Episode 141 – Geoff Downes talks about Heaven and Earth

Geoff Downes
Geoff Downes, 2014

The one hundred and forty-first episode of the Yes Music Podcast, featuring an interview with Geoff Downes where we talk about the forthcoming album, Heaven and Earth.

  • What was it like to work with Jon Davison and Roy Thomas Baker?
  • Are you pleased with the album?
  • Are the 80s-inspired keyboards sounds on the album deliberate?

Listen to the fascinating interview and then let me know what you think via any of the methods below.

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Heaven and Earth
New in July 2014

Transcript

KM- Creating the new studio album, Heaven and Earth, seemed to be quite a complicated process with Yes alumnus, Billy Sherwood, on mixing duties after Roy Thomas Baker did the production. Are you happy with the results?

GD- Yeah I think so. I think that any album you do you come away from you really don’t know what to make of it and certainly this one was no exception, really. I think I see it as an interesting album in respect of the fact that it’s obviously the first one that Jon Davison has done and I think in many ways we kind of let him run with the ball on it and we all collaborated with him separately and then we just started to put it all together so it’s an interesting process, certainly.

KM- I saw the Birmingham gig you did on 4th May which was fantastic. It was the most enjoyable concert I think I’ve ever attended – it was really, really brilliant. How much difference does knowing each other live make when you go into the studio?

GD- I think it’s a different process. I think that live – you’ve got that one thing on your mind for that particular day and the gig for that particular night is the all important thing that you actually have to address yourself towards but, in terms of an album, it’s very much a case of experimentation and seeing what works and who comes up with the ideas and the live situation is very much a case of making it the best you can knowing the elements you are dealing with.

KM- So when you got into the studio what was it like working with Roy Thomas Baker?

GD- It was really good. I really got on with him very well. I saw a lot of the guy who produced the first two Asia albums, Mike Stone, [who] was his [RTB’s] engineer for quite a few years, certainly all through the Queen period. So there were a lot of influences I could see that had affected Mike when he had been working with him [RTB] – some of the ways he recorded vocals, certain methodology of the actual recording process was in some ways quite old school but nonetheless quite refreshing and I think we really rallied to what he was trying to do.

KM- You’ve recorded many times with Steve Howe in Asia and this is now your third album with Yes. What are the different ways that different bands approach a new album like Yes and Asia – are there distinct differences?

GD- I think not, really. I think that the song-writing is obviously the key part because that’s what everything hangs on. So I think you’ve got to have the songs more or less in place rather than sitting in the studio waiting to be hit by inspiration. Particularly these days – it’s a lot more business-like than it used to be. I think that in the early days it would be a bit random but I think the way the recording process has gone, it’s a lot more organised now and you can do quite elaborate preparation as part of going into the studio which is really how we approached this album but again I think we did rehearse it as a band so we got a feel for arrangement and parts in the music as well.

KM- Well it’s interesting that you say about preparing as much as you can before you get into the studio and I notice from the Wikipedia entry for the new album which is already in existence that The Game was written by Chris Squire Jon Davison and Gerard Johnson – how did Gerard get involved with this?

GD- I think it was an idea that Chris had been floating around for quite a while and he was involved with The Syn for a few years – they resurrected that for a little while – and I think Gerard Johnson was involved with them at that point so I think maybe that idea – I can’t be sure but I’ve got a feeling that idea might have been something that came out of that period and then it was kind of re-worked with Jon Davison.

KM- OK that makes sense. You have a single writing credit on the album according to wikipedia which is on the last track, Subway Walls. I have listened to the album and that one is one of my favourite tracks – it’s got some great rhythms and textures in there. So can you say a bit about how that track came about and also what you think of Jon Davison’s writing who was your co-writer on that?

GD- Well I think that actually when he came to stay with me for a week we approached two pieces – one of them is actually longer than Subway Walls and I think it’s a nicer track in some ways because it’s very progressive and it’s got some big themes in it but I think Subway Walls does encapsulate two sides – Jon’s side with his chorus writing and my instrumentation. I think that those two things come together pretty well in the song and I think we were conscious that Yes is not just about straightforward songs and so I think we wanted to mix it up a bit on that one and try and put a few weird time signatures in there and make it a bit more interesting but certainly from my standpoint the two pieces we worked on were both big, progressive rock pieces and that was the only one that we did [on Heaven and Earth] which…hopefully we will be able to put the other one on when we do another album. It’s still there and it’s a very interesting piece, nonetheless.

KM- Well that’s very tantalising to tease us about that for the next album I have to say! When you were approaching this album, how much of the musical legacy of the band were you consciously trying to make reference to or evoke or do you think Yes should just constantly evolve and become new?

GD- I think it’s just an evolving thing, Yes, and I think it would be one of the hallmarks of its longevity has been the fact that it’s survived numerous personnel changes and is constantly – it’s a moving mass if you like. I think that’s one thing that has helped to sustain it as long as it has. Obviously I think there is the legacy and people like Chris Squire, Steve Howe – they can’t help sounding like they do so it’s always going to have some of the hallmarks of the early Yes stuff anyway, certainly with Alan in there, Alan was there there pretty much from the beginning as well. So I think that they put their stamp on anything they would do together so it would have an inherent sound of Yes anyway. I think the fact that with Jon [Davison] having a similar high tenor to Jon Anderson, that makes it also pull in that area. …one of the hallmarks of Yes’ sound in the past has been Chris’ harmony vocals that he’s put into a lot of the songs. So I think while it still has a Yes tradition, we were conscious also that we wanted to move it forward a bit and throw in something different into the equation.

KM- I think that’s very much the case – it’s quite a varied album and I think it’s a lot more varied that Fly From Here.

