In his in spare time between work with Yes and Asia, Geoff Downes began a new project with noted singer songwriter Chris Braide. Ten years later, the fourth release from the Downes Braide Association (DBA), “Halcyon Hymns”, is a beautifully textured album, as colorful as the Roger Dean cover art which adorns it. You can read our full review here.
Sonic Perspectives correspondent Scott Medina interviewed both Chris and Geoff extensively about DBA and other projects in their careers. Although the interviews are separate, we are providing an interwoven written transcript which covers highlights from both interviews. You can also listen to the full-length audio interviews as a podcast below. Geoff’s fireside chat (note the crackling fire in the background) is first up, with Chris’ interview starting at 25 minutes and 25 seconds. In addition to talking about DBA, we cover areas such as the upcoming Yes album, the most challenging pieces for Geoff to cover from Yes’ repertoire, Chris’ time with Trevor Horn in The Producers and his work as a songwriter for other superstar artists, and much, much more.
Remember that for more interviews and other daily content, make sure to follow Sonic Perspectives on Facebook, Flipboard and Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified about new content we publish on a daily basis.
A lot of our listeners might be new to the band, so why don’t we explore a little about how you two came together and developed your musical relationship?
Geoff: Sure. We got together about 10 years ago almost to the day, actually. We did a show in 2010, which was a Buggles reformation show. Chris was working with Trevor Horn on a project called The Producers. We all did a gig with the Buggles, playing the whole of “The Age of Plastic“, and that’s how I got to meet Chris.
Chris: We just really got on very well. We’re both keyboard players. I was a huge fan of his from when I was a lot younger and we just clicked. And now we’re four albums later! I never thought that that would be the case, but it’s been a magical kind of connection that we’ve had.
So on that night with The Buggles show, what did Trevor bring you in to do, Chris?
Chris: I was playing second keyboards, but I was also singing. I sang a couple of songs. Trevor asked me to sing “I’m Not In Love“, the 10cc song, and a couple of backup vocals and things like that. It was just really great. It was just fascinating and great fun. I met Geoff and I thought, I’ve known him forever. It was just one of those things. And then I thought this is unfortunate because I’m moving to the U S. It was the eve of me moving to Los Angeles. And I thought, here I am, I’ve met this guy that I really get on great with musically and I’m leaving. But he said, Not to worry, I’m going to be there myself in a week. I’m doing “Fly From Here” with Yes. So it was perfect! Good timing.
Geoff: Because Chris was over in LA and I was in the UK, it meant that we had to develop this relationship in working remotely. It’s something that in recent times with the whole pandemic, a lot of musicians have started to collaborate in that way. But it’s something that we did really from the beginning. It’s something we’ve perfected and worked on and it’s been great to build our fourth album that we’ve come up with now.
It’s interesting that the band is a duo and yet both of you are primarily keyboard players. So how do you navigate that in the songwriting?
Geoff: Yeah, I usually work with bass players, even going back to Trevor Horn or John Wetton or Greg Lake or Chris Squire, even Glen Hughes. I always seem to work with bass players. So it was kind of interesting to work with another keyboard player. And Chris was very into the Buggles’ keyboard parts particularly, the way that I did all of this keyboard orchestration. So it was nice to join forces with Chris and come together in that way and pool our ideas. It was a different way of working definitely. But the proof is there that it does actually work and that we have a common ground that we collaborate on.
Chris: Yeah, it works really well because Geoff will send me the germ of an idea in a Logic file. And then nine and a half times out of 10 I’ll love it, and then I’ll add my keyboard parts to it. Or in some cases like “Your Heart Will Find the Way” he had the verse pattern and the riff, and then I added the chords in the chorus. And so we’ll sort of blend elements together like that. I sorta get where he’s coming from and vice versa. He knows what I will like, so he’ll send me an idea, like the chords from “Warm Summer Sun” cause he knows that I’ll like that kind of thing. And then I’ll add chord sections to it and just build it into a big towering thing. [laughs]
So it sounds like you collaborate on most of the DBA material then.
