First appearing with Numan as part of TUBEWAY ARMY when they appeared on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ to perform ‘Are Friends Electric?’, he played a vital role on the synth pioneer’s solo debut ‘The Pleasure Principle’ sharing keyboard duties and contributing the beautiful viola part on ‘Complex’.
It was while on ‘The Touring Principle’ that during soundchecks, Payne and fellow keyboardist Billy Currie (on hiatus from ULTRAVOX) began jamming with a number they’d written entitled ‘Toot City’. The pair eventually recorded the track at Genetic Studios with band mate Ced Sharpley on drums; a few months later it was reworked by Midge Ure and morphed into ‘Fade To Grey’, a 1981 No1 in West Germany for VISAGE.
Although always remembered for an iconic video featuring Steve Strange and Princess Julia, musically ‘Fade To Grey’ was shaped by the hypnotic synth bassline and haunting string tones played by Payne on a Polymoog.
While Numan was on a much publicised touring hiatus after three spectacular farewell shows at Wembley Arena in 1981, Payne joined Cedric Sharpley and guitarist RRussell Bell in DRAMATIS, releasing an album ‘For Future Reference’ on Elton John’s Rocket Records.
After leaving the Numan band, Payne moved to France where he began a successful career in Celtic music as the mastermind behind CELTIC LEGEND. More recently, he has returned to the synthpop fold, co-writing five songs with RUSTY EGAN for his new album ‘Welcome To The Dancefloor’.
With the revival of his old side project ELECTRONIC CIRCUS as well, CHRIS PAYNE chatted to The Electricity Club…
It was a few years ago that RUSTY EGAN first engaged you to work on some songs with him. Are you pleased overall with how your co-compositions have turned out on his ‘Welcome To The Dancefloor’ long player?
Yes, very pleased. Having spent many years composing orchestral music plus the CELTIC LEGEND project, it was great to get back to synth basics again.
Basically my role was to create backing tracks of synth pads, bass lines and rough arrangements with various synth lines, piano etc and hand the tracks over to Rusty, who then worked on melodies and lyrics with new drum patterns etc.
It is an amazing feeling when you hear the melodies for the first time. On a couple of the tracks, it completely transformed the song into something I could never have imagined. It’s a very good way of working providing you’re not too precious about your original ideas.
I have to hand it to Rusty, he had gone through some horrendous moments to get this album done, but credit to him. He never gave up, whereas a lot of musicians would have. I admired his determination and I guess that’s what kept me in touch with him during the entire period. Plus I wanted these songs to be finished as much as he did.
How did you feel when Midge Ure reworked ‘Glorious’?
It was like completing a cycle and I remember punching the air with joy when I first heard Midge’s version. I should explain the background to ‘Glorious’ and it will make more sense.
For a while, I had had this idea of writing a track called ‘Glorious’ with reference to the English National Anthem in the chorus of the song but slightly transformed. “I’m feeling glorious, you make me feel so victorious” type of thing, which mad though I am, I thought could be quite interesting.
I tried to get the point over to Rusty and he came back with some tunes he’d written with another very talented songwriter called Gerard O’Connell. They were good, but it was all a bit chilled and not what I’d envisioned.
Well, time passed and one day I had a call from Rusty saying that Midge had recorded some of his ideas on ‘Glorious’. When I heard it for the first time I was delighted. Midge had transformed the chorus into this huge anthem sound and stripped back the verses and added his guitar and voice. It’s curious that 35 years earlier ‘Fade to Grey’ was also constructed this way with Billy Currie and I doing the backing track and Midge adding lyrics and melody. He really made the song into what you now hear, and I have to say it is probably my favourite track on the album.
And what about ‘Lonely Highway’ featuring Tony Hadley?
That song has a weird history; I had come up with this simple synth riff and very basic simple chord structure using very old analogue synth sounds through a Roland JV 1080 and Alesis Quadrasynth. The odd thing was that Rusty tried loads of very good singers on the song and surprisingly, they just didn’t work. It didn’t make a great deal of sense to me as both Gerard and Rusty had come up with a great vocal melody and the key was fine for most singers.
Anyway, ‘Lonely Highway’ was lying around for about two years and suddenly I get an email from Rusty telling me that his friend Tony Hadley from SPANDAU BALLET had agreed to record it. That was another revelation for my ‘ageing’ ears. What a vocal he produced, simply stunning and the way he sings it, you’re hooked in from the start.
