John Mitchell is a busy man. It was less than a year ago that another one of his projects, Frost*, was getting ready to drop another album. And before that, John was busy with another one of his bands, Arena. To put the parenthesis on then and now … before that he was busy with the first Lonely Robot album, and now we have seen the release for the latest one, The Big Dream (Tad Wert’s excellent review can be found here). We caught up with John recently, and he generously gave his time to discuss his career, the concept behind the Lonely Robot project, and the creative process, and how to stay busy.
Progarchy: You are in Lonely Robot, Kino, Arena, Frost*, It Bites … (did I miss any?), while your Arena bandmate Clive Nolan is also associated with Pendragon, Shadowland, Caamora, Strangers on a Train, Neo, and Casino. Are you two having a contest to see who can be in the most bands?
John Mitchell: I can’t remember – it seems like I’m busy enough already! That is indeed a humorous question – and yes, you are absolutely right. If I don’t win, heads are going to roll! The honest answer though is that these things don’t run concurrently, they don’t run in parallel, they run in series. I think if we are going to run a contest, it needs to be the most things done concurrently, and I don’t really win that at all. Clive Nolan has won, so there we go!
Progarchy: This is your way of keeping busy, I assume.
John Mitchell: Yes, well it looks good on paper. I have at some point or other have been involved in that many musical projects. I hasten to not use the word ‘project’. When I started these things, I didn’t think of them as projects. ‘Project’ to me denotes something that has a finite end, like a table. A table, once it’s made, that’s the end of the project. When I went into these things, with the good grace of the Lord, to make a band, and to try to engage that band and do multiple albums with it, so I never really saw it as a project. Kino I never really thought it to be a one-off thing, but I didn’t realize quite how busy everybody was. The things I’ve been involved in, they reach a natural conclusion, and they get parked and that’s it. So I’m really not that busy, just doing a few things these days.
Progarchy: It’s not like the old days where you were just in one band and stayed in that band.
John Mitchell: No, it’s not. Some people were happy to play tambourine in one band for twenty years, and I’m not that guy. I’m a greedy man, what can I say!
Progarchy: You’ve stated that that the current Lonely Robot album, like its predecessor, is not a concept album, but has a core theme running through it. Can you elaborate on this theme, as well as the theme of Please Come Home?
John Mitchell: Yeah, I certainly can. Here’s the thing, there’s this whole thing of “concept albums”, I don’t want to call it that because it’s not a concept album. But the way I see it is that it tied together three real strong ideas. It has a musical narrative which I think is the thing that is the strongest, the most obvious context of the album, and indeed in Please Come Home. It scans like a concept album would scan, it has highs and lows, peaks and troughs, and I think on this album even more than on Please Come Home runs thematically, musically, together far greater than the first album. I intentionally made it like a film soundtrack, I kind of went out of my way to ensure that it has all the highs and lows in all the right places. I think in terms of and visually, I think the way it all ties together is this. It’s not a concept album; it is terms of visually, there is a visual thing. There’s not a story, it’s not like “man discovers banana, banana saves the world,” so let’s just clear that up right now. It’s not like Pinky and Perky, “blady blah blah blah;” it’s not a story set to music.
But for me, there’s a metaphor, a really strong metaphor that runs through the album, because Please Come Home was a different metaphor. Musically, I like the idea of letting the music paint the images. The metaphor behind The Big Dream is … well, actually, let’s go to both albums, Lonely Robot. Everybody asks me “are you the robot?” I’m not the robot, let’s just clear that up now. The idea of Lonely Robot, is a description, I think a very accurate description, of humankind.
