It’s all very autobiographical and it seems to resonate with a lot of people.
By David Waterfield
Hi John, how are you doing? Thanks for talking to us first of all.
No problem at all, always a pleasure! I’m in Phoenix airport at the moment, just about to leave Phoenix to go to Los Angeles as we’ve got a gig tomorrow night, then Orange County.
So you’re in the middle of a US tour at the moment?
We’re right at the end of it. The next five shows will be the last five shows of this tour. We’ve done Japan, we’ve done a couple in the UK and we’re just about to come back and see you again.
We’re looking forward to seeing you in Wolverhampton!
(laughs) In two weeks’ time we will be in Gateshead; we’re in Phoenix now and it’s about 110 (degrees) in the shade!
You really don’t want to know what it’s doing here! It’s absolutely crashing it down today!
(laughs). That’s what it’s all about. Variety is the spice of life you know? The tour’s been going great; we’ve had a fabulous response to the band right across America and in Japan so we see no reason why it shouldn’t be a good thing for the British dates.
I’m sure it will be. You’ve got a new guitarist in Asia, Sam Coulson, how has he fitted in to the band?
It’s feeling great! As they say in football parlance it’s a good dressing room. The atmosphere and the banter in the dressing room is really good and you wouldn’t think that there was 40 years between him and us. It’s just a band and age doesn’t really come into it.
He plays great, he’s a perfect guitar player for us, he does exactly what it says on the tin. He’s given us a slightly harder edge than we used to have with Steve. With Steve (Howe), there’s no disputing is a fantastic guitar player and he was a great member of this band for a great many years but it’s a new chapter now and we’ve entered a new phase. The new album ‘Gravitas’ is very well received and the tour’s been going incredibly well, so we can’t complain.
It’s a great dressing room that transfers onto the stage. There’s a good feeling in the band, a good spirit. There are no kind of resentments, grudges and grievances. It’s a very happy band right now.
On your new album ‘Gravitas’ there seems to be a theme running through several of the tracks – redemption, dignity, hope – could you tell us a little more about that?
Right from the word go this band’s had the same sort of ethos as we have now which is that what we put on record are quite Proggy, lush, soundscapes on which go these incredibly personal lyrics. And that is a direct result of me listening to Joni Mitchell for many years. She was the first person that I heard that actually wrote lyrics like she was reading them out of her diary.
At that time, around 1975 something like that, when I really started listening to other singer/songwriters I thought “Well OK, that’s going to be the way I do it. I’ll write about my own stuff rather than someone else’s”. Progressive music, art school music, was always about observing someone else, ‘A Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’ that sort of stuff. And Joni Mitchell came along and said “No! If I’m going to write about pain I’m going to write about my own pain and my own observations and what I’ve been through”. So I kind of took that to heart and ever since 1981 really Asia’s ethic has been to do that. We do a lovely kind of soundscape, a mattress to put the words on, and the words are intensely personal.
On this album there’s an awful lot about divorce, there’s a lot about the indignity of divorce really. ‘Gravitas’ is taken literally from the Latin as meaning ‘dignity’. There’s references to dignity all over the place and I think that the song that sums the whole thing up lyrically for me is ‘The Closer I Get’, which is a song about a guy who really doesn’t know what’s going on, he can’t understand what’s happening and he’s just sort of lost in this whirlpool of emotions. We’ve all been through it, except for Sam. We’ve all been through divorce and it’s a painful thing to do. Painful. And it lasts the rest of your life.
So there’s an awful lot of that on this album and I’ve no idea why. It just seems to be the way that the muse was going at the time. If you look at the original Asia record from 1982 it’s the same format really, if there is a format. The lyrics are intensely personal with ‘Heat Of The Moment’, ‘Only Time Will Tell’ it’s the same kind of thing really. It’s all from personal experience, very autobiographical and it seems to resonate with a lot of people. Our first album certainly resonated with a lot of people.
It seems to work. Rather than talking about “Silver studded mountains” and stuff like that I gave it a more personal approach because I’ve been through it myself. I’ve been in that position where I haven’t got a clue what’s going on emotionally and it seems to be that a lot of other people have been through the same thing. So, it touches a nerve somewhere I think because I hear a lot of people coming up and saying that they identify with the lyrics. So there are a few levels that you can appreciate the band on. Does that answer your question?
Yes definitely and it actually leads on to my next one! I’d be interested to know how you write your songs. Does it begin with a phrase or an idea, or a feeling or a melody…?
It can be any one of those. It can happen anywhere and if I don’t write it down, if I don’t write down what the germ of the idea is, I’ve lost it. It’s gone. Sometimes it comes in great sort of chunks of lyrics or it can come in a musical form and I’ll put that down on the little digital recorder at home or in my pocket on the phone. I do that sometimes. Then I’ll get together with Geoff Downes later on and we’ll expand that until it becomes a real song. Sometimes it’s a few words, sometimes it’s a phrase and as I say sometimes it’s great chunks of dialogue and I have to kind of get home and remember what it was.
