On May 27th of this year, Frost* returned from an eight-year hiatus to release their latest album, Falling Satellites (Progarchy review here). In conjunction with this release, Frost* … ‘s mastermind, Jem Godfrey, was willing to sit down with us for a chat (where do you put the apostrophe with the asterisk already there??). We discussed the new album, mused philosophically about life, talked more about his the formation of Frost* and his activities outside of the band … and asterisks. Those pesky asterisks.
Progarchy: What would you say is different in a musical sense relative to the two previous Frost* albums?
JG: We have a different bass player and drummer from the previous recorded album we did. I think that in and of itself adds a whole new sound to the band, because they are playing in a different sort of way than JJ [John Jowitt] and Andy [Edwards] did. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that John Mitchell was very keen on not doing classic John Mitchell on this, he was really up for taking his rule book and throwing it out the window, and that was brilliant. He was trying out new, different sort of effects and putting his guitar through all kinds of plug-ins and interesting sort of sounds, trying different guitars, so he was really up for experimenting. I think kind of also just that it’s eight years later that our sound palette is slightly different as technology has sort of moved on. So you know it’s the same band but it’s definitely sort of moved on, I think.
Progarchy: Now with John (Mitchell), you say he threw out his rule book, so how would he define his rule book?
JG: Well, he has got two settings, loud and quiet normally. He’s not normally one for heavily effecting his guitars, but he got some Valhalla plug-ins and stuff, and was running it through his laptop and doing all sorts of non-John things this time out, and it really worked.
Progarchy: So I guess his classic John Mitchell sound is what you hear more on Arena or Lonely Robot then?
JG: Yeah, I think so. There are a couple of bits where it’s obviously him doing that sound, because you have to have a bit of that in there, but he was very up for trying different things. There are a couple of bits in there that you wouldn’t know it’s guitar, but it’s actually guitar, he’s gone quite experimental in some places.
Progarchy: And what about you, how would you say your sound palette has changed?
JG: I’ve got sort of a lead sound I’ve developed over the years which has sort of become my signature sound, and which I didn’t really mean to do that back in the day. There are a couple of times I sort of “wheel it out.” I sort of liken it to how Tony Banks does his Pro Soloist … it’s quite nice to get a sound in there that you recognize. But again, I’m not wedded to any particular synth, I just use whatever is around at the time and put it through effects.
Progarchy: You also mentioned something about using a Chapman Railboard on this album, can you elaborate on that?
JG: It’s a kind of Chapman Stick, sort of a Tony Levin classic 10-string guitar thing. It’s basically one of those but it’s made out of solid aluminum, so it’s basically a single machined piece of metal. It looks like a Stick, but it’s a metal Stick. It’s got different tones, it’s quite tubular, it’s really nice. It’s really good for arpeggio stuff. You can hear it on Numbers and Closer to the Sun, there’s a lot of Railboard on those two tracks.
Progarchy: Can you delve into the concept behind this album a bit more?
JG: The overarching theme of it is a positive message, which is unusual for us. The rough idea is about a person at the end of their life, on their deathbead even, looking back over their life, re-living memories and going through things that happened. Not necessarily thinking it was a good life, but kind of reconciling the fact that it was a privilege to even have been alive at all. I don’t know this because I’m not in that position yet, hopefully. But it was a weird little thing, at four weeks before we finished the album, my dad died, in a similar situation. It was brought quite close to home when that happened, because he was literally that person suddenly reminiscing over his life. So the overarching idea is that, the songs are kind of moments in this person’s life, each one tells a little self-contained story that’s part of the bigger story of this character. So the message of the whole album really is that it’s astronomically unlikely to be born in the at all if you think about it, much less to be born healthy, into a place where there is not a war, where you survive childhood into adulthood and live a long life and have all these experiences, you survive, an you’re healthy. The chances are just mad, you know. The lesson I learned from the whole experience of going through my dad dying is that we are really here for a very short space of time, and we really should be grateful and make the most of it.
Progarchy: Were you already working on this before your dad got sick?