I don’t want it to sound pompous. I wanted three things, the music, the imagery, and the metaphor. So Please Come Home, the narrative is that I don’t think entirely that human beings are from planet Earth. There, I said it. Not[said] like John Travolta, that’s not the intention. But I wanted to translate that idea into a visual image. The best way I thought of translating it into a visual image … you know the book The Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur? The idea there is a man out of time, and a man out of place, in a situation where he doesn’t belong. So basically I wanted to walk around London in a space suit and see how it translated, which I did. I’m far too arrogant to admit the fact that everybody in London has seen stuff like that all day long. In every major city you go to in the world there’s some dude who paints himself silver and stands there for four hours, so they’ve all seen that. So it’s only my shyness and lack of self-worth that makes it seem anyone would be interested!! But visually I wanted to walk around and take pictures and catalog it.
If you listen to bits of Please Come Home, each song is a different thing. Are We Copies is about the fact that “how many times can you see someone that looks like you and not draw reference to that, how many DNA strands point in the same direction.” There’s lots of things that point to the same thing. Each song point to a reference of “did we originate here?” And I wanted the visual imagery to say that, as a race, we are lost in space.
This album (The Big Dream) is a different thing altogether. This is “we are here and we don’t know how to communicate with one another,” that’s the directive here. When I say we don’t know how to communicate with each other, I think we are a synthesized society. We are having a phone conversation of sorts, which would have been exciting in the eighties because we would have been waiting for about ten seconds to speak to each other. But the thing you need to remember that in this day and age that people are so used to reaching out to each other through the fourth wall, as we call it in dramatic terms. The bravery of being outrageous … the fourth wall in this case being a computer screen. I actually know people that can’t hold a phone conversation, they are too scared of that level of intimacy. Somehow answering the phone makes it impossible, they just can’t do it. It’s just bizarre to me, it’s a generational thing.
Progarchy: That’s the older generation, you mean?
John Mitchell: No, it’s the younger generation. You know, there is the Facebook generation that is so adept at reaching out and running riot with their mouths and saying everything they feel with no filter and no semblance of social tact.
Progarchy: Or on Twitter, maybe.
John Mitchell: Yeah, all of that, you know rant rant rant, but no ability to moderate what they think or say. As you know, communication is 60% body language and eye motion, and where are you at when you can’t even deal with that? It’s not even that, it’s level two. The ability to express oneself with a fellow human being without engaging in mudslinging and just conveying ideas, it’s such a subtle thing, the nuances involved in interaction. You know, people forget it. Certainly there’s a generational divide, bitching on Twitter and all that, but they’re just keyboard warriors. It’s bizarre, something’s missing.
Progarchy: So could you say then that an overarching theme of these two albums is that we are lost?
John Mitchell: Absolutely.
Progarchy: Who is The Astronaut, and what is the genesis of this character? Will we continue to see him on Lonely Robot albums in the future?
John Mitchell: The Astronaut is a metaphor for humankind. Let’s assume The Astronaut is humankind. The nature of the first record is that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that human beings are so juxtaposed to their surroundings. You look at other creatures, humans are great in many ways, but conflicted. We can be altruistic, we’re fantastical in some ways, we have the ability to read a situation and be kind. You know, cats can’t be kind, cats are cuddly and all that but there’s always an agenda. They don’t want your affection, a cat wants to be fed. That is it. A cat doesn’t want the best advice on where the best place to do cat booze is. It works one on one.
Why is it that every other creature on this planet apart from humans is adept at being in its environment, yet humans are incredible creatures, but very good at destroying our surroundings. Either we’re not entirely originated from this planet or I don’t think we are entirely supposed to be here. I just get that feeling. Otherwise we wouldn’t make so much concrete. It’s a strange thing. There’s an argument that human beings are destroying the planet. Now I saw a program the other day that suggested if human beings systematically vanished from the planet, it would recover in about 230 years, apart from the half-life of uranium, which is about 700 years. Notwithstanding, buildings would collapse, plants would overcome, and it’s human arrogance that likes to think we don’t have that much impasse. Then something terrible comes along, like a hurricane, and we are reminded that we are not in charge of anything. Nonetheless – I am rambling somewhat now – the first album is very much about the fact that I don’t think we belong, and the second album is very much about the fact that I don’t think we communicate.
