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Geoff Downes of Asia Q&A: on ‘The Reunion Albums 2007-2012’ Box Set, Weezer, Pink Floyd & “Heat of the Moment”
With a lineup comprising singer/bassist John Wetton (King Crimson, Roxy Music), guitarist Steve Howe (Yes), drummer Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and keyboardist Geoff Downes (Yes, Buggles), Asia was the definitive Eighties prog-rock supergroup.
The band’s 1982 self-titled debut was the biggest-selling album in America that year, spent nine weeks atop the Billboard 200 and was certified quadruple platinum. Meanwhile, the single “Heat of the Moment” led the Mainstream Rock radio chart for six weeks and peaked at No. 4 on the pop chart. More hits followed.
Asia continued in various incarnations until the original four musicians reconvened for a 2006 world tour and released new material two years later. Wetton passed away in 2017. Now, The Reunion Albums 2007-2012 box set, available today, June 25, via BMG, collects all three studio efforts plus the double set Fantasia: Live in Tokyo.
“Phoenix, Omega and XXX represent the reunion of the original members of Asia rather nicely…” Steve Howe.
All three albums and ‘Fantasia: Live in Tokyo’ are included in Asia’s 5CD boxset ‘The Reunion Albums: 2007-2012’.
Get your copy here: https://t.co/4F9EOZshvt pic.twitter.com/m1vatbjvBE
— Original Asia (@originalasia) June 23, 2021
We caught up with Downes while on a break from doing some synth and computer maintenance work at his U.K. studio.
Rock Cellar: Whose idea was it to put the box set together?
Geoff Downes: We all felt that it would be a very nice package. When we got back together in 2006, we never really thought it was going to go much further than doing a few shows. Once we’d done quite a bit of touring, we were drawn back into the studio, and it was great. We started off with the Phoenix album and did some more touring. We liked the fact that we were back together again and felt that maybe we didn’t give it a good enough shot with the original lineup. We only really lasted about three years, from ’82-’85. It’s really great that we managed to document this.
Rock Cellar: Was the live set from Tokyo included in the new box set an especially memorable gig on that 2007 tour?
Geoff Downes: Yes, because it was the first main tour that we did when we started to feature not just the Asia songs, but songs from our legacy. We did “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Roundabout.” As much as we’d managed to [justify] the label we had on our original lineup as a supergroup, we wanted to get away from those bands we’d been in before to some degree and try something new. It was nice to go back and actually revisit that. That’s why it’s quite significant to put that live album in there as well.
Rock Cellar: Did you find that the audience reactions to those songs from each of your musical pasts were wildly enthusiastic?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, I think it helped to underline the legacy that Asia was drawn from, and the fans really responded to that well because a lot of them were big fans of the bands we’d come from. To actually pull those [songs] out was something they really embraced. It was great fun for us, because it meant that we could show where Asia had come from as much as anything else. I think it was significant in that respect.
Rock Cellar: Regarding the box set, Carl has said he thought the reunion albums reflected how far the band had come musically, that they showed your collective maturity and how comfortable you all were as people at that point.
Geoff Downes: It’s a good thing that Carl mentioned that because it’s something that we all felt. We didn’t really think we’d done Asia enough justice with the original lineup. To have that opportunity, albeit much later — the fact that we could all get in the same room, sit in a recording studio and put together these albums — I think that was a great thing for us.
Sadly, we lost John four years ago. I think as much as this [the box set] is a tribute to the original Asia, it’s also a big tribute to John as well. From my standpoint, we really got back to doing our writing that we started out doing from 1981 when the band first formed. It’s 40 years since we started that and this box set really reflects the second generation of that original band.
Rock Cellar: Looking back at the Phoenix, Omega and XXX albums, which ones stand out as the strongest to you?
Geoff Downes: Omega is the one that really defined it for me. With Phoenix, we were dipping our toes back in the water again. I think it’s a great album and it started the reunion. The second album of the group really raised the stakes. Songwriting wise, some of the songs are very strong, [especially] with “Holy War” and “There Was a Time.” We all felt so in tune with each other at that point. Everyone pulled the stops out. It was a very happy album. Producer Mike Paxman really saw what we needed. Great times.
