John Mitchell, the man with a Lonely Robot, talks to us... again!
With a new album from his Lonely Robot project called The Big Dream coming out soon, John Mitchell took time out from his busy schedule to speak to us again (we obviously didn't do a good enough job last time to put him off) about all manner of things: from Frost* and It Bites to guitars and Lonely Robots…
Hi John, thanks for taking the time to talk to us again, how are you doing? Fine, everything’s running to clockwork which feels wrong for me (laughs), usually starting half an hour late for everything but not today.
I saw you last week in St Helens with Frost*: ah, yes, that was a great fun gig. It was indeed, I really enjoyed it although you seemed to get a bit annoyed with people using mobile phones to video you with their spotlight switched on: well let's be honest it is a bit annoying, I'm an old fart like this, it is not for me to say how you spend your cash. At the end of the day I used to go to gigs and be filled with the wonderment of the gig, being involved in the moment and not staring at an iPhone screen, but if you are going to do that don't put your flash on or your spotlight on, it's just a step too far.
I couldn't agree more with you I find it hugely annoying myself. Now the support act was Twats In Hats and you played The Tall Ships which is a song that means a lot to me as my wife passed away around the time it came out and the lyrics certainly pull at my heartstrings: thank you, I'm very sorry to hear that, that song has resonated with quite a few people on that particular subject, I wrote it with a point of view of it being a comforting song.
I suppose it must be a good feeling when you get that connection with your audience through the music: indeed indeed, and that is the emotional exchange that music is intended for, it is a universal language so if it speaks to people on that level then it is a great privilege.
Talking to a few people before the Frost* gig, it seems they had travelled from all over to see the band: yeah, but I should point out that there was a chap who turned up at St Helens who had booked a ticket and wanted to watch the gig downstairs but he had been flogged one for upstairs in the seating bit and he wasn't happy about that. And if that wasn't enough, myself and Jem were on stage wearing our silly hats (and lampshades) and I don't think he realised it was supposed to be a joke support thing and he said “who the f@@k are these people, I don't even know who these people are, I am going home”, he hadn't realised it was us supporting ourselves so there you go.
You obviously have a good very good connection and rapport with Jem Godfrey, how much leeway does he give you when you are working on a Frost* album, how much input you have to it or is it all quite strictly laid out for you in advance? I only co-wrote three songs with Jem on this new album and it is a relatively new thing as Frost* is basically Jems baby. I was very flattered that he wanted to co-write a couple of songs with me, in fact I am surprised it taking him this long to ask. For me the discipline is I am very much of the moment and get things done quickly; Jem likes to work on the production of things whereas I am impatient. My rule of thumb is that I like to start a song in the morning and by the end of the day I’ve got the basic structure recorded and the vocal down, that's something I feel is very important, but not from the point of view of wanting to rush things. When you first start a song idea there is an energy that comes along with it that you need to capture whilst it is happening so if you spend too long on the first instance of writing it, worrying about what keyboard sound we should be using, then you are diluting the emotional connection you have with that song. I always think we can change keyboards and other sounds later, the only thing we can't recapture is the energy. It was a shock to Jem that I like to work so quickly but I think he liked that energy himself. You then spend another week refining the various parts. There is a lot to be said for “when I woke up this morning there wasn't a song and by the time I went to bed there was another song in the world.” In terms of control and leeway it was about 50-50, admittedly he doesn't write lyrics very quickly where as I did for Heartstrings, Signs and Lanterns which isn't on the main album. It was a community collaboration, a communal thing.
And presumably this quick writing approach is what you use for the Lonely Robot albums? Absolutely, the basic structure and the ideology and the lyrics, the nuts and bolts of the song I like to get down quickly because once that moment’s gone it has gone. I understand that Marillion get together in a room and jam for weeks on end in order to write, I just couldn't do that, I wouldn't have the patience.
