Busy with an extensive tour of North America, John Payne of the legendary prog/pop band Asia took some time to talk to Sea of Tranquility's Jack Toledano about the tour, and the history of this long running band.
Read on for the complete interview!
SoT: Who were some of your influences when you were starting out as a musician?
John Payne: Some of them, believe it or not, were soul influences. I listen to a lot of Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye, and my dad used to play Nat King Cole and Brook Benton. So that was my first sort of foray into music as I was growing up as a kid. Then shortly after that I really got into Hendrix, and Clapton, and after that it was all of the rock vocalists for me. Paul Rodgers, Steve Perry, Joe Lynn Turner, and I really like Michael McDonald from the Doobies.
SoT: Oh really, I'm very familiar with him (chuckles).
John Payne: So all these guys sort of influenced me quite a bit. Graham Bonnet was another big influence on me, and Ronnie James Dio.
SoT: Oh, ok. Rainbow years, very cool.
John Payne: Yeah, I really liked Rainbow. I thought as a rock act, they had a very good song commerciality, and Ritchie always used to choose great vocalists.
SoT: Yeah, I had the pleasure of seeing Joe Lynn Turner myself.
John Payne: Where did you see him?
SoT: Actually, I saw him with Deep Purple, they played at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
John Payne: I saw that tour as well.
SoT: Yeah, that was a really good tour.
John Payne: Yeah, Joe is a great singer. And Purple, that's another band that really influenced me. I was in fact at the time more into Purple than I was into Yes. Unlikely, I end up in a band that's an offshoot of Yes. As a kid, Purple was my favorite rock band.
SoT: Can you tell me how Asia is different now than in the past when they had commercial radio success in the early 80's?
John Payne: I think the actual theme of the music and the way it is put together is still very similar to the old days but unfortunately the theme has changed so much. You know there's fewer outlets for bands like us to be played on the radio, and it seems the only outlet is classic rock stations, and they only play the original albums so there's really not a great platform for bands like Asia to actually be heard. So that is why we are relying on a lot of touring this year. The old Asia and the new Asia share quite a lot of things together and the only difference is that a lot of bands, when they replace a vocalist, try to get someone that sounds very similar to the last guy. Sometimes that can be a little bit of a mistake because you become really a tribute band to yourself almost. So it was nice when Geoff asked me to join, he said to me "Be yourself and don't try to just copy the parts, we want to move on". So that's what we try and do. We try to put a good album out every few years and work very hard on it. So it was one of those things where our last album took us a year to do.
SoT: How do you like singing the older material that you weren't a part of, like "Heat of the Moment", and "Only Time Will Tell"?
John Payne: It's great, I mean I really, really like doing those songs. A lot of people come along and say "Well that's the old singer. I'm not doing those songs". People paid a lot of money and a lot of their love and nostalgia comes from those songs. And it's up to us to deliver them in a way that's enjoyable for everybody, and I think we do that now. We only played it yesterday. We were in rehearsals for the tour yesterday, and it's great to play those old songs. Really, really good fun. I've played "Heat of the Moment" hundreds of times now, and it never bores me. It's good seeing people enjoy themselves with those tracks. It's very easy to actually be blasé about those songs and I'll play homage to them. Those are the songs that got the band started.
SoT: One last question about the old Asia, how did you feel about joining what people used to consider a "supergroup"?
John Payne: Yeah, I hear that question asked a lot, especially sitting with Geoff at a radio station, and his answer to it is that it is a double edged sword. Some people saw it as no big thing, while others saw it as pretentious. It was really one of the very first supergroups. It put people together from such massive backgrounds, and when David Geffen signed Asia, he had the right idea, because the first album was so successful.
SoT: So if we can, can we talk about the latest album, Silent Nation?
John Payne: What I liked about that album is that it's a year's labor of love. Geoff and I sat down and wrote with the acoustic guitar and acoustic piano and bunched out about 50 songs over a period, and then hammered them down to about 20. Then we took them into the rehearsal room and played them with the band and hammered them even more, and then went down to about 13/14 songs. And at that stage, we might have an idea of a song having one feel, and then we get together with the other guys, it takes on its own life and changes. And then we went straight into the studio and recorded it. And that process took near to a year, but most of the time was actually spent writing it. No matter how good the musicians are, the song is the most important part of the whole process so without the song, we wouldn't go any further, so we were very, very hard on ourselves. Albums are a big chunk of your life, and it's a really enjoyable but exhausting experience as well.
SoT: Ok, as for when you play the new material live, how would you say that goes over with the crowd, especially in some situations where you get fans who want to hear the older material?
John Payne: I think we have an answer to that now, before we do "Heat of the Moment", and "Only Time Will Tell", and maybe "The Heat Goes On", we choose tracks from other albums. We have 10 albums out now. But what we decided to do on this tour was very much to do another thing, but we wanted to promote the new album, but we didn't want to play everyone the whole album and really steal it from one of the main gems which is the first album. It started everything. We actually play for the first time nearly the whole of the first album. So it shows that you can please the old and the new and maybe get some of the guys that know the first album and get them inside of what we are doing now. And interestingly, the 2 albums together work very, very well in live situations.