Rock Cellar: Was there ever any talk about including the Asia debut album or Astra in the box set as well?
Geoff Downes: We don’t have any control over those albums because they’re owned by Universal. We couldn’t really navigate to do that. I think it’s more relevant in many ways that we put this reunion package together because that reflects more where the band were at latterly than formerly. Those early albums have been repackaged and used in films. Universal did a Very Best Of. It’s nice to be able to start with a fresh chapter for Asia. That’s something the fans will really embrace.
Rock Cellar: Do you think Roger Dean’s cover art for the box set is a testament to why physical formats still matter?
Geoff Downes: His work does tend to lend itself to a bigger picture. Having said that, we live in a digital age, and one has to adapt to the [streaming] format … I think the packaging is really very important. Roger always comes up with great imagery. That’s a little thing for the fans to appreciate.
Rock Cellar: His artwork for Asia, Yes and most of the members’ various side projects over the past 50 years is so distinctive and otherworldly. Are you amazed whenever he designs something new for you?
Geoff Downes: Oh yeah. I think it’s astonishing. You never really tire of Roger’s work; certainly, I don’t. He talks you through it … somehow, he’s done virtually every kind of album I’ve ever done or been involved in. He translates the feeling of what the album is and whatever the band is going through at the time. He’s almost like [another] member of the band. The imagery of the famous Yes bubble logo — everyone knows that one from posters on everyone’s bedroom at one time. With Asia, he came up with this triangular logo that was very stunning. To be blessed to have a logo like that is great because it speaks for itself. People identify not just with the music, but the whole imagery.
Rock Cellar: Is it true that you have been working on some songs that were left over from working with John before he died?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, I’m still working on those. I’ve got some plans for them. It’s been difficult because there’s not a massive amount to deal with but at the same time, there’s enough for an album’s worth of material that will be significant. I’d like to get a lot of the people that worked with John and myself and all the people involved to offer some performances, which would be great. That’s really where I probably would see it going.
Rock Cellar: Considering all the time you spent working and co-writing songs with John Wetton, what do you think his biggest strengths were as a vocalist and lyricist?
Geoff Downes: John was an absolute genius. He had all of those things, and he was a great musician as well. To have the capacity of those ingenious lyrics and the wonderful concept of vocals that he put across — and the multitracking. You listen to some of John’s vocals, and it really does stir your soul. Certainly, as a bass player and an overall musician, he was incredible. To have all of those elements, the original unique lyrics that he came up with, the concepts, all that sort of stuff, I was very privileged to spend a long time with John working on stuff and writing together. That is a total inspiration to me, and I owe him a lot in terms of what I learned from him.
Rock Cellar: Looking back to the massive success of the 1982 debut album, were you surprised at how well it was received around the world? Do you think each member’s musical history coalesced into a making a classic work?
Geoff Downes: I think so. We were all at that stage looking for something different. I was more new to the proceedings than the other guys who’d had these huge careers in the prog world throughout the ‘70s. It was quite strange for me to be involved in that situation, because I came more from a pop background.
The combination of those guys wanting to do something different, something more dynamic and concise, rather than these long pieces they’d been playing in the ‘70s, I think that’s what Asia was about, really. We all wanted to take it forward and do something different. We rehearsed for a long period of time before we went in the studio. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big that first album was going to be.
Rock Cellar: You were one of the first 1980s supergroups.
Geoff Downes: Yeah, in terms of success, we were probably the most successful supergroup up until that time. It’s not a term we actually came up with ourselves. It was something bestowed on us by publicity and the record label because it was a way of hanging what we were doing onto that. It was not something we designed. It became the hashtag of the day when we were out there doing our stuff.
Rock Cellar: Do you think MTV also played a major role in the first album’s success with the memorable continuous motion video for “Heat of the Moment” in heavy rotation?
