Interview with Geoffrey Downes and Chris Braide of DBA

Geoffrey Downes - Chris Braide - DBA logo

With the release of Celestial Songs, their fifth studio album, the Downes Braide Association (DBA) have further strengthened their reputation for writing melodic and modern progressive-rock.

For the fourth time, DPRP's Patrick MacAfee speaks with Chris Braide about his long-running musical adventure. For the first time, Chris is joined by his co-pilot Geoff Downes, for a conversation that includes details on their creative process, their love of older synthesizers and the plan to forge on with DBA.

This interview is published at the same time as the review of Celestial Songs.

Patrick McAfee

Hello, Chris. It's great to speak to you again.

Chris Braide: My pleasure. Thanks for all your support in the past. It's been really fantastic.

I go into each DBA album thinking, okay, the previous ones were fantastic; a hard act to follow. I'll tell you, I put Celestial Songs on, and no hyperbole, it's outstanding. Perhaps I am getting a bit long in the tooth, but it's a bit tough for me musically these days. A lot of the music being released is OK, but the substance isn't there for me. The musicianship is there in many cases, but maybe not so much the songwriting. So I think I've become picky. Few and far between the stuff that really grabs me and yeah, DBA and your solo work is just a real step above.

Chris Braide: Oh wow. Thank you, Patrick. It's really kind of you to say, and I don't take it for granted. It's inspiring, and it makes me want to carry on when I hear things like that.

You're welcome. DBA hits all the right buttons for me. The emotion is there, not just musically, but lyrically. The way the songs connect, the melodies, and particularly the last few DBA releases, they are true album albums, if that makes sense. To me, that's what it's all about.

Chris Braide: That's really great because that was the intention. That's what I grew up really loving. The singles were great because they'd be on the radio, and you'd hear them and go: "Ah, yeah!" but then you'd wait for the album. That was the big event, and just getting home with an album that you'd spent your pocket money on, it was just like: "Yes. Leave me alone for one hour, I'm away with the fairies."

A hundred percent. I still do that. It's a little different at times with the technology, streaming and such these days, but it's still the same album experience nonetheless.

Chris Braide: Absolutely.

Geoff has joined us! Geoff, welcome. My name is Pat McAfee from DPRP.net. Chris and I have been chatting for a few minutes and I really appreciate you joining. Before we get started on the excellent new DBA album, I've had the pleasure of interviewing Chris a few times in the past. However, this is the first time I've had the chance to speak to you. I wanted to take the opportunity to call out an album of yours that I don't think gets nearly enough attention. The Light Program from 1987. It is one of the absolute best keyboard albums, and if I can say, one of the most daring and unique major label releases in existence.

Geoff Downes: That's very kind of you. Thank you!

Chris Braide and Geoffrey Downes. Promo photo

You're welcome. I remember when I first listened to it, maybe for lack of a better term, I thought it was such a ballsy, daring album to come out at that time. It was astounding to me. Still is actually.

Geoff Downes: Thank you. Yeah, it's actually four sides of vinyl. It wasn't quite Tales From Topographic Ocean, but yeah, no doubt Chris has told you that we are both pretty much vinyl-heads. I like the fact that you've obviously recognised that it was very much conceived as an album, rather than being just a collection of ideas. That's really cool. Thank you.

Absolutely. So Celestial Songs is the fifth DBA studio album, and in my opinion, the best to date. The songwriting on the album is top-notch. With you having worked together as DBA for over a decade now, how has the songwriting or recording process changed or grown for you through the years?

Chris Braide: Well, it's not really changed that much, has it Geoff? We've found this really nice equilibrium where Geoff will send me a folder full of ideas. I'll wait until the time is right and then open the folder and off we go. I'll kick them into shape and add bits to them. It just flows like that. Then I'll send things back to Geoff, and he'll say: "I like that," and so it just grows organically. There's no great pressure. It's not like: "Okay, we've got three weeks in the studio, we better write it all now." We spend quite a long time writing and perfecting it. I think obviously, you've got at some point to commit and say: "Okay, that's finished," but I think it's nice to have the time to kick these things around and make them as good as they can be. That's the intention.

Geoff Downes: Absolutely. We don't really write to a formula either. As Chris said, we collect a number of ideas and then just see what happens. I don't think there's any special way that we approach it as such. It's more to do with the fact that, whatever grabs us, if we like it, then we carry on and we do it. I think that's really all there is to it. There is no pressure to write specifically for a vehicle as such. It's just something that, as Chris said, organically just comes out. Then we put it out there and see what happens.

