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Progressive Rock Interviews


Interviewed by Greg Olma
Interview with John Payne of Asia from 2005
This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 4 at

There has been a 4-year gap between "Aura" and "Silent Nation". Besides the "Asia Across America" tour, what has been going on in the Asia camp?
Yeah, we did. Basically, we did a live DVD and Geoff and I did an acoustic journey across America with just the two of us. And we went through quite a period of change. We moved our operations from Wales in the UK to Los Angeles and set up a new studio here. That really took quite a lot of time. But since that time, we've been writing really. We spent a long time writing. Then also, finding a new record label. The new record label we've got is probably one of the best labels we've ever been with. They really understand our music. They're into great packaging. They've just taken on our back catalog. They're repackaging all that as well.
MSJ: I know InsideOut is very good for progressive music.
They're really knowledgeable people from the director of the company down. Everybody is a music enthusiast. Jim Pitulski that runs the US leg used to manage Dream Theater. And Thomas and Oliver, the main company in Germany, started off as fans before they got into running it. And it's now probably one of the most successful independent progressive rock labels, if not the most. They're partnered by a company called SPV, who are a huge company. I'm really happy with them. Really, there was a period where we were quiet until "Silent Nation" came out. We used a lot of that time, probably 18 months, for writing. Obviously, since "Silent Nation" has come out, we're doing the most extensive touring that the band has done. We've done 2 ½ months in Europe, we've done a couple of weeks in South America. We're going to do 5 weeks in the US and then we're gonna do another 6 weeks in Europe again.
MSJ: Last time I saw you live was in Lisle, Illinois. It was Lisle-Fest
I remember that really, really well.
MSJ: There was a moat between the stage and the people.
I remember that really well. That was the day I fed a baby tiger. I bottle fed a baby tiger. I'm a big animal freak and they had a little mini zoo there. The people had a little petting corner for the kids. Inside the caravan, they had a pair of tiger cubs. It was quite an incredible experience. I remember that was the balloon festival.
MSJ: Correct. The Eyes to the Sky Fest. "Silent Nation" as a CD has a couple of firsts. The is the first time that the title did not begin and end with an A. Also, the cover is a photo and not a painting. What prompted these changes?
The former sort of followed the latter really. When we were thinking of a new name for the album, we really thought it was becoming a bit "Spinal Tap" in a way that we were doing everything with an A A. Geoff and I sat down and said, look, it's time for a change, and we went to see our management. We were all pretty much in agreement that let's try and get a bit of a fresh new start, even though we had been with Guthrie and Sladey for quite a while now. We have the longest members line-up of Asia in its history. I think it's about 7 years with this line-up now. So I was listening to Howard Stern on the radio. How much he was complaining about, since the Jackson thing (Nipple Gate), how the press has been very, very Big Brothered. There were delays on his radio show and he couldn't say what he wanted to. Then I came up with the title "Raging Silence", which we all thought was very good. We were all excited. I did my usual thing, looked on the internet, and Uriah Heep had already done a title that way. I was very disappointed. Then I woke up the next morning and "Silent Nation" came to me. Within 10 minutes we were actually talking about "If we're going to do this, let's have a cover that's going to be different". I came up with the idea of about 20 people sitting in a carriage on a train with no mouths, sort of a Clockwork Orange type of thing. We spoke with the guys at InsideOut and they came up with the artwork that we have now. So we have 2 firsts and 2 firsts that I'm very happy with. A bit of trepidation at first. A bit of trepidation from the fans and people saying that it's not going to be the same but I think its working.
MSJ: I love the cover.
It reminds me a bit of Hugh Syme and like a Floyd cover.
MSJ: Hipgnosis and Storm Thorgerson.
Storm Thorgerson as well.
MSJ: One of the things that I noticed with "Silent Nation" is it deals with a lot of political and ecological issues. Were there any specific events that triggered the writing for that?
