With Yestival on its way to Grand Victoria Casino, Geoff Downes discusses Yes, Asia, loss and legacy

Photos provided by Glenn Gottlieb

The perpetual wait for Yes to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s hallowed halls is finally over thanks to an induction earlier this year alongside the equally delayed likes of Journey and Electric Light Orchestra. Although the progressive/classic rock titans would’ve probably launched a sizeable tour regardless of the honor, that feather in group’s cap only magnified 2017’s plans to feature at least a little something from each of its first ten studio albums. But rather than merely a traditional solo headlining situation, this summer also marks the inaugural traveling edition of Yestival, an extended bill that includes support from Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy.

And just for the record, this particular line-up is comprised of longtime guitarist Steve Howe, veteran beat keeper Alan White, “Drama”-era keyboard player Geoff Downes, ‘90s guitarist/keyboardist turned bassist Billy Sherwood, singer since 2011 Jon Davison and Steve’s son Dylan on additional percussion (not to be confused with newly christened Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman). Chicago Concert Reviews got the entire run down from Downes, plus bits about his time in Asia and The Buggles, along with reflections on losing so many musical companions (starting with Yes’ bedrock bassist Chris Squire) and his commitment to helping preserve their legacies.

How did the idea of Yestival come about?

Geoff Downes: We did one show in Camden, New Jersey about three or four years ago and we billed that as Yestival because we had a number of other progressive rock bands on the bill, including Steve Hackett with his songs and the Genesis tribute band, so it was a kind of test drive of that situation. And because we’ve been tied into doing the albums series, we never really got the opportunity to take this Yestival idea any further, but it came up this summer that it would be nice to take it around rather than just having it as a one-off.

Will this be a regular event with rotating support acts or exclusive to this summer?

Downes: I think it’s something we can always look at in the future as well. It’s quite nice for the fans to be able to see a couple of maybe more diverse acts together with Yes and it seems to work as a concept. We’ve been doing this now for these cruises that we’ve been doing every year. We’ve got the fifth [Cruise To The Edge coming up with several other bands]. It’s like a floating version of Yes and this is more of a festival [atmosphere than just] the band Yes doing a headline appearance.

When it came to shaping your set list, what made you specifically pick something from these first ten albums?

Downes: We were looking for another angle. When you go out, you want to have something new and something appealing to fans. We play a track off each one and then we add a few other bits and pieces around them. You can see the progression of the music that Yes went through and I think it’s very interesting that we perform it in chronological order, so you get this sense of development of how Yes started to add different textures and different ideas in the music.

You joined around the “Drama” sessions, which was a very pivotal period for the band. What are your reflections on that record and what was Yes’ dynamic like back then?

Downes: I think Yes was in a very experimental mode and I think that Trevor Horn and myself brought something different to the table to Yes that the other guys were looking for at the time. I think they’d done the whole ‘70s thing and that had really expired. They finished up I think in ‘78 or ‘79 and Wakeman and Anderson left at that point, so I think the other three guys- Chris, Steve and Alan- were looking for a new direction, even though they wanted to maintain the Yes mantra. I think that we were sort of ideal because we were studio musicians who were breaking boundaries with technology. On [The Buggles’] “Age Of Plastic” album, we were pushing the extremities, so I think in that respect, we helped perpetuate Yes throughout the [next] decade because that was a turning point where Yes realized they didn’t just have to keep playing these 20 minute pieces. They could actually stretch out and do some shorter songs and still retain the musicianship and still retain the overall sound of Yes.

You mentioned Chris Squire a moment ago and I wanted to extend condolences to you on not only losing him, but of course John Wetton and your Emerson, Lake & Palmer friends Keith Emerson and Greg Lake. To what extent has performing and touring with all of their music helped you heal?

Downes: I think the fact is all of the guys you mentioned who very sadly are not with us anymore were actually a big blow to all of us because in our kind of family, it’s really quite close in terms of the musicians. I’m speaking of British musicians, even though quite a lot of them moved to America, but there’s still a homegrown feeling. And I think that particularly in my case obviously with John, who was my close writing partner [in Asia], that was a massive blow to me in particular. But I think what you have to look at is that these guys provided some of the greatest music that’s ever been brought forward, certainly in the modern generation. Their music deserves a voice and deserves to be heard. As long as I’m around, I’ll be happy to continue the legacy of all of that music and carry on performing it live.

Congratulations are also in order on Yes being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I know that the honor specifically signaled out the “Union” line-up, but it’s really a testament to everyone’s ability to evolve and thrive throughout the years. What’s your take on the achievement?