Chris: Yeah, very much so. I suppose it’s like some kind of symphonic kind of keyboard textures that we’ve merged together, it just kind of works. I don’t know why it works. Especially with the new album “Halcyon Hymns”, it was just so easy to write those songs and sometimes that’s not always the case. Sometimes you sit there and go, God, you know, come on! Why is this thing not working? But with “Halcyon Hymns“, those songs just, they just fell out. I don’t know if it was part of the energy with what was going on with COVID and all that stuff. It was like the muse was begging us to be creative and just pour the energy into something positive. It really worked, I think.
What songs are you most happy with on this new album?
Geoff: Well, I think it’s an album that’s conceived as an album as opposed to it being just a collection of songs. Much more so on this album. I think we’re both big album lovers, in terms of not wanting just to have songs cherry picked, like the way that it’s gone in many ways with Spotify and things like that, people just sort of dash around and play individual tracks from here, there and everywhere. I think it was very much in our minds that we wanted to do something that was a sort of creative and collective way of working.
The whole album has this theme of reverie, illustrated in the title of “Halcyon Hymns”. Did you set out with that concept initially or did it develop as you were writing the songs?
Chris: I think it developed as we were writing the songs, actually. I think the first song, if I’m right, was “Your Heart Will Find the Way“. That was the first song that came out as I was in the studio. And I thought, that sounds upbeat, but the message is a juxtaposition because it’s like some kind of message to your psyche to keep going, not to give up hope. But then the second song “Love Among the Ruins” suggested more of how the album shaped up. I think that that song is the sort of the king-pin song actually. After that was written, then suddenly it was like, Oh, okay, I get it. This is what the album is about. I was trying to write the world that I wanted to be in at that moment in time, not the one that I was actually in because that was strange and worrying and scary. I had heard about, a couple of people that I’d actually worked with, such as Matthew Seligman who is a great bass player from Thomas Dolby’s band and also The Camera Club, he was one of the first people I heard of who’d actually passed away with COVID. It was such a shock, and this is right in the middle of writing these songs. So it was really like, Gosh, this thing’s real, it’s really happening. And so the songs really were an escape, hopefully an escape for anyone who’s listening as well. You know, they sort of presented themselves. It’s really strange and it’s not being a cliche to say that the songs just fell out and wrote themselves. Sometimes that happens.
Let’s talk a little bit about the other musicians on the album and how did you enjoy where their contributions took the music?
Geoff: We’ve got a great rhythm section! I think Ash Soan and Andy Hodge really laid the foundation. So they took it away from it just being two guys working with maybe a drum machine and being very project-based. It’s much more of a band sound, much more of an overall feel of having these actual musicians in. Chris‘s voice works really well with Marc Almond who comes very much from a pop background and, say, Dave Longdon who is much more progressive with Big Big Train and their progressive music. So it was kind of nice to be able to have that spectrum of musicians as well on board.
Chris: Dave Bainbridge plays all the guitar solos and more, he’s an absolutely blinding player. I play some acoustic guitar on it and a bit of electric. My guitar parts will be things like the little riff at the beginning of “Love Among the Ruins“. But that’s very me, that’s like a little pop hook, you know? And Dave obviously plays the incredible insane solos. I wouldn’t even attempt it!
There’s a lot of mandolin on the album too, I noticed.
Chris: Well, Dave is a virtuoso player. I sent him the roughs so that the keyboards and the drums, the bass and all the vocals were finished when Dave did his parts. He’s actually one of the last elements to go onto the finished recording. He really picked up on the Kate Bush influence because I’m a huge Kate Bush fan. So he really picked up on that, especially with things like “Remembrance” and there’s another song that he thought sounded very Kate Bush-like, and he said, What about a bit of mandolin bazouki because, that’s what she would do. And I thought, Yes, perfect! So it was almost like the songs really dictated what instrumentation should sort of go on. It wasn’t really that we discussed it. The songs actually suggested it, which was really nice. It’s a natural kind of thing in that respect.
And then that instrumental section at the end of “King of the Sunset”. There’s a lot of room that you gave him there to explore.
Chris: Yeah, I absolutely did. And I said, Just think about the landscape; think about looking out over the hillside on the South downs, West Sussex, whatever, and it’s a beautiful sort of autumn evening, and you’re there with the person that you want to be with. And he just got it, he understood it.
How do you see the development of DBA over the past decade and what has excited you the most about how things have progressed?
