I’ve interviewed the Yes-keyboardist about the new Yes album that will be out on May 19. We also talked about Norwegian grandkids, The Buggles, Asia, GTR and moving on after losing the last founding member of the band.
This is an English version of a Norwegian article written for Musikknyheter. However, since Geoff is English, this is really the original, while the Norwegian version is the translation. But I digress. On to the interview. Hope you enjoy it!
– I have a suspicion that way down the line, there will be a Yes in existence with none of us in it. Just like there will always be a New York Philharmonic or what have you. And we will all be buried and gone, and just be part of the history book.
These words were spoken by Rick Wakeman in 1991, during the Union tour where the prog rock group Yes merged their two most important line-ups from the 70s and 80s. Now, 32 years later, it’s starting to look more and more like Wakeman was right.
23 or 24
The only constant member, band co-founder Chris Squire, died in 2015. Their original and longest serving lead singer, Jon Anderson, was out of the band for the third time, this time it seems for good, in 2008. The man who carries the Yes flame now is guitarist Steve Howe, who joined Yes in 1970. He was instrumental in the writing for their third album, The Yes Album, which was their breakthrough, and he was a key writer all through the 70s. In 1981, Yes quietly folded, and Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes, who had joined Yes just two years earlier, went on to form a band with even bigger success, namely Asia.
Yes re-emerged in 1983, without Steve Howe, but with new guitarist Trevor Rabin. However, Steve Howe returned, first during the Union tour and then permanently in 1995. He has been with Yes since then. Geoff Downes re-joined in 2011.
On May 19, Yes will release their 23rd (or 24th, depending on how you count) studio album, and it’s their second in 18 months. And it’s a very good one too! The band seems to have found it’s footing after a few shaky albums in the post Jon Anderson-years.
Skiing in Geilo
We caught up with Geoff Downes, via Teams, to discuss the soon-to-be released album, which has the title Mirror to the Sky.
I’m sitting north of the Arctic Circle in Norway talking to you. You have close ties to Norway, right?
– Yeah, I do indeed. I guess I should be saying “goddag” to you. I got a daughter and a granddaughter in Norway. And I used to live in Oslo for a time, I was married to a Norwegian [Miss Europe 1974, editor for magazines like the Norwegian version of Playboy, managing director and model, Wenche Steen]. So, I have very close ties to Norway.
Do you often come here?
– Yeah, I stay in Oslo when I visit in winter and in the summer when I come over, we stay at my daughter’s place in Kragerø.
Oh, it’s beautiful there in the summer.
– It is, and sometimes in winter we go skiing in Geilo.
Ok, on to the new Yes Album Mirror to the Sky. From what I understand, you started working on this even before the previous album, The Quest, was out of the door?
– Yeah, they were sort of continuous really. When we finally finished The Quest, it was towards the end of the lockdown. We were still collecting ideas and passing stuff on, so I think the two albums were very much part of a set, albeit with different songs and with different aspects to it. But certainly, I think that we hit a bit of a purple streak and it’s been very interesting having Steve in the producer’s chair. If anyone has any knowledge of Yes music, Steve’s the guy who does and he’s been there for, you know, nearly 50 years. Maybe even more if you go all the way back to Close to the Edge. In many of those years Steve has been at the helm of or certainly been influential in Yes and the band’s music.
Is he a hard task master in the studio?
– No, he’s very open. I’ve had a relationship with Steve for 40 years now, going all the way back to the Drama album, so I think we’ve got a very good understanding between guitar and keyboards and what we’re trying to achieve and where we’re going with it all. I think we’ve managed to not to step on each other’s toes too much, we keep a fairly high level of understanding between us.
When Steve Howe and the former guitarist of Genesis, Steve Hackett joined forces in 1986 to do an eponymous album with a band called GTR, Geoff Downes was in the producer’s chair.
That’s a bit of a role reversal for you and Steve Howe?
– That’s right. I and I always felt I was tough on GTR because it was a very difficult album to produce. You had two very, very prominent virtuoso guitarist who I had to really balance against each other. I was trying to be a referee. You know, saying things like “Well, you know, you can play that section, but don’t play on that” and so on. I think the album turned out well, but it was a difficult album in terms of making sure that everyone had their own space and that they came through it OK.
The GTR album was fairly successful and came in at 11 on the Billboard charts in the US. But the band quickly fell apart after touring the album.
Given the difficulties you described did you foresee that it would dissolve as it did or were you hopeful that they would be able to make more albums?
