Monday, February 3, 2014

Geoff Downes Interview: YES /ASIA Keyboardist Diligently Creates Without Musical Boundaries

 By Ray Shasho

Virtuoso keyboardist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Geoff Downes has been legitimizing the art of great music since the inception of The Buggles with Trevor Horn in 1977. Downes symphonic savvy has allowed him to venture into multiple musical genres while perpetuating Prog- Rock prominence as the illustrious keyboardist for supergroups YES and Asia. Geoff Downes is undeniably one of the hardest working musicians in the business. Downes is currently in the studio recording a new YES album while awaiting the release of a brand new Asia album entitled Gravitas, targeted for an April release.

Then there’s his remastered New Dance Orchestra –Electronica release which epitomizes the type of Pop music that should be played on mainstream radio stations these days. The vocals are superlatively performed by Anne- Marie Helder (Panic Room) and every track on the album is exceptionally strong. His collaboration with Helder clearly demonstrates Downes ingenuity for musical diversity. I gave New Dance Orchestra –Electronica by Geoff Downes (5) Stars!

 In 2012 …Downes shared his musical foresight with singer, songwriter and producer Chris Braide (Producers w/Trevor Horn). The collaboration entitled DBA (Downes Braide Association) spawned the critically-acclaimed release Pictures of You. Braide has written and produced for Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to name just a few.

Geoff Downes with YES will be performing …The YES Album (1971), Close To The Edge (1972), and Going For The One (1977) in its entirety as the band embarks on a Canadian tour beginning in March. The current YES lineup is … Geoff Downes (keyboards), Chris Squire (bass, vocals), Steve Howe (guitars), Alan White (drums) and Jon Davison (lead vocals).

YES will also set sail from Miami, Florida on April 7th with Cruise to the Edge. The ship will visit Isla de Roatan, Honduras and Cozumel, Mexico. Some of the incredible Prog-Rockers scheduled to perform on the ship include … YES, Marillion, Steve Hackett -Genesis Revisited, UK, Queensr├┐che, Tangerine Dream, Renaissance, Patrick Moraz, Stick Men (featuring Tony Levin), The Strawbs and many-many more. For cruise information visit

Geoff Downes with Asia will begin touring in June for a couple of dates in the UK followed by a Japanese tour. The current Asia lineup is … Geoff Downes (keyboards, vocals), John Wetton (lead vocals and bass), Carl Palmer (drums, percussion) and Sam Coulson (guitars).

