September 24, 2023

Geoff Downes has been a presence on the scene since, along with Trevor Horn, since The Buggles released Video Killed the Radio Star in 1979. Soon after this and a couple of Buggles albums later, he joined Prog overlords Yes in time to record their 1980 Drama album, leaving the band in 1981 but rejoining again in 2011, and he’s still a member. But it was playing with early ’80s supergroup Asia which really made his name, with a debut album which sold by the boatload and achieved quadruple platinum status. And while Chris Braide may not be quite as well-known, nonetheless he’s a top songwriter who’s worked with many stellar names, including Lana del Ray, Beyonce and Britney Spears, amongst several others.

Together, they comprise the Downes Braide Association, with Celestial Songs being their fifth studio album. The new album was largely written by Downes and Braide, though there’s a writing credit for Francis Dunnery and Andy Partridge, and a vocal contribution by Marc Almond. The album itself features some lovely melodies plus some very catchy hooks, and it ends with a close-to eleven minute epic, Beyond The Stars. Geoff agreed to talk and sounded pleased with the way things for DBA appeared to be going when asked.

Geoff Downes: Yeah, so far the new album’s been met with a really great response.”

Velvet Thunder: DBA’s previous album, Halcyon Hymns, was almost a concept album, in that there was a theme of nostalgia and looking back running through it. Is there any such theme on this new one?

GD: There is a certain amount of nostalgia in DBA. My influences go way back to the 1970s, and Chris is obviously from a different generation, but our respective influences come together and we create something which is really quite different. Each album we make, we do approach it as an album, and we like to think of it as something people will hopefully listen to from beginning to end, rather than just jumping on one track here, and one track there. We’ve had a couple of tasters from the new album put out, notably Clear Light and Keep On Moving, and we also like to be as diverse as possible with the music, which is one of the things we always talk about when making albums.

VT: Is Celestial Songs an album the average prog fan will be able to get into, or is this an album for those who like easy listening?

 GD: I think it’s very progressive, and I think our various backgrounds do come through. It’s not a prog album per se, and it’s not a pop album per se either. I think it’s somewhere in the middle, and I think it’s pretty obvious how the various influences of Chris and I have come together. When ideas collide, something different comes out, so while it’s not a progressive album per se, it’s definitely got progressive elements in it and, from our own standpoint, we think it’s one of our best works, we’re very happy with the way it’s ended up and hopefully other people will latch onto it and think it’s great and look ahead to the next one. There’s a lot of variety on the album, and I think it makes it a more interesting listen for people to get their heads around and enjoy.”

VT: Is DBA actually a band or just an occasional project during downtime when Yes or Asia don’t have anything on the go?

GD: We were a project to start with but, as we’ve moved on, we’ve aimed more for a band style, certainly in introducing other musicians. The last few albums have had a fantastic selection of musicians performing on them, people like Eddie Hodge on bass and Ash Soen on drums, and they’ve given us a whole new foundation, so we’re not just a couple of guys messing around with a rhythm box making songs that way. We’ve also had Dave Bainbridge [Lifesigns guitar man] join us on the past couple of albums and he’s added a whole new dimension to the music. We are expanding and we like to do as much as is possible.”

VT: Is there any likelihood of DBS touring?

GD: A tour? Yes and no. We’d have to make sure we got it absolutely spot on and got things right. Well, we’re open to offers, we’re five albums in and I think we could put together a really great show. But it’s all down to timing, really, and we’d have to see what the appetite is in the business for taking it on the road.

VT: DBA would very likely make a good opening act for Asia if the band decided to tour again…

GD: Hmm, I think we’d certainly consider something like that, but it’d get more complex with all the different elements involved, different people to navigate through, but even so I think it would be quite a fitting bill, that’s for sure.

VT: When you write music, do you always have an ‘end user’ in mind? For example, do you write a specific piece of music and say, ‘this is for DBS or this is for Asia,’ or do you just write music and see where it leads onto?

GD: When you’re working on multiple bands or projects, it’s always in the back of your mind there are certain ideas which are going to be appropriate for other outlets, but I think generally I just tend to write and then I might think, yeah, that’d be a good DBA song or this piece would work better with Yes, so yeah, you do have to make some kinds of discerning decisions about what vehicle it is you’re gonna be driving as there’re different direction which could be taken when it comes to writing.

Photo by Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images

VT: As well as recording with DBA, you also record and play live with bands like Yes and Asia. Which of these outlets gives you the most satisfaction musically?