– They started on the second one but by that time, Steve Hackett had moved on. And so, it wasn’t really the same anymore because the whole principle was that these two fabulous virtuoso guitarists were going to make music together. I think that certainly the two Steves really didn’t see eye to eye for most of the project, so it was a very interesting album to produce. I think the songs were great on that album. But you are right, the role reversal between Steve and me now is a very interesting thing.
Video Killed the Radio Star
The line up of Yes has changed over 20 times, and members have left and re-joined, some several times. Geoff originally joined the band in 1979, together with Trevor Horn on vocals. It was a shock for Yes fans that vocalist Jon Anderson, along with keyboardist Rick Wakeman, had left the band. He was one of the founders of the band and had a voice that is hard to emulate.
Geoff and Trevor Horn were at the time riding high on European charts with the now classic song Video Killed the Radio Star, which was also the very first music video played on MTV.
So how did you end up joining Yes?
– I think it happened because Yes were at a bit of a crossroad. At the time there were only Chris Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White left. They were looking to move on, but without a vocalist and keyboardist after Jon and Rick left, they were really left holding the baby, unsure where they were going to go. By chance, we had the same management company and they asked us if we had any songs suitable for Yes. And so, we got in the rehearsal studio with the guys, and it was almost as though we just morphed into each other. They found it very refreshing that we were bringing in a lot of high technology ideas. Both by using synthesizers and through Trevor’s lyrics, that were very urban. They weren’t the usual airy fairy, you know, up in the up in the clouds, rivers, and mountains and all that sort of stuff. Trevor was writing about polyester and electrical cables things like that. So, I think for them it was really a turning point.
The biggest success of 1982
The band ended up doing an entire album together, Drama and Geoff thinks Steve, Chris and Alan were excited by the new direction.
– I think it really paved the way for Yes, moving into the 80s, I don’t think the 90125 album with Yes would have happened later on if Trevor hadn’t produced it. If you look at Yes’ history, there’ve been so many different factions, so many different musicians, so many different influences coming into play, I think that Drama was just another chapter in the massive Yes book. A book that is almost 60 years old.
After the Drama tour, it was clear that Trevor Horn wasn’t up to the challenge of being a lead vocalist with songs in such a high register. Yes dissolved for a few years. Steve Howe and Geoff joined forces with John Wetton of UK, Uriah Heep, King Crimson and many other bands and Carl Palmer of Emerson Lake and Palmer to create Asia. Their first album was the biggest selling album in the US in 1982, and the hit single Heat of the Moment has since become a AOR classic used in films and TV shows like South Park.
Yes returned in 1983, with Jon Anderson back on lead vocals, with a huge comeback album called 90125. And the lead single single Owner of a Lonely Heart was a worldwide hit. Who was the producer? Trevor Horn, who these days are credited for designing the sound of the 80s. He went on to produce the worlds biggest artists for the next four decades.
You were in Asia, which was crazy successful, at the same time Yes was riding high on their comeback. What did you think of the 90125 album?
– I really liked it, especially Trevor’s production. By that time, he had moved solely into production, and he wasn’t really contemplating a career as an artist anymore. Whereas I’d gone the other way and I’d gone into being in a in a big band as a keyboard player. So, we’ve took very different paths. But I really did like the album. I thought it was very adventurous and I thought particularly the production was very, very powerful.
Return to Yes
As the years went on, Geoff continued with Asia and other projects. However, in 2011, he re-joined Yes. By that time Jon Anderson was out of Yes again, replaced by French-Canadian singer Benoit David, and 70s and 90s Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s son, Oliver Wakeman, was the keyboardist. Yes hadn’t released a new album since 2002, but they were now working on new material, with Trevor Horn producing. While they were working, Wakeman was ousted, and Geoff Downes came in on keyboards instead.
What lead you back into the band again, after a 30-year absence?
– I think it was more to do with the fact that Trevor was producing the album and that they wanted to use quite a bit of stuff that Trevor and I had written way back around the Drama period and we would be reinventing that material. I’m talking about the track Fly from Here, of course, which was the first song we came to the band with. Chris was really keen to try and do that again. And I think Trevor suggested that I join because he and I were so integral in the writing of the song. It was going to be the big song of the album so the guys felt that it would be more beneficial if I came back in and do it. And 12 years later, I’m still playing with them.
Geoff says it’s a great privilege.
– I mean, I love Yes music. Both Trevor and I were fans in the 70s. I love the band and I love all the people who’ve been in it. You know, I’ve had great friendships with many of them, particularly with Alan [White], who we sadly lost last year.
