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InterviewsGeoff Downes talks XXX, Asia and returning to Yes

Posted on Saturday, June 23 2012 @ 06:04:32 CDT by Dean Pedley
Progressive Rock

2012 finds Asia marking the 30th anniversary of their landmark debut release that enjoyed multi-platinum success with phenomenal global sales. The 80's supergroup, which reunited several years ago with its four original members, has a new studio album XXX released imminently and will be touring Japan, North America and the United Kingdom before the end of the year. After declaring XXX as the "sound of a band rejuvenated" Sea of Tranquillity's Dean Pedley had a chat with keyboard wizard Geoff Downes about XXX, the upcoming tour and his return to Yes.

Geoff, Hi this is Dean from Sea of Tranquillity…

The Sea of Tranquillity...well firstly, thanks very much for that sterling review you have given us on the site. I must say it hasn't gone unnoticed by all concerned.

Thanks, I'm really glad that you've seen it. I think when I first listened to the album one my first thoughts was the very prominent role that the keyboards have including a number of solos

Yes I think that's true. It does go swings and roundabouts on various albums that we've done and sometimes the guitars have been more to the forefront. But on XXX with the nature of the songs it seemed more appropriate that I stepped up and had a little bit of a go as it were

How did you and John approach the song writing this time around?

Well basically John and I have always had an easy writing relationship and going right back to the very early Asia stuff we kind of fell into it very naturally. And it sounds very simple but it's usually the case that we sit around the piano and John has got a dozen ideas and I've got a dozen ideas and for some reason they just magically interweave with each other. Together we add a verse, chorus and an instrumental passage and it seems to work very well that way

And of course you have worked together for so long now both within and outside of Asia

That's right I have worked with John on some of his solo albums along the way and there is the Icon albums that we have done together. And our work with Icon in many ways paved the way for our return to writing with Asia; it was as we were working on those first Icon albums that we started to think that maybe we should look at putting the Asia band back together again

What has perhaps been surprising is that you have stayed together for six years so far since the reunion whereas there was the possibility at first it may just have been for one album and tour

Well yes when we did get back together again back in January 2006 we sat down in a room and had a discussion and everybody was available. Up until that point Steve had been very much tied up with the "classic" Yes line-up, Carl had done various reformations of ELP and other things and so it was very much a case that the decks were clear and everyone was gung-ho and up for it. Once we had got past that I think it was a case of "let's see what happens" and not make any great long-term plans. I think once we'd done those first couple of tours we fell into thinking let's do an album which we did with Phoenix and so it has just perpetuated from there really

And the fact that Asia is not the sole focus of your career for each of you now must make it a very different environment from back in the 1980's

I think it has certainly put people in different comfort zones that we didn't have before. At times it was like being in a pressure cooker during that early period of Asia because each of us was living it for twenty four hours a day. Now we have had the opportunity to come back together again everyone has got their own space. As you will know John is doing the UK stuff again at the moment, Steve and myself are out with Yes and Carl has his own band and various other projects. So now we have got a much more mature outlook and we can map the year out as to what is going to be Asia time. And in many ways it is better because it is more intense and we can pack a lot into a short time-frame. Recording XXX we only had a couple of months at the start of the year before Steve and myself were out with Yes towards the end of March; so that helps to focus us into doing what we needed to do for Asia within that window

You mention it was like a "pressure cooker" at times in the 80's and that must have had an effect on the Alpha album which seems to have been somewhat unfairly overlooked within the back catalogue…and suffered as a result of the circumstances under which it was recorded and released

Well yes I think that Alpha was actually a very strong album and had it all been different and maybe if we had started with Astra and then gone to Alpha and ended up with Asia as the third album then it would have been a very different story. But you can't re-write history and I think in terms of commercial success the first album was so successful across the globe it was in many ways a double edged sword – we had all of that success but where do you go from there? So in many ways Alpha suffered as a result and expectations were higher than what we had achieved on the first album certainly on a commercial level from the record company and management. So we were rushed into doing it a little prematurely but I don't think there is any shame in that album and there are some terrific songs on it like "Open Your Eyes" which are very much the definitive sound of Asia. I'm still very proud of that album and I think we achieved some good stuff on there

I would certainly agree. I understand there is a lot planned to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the debut album…

Yes we have a platter of releases that are coming out before the end of the year, obviously starting with the XXX album in a couple of week's time. We're planning on releasing a box set of the original album with some outtakes and unreleased footage and so that will be interesting when it happens in September. And also we have a live album that was done on the last tour, the Omega tour, which is something that we thought well, why not give the fans a bit of treat and make the rest of this year an Asia celebration I suppose

And of course Asia will be out on tour for a number of months later this year

We start off with a festival called Weyfest in early September and then we go out to Japan, thirty odd shows in North America straight after and then we end up back in the dear old UK and play 7 or 8 shows here in the lead up to Christmas. So it looks like being a nice tour and it's a nice thing for the fans to be able to see the band in all of its original glory, not only playing the songs from yesteryear but also songs from the new album and from the last couple of releases

