Interview with Geoff Downes
DPRP’s Phil Chelmsford
Asia have just released their 30th Anniversary album entitled XXX. With more than a nod and a wink to those early glory days of the 80’s the album marks a great landmark in the history of the original Asia line up, who got back together in 2006 after just two album releases from those early days. We talk about Asia of the 80’s, the subsequent hybrids of the band Geoff had thereafter and the reformation of the original line up of John Wetton, Carl Palmer, Steve Howe and our interviewee of course.. Geoff Downes.
Phil: HI Geoff how are you today
GD: Yeah I’m great things are very good in fact
Phil: Well a new Asia album due for release…. Looking forward to it?
GD: Yes very much so and fans have said they are looking forward to it too so its all positive.
Phil: Well on listening first time round it seems like quite a throwback to the first album in many ways
GD: Yeah there are certainly elements of that in there and it is quite an upbeat / up-tempo stuff on the album. We decided we wanted something a little more rock based and I think it has turned out a little different to the last couple of albums we have done.
Phil: I read that this album has been described as Asia going back to the roots of the first album. Was this a conscious decision in writing or just something that evolved naturally?
GD: Well we went in to make something that was in keeping with every Asia album but really wanted to capture how we started out with that first album without trying to mimic it. It’s a bit of a mix elements that brought the material on this album together. As I said we went into this very positive to create something the fans, and we, could be proud of.
Phil: Going back not quite 30 years ago…. You released the second album which struggled to meet the expectations (based on the first album) – Not to say it’s a bad album at all – But do those expectations disappear now with time?
GD: Alpha was a respectful album (I wonder what would have happened if that would have been our first album – we will never know) but after the success of the first album the expectations from the industry itself is where the pressure came from more so than fans and it had its toll.
Phil: Strangely enough I actually own Alpha but not the first album… don’t know why I never got the first one? But the first album is to be re-released in a remastered format I believe?
GD: That’s right you can get the first album remastered in various guises and it gives us the chance to portray that album in a different light.
Phil:… and gives me a chance to finally add it to my collection (laughing)..
Technology must make things so much easier now than 30 years ago.
GD: for sure… the process is almost completely different now. We don’t even have to be in the studio together although we were actually all in the same room when we made the new album.
But technology doesn’t change song writing. You still all need to be in the same room, push some ideas around. The way John and I write is really not all that different to how we did for the first album.
Phil: I think it’s fair to say John and I are really the key writers for the band…
GD: You could say that. We wrote the core of the material although that doesn’t detract from Steve’s input as he has a different style of writing but John and myself have a long standing partnership of writing together from Asia, Icon, Johns solo material etc and hence we do end up writing the bulk of the Asia material.
Phil: What I want to know, as you work and write in so many different projects in differing styles, how do, for example, do you sit down and say ‘today I’m going to write an Asia song’?
GD: These things almost float to the surface as they are written. Sometimes we write a song intended for one project to realise it better suits another. Plus it changes depending on who you are writing with. For instance the latest Yes material I have been involved with evolves differently as the ‘Yes’ writing process is different to how myself and John will work. But we did sit down and just to ourselves… today we have to wear our Asia writing hats, plus we have to consider Steve and Carl and what they bring to the music and making sure what we write suits the way they play. The methodology is not exactly set in stone but the way we write works.
Phil: The line up is, of course, the classic line up that everyone associates with Asia that has been back together since 2006.
GD: That’s right we always thought that we never really gave the original line up a proper shot. Everyone had been off involved in other bands or projects and it wasn’t until 2006 that the timing seemed right for us all. At the time we thought maybe we will just do a couple of tours and maybe an album…. But 6 years on we are still playing and recording with that line up. That says a lot about us as individuals by the fact we can still enjoy working together as the original 4 piece. There are not many bands that can say that over the same period of time.
Phil: How different is the dynamics of the band now compared to back in 1982. Back then you were all solely in Asia… nowadays you all have other projects etc on the go. That scenario is very common with musicians now
GD: Way back then it was sufficient to be in just the one band and you could sustain yourself with just that one project. The music business is totally different now to how it was then with many things changing. The fact we all are now involved with other projects is actually a benefit I think. It keeps us fresh and interested as the music we all get involved with is varied. The early days of all being together in one band all the time could be a bit of a pressure cooker, with high expectations and pressure to record and tour all the time. It’s far more relaxed now… we just ear mark a mutual time as ‘Asia’ time and we just spend that time concentrating on just Asia. Afterwards we move onto the next band or project and that becomes the new focus. We are not in each others faces all the time
Phil: I can understand that. You all have other interests, influences and commitments to work on which in many ways keeps you fresh too.
GD: If anyone had said they were doing a solo album when Asia first started there would have been some eyebrows raised and everyone else thinking ‘hey what you doing… your in Asia not a solo artist’. In fact with us all being involved in other things I think it helps expand the profile of the band. For example… When I’m with Yes I can get branded as Geoff Downes of Yes and Asia, and vice versa of course. So it all helps
Phil: Well I’m sure from a musicians point of view being involved in various projects is always a benefit as it gives them a creative outlet.
GD: That’s very true.. If you are stuck in one camp all the time it does not give you a chance to discover other aspects of your abilities and try new things. I, myself, enjoy lots of things outside of Asia including Yes for which I take as a privilege to be a part of. It shows as well as that there is plenty of music and musical scope in all of us so it’s a great position to be in really.
Phil: You ultimately cross promote each other, as you have already touched on previously.
GD: There is lots of cross pollination. Obviously when we are interviewed for instance I get asked about Yes and Asia as well as any other project / musicians I’m involved with. John gets asked about UK and his solo stuff. Steve and Carl of course pretty much the same. Of course what it does show is that each guy in the band is more than just a one trip pony.