Let’s talk about this new Lonely Robot album, where is the astronaut now? The astronaut is not a singular person, the astronaut represents humankind. So with the first album the astronaut was lost in space trying to find its home, it’s home Earth. The whole essence of the first album - Are We Copies?, Oubliette, Lonely Robot - did we originate here? Are we hybrid species? Wheras this album is asking are we even here at all? Is it all a big dream we are part of? If we go to sleep do we wake up? What is our consciousness? Littered throughout the album is the sound of Alan Watts, a 1960s sandal wearing philosopher who spoke at great lengths about these subjectsand I always found them very comforting because he had a very calming voice. I took a lot of truisms from what he had to say, I like the fact that he is given the album a narrative that is poetic on a song by song basis.
Are you still listening to a lot of atmospheric film soundtracks? Yeah, absolutely, film soundtracks were one of the first things I listen to as a child. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was the first cassette I have bought and still to this day I remember my dad playing The Planets by Holst and my bedroom was above his study so on a Saturday morning I had all sorts of classical music coming through the floorboards so as part of my DNA is it were. But I also like metal so I like to think that Lonely Robot is a mash up of atmospheric cinematic soundtracks and a heavy metal band.
Someone called (Lonely Robot) neo-prog the other day I was deeply offended I don’t know what that means but it certainly doesn’t sum up what I was intending to do but I suppose it is a point of reference, isn’t it? Some people say it sounds a bit like It Bites. It doesn’t really sound like It Bites but I suppose if you’re used to It Bites having me singing for It Bites that I suppose it does sound like It Bites.
You handled all the instrumentation yourself this time with exception of the drums, how did that work for you? Well you know if I could play the drums (laughs), just kidding Craig Blundell is a great musical ally and a great guy to bounce ideas off. As I was saying before I am an impatient man I like to get things done like Toad of Toad Hall in the Kingdom of music. It is far easier for me to see a song through to completion if I play the instruments myself. I can play these instruments so I may as well play them as they are here. And the first album was recorded in pretty much the same way but scattered with the odd guest vocal here and there and the odd celebrity guitar solo which was a very pleasant experience. It was like going through the Rolodex of one’s mind thinking ‘who in the ideal world would I like to play on this album?’ I can’t think of anyone outside of those who played to be on the first album.
You had Pete Cox from Go West on your first album: he is a formidable singer, the voice of the 80s, he has such a soulful voice that hasn’t diminished with time because he looks after himself. I used to ride around on my BMX with a Sony Walkman playing We Close Our Eyes repeatedly, playing that song to death. It was a great honour to get him to sing on that album and play with me live at the Scala over a year ago.
You have a handful of live dates scheduled for April and May, are we likely to see a northern show at all, more specifically Manchester? (laughs) it’s all down to the practicality of doing it, I don’t want to do it unless it’s going to be done at a decent level. I get very stressed doing concerts, if it isn’t a decent representation of what you are thinking when you are creating the music then it isn’t worth doing. There is also the financial culpability, so unless there is enough of an audience to see the Billy Smart’s Circus extravaganza that I would want to put on then ‘I don’t know yet’ is the answer. As long as I don’t lose money doing it then I am happy to do it.
We had a bit of a discussion last time about guitars you are using Cort guitars live, you seem to be using PRS’s now: it’s funny you should mention that, I was with Cort for a number of years but they closed the UK website where they showcased a number of artists including Francis Dunnery and myself so I thought that’s the end of my tenure as a Cort artist until exactly 2 weeks ago, when the Managing Director sent me a very nice email saying “we are so proud you are playing Cort guitars, we listen to your Falling Satellites album and it is absolutely brilliant, is there anything we can do for you?” Yes, you can start by putting me back on your website which they did so I wrote a new biog which went up and they are sending me a load more guitars.
Finally what is happening with It Bites or should I have a chat with John Beck about that? NEXT!!! (laughs) You’ll have to ask the old guard about that, I am certainly up for doing it. We did start writing a third album but John got whisked away on tour with Fish for about a year and ever since then I’ve been doing Lonely Robot. But I reached out to John before Christmas and he was certainly up for doing it so we will have to wait and see, I am sure it will happen at some point. I am happy just doing Lonely Robot and Frost* so until such a time that everybody is enthusiastic about it… we will see.
A big thank you to John Mitchell for taking the time to talk to us.
The new Lonely Robot album is released on Friday 28th April 2017 and having heard it we can honestly say it is an absolute cracker, check out the video for Everglow below...