Following Steve Howe’s departure from Asia in 2012, the band launched a massive search in hopes of finding a suitable replacement for the legendary guitarist.
Enter Sam Coulson, a young gun recommended by Paul Gilbert. And by “young,” we mean someone who wasn’t even born during Asia’s first wave of success in the Eighties.
Coulson’s arrival brings a youthful energy and new-found technical savvy to Asia, whose eponymous 1982 debut sold more than 7 million copies and included the hits “Heat of the Moment,” “Only Time Will Tell” and “Sole Survivor.”
Asia’s new album, Gravitas, features Coulson’s guitar work coupled with the vision of producer/songwriting partners John Wetton and Geoff Downes. The result is a new twist for the band that tastefully complements the classic Asia sound.
Asia — John Wetton (vocals, bass), Geoff Downes (keyboards), Carl Palmer (drums) and Sam Coulson (guitar) — are preparing a fall U.S tour to showcase the new album and introduce their new guitarist.
I recently spoke with Wetton and Coulson about Gravitas and more.
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Interview with John Wetton & Sam Coulson
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Do you remember where you were when you first heard it? I do. It was June of 1982 and I was sitting in seventh grade music class during one of the last days before summer vacation.
The school was one of those two-story brick structures that had no air conditioning and by mid-morning temperatures in the classroom had risen to almost unbearable levels. The open windows and portable fans that circulated hot air throughout the classroom provided little relief to a bunch of teenagers waiting for that final bell to sound.
As a sort-of end of year gift to the class, the teacher allowed students to bring in some of their albums to listen to while we cleared out our desks. That was when this kid named Danny put it on the turntable. As needle met vinyl and the crackling hum and hiss began, it was the first time I heard that now infamous guitar riff and opening line:
“I never meant to be so bad to you. One thing I said that I would never do …”
“Heat of The Moment” became the coolest thing ever to me on that apropos day. The day I joined the eventual 8 million other people who bought the band Asia’s debut album.
Since then, I’ve been a fan of keyboardist Geoff Downes. Not only for his experimentation of all things keyboard, but also for his songwriting ability. In addition to having the best selling album of 1982 with Asia, Downes also holds the coveted distinction of being part of the very first video ever played on MTV (Video Killed The Radio Star).
Today, in between his work with Asia and Yes, Downes finds time to work on other projects as well. His most recent, New Dance Orchestra’s “Electronica” features the phenomenal vocals of Anne-Marie Helder (Panic Room, Mostly Autumn) and utilizes sounds from the latest computer technology. The result is a collection of virtual orchestrations that defy standard definition. Blending elements of classical, new age, pop and electronica, Downes uses rich textures to take the listener on a journey of spiritual enlightenment.
I spoke with Downes about Electronica as well as the forthcoming Asia album Gravitas, which features founding members Downes (keyboards), John Wetton (bass) and Carl Palmer (drums) as well as new guitarist Sam Coulson. He also tells me about some of the most memorable moments of his career.
How would you describe the sound of Electronica?
It’s a good combination of a lot of the influences I’ve had over the years. From my time with The Buggles to session work and some of the other projects I’ve been involved with like Yes and Asia. It’s a nice variety of music and an amalgamy of many of the things that I’ve been through over the course of my career.
How do you approach songwriting for a project like New Dance Orchestra as opposed to one for Asia or Yes?
When I create songs for New Dance Orchestra, there’s a lot of experimentation that I like to do. Some of the material comes from me tinkering with the latest sounds on computers. I’m very much into the technical aspect of the keyboard and like to experiment a lot with them.
How did you connect with Anne-Marie Helder?
I had worked with Anne-Marie on the Icon project I did with John Wetton. She came in and did vocals on a few of the tracks. She’s one of the top prog-rock vocalists and is very much in demand.
When Steve Howe announced his retirement as guitarist for Asia, was there ever a moment where the band thought about slowing down?
The rest of us always felt that it was worth continuing. Steve has his reasons for wanting to move on and concentrate more on his solo material. He’s pretty much been on the road for the last seven years doing solo material and his trio in addition to having the extra pressure of Yes and Asia. He felt it was time to try other things, which is fine.
We brought in Sam (Coulson), who was recommended to us by Paul Gilbert. He’s a different type of player from Steve and brings with him his own sound. The actual emphasis was never to change direction but to evolve.
What can you tell us about the new Asia album, Gravitas?
We finished the album just before Christmas and it’s going to be released the last week of March. The cover was once again designed by Roger Dean. It’s another Asia album with songs written by myself and John Wetton.
What’s the writing process like when you and John get together?
Generally, we’ll both come in and open our ‘war chests’ of musical ideas. Whenever we get together in a session, it’s rare that we don’t come out of it with at least one or two songs.
Can you tell me the origin of “Only Time Will Tell”?
That one started off with what became the chorus part. It was something I had actually written for a jingle company. I had the basic idea for what became the chorus and I played it for John. That’s when he said “Hey, I think I’ve got something that might go with that” and started playing me the first verse. Originally, the song was going to be called “Starry Eyed”. It was a very in-depth collaboration with a very proggy, sentimental arrangement. It’s one of my favorite pieces that we’ve ever done in terms of Asia’s history because it has such depth and texture to it.