Progarchy: You mentioned that there is going to be a third Lonely Robot album – I won’t ask you what the theme of that one is …
John Mitchell: It’s probably about how 50% of us can’t eat peanuts!
Progarchy: Will there be more after the third, or is this a three album project?
John Mitchell: Well, no. It would be great if I could say it’s a three album project, because then I could say there is a definite end. It would be like, table, dinner set, and cutlery, job done.
I like the title anyway. I don’t want to call it “John Mitchell”. I don’t understand the idea of putting one’s name to a musical endeavor. I think music stands up on its own merit; I don’t think you need to dial into with your own linguistic DNA. It’s a bit self-serving … I’m probably wrong about that, but I’m a bit old school and a bit English and like to think I’m far too modest to stick my name on it. Plus there’s a Joni Mitchell, and John Mitchell is a rather boring name. Lonely Robot’s a quite interesting name, I think. There’s lot’s of bands, the “such and such” band, but that doesn’t tell you anything. Lonely Robot tells you something. I like to think the instant we see “Lonely Robot,” into our imaginings a construct goes in as to what it’s about. “John Mitchell” just sounds like a boring old fart from Redding.
I wanted it to stand up on its own merits. It’s very easy to go “well the marketing department says if we stick your name on the cover it will attract a X amount of demographics that likes It Bites” but that really wasn’t the purpose of doing this record. It was about making a statement, and having to hide behind the fourth wall in this case.
Progarchy: In doing Lonely Robot, you are much more in control than in your other projects, which are more collaborative. What do you like about that, and what do you dislike about that?
John Mitchell: What do I like about being in control? It’s not even about being in control really. Realistically, Arena, I joined the band Arena, it was somebody else’s band, so you have to accept things on their own terms. I joined Arena when I was 23 years old, and they invited me into the bosom of their partnership and I contributed to the way the wrote music, but they way they write music is a bit juxtaposed to the way I write music. The way Arena writes music is that everybody throws musical ideas into the ring, like you might have a riff or a chorus or whatever, and it all gets glued together. I don’t write like that. I like a song to be written, I like the basis of a song to be written and like to know “that’s it – job’s done!” I don’t like to splintering and fracturing a song into little constituent parts. It’s like cut and shut guy, you get the front end of a Ford Cortina and weld it to the back end, I don’t like that. That make no sense to me, I like things to be fully formed already.
So with Arena, I’d been welcomed into the bosom of Arena, I’ve been in Arena for 20 years, but it’s not my thing, it’s somebody else’s band. It Bites, it’s somebody else’s band. Ultimately it’s somebody else’s legacy. I can’t run away from that fact. The people that like It Bites like it for what happened before I came along, and that’s fine. But it’s not fulfilling. I made two albums, I’m very proud of those albums, and a lot of people liked those albums. At the same time, there is always the “it’s not Francis Dunnery, is it?” So the only way around that is to do something on your own, which I did, which is why I did Lonely Robot.
And it’s not megalomaniacal, it’s more to do with the fact that it stands on its own two legs and if people hate it they can say “well John Mitchell wrote that and I hate it, but he wrote it.” At least I can’t swing the blame in any other direction apart from myself. It’s like saying “sorry”, saying “sorry” empowers you as a human being. People think saying “sorry” is a sign of weakness, but like making an album on your own terms is a strong thing, and if people don’t like it at least you know it’s on your own terms.
Progarchy: So what would you say you dislike about making an album on your own?
John Mitchell: No, nothing really. I think the only downside of doing things on your own is that people expect you to do concerts, and then the financial responsibility falls with you. You can’t expect people to jump on stage with you and play without paying them, so that’s the downside to it.
