Geoff Downes talks YEStival
Photo by Glenn Gottlieb
Founded in 1968 by Chris Squire and Jon Anderson, YES is among the world’s most influential, ground-breaking, and respected progressive rock bands—renowned for iconic pieces, like “Roundabout,” “Close to the Edge,” “Starship Trooper,” and countless others.
With more than 50 million records sold, the band’s albums, including Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans, and 90125, have been certified multi-platinum, double-platinum, platinum, and more by the Recording Industry Association of America. Spanning almost five decades, YES continues creating masterful music that inspires musicians, fans, and music lovers around the world.
Keyboardist Geoff Downes joined the group for a short stint in 1980, before rejoining in 2011. Born in Stockport, England, Downes grew up in a musical family—his father an organist and choirmaster at the local church. He joined his first real band, She’s French, in college. The band’s eclectic sound was focused on experimental, jazz-fusion mixed with pop and rock influences, which, ironically, included YES.
Fast-forward to the late ‘70s, and Downes is storming the pop charts with The Buggles’ hit “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Shortly after, he was invited to join YES. Although a short-lived endeavor, Downes cemented a friendship with Howe that would manifest itself several times over the next 25 years, most noticeably in their progressive rock band, ASIA.
“[YES is] not just hinged on one or two hit songs; you’ve got this whole depth of material and something that might not work for some people, works with others. That kind of illustrates again what YES is about—that diversity of music that pulls people in from all generations.” – Geoff Downes
Catch YES on the YEStival Tour with Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer on Monday, August 7th, at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore. Ticket prices vary.
Can you give me a little history on your involvement with YES?
I joined them originally back in 1980. We did an album together and it lasted about a year. We had some material that was left lying around from those days and when, about six years ago, Chris [Squire], Steve [Howe], and Alan [White] decided to revisit some of that material and they asked me back in to do it. It was like it was unfinished business.
And your response when they asked you?
I always liked my time with the band and I’d stayed in touch with all of them, obviously Steve [Howe] because of the Asia connection. It was a nice way to come back into the band.
Let’s chat a little bit about your history with music. When did you start playing piano?
I was pretty young, actually. Both of my parents were musical, so I got into singing in the church choirs and then I was about six or seven before I started with piano lessons. And that stood me in good stead. You know, music was always very important to me growing up, and then I went to music college. It’s all very much a part of my blood, really.
What about the transition to keyboards?
Well, I think once I got into my early teens, I was exposed to pop and rock music and that really got me inspired. And I thought “Well, maybe I can make something out of this.” I got my first organ when I was about 14 or 15 and started playing in a few groups and it just sort of went on from there.
Did you ever think your career would span the length of time that it has?
I mean, you can never predict what’s going to happen and I always hoped I could do something significant. And certainly, as far as YES is concerned, when I was studying in music college, it was a band everybody wanted to be in. I think around that time they’d just put out Fragile and I was really, really into the band. It’s kind of ironic that maybe six or seven years later, I actually ended up joining them. It was a bit of a dream for me in a way.
That’s incredible. So, how did it feel joining YES?
I’d never been at that level [of fame] before. I mean, I had success with The Buggles before, but all of a sudden to be in one of the biggest musical bands in the world was really quite awe-inspiring. It took me a while to get used to it. But, before we went on the road, we had a good four or five months in the studio and I, kind of, got used to the guys in that venue.
Our first show was in Toronto, with 18,000–20,000 people a night, and then a couple nights after that we were in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Those kind of things…it was quite a lot to take on board for someone who hasn’t been in that position before. But you know, you have to adapt to your environment and that’s kind of what I did.
Taking a little step back to your musical beginnings, who were some of your influences growing up?
I always found Keith Emerson as a big influence. Not necessarily in the musical sense, but more the fact that, when I went to see Nice in my late teens, I remember seeing for the first time, the keyboard player coming to the foreground of a rock band.
Normally, the guy is just sitting in the back tootling around on an organ or piano. Keith Emerson is the guy that took the keyboard to the forefront of the band. That was the one thing that really did inspire me because I saw the potential of being a keyboard player within a band. It wasn’t just being in the background, but it was on stature with the guitarist or lead vocalist.