JG: Yeah, this has been going on and off for about two years on and off. It started quite differently and gathered haste in the middle of last year when I realized we might have an album. It was weird, he got sick about a year ago. It did go hand in hand. So it was in the back of my mind. I wasn’t directly drawing on it, but obviously in the end we became very focused on it. It’s the first sort of Frost* album that’s had a human message, they’ve always been about zombies and advertising. This is the first time it’s been about the human condition and I like that, I like that a lot.
Progarchy: Is there a particular song or lyric that really drives home the concept for the album, or is something that’s just spread out among all the songs?
JG: They don’t necessarily, each on, have a chorus that echoes the general theme. It’s more that the songs are self-contained stories of a person having something interesting going on or not. I think toward the end, when you get toward The Sunlight Suite, the thirty minute thing, the long suite of songs – that’s where the message starts to sort of coalesce, I think. It basically ends with that sense that it’s a wondrous place that you’ve left behind. It ends up being about that message, but it takes kind of a meandering route to get there.
Progarchy: So you would say The Sunlight Suite is geared toward the end of the person’s life?
JG: The album starts far away from where the character is, it’s kind of that classic storytelling trick, “Three days ago …”, and that’s how you start the film. It’s a bit like that, and it sort of rushes toward you at the end, the last sort of two or three songs are pretty much about the person’s point of departure?
Progarchy: The production of this album has kind of an ’80’s vibe to it. Is that intentional, and if so how did that come about?
JG: Yeah, there definitely is an 80’s vibe to it. The 80’s were such a dirty word for such a long time. I’ve just recently been working on an album project that’s tied in with a film over here which had a lot of 80’s artists on it like Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Go West, and those sort of people, Holly Johnson. I was sort of doing that in tandem anyway, and I suddenly realized that there was a hugely interesting palette of sounds that people haven’t tapped into – yet. So it’s been quite interesting. For example, a lot of people, if they are going to get into a prog contest, if they are going to use a choir then they are going to go for the Mellotron. But it might be nice to just use the emulator instead. It’s using the same sorts of tricks, but trying to use different versions of those sounds to try to give it a different flavor. And the thing is, bear in mind, these sort of instruments are 30 years old, so they are kind of vintage anyway. So I didn’t feel too bad using them, because they’re still old instruments and I think those sort of sounds have their own sort of ghostly quality the same way the Mellotron does. You did get that slightly warbly old Mellotron-y kind of character, certainly with the string sounds and stuff on emulators. They are quiet and atmospheric too.
Progarchy: How did this album come together, in the context of you and other members of the band having other engagements? Do you just call them up one day and say “hey, let’s do an album now!”?
JG: Pretty much, yeah. I wrote the majority of that, and co-wrote Signs and Heartstrings with John, and we had done some co-writing prior to the album to sort of get it going. These songs had been knocking around a bit but we really didn’t have a vehicle for them. So I just sort of started writing some stuff and I didn’t sort of want to bother them about it until I knew I had enough stuff to make an album. I’ve got a lot of songs, about 20 songs in the end. So we have a fair amount knocking around, which we might release in some form next year, hopefully. So I just kind of wrote the bits and pieces, and when I knew I had some stuff presentable enough to give them an idea of what was going on, I emailed everybody or rang them up and said “Do you fancy doing an album?” They were “Yeah, brilliant, ok!”. The thing about them is that there is a lot of them interspersed over the album, the actual recording with John only took two days. Similarly, with Craig, I think it was three days, and Nath[an] did a lot of his stuff remotely and emailed it over. So in terms of their actual time spent on it, it’s not that big. The bigger job is putting it all together after. They get all the glory and I do all the donkey work!
Progarchy: So, when Frost* albums are written, do you take the lead or is it more of a collaborative process … or somewhere in between?
JG: I write the majority of it really. It’s nice to get John in on this stuff, we have very similar [sense of] melody, we like the same songs, we write in the same kind of way, so it made sense for us. We’ve been threatening to write together for years … “It’s been 10 years, we really should do this!” And so we write these songs and they just ended up sounding so like Frost*, and they really couldn’t go anywhere else. So they were a bit of a fait accompli that they were going to go on the album anyway. And it was really nice that John got a chance to sing, he sings lead vocals on Signs. It was really nice that he got a chance to lead one track, because if you remember the Kino album, the track Swimming in Women, which John Beck sang. I always remember thinking what a brilliant idea that there is a second singer, it was interesting. So I wanted to do that with John, and did a brilliant job.