From a creative perspective? No! I did thing called Kino many years ago, and at the time it was positioned as a supergroup, and I was the only one in the group that wasn’t positioned as super. It had Pete Trewavas [of Marillion], John Beck of It Bites, and Chris Maitland of Porcupine Tree, and those are the people I wanted on the album, and I wrote the music, so basically I was doing the same thing. It was by committee, I was trying to take other people’s ideas on board, but it was still me writing the music. There’s no pressure to do anything, I think I’m ok at writing music. It’s like making a wicker basket, and half the wicker falls out, you’re not good at making wicker baskets. The only pressure is the financial one, if you do a gig and nobody shows up, you lose money.
That leads me on to my next statement. It’s a 70’s feature, where a band does album, band does tour, band does album, band does tour, because everybody expects it because it’s sewed into your psyche and our subconscious. I don’t adhere to that. And once you start doing gigs, everybody starts messaging you again, “Oh play in my local town because I can’t be bothered to travel 30 miles to the nearest big town that you’re playing.” I’m happy in my little bubble and if my music can reach people without having to run around the country like an errant puppy, I’m happy to do so.
Progarchy: Well, if I ever win the lottery, you might do a gig over here, but I’ll make sure you get paid …
John Mitchell: Like some well-paid sultan or Sheik of Oman, if you want to truck 50 grand my way, I’ll happily jump on a Lear Jet and come and play for you!!
Progarchy: You mentioned in your press release that you like to start with titles and then build the songs around those, seemingly taking direction from them. Can you elaborate on that a bit more? I’ve heard of others saying how they will for example, hear a riff, connect it to a lyric bouncing around in their head, or guys coming together with bits and pieces.
John Mitchell: That’s what I call writing by committee, and that’s being in a band isn’t it? I think the word is “compromising”. At the risk of sounding like a benevolent dictator, I’ve done my share of compromising in bands and such. I’ve learned one thing from being in the studio for the last 20 years, and that is if you go into the studio and record something and don’t know what the lyrics are doing until 36 seconds before you record them, then there is something really wrong.
I remember there was a band I recorded once called Funeral for a Friend, and they wrote a song called Streetcar. I remember saying to the singer “Why is this song called Streetcar?” And he said, “Well, Marlon Brando died this morning.” I said “is that it? What’s the song about?” And he said “I don’t really know.” I said “Right – so you don’t really know what the song’s about …” It seemed to be about girls because my friend Kate did a voice-over for it. But the song was called Streetcar after A Streetcar Named Desire because Marlon Brando did that morning. So I thought, “if the title of the song is so disparate to the subject matter of the song, you don’t really know what the subject matter of the song is all about.” I thought this is songwriting 101. For example, The Kinks’ Ray Davies wrote Waterloo Sunset and it was with Julie Christie or whatever and he was walking over Waterloo Bridge at sunset, and he looked across Waterloo Bridge and everything was perfect, so he captured the moment. So that’s what that song is about. But if you don’t know what a song is about and you are naming after Pepsi Max or something, it’s not really a song, is it? It’s a clever arrangement of riffs and melodies and lyrical ideas that form really nothing.
When you come up with a song title first, it forms a little cloud, and the lyrics are like rain, and everything under the rain starts to grow, the music. I know that sounds like the chippiest thing I think anybody’s ever said, but it’s true. But for me, I won’t even go near an instrument until I have an idea of what the song is going to be called and what it’s going to be about, otherwise it’s cleverly arranged nonsense.
Progarchy: So when you come up with the title, made the cloud, and started raining with the lyrics, that drives your music?
John Mitchell: I will tell you this for a fact, the whole process becomes about 98% quicker than it does sitting there chewing a pencil and [saying] “oh, I wandered lonely as a cloud … no, that’s been done before.” If you know what you’re writing about, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have a rule when I write a song – when I have an idea for a song, I know what the song is about, I start recording in the morning and I’m finished by the end of the day. That is it.
Progarchy: So basically, the lyrics and the title drives the music, the tone of it, and so on?
John Mitchell: Yeah, it drives everything! Think if any song that you like, think of a popular song. Pick anything now.