With that in mind, in the promotion notes that came with the album, Chris, you occasionally reference things on the album as being, "very DBA". Now five studio albums in, to the both of you, what does being "very DBA" mean to you at this point?

Chris Braide: I mean there's just a sound. I suppose something like Keep On Moving is quite DBA because it's got that wistful nature to the lyric. It's similar to the previous album (Halcyon Hymns) in that way. But then something like the final track, Beyond The Stars has all the elements that are identifiable with both Geoff and I. You can tell the bits that Geoff has written and you can tell the bits that I've written. They marry really well together.

Geoff Downes: I think for both Chris and I, though Chris is a multi-instrumentalist, the keyboard is really our go-to instrument. Certainly some of the older synths, we both really love. Like the old ARP string ensemble, Solina, or some mix stuff. But also, the way that keyboard technology has developed over the years, is something that I've always been an advocate of staying as much in touch with as possible. I know Chris is as well.

We've got different types of approaches, but when it comes together, that's when it becomes very DBA. Our planets align on it and there it is. As I said before, there's not really any formula to it. It's something that Chris will say: "Cool, I love that. I love that chord sequence," and then we'll stick with that and develop the song from there. It's something that we love doing. I think it's a guilty pleasure for both of us because outside the things that Chris is very involved in, a lot of different projects, I'm obviously involved with Yes and various other things. So, this for us has been a breath of air in the middle of all of that, where we can not feel any pressure to come up with something. We're not trying to better our last album or anything like that. We're just trying to make music that we like and hope that other people like as well.

DBA. Promo photo

As a music fan I'll say, that there is a natural musical synergy between you two that definitely shows in the finished product.

Geoff Downes: We are on album five, we're still forging ahead, and we're looking forward to the next one. I think that we've definitely got something and, whilst it may not be mainstream as such, we're building up quite a nice little fan-base of people who really appreciate what we're doing.

As you said, DBA is not necessarily mainstream, but it is accessible. It touches on those elements that the prog fans love, and it is that perfect mix of pop, rock and prog. It just all comes together and hits all the right buttons for me and many other fans as well.

Also, you just made my day when you said, "The next one,". Not to be greedy, but I think this type of music is important and extremely entertaining. I sometimes listen to your albums and think that there are people who would absolutely love them, but don't know about them, because the outlet isn't there. There's a significant crossover appeal to DBA, in my opinion.

Chris Braide: We seem to have built on the fans with the last album, so it is growing. It is one of those things that's organic and it's slow. There's no EMI records saying: "Come on, you've got to do this and do that." So, it's a slow process, but we can see that it is building and I think with the last album there was a lot of support. Even though we weren't, as Geoff said, pressured to make an album that was better than the last one, there was a certain idea in my head tha:, "Okay, well it's got to be good. We can't be half-hearted about this." That's a great energy for the songs, I think. It makes you work harder.

Geoff Downes: Yeah, and we don't have that pressure of the record label. It's not like we're on The X Factor and Simon Cowell's pressing the reject buzzer. It's something that we can do very much in-house. It's almost like a little cottage industry that we've built up. The whole basis of what Chris and I like, is good melodies. That's something that we're always looking out for. Have we got a great melody to put over? Have we got a great chord sequence? Have we got great arrangements and orchestration and all that sort of thing? They all play a big part in what we do and as long we've got freshness with that, and we can keep coming up with stuff, then I think that we're on for DBA six at some point. I'm looking forward to it.

You mentioned the importance of a great melody. I know that you've worked with Mike Oldfield in the past and I remember reading an interview with him a while back, where he was talking about certain forms of music that he scratches his head about. He said something to the effect of, "Melody, it's all about melody. If you don't have melody..." he pretty directly said, "then it's not music." To him, it just didn't connect as music without melody.

Geoff Downes: It's difficult to harness technique and musicality. For instance, Dave Bainbridge is a big addition to our music because he's such a technically brilliant player, but at the same time, he plays melodies. I think that if you go back to some of the great bands, like Yes or ELP from the 70s, they had melody as well as technique. If you can fuse that together, it's a great combination because you can hum the melodies, but you can also appreciate how good the musicianship is.