Geoff: When we started out, we were just dipping our toes in the water because we just wanted to work together and write some songs together. But I think as time has progressed we’ve felt that it has more substance and we got more into adding other musicians, creating more of a bigger spectrum rather than the first album. This is now having a bigger perspective. It comes full circle with things like the Roger Dean album sleeve being much more kind of epic.
You’ve mentioned that you started off together with this one-off gig with the Buggles and with that more electronic approach. I noticed that Chris also has a love for electro pop music and even had a project called “Hello, Leo”, which was more along those lines. So I’m curious why DBA didn’t follow that track of more of the electronic Buggles and instead went more towards the piano and the prog rock landscape.
Chris: Yeah. I get a bit tired of programming and synthetic sounds. With the “Hello Leo” project thing, it’s that I’m never bored because I just create situations for myself. If there’s a bit of downtime I’ll make something happen. So “Hello Leo” was just kind of like a mad professor in the studio just mucking about with gear. But I think with DBA, my heart really is where this album is. I think that the sound of it is really what I’ve always loved. But yes, you’re right, I do listen to the Pet Shop Boys or a great Soft Cell single from the eighties and think, Yeah, it’s magnificent and a fantastic bit of pop. But the older I get, the more my heart is pulled towards those kind of widescreen, symphonic kind of big records. I still love them, you know, and I still listen to them a lot. I’ll never get bored of listening to Yes or Genesis or Pink Floyd, you know?
Geoff: This album in particular very much bears mine and Chris’ souls. We’re both lovers of the same kind of music and coming together on this album, there’s a lot of depth to it. There’s pathos in there, there’s some classical undertones to the music, it’s a much wider spectrum. I think that when we started out with these almost Buggles-like pop songs, I think we’ve kind of moved into a wider zone.
As with the last album, you have this poetic narration that is interspersed. What can you tell us about that approach?
Geoff: Having the narrated dialogue gives it cohesion that makes for an album that’s an entity rather than just fragments of individual songs.
Chris: He’s a fantastic writer, Barney Ashton. We’d been working on something just before “Skyscraper Souls” was written. We’d been working on the idea of a play together, a song cycle, if you like, based on some dystopian sort of worlds. He’d sent me some lyrics and I’d written music to them and he’s just got a great way with the English language. He speaks so beautifully. And so I would say to him, You should say some of these things, actually speak them. Anyway, to cut a long story short, when we were writing songs for “Skyscraper Souls“, I said, Why don’t you speak some of the bits that you sent mean? And so he did that and we used it a little bit on the album, but with this one it’s just a natural progression to have that beautiful voice of his and his fantastic words really featured. And I think it really worked. For me, he sort of weaves the narrative of the songs together, he kind of brings it in and sort of makes it coherent. And it’s also a break from the musicality because there’s a lot of it on the there, and a lot of singing and a lot of harmony. So he kind of breaks that up as well with the speaking, it was just a natural thing. He’s just got such a great way with words. I just thought, I’ve got to use more of him, you know? He’s become like a part of the sound now, I couldn’t imagine doing something without it, in a way.
In terms of live performance, it seems like DBA is primarily rooted in the recording studio, with a few exceptions. Chris, how important is live performance to you?
Chris: Live performance is fantastic. I absolutely love live performance. I’ve never been one of those artists that could play 300 shows a year. And I know guys that do that and they sort of live for it. I mean, I’ve known Squeeze for a lot of my life actually, since I was very young, and they live for being on the road. They would rather just live on the road, and I was never that sort of person really. I love the creativity of being in the studio. I like creating new things. I would get a bit bored of singing the same things night after night. I want to make new stuff, you know. And I think with the live kind of scene, you tend to have to repeat yourself a lot. But I think it’d drive me crazy with the sort of person I am. I get excited about the NEW stuff, you know? But I do love it. And when Geoff and I performed songs from at that point 3 albums, there was quite a lot of material to draw from. And it was great to just sort of present them on the stage and hear the songs being sort of freed, if you like. It’s really fantastic. And we’re definitely keen to do more. In fact, we were going to do more, but all this happened, you know?
Geoff: I think that we got a taste for it. It was actually shortly before the lockdown started around this time last year, we did these couple of gigs and it was great fun. When we started out, we never thought DBA would actually be anything more than just a studio project sort of thing. But when we got a taste for it, I think it brought it home to me that it does have the capacity to work well in the live environment. We’re on four albums now. So we’ve got plenty of DBA material to draw in for a show. So, the fact that Chris has now moved back to the UK, I think that we’ve now got a chance whereby we can be a bit more hands-on together and see where we can take.