GD- It’s probably the purists that really only look at albums from the 70s or the Yes period in the 70s – they probably won’t like it but I don’t think they’d like it any way – they tend to be very, not blinkered in their vision but they are very focussed on that particular era. I think if you look at Yes historically, you’ve seen so many different line-ups and different genres – certainly the 80s Yes was very different from the 70s Yes with Trevor Rabin and Tony Kaye coming back into the fold. It’s a very interesting band historically and I think this album is just another chapter in the book.

KM- Absolutely. Well, some of the keyboard lines on some of the tracks in the album felt to me like they had a little bit of a 1980s feel and of course with your own personal legacy with the band from 1980 from Drama, was that something that was deliberate?

GD-  Yeah, I think that from my standpoint Yes’ keyboard sound works best when they’re more in the vintage mould and I think that tends to work best with Steve’s guitar with the two instruments at the forefront of a specific instrumental section. I think the vintage sounds tend to come through better, certainly acoustic piano and Hammond organ, electric piano, some lead synth lines – Moog type synth lines – these are all very much synonymous with Yes’ early period and we certainly used those elements on the Drama album but started to incorporate new technology that was around at the time which was samplers and things like that so I try and mix it up a bit and mix up the new with the old, I think.

KM- I think that does come through strongly in the album. There are, for example, some great moments with Chris Squire’s bass and your Hammond sound, really blending together nicely.

GD- Yeah, I think that’s been something that has worked in Yes throughout the entire band. Maybe the 80s Yes was not so focussed on keyboards, it was much more guitar-driven, certainly with Trevor Rabin’s style of guitar playing – that was not so much a keyboard-driven period but certainly if you go back to, say Drama and before that, certainly Fragile, they are very much keyboard-orientated albums. Close to the Edge has got a lot of keyboard textures in there. So I think it’s an important ingredient to retain that because I think that also gives it its signature sound.

KM- And of course another signature of Yes is the album artwork and I love the album artwork that’s on there by Roger Dean and you’ve had a long association with him of course through both Yes and Asia. How important do you think to an album is the cover?

GD- I think it’s still important. Roger’s been associated with Yes for many, many years and certainly the signature logo is very much part of Roger Dean’s background, I think and it’s important I think to show that it’s not just a band that puts an average stamp on its cover and that’s it. We try and make it as interesting as possible and Roger is very good at doing that and coming up with different designs. It makes for much more interesting merchandise and posters and that kind of thing that people can collect rather than being something that’s bland and of course the significant thing is with a little bit of a return to vinyl, when these albums are released on vinyl you really start to get that great feeling back about looking at a proper record sleeve.

KM- Well, I am looking forward to getting a vinyl copy and putting that up with my other Yes albums on my shelf here. Any idea which tracks from the new album might be given an airing on tour?

GD- Well I think we’ll certainly have a look at probably Believe Again which is the opening track on the album and that’s possible something we’ll look at. Maybe either The Game or World of Our Own – either one of those two. It depends on time really because now we are doing Close the the Edge and Fragile  in their entirety and we’ve got a support band – a band called Syd Arthur from Canterbury who are going to be doing the whole tour – so we’ve really only got two hours to get it all going so I think probably in the middle of our set we’ll do a couple of the new songs.

Show links

Yes Heaven and Earth Website

Theme music

The music I use is the last movement of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. This has been used as introduction music at many Yes concerts. My theme music is not take from a live concert – I put it together from the following two creative commons sources: thanvannispen and archive.org

8 thoughts on “Episode 141 – Geoff Downes talks about Heaven and Earth”

  1. Fantastic – the promised interview at last. I don’t think there were any particular revelations but what did come across is that he is under no illusions about how the band is seen by its different sorts of fans. He sounded very down to earth, very much a working musician without pretension.
    Great stuff Kevin
    (PS You mentioned the teeshirts in the lead-in. Do you know how many have been ordered?)

    1. You are part of a very exclusive club of YMP t-shirt owners. I think there may be double figures now…but every one very much appreciated!

      As you say, Geoff is a great guy! Thanks so much for the comment.

  2. Great Job Kevin,
    I must say it was a very nice interview.
    I myself have never really had heard a interview done with Geoff before it was very surprising to me that here is a very accomplished musician speaking about the past albums with very much praise and not taking anything away from what they were ……great music……This tells me that Geoff is a first class person with compassion for what he does and I myself can’t wait for the new album which will be sent to my Google music library.
    Cannot wait for next week’s show and hey who knows you might just turn into that person who only interviews Yes members…..
    Take Care

    Paul Tomei

  3. Congratulations on the Geoff Downes interview. You were very professional and calm. I myself would have been quite intimidated. I will be seeing the band again on July 23. I recently learned that there would be an opening act and then hearing Geoff comment that they would then be limited to about 2 hours naturally concerned me. Figuring that Close To The Edge and Fragile would clock in at arould 80 minutes that would only leave 40 minutes for new material and songs from the back catalog. Sorry, thats the way a fan begins to think. I was a bit suprised at them bringing along an opening act. I wonder what your thoughts are?

    1. Thanks for the message Chris! I was very surprised to hear about the support band and I can’t think why they would go back to that now. Shortening the main event seems odd. I hope you still enjoy it!

  4. Great job Kevin, great interview and what an interesting listen. Indeed I love how Geoff is so candid in some of the things like the lineup bashing. Worthy of praise.

    Since I was wearing my YMP shirt to the tour and was shortly talking to Geoff about the YMP, I can’t help but thinking maybe I had a small account into arranging this interview? If so, then I’m very happy I could do my good deed. 🙂

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