I know DBA generally started as, essentially, a duo between you both. Now Dave, who you mentioned, and Andy Hodge have been a part of it for several albums. On a side note, I have to say that Dave's guitar work on Celestial Songs is some of the best that I've heard in quite some time. He even adds a fantastic keyboard solo to Keep on Moving That leads to a question: How has their involvement and really their collaboration changed the dynamic of DBA for you?

Geoff Downes: You have to mature. One of the things Chris and I discovered, after pretty much the first album, is that we wanted to expand on it. It's okay just being the duo and fiddling around with rhythm boxes and quirky keyboard sounds, but it's another thing when you actually incorporate other people. They can give you ideas that you'd never have thought of, they can expand the music in that way. So, that was always in our minds after the first album, which regardless, has got its great moments.

But, we started to think, if we incorporate more of the rhythm section, we have the guitar solos, and we have different vocals, and different vocal pictures from other collaborators, then DBA's music is going to expand. It's not just going to be Chris and I fiddling around. Although we are the core of it all, it enables the music to develop. Certainly when I think about a lot of the ideas I've given to Chris, when they go over to say Andy Hodge, he's very, very conscious of the bass movement and how all that works. It's great to have someone like that on board because it helps the overall project to expand and be more accessible.

DBA. Promo photo

I agree, and with that in mind, I wanted to call out the fact that Barney Ashton-Bullock is on the new album and again, he is fantastic. His poetic verse throughout is great and his piece at the very end of the album is stunning. As it relates to his work in DBA, he's a bit like the fifth Beatle at this point, isn't he?

Chris Braide: He's really fantastic, and I think it's again one of those things that grows naturally. Following on from what you were asking about Dave and Andy's involvement, and Ash Soan as well, they make the songs sound better. The songs are good, but they make them sound better. They don't just play as session musicians, they really care.

I mean, Dave really cares about what he plays on the songs. He really gets them. And Barney's the same. Barney feels like it's an honor to be part of it. That's a lovely thing. Also, Marc Almond, I have to say, because Marc sings on Darker Side Of Fame. He sings on the last album and the album before that. He said: "I feel like I'm the invisible member of DBA". It's really nice to know that the musicians that we are working with feel like that. It's not just a gig and when they go home, you never hear from them again. I'm really proud of that.

Their enthusiasm definitely shows, there's no doubt. I want to jump a bit into some of the tracks on the album, and I'll start with the album opener, Look What You Do. To me, it's very soulful and almost Procol Harum-like. When you were working through the album and deciding on the track listing, what made that song the right album opener?

Chris Braide: I don't know, it's just one of those life-affirming choruses. It just felt positive and inviting. Also, one of my favorite albums when I was younger was English Settlement by XTC. I always loved the way that it started, because it didn't start with a big slam dunk. It didn't start with Senses Working Overtime. It started with a song called Runaways by Colin Moulding, which gently eases in with these jangly guitars that get louder and louder and louder, then suddenly, you're into the album. I feel like Look What You Do is a bit like that. It eases you in to this soundtrack in a way.

Yeah, I get that. The song is excellent in the way it is structured. It starts with Geoff's keyboard motif leading to a great solo from Dave, then to the core piece of the song with your fantastic vocal work with ultimately Geoff's enhanced keyboard motif closing the track. It's really quite diverse and fantastic.

Geoff Downes: We like to keep the music interesting. We like to keep the dynamics there. I think dynamics are very important in music in general. Sometimes people just think, all right, you just blast away and it becomes very linear. I think we're very conscious of the way that, as Chris says, you start with a very, very simple idea and then just expand it from there.

DBA makes albums that work in that grand sense. It's all about the album. There's a mystery to that of sorts. As you said Chris, it's almost cinematic, and it all has to connect together well. With that in mind, I do think that Look what you do opens up the album well. It entices on what's to come and in that sense, it works really well for me.

Chris Braide: Well, great. That was the thing. It's about making albums as an entire event, if you like, rather than, we've got three songs that could be radio-friendly and then we'll just schlock the rest together. I just can't work like that. If I'm going to get into a project, whether it's a movie project in LA, which I've done a couple of times, or an album, especially our albums, I am going to immerse myself and work on it as an entire thing.

That's what it's always been about for me as a listener. It's got to work as an album and that's why I think, in some ways, DBA is a bit of a great throwback. Nowadays, there is a lot in the music industry, where it's about the few songs. With Celestial Songs, I've listened to the album probably seven or eight times, and I never piecemeal it. I put the album on, listen from beginning to end. As you referenced Chris, in that sense, it is cinematic.