Back to YES. Were you familiar with the band’s discography that was released during your time away from the group?
Not so much. I think there were albums that came out in the interim that I did listen to. I sort of kept in touch with them. I think the albums they did in the ‘90s, I didn’t follow particularly too well. But, I always kept my eye on them, mostly from a point of interest in what the guys were up to at that point.
So, how was it learning those YES songs? What was your process for learning them? Did you put your own “spin” on them?
There were a lot of songs that we played when I was in the band in the first place and there were a lot more songs to learn, obviously, in the next generation when I rejoined them. It was very interesting.
YES has actually had three keyboard players before me. I was the fourth keyboard player. It was interesting to look at all the various styles and, as we dug in deeper, we started to perform albums in their entirety. And I hadn’t played a lot of the stuff and wasn’t particularly familiar with a lot of the stuff, so it was a big learning curve when I came back in.
I tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original chord parts, not only in the actual playing, but also the sounds they were using at the time. It’s made for a rather interesting musical exercise to look at how those albums were put together. Just from a musicologist’s standpoint, it was fascinating to see how those albums came about.
I can imagine! How did the idea behind the latest tour, YEStival, come about?
Well, we sort of did a dummy run of this a couple of years ago where we had a similar bill to what we have now. We did one show in Camden, New Jersey, and it was more of a kind of test to see whether this whole idea would work, having a few bands together and having a touring show that was full of interest and a lot of different music.
This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to pull it all together. We’ll be playing a whole collection of songs from all of the early albums and I think people will appreciate that we’ve got two of our favorite acts with us as well.
How did you select those tracks from each album that you’ll be performing?
I think it’s more by committee. We’ll discuss it and talk about what we should do with [the songs]. I think the fact is we picked a few of the lesser-known songs that haven’t been performed before, so I think that is of interest to the fans because they get to see not just the predictable selections from each album, but some of the more interesting and sometimes uncharted, I suppose, music from those albums.
So, it was a collaborative effort to put together the setlist?
Yea, I think so. We’ve put together something that we think will suit Jon Davison’s voice and suit my style of keyboard playing and suit Steve [Howe] and Alan [White]. I think it’s kind of an interesting way of looking at it and getting everyone’s input. And that’s really what YES is about today—it’s about everyone having a voice and that’s important for longevity and, in general, for the morale of the band.
Are there any songs you enjoy playing that weren’t chosen for this tour? Or perhaps there’s a YES song that you’d eventually like to play with the group?
Certainly, one of my favorites of all time is the YES album Closer to the Edge and the song “You and I.” I think it captures a lot of what YES is about—not just in terms of musicality, but the mood, dynamics, lovely melodies, and strong harmonies. All of that is captured in that one song. But it’s such a wide catalog of music, there are merits in a lot of the songs and albums. It makes for a very interesting show, the fact that there’s such a wide range of music to choose from.
I can’t even imagine how you put a setlist together from such a large catalog. It must be over-whelming.
Yes. [Laughs]. And some of the fans can get a bit overly-keen and say, “You should be doing this, you should be playing this,” because they all have their favorites as well. But, I think sometimes that difference of opinion is a positive thing. For the most part, it just shows how wide-ranging YES’ music appeal is. You’re not just hinged on one or two hit songs; you’ve got this whole depth of material and something that might not work for some people, works with others. That kind of illustrates again what YES is about—that diversity of music that pulls people in from all generations.
Before we end this, I have to ask you something I read online. Is it true that you were entered into the Guinness Book of Records for playing 28 keyboards on stage during one performance?
Yea, that’s what they tell me. It sounds good on paper! [Laughs]. I did actually perform with 28 keyboards on stage when I was playing with Asia back in 1983 and believe it or not, I did play all of them. It was quite an interesting array of sounds. I was quite fit back in those days because I used to have to run from one end of the stage to the other.
Wow! How was that even possible?! How were they arranged?
There were stacked in fours. Five rows of four keyboards, and then some down stage and some remote keyboards and some foot pedals, as well. I had two guys to move them all around and I think they got pretty tired of it by the end of the tour, as you can imagine.