Monday, August 23, 2010
ASIA: A chat with keyboardist Geoff Downes
With ASIA currently on tour in support of the band's latest album Omega, I recently had the chance to speak with keyboardist Geoff Downes (on the far right of the photo) about the band's continuing journey, which includes an upcoming concert date at The Grove of Anaheim on Saturday night, Aug. 28, 2010.
What follows are highlights of my phone conversation conducted with Geoff Downes on July 20, 2010:
Robert: Hi Geoff, this is Robert Kinsler from the Orange County Register; how are you doing? I've been an ASIA fan since the early 1980s and it's a pleasure to speak with you.
Geoff: You're an Orange County man.
Robert: I am. I saw you play at the Long Beach Arena when your first album came out.
I thought we could start with how you and John (singer-bassist John Wetton) first work on the songs, and then how the rest of the band (guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Carl Palmer) work up the finished arrangements/recordings?
Geoff: Well, we do a lot of trouble-shooting beforehand. I go over to John's (home) or he comes around to mine; we collate our ideas really like in the old days. We've done quite a number of albums together (both ASIA and their musical group Icon) - three Icon albums. We generally have a couple of musical ideas and we see which ones are going to work with what (other ideas) and then quite often we have similar ideas about the direction of the material; it's pretty much the way we worked back in the old days (ASIA was formed in 1981). He had a musical bit and I had a musical bit and then we put them together and then we'd see how that transpires and what it suggests lyrically. And then John starts to put his touches in the lyrical department and that's really how we get it to that sort of stage. We put a rough demo into a recorder, just a piano and then we take it to the other guys and that's really when we start to really hone into the arrangements.
Robert: Do you arrange in the studio or or do you do pre-production including the final arrangements?
Geoff: Generally, naturally, I've done a lot of pre-production. So I generally have all the songs - including the ones Steve has written with John or the ideas that Carl has put forward - I kind of do very rough computerized demos of what we have discussed so when we go into the studio obviously certain things don't work as well as we thought so we sort of chop it up (fine tune the song) around then.
Robert: I'm thinking of "Holy War" - where you have that great instrumental break built around Carl's great drum solo with your keyboards that flow so well around that. Where does that chemistry come from; how all the parts of the song work so well together?
Geoff:In that bit particularly - I think that's one of the songs that is one of the standout songs on the album - we didn't really have the idea of that with all the frantic drum parts that Carl came up with. That's not something you can do around the piano. You can't conceive those kind of things will happen (in the demo stage) - the magic of something that Steve will put in a (guitar) line that will take it in another direction. So I think it's a constant kind of refining process as each person injects his bit into it. It takes on a whole different meaning; it's all about development. That's the great thing about working with the other three guys in ASIA. They're all great to work with and everyone has a common direction and a common goal.
Robert: This celebrated lineup of ASIA has been together longer this time around since reforming in early 2006 than when you were initially together from 1981 to 1983.
Geoff: Yeah, yeah. We've been together now nearly five years. It's pretty incredible really, because I think when we were first out we only did about three years from the inception of the band. So - as you know - Steve is off doing his bits and pieces with Yes and Carl doing some stuff with ELP (including an impressive recent reissue from Shout! Factory) and me and John have got our Icon project that we do, so it doesn't take totally center stage with everybody but I think once we do get together, everybody is 100 percent dedicated to it.
Robert: Are you enjoying working together more now that that huge success at the beginning?
Geoff: Yeah, I think so. That's something that will probably never be repeated (ASIA's self-titled album was the biggest-selling album of 1982. Released in March 1982, it sold four million copies in the U.S.) and I think that was a fantastic thing that came out of having these ideas around John's piano in Shepherd’s Bush in London and then all of a sudden six months later it was on every single radio station in America and you can't turn on the radio and not hear one of those songs. Some bands have that more than once in a lifetime, but for us, it was very much that period and those first couple of albums (1982's "Asia," 1983's "Alpha") were very successful. In some ways, that was not good for us because we started so high up - that first album was so enormous - that we never really had a chance to build the concept of the band at that point, and I think that's one of the reasons why we did get back together again five years ago is that we felt like we still had a lot to put forward and a lot to offer that we hadn't actually achieved before.
Robert: I think you've done that with Phoenix and Omega. And you've done that, despite setbacks such as when John had his health scare where he had heart surgery in late 2007.
Geoff: That's right, and Carl had a bit of a scare as well. None of us are getting any younger, that's for sure. I think the fact that the original band is still wanting to do it - next year will be 30 years since the inception of the band - that's not a bad go considering so many bands fall by the wayside.
Robert: I'm thinking the songs you are doing now are every bit as good as your early material. Not just "Holy War," but "I Believe" and "Through My Veins." Not just the musical textures - the songs are so good too.
Geoff: That's something we've always tried to attain, you know. I think songwriting has been the key to ASIA's success initially. I think it was a combination of having the songs we did (this part of Geoff's response was garbled from traffic noise where he was speaking on a cell phone while in the U.K.), the arrangements and musicianship that goes with it...each person was his own individual performer in his own right as well as collectively having the style of ASIA. You look at John's background and Steve's background and Carl's background - they were very much from the big English prog-rock arrangements. I think when we had the opportunity to do ASIA, it was very much a condensed version of that. We still had the musicianship, but it was supporting quite melodic and accessible rock songs.