One thing that is apparent is Rusty’s choice of singers. It’s true that he has used famous names like Tony Hadley, Midge Ure, Arno Carstens and Peter Hook, but equally he has had some outstanding vocalists that have given such colour to the songs. So acknowledgement has to go to these amazing singers including Kira Porter, Erik Stein (who performed with us in Düsseldorf), Andy Huntley and Emily Kavanaugh.
You had the chance to put your vox humana Polymoog touches on songs like ‘Hero’ and ‘Ballet Dancer’, was that intentional?
Yes, very much so. When Rusty first approached me with a view to writing songs for what was then going to be another VISAGE project, I intentionally worked with old analogue sounds admittedly by using plug-ins rather than the original instruments (have you seen the prices of Minimoogs and Polymoogs these days???).
The Polymoog vox humana was the obvious one for me as it is synonymous with the early Numan sounds of ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and ‘Telekon’, plus ‘Fade To Grey’. This was my attempt to place sounds on Rusty’s album directly relating to my past life as Numan’s keyboard player from 1979 until 1990, and with DRAMATIS and VISAGE’s ‘Fade to Grey’. I thought it might work and having heard what Rusty did to ‘Hero’, it worked very well.
‘Evermore’ has turned into a frisky little number now with the vocals of Emily Kavanaugh from LA synthpop duo NIGHT CLUB, did that surprise you?
A big surprise; this was the very first track I presented to Rusty back in 2011 and he quickly added the guitar of ex-ULTRAVOX guitarist Robin Simon who played with that very distinctive sound that he used on ‘Systems of Romance’. Gerard had sung on it and although it was only supposed to be a guide vocal, it sounded very good and then it was kind of shelved for ages.
Then as always with Rusty, this MP3 arrives one morning with a female voice recorded on ‘Evermore’. Of course, I hadn’t a clue what was going on and when I questioned Rusty, he told me about Emily Kavanaugh’s role in the song.
Her vocals fit ‘Evermore’ perfectly and in my opinion have given it a slight change in direction. She is a very talented young singer and performer, and I like her non-conformist rebellious attitude. She’s definitely going far if you ask me.
I had done some GARY NUMAN shows in 2012 as a guest performer so it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been on stage for ever. But you’re right, I’m not a regular performer and I’d like this to change.
The Düsseldorf Festival was a great weekend and I got to meet some great people over there including event organiser Rudi Esch who is an amazing person. Also putting together this event in what is after all a historic city for electronic music was something very special.
The show went very well considering Rusty and I with another keyboard player Nick Bitzenis from the band MARSHEAUX had never rehearsed together. I remember meeting Nick at the hotel for the first time and having a coffee with him and Rusty comes up to me and says: “Guys, we’re 10 minutes short so Chris, can you improvise something?”. I just looked at Nick and buried my head into my cup of coffee in despair!
Because of the lack of preparation, the show was a bit scary in that respect but it worked well in the end for a first show and certainly it came across well on the TV channel ARTE who filmed the event. My only regret was not being able to stay for JOHN FOXX’s performance, but I had to get back to work in France.
Your short set featured material recorded for your first solo album ‘Between Betjeman, Bach and Numan’ in 2012, how do you look back on it today?
Yes it was a short set. I think it lasted about 10 minutes or so and I just improvised sections of it, punctuated by references to ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and playing ‘Down in the Park’ and ‘Fade to Grey’ on piano. It went well apart from the occasional ‘harmonic howler’! But my philosophy is if a mistake is made, smile and move on… life’s too short
So ELECTRONIC CIRCUS is being formally rebooted again, what’s happening there?
Well, this all came about in the strangest of circumstances. I’ve been trying to bury this bloody project for years and it keeps coming back to me as if to say “record it and they will come”. I know it sounds a bit melodramatic, but it really feels like this to me.
It all started up (again) when my old music college buddy Michael J Stewart contacted me one day and said that our original song called ‘Direct Lines’, which had been recorded back in 1980, had received nearly one million YouTube views. Of course I was astounded, but it seems that a song released back in the day and having sold about six copies has gone a bit viral as a synthpop classic. How bizarre is that?
Now to cut a long story short, I have never really wanted to go out and perform under my name, but soon I’m performing at The Seventh Wave Festival in Birmingham in March as CHRIS PAYNE, as well as my performance with RUSTY EGAN scheduled for the following day. To me ‘An Evening with Chris Payne’ sounds like you’re going to go to a tedious event in a village hall and listen to some old git banging on about crop rotation in the 19th Century!
