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GONZO MAGAZINE #265: Jon meets Erik Norlander

I once described my career as having consisted of "hanging around in bars with celebrities". And this is not that far from the truth. I have been interviewing famous, and not so famous, people about sex, drugs, and rock and roll (supposedly the latter) for well over 35yrs now, and I have found that - unfortunately - quite a few of the people with whom I converse in the course of my journalistic duties, singularly fail to live up to their reputations as being 'damn nice chaps'. No-one will probably be that surprised to know that some of the rock and rollers with whom I have had dealings over the years are selfish, self-absorbed, greedy and sometimes just plain nasty. But, luckily, the really bad ones are in the minority.

Sadly, the really nice ones are also few and far between.

One of the nicest people whom I have come to know over the past five years of sitting in the editorial chair of this fine publication is a keyboard player called Erik Norlander. He has always been kind, helpful, and generous. Back in the years when I was still promoting the Weird Weekend here in North Devon, Erik - without being asked - each year donated a large box of CDs and DVDs for us to give away as door prizes. It was a typically generous gesture from a quite, self-effacing, and immensely talented man.

Erik Norlander was born in Hollywood, California, and grew up studying both jazz and classical music on several instruments from a young age through his years at university where he also graduated with a degree in English Literature. He abandoned a masters degree program on the road to becoming an English professor when he realized the call of his music was too strong to resist. He remains an avid reader and occasionally writes for both art and technology magazines. Erik currently resides in El Dorado County in Northern California with his wife, Lana.

Erik Norlander is an accomplished keyboardist, composer and producer with over 40 album credits including 9 solo albums, 7 with his Rocket Scientists project, and 10 albums with vocalist wife Lana Lane. He toured with the Asia spinoff Asia Featuring John Payne for 6 years and co-wrote the band’s only original release “Seasons Will Change.” He is currently touring with Last in Line featuring original Dio members Vinny Appice and Vivian Campbell. Prior to Last in Line, Erik toured with Big Noize, a supergroup featuring hard rock all stars, Joe Lynn Turner, Simon Wright, Phil Soussan and Carlos Cavazo. Erik also wrote the music and produced the album Roswell Six - Beyond the Horizon for science fiction author, Kevin J. Anderson, in support of his Terra Incognita series of fantasy novels.

Asia was originally formed in those weird years at the beginning of the 1980s, when people who had achieved immense fame and fortune during the previous decade decided that they needed to reinvent themselves with shorter haircuts, neatly moussed hair, and glossy synthesizers. Some of these bands did this because their hand had been forced by the death, madness, or incapacitation of a key member of their band (Led Zeppelin). Others did so for less obvious reasons. On the whole, I never liked any of these shiny super pop bands half as much as I did the originals.

The most commercially successful line-up was its original, which was a supergroup of four members of different progressive rock bands of the 1970s, including lead vocalist and bassist John Wetton of King Crimson, guitarist Steve Howe of Yes, keyboardist Geoff Downes of Yes and the Buggles, and drummer Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Their debut album, Asia, released in 1982, remains their best selling.

The band underwent multiple lineup changes before the original four members reunited in 2006. As a result, a band called Asia Featuring John Payne exists as a continuation of John Payne's career as Asia's frontman from 1991 until Wetton's return in 2006.

Sadly, John Wetton died recently, and his place as Asia bassist has been taken by the ubiquitous and multitalented Billy Sherwood. But Asia, featuring John Payne, fell apart in a fairly high profile manner four years ago, and it looked as if the project was finished.

Imagine my surprise, not to say enthusiasm, to find out recently that Erik and John have resolved their differences and have not only revisited the tantalising unreleased album by Asia ft. John Payne, but have finished it, updated it, and formed a brand new band. And having heard the album - and this is not hyperbole - it is good enough to be a real game changer.

"Presenting Dukes of the Orient, International AOR with a Mid-Atlantic Prog Accent.

What do you get when you match a Brit from London who loves American AOR with an American from California who grew up on British Prog? Dukes of the Orient is the masterful pairing of vocalist John Payne (ex-ASIA, GPS) with keyboardist Erik Norlander (Last in Line, Lana Lane, Rocket Scientists) who now present their eponymous debut album, ten years in the making. Payne’s powerful arena-seasoned vocals carry soaring melodies and lush harmonies over the sea of classic synthesizers and keyboards artfully painted with Norlander’s signature sonic palette. 

Payne says of the album, "With Dukes of the Orient we have dug deep with analog soundscapes, superlative musicians and song-driven epics. Add to this the masterful artwork of Rodney Matthews and a journey that started with the supergroup ASIA, we give you the next chapter, one we are extremely proud of."

The two are backed by a world-renown ensemble of top musicians including Jeff Kollman, Guthrie Govan, Moni Scaria and Bruce Bouillet on guitar, Molly Rogers on strings and Jay Schellen on drums. Payne provides bass guitar and additional lead and rhythm guitar parts to complete the audiophile production. The album was mixed on a traditional analog console to preserve and enhance the natural depth, clarity and soul of the tracks with great care taken to avoid over-compression, extreme equalization and distortion. 

Dukes of the Orient has its origins in 2007 as “ASIA Featuring John Payne,” a band that continued on after ASIA keyboardist, Geoff Downes, left the band to re-form the original 1982 lineup. Payne recruited Norlander to join Guthrie Govan and Jay Schellen for tour dates in the US and initial recordings, some of which endured to appear on the Dukes of the Orient album here. Govan left the band to form The Aristocrats and was replaced by guitarist Bruce Bouillet followed by Jeff Kollman and Moni Scaria. The final lineup resulted in the track, “Seasons Will Change,” released as a video in 2013 and also now appears on the Dukes of the Orient album. Following the death of original ASIA vocalist, John Wetton, in early 2017, Payne and Norlander decided that these recordings should give birth to a new band, both out of respect for Wetton and for clarity with the Downes-led ASIA."

Not only is it a bloody good record, but I am very fond of Erik and always enjoy talking with him. So it was no chore whatsoever, to arrange an interview, and to sit down and give him a ring...


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