I've come up from a family of politicians, funny enough. My father was head of a printers union in the UK called SOGAT. His brother was a MP in the Mayor. My mother's father was member of Parliament as well. So that was really a good grounding of me being political. I've always been into the ecological thing since "Aqua". The cover and the lyrics in "Aqua" were very much ecology. But moving to America and seeing what has been happening in the world. You know, Iraq, and sitting back and watching things. Watching how in the UK now, they want people to have these identity cards with a strip on it that has everything, from their tax returns to when they last filed some lawsuit. Everything is going to be on there. They are also thinking about putting satellite trackers in your car so you get charged for the distance you are going. Very, very much Big Brother. So "Silent Nation" really was a bit of a view of that.
MSJ: So you don't think that the United States is becoming a bit of a "Silent Nation"?
I think it is as well. Very much the UK and the US. I think they're very similar countries in how they are politically. And of course, the leaders of the two countries are very, very closely in alliance, which I think is a good thing in one way. But I think there's a lot of things that are wrong, and rather than shoving these down people's throats, I'd rather try and make an argument field. I'd rather make a standpoint that people can actually think about. I've spent a lot of time in both countries and I've also traveled the world. I find it quite sad going to Russia and recently, South America. You see McDonalds Restaurants and Starbucks everywhere. It's sort of like cultural disruption.
MSJ: Do you think the globalization of corporations have taken over?
t happened in the music industry. Big companies like Universal own everything. It stopped all the small guys like Island Records; guys who were really passionate fans. Now it's run by accountants at the top of 6 companies. Money and creativity are not the same thing.
MSJ: This kind of goes into my next question. What are your thoughts on music file sharing or downloading?
Funny enough, I'm one of the few people that thinks it's fine. When I was a kid, I used to have a music center which had a cassette player and a record player. As you remember, one of the biggest selling cassettes was the C-90. You could get 45 minutes on each side and no album was longer than 45 minutes. You could record one of your friend's albums on each side. I don't think that's any different from downloading. People are going on about whether it's digital quality or not. That argument is crap because the way technology is going, we're listening to sound getting worse. We listen to MP3s now. Vinyl sounded better than CD. Now we listen to MP3s which sound infinitely worse than CDs,
MSJ: There was a warmth with an album that you don't get with a CD.
There is a warmth with an album. There are extra harmonics created. I'm not afraid to say that I've downloaded bits of software for free. I've used it in music software. I sort of use it as a beta testing period. All of the software that I've spent thousands of dollars in a year on, I've downloaded before. You get people who come to you, you know this from your software thing, "I've got Photo Shop", "I've got Final Cut", this that and the other. "I've downloaded them all online , and for free. Then you go to those people "Do you know how to work any of them?". They say "Not now but I will". Those people would have never bought it in the first place. They are just collectors. That's just like people downloading tons and tons and tons of band stuff. I don't think it's the same as going out and buying a product of a band. I think people who have downloaded some stuff of ours may go out and buy the album 'cause, you know, we're not being played that much on the radio. It's just another form of radio. You could hear music on the radio for free. People didn't say that stopped…, well they probably did when it was being played on the radio. People thought they were stealing their music. I feel quite strongly about the downloading thing. I don't think it has ruined the industry at all. I think maybe the actual skill of songwriting is being ignored.
MSJ: Some people think it took a lot of time, money, and energy to crate that music; and now someone is taking it for free. Being in a band and being a musician is a business. You have to put food on the table.
I just think that people overestimate the financial losses that they're getting from that. Yes, if you look at every download that has happened, they can work it out as money lost. But would those people who have downloaded gone out and bought it. That's the bottom line. Would they have bought the thing? I think in a majority of cases, probably not.
MSJ: Asia has a signature sound yet the new album sounds very fresh; very 2004. How are you able to maintain that sound yet keep it fresh?