And the terrible thing about it is sometimes is you lose it completely. You get home after a long drive and I think “Oh that’s easy. I’ll remember that” and you get home, turn on the computer and it’s gone. And the muse is standing there saying “I told you! You should have written it down”. So I always keep my phone on ready just in case I need to put a note down. I’ve done it in the most peculiar places as well! People see me coughing into my phone in the strangest places, but it has to be done.
And you’re right it could be a note it could be a phrase it could be anything and it could be any time. There’s no set formula. If I sit down at a piano and think “‘Right, I’m going to write a song today”’, it doesn’t happen (laughs).
It’s been 32 years since the Asia debut, what do you think is the secret of the band’s longevity?
We’re good friends, actually. That’s one major plus for this band. I mean we don’t socialize but there’s an enormous amount of respect and an enormous amount of love between us. If one of us would be in trouble then the others would be sure to turn up.
One of the reasons for reforming the original band, nearly 10 years ago now, was that we felt that if any four people had the right to put a lid on it and say “Right that’s it!” it would be the four people that started it; the four of us. What happened is that Steve (Howe) after eight years decided that he didn’t have the inclination or the time to do both bands, Yes and Asia, so he dropped out but it doesn’t stop the ethos, the ethic of the band carrying on. The three of us are a very strong unit – myself, Geoffrey and Carl –and we go back a long way. I’ve known Carl since I was 17, which if you do your sums is getting on for 50 years and we still manage to sit next to each other in an airport chewing the fat (laughs). So you know we’re friends as well as associates, as well as colleagues.
There’s a Prog Rock heritage within Asia, with Carl’s work with ELP, yourself in King Crimson and Geoff as a current member of Yes, but it seems to me that Asia appeal to classic rock fans and there’s a commercial pop element that reaches way beyond just Prog fans…
Well, I think when it started it wasn’t called Prog (laughs). When we were in our original bands, I joined Family and Carl was in Atomic Rooster. It wasn’t called “Prog” in those days it was kind of…underground wasn’t it? “Prog” has only really been coined in the last 20 years. When I went into King Crimson it was like going to University actually. I was going to learn an awful lot and behave like a hooligan for two years – and that’s exactly what happened! (laughs)
The Prog thing didn’t really get coined until many years later, we just did what we did and sometimes it was successful and sometimes it spawned a single. Each (of us) individually had a taste of pop (success) before we even formed Asia and I suppose we had a little bit of that sensibility when we went into Asia. We didn’t want it to be overtly commercial; we wanted it to be successful. ‘Heat Of The Moment’ was a really good kind of way of getting that across.
You and Geoff wrote a song for Agnetha Faltskog (ABBA) didn’t you?
Yeah we did. We wrote one called ‘We Move As One’. We went over and recorded that with her in Stockholm which was a lovely experience. That was one of the perks of doing what we do because she was very much one of our heroes. We were both ABBA fans. I know that’s a terrible thing for a kind of progressive musician to admit to…
No not at all!
They made great records. Just undeniably great songs, brilliantly produced, beautifully sung. And Agnetha has got THE voice. Just killed me, you know. Wonderful, wonderful. So that was a real privilege. Eric Stewart (who produced the album) called me up and said “Have you got anything?” and my mind is saying “No, we haven’t got anything at the moment” and my mouth is saying “Yep!” (laughs). Then as soon as I put the phone down I sat down at the piano and rattled it off. Then Geoff (Downes) came along and put the chorus in. When Eric called me I had nothing, but I wasn’t going to let an opportunity like that slip by. I actually wrote it for her. That was a great thing to do that was.
Finally are there plans for you Geoff and yourself to do any more ‘Icon’ albums?
We have “Icon Zero” coming out sometime later on this year around about Christmas actually.
“Icon Zero”, which will be the precursor of the first ‘Icon’ record (It) will be all of the demos, all of the ideas for songs and things like that so that will be coming out around about Christmas and we are toying with the idea of doing another ‘Icon’ studio album, maybe next year. We’re not sure though, it might be an Asia record, it might be an Icon record. We can’t do both!
Thanks John – and on a personal note I have to say that I remember as a teenager listening to you, Geoff, Steve and Carl on Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show on one of Asia’s first interviews back in 1982. I never thought I’d get to interview you myself! It’s been an honour and a privilege.
Thank you David, that’s great. And we’ll see you in Wolverhampton, yeah?
Absolutely. Thanks John.
Read our review of Gravitas here
Buy Gravitas and Asia’s back catalogue here