Every week a member of YES takes your top twenty questions from Facebook and Twitter.
This week, it’s the turn of keyboard maestro, Geoff Downes.
Hey Geoff! How did you get your start as a musician/keyboardist? Is this what you always envisioned doing with your life or did you dream of doing something else? You are an incredible musician and I can’t imagine the music world without you.
Hi there. I started piano lessons when I was 6 years old, then took up classical organ a few years later (my dad was a church organist). I don’t think there was much else I wanted to do other than a career in music. I had a stint as a landscape gardener in the gap year between senior school and music college, but I wasn’t too good at that – I didn’t know my patios from my pools! Hopefully I made the right choice. PS I’m not planning on retiring for the foreseeable future you’ll be pleased to hear ☺
I would like to know who Geoff’s musical influences were in his early years. And…Thank you for decades of awesome inspiration!
I was primarily influenced by English church music when I sung in choirs as a boy. Other European composers – Handel’s Chorales, Bach’s organ works, and Haydn along with the likes of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis were all part of my staple diet. When I got introduced to rock music, I was heavily influenced by the wave of British keyboard-based ‘underground’ bands of the late 60s such as Procol Harum, Caravan, The Nice, and even – Yes! Then when I went to Leeds Music College, I really got into avant-garde Jazz and big band arranging. After I had graduated I moved to London and got into a lot of dance and disco music doing session work in that particular field. I think it’s fair to say my influences have been quite diverse over the years.
Paul Michael Moon Rogers
When I heard, through our mutual friend Jon Dee, that you were going to be performing Awaken last year I was initially shocked that this lineup could be THAT brazen. “Is _nothing_ sacred” was the thought that went through my mind. I mean that’s a Jon Anderson signature piece. When I heard that you’d performed it excellently and I saw some YouTube videos that backed the glowing reviews up I realised that this lineup could do anything. Now you’re doing CTTE *and* Awaken. What’s next? ‘The Remembering’ and ‘The Gates of Delirium’? Or… ‘That that is’ (one can only hope). My question… Are you enjoying performing Yes epics?
It takes some time get to grips with a piece such as ‘Awaken’. Like many of Yes’s longer epics, it is made up of a number of scene changes and development of motifs which recur during the piece in different guises. I think we do a pretty decent version of this particular song, and it is an uplifting but challenging piece to pull off. I think if I put my mind to it, I would hopefully be able to play many of the other pieces from their vast catalogue – but ‘Gates’? We’ll see. That’s a tough one! Either way, it’s enjoyable to analyse the songs, play this great music and hear what intense detail and ideas went into the original recordings.
How do you figure out the right balance between trying to match up the original keyboard parts and putting your own stamp on a song? Take Close to the Edge as an example.
Whilst being as faithful as possible to the originaI core parts and signature moments, particularly in precision, feel and sound, I do try to put my own slant on a couple of the tunes – mainly in the solo sections. Sure, it’s possible to learn everything note for note, but I’m not sure that’s totally inspiring for me, as it becomes a kind of ‘keyboard karaoke’. I also add a quite a few other bits here and there, pads, pianos etc. to add a bit more harmonic support to the band. The guys are fairly flexible and receptive into me playing myself rather than being a carbon copy of someone else. That’s pretty cool.
Which are the most challenging Yes keyboard parts to perform every night?
Once you’ve worked out the equation of some of the trickier passages, it gets easier the more shows we do. Some of Rick Wakeman’s runs can be very involved, like some of those complicated spidery piano finger exercises. The Tony Kaye parts are technically easier – more solid piano or Hammond parts type stuff. But there are sections in most of the songs that require one to be on guard, because a loss of concentration can end in disaster! One thing about Yes music is, you’ve got to be on your toes.
Hey Geoff! What Yes piece would you most like to play in future concerts and/or what piece do you most enjoy with the band now?
I’d like to look at Relayer as an album to aspire to commanding, as Patrick Moraz’s style adds another great keyboardist’s versatility to Yes’s music. That would be a monumental challenge. But it would also be fun to perform the entire Drama album, which obviously I am a little more familiar with! ‘And You And I’ is one of my favourite Yes songs, so I always look forward to performing that one every night.
Scott C Leavell
Geoff, I first became aware of your talents with the Drama LP, and you continue to inspire me today. I’ve seen you play with both Yes and Asia – two wonderful, yet stylistically different bands. My question would be related to your method of composition: when working on a piece of new music is there a conscious thought to appeal to as many people as possible (“mainstream”), or to come up with new, inventive, challenging ways to express yourself? Or a little of both? Thanks again for all you do!
It’s important for me to keep writing new music as it’s an integral part of what I do. Obviously, you want people to like what you do, but that’s not really the driving motivation, or ever has been. I think if a musical idea appeals to you, then you kind of hope other people will get off on it when they hear it too. We all want to be liked and respected for our musical output of course, but it’s not something that gets in the way of inspiration. Generally speaking I let my heart lead me in the writing process. There’s no formula really, and commercial success is not something you can predict. Who knows when the creative Muse will appear?