When The Buggles released “Video Killed The Radio Star” did you have a feeling of how special it was going to be?
We knew that it was a great song and a great record when we finished it. Trevor Horn and I both thought that if we were ever going to have a hit, this one would be it. I remember we presented it to Island Records and they were a bit skeptical. They didn’t even really like the name “The Buggles” either, but it ended up being our first major hit in the UK.
Have you ever given thought to writing a book chronicling your life?
I’ve been thinking about that recently. It really has been an amazing journey and is something I’ll definitely be looking into… when I have the time [laughs].
With all of your success with The Buggles, Yes, Asia, New Dance Orchestra and all of your other projects, is there anything that stands out as most memorable?
There are so many. Obviously, you have to look at the first Buggles album because it was the one that introduced me into the business. The Drama album is very satisfying because more and more die-hard Yes fans can relate to that album as time has gone by.
Then of course there’s the first Asia album.
I’ll never forget sitting in the car with John Wetton. We had just arrived in the States shortly after the album had come out and “Heat of The Moment” was playing on the radio. I remember we changed the channel and at that exact moment another station was playing “Only Time Will Tell.” To have those tracks both playing simultaneously on two different radio stations in the same city was surreal. At that moment we both knew what we had was going to be something really special.
It was mid May 1982, a time period I remember fondly even though I can’t recall the exact date.
I was a young thirteen-year-old boy in the home stretch of seventh grade and actually loved going to school. And before you go making assumptions: no, I wasn’t on drugs or suffering from some serious mental ailment.
Just hear me out.
As a student, the end of the school year is always the most exciting time of the year. At least it was for me. Worries about final exams, peer pressure and girls would soon give way to dreams of summer sun, picnics and marathon sessions playing Pitfall on the Atari.
I actually looked forward to getting up in the morning and going to school. If for no other reason than to spend the day just hanging out with my friends in class. Because let’s be honest, there sure wasn’t a hell of a lot learning going on when there was a summer itch that needed to be scratched.
The middle school I attended sat in the center of the city’s west ward. A two-story brick structure that I think doubled as an oven from May through September. The building itself had no central air conditioning and by mid morning the temperature in the classroom rose to almost unbearable levels. And there’s only so much relief open windows and small portable fans can provide to a class of two dozen antsy students.
But the heat from the unusual May weather pattern did not deter my enthusiasm one bit. On the contrary, as the sweat ran down my brow it only reinforced the notion that before too long, summer would officially arrive.
It was during one of those final hot days when I was sitting, ironically enough, in music class when it happened. As I said, there was very little left to learn and aside from each student cleaning out their desks and getting old test papers back the teacher had pretty much given us a free period. As a sort of “going away present” he even offered to let students bring in some record albums to listen to rather than to just sit in silence.
That was when this kid, who I will forever remember as Danny, put it on the turntable. As needle met vinyl the crackling hum began and it would be the first time I heard that infamous guitar riff and opening line:
I never meant to be so bad to you.
One thing I said that I would never do..
My eyes lit up and my heart began to race as a smile ran clear across my face (did you like how that rhymed?). Anyway, I think if Mom and Dad would have been there what happened next would have been justifiable cause for having my mouth washed out with soap.
“Who the HELL is this?”, I almost blurted out. Thankfully, someone else said the exact same thing to Danny and spared me the trouble of a reprimand from the teacher thus keeping my goody-two shoes status in tact.
“Asia“, Danny replied with a smile. Danny was one of those lucky guys whose parents had just gotten him the record from the first real “super group” of the 1980’s. A band formed from the nexus of YES, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and King Crimson.
Not only was the first song killer but they even had a picture of a dragon rising from the sea on the album cover. I LOVE dragons!
I resisted the urge to reach out and “touch” the record album Danny held in his hands for fear that it might appear to be sacrilege. Or at least grounds for a punch in the arm.
As Danny explained the premise of Asia my ears were glued to the turntable. The music coming from the spinning disc was different and exciting. As “Heat of The Moment” played on not only do I recall thinking it was apropos to the oppressive situation we were experiencing in the school but I also remember thinking how great my life was to be able to bear witness to this new music.
The next song was just as catchy as the first: “Only Time Will Tell”. An amazing keyboard intro and a video I would later find on the then fledgling MTV channel. You remember, the one with the girl gymnast jumping over TV sets with the bands faces on them?
Have I mentioned before how much I loved the 80’s?
I think we had just gotten half-way through the third song: “Sole Survivor” when it was time to pack things up and head out.
Although my tenure in seventh grade would soon be coming to an end the seed was planted for my love of hard driven guitars and keyboards.
It would be years before I would finally get to see Asia perform live. They are one of the very few bands from that era (RUSH, Mötley Crüe and Poison also come to mind) that are still performing with all of the original members and sound better than ever.
On July 3rd, 2012 Asia will release “XXX” (pronounced “Triple-X”) an album which celebrates three decades as the original super-group. Still with the same powerful line-up as when I first heard them in the sweltering heat of the middle school I’ll once again be able to hear new music and recall those care free days of youth.
Thanks Danny, wherever you are. Now bring on the heat.