Finding their feet
Singer Benoit David was out of the band again in 2012, and the current lead singer Jon Davison joined. But then bassist Chris Squire, the only constant member of Yes, died in 2015.
– Chris and I, we hit it off on a social level just as much as on a musical level. I think that it has been a great advantage for the band over the years that there’s been that social connection between certain members that has forged a very strong bond between them. That has made it possible to last as long as it has.
I’ve been listening to the album for a week now, and I really like it. I thought the previous album, The Quest, was OK, but this one is really strong. This version of the band seems to become stronger and stronger with each release. Did you feel something clicked while working on this album?
– I think that we felt that it was a nice move back in, some ways, or an acknowledgement of some of the Yes albums in the 70s were there were a lot more musical features rather than it being just song after song and that’s it. With this album, we’ve been able to stretch out and make these great musical sections that Yes, is so well known for, especially in those early days. And I think this is to some degree is a move back to that. I think the Yes fans will appreciate that we’ve been trying to push the musicality of the band forward, both when it comes to musicianship and in the way Jon Davison has been developing. He has really come into his own as a writer. It’s a strong album.
Jon Davison is all over this album, he’s credited on all the songs.
– Yeah, I think that’s important. When a lead singer writes as well, it’s important that they’re writing something that they believe in. I used to have these conversations with John Wetton when we were writing for Asia. He always said to me “Look, you know, if I don’t really believe in the lyrics, I can’t really sing them”. And it’s the same with many other vocalists I’ve collaborated with as well. It’s important to make sure that they are comfortable with the lyrical ideas I put forward. Going back to Jon Davidson, I think it is important that he believes in what he’s singing, and I think that’s why taken a more prominent role.
Another thing, it seems that Yes has gone back to is to become a British band again, because most of you are based in England now, aren’t you?
– That’s right, and I think that helped with this album. During the pandemic, we were scattered all over the place and we were literally just sending our files back and forth online, and Steve was sitting there with the engineer, collecting all the material that was coming in. I think he did a great job because it was a very different way for a band like Yes to be working online, rather than being in the studio together. Fortunately, I think with this album we had the benefit of a more integrated approach where most of us were in the UK. Jay Shcellen cut his drum tracks in in America.
Geoff feels they were much more hands in the studio this time around.
– I think that that that shows in the album that the arrangements are more crafted perhaps
On the past number of Yes albums Geoff has had many writing credits. This time he’s credited on one song.
What has been your main role as a keyboard is on this album you think?
– To come up with new sounds and new ideas for the main sound keyboard wise. It is still heavily geared towards Hammond organ and acoustic piano, with some electric piano and some Mini Moog for the single synth line stuff. And since this is Yes music, you must have Mellotron sounds and that kind of thing. But the same time I like to incorporate some whole new sounds, digital washes and soundscapes, if you like. So that’s really been my role on this album. To come up with new sounds and yet still acknowledging the older stuff.
Do you still use the old hardware or are you gone completely soft synth now?
– I still want to use the actual physical keyboard itself, especially when it comes to the piano. Nothing can really emulate an acoustic piano. It’s very, very difficult to recreate and there’s also a performance aspect to it. That is important.
He says he’s not dissing soft synths.
– There’s some great sounding software synth of course, but I like the sound and the grit of a physical keyboard. That sits really well with me. I also think when you start to combine a lot of them [soft synths], they start to lose the detail and features that make those great instruments work so well.
His playing is O’Kaye
Your style of keyboarding playing isn’t as in your face as certain keyboard players in Yes have been through the years. I hear much more Tony Kaye [original Yes keyboardist until 1971 and then from 1983 to 1995] in your playing. Do you agree with that?
– Yeah, it’s more like Tony. He was much more a supporter of the music, especially on their breakthrough album, The Yes Album, which was his last album with them before the 80s. I think what Tony came up with using only acoustic piano, the Hammond organ and a few other keyboards was very much a textural thing. And I think that it’s the same process that I have used on this album. The material lends itself more to textures rather than just me playing all the flashy stuff. But that has really never been my department anyway. I’m much more of a of a sound guy, creating a big wall of keyboard sound which was a fundamental feature of the band with Tony. I take each album as it comes maybe the next will be a very different kind of album and I’ll be all over it. I think that you generally try to do what’s appropriate and supportive to the music.
The epic track
What can you tell me about the song you are credited on, Living Out Their Dream?
