TIME AND WORDS: An Interview with Geoff Downes of Yes

A quick catch-up with the influential prog/new wave keyboardist

Cover art for Yes: The Steven Wilson Remixes

Be it through Yes, Asia, DBA, or even The Buggles, keyboardist Geoff Downes is a household name to progressive rock fans. Fortunately, he’s more than happy to share his thoughts and insights on the current Yes tour, the legacy of the band after fifty years (including fan reactions to line-up changes), what else he’s working on these days, and more.


Since this tour is commemorating fifty years of Yes music, I wonder how you all decide which songs to include in the set.

Well, it’s really difficult because there are certain songs that we can’t play that are very synonymous with Yes, but the thing is that we’ve done so many different albums over the years, so it kind of fell into place a bit because we picked the ones that were the strongest and most representative of the band.

That makes sense. You’re billing the Philadelphia show—at the Fillmore on July 21st—as “Yes Fanfest.” In what ways will that be a more collaborative event between the band and the audience?

It should be interesting. We did one in London earlier this year and it was successful, so we’ve got high hopes that it’ll be a good time in Philly. The Yes fans are a special breed and we certainly want to show our appreciation for people who’ve been following us for so many years. It’s nice to incorporate them into the celebration and have some nice interactions. We’ve got quite a lot of people showing up, like Patrick Moraz and Tom Brislin and some Yes tribute stuff. It’ll be quite the event.

It sounds like it. You mentioned Patrick and Tom, but you’ll also have Trevor Horn and even artist Roger Dean there.

Yes, they’ve all had an important part to play in Yes’ history; it’ll be a big roster. I think Roger’s been at all of the ones we’ve done so far, so the fans love talking to him about modern art and all that. It makes for a nice occasion and everyone is happy to be there.

I’m sure. Not only is 2018 the 50th anniversary of the band, but it’s also the 40th anniversary of Tormato, which is the album before you joined with 1980’s Drama. How do you feel about that album today? Are there any plans to commemorate it?

I don’t think there’s anything specific to do for it. It’s a great album; it wasn’t very well appreciated when it came out, and I got a bit of that myself with Drama. Some Yes fans felt that it wasn’t illustrative of Yes, but certainly looking back on Tormato, I think it’s a great one, as are all of them. Yes’ music is very diverse and people will always have their favorites, but the fact that the band’s been going for half a century and putting out all sorts of styles is what makes Yes what it is.

Exactly. If you repeated yourself, it’d get tiresome quickly.

Right. When you think of the different members who’ve been there and put in their own bits of themselves, that’s what created this wonderful catalog of music.

Speaking of fan reactions, how do you respond to people who dismiss the current line-up and tour because certain former members are missing?

It is what it is, you know? Some people appreciate certain styles and people and other people favor others. You have to look at it as a whole rather than the individual components of who’s been there when. Everyone’s been significant. The majority of Yes fans look at the music as a whole instead of any specific era.

That’s good. Moving on to the recently released Steven Wilson vinyl box set—which includes his remixes of The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans, and Relayer—why were those albums were chosen, and what sticks out to you most about what Wilson has done with them?

Those were chosen, I think, because they’re the only ones that could be found. It’s also because those are considered the most iconic albums of the ‘70s period. It’s a bonus for the fans because they can hear things that might not have been featured heavily on the original recordings. I don’t know if he’ll do any more, though, since he tends to look at the defining albums from a band’s history. He did the same with King Crimson and Jethro Tull.

You’re probably right. Do you have any favorite Yes albums or songs?

It’s hard to ignore Close to the Edge, as it’s arguably the defining Yes album. “And You and I” is a great song, of course, and we’re actually doing “Close to the Edge” on the tour this time. It’s a very significant song.

Absolutely. Looking back over the last fifty years, how do you view the legacy of Yes and its impact on the genre?

It’s fairly clear that Chris Squire was a huge part of it all the way through. His style of bass playing was completely original, and that was a main driving force. Alan [White] has been there for forty-eight years, so their rhythm section was essential for so long. Obviously, Steve and Trevor and myself and various other keyboard players came through. If there’s one thing I’d say about the music itself, it’s that the rhythm section really pushed it. Chris is still very missed.

Of course. Which prog bands do you currently listen to or think are pushing things forward?

There are a lot of them. There’s that sort of neo/British wave, and Steve Hackett’s still out there doing great stuff. Then there’s Arena and many Swedish bands. It’s all propelling prog music along. We get a lot of them when we do Cruise to the Edge, which is just a boat full of prog. It’s great fun and it’s great to see young people putting groups like Anathema together. They’re not household names but they’re the kind that help move the movement along.

I love Anathema.

Yeah, they’re great and all of those bands help awaken an interest in the older stuff, too.

Aside from Yes, what else are you working on these days? I’m a big fan of your DBA project.

Thanks. We’re doing a one-off DBA show in the UK in September. At the moment, Asia is still trying to come to terms with not having John [Wetton] on board, but I’m sure we’ll do something eventually. Asia’s music is something that needs to be upheld. I think John would want that.

I’m sure he would. You’ve worked with a lot of amazing people over the years, so I wonder who’s left that you’d like to work with—on stage or in the studio—but haven’t yet.

Peter Gabriel, probably. He’s a visionary. There’s quite a few people, to be honest, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best people around, so I take my privileges that way.

 

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is a professor of writing. He is the founder of the creative arts journal The Bookends Review and a contributor to Prog, the world's leading progressive rock magazine.

2 thoughts on “TIME AND WORDS: An Interview with Geoff Downes of Yes

  • July 12, 2018 at 8:49 am
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    The first answer says “there are certain songs that we can’t play that are very synonymous with Yes” — why can’t certain songs be played? Legal reasons or singer’s reduced range or what? I saw Yes get inducted into RnR HOF in April 2017 and some of them were in pretty wretched condition. I know that the various factions have formed various incarnations of the band, but are there restrictions on which songs each faction is allowed to perform?

    Reply
    • July 15, 2018 at 8:27 am
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      It doesn’t really make sense as printed – I guess there’s a typo and it should have read “There are certain songs that we can’t NOT play that are very synonymous with Yes”

      Reply

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