Hey Geoff!! Big fan and really happy you’re back in Yes. My question: How do you prepare for a tour and how does your preparations for a Yes tour differ from an Asia tour, apart from learning the Yes tunes? Be Seeing You.
Hi Joel, thanks for the up! Playing Yes songs on this (3 album) tour is quite different for me this time out as no Drama or Fly From Here inclusions; because now I’m playing all of the parts and compositions that I was not at all involved in on those 3 original albums. That said, it’s been very interesting seeing how Tony & Rick contributed in the Yes keys department, both differing styles but equally influential in Yes’s history. With Asia, it’s a big difference, as I am entirely playing my own parts. So the 2 bands right now are at quite opposite ends of the scale for me, but I do really enjoy both aspects. Making sure I’ve got all the right sounds programmed up is a major factor for the tours with either band though.
Julie Rupp Oakes
I forgot to ask you when I met you last week, but I noticed you have 2 laptops during the show and was curious what software you are using? It looked like MainStage, but couldn’t see for sure.
Yes that’s right. I’m using to 2 MacBook Pro laptops both with Mainstage. The upper keyboard (Impulse) center, and lower right Studiologic are the controllers. I use these exclusively for the retro-simulations and complex orchestral patches. For instance, I use a number of some 3rd party plugins such as: IK Sampletank, Omnisphere, G-Media, M-tron etc. Both computers are loaded with these plugins. It is very helpful in recreating the retro analogue keys sounds from the early Yes stuff such as mellotrons, organs, electric pianos, church organs, Minimoogs etc.
Geoff, Really enjoy watching you play. You always seem to have such a blast on stage. What was your first keyboard and which piece of kit, out of your 10 or so keyboards you use now, is your favorite? BTW, miss you on twitter.
Hey Paul. Yeah, I generally have fun on stage – once you get past the ‘nervy’ bit at the beginning of a show and get settled in, you get carried along on the wave of excitement and audience participation. My first proper keyboard was a Hammond J122 on my 16th birthday. I later had it split and used it on the Drama & Asia tours in the 80s. If I had a favourite, it’s probably the V-Synth, but I like all of them really, as they provide collectively a huge range of sound palates necessary for the job in hand.
What are you comments on the Studiologic Sledge keyboard? What songs are you using it on?
The Sledge is a great addition to my rig. I’ve replaced the Gaia I used for the last few years to perform a number of the older signature lead synth parts (such as ‘And You And I’ ‘CTTE’ etc.) . The beauty of the Sledge is it has a full size keyboard, and very intuitively positioned knobs for quick editing. It has a big fat analogue polyphonic sound too. There’s really not much this synth can’t do. Big fan, and it’s not stupidly expensive either. (The lighting guy’s not too keen on the bright orange though!!!)
What do you think of the new Korg Krome?
I’ll be honest here – I’ve actually never heard of it. Have been to the NAMM show last few years, but generally spend my time either with the Roland people or some of the high-end audio departments. So no, haven’t been introduced to this particular keyboard. I saw Jordan Rudess perform ‘Tarkus’ on a Korg (excellently by the way) at the last NAMM, so I’m guessing perhaps it was one of these.
Hey Geoff, what do you think of the release of Mellotron again, but this time digital, the 4000D?
I’m sure that they have managed to recreate all the eccentricities of the original instrument and more no doubt. It was an amazing device, and became the mainstay of much progressive music, particularly in England where it was featured in so many recordings. It required a whole different technique of playing just from the physical keyboard standpoint. I’m sure they will have changed this on the new digital model, as well as modifying the 7 or 8 second sustain limitation for the obligatory tape re-wind.
Christopher Holzmann Accornero
Hi Geoff. How did you you arrive at the monotonic lead sound for the keyboard parts on “White Car?” Can we please have something similar on the next Yes album?
I used exclusively a Fairlight CMI, and recorded the whole of White Car in one afternoon during the Drama sessions. It was more of an experiment to see what the new sampler could do, to be honest. So I tried to simulate an orchestra using these samples, but it was very early days of digital sampling. The bandwidth was very narrow, but that’s what gave it all that characteristic ‘crunch factor’. We then added the vocoder and Trevor’s vocal to the mix. I’m hoping to be able to contribute another vignette along these lines to the next Yes album. I think that might be an interesting route to go – more along the lines of say, the Fragile album.
Hey Geoff. Huge fan of the Drama album (easily in my top 5 favorite Yes albums) and was ecstatic to hear you were rejoining the band. My question is outside of further touring (and maybe another studio album and a live album) with Yes and a new album from Asia, any other projects in the works? Projects involving your old mate Trevor Horn (Buggles/Producers) or Chris Braide? Oh and some of us are still hoping for a Drama tour live album Thank you.
