Joe Payne can pinpoint the day he knew he needed to get out of The Enid. It was April 3, 2016, 24 hours after the band had finished the UK tour for their last album, Dust. Payne remembers because he was in bed at the time, having a full‑blown nervous breakdown.
“I was so weak I couldn’t move, couldn’t pick up my instruments,” he says. “It felt like I had the flu, except I didn’t have a temperature. That’s the thing about depression. The symptoms are quite similar.”
He knows now what was wrong, but at the time he had no clue. Since joining The Enid five years earlier, he had been pushing himself to his limits and he was exhausted. He had always been prone to anxiety, but that anxiety had graduated into constant panic attacks and worse. “I was freaking out,” he says.
There were many issues at the root of his problems. The mental and physical pressure of writing and performing was one. So was the fact that he’d been unofficially anointed to help reinvent this most stately of bands as a modern 21st-century proposition in the face of resistance from sections of their fanbase. There was also the intra-band politics, largely centred around the imperious, imposing figure of Robert John Godfrey, the band’s leader since the 1970s. But the biggest problem Joe Payne had was that he was in The Enid.
“I couldn’t face producing another record with The Enid,” he says. “I had no vision for the future, no vision of what we were going to do next.” He pauses. “I kind of felt that I would rather die than carry on.”
There’s no drama in his voice when he says this. He insists that things got so bad that he considered suicide. It’s all laid out in his debut single, the swelling, eight-minute Queen-esque I Need A Change, released under the name That Joe Payne. ‘Dear life, I’m leaving you,’ he sings on the opening lines, ‘cos I have no reason to stay.’
“It’s about anxiety, it’s about depression, it’s about the guilt you feel,” he says. “You feel like you’re a burden. You feel like people would be better off with you out of the picture.”
We’re sitting in the upstairs bar of The Lamplighter pub in Payne’s adopted hometown of Northampton. He worked here in the pub for a year after his breakdown, to help get his head back together.
The Lamplighter is a 10-minute walk from The Lodge, his former band’s studio-cum-commune. To outsiders, The Enid’s set-up is unique and not a little strange. Anyone who joins is expected to move in for the good of the band. For Payne, the novelty of that situation wore off long before he left the group. “That environment, for me, was quite poisonous,” he says. “I couldn’t avoid the people I needed to avoid.”
Payne was a surprising choice to become The Enid’s first dedicated frontman. He’s young, good-looking and lively, a world away from the band’s studied, neoclassical image. But that’s exactly what Robert John Godfrey wanted.
Payne grew up listening to pop music and musical theatre. He knew of The Enid from his dad’s record collection, but he’d never listened to them before he was invited to watch them play in his hometown of Chesham. He was spellbound by it. “I felt like I’d finally found a band who matched the kind of music I had in my head,” he says.
He and guitarist Max Read were seeing each other before he joined the band, but it was Godfrey himself who asked him to come onboard. “I don’t want it to sound like I shagged my way into the band,” he says, laughing, “cos I didn’t.”
Godfrey told Payne that he needed to move in with the rest of the band. The singer had studied business management at university, so it was a win-win situation for both parties. “I was being promised a career in music, a home and the chance to spend more time with Max,” he says. “So I moved up to Northampton and started a whole new life.”
While many fans loved what Payne brought to The Enid, others really didn’t. He received hate mail from some diehards. “I think they were a bit threatened by me bringing something new to it,” he says. “Maybe I threatened the masculinity of the band by being too flamboyant. Or maybe they didn’t like my voice because it was too poppy.”
Payne makes no bones about being a pop fan. He grew up listening to rock’s great theatrical performers – Freddie Mercury, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, David Bowie – but he has a deep love of mainstream music too.
“I felt like it wasn’t appropriate to talk about the other people that I liked because it might have been sort of embarrassing – not so much for me, but for the other people that I worked with.” He laughs. “They wouldn’t have wanted people to know that I mostly listen to Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. But I do.”
Payne was a whirlwind of charisma onstage. At one early gig, he whipped off his shirt to reveal a vest that said, ‘I’ve Been Naughty.’ It was deliberately provocative, though fully in keeping with The Enid’s iconoclastic spirit.
“It’s not really in my nature to do that, but we were always encouraged by Robert to be provocative,” he says. “And if we weren’t going to do it, he was going to do it anyway.”
Payne has a complex relationship with Godfrey. While he acknowledges that it was the older man who gave him his break, there were evidently strains between them – strains which began to take their toll on the singer’s mental health.
