❉ Gary Numan sideman and co-writer of Visage’s Fade To Grey, on the new Electronic Circus LP, working with Katja von Kassel, playing SynthWave 2 and more.
Chris Payne is a British musician, born in Cornwall, who is probably best known as being a keyboardist with Dramatis and subsequently Gary Numan’s established backing band throughout the 80s and early 90s. He also co-wrote the 80s hit Fade to Grey, which was successful in the UK and across Europe, scoring a German Number One, by Visage.
As well as the keyboard Chris plays the viola as well as a number of other medieval instruments and formed a band with Emily Ovenden of Mediaeval Babes fame, and close to his Cornish roots, as Celtic Legend who produced a number of albums including Lyonesse, Tristan & Isolde, and more recently in 2015, The Celtic Music of Brittany.
He has composed music for television and film and has scored and recorded choral works across Europe. Chris has lived in France for the past thirty years, and currently lives in Rouen.
Electronic Circus have an album called The Falling Tower which has been literally decades in the making. The band features Tim Vince, Dominque Hemard, Mike Stuart as well as Chris Payne and contributions from his daughter Marikay Payne. The twelve-track album features the track Direct Lines which was originally recorded by Chris in 1981, subsequently re-recorded for the album which is sung in Esperanto, a pan-European language, by Dominique Hemard. The language was used to create a metaphor for global unification, in a world that currently seems to be falling apart.
We caught up with Chris in between projects…
Hi Chris, Can you tell me about the themes of your Electronic Circus album, The Falling Tower. It has an edge of Armageddon about it. Was this influenced in any way by Numan’s last album Savage, which was unashamedly post-apocalyptic in its theme?
To be honest, no. The Falling Tower is more a metaphor for what I see as the possible collapse of centralised institutions like government, religion, banks or any other authoritative institution for that matter. Rather than a post-apocalyptic perspective on resulting changes that is the theme of Gary’s Savage album, mine is a revolution of ideas that wouldn’t necessarily lead to an ‘armageddon scenario’ but a complete philosophical change. There are signs of this within blockchain development which will help with decentralisation and putting power into our hands which is in its simplest analysis is a positive move forward. But the cynical side of me is always looking for the inevitable ’human’ fallibility which could fuck it all up! and thus the ’Towers’ get rebuilt.
Do you plan to tour the album?
You might find this answer strange but I’m not looking to tour this album. From time to time I get asked to appear live, and Electronic Circus gives me a platform to perform a set that makes sense and not just a bunch of disparate songs that I’ve had to throw together to make up a show.
What excites you about the current synth music scene?
Simply the total commitment by a lot of acts to this style of music which in all honesty remains niche. I have met some very young (well, compared to me they are very young!) musicians embracing the synth genre and they are so committed and extremely creative that I have total admiration for them.
What is your view on the future direction of synth music?
I can only predict more creativity and the discovery of new sounds and new styles of music through synth development. I’m in no way a synth purist and I like to use all manner of acoustic instruments and voices alongside synths to enhance the creative process, but having said that the synth has been the one instrument that has changed the face of modern music. So, in my humble opinion we have a lot of exciting possibilities for the future of synth development and application.
What are your thoughts on the revivalist ’80s festivals?
Hum, difficult question to answer, this!
I can understand the commercial benefit of them and the nostalgia aspect etc but from a creative angle they don’t offer anything new or ground breaking. Having said that a lot of people get a lot of enjoyment out of these festivals and that’s absolutely brilliant, and so I wouldn’t criticise anyone who is a fan of the ‘revivalist machine’. Plus there are those that say that they introduce 80s music to a younger crowd and as well as this it does raise the profile and provide income for some of the acts to carry on professionally. As I said, tough one to answer, but if pushed for an answer I’d have to say that personally I’m not a big fan.
Who are your favourite synth acts at the moment? Who are the ones to watch?
Well, I love Anthony Gonzales from M83 as he is a very unique composer. I love his style as it’s very filmic with big strident anthem style themes.
Kite from Sweden interest me as they have some classic sounding analogue synth going on and very commercial tunes, which to me have a bit of that ‘Scandinavian noir’ about them hidden in the depths of their songs.
Another very interesting duo and one to watch are Strome from Germany. I met them at the Dusseldorf Electri_city festival last October and their performance was stunning. They create the most amazing compositions through two large modular synths and without the constraints of a keyboard. It’s all done manually and trust me they’re amazing. If you get a chance to see them do so.