Chris, when we consider the songwriting that you do for a lot of other superstar pop artists, which results in huge charting hits, it’s amazing that you’ve also got this love for progressive rock music and write this kind of material with DBA.
Chris: You’re absolutely right, but I think if you actually dissect some of that stuff, particularly the stuff I wrote with Sia, there’s a lot of that in there. I sneak it in! There are epic moments with Sia like on “Unstoppable” or “Kill And Run” songs like that. If you actually strip them down, all the songs I write with Sia or with Geoff, you strip them all down and they’ve all got the same kind of skeleton in a way. I bring that kind of grandiosity – if you like – to whatever I do, because that’s the kind of music that I love. I couldn’t do the pop stuff if I didn’t have those elements in it. Like big chords, big choruses and stuff.
For our readers who aren’t aware: Chris has a substantial background in songwriting for a number of very well-known successful pop artists. And like you just mentioned, on the song “Unstoppable”, I heard the version that you did yourself with just solo piano in the background. And it’s so different hearing you just accompanying yourself on a piano with that song, versus the huge production that you do with SIA. And you’re the producer on that as well as the songwriter, right?
Chris: Well, I co-produced it. I’ve always loved great songwriters like Neil Finn and he always used to talk about how if you could play a song on a piano or acoustic guitar without all the embellishments that the studio adds, then you’re onto something. But if you write in the studio, you can kind of get a bit hoodwinked by fancy toys and the song ends up being lost slightly, or maybe it sounds better than what it actually is because it’s been polished to a certain degree. So I think with “Unstoppable“, somebody said to me, You should put all the demos out of your original versions…cause I’ll always do a demo of a song at the piano in the studio once the session is over just to hear it and just to make sure it works, and I play it to a few people I trust. And someone said, You should put them out because they’re interesting as kind of guide versions. I’ve kind of grown to appreciate the song in its simplest form. I think that I can sort of trust it then.
Geoff, do you pour most of your own song ideas into DBA at this point? Or did you give some to Yes for your next album there as well?
Geoff: Well, I’ve been working on quite a lot of stuff over the last year, because obviously we haven’t been going out on the road at all. We’ve been exchanging ideas for the next Yes album as well. But as far as working with Chris, the ideas that I can perceive as being good for DBA, I kind of put them in a compartment and send those over to Chris and then the same with Yes. It’s a different vehicle that your creative process is drawn towards. The way that I write is bound to have some similarities here and there, but I try to keep it as separated as possible.
The song “Subway Walls” certainly was a favorite for many people off the last Yes album, I know, which was the main song you wrote on that album.
Geoff: I listened to the last Yes album recently. It came under some criticism, I think for a lot of people because they felt that it was not very kind of driven and it wasn’t as sort of manic as previous Yes albums. But I think if you look at Yes’ history, there’ve been all kinds of different chapters, if you like, that reflect the musicians that in it at any given time. I think that being the first album that Jon Davison had come into, it took on a different form because he’s a very different kind of creative than, say Jon Anderson or in my own sense, Rick Wakeman. We were a different group of musicians and that’s the way it turned out. I think “Drama” is a strong album and I think that Yes fans have come to sort have gone full circle on that and cited it as one of their favorite albums. So, for the last album, you picked out “Subway Walls“, and I’m still proud of that song, I think it comes across really well.
What has been the hardest keyboard piece for you to learn from one of the other Yes, keyboardists when playing live?
Geoff: Wow, there’s some very, very in-depth stuff. I mean, it was really an incredible learning curve for me to go back to some of those albums cause I was not whole familiar with some of the latter or mid period Yes albums. “Tales From Topographic Oceans” is very complex and things like “Awaken” from “Going For the One”, these are really big, complex pieces, you know. The year before last, we went out and we did the Royal Affair Tour, which was great, and we were doing “Gates of Delirium” from the “Relayer” album. I think that’s probably one of the most challenging pieces.
And I know you’re planning on doing the whole Relayer album, when you get a chance, did you guys ever get to the point of rehearsing “Sound Chaser” yet?