I had the great pleasure of talking with Geoff Downes last week while he took a timeout from recording in the studio for the new YES album. We chatted about his most recent studio albums … New Dance Orchestra –Electronica, DBA -Pictures of You, brand new YES and Asia releases, the inception of The Buggles classic Top 40 hit “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the current state of the music industry and so much more.
Here’s my recent interview with virtuoso keyboardist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, longtime member of YES, co-founder of Asia and The Buggles … GEOFF DOWNES.
Ray Shasho: Geoff, thank you for being on the call today, how are you doing man?
Geoff Downes: “I’m good Ray, how are you?”
Ray Shasho: I’m doing fine thank you, are you in LA?
Geoff Downes: “I am, yea, in sunny Cal.”
Ray Shasho: Your most recent solo releases are …New Dance Orchestra -Electronica (2010) featuring you and Anne-Marie Helder (Panic Room). You also released DBA (Downes Braide Association) Pictures of You (2012) with Chris Braide (Producers, Squeeze).
Geoff Downes: “We remastered New Dance Orchestra -Electronica and it was given a full release recently. I’m looking forward to seeing the response from it.”
Ray Shasho: You performed most of the music on Electronica?
Geoff Downes: “That’s all basically me and an approximation of an orchestra using technology. Ann- Marie is a fantastic vocalist. She’s been voted Prog Magazine’s ‘Best Female Vocalist of the Year’ for two years in a row. I first met her when I was doing a project with John Wetton called Icon and she performed on a couple of songs on that. When I had the opportunity to put together that album, I chose her because I knew she would be able to do justice on all the songs.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve always enjoyed the progressive side of Geoff Downes being with Asia and of course YES. But I also enjoy the Pop Music side of Geoff Downes with The Buggles.
Geoff Downes: “The style of playing and style of production from those two albums… Electronica and DBA are very much a Buggles style and very much part of me from the early days. That’s what we really started out doing, me and Trevor Horn, creating songs from technology using synthesizers, so it’s really an extension of that in many ways. The very interesting thing is that Prog music is great and a lot of our roots are in that music, but I wanted to have a diversion and be able to try something different, and I think that was the whole thinking behind those albums, obviously to do something that was not sort of Prog in its direction, but something that was more similar to Pop music.”
Ray Shasho: One of my favorite tracks from New Dance Orchestra -Electronica is “Shine On.”
Geoff Downes: I particularly like “Shine On.” It has elements of the early 80’s Pop but at the same time we tried and break new ground as well.”
Ray Shasho: “Many of the tracks on both albums should be played on mainstream radio. Sadly commercial radio doesn’t seem to care about spotlighting talented musicians and songwriters these days.
Geoff Downes: “It’s all kind of a karaoke. It’s a shame that Pop Music hasn’t got the elements that it had back in the 70’s and 80’s with some fantastic songs being written … I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
Ray Shasho: Isn’t there anything we can do to try and change mainstream music?
Geoff Downes: “(Laughing) I don’t know. People are now only interested in the vocalist rather than the band. When you think of bands like The Eagles and Abba, they were mainstream Pop and writing fantastic songs while out performing themselves; somehow we’ve seemed to lost that element in the music today.”
Ray Shasho: Mainstream music nowadays has become mostly visual and choreographed.
Geoff Downes: “Video Killed the Radio Star” actually did make that prediction and in many ways that’s what has happened.”
Ray Shasho: I was actually on Top 40 radio when “Video Killed the Radio Star” first hit the airwaves in 1979. Our playlist included an eclectic mix of new music from Blondie to Zeppelin. I also remember playing a very catchy techno tune entitled “Pop Muzik” by a group called M.
Geoff Downes: “Yea, that was about the same time as “Video Killed the Radio Star.” And of course you had all the stuff like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet which came out around that time as well. So it was a very-very exciting time for music. When you think about the songs that were written in that period, they are the same songs you still hear walking down a shopping mall today. I’m not sure you’ll hear the stuff that’s done recently in 10, 20, 30 years time.”
Ray Shasho: Maybe one solution in bringing back good music to mainstream radio is to bring back payola.
(All laughing)
Geoff Downes: “Yea exactly, at least you’d have a chance.”
Ray Shasho: My favorite track on DBA Pictures of You is definitely… “Ride the Waves.”
Geoff Downes:I think that was a very interesting collaboration, Chris has had an amazing career. He’s written songs for Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. He’s got a phenomenal pedigree in working with the X factor people and that kind of thing. His real roots were very much in Pop Music, I remember him saying that the first album he bought was The Buggles The Age of Plastic on vinyl and after that we really struck an accord together. We’ve worked together at different times and developed certain chemistry, so he said I’d really like to do an album with you. So when I was in Europe a couple of years ago we started working on it. It became very natural and it came together very quickly. We were just taking about doing a second album as well, so it should be exciting times.”
Ray Shasho: Geoff, I’d like to chat a little bit about YES. The most recent YES album is entitled Fly from Here… released in 2011 and produced by Trevor Horn.