Progarchy: How did Frost* come together?
JG: It wasn’t even a project, I was doing a lot of pop songwriting at the time and was getting a bit frustrated with how limiting it was because it was quite a simplistic time in pop. After five years doing that I was getting slightly itchy fingers, because I’m a musician and I like to do different types of music. So I run a studio and sort of tinker around and started deliberately playing stuff that was complicated at times, deliberately playing prog basically just to remind myself that I came to do something more than just play in four chords. And over the course of a year I just sort of noodled, just got back to my studio and would put some bits down and then I’d go away, do something else, and come back. After about six months I started to listen to all these bits and I thought “I could do something with this!” So I demoed up, and put together Hyperventilate [from the album Milliontown]. When I played this for my friends they said “Oh you’ve got to put this out, you’ve got to make and album, you’ve got to do a band, or something.”
So it kind of just came about like that. It was pretty far advanced, the whole album, from start to finish, when I thought, “well I can’t fake the guitar anymore, I need to get an actual guitarist in.” We’d had another friend of mine doing some rhythm guitar, but no lead, no lead guitar at all, and some songs needed it. So just looked on the internet, and the Kino album had just come out, and I remember listening to John’s playing and thinking “He’s brilliant – I just love what he’s doing!” I listen to a lot of bands and no one else touched him, no one else was getting anywhere near what he was doing, with tone and melodic content especially. So I found his website for his studio, and his personal email address was on it – it’s not there anymore – so I emailed him and said “you don’t know who I am, I’m Joe Nobody, but would you mind playing some guitar solos on my album if I give you a bag of cash?” And he said “Yeah, alright, yeah, fine, ok”. So he came to my studio and we got to hang out for the day and he heard the rest of the album and got quite excited. And then I said “Well, I wouldn’t mind doing some gigs.” He said “I know some people, let’s do some gigs!” He got quite excited. And so really, if anything, John Mitchell kind of A & R’d the band, he put the band together. I just said I’d like to do a band, but he knew everybody, so he made all the calls and it came together quite quickly after that.
Progarchy: Some of our readers may not know this, so can you tell us the purpose of the asterisk at the end of the band’s name?
JG: That’s a very good question. Originally, when I came up with the name of the band, it didn’t have an asterisk. The asterisk is the construct of our graphic designer, Paul Tippett. I think the initial idea was that it’s supposed to be like a snowflake. But obviously now it’s just a health warning, you are looking at the album and saying “where’s the small print?” When I write about it in emails, I sometimes forget to put in still, and people ask “where’s the asterisk?!” On the new album of course, there is no asterisk on the front cover, and we got a lot of abuse for doing that. The asterisk is still part of it, but it just didn’t look right on the front, so we took it off.
Progarchy: And finally, for our readers who are too lazy to look at Wikipedia, can you tell us what you do outside of Frost*?
JG: Yeah, I still do pop, I do a lot of mixing and production for a lad called Gary Barlow in the U.K., he’s a very, very famous person over here. I do a lot of mixing for bands. I have a second band that I’m sort of half in, called Losers. It’s more of an electronic sort of indie band which I really enjoy doing that. Just doing different things, because as a musician, I think, a lot of musicians like all kinds of different music but may get forced into one box. I kind of need all these different outlets, otherwise I’ll go mad. So mixing, production, I also run a couple of music companies, do library stuff, TV, film, and radio stuff. What else do I do? There seems to be quite a lot. I just try to keep busy and do different things, because I think these days the days of being a songwriter and making a career out are not around anymore, so we have to diversify ourselves as musicians.
Progarchy: So you are a jack of all trades, so to speak?
JG: I call it my day job, so to speak. Frost* is my passionate hobby, but the rest of it is under the umbrella of a day job. I think you need to have a variety of skills. I have a few things I can do and that keeps me busy.
Progarchy: Jem, thanks so much for your time.
JG: Thanks, Erik, I appreciate it.