I still listen to a lot of stuff and I embrace technology. In the band, we're all friends for one thing. When we play together, we have such a good time. It's our love; it's our whole life. A lot of bands that have reached our stage of being around for 20 years or so just go through the motions. They play their old stuff at a gig and if they're going to record a new record, they get together for a couple of weeks or a month and record it. With us, to me, every album, I want to get better. I've never been happy with anything we've done. It's always been good, but it's not been great. I really want to get the band to grow all the time. The next album I want the band to move in a direction rather than trying to be a covers band of yourself; which a lot of bands unfortunately get themselves into. Trying to recapture what happened in '81 is impossible. I understand the roots of how the sound was put together and obviously try to stay true to that. You have to move on. You get influenced by new things and if you're passionate about it, you will continue to grow in a certain directions.
MSJ: What is your favorite part of being in Asia?
It's a relationship. It's a big part of my life, like a wife or a girlfriend. It takes an enormous amount of your time but it's something I love. I embrace the whole thing, from recording to playing. There's up and downs. It's been my life since '91 and that's a hell of a long time to be in a band. Not like the way bands come and go in 2 years. My favorite part is usually what I'm doing at the time. I'm not the type of person that looks back and gloats. I look forward more and I want to push forward as much as I can. At the moment, I've been enjoying these tours and they have been the best, certainly since I've been in the band, the best it has ever sounded; by a long, long way. It really is a band working forward. Previous years, we've always had good players and stuff, but it tended to be a bit of a rock Steely Dan. Getting people in for a year or so, then moving on. It was just me and Geoff. Now it's definitely Guthrie, Sladey, Geoff, and I.
MSJ: There's definitely a chemistry between the four of you.
I think so. I think that's what really describes a band.
MSJ: I've read on your website that prior to Asia, you did a lot of session work. Do you still guest on other people's CDs?
No, I don't. Not at all. It's so strange that everybody else in the band manages to. Geoff, and particularly Guthrie, manage to do other work. Because I've taken on the mantle of producer and engineer, I find that I don't really have much time to do other stuff. I think it's also more difficult for the vocalist to depart from the band and do a solo album. I can't imagine it sounding drastically different from Asia. Whereas, if you're the keyboard player or guitarist, you can actually go into an instrumental area and do something as a bit of a release. So, I really don't have the time. It's something that I should do. I should really start networking and producing other stuff. I've been asked to produce other people's records and frankly, I don't enjoy it much. I enjoy our stuff so much that doing anything else seems like anti-climax.
MSJ: What was the last CD you purchased?
The last CD I purchased was a band in the UK, actually a pop band called Maroon 5. I've been listening to a lot of radio in the UK. I've just been over there for a month. No, the last CD I purchased, I haven't listened to yet. I bought it at the airport. It was X & Y by Coldplay, which is #1 in the UK. I saw them live on a TV show and they were really good. Very different music from what I do. I listen to anything from opera to heavy metal. I just like good music. I really like the guy's writing and voice in Coldplay.
MSJ: What was the last concert you attended?
The last concert I attended was at the House of Blues just before I went away. It was Europe.
MSJ: The band Europe?
Yeah. They were really good. And before that, it was Styx. They were fantastic. I've gotten friendly with their drummer Todd. I knew him for 3 months before I saw him play. Then we did a festival with them. He's one of the most incredible drummers I've ever seen.
MSJ: Now that your gearing up for another tour of the states, are there any stops that you're really looking forward to?
Most of them are not going to be stops. I have to go on my very strict, non-drinking, non-partying regime, which is what always happens when I'm singing 2 hours every night. I think at one, stage we have 12 cities in a row. It's one of these things where you arrive on the tourbus early in the morning, leaving the city at 2:30 AM. You probably sleep till 12:00 PM, do a bit of press, go into the venue, soundcheck, have some food, hang around the venue, do the gig, then you're off. You get very little chance to really see anything or do anything. I just love traveling and being on the road; just hanging out with the guys in the band and the crew. It's great fun.
MSJ: Is it difficult to pick a set list? You have a huge catalog to choose from.
