Wednesday, April 15, 2009



An Interview with John Wetton and Geoffrey Downes

Text by Stephen SPAZ Schnee

John Wetton and Geoffrey Downes are true Rock icons. Wetton, an extraordinary bassist, vocalist and songwriter, played with King Crimson, Roxy Music and UK before joining forces with Yes guitarist Steve Howe and forming the 'supergroup' Asia in 1981. The third recruit to the Asia fold was another Rock legend: drummer Carl Palmer, formerly of Emerson Lake &... In need of a keyboardist, Howe suggested Geoffrey Downes, who had recently gained fame as both a member of Synthpop duo The Buggles and as Rick Wakeman's replacement in the short-lived Drama-era line up of Yes. Downes was a perfect fit and the band became a unit: four exceptional musicians playing together as one. Wetton and Downes became the core songwriting unit of Asia, writing all of their hits including “Heat Of The Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell”.
Though the original Asia quartet splintered after their sophomore album, members of the band continued to work together, on and off, over the next few decades. Wetton teamed up with Phil Manzanera for an album and released some fantastic solo work. Meanwhile, Downes continued using the Asia name with an entirely new line-up through the '90s. Though this line-up of Asia did not reach the commercial highs of the original quartet, they recorded some fantastic AOR albums in their own right.
Wetton and Downes renewed their writing partnership in the early part of the millennium, finally releasing, Icon, their first full-fledged effort as a duo, in 2005. Icon II: Rubicon followed in 2006. Asia fans were overjoyed when the original quartet reformed and toured to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the band's original formation. An Asia studio album, Phoenix, was released in early 2008, followed by even more touring.
During a break in Asia's hectic schedule, Wetton and Downes wrote and recorded Icon 3, an album that might well be their most consistent and inspiring full length collaboration to date. From beautiful ballads to accomplished rockers, Icon 3 is filled with fantastic melodies, artful musical passages (from Downes) and Wetton's most confident vocals to date. AOR, Icon and Asia fans will be blown away, to say the least. And with any luck, Icon 3 might connect with a whole new audience of young listeners eager to hear how honest and real music is made.
Wanting to know more about this latest Icon release, Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with Wetton and Downes just before they took off on another leg of their world tour with Asia.

SPAZ: With all the activity going on in your careers, how did you find time to put together Icon 3? It's barely been a year since Phoenix was released...
JOHN WETTON: We were on tour when we made our decision to go ahead with Icon 3. In May, Geoff and I had lunch in Bratislava, and made plans to meet to start work on this project in June. Our first meeting was at my house, at the piano where we wrote many Asia anthems in the '80s, and we ended the afternoon with 11 ideas. They are the same 11 ideas that are on the CD.
GEOFFREY DOWNES: We set aside a time-frame and started afresh on the new Icon album. As Asia was on hiatus, we could concentrate our efforts solely on Icon

SPAZ: Were the songs on Icon 3 specifically written for this project or were any of them left over from the previous Icon albums or Phoenix?
JW: A good idea is never wasted. 'Peace in Our Time' is a tune that was born around the time I was rehearsing with Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman in 1976. 'Sex, Power and Money' was a title that had been flown when I was writing in California in 1991 for (solo album) Battle Lines. 'Don't Go Out Tonight' was written (by us) in 1987. Lots of the stuff is new, however, but not all. That's normal for us.
GD: We went in and the 11 ideas we had penned in from the beginning stayed right to the end, and made up the exact formation of the album.

SPAZ: The second Icon album, Rubicon, was loosely based on a concept that John had. Does Icon 3 have an overt or underlying concept as a whole?
GD: I don’t think there is a particular theme to 3, although we were conscious of putting across a positive message. We had a lot of fun writing and recording the material, and hopefully this shines through on the album.

SPAZ: Was there any particular event (s) or inspirations that inspired the songs on Icon 3?
GD: Without going into specific songs, they all have an experience-related idea behind them. For instance, 'Green Lights & Blue Skies' is based around the atmosphere in a nightclub. But there is a wealth of diverse experiences we hung the songs on.
JW: We chose the symbol 'Aum', which looks remarkably like a 3, because it means an all-encompassing, non-specific deity. Everything.

SPAZ: Icon 3 has a nice variety of songs, ranging from gorgeous ballads to anthemic rockers. What tends to dictate the arrangement of the songs: the lyrics or the melody?
JW: It just happens: we don't know how it works ourselves. The mood, or spirit, of the song will dictate to us what the arrangement is and further musical decoration will enhance this.
GD: I think it’s all about contrast, and possibly this album (of the three Icons) boasts the most diversity. We like the idea of going from a high power rock track to a subtle orchestral arrangement. Music is, after all, all about dynamics. There are no rules in creation of the material. We just let it invent itself and mature over a period of time.