He won’t divulge exact details of what went wrong, but the fact he felt like he was being kept on a short leash, creatively, played a part. “There were a lot of things I wanted to do as an artist that they weren’t happy to do and tried to censor out of me. Fair enough, you’re maintaining an audience you’ve carried for 40 years and you don’t want to take the piss. But it’s not like I was trying to do anything completely different. I wasn’t going to start doing Mariah Carey runs.”
Payne says he wanted to start a parallel solo career when he was in the band. “But I began to realise I wasn’t going to be given the space to do that stuff without being interfered with.”
Still, it seemed from the outside that he was being handed the keys to the kingdom – even more so when Godfrey stepped back from the band after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“Yeah, I was being displayed to people as the new leader of the future,” he says. “But I knew deep down that I was never actually going to be allowed to lead. Robert is a very strong character. You have to ask yourself, did he really want everything he claimed for me, or did he just want to be seen to be saying, ‘These guys are moving forward with my legacy, and it’s all thanks to me that they’re doing it.’”
It is his band, though. Surely he’s entitled to do that.
“That’s fair enough,” Payne concedes. “To be honest, he should probably have just stayed in the band and carried on.”
Surely his health means he couldn’t.
“Well, he’s come back and done the odd show here and there. What he’s capable of, I don’t know. I don’t see him any more.”
How did you break the news to him that you were going to leave?
“I didn’t. I wasn’t prepared to talk to him about it.”
How did he find out, then?
“He obviously found out by default that I wasn’t willing to carry on any more. I spoke to him through Max.”
Payne made the decision to leave The Enid in July 2016, three months after his breakdown started. His departure was tough on Max Read. The pair’s relationship complicated matters further. When Payne left, Read was still a member of the band. “Max was caught in the middle,” he says. “It felt like I was losing everything, but I thought I was going to lose Max as well.”
In the end, Read left The Enid two months after Payne, along with drummer Dave Storey. The singer slowly began to piece his life – and his mind – back together. Moving out of The Lodge helped. When things got overwhelming, he would sit himself down in front of the TV in his new house and binge-watch Netflix shows. He’d had a little bit of counselling, but working at The Lamplighter gave him a focus. “It gave me a social environment, gave me my confidence back and allowed me to be okay with who I am and not what I was expected to be,” he says.
He’s feeling much better today, though he still has his wobbles. Working on new music was part of the healing process. He’d had I Need A Change in his head for a year before he recorded it. He originally planned for it to be a straightforward four-minute number in the vein of Madonna’s gothic pop song Frozen. “I didn’t realise it was going to be quite so long,” he says.
He released the song under the name That Joe Payne, a monicker he came up with for the solo-project-that-never-was while he was still a member of The Enid. “From my point of view, people were pointing at me and going, ‘It’s that Joe Payne that’s ruined my favourite band,’ ‘Did you hear what that Joe Payne has done now.’ And I felt very self‑conscious. It was just me blowing up the negativity to something that was bigger than it actually was because of the anxiety.”
Now he’s in a better place, the phrase has become an expression of defiance. “It’s now more about me expressing that I’m that Joe Payne that is going to have success, that Joe Payne who you’re going to be forced to notice.”
He’s still working on his debut solo album, which he aims to release early next year. He says it’s going to be quite a long record, “cos there’s a lot going on”. The songs are all about his own experiences of mental health problems. “Since I left The Enid, almost everything I’ve written has been inspired by that.”
Payne is pleased that The Enid have carried on without him, though guitarist Jason Ducker and keyboard player Zack Bullock are the only official frontline members. He knows that the fans of The Enid who hated what they think the band became during Payne’s tenure won’t be along for the ride. “I don’t want my fans and The Enid fans to feel divided, like they have to pick a side,” he says. “That’s not fair, because they’ve invested a lot into us. Out of fairness to the fans, I don’t want to make it their problem. I will say that Jason and Zack are still good friends of mine.”
Ironically, the last time Payne saw Godfrey was just a few hours before he meets Prog. Though Max Read is no longer in The Enid, the guitarist still lives and works at The Lodge. Payne stayed there last night. When he got up this morning, he bumped into his former bandmate.
“I’d gone to get a glass of water,” says Payne. “He happened to corner me to say hello. I said hello back. And I subsequently went to another room.”
He doesn’t know what he would have done two years ago, but it would have been very different from what he did now. “The old Joe Payne had a lot of self-doubt,” he says. “The new Joe Payne has learned from that and is going, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do what I want to do.’ Because if that doesn’t make me happy, then why am I bothering?”
This article originally appeared in Prog 87.