Geoff: No, we didn’t, unfortunately. We all did a lot of work independently on it because that is probably the most challenging Yes piece of all time. Not just from a keyboard standpoint, but from the rhythm section, it’s full-on, uh, hysteria! Yeah! It’s something that I really rise to the challenge. Hopefully thing will ease up a bit and we’ll find the window where we can go out and do it.
And what is the state of the forthcoming Yes album? Is that looking like it’s pretty much finished at this point?
Well, we’re not in the end zone yet, but I think that we’ve done quite a lot of work over the months and certainly towards the end of last year, in developing these ideas that we’ve been exchanging. And it’s just really a case of trying to get everybody into one place. Obviously it’s more difficult now because we’ve got the guys in the States, and Steve and I are over here in the UK. It’s not been the easiest way of working, but I think we’ve adapted to the new normal, rather than us all being in one room, which is the historic way that Yes have worked in the past. I think this is a new way of working. There’s been creative aspects that have come up that may not have happened had we all been in that position. But it’s been great. We’re not on the home straight yet but it’s shaping up very nicely.
Chris, I was dipping back into the album with The Producers, which of course was done with Trevor Horn, and I really, really loved that project. I’m trying to remember which of those songs were specifically yours or did you collaborate a lot as a band?
Chris: We collaborated a bit, but I would usually write the tunes for most of it. I think the only one I didn’t really write that much was “Garden of Flowers“, but the rest of it, I wrote all the tunes and I wrote all the lyrics for “Freeway”, “Man on the Moon“, for example. It was a great project, but I think it got a bit sour in the end in some ways, because I left. Because I’d been doing it for four years, and I eventually moved to the U.S. Yeah, it was unfortunate. They kept trying to sort of say, Fly back and do some gigs or fly back and do photos and that kind of thing. But at the time when they were busy doing that, I was working with Sia and that really changed my life in some ways, so it was the right move for me. They sort of removed some of the vocals and that kind of thing, it all got a little bit petty. But, it was great fun to write the album and we did do some great games. We played the Albert Hall and some really memorable private parties. We played Jeremy Clarkson‘s 50th birthday party and got Roger Daltrey up on stage with us. It was quite funny because we’d rehearsed “My Generation” with him and we got it down. Perfect. Okay, this is going to be great. Roger gets up, we do “My Generation“, it goes without a hitch. But he’s just so into it then that he starts suggesting other songs for us to do, and we haven’t rehearsed them. So it was a very interesting evening. I learnt a lot from it. It was great. And I wouldn’t have met Geoff had I not been part of that. But I’m still proud of some of the songs. Lol and I sat at the piano and wrote “Man on the Moon“, I still love that song. Every couple of years I bump into Trevor and he will say, We should do a Producers gig. It’s one of those things. It’s always like unfinished business in a way. In some ways, the five of us are secretly really keen to get back in a room together. But maybe some things should be left as a sort of a wish or dream or whatever.
Speaking of Trevor, Geoff do you have any ambitions for the future with the Buggles at this point? Or for that matter, with Asia?
Geoff: Well, they’re always on my mind. It’s funny that the Buggles really had more activity in the last 10 years, I think than we had in the previous 30. We’ve done a few gigs and I’m in constant contact with Trevor, so that’s work in progress. I think the same with Asia, we went out with the Royal Affair Tour and it was nice to hear that music played again. Obviously we miss John greatly, who’s a central part of the whole thing, but I think that he would have wanted that music to be heard for as long as we’re able to, really.
Let’s bring the interview to a close in the same way as the album does, talking about the track “Remembrance”. Right at the start it has those three spacious, evocative chords. And then it just builds during the entire 11 minutes, doesn’t it?
Chris: Yeah, I’m really proud of the sound of it, actually. It was one of those things that, because those chords are so lovely, it never wanted to break away from the progression. And so that’s why, again, the song dictated the arrangement. It kept saying to me, Just add more, keep going, don’t break away from it. Don’t go to a different chord section. Okay! And it was just one of those things, it’s hypnotic and it’s not long for the sake of it. It feels absolutely the right length to me. Sometimes it’s as long as it needs to be, isn’t it?
Right. And then Barney comes in, especially towards the end, with that long poetic section too.
Chris: Yeah. He did such a great job on that end section. And in the studio, I must admit, I was glad no one was there because it’s a very emotional piece.