Geoff Downes needs no formal introduction to the readers of Prog, who will know him best as the keyboard player for Yes as well as his work with The Buggles and Asia. His latest release, however, is with Downes Braide Association, the project he began in 2012 with songwriter, record producer and singer Chris Braide, known for writing and producing within pop circles for the likes of Sia, Britney Spears and Beyoncé – but who also harbours a love of prog.
DBA’s third album Skyscraper Souls features an all-star cast including Andy Partridge, Kate Pierson of The B-52’s and Big Big Train’s David Longdon, and effortlessly blends pop and prog to great effect…
This is the third DBA album in five years and it’s a much more elaborate and progressive affair than the previous two. Was that a conscious move?
The first album was very much a case of putting one foot in the water to see what we could come up with. That extended into the second album [2015’s Suburban Ghosts], and then with this one, Chris [Braide] came up with the idea that it might be nice to get a proper rhythm section and get some guests in. But I think we got a lot of positivity, certainly from prog fans, on the first two albums. I think it was a guilty pleasure to be enjoying a bit of pop music. At the time, those albums were both quite nostalgic, 80s-driven pop albums. There are still a lot of pop elements on this album too.
With records like this and Steven Wilson’s To The Bone, there seems to be a resurgence in the notion of progressive pop…
A lot of bands from the early pop era, like 10cc and ELO, they were breaking boundaries in musical terms. There were quite a lot of progressive elements in what was, to all intents, mainstream pop. There were always some of those sideways things being thrown in. So we were trying to open up more of that left-field approach to some of our new stuff.
Chris is best known for writing songs for pop artists, but clearly he’s a prog fan too…
Of course. He’s very much a big prog fan. He was drawn into the mainstream pop area in his career, so we’ve run similar paths to some extent. At one time I was a pop guy, as you know. I went full circle. When I first got into music my favourite bands were things like Yes, Caravan, Procol Harum and The Nice, those early keyboard-driven bands. Then I went down to London and got involved in session work and ended up in the mainstream pop world. In latter years I’ve gone round again and back into the full-on prog world. So there’s an innate understanding between Chris and I somehow, because of the way we’ve both developed.
Andy Partridge contributes to several tracks and seems to be gradually beefing up his prog credentials these days…
Dave Gregory was in XTC as well and he played on the last DBA album so there’s a connection there. XTC were around just before the Buggles in that sort of post-punk era, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination with where Chris and I are coming from. Andy’s such an eclectic musician. Having seen what he’s come up with for us and where he’s gone with various other projects, I think he’s a very far-ranging musician too. On the track Darker Times he really ran with the ball. He liked one of Chris’ lyrics and then composed this whole vocal arrangement, almost like a chant, in the background.
One thing that came as a surprise is what a strong and pure voice Kate Pierson of The B-52’s has…
Yes, I think that’s one thing we aimed for on this record, a purity. Not just in terms of a wonderful voice like hers… but the blend of all those elements. Chris has a very pure voice as well, so it blends very well with Kate’s. The same is true of Marc Almond too, he has a very unique, pure voice.
Prog readers will be most excited to note the presence of Big Big Train’s David Longdon…
Big Big Train are very much the flavour of the month in the prog world and I know a lot of Prog readers agree with me that the last two albums are among my favourite albums of recent times. So I was really happy that David could come on board and play on a track. It was really nice to have some real instruments on the record. He’s a great flautist as well. The song [Tomorrow] has that folky, very English feel to it, revisiting prog from yesteryear when you had bands like King Crimson and early Genesis. Those bands could only ever have come from this set of islands, you know?
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What’s post-Brexit prog going to sound like?
Oh, God knows! [Laughs] We’ll probably be so insular that we’ll just have our own thing. Or we’ll have a domestic market and an international market like Japan. I don’t think it’ll change anything too much but it’s something we need to think about.
How do you find the energy to be this busy all the time?
It’s amazing and it’s a privilege, really, to know that the three bands that I was involved with in a very short space of time, I’m still a fundamental member of all three. That’s credit to the incredible people I’ve worked with over the years and the great empathy we’ve shared. Working with people like Trevor Horn, Chris Squire, John Wetton and Greg Lake… I’ve been very privileged. I’ll do it for as long as I can, really. As long as I can still get out of bed in the morning and get up on my feet, I’ll keep enjoying it.
And what are the chances of DBA live shows in the future?
I’m very busy with a number of things on the live front. We’ve got the Yes 50th anniversary coming up next year. We’re still looking at some more Asia dates at some point next year and I’ve been working with Trevor Horn on some stuff and we’re thinking that maybe we might do some one-off shows with Buggles. Chris is busy too. But we’ve built up a nice catalogue of music and it would be great to take it out live.
Skyscraper Souls is out now via X2X/Cherry Red. See www.geoffdownes.com for more information.