroyed an entire town, absolutely flattened, so in a place called Gyumri there was a music school that got lost and damaged. So we actually put a project together called the Rock Aid Armenia project and we raised a lot of money which carried on not just around that time but we generated some money for the victims of the earthquake. It carried on and about 5 or 6 years ago I went over to Armenia, me, Ian Gillan, Pat Cash, Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath and lots of other people were involved in it, we opened a music school. We got enough money together to build a new music school so that was pretty big. [most remembered for a re-recording of one of Deep Purple’s hits “Smoke on the Water”. It was produced by Geoff Downes and Gary Langan and involved in the recording were famous names such as Bryan Adams, Richie Blackmore, Bruce Dickinson, Keith Emerson, Ian Gillan, David Gilmour, Tony Iommi, Alex Lifeson, Brain May, Paul Rodgers, Chris Squire and Roger Taylor.]

Which musicians most inspire you?

Keith Emerson was really the main inspiration. I saw him when I was getting into music when I was in my teens, following someone like that, I think he invented the sailing ship of rock keyboard playing and in many ways was the person I looked up to, he was the role model that I aspired to and Rick [Wakeman] came along and took a slightly different direction as well.

I think those two guys are primarily the ones that inspired me to get behind the ivories and start bashing away.

Wonderful, I think that wraps it up nicely. Thank you very much. I very much look forward to your new tour. The tour starts on 27th April in Glasgow and finishes 2nd June in Bari, Italy.

Feature Image: Glenn Gottlieb

Professional Music Photographer for The Charlatans and Tim Peaks… Excels at falling over. Avid crisp eater & tea aficionado. Catch Charlotte on twitter…

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