Phil: Going back to the first album, while researching this interview I didn’t actually realise how Asia and MTV were so instrumental in each others successes way back when.
GD: It was very beneficial to Asia to have that exposure. We exploded onto the scene along with MTV and it was good as we were being played a lot on this new channel where everyone wanted to watch this concept of a dedicated music TV channel. It was a brand new way of promotion too that record labels suddenly latched onto and fortunately the first album and singles from it were a big part of that.
Phil: What kind of coverage do you get from them now days with your videos?
GD: Well lots have changed since those days. MTV is not the same beast as it was back in the early 80’s. So I understand that its reality shows that keep MTV alive now days. In fact I doubt if they would even entertain a band like Asia now in today’s market.
Phil: Let’s face it though… any video a band makes is far more accessible now because of the internet.
GD: The internet has changed how people listen to music, how they find new music, how they interact with their favourite artists and ultimately how they buy music. I’m not saying it’s for the better or the worse… it’s just changed, as things do, and people have to adapt and change with the times. We certainly don’t bury our heads in the 80’s we want to show that we can and do move with the times.
Phil: I must say though, its very commendable how you have produced a great new album, with a new modern feel, but still quite clearly retained the fact you are the Asia sound from ’82. There are many bands that after maybe 20 years where their latest album doesn’t not even resemble the sound of the same band from the first album at all.
GD: Thank you. I must say we were very conscious of that when we make music. As it happens when the four of us get together we end up automatically with the Asia sound and I think it would be very difficult for us to come up with anything else. After all the Asia sound is a kinda of trademark with each band member contributing to the texture of that sound.
Phil: You were the one that effectively kept the band name alive, when the original line up dissolved back in the 80’s, by keeping the band in various guises.
GD: Yeah that’s right… I carried it on with many people coming in and out of the band. In many ways it was a struggle as many people just wanted the original line up. Of course that came to light even more so 6 years ago when the original line up did reform as all of a sudden old fans started reappearing. That Asia (without the the original line up) was not marked with much commercial success but I think we made some decent records, whether or not we should have kept the name Asia or not is just a matter for the history books that I can’t change.
Phil: I suppose it’s say to say that retrospectively as the original line up has now ended up back together. Let’s face it many bands evolve over time with differing members and never go back to an original line up but still have a certain amount of success.
GD: Exactly, you just have to accept change as it happens and accept the fact it will happen and deal with it as best you can. But now people, that didn’t see the original line up first time around, now have the chance to see us now. We have many fans say that to us which is great.
Phil: Here’s a question for you then… if you hadn’t carried on with Asia in the various guises you did… which did keep the name alive and the essence of the band… do you think it would have still got to the point where you might have all got back together again?
GD: I don’t really know. What I can say is that the seeds of a reunion were set as far back as 2001 when John and myself starting writing together again. At that time though I Steve was heavily involved with Yes and wouldn’t have had the time. I was still touring with Asia with John Payne and the time just wasn’t right.
Phil: John Payne still has his version of Asia touring I believe?
GD: Yes he does and good luck to him. It makes no difference to us as he plays material from the era without the original line up and we play material that only the original line up recorded so it’s not a problem.
Phil: That’s perfectly understandable as both bands have enough material to tour with.
Do you still keep in contact with John Payne?
GD: No not really. If our paths cross we will chat and catch up but that’s about it really.
Phil: You also had Guthrie Govan in the ‘other Asia’ at one point too.
GD: Yes we did and what a talent he is. He has quite a big following now I believe and I think his time in Asia did give him a good platform and exposure. He plays a Jazz / Fusion type gig up in Chelmsford I believe every few weeks with a band called The Fellowship.
(Note for readers: The Fellowship play The Bassment in Chelmsford on the first Thursday of every Month)
Phil: Yes I know it well. I often pop along to that gig whenever I can as it’s not far from me. Incidentally the drummer in The Fellowship you also know well I believe… Pete Riley.
GD: Of course yeah… Pete played and toured the Icon project John and I put together. He is a very good drummer and extremely precise. I’m surprised he isn’t better known than he is to be honest.
Phil: Pete is an excellent drummer and, as you say, very precise and plays so effortlessly.
Ok back briefly to the album…. The artwork as ever has been done by Roger Dean… what happens there ? Is it all in Rogers hands or do you guys have a say and input?
GD: Well he will come up with a portfolio of ideas that we will look at and gather ideas from that and let him know our thoughts etc. He then comes back with a design which is then pretty much what we want as he knows us and what we want so well. Its really that simple.
As the part of the interview the phone signal started to break up (mobile phones huh!! Who’d have ‘em) and I was unable to decipher Geoff’s answers to my last couple of questions)
Phil: You went a bit muffled there Geoff… I lost a lot of what you said. Never mind as I think we will wrap up with my interview party piece and its something I ask all my interviewees. Do you know who you share, in music or the celebrity world, your birthday with? Your birthday being 25th August I believe.
GD: Yes it is indeed my birthday and I do know a couple of people I share with… Elvis Costello and Gene Simmons (Kiss). Aside from music I believe Sean Connery and Fredrick Forsyth
Phil: Very good I’m impressed…. I have a couple to add to that list… Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Tim Burton (Film Director) but also fellow master of the keys… Derek Sherinian
GD: Derek shares my birthday…. WOW!! I will let him know next time I see him. We usually bump into each other at the trade shows so we will have a chat.
Phil: Well thanks for chatting DPRP and hopefully catch Asia on tour later this year.
GD: We are on tour at the end of the year with 6 or 7 dates in the UK. In a couple of weeks I’m off on tour with Yes which I’m looking forward to. Its great being back with the YES guys.
Phil: Well hopefully catch Asia in London. Great to talking to you and good luck with the album.
GD: Cheers Phil it’s been great chatting.