How much of XXX do you think will make the set list…it's always a case of striking the right balance between the old songs and the new

It's a difficult one because when we you have the thirtieth anniversary issue then people will quite rightly expect to hear a fair portion of that first album and so that is something that we are conscious of. But Asia is about much more than one album and the fact that we have been together now for six years there is a lot of music that sits very well alongside the original material

"Face on the Bridge" from XXX would seem to be one of those songs that will go down well live

Yes it is definitely one that we will look at because as the lead single it has that signature sound that opens up the new album. So we will probably do that one together with one or two others from XXX, one each from Phoenix and Omega and then concentrate on the first couple of albums. And since we first got together again we have been digging into our past and if you look at the amount of albums we have put out outside of Asia both in other bands and as individuals then it's a colossal catalogue.

I like to ask you a couple of questions now about Yes if that's Ok. So, firstly, how are you enjoying playing with Yes again after so long away from the band?

Well the thing about Yes is that it is a very different band to Asia and as John will probably tell you playing with UK is a very different band and Carl would say the same about ELP. And Yes is not something that I started, I joined the party quite late on but to be able to go back and play with the guys is a real privilege for me to be able to do. I can kind of step aside and look at Yes in a different light to Asia and enjoy not being part of just one scenario in terms of playing live. And of course Yes is such a legendary band and to me their music is like classical music with such an amazing back catalogue. And so for me to get back in there I really do enjoy it; it's a challenge and hopefully it adds another string to my bow

Seeing you perform on the last UK tour at Birmingham's Symphony Hall it just seemed that there was so much positivity coming from the stage

Yes I think the mood in the camp is very good and Yes has gone through some very fraught periods over the years. Benoit is not with us any more but we have a great new singer in Jon Davison who I think really does deliver at a very high level. And it has kind of given us a new lease of life and certainly when we did the Australian tour a couple of months ago it worked out very well for everybody. So as long as it carries on then its fine, we are looking forward to the tour with Procol Harum in a couple of weeks time. Procul Harem are one of my favourite bands by the way I really love their early stuff and so I'm looking forward to that. And then starting with the Asia tour in September it is an extremely busy year for me and Steve

You mention about Jon replacing Benoit…more than any other band Yes inspires the most amount of debate on forums

That's right you look at all the chats that people have about it and they are passionate about it and I can understand that because as I said it is an extremely rich catalogue of music – nobody else really sounds like Yes. And I think to an extent no one else really sounds like Asia, we have our own sound which is very much more of a song-orientated and direct melodic mainstream kind of music. Yes is much more esoteric and as I say when I've been looking back at Yes music I study it really from its DNA base and they never did the same thing twice which I think is one of the reasons why people love it so much

You've also got an album due out with Chris Braide…I think I have his name right?

Yes Chris is primarily a songwriter and he has done a lot of stuff for the X Factor type people, he has written songs for Cheryl Cole and Will Young and I met up with him through Trevor Horn's Producers project. I did some stuff on that and Chris was also doing some keyboards on it. But he is ostensibly known as a pop songwriter and we got on very well and wrote and album together last year which is going to be exclusively released on vinyl next month. And as I said before the fact that everyone has got other things happening aswell gives us much more of a focus when we come together and do Asia

I'm looking forward to catching Asia at Birmingham's Town Hall in December…you never quite made it to Birmingham last time

That's right a couple of years ago on the Omega tour we had to cancel the gig in Birmingham very late on when Steve hurt his back which was a real shame and we also cancelled the Holmfirth Picturedome so hopefully nothing like that will happen this time around

Finally, I was wondering if you have considered writing your autobiography at all

It is something that I have considered but I haven't got time really. You get these people that go on the X Factor and write their life story at the age of 21 so I think I'll give it a few more years first and collate all of my funny stories and put it all in a book somewhere but I'm not precious about it. Really at the moment I'm just enjoying playing live and working with some really great musicians and it's great that people still want to come out and see Asia live, Yes live and even come out and see the Buggles do some shows here and there so it's a good feeling to be a part of that much productivity

ASIA release their new album "XXX" on July 2nd courtesy of Frontier Records The band embarks on their 30th Anniversary UK Tour on December 15th at Tavistock The Wharf.
24 HR Ticket Hotline: 0844 478 0898,,

ASIA 30th Anniversary UK Tour Dates

Tavistock The Wharf (Dec 15)
Holmfirth Picturedrome (Dec 16)
Edinburgh Queen's Hall (Dec 17)
Salisbury City Hall (Dec 19)
Birmingham Town Hall (Dec 20)
Manchester Royal Northern College of Music (Dec 21)
London o2 Shepherds Bush Empire (Dec 22)

Interview by Dean Pedley
Live photos by Lee Millward

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