SoT: How would you say your CD sales are going world wide, as far as the newer CD's?
John Payne: I think they're going really well, our label has even picked up our back catalog. InsideOut Music has every Asia album with my vocals. We started releasing Anthology, and Aqua has been remastered. The new album Silent Nation still continues to sell pretty well because we've actually done enough extensive touring for years and years, maybe the most extensive tour ever. We just finished over 2 months in Europe, and we spent a couple of weeks in South America. We're gonna do over a month in the US, and then we're gonna go out and do another 2 months in Europe. So it's going to be really good for record sales. And as I mentioned earlier, airplay is the hard one, but we're going to do some live events. We're working hard and are happy promoting it. It seems to be steadily selling.
SoT: As far as when you go on tour, which countries would you say are the most successful for Asia?
John Payne: It's very interesting, the first thing that absolutely amazed me was Spain. We've played in Spain before and the crowds were very, very young and very, very enthusiastic. I've had a similar vibe, it must be some sort of a Latin vibe, in Mexico. We've played in Mexico City, and the crowds were amazing. It's been very interesting, but the whole of Europe is very good except for Italy. We've had a tough time in Italy, and poor attendances in Italy. Apart from that, it is very good in Europe, it is very good in South America, and we hope that it is gonna be great here in the States. It's been a while since we did an extensive tour here.
SoT: Where exactly will Asia be touring this year?
John Payne: For now, it's going to be North America, then we're gonna go to Scandinavia, and after Scandinavia, we're going to Germany and the UK. And it looks like we're gonna do some concerts with Uriah Heep and Ronnie James Dio there. That'll be incredibly nice because we'll be on a bill and we'll get to play to people that haven't heard our stuff before, or haven't heard of us for a long time. It's one good thing to play to your own database, but it's nice to increase that database as well. So I'm looking forward to that. That'll be it touring wise this year. It's great that we have been all over South America as well and Central America. We were in Panama City, Mexico City, Monterrey, Lima, Peru, Bogotá, Caracas, and we had some great times in Europe as well. We played in St. Petersburg in an ice hockey stadium, and that was wonderful. Wonderful people there, and wonderful crowds. So it's good to travel. The only place that I wish that we had visited is Japan.
SoT: Oh yeah, it's always great to play in Japan.
John Payne: Yeah, we haven't been there for a while.
SoT: Would you like to talk about who is in the current lineup of Asia?
John Payne: This is the longest lineup of the band. We started working with Chris Slade about 7 or 8 years ago. I remember watching him and seeing this animal hitting the drums. Everybody seems to like AC/DC. I remember seeing it, thinking when they're not on the road, what's this guy doing? We contacted our manager, who contacted somebody else, and we actually got a hold of Chris Slade, and that was probably 8 years ago. He's been in some amazing bands. He was in Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Uriah Heep, and The Firm with Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers.
SoT: Where are you calling from this evening?
John Payne: Burbank, California.
SoT: What are Asia's future plans, and where do you see them in 5 years?
John Payne: Speaking of what it's going to be like when things aren't as good, well if you're a painter, or a poet, or whatever, it doesn't stop you from doing painting or poetry. Being in a band to me is actually doing what you want to do without being influenced by record companies and financial people. And the CD or your work is just a window into your world, and I think if we carry on with that attitude, then I think we'll keep going for as long as we possibly can. In 5 years time, there may not be any Asia. In 5 years time, there might be something else. But as far as I'm concerned, we have 2 more albums to do for InsideOut with our record deal, and we're gonna do that. So, if we record slowly enough (chuckles), we should be around for at least the next 3 or 4 years.
SoT: You mentioned InsideOut, how do you like recording with InsideOut records?
John Payne: Great people, I mean they are not the record label that is run by accountants. Now obviously, finance is important, but you're artistic decisions are very much directed to do what you're good at, and not told what to do. Their artwork packages are extremely good. They're very professional to work with and, both on the American side with Jim Pitulski, and with Thomas Raber in Germany, where we signed. And of course they have backing from a more corporate side as well so we get the best of both worlds with them. We're very, very happy with them
SoT: I thank you very much for your time, and I hope to see you on the tour. I know you're going to play a couple of shows in New York. There's a chance I might make your BB King show.
John Payne: Oh good, come and say hi because we're gonna do a meet and greet after every show and speak to people. I'll be standing around, so come and say hello, and we can have chat some more.
SoT: Super, I look forward to it, John.
John Payne: Thank you for taking the time out to speak to me.
SoT: Oh, it's my pleasure, thank you very much, John. Have a great tour.
John Payne: Thank you.
Photos courtesy of www.asiaworld.com