Geoff Downes: I certainly think it helped. Even without MTV, I think that it still would have been a huge success because it was crazy on the radio. I remember sitting with John one day and we were driving somewhere in America. We heard “Heat of the Moment” on the radio. We turned to another station and “Sole Survivor” was on it and all this stuff was going on simultaneously. We were part of that MTV generation at the same time.
Rock Cellar: Through the decades, you’ve been the only consistent member of the Asia lineup. What has driven you to carry that torch for the group?
Geoff Downes: I think it’s just a unique band, and it’s become part of my DNA in a way. When we first started out, it was almost a dream for all of us. We had this massive success with the music we were making. When you get that level of appreciation, it’s something that stays with you. It’s something that I never wanted to get away from.
Rock Cellar: In 2019, you toured with former Guns ‘N Roses member Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal as Asia’s vocalist and guitarist. How did he compare to the other Asia singers you’ve played with? Will he continue on future Asia tours or projects?
Geoff Downes: I worked with Ron briefly on the Classic Rock All-Stars project in 2016. I was so impressed with him because he could play a lot of Steve Howe’s parts as well. I didn’t associate him with being that kind of player. I realized how versatile he was and what a great voice he had. When we had the opportunity of going out and doing that Royal Affair tour (with Yes, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and John Lodge Band in 2019), I asked him to do it. He did a fantastic job, and he was conscious of delivering the songs on a live level to a high degree. It was great working with him. He’s a fantastic guitarist and musician. To top it off, a really nice guy. He makes a mean hot sauce as well.
Rock Cellar: Have you heard Weezer’s sampling of “Heat of the Moment” on its new album Van Weezer?
Geoff Downes: It’s pretty good. That song has been sampled on quite a few things. In some respects, I think it shows the power of a song when people look to it and think, ‘I can do something different.’ I’m quite proud and actually I respect the people that have a go at it. That’s what it’s there for — to be explored and developed in different ways. I was quite happy with what they did.
Rock Cellar: It shows Asia’s enduring influence on younger musicians.
Geoff Downes: We did influence a lot of bands. Asia didn’t lose the musicality, even though we had more direct rock songs. There was still an element of musicality from where Carl had come from ELP, Steve from Yes, John from U.K. (featuring Bill Bruford, Eddie Jobson, Allan Holdsworth). There was a musicianship we couldn’t deny was there. We didn’t try to obscure it. In many respects, that’s what set Asia apart from other bands … You could still make great music — albeit concise music — and get it across.
Rock Cellar: How did you get involved in the recent all-star Pink Floyd tribute album Still Wish You Were Here with Todd Rundgren, Joe Satriani, Bootsy Collins, Jah Wobble, Rat Scabies, Rick Wakeman, Patrick Moraz, and others, with you appearing on “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)”?
Geoff Downes: I got sent the files. I really liked being asked. They told me there were two other Yes keyboard players with Rick and Patrick. It thought it was a nice project. From my standpoint, Pink Floyd were pretty influential. I don’t think any rock musician wouldn’t say Pink Floyd didn’t have some influence on them. It was a privilege to be involved. I was happy with the outcome. It’s great we’re able to make music like that and still have a significant involvement.
Rock Cellar: Halcyon Hymns, your new Downes Braide Association collaboration album with Chris Braide, has been getting good reviews. Are you pleased with how it’s been received so far?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, it’s lovely to see. It surprised all of us. It was done during the lockdown. It’s an interesting way of working these days. People have been forced into applying themselves. We worked remotely. Chris was in LA; I was over here (in Wales).
Chris and I did something similar on [our] previous albums as well because we had that geographical separation. We honed it down on this album. Again, it’s got a Roger Dean sleeve which is beautiful. I’m very happy with the reaction and blessed by the following we’ve built up.
Rock Cellar: I think the standout track is “Warm Summer Sun” featuring Marc Almond of Soft Cell.
Geoff Downes: That was a good addition. Marc and Chris’s voice work really nice together. That’s one of my favorites. The album came very naturally … I’m very proud of it.
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