Geoff Downes: “That’s right and we’re working at the moment on another one. The new album should be released around the summer or just afterwards depending on when the sessions are completed. We started a few weeks ago with producer Roy Thomas Baker who did all the Queen stuff; he’s worked with Aerosmith and all kinds of people. So he’s producing the album. Then we’re off on tour in a couple of month’s time and touring extensively till the end of the year. We start in Canada in the middle of March and that takes us to ‘Cruise to the Edge’ in April which is the second time we’ll be sailing out of Florida again on a Prog Rock cruise, which is pretty interesting. It’s really a dream ticket for any Prog fan because all the ingredients for those early bands like King Crimson, ELP, Genesis, YES … are all there on one boat.”
Ray Shasho: The cruise is going to be incredible! I’ve interviewed a lot of artists that will be performing on the ship including … Steve Hackett (Genesis), Annie Haslam (Renaissance), Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson) and of course Chris Squire and yourself from YES. And it’ll be interesting to have former keyboardist Patrick Moraz (YES, The Moody Blues) there as well.
Geoff Downes: “It’s going to be fun! At the end of the day we’ve all bumped into each other at some stage or another throughout the years. To have everyone in one place is a fantastic thing for fans of all that era and they get to see what everybody is doing now.”
Ray Shasho: I chatted with original and longtime YES lead vocalist Jon Anderson back in August of 2011. Do you ever chat with Jon?
Geoff Downes: “No, I’ve never really had the opportunity to do anything with Jon because any time I’ve been in the band he’s not been in it. I don’t think there’s any acrimony or anything like that …it’s what it is and YES is still ongoing. Jon has a fantastic legacy and is a brilliant artist in his own right.”
Ray Shasho: Vocalist Benoit David was replaced with Jon Davison because of a respiratory illness?
Geoff Downes: “He was having a lot of difficulty with his voice. He wasn’t giving what we thought he should be giving in terms of his performance because his voice wasn’t treating him very well. We had to move on because we had a lot planned.”
Ray Shasho: The other legendary band that you are a member of is of course Asia. Not only will there be a new YES album coming out in 2014, but there will also be a new studio album entitled Gravitas from Asia released this year?
Geoff Downes: “That will be coming out at the end of April. It’s a very-very strong record .It’s a lot more rock than some of the other albums but has all the Asia hallmarks and we’re very pleased with it. We’ve got a few dates coming up in June in the UK and then a Japanese tour.”
Ray Shasho: This will also be the first Asia album featuring new guitarist Sam Coulson who replaces the retiring Steve Howe?
Geoff Downes: “Sam does some great stuff on there. I think it was too much for Steve because he’s got his own separate career as well. He’s also got his three piece band that he does. I think it was too much for him to be doing that band at the same time.”
Ray Shasho: No U.S. dates yet for Asia?
Geoff Downes: “Not yet, I think it’s going to be more like September or October to do some shows across America.”
Ray Shasho: What was the thought process behind the making of “Video Killed the Radio Star” by your first commercially successful group … The Buggles?
Geoff Downes: “Trevor wrote the lyrics. It was inspired by a short story called The Sound-Sweep by writer J.G Ballard. It was all about this boy going around recording studios and sweeping up the sound. That was really what inspired the original lyric … finding a band in the studios and technology playing a big part in people’s lives. “Video Killed the Radio Star” was more of an idea from the title and not a great statement or anything like that. The song is more to do with technology change and the people’s opinions of art. The fascination of when the old guy on the radio didn’t have a job anymore because television had taken over. That could relate to things like when the talkies came out and the silent film stars suddenly became unemployed because their voices weren’t suited to the screen.”
Ray Shasho: Geoff, I didn’t think you were that old where you could remember silent film stars?
(All laughing)
Geoff Downes: “No, I’m not that old yet, I’ve still got a few more albums to go.”
Ray Shasho: I chatted with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) last year and I wanted to applause all your efforts on the ‘Rock Aid Armenia project.’
Geoff Downes: “Ian did a really great job. I was happy to be invited to that. We’ve managed to do what we set out to do and build a new music school on the site of the earthquake …so eventually it did happen.”
Ray Shasho: I wouldn’t worry too much about the bands snub from The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’m gambling YES gets in next year … that’s usually the pattern, supposedly adding drama.
Geoff Downes: “Prog Music has not been well represented to be honest and hopefully that’s going to change soon.”
Ray Shasho: YES, Jethro Tull, ELP, Deep Purple, King Crimson, The Moody Blues … all bands that should have been inducted years ago.
Geoff Downes: “Those are bands that really laid the foundation for a lot of other bands. Bands like Rush got a lot of their influences from British Prog music …but we’ll see what happens.”
Ray Shasho: Geoff, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play, sing or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Geoff Downes:I would have to say Sting.”
Ray Shasho: Geoff, thank you so much for being on the call today … but more importantly for all the great music you’ve given us and continue to bring.
Geoff Downes: “Thank you Ray … cheers boy!”

Very special thanks to Ellie Schwartz
Purchase New Dance Orchestra –Electronica on
Purchase Pictures of You -DBA by Geoff Downes and Chris Braide on
Pre-order Gravitas the brand new Asia album on
Geoff Downes official website
Geoff Downes on Facebook
Geoff Downes on Twitter
YES official website
YES on Facebook
YES on Twitter
Asia official website
Asia on Facebook
Asia on Twitter

Coming up NEXT … My interview with the incomparable PETULA CLARK

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