Downes: When Chris was alive, we had several conversations about that and he was pretty adamant that all of the members of Yes over the years had made such great contributions keeping the sound flying and I think he would obviously have wanted for all of the members of the band over the years to have been inducted. He told me that, but I think it was really the whole Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s decision. They’ve had a couple of instances where there’s a whole crowd of people on the stage and they wanted to keep that as simple as possible, so I think that’s one of the main reasons why it was cut down to eight members in the end. You can’t deny the great contributions of [guitarist] Peter Banks, who wasn’t inducted either and has passed away since. You can’t deny his influence is very important and Steve Howe always said that [ever since] he took over for him. [Peter] did the first two albums and was part of the formation of the band. And then [keyboardist] Patrick Moraz came in when Wakeman left the first time and did that “Relayer” album, which a lot of people say is the holy grail. There are people like those guys and myself to some degree and Billy Sherwood, but I don’t think that takes away from the contributions that we’ve made and that all the musicians over the years have made to Yes’ music.

Was seeing so many different members at the ceremony enjoyable, awkward or a little bit of both?

Downes: Um, it was a little bit of both really. I think that in terms of the presentation, it all went very well. The band played really well, so I think it was successful. I think it was nice of the Rush guys to be there and present the awards to everybody. I mean, you can’t really knock the fact that a band like Yes had waited so long to get into the Hall of Fame. It seems fitting that it was achieved prior to the band’s 50th anniversary.

Shortly after the ceremonies, ARW announced their name change to Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman. What is your and Yes’ opinion about that development?

Downes: Well, I think we were surprised because ARW was the name they were selling themselves under. It does cause some confusion with things getting booked, but you know there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s what they want to do and you can’t really tell other people how to run their business. It’s a bit confusing, but we’ve got a lot of belief in what we do and I think we will just keep going and do what we can do best.

Do you think there would be consideration for the both bands to merge like they did during the days of Yes versus Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe?

Downes: Um, I think it’s unlikely because I think there’s a certain reluctance, certainly on their behalf, to consider that as an option. I would think that it’s very, very unlikely indeed.

I do have another membership question relating back to the Yestival bill. If I’m not mistaken, every single current member of Asia is going to be there and so will co-founder Steve Howe. Is there going to be any sort of Asia aspect to the event?

Downes: No because I think Carl’s very much into presenting the ELP Legacy, which you can kind of understand now that he’s the only member left from ELP. I think he’s very focused on doing that at this moment in time because it’s obviously fairly recent that we lost Keith and Greg. And I think Steve’s very much into pushing Yes that he’s been part of for so many years. That again is a very unlikely option.

What led you to selecting Billy Sherwood to join Asia on vocals and bass?

Downes: I think Billy is very, very studious in terms of bass players, certainly like Chris or John Wetton, so he’s very good at understanding those original musical parts and he can get his head around it. He really is an asset when it comes to doing stuff like this. He takes it and he learns it totally and he can deliver it. It’s almost a part of his DNA. The fact that he’s had a couple of stints from the band before- with Yes- also helped. He kind of knows the sounds and the interactions of all the various members.

Have you been in touch with Asia’s second singer John Payne? Was he ever considered for that slot or has that chapter been closed?

Downes: No, that avenue’s completely closed. I mean he does his own thing. Again, it’s really not really our business what he does. He gets on with his life and does what he does and best of luck to him.

You were of course a member of The Buggles, had a huge hit with “Video Killed The Radio Star” and hold the distinction of being the first group ever played on MTV. Was that as surreal as it sounds or did you not realize it was going to be such a historical moment at the time?

Downes: I think it’s only a historical moment in hindsight. At the time, I don’t think anybody thought it was a huge breakthrough or historical moment. It was another cable channel that just so happened to be showing music videos. When it was first launched, I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be anything like the towering influence that it became on the music industry. [At first] we didn’t attach any significance to it. But as the months went by, it just became bigger and bigger and bigger. By that point, we started to see it was a very, very significant part of music history.

What’s coming down the pipeline for you? More Yes, Asia or any other projects?

Downes: I’ve completed an album with a guy called Christopher Braide, who’s quite an established songwriter. He’s a British guy who lives in America that’s written with all sorts of people, from Beyoncé to Christina Aguilera, and he’s much more in the kind of mainstream. We did a couple of albums so far, kind of pop albums, but they’ve got a little progressive undertone. It’s sort of like a modern day Buggles, if you’d like, and we’ve just finished the third album, which is coming out in November. So I’m looking forward to seeing how that comes out. I think it’s a very, very strong piece of work, so hopefully we’ll get a little bit of interest in that. In the meantime, I’m going to carry on writing and certainly hope to do another Yes album. I think we all feel that we want to put one out fairly soon or certainly get the bones together for it. When I get off the road this time, I’m going to have a few months at home and I’ll get into my studio and start doing some creating!

Yes performs as part of Yestival with Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy at Festival Park At Grand Victoria Casino on Saturday, August 19. For additional details, visit YesWorld.com and GrandVictoriaCasino.com.