– It’s interesting, because historically, I don’t think I’ve written that many songs with Steve. So, it was it was nice to be able to sit down with Steve and put together a couple of ideas that we felt were compatible. I think it worked out well and it’s a nice track.
The title track is an epic that is fourteen minutes long. Tell me a little bit about working on that one.
– There are two long pieces on this album, All Connected, and the title track. I think that we worked on those following the principle that we weren’t trying to make up a five-minute song or something like that. Our goal was to have something we could expand. So, a lot of these ideas came from people chipping in little bits, here, there and everywhere, and the whole song just kept getting bigger and bigger. That’s probably how Yes operated when they were doing things like Tales of Topographic Oceans and the tracks on Relayer in the 70s. The songs just have their own way of developing into something bigger and then you add instrumental sections that are given enough time to develop. And the vocals parts come back, and I think that creates a nice contrast.
He says that’s like approaching music from a classical standpoint.
– You have these dynamic sections. First there are big powerful metal like sections, then you have big vocal sections and then you cut it right down to quiet parts, like the song Circles of Time. I think that is really one of the beauties of Yes music historically. That they’ve go from very high dynamic sections and then to low sections. I think it makes the music interesting.
Billy Sherwood came into Yes in the 90s, first as a hired hand but later as a permanent member. Even after leaving the band in 2000, he continued working with the band in different capacities, and when Chris Squire died in 2015, he took over as the bass player. He’s also a prolific songwriter, with a ton of side projects outside of Yes as well.
It seems like Billy Sherwood really came into his own as a bass player on this album.
– I agree, Billy has really developed his own style. Chris was a huge influence on him and he worked with Chris extensively on other projects as well. And I think there is a lot of Chris that has rubbed off on him, but at the same time he’s had the opportunity, particularly on this album to put his own stamp on it. And I think that that’s a great thing because it shows that the band is moving forward. It shows that we’re not just bogged down in the past trying to recreate that. We are trying to move the band forward and make it more interesting. That goes for Jay [Schellen] as well.
Alan White was the drummer of Yes from 1972 until his death in 2022. In concert the band has for many years used Jay Schellen as a stand-in for Alan when he had problems with his back. Jay is now Yes’ new drummer. Geoff says both Jay and Billy have a legacy to carry with them.
– And it’s big legacy. Just like Chris was a huge influence on Billy, Alan was a huge influence on Jay. And Chris and Alan together were almost like a singular unit as a rhythm section! Thankfully Jay and Billy have worked together on many of Billy’s other projects, so they are very compatible. And I think that bodes well for the future, because it means that we’ve got a fantastic rhythm section driving the band from the ground up. That works great live as well.
Speaking of live, you were supposed to tour Europe this year, but that was cancelled for various reasons. Will you be playing this album live anytime soon?
– We’re going out to the States in the autumn and do a tour there. We are going to do a bit of Tales from Topographic Oceans because it’s the 50th anniversary of that album. We are also going to be touching in on quite a bit of Yes’ history as well as incorporating stuff from the new albums. It’s important for the band to recognise not just the older material, but also some of the new stuff we’ve done in recent years because I think that’s what the fans really want.
Before we wrap up, there is something I need to ask you: I have a single with the Norwegian artist Ole Evenrud called This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us from 1987, and you are listed as the producer of that song. Do you remember that single?
– I do! I produced the entire album. He was a very funny guy and of course he became quite famous in Norway because he was a judge on Norway’s version of Pop Idol. And he was a record company executive for many years and started Hitsville, producing and writing for other artists. Actually, I was talking about him to my ex-manager just the other day. Ole was a cool guy.
He’s touring in Norway right now, playing his old songs.
– Is he? Does he play This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Us?
Yeah, that’s included. He’s done a Norwegian translation of it as well.
– Oh, wow! I’d like to see him again.
I’ll let him know if I meet him at one of his gigs. You also worked with one of my favourite composers, Mike Oldfield, back in 1987. Can you tell me a little bit about that cooperation?
– Yeah, it was a song for his album Islands. I had been working with the singer from GTR, Max Bacon, and I suggested to Mike that we should use him on the song we produced together. Mike was a great guy to work with, very funny, and a brilliant, brilliant, engineer. Just think, he engineered Tubular Bells when he was 19 or 20 or something like that, you know? So that was the one thing that struck me about him was his that was an absolute masterful guy in the studio. Absolutely brilliant to work with.
Yes’ new album, Mirror to the Sky, is out on May 19th 2023.