GD: I think they’re all different and I get a buzz out of all of them. I’m fortunate in that I’ve been involved with so many different projects over the years. I mean, Asia’s obviously very close to me because I was a founding member of the band, more so than with Yes, and I was writing with John Wetton, and we were the main writing team behind Asia. But I also get a real charge out of working with Yes because it’s different again, a different set of circumstances, and the music is much more complex and progressive, and of course working with Chris Braide is fantastic because we just get on really well and we’re under no constraints to appease anybody else, we just get on and do our own thing – which is a unique situation to be in and there’s no pressure from any record label to come up with the next Dark Side of the Moon, or ABBA song, or whatever.  

VT: It was said of Chris Braide recently he has just as much to offer the prog world as he does to offer the more commercial side of music. Would this be fair comment?

GD: I think sometimes you just go wherever your career takes you. Chris has worked with people like Madonna and Beyonce and Lana del Ray, so that’s where he’s earned his keep, working with artists like these, but I think in his own personal tastes, he’s very much an albums man and he’ll go back to bands like Caravan, Soft Machine and Yes. But I think you usually end up going where the music takes you, though this doesn’t always reflect what your own personal tastes are.

VT:  What does playing with Chris Braide give you which you can’t get with Yes or Asia?

GD: Playing with Chris is very creative and we have a good understanding of what it is we want to do with the music, how we put it together, and we’re both very much into melody – which is probably why we’re so close, because we have very similar tastes in music, and this really works well for us because I can send Chris some ideas and he’ll make a few comments, like this is really great, really inspirational … and that’s really what we do, we inspire each other.

VT:  Now, sadly, John Wetton’s no longer with us, Chris Braide now seems to be your new musical soulmate.

GD: John Wetton, from my own standpoint, was and is irreplaceable in many ways, because we had such a close writing relationship for many years. Not just with Asia, but also with things like the Icon project (a 2005 Downes-Wetton album which produced several other studio and live albums in the series) and other solo stuff. I suppose there’s a little bit of the Icon project involved working with Chris, and a bit of The Buggles as well as we’re a song-writing duo. But I could never take away how much the songs I wrote with John were special, and how great it was to have a writing partnership with him.

VT: Mentioning Wetton, have you seen the recently published book about John Wetton, An Extraordinary Life?

GD: Yeah. I made quite a bit of a contribution towards it and it’s a fantastic book. And of course we did the show quite recently (3 August, featuring a star studded roll call of Wetton’s friends), which was a tribute show at Trading Boundaries, and many of John’s past acquaintances turned up. Even Bill Bruford came along and played a song! It showed just how much love there was for such a great guy and a phenomenal musician. John and I had some great times together and there are a lot of funny stories, but I think, above all else, we were really good friends, and that’s really important when you write with somebody, that it goes beyond just being a business relationship, and this is something I’ve developed with Chris over the years … that we’re not just a couple of guys who get together every couple of years to write songs together and won’t see each other till it’s time to write again. It’s important, for me anyway, to have that friendship and that respect on a personal level.

VT: You’ve been very lucky, haven’t you, having two such people to write with?

GD: I’ve had some great collaborations over the years, I’ve made albums with people like Glenn Hughes (The Work Tapes, 1998) which was fun, and with Greg Lake, so I’ve been blessed being able to play with some of the greatest singing bass guitarists who’ve ever been around, some really enormously talented people who’ve been able to make their mark on the music scene.

VT:  A quick question about Yes … will Yes ever stop recording new albums and just focus on playing shows drawing on their vast back catalogue, like the Relayer tour in 2024, or are more new albums still a real likelihood?

GD: Yeah, I think so as it shows there’s still life in the old dog yet! I’m pleased with some of the really strong responses we’ve had to the last two of Yes’ studio albums, The Quest and, more recently, Mirror To The Sky so I’m thinking, yeah, we’ll go on. I love playing in Yes and it’s a real privilege to be in a band like Yes. It’s known as a musicians’ band and it’s a much revered band, but at the same time I like to keep my hand in and do other things. In the past couple of years there’ve been a couple of Yes albums, and a couple of DBA albums, and it’s nice to be able to get into a creative mode again, certainly after the pandemic, though this was less of a problem as we have a habit of working remotely anyway, sending files and stuff like that. But, yeah, it all seems to be happening at once, and certainly the last few years have been pretty prolific so we’re just gonna carry on and keep it all coming.   

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Celestial Hymns was released on 8 September, available on a variety of formats  including CD, double vinyl album and a box set