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INTERVIEW: GEOFF DOWNES of YES – June 2018

| 28 June 2018 | Reply

According to a recent press release: “YES recently revealed initial plans to celebrate their landmark Golden Anniversary this year, including the exciting announcement that founding member/Grammy winner/Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Tony Kaye (keyboards; 1968-1971 and 1983-1995) will be joining Steve Howe (guitar since 1970), Alan White (drums since 1972), Geoff Downes (keyboards; first joined in 1980), Jon Davison (vocals since 2011) and Billy Sherwood (guitar/keyboards in the 1990s and the late Chris Squire’s choice to take over bass/vocals in 2015) as a special guest for this summer’s entire #YES50: Celebrating 50 Years of YES tour.” We got keyboardist Geoff Downes on the phone to discuss the bands longevity, touring, and a lot more…

Toddstar: Geoff, thank you so much for taking time out for us today.

Geoff: My pleasure. It’s nice to talk to you.

Toddstar: Well, there’s a lot going on, but the most important thing right now is Yes is celebrating 50 years. What can you tell us that brings to mind the reason for the longevity of the band?

Geoff: Well I think it’s a testament to the great music that Yes has provided over the years. I think that certainly from my standpoint, I feel very privileged to have been a part of that on a couple of occasions and still today. But you know, if you go back 50 years, any band that can really establish itself and stay established for all that period of time is a pretty remarkable achievement. And I think it tells you how great Yes’s music is and how it’s touched so many people and still continues to touch people.

Toddstar: Geoff, when you joined the band in 1980 did you imagine come 2018 you guys would still be out there doing what you love to do?

Geoff: Well I thought that at some point I’d be back in the band. I didn’t know when because there were various occasions, or times during that period, that I maybe had a call from Chris, said, you know “I’d like to get you back in the band at some point.” But it didn’t really happen until 2011 when I had a call from the guys and they said, you know, when Trevor was producing the Fly From Here album, and said you know would you like to join? So, you know, I said yeah why not. Because I think that, it’s a band that is very, very important to me and certainly I was happy to come back in and I’m happy to be there today. And it’s a tremendous band. You know, if you play with a band like this, you always feel that it’s got a great strength and a great inner core. And that’s what I think spurs the whole thing along.

Toddstar: Well what is it about the band that calls you back time and time again, that makes you want to do it? Because you’ve certainly been parts of other projects and other things along the way, but what is it about Yes that just drives you back every time?

Geoff: Well I think from a personal standpoint, being a keyboard player, in a band like Yes it’s probably a dream role because there’s so much great music to get your head around. And I think that’s the challenge that we set ourselves, is not to rest on the laurels and we switch the set list around quite frequently and certainly the one we’ve come up for this 50th anniversary is a pretty spectacular, I think, set list, and we’re very pleased with the way it’s going.

Toddstar: That’s great. Geoff, again, you’re on Drama and then picked up again at Fly From Here like you said. Looking back, and Yes has such a catalog, what are the songs that when you know you’re out doing the 50th anniversary, are you excited to play? I know you’re going to play things for the fans, but what songs do you really enjoy playing live?

Geoff: Well I certainly think that, definitely earlier periods is really exciting stuff, because when I was a student at music college, those early albums were the backdrop to my life at that point. And certain, The Yes Album and Fragile and Close To The Edge, those three albums in particular were very much part of the backdrop of my student life. So it’s sort of ironic that, you know, so many years later, I’m playing that stuff for real. So I was a big fan of the band in particularly that period. So it’s great to be able to play that stuff. And think that playing anything from those three albums really brings back some great memories for me.

Toddstar: The last studio album that the band had that you were part of was Heaven and Earth. How do you feel the music changed from your first release with them, again back in 1980 with Drama? How did the music and the structure change for you?

Photo Credit: Glenn Gottlieb

Geoff: Well I think it was quite different because the writing core was different on that album from say the Drama album, or Fly From Here for that matter. Because I think on both those two earlier albums, the Drama and Fly From Here, that was very much material that I had written with Trevor that was sort of Yes-ified in way, and presented to the other guys. I think Heaven and Earth​​​​​​​ was much more of an individual thing. And of course with Jon Davison coming in, it was the first album that he’d contributed to. So the actual elements were really quite different, certainly between Heaven and Earth and the other two albums I was involved with.

Toddstar: In mentioning again, the latter album, Heaven and Earth, one of my favorite Yes tracks was actually on that, and you’re actually a co-write on, clocking on over nine minutes, somewhere around there, right around nine minutes, “Subway Walls.” What can you tell us about that track a little bit? What was your inspiration behind that track?

Geoff: Well Jon came over to my studio in Wales before we started going in the recording. And we actually wrote two lengthy tracks, one of which was “Subway Walls” and the other one is still, as it stands unrecorded, but we did a substantial demo of it. And they are both, you know, 10 minute kind of tracks. And I think it was a great way that we worked together on that, because we literally had some different ideas and they just came together, and we put the whole thing together like that. So yeah, I mean I was very proud of that particular track because I think it was a very strong collaboration between Jon and I.