Progarchy: Ok, how about Black Dog by Led Zeppelin.
John Mitchell: Ha – you picked that because you know it means nothing [we both laughed here, and I had to explain that my black Labrador retriever was in my office at the time, hence the suggestion – be he was onto something as you will see].
I always thought they called it Black Dog because they had a black dog at the studio when they recorded it. And he’s singing about a load of rubbish. I don’t like Led Zeppelin for that very reason. I mean, I like the grooves and the riffs and everything.
Take a song like Help from The Beatles. The lyrics perfectly sound like the mood of what it’s about, and it seems really urgent, and the chords, everything glues together. That was written in six minutes exactly, and it was written in six minutes exactly because they knew what the song was called, and the lyrics are direct, and everything about it glues together. And that’s exactly the important thing what I’m trying to do with Lonely Robot. The visuals, the music, and the metaphor have to tie together perfectly.
Black Dog is a good example of a song that doesn’t mean a great deal. It probably means a great deal to Robert Plant, although I bet it’s a band writing by committee … Jimmy came in the studio, he writes the riff, “what are we going to call the song? … let’s call it Black Dog because there is a big black dog in the courtyard … what’s it about? … it’s a load of word play, big cock rock clichés …”. You know, nobody really knows, but the enigma doesn’t really matter because it’s Led Zeppelin being Led Zeppelin. So again, it doesn’t have to work like that. Like Don Henley, New York Minute, one intriguing title, what’s he writing about? It’s about how everything happens far too fast … and it’s the perfect example of a song that was probably written in a very short amount of time. The title is so iconoclastic, they’re is no way that it is not delivering a song.
Progarchy: So who are your musical interests? What did you grow up listening to and how does this manifest itself in your own music?
John Mitchell: Well, it’s a long list. I can tell you who got me into playing guitar. I remember the day, I can actually visualize it now. I was at my auntie’s house and Eric Clapton came on the telly, it was 1986 and he had just released the album August. One of his sort of 80’s albums where he’s wearing the Don Johnson outfit. And I think Phil Collins produced it, it was all horns and quite funky and commercial. But there was this one song called Miss You. It was like a mid-tempo rock song, and he plays this solo, and I remember the moment I heard it, “oh my God, screw the violin, that’s it.” And I remember it like it was yesterday. And the weird thing is I heard it again last week – I’ve got one of those Amazon Echo things, and I asked it to play that song. You know when you’re a kid, and you listen to music and it’s so impressive because of the naïveté of music because everything seems like 20 times larger than life, and I thought this is going to be shit. And I listened to it and the solo came up and my jaw dropped to the floor, and it was the same feeling. Not out of nostalgia, but “my God, how do you make a guitar sound like that?” It was like jumping in a teleporter, the feeling I had was that I wanted to pick up a guitar and play again. It was such a bizarre thing, it still resonated with me all these years later, and not from a nostalgic point of view, but the way the phrases things on the guitar, it’s otherwordly to me. So he’s the guy that got me into playing guitar.
Then I went through all the usual suspects, I wanted to listen to metal so I got into Adrian Smith and Iron Maiden, and I kinda got into progressive rock and I like Trevor Rabin. And then I got into singing and I liked Peter Gabriel. I think now these days there are many people I’d say I want to be in a band with and make music with. The wonderment, somebody’s pulled back the curtain and you can see the wizard. But there are people out there that I think are extremely clever lyricists and I find fascinating as people who I would like to work with. Like Neil Hannon of a band called The Divine Comedy, who are from Ireland and they are a very popular band in the United Kingdom. I’d like to work with him because he’s just so good with words, and he’s such a formidable talent. I’d like to work with Andy Sturmer of a band called Jellyfish, I’d like to work with him, I hear he’s brilliant. But I hear he’s a bit difficult, so maybe not, I don’t know.
Progarchy: John, that about wraps this up. Thanks for calling in and giving us your time.
John Mitchell: No worries, and thank you!