Geoff and I were just talking about this before. We're doing the same set as the European tour. The band has changed with the ages. What we tended to do before was do a song from each album. When you're 10-12 albums in, that's about all you can do. Really, it doesn't give justice to what you really want to do, which is, go out and entertain people. But you also want to promote your new album and go "Look, this is where we're at right now". If you're going to do that, you're going to miss albums. So what we decided to do on this tour was to do something quite different really. The old fans of the band are very familiar with the first album, which sold over 9 million copies. We play nearly the whole of the first album and we play 5 songs off the new album. That pretty much is a 2 hour set. And we do nothing in between. About halfway through the European tour, people started saying "You're missing a lot from the middle", so we decided, in the middle of the set, to do a 15 minute acoustic section. The four of us sit down and talk about the songs a bit, then play segued versions of the songs. It makes for a bit of theater in the set. It's probably the most interesting set that we've played.
MSJ: Sounds like a "Storytellers" vibe.
MSJ: I'm looking forward to seeing that at the Chicago show.
Oh cool. Come say "hi" to us after the show. We always have a meet-n-greet after the show. We've been doing that for the whole of Europe. It's not just to sell new stuff. People can bring all of their old stuff and come have a chat with us. It's good to have contact with genuine fans who will say "We liked this" or "We didn't like that". We get info from the horse's mouth. It's good for us.
MSJ: Being a fan of music, for me being able to meet one of my idols is always special.
We've got a really good following of genuine fans that feel because we made the effort, it's more of a family thing. It's really got that great vibe; rather than seeing a band and they don't want to do an encore. I met one of my heroes. Quite often, you're doing stuff and I met one of my guitar heroes the other day. I was trying to talk to him after the show but he wasn't interested in talking to anybody. He was pretty off with a lot of people. He disappointed me because when you like someone's music, you want to know more about that person. That's an important side of it, as well as just being a great musician and a great songwriter.
MSJ: I've met a number of musicians and 95% have been very cordial to me. But that 5%, it affects the way I hear their music.
It does to me also. You have about the same percentage as me. I've become really good friends with people like Glenn Hughes over the years. I get into their music more now 'cause they're friends as well. You feel almost proud of someone you've met. You feel closer to it. If they're a jerk, then you think, I'm not going to listen to their music anymore. It closes the door for you.
MSJ: The guys who have been in the business the longest seem to be the nicest, like Ronnie James Dio.
I've met him. Our tour manager, Roger Summers, or Ronnie's tour manager actually, took us to South America. He was our tour manager on that leg and I met Ronnie. Ronnie was one of my influences to sing. I met him after a show and said "You're one of the main reasons I got into it…it's your bloody fault". He was laughing and joking. He's such a nice guy. And his voice is still incredible. Plant's lost it a bit as far as I'm concerned. He's not the same. You take someone like Paul Rogers or Dio and they're as good if not better.
MSJ: You've been with Asia since '91, touring many times. Are there any Spinal Tap moments that stand out?
One of them is really funny actually. Steve Howe is quite a quiet and reserved guy. We were doing a tour in '91 and we walked into a reception of a hotel in France. We'd all gone out for a drink. We hadn't seen Steve for a while. Steve is usually quite quiet and not doing outrageous things or anything like that. We walked into this reception of this hotel. In this hotel, there was a tree in the middle, like an oak tree in the middle of the reception of this hotel. Like they built the hotel around it. Halfway up this tree was Steve Howe playing his guitar, singing to this vagrant woman, who was cursing at him in French to get down out of the tree. It was quite hilarious, especially knowing how serious Steve can be and how serious he is about his music. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
MSJ: Any last words for your fans?
I just want everybody to come along and enjoy the show. It's really important that people leave having had a good time. If they haven't seen this incarnation of the band, they should, it's firing on all cylinders now. It's a very up-tempo show as well. Bring stuff along, we'll sign it and say "hi" afterwards. We just want to carry on spreading the word.
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