Obviously a Drama fan then?! You know, when I listen to that album now, I still think it holds up and sounds good. How we managed to come up with a piece such as ‘Machine Messiah’ still baffles me. It has all the hallmarks of Yes music with its numerous complex riffs and time changes – so yes, I’m proud of my contribution to that album. Outside of what I’m doing at the moment (with Yes & Asia), doesn’t leave me a great deal of opportunity for other collaborations. But I love working and making music all the time, so I’m sure there will be things cropping up along the way. Drama live? We’ve talked about it!
The current Three Album Tour is a wonderful idea. If there were to be another Three Album Tour, what albums would you like to play? (i.e. Drama, Relayer, Fragile, 90125, Yes)
When it was first suggested, it seemed like a fairly daunting prospect, but now that we’re into it, it’s turned out to be very rewarding both for band and audience alike. So following on from the last question, Drama would be fun to do. Other than that, I’d personally really enjoy including 90125. ‘Changes’ is a great piece – I’ve played it before with Alan’s band White. I’ve also performed ‘Owner’ with Yes & ‘Cinema’ with Trevor, so I guess I’ve got a bit of heads-up here!
For me, Drama is one of the best albums Yes ever did. Hearing the band play Tempus Fugit with 4/5ths of the original Drama lineup in 2011 was a great experience. Are there any plans to bring back any other tracks from that album? I’d love to hear “Does It Really Happen” or “Into the Lens” in concert!
OK, Drama seems to be a real popular choice around here. I must say I think I’ve signed more copies of this album at the meet and greets this time out than any other item. We all look so young on the inner sleeve – ah those were the days! I remember we often used to open with ‘Does It Really Happen’ on the original Drama tour. It’s a great piece, and sure, I’d like to play that one again. ‘Into the lens’, another epic with great syncopated rhythmic sections. I guess I’ll have to dust off the old vocoder if we’re going to do this entire album in the future!
Geoff, I loved your work on Drama and to this day is one of my favourite YES albums you are also the first YES keyboardist I saw perform live in Toronto (Maple Leaf Gardens 1980), that Hammond sound and the effective way you used it throughout the album is indescribable, makes me feel so good. Which parts of ‘Tempus Fugit” were your idea?… and the very end few chords sounds synthetic “yes yes yes yes yes….” how was that effect achieved?…. Loved your work with Asia also, especially the debut album!
Thanks James. Tempus was a real group effort, and if my memory serves me well, it was my idea to put in the organ flourishes in between the block chop chords around the intro and re-intro. Also, I contributed the vocoder sections during the song. Regarding the last “Yes’s” at the end, this was achieved when I sampled the big ‘Yes’ vocal chord from earlier in the song. I’d just got the Fairlight CMI keyboard, and so I was able to play this sample pitch changing playing the notes (Lydian mode) down the keyboard. That’s how the effect was created.
Geoff: I am so thankful that you have been able to carry on at the keyboard helm for Yes, especially on this current tour; you have been in my prayers. My first Yes concert was the Drama Tour, so I was really glad to hear that you had taken over, at the keys in 2011 (and I loved what you did on Fly From Here). When I saw Awaken on the set list for last summer’s tour I thought it was very much an ambitious choice, but you proved up to the task (your organ sound was sick!). Seeing your posts on yesfans.com was really special also. What Yes song would you most like to perform (that you haven’t done with the band previously) and why? I for one would love to see the band take a crack at The Remembering. I believe that Jon D would rip the vocals on the song and I think you would really shine on all the keyboard interlude opportunities there. I would hope that if that was considered too ambitious (probably more so for the audience), that at some point we might get to hear Yes play, The Gates of Delirium again. God bless you.
Eric…Well erm yes, ‘Awaken’ took some serious scrutiny from me I tell you, particularly the middle pipes and harp section. I created a very complex patch for live, using a variety of organ samples and effects to simulate the different manuals and stops of the church organ that Rick used on the original recording. It really is an astonishing piece of music all round, and I understand why it has become the ‘Holy Grail’ of a lot of Yesfans. I think you’re right; ‘The Remembering’ would be an interesting choice to add to a set some point. But there are also so many other hidden gems on the albums that have been historically been overlooked by the touring band over the years. Talk, Big Generator, Union, The Ladder, & Keys to Ascension also have some killer tracks. How about ‘Mind Drive’ as a suggestion? ☺
Hello Geoff! Just wondering if you would consider bringing your blog back? Really enjoyed your stories of being on tour with Asia and Yes.
I know I raised a few eyebrows a couple of years back when I ran my tour blog after I’d first rejoined the band. I was getting quite a bit of stick from some of the fans for my outspoken comments. But hey, it was all in good spirits and I’ll be sure to give it some consideration next time out. The majority of folks like yourself took it for what it was, I guess – an amusing and entertaining view of life on the road. I’ll give it a go. I’ll be back on Twitter again shortly with my 140-character ramblings on politics, music, sport or anything else that crosses my mind. Follow me there at: @asiageoff.
Read last weeks #askYES Q&A with singer Jon Davison here.
Next week… Steve Howe.