I have chosen three acts, but to be honest I could extend this list to thirty acts as they’re a phenomenal amount of great acts performing synth music out there. A few examples are Cult With No Name, Tiny Magnetic Pets, Vile Electrodes plus loads more including anything that comes out of Iceland!
Why do you think that synth music isn’t better represented in the charts? Do you feel that younger people aren’t embracing the synth scene?
Well, they are through EDM but it’s completely ‘DJ centric’ and all a bit beat-driven and one-dimensional.
The music industry doesn’t care about synth music. It only cares about trends and is driven by that and nothing else. Mainstream radio doesn’t play it and you have to look for outlets such as internet radio shows like Artefaktor and very motivated and passionate people such as Renato Moyssen and Rusty Egan and Chi Ming Lai’s The Electricity Club online magazine.
Do you think the music charts are actually relevant in today’s music scene?
For album projects yes but the so called single market, probably not.
How important is commercial success to you?
I’m not seeking it. If you go down that road you’re going to be very disappointed. My advice to any creator of music is to write what you love to hear or what gives you that moment of sheer pleasure and emotional rush whatever you like to call it. This is what should drive a creator and not thinking or contriving the next hit. It just doesn’t work like that.
One of my publishers once told me that that if a hit record was that easy to write anyone could do it. There is an unexplainable emotional connection with recording that when successful resonates with the public. Yes, some are rammed down our throats by radio stations etc. but a great commercial song should carry that extra intangible something. Don’t look for it just let the creative process lead you and with a bit of luck success will come. I’ll give you statistic to help put my view on this in some sort of perspective. I have about six hundred published works which are not always in the commercial zone as a lot of them are production music compositions for film and media usage, but they still have a commercial value. Taking into consideration all of my music, about twenty five of these make money. Some of those that make reasonable amounts are good and some are a load of crap! Out of the remainder I have a lot of these that I’m very proud of, but only a few people like them and they make about £2.56 per year. But hey! that’s the music business so deal with it.
Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future?
I tend to find the most interesting collaborations are with fellow musicians/composers who are unknown. I have really enjoyed working with very talented artists over the years and they’re not famous but have something original to offer, so that’s what I’d like to continue to explore.
Electric Circus recently played at SynthWave2. How important do you think these type of events are, to bolstering the synth scene?
Very important. The more that can be promoted the better. This particular event was very well attended and organised and hopefully this will grow and become the norm. The fact that there were so many different acts performing of all ages, and styles of synth music was incredibly encouraging.
How did you start working with Katja von Kassel? What’s next as far as she is concerned?
Katja contacted me via a mutual friend in The Electricity Club’s Chi Ming Lai. What attracted me to her was her incredible voice in that unique ‘Weimar’ cabaret style, and as well as co-writing with her it’s enabling me to explore some interesting production stuff. For those who don’t know about her I would describe her as a modern Marlene Dietrich with synths.
We’ve finished the EP and are working on another one for a pre-Christmas release. I’m going to try and exploit a more darker side of Katja and see where we go with this.
Are they any other collaborations in the pipeline?
As for future projects alongside Katja, well, it’s back to production music at the moment and I’m also working with a very good singer called Zac Whitefield, plus an EP for a new act called TULM from France.
Also a very interesting project I’m working on with an old music college friend called Michael J. Stewart which is best described as a Classical/progressive label project called ‘A Flock Ascending’. Our first recording will be a piano work by Sir John Tavener as Mike was one of his pupils, alongside Mike’s piano composition as well. My contribution within this framework will be a synth driven album but with a choir.
Then of course there are few commissions in the pipeline with my fellow ‘synth comrade’ Rusty Egan. He is a tireless and incredibly motivated musician/producer/writer/DJ and champion of synth music etc. and fingers crossed we’ll have some very interesting musical creations coming out in the near future.
I’ll personally look forward to that. Thanks for taking to the time to chat to me Chris.
You’re welcome Ange.
❉ Electronic Circus – ‘The Falling Tower’ (Kassner Music / President Records) is available to buy direct from the Electronic Circus official website store.
❉ Ange Chan is a poet and novelist. Her fourth poetry collection “Fame; What’s Your Name?” and her second novel, “Baby, Can You Hear Me?” were both published in 2016. Her latest poetry collection “Songs of Sorrow and Heartbreak” was published in October 2017 and her third novel “Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots” is currently a work in progress.