Something Else! Interview: John Payne of John Payne Featuring Asia

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How busy is John Payne, and his band Asia Featuring John Payne? Here’s his 2013 schedule: “More videos, more singles, the album release, weekend warrior dates and perhaps a fanfest spectacular with ex-members in Vegas this summer.”

Oh, there’s more: When not leading his own band on the weekends, Payne is set to present a new multi-media show called “Raid the Rock Vault” in Las Vegas, beginning in March. The concert will encompass the entire arc of classic rock, from the 1960s through the 1980s, as presented by a star-filled band that will reportedly include guitarist Tracii Guns.

Meanwhile, Asia Featuring John Payne — a group formed when Payne, after some 14 years of leading Asia, won a court battle to continue despite its founding members’ decision to reunite — has just released the first of what promises to be a number of videos from their forthcoming long player, called Americana.

In this SER Sitdown, Payne discusses his new music, career intersections with the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Ronnie James Dio, and what it was like having to fight to hold onto a band he’d given so much of his life to …

NICK DERISO: The new single “Seasons Will Change” advances a long-awaited new AFJP album for 2013. Tell us more about Americana.
JOHN PAYNE: Americana has been a work in progress for several years. Firstly, it’s been a self-produced and self-financed project but, also due to other projects — and, most importantly, just waiting for the inspiration of the most special songs. I wanted to create the most summarized album of my career, and accept no substitute. We are planning to do as many videos as we can for Americana, culminating in an Americana concert. Expect monthly videos and single releases from us.

NICK DERISO: I’ve heard there’s to be a tribute to British prog on the way, too.
JOHN PAYNE: Yes, I’ve recorded a British prog CD, with some twists on it. It features songs from King Crimson, Alan Parsons, ELP, the Moody Blues, Barclay James Harvest and Yes. It’s mixed, and features all Asia FJP members, but I played a lot of keyboards and guitars on it, so it may be released as a solo, or an Asia FTP album. I’m still not sure.

NICK DERISO: Explain how you came to front Asia in place of the co-founding John Wetton. Where you surprised when Geoff Downes called?
JOHN PAYNE: It’s always a surprise when a major band that you love asks you to work with them. I had known Geoff Downes for about a year before being asked, and had been working with him on a project called Rain. I first met him through my friend Phill Spaulding, of GTR fame.

NICK DERISO: Were you excited for the chance to continue the band’s legacy, or did you have your eye on creating something new under the old banner?
JOHN PAYNE: It had to be a combination of both. Geoff didn’t want a John Wetton clone, and let me be myself. It was a pretty wonderful situation for me.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Wetton examines three of his most important musical stops – Asia, King Crimson and UK – while frankly discussing how drinking nearly ruined all of it.]

NICK DERISO: Over some 14 years, there followed eight studio albums as Asia. Do you have a favorite moment? For me, I loved the orchestra title track to 1994’s Aria, and the 10cc cover “Ready Go Home” in 2000.
JOHN PAYNE: I care little of the past, and like living in the moment while looking to the future. I’m never 100 percent happy with anything I’ve done. I don’t mean to be negative, but one should always strive to get better, more creative and more focused. I am still learning. The day I think I know everything, I’ll give up. I do have fond moments, and remember the buzz of tracking many of these songs and creating them. I have had a blessed career.

NICK DERISO: Prior to joining Asia, you also worked on a number of solo albums with Roger Daltrey, including on his underrated 1985 effort Under a Raging Moon. Take us into those sessions. What have you learned from him?
JOHN PAYNE: I was very lucky to work with such a legend so early in my career. Also, not just him, but also the incredible producer Alan Schacklock, incredible producers Will Gosling and Mark Wallace, the best session guys and the best recording studios. So, the education was irreplaceable.

NICK DERISO: You also sang “Heaven and Hell” at Ronnie James Dio’s memorial service, reportedly at the request of the family. How did you come to know Dio? What was his impact on your career?
JOHN PAYNE: Ronnie was one of my greatest influences. Who can deny he was one of the greatest rock singers of all time? I toured with him with Asia, and became friends. I sang “Rainbow Eyes” the day before the memorial, as did Glenn Hughes (“Catch the Rainbow”) and Geoff Tate (“Hallelujah”). I was called by my great friend and his wife Wendy who asked me to sing that song at the funeral, as he wrote it about her — it’s a beautiful song. Singing at the funeral was an unexpected honor, but probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. “Heaven and Hell,” the next day, was just me with a classical guitar — and I treated that day as a celebration of his life, after the emotion and sadness of the previous days. Ronnie was loved by all of those around him. I don’t think it impacted my career, other than personally. I did it because I loved and looked up to the man.

NICK DERISO: After a series of lineup changes, Asia settled on guitarist Guthrie Govan and, later, Jay Schellen on drums. They then helped form the nucleus of Asia Featuring John Payne. Describe working with them over the years.
JOHN PAYNE: Funnily, we just to got to work with Guthrie on a video for Americana. We have remained the best of friends and I’m happy to see him grow into one of the more revered players in the world. God bless the chap. He’s so talented, an all-around musical genius. I even had John Petrucci come up to me and say: ‘Are you still playing with that freak? He’s not human.’ Both he and Jay are like brothers to me. None of us has had a cross word, and we work equally well together in the studio as in the bar drinking! Both guys only ever take one or two takes to nail their parts.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Geoff Downes goes in depth on Asia’s ‘XXX’ anniversary project, along with his two albums with Yes – and, of course, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.]

NICK DERISO: You ended up in litigation over the Asia name, and eventually earned the right to keep your own version of the band going as AFJP. That’s a rare victory in instances where the original members were looking to go forward separately. How did you win that argument?
JOHN PAYNE: It didn’t ever got to court, but got mediated by lawyers. It’s sad to do that, but sometimes only external forces can cut through the emotions. I Would have happily gone out with two bands, but they wanted to focus on the original line up. I understand that. The hardest part was that Geoff and I were best friends. I think both sides won, and both sides lost, as well. I feel musically, and time-wise, justified. I don’t think John Wetton was ever happy with my version of Asia, but I did spent 14 years of my life 100 percent dedication to a band I was asked to join, tour, produce and record 10 albums with. Ultimately, it’s up to the public. There’s still an ‘off’ switch on the radio.

NICK DERISO: What was it like transitioning from working with Downes over to keyboardist Erik Norlander in AFJP? He brings an older prog feel to the band, more in keeping Rick Wakeman or Jon Lord.
JOHN PAYNE: Both are superlative players, great to write with and great sound-smiths. Geoff comes from a more commercial, pop background and embraces modern synth technology, whilst Erik is a classic analog prog chap. Geoff has a wider music palette and loves dance music. Erik is a one trick pony, and solidly the real deal in this world of music. Having Erik in the band was like stepping back 30 years musically! And that’s a good thing.

NICK DERISO: How did you discover Moni Scaria? He had previously filled in for Govan some years back, right? How does Jeff Kollman fit in now?
JOHN PAYNE: Moni, I had known for years and plucked him from the LA club circuit. There are so many great players here, and he was the cream of the crop — plus, yes, he had previously filled in for Guthrie. Kollman blew my socks off. Imagine the Jeff Beck of prog music, well, that’s him. Plus, the two of them together are unstoppable. This really is an incredible version of the band. Added to this, we all love and respect each other, and hang out in our little gang socially! What band does that? That was my dream from my first band, 40 years ago.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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