Interview: John Payne

John Payne

(June 2017) John Payne became the frontman of British superband Asia in1992 replacing vocalist/bassist John Wetton and he continued until 2006, when the original lineup decided to reunite. While fronting the band, Asia released 8 studio albums, several live albums and toured internationally. Then in 2007 the original band decided to let John continue using the name, and he produced an EP did some touring and began thinking of other projects.  He founded and is a member of modern progressive rock band GPS and dabbled with some acting playing the part of Parson Nathaniel in the touring production of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. Then while living in Las Vegas, having moved recently from LA, he was inspired by the history of the industry that made Vegas what it was. He also needed his own “Rat Pack”, a “Rock Pack” comprised of the great stars of the classic rock era to perform with. He also needed a reason to call his favourite stars and form a band with all his musical heroes. And this is how John Payne convinced Foreigner’s Lou Gramm to come a long for the ride….

Mb: Hey John, thanks for taking the time.
JP: My pleasure.
Mb: So where are you? Are you on the road right now?
JP: I’m actually in the studio. I’m mixing a new album. I’ve gone back to analog so I’m sitting in front of an 18 channel console with loads of outboard gear from the 70’s and 60’s… I’m doing it old style. Everyone uses Pro Tools now, and I did the last two ASIA albums on Pro Tools and it’s very cool, but working inside a computer is not… for me, it’s just not fun any more. I still use Pro Tools as the main recorder and editing, but now everything goes through a big mixing desk and it’s way cool. At the moment I’m getting up at eight in the morning and going to bed at three and doing fifteen hours a day mixing, which is what it takes. Our music is so dense, it’s not like mixing a rock n roll band. It’s not like mixing the Rolling Stones! (laughs)
Mb: When you think of technology in mixing music today, you realize most of the audio digital plugins are trying to sound like a sound from the 70’s anyway. A sound that you can get by having the real gear in the room.
JP: Just having the physical knob to twist or the sound going through metal. A lot of these plugins… like I’ve got an old 1176 compressor that actually came out of the Sahara Hotel. It was part of their main p.a. system. It’s from the 70’s. The plugin looks exactly like it. But it doesn’t sound like it. If you go back in time and listen to old Nat King Cole records, where he’s singing into a ribbon mic from the 50’s, the sound is huge! We’ve not gone any further, you know? The other thing with plugins is that people abuse them so. I remember doing a track for a guy and he said “I can’t get it to sound right.” So I told him to go away and come back in a half an hour. So he comes back and says “What have you done? It sounds great!” I just took all the plugins off. (laughs) You don’t need that many plugins if you’ve recorded it well. I had a studio in L.A. and next door was the major transfer suite for all the big albums like Thriller, all the Zeppelin albums… they were being transferred from tape to digital for storage. I used to pop in and hear half these albums. Especially the older Queen and Zeppelin ones, all the guy did was put all the faders up at zero and it sounded like the mix. That skill has kind of been lost now, with everyone and his dog, now they have Pro Tools and they work on their own and someone just sends them a part… I think it’s been very harmful to the industry.
Mb: You sound like a real audiophile willing to tweak all the little pieces and sounds. Working with Asia must be a perfect fit for you. Lot of things to hear when listening to “Prog Rock”
JP: Ya I’m lucky to be pretty friendly with Alan Parsons, and I’ve learnt a lot from him. Him, and people like Trevor Horn, these real audiophile producers… and Mutt Lange as well, you can learn so much from them. A lot of them, the skill is not just getting great sounds but when there is a great sound, or a solo, is that, you feature it. So many people mix very safely where everything is level, nothing ever sticks out and there’s no dynamic. People over compress stuff and they have zero dynamic, zero light and shade and those things are very important. Complex prog music… take a band like Rush. You always hear everything. “Tom Sawyer” you hear the mini moog, you hear the bass, you hear the drums, you hear the guitars… everything is very, very clear although it’s dense and complicated. When I put together the Rock Pack, because I’m now living in Vegas, I wanted to put together a Rat Pack that was a revolving cast of, basically, growing as a kid, my heroes! Lou Gramm and people like Gregg Rolie from Santana, they were huge influences on me. I was lucky enough to have a long chat after the last show with Lou Gramm about Foreigner’s “4” which is one of my favourite albums, and how it was recorded. The one thing you realize working with these people is, their love of it. You can’t do big records like that if you aren’t so dedicated to the craft and to the music.
Mb: I can’t help but think this is a personal indulgence! You thought, “I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to call all my favourite musicians and ask them if they want to put a band together.”
JP: You’ve actually… you’re the first person who has said that, you’ve actually hit the nail on the head! It’s a bucket list. It’s so self indulgent. It’s like people have these football teams and they make up dream teams. Basically I’m like a spoiled brat who put his dream team together. They’ve all seen what I’ve done with past shows so… we’re all friends. The comradery backstage and on stage is fantastic.
Mb: You’ve got some huge names on this show… Lou Gramm from Foreigner, Gregg Rolie from Santana, Bobby Kimball from TOTO, even Steve Augen from Journey! I see you’re even working with Fee Waybill on some American shows.
JP: Ya Fee is great. He’s a real star. It’s funny, he say’s to me “Look at those flared trousers you’ve got on, and those rings and your cross… do you dress like this all the time?” I said yes, mostly. and he says “What do you think you look like?” So at a rehearsal I said “You can barely talk! What about the boots and wigs and all this stuff…”
Mb: So you’re bringing all of this to Havelock at the HaveRock Festival…
JP: It’s great. The cool thing is, you go and see a band and you hear 5 songs you like and then they’re playing the new album and then it’s like “Ok, I’m going to the bar.” This is hit after hit, plus you get a bit of insight as before each person performs, I talk to them for a couple of minutes about their career and what they’ve done and are doing. So, if you like the hits of all these major major classic rock bands then I think you’re going to be blown away by our set-list… and the fun everybody has.

The Rock Pack perform
Saturday July 8, 2017 at 10pm
HaveRock Festival Havelock.