So I added the name CHRIS PAYNE’s ELECTRONIC CIRCUS, which will be dropped the moment I’m associated with EC… for a more detailed history check out our site www.electroniccircus.co.uk
There’s going to be a reworking of the brilliant ‘Roundabout’ coming; now some may think the lyrics are a bit banal but they’re metaphoric…
Well spotted. Yes, I have to admit that my lyrics are entirely based on satire and metaphors disguised as banality. The notion of the roundabout is a quirky and fun ‘mid-life crisis song’, but at the same time quite frightening. We have choices in life and life is very challenging. I liked this idea of using the roundabout as a ‘map of life’ where you can either turn around, take a different direction or carry straight on. A simple idea, but effective with the music.
Yes indeed, another track that I’ve re-worked is called ‘Graceland’. Most people hear this as a simple love song but oh no!! It’s actually about the tragic destruction of the Planet Earth’s environment believe it or not, and not a love song.
It started as a piano ballad to test my daughter Marikay’s vocals under studio conditions. I’m not saying this because she’s my daughter, but she has a good voice and a lot of potential. She will sing a bit with ELECTRONIC CIRCUS, but she’s more into folk acts like OMNIA and that style, and I think this is where she will head towards eventually.
How is the other ELECTRONIC CIRCUS material turning out?
It’s all going well and a lot of fun. It is an eclectic mix so far. I have songs, instrumentals in the style of JEAN MICHEL JARRE, classical styles, pop and minimalist, also what I call naive synth. With Mike’s contributions, that will add another dimension as he was trained under the great British composer Sir John Tavener and as you know, I’m capable of throwing in a medieval crumhorn for good measure. So as it says on the label, it is an Electronic Musical Circus where virtually anything goes, providing it’s predominantly electronic of course.
Now this is going to sound contrived, but I swear it isn’t. The new ELECTRONIC CIRCUS album is tentatively called ‘Trumpety Trump’ to add to the slightly quirky nature of the project, and the obvious references to ‘Nelly The Elephant’ (and something else that escapes me for the time being?)
To be honest and this might sound bad, but as far as I’m concerned, DRAMATIS died with Cedric. RRuss and I met up with him the weekend before he had his fatal heart attack and for me, the project’s never been the same since.
Yes it’s true that RRussell and myself had written and recorded a few songs before we met back up with Ced, but it’s been so long now, I can’t see it coming together. Also RRuss is so busy with other projects as am I. Also bear in mind we live in different countries, so it’s very difficult to get the momentum back.
I will never rule out another album, but unless circumstances change, I’ve got to be realistic and say it’s doubtful.
How do you feel how modern electronic pop is heading, where would you take it? Is there enough musicality these days?
I think there are interesting times ahead. Of course, history has proved on so many occasions that you can’t predict music fashion. But I have a strong feeling something big is around the corner and possibly involving synthpop. I don’t see my ELECTRONIC CIRCUS project being hugely influential as it’s very diverse and will no doubt end up a bit mad.
As for musicality, I honestly don’t know. It would be nice to see a few bands playing some great synth solos like Billy Currie did with GARY NUMAN and ULTRAVOX, as there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of that as far as I have heard.
Personally I’d like to hear a band as good as ABBA songwriting wise, but all in the electronic domain. In spite of my academic but rather stultifying classical music training, I’m a shameless fan of ABBA’s.
Actually that’s given me an idea. ‘Waterloo’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ with Polymoogs…
What’s next for you?
Well I would really love Rusty’s album to break through and do more shows with him. Finish ELECTRONIC CIRCUS album and see where that takes me, but that’s all I have time for.
I run a music resource business with producer Nigel Bates called the ‘Electronic Music Library’ which is great fun but time consuming, and not a lot of people know this, but I am a licensed acupuncturist practising Chinese medicine in the Dordogne, South West France.
So as you can imagine I don’t really have time for anything else at the moment. But knowing me, that will all change!
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to CHRIS PAYNE
RUSTY EGAN PRESENTS ‘Welcome To The Dancefloor’ is available via Pledge Music, more details at http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/rusty-egan-welcome-to-the-dancefloor
ELECTRONIC CIRCUS ‘Direct Lines’ EP will be available from https://www.electroniccircus.co.uk/store/
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
11th February 2017