Geoff Downes: It's a case of putting the jigsaw puzzle together. If you've got the beginning and the end, you've got a very good basis how you're going to map the other songs out around it or certainly within it. All the albums that we've done, we've been very conscious of that. The running order's is very important. The relationship between the keys of the songs as well. All these little things. If you listen to it as a whole, you're very conscious of the tempos and the mood. All of these things play an integral role in actually putting the whole thing together. Both Chris and I are very conscious of that; we see that. Maybe some people miss that in music as Chris said, they have the first two or three singles opening up the side and then it doesn't matter what else is there. I think that we're better than that. We want to do something that people can look at and say: "Wow, this is great."

DBA. Promo photo

Well, I've always felt that an album is a work of art. It works the same as a painting per se. It's not that there aren't albums where some songs are better than others, but when you have those albums that work as a whole, it really is like a work of art.

Geoff Downes: Chris said something about, it's like a painting. You don't cover up two thirds of it and then say: "That's a great painting." You've got to look at it as a whole, and I think that's what DBA is all about from the very beginning. We see this not just a collection of songs, it's an album. It's, as you say, a work of art.

Chris Braide: Also, I've got to say, if we're thinking about albums where they've got three singles and the rest is a bit filler, I don't know how you can work like that. For me, it's a joy to work on track one, as much as it's a joy to work on track eight. I couldn't be bothered if I wasn't into all of it.

A good bit of my enthusiasm for DBA is all about that. What you just said Chris, that shows in the final product. There is care and concern about the quality from beginning to end. Music fans can sense that. They can tell what's filler and what's not. That's why for me, DBA works the way that it does.

Chris Braide: Great! Fantastic!

Keep On Moving is a collaboration between you and Francis Dunnery, just curious, how did that union come together?

Chris Braide: I was working in LA producing a single for an Australian artist, and I thought: "I'll reach out to Francis," because I knew we had a mutual friend, and I asked him to play guitar on it, which he did, and it was good fun and everything. Then there were a couple of unused takes and I played one back one day. I called him and said: "There's an unused take that you did, with a little lick, right at the end, that I'd like to use and write a song around it." And he was like: "Cool."

So it started as a little germ, a little riff kind of thing. He came up with the riff and I thought: "That's fantastic." I think Celestial Songs is a very collaborative album, actually. Also on Will To Power, there's the bass line at the beginning, which Andy Hodge played on one of the outro choruses, and I just thought: "That's too good to just be on an outro chorus," so we put it in the intro and it made a feature of it. So it's a very open, inclusive album in that respect.

I like that. It opens it up and I think maybe that's why perhaps Celestial Songs, you say, you feel it's the best one. I hope other people feel like that, but I think it's because we've been very inclusive. It's more fun that way.

There are a couple of songs on the album that cover some pretty serious issues lyrically. As compared to past decades, I feel that the commercial music scene has lost a little bit of that platform for social change, protest, etc. Thinking about that, do you feel a sense of urgency or even responsibility to be a voice for logical, social issues and really, the current challenges in our world?

Chris Braide: Yeah, I do. Again, if it was just fluff, I don't think I'd be able to finish it. It wouldn't be enjoyable to work on it. It would be about nothing. The artists that I liked when I was younger, were people like Elvis Costello. Andy Partridge is a great social commentator, Paul Weller and people like that. They wrote great melodies and the records were great, but the lyrics were also. I mean, a great lyric with a great melody, it's like annihilation. So, I think I miss that. I miss Shipbuilding (an Elvis Costello song). It was stuff that made me think, so I'm glad you spotted that.

I've read a few online reviews for Celestial Songs, and they've been enthusiastic, as is mine. How rewarding, after the decade or so of working together, is it for the both of you to see DBA and the new album being so warmly received?

Geoff Downes: Well, I'd be lying if I said it's not great to see a good review because it gives you confidence to say: "Well, we must be doing something right if we can get through to people, just the critics, if you like." So it's always rewarding to say that, but at the same time, it's not the be all and end all. We're not making the music to have accolades from reviewers or the like. We're making the music, largely because we enjoy it ourselves. We're hoping that we are doing something right. Then if it's picked up by other people and they say it's a fantastic album, it is very rewarding. It means that we've done something right.

Well, I will say as a fan, that you are definitely doing a whole lot of things right. Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure speaking to you. Sincerely, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.

Chris Braide: Fantastic. Thanks, Patrick. Thanks so much for your support.

Geoff Downes: Thanks very much!