SPAZ: When you write together, do you approach writing for Icon and writing for Asia with different mindsets or do you just let the songs come naturally?
JW: Sometimes, we’ll say 'This would be good for Icon', or 'This will never fly with Asia', but, in general, we just write, and then the only difference between Asia and Icon is purely in the ear of the listener. For instance, we have written for other people ('We Move As One' for Agnetha from Abba) and performed the song at an Icon concert.
GD: To be honest, we are generally focused on one project at a time. Therefore, when we have an Asia album to write, we are not really thinking in terms of Icon. Therefore, the ideas rarely overlap.

SPAZ: Do you find songwriting easier now at this stage of your career?
JW: No, it’s never easy, it's always tough, and sometimes my muse will leave it till the last minute to visit, which can be stressful.
GD: I think both John and myself have re-invented our partnership over the last few years, and we never seem to have a problem coming up with ideas. We do view music with very similar perspectives, so many things are assumed, and left unsaid. As long as we have new ideas and visions, the music will keep coming.

SPAZ: John's voice sounds better than ever, especially on tracks like “My Life Is In Your Hands”, “Under The Sky” and “Destiny”, while Geoff's personality really shines with outstanding keyboard work throughout the album. At times, do you still feel that you have something to prove?
GD: Very kind of you to say so. I believe the challenges we set each other help to fuel the fire. Certainly, John is singing at the top edge of his game, and, yes, I think we both feel we’ve got something to prove, and continue to challenge ourselves in the future.
JW: If you enjoy what we do, then there's always more to come. We have less fear these days, and rather relish the idea of doing something unconventional.

SPAZ: The Icon albums seem more organic, personal and warm compared to Asia's albums. Is this intentional or is it simply a case of less cooks in the kitchen?
JW: No, it's back to fear again. We have absolutely no constraints on Icon writing, production or performance. There's always a feeling while the same process with Asia is that it must be 'Asia'. That doesn't enter into our mindset with Icon; we deliberately include duets with female singers, bring in special guests (Andreas Vollenweider, Katie Jacoby) who take the music into a seriously different firmament.
GD: It’s a very different process working with Asia. We are a band of four individuals who all contribute the sound, and it’s a total group effort. With Icon, it’s very much just me and John creating the ideas. Within this, we feel a certain freedom to add elements such as acoustic orchestral instruments, female vocals, etc., which wouldn’t work within the Asia framework.

SPAZ: Apart from John and Geoff, there's some exceptional vocal and instrumental work on Icon 3. Who worked on the album with you?
JW: Hugh McDowell (ELO's cellist) works on all the Icon recordings, Andreas Vollenweider (harp) is a major feature on two songs ('Raven' and 'Anna's Kiss'), Anne-Marie Helder's voice is a stunning addition, and new guys Dave Kilminster (guitar) and Pete Riley (drums) make amazing contributions.
GD: The song is the all important aspect on Icon. We see this in a joint conceptual direction, and the orchestrations are there to embellish the song and voice. We view Icon almost as a classical ensemble rather than a rock band.

SPAZ: While your fanbase is exceptionally strong and dedicated, do you have hopes that Icon 3 might reach listeners outside your normal demographic?
JW: It's a nice thought: we'll have to see. We don't consciously make a great effort to change our style or write hit material because, these days. those things are not pertinent to our corner of the record market. People who like Icon love it.
GD: I sometimes think, maybe naively, that one day, our music will reach other audiences such as Radio 2. It’s all down to promotion, but certainly, I see no reason why the Icon project should not touch and reach a wider audience.

SPAZ: What's next for Wetton & Downes?
JW: Asia tour starting in Moscow: we'll tour through the summer then start thinking about recording again in September.
GD: I think we’ve established our own style with Icon, and having completed the third album of our ‘trilogy’, maybe later in the year, we’ll sit down and talk about another album. Certainly, I think we’ve done enough so far to justify continuing with the project.

SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD and DVD players?
GD: This may well be where our personal musical tastes differ. I’m fairly sure John would not be too enthusiastic about some of my tastes in dance music! I’m often drawn to music which features keyboards, naturally, and so you would not be surprised to hear me playing some Ministry Of Sound or Ibiza-based dance anthems.
JW: Last CD I bought was Bruce Springsteen's Working On A Dream. The latest DVDs are Dark Knight (Director's Cut) and Atonement.



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