Toddstar: Personally again it was one of my favorites because it spoke to how the band kind of stuck to the roots of what the band was always about, yet brought the sound a little more modern.

Geoff: Yeah, I think that that was inevitable really, because I think that, you know, there were a lot more sounds and different things available for us that we have today. So certainly I think that some of the more modern keyboard sounds and vocal effects and stuff like that were incorporated more on that. But I think that you know, you can still identify it as being Yes because of the way that the music’s arranged and the input of all the personnel and with such a great rhythm section together.

Toddstar: Well that said, you guys are again, out on a big tour that wraps up end of July. You’re going to hit Detroit, so Detroit’s very excited to see you guys come through.

Geoff: Yeah. Looking forward to that, yeah.

Toddstar: What cities do you find, not that there’s a best Yes fans, but they react better to what you guys do?

Geoff: Well I think it’s pretty much straight across the board. I think that, obviously the East Coast fans, you know where Yes really were founded in the Philadelphia area and stuff like that, we still get a great response there. But I think across the board, you know, it’s fairly even. I don’t think there’s any specific zone that’s any more or any less enthusiastic than anywhere else.

Toddstar: I know you guys are putting together a hits lineup for this tour. Are there any songs that you personally would like to retire? Songs that just, for you it’s just monotonous to play them? Or do you still really get into each of the songs that you guys play?

Geoff: We approach each tour differently. For instance last year when we came out, when we did two sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans, that was an album that I was not really that familiar with, and it was very interesting looking at stuff like that. So we dig pretty deep in, and I think that it’d be nice maybe to look at a couple of 80’s era Yes tracks as well. And maybe even something from the 90’s, you know. Well we do a couple of tracks from the 90’s anyway. But yeah, there’s so much there; you know, you’ve got 22 or 23 studio albums to pick material from, that’s a pretty enormous body of work to tackle. But certainly, I’m game to try anything that’s in the Yes catalog.

Toddstar: That said, you’ve kind of hinted, and I thought you were going to go all the way, Geoff, but is there a song or two you wish you guys could play, specifically?

Geoff: I think I’d like to just do one of the big pieces from the album Relayer. We did a little bit of that, but something like either “Sound Chaser” or maybe “Gates of Delirium,” which would be an enormous challenge to actually learn something like that. But that would quite a fascinating challenge to do that.

Toddstar: You’ve have had a storied career, Geoff. You know, from Yes and then all of your other projects that you had along the way. But all of those recordings and albums aside, if you had to go back through the history of music and pick an album that really influenced you, what would that album be?

Geoff: It would probably be something like Caravan’s third album, In the Land of Grey and Pink. It came about in about 1969, something like that. But there were a few albums around that time that really influenced me, prog music wise. Certainly the first King Crimson album and some The Nice albums. Very much the keyboard-driven albums of that era were the ones that really, Procol Harum and bands like that, were the ones that really got me excited to do what I’m doing now.

Toddstar: You mentioned a couple that influenced you. What’s it like for you as a performer when someone comes to you and tells you how much you influenced them in their playing?

Geoff: It’s quite an endearing aspect, because you realize that your music has touched people and you have influenced people, hopefully in a good way. And it’s a very gratifying thing to hear from people. Not to say that you get sort of overblown by it, but certainly it’s a nice thing to hear.

Toddstar: With music the way it is, there’s so many different genres and everything else. Back then it was just rock and roll, and then you guys started peeling off into prog rock and everything else. And you’ve done so much in that arena. What else is there still for you to accomplish in your mind, now that you’ve climbed the echelon that you’ve done in the prog world?

Geoff: Well I still enjoy working on all sorts of different projects. And certainly, whether it’s stuff that I’ve been doing with a songwriter called Chris Braide, it’s more of a pop-based, melodic pop kind of style. I still like pop music. I like the fact that you can maybe get a song out in three and half minutes or something like that. So I’ve got that side to me as well. But I’d certainly like to continue to write with all these great people I’ve been privileged to write with in the past, and find new avenues to explore. And I think that’s the one thing that keeps it fresh and keeps you going in many ways, is that if you can sort of look to the future and try and get as much experience in new pastures that you can explore. And that’s really all I can really hope for and what I look forward to.

Toddstar: That’s awesome. Well again Geoff, I really appreciate you taking time out.

Geoff: Yeah, we’re looking forward to the show; I think it’s the end of the month isn’t it? The 30th.

Toddstar: Yeah, Saturday June 30th at the Fox Theatre.

Geoff: Always a good crowd there. Love it.

Toddstar: Well we love you. Again, thank you so much for your time and safe travels and we’ll see you in Detroit.

Geoff: See you then. Thanks very much. Bye now.

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Todd ‘ToddStar’ Jolicoeur

Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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