The Progarchy Interview: Lonely Robot’s John Mitchell

Whether contributing to Clive Nolan’s Arena and Jem Godfrey’s Frost*, driving the bus in collaborations like Kino and the latter day It Bites, or helming his own Lonely Robot project, John Mitchell has brought the progressive rock world tons of cool music in the last decade-plus.  His irresistible melodic hooks, exciting riffage, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, passionate singing and meticulous craftsmanship are instantly recognizable and (at least for me) guaranteed to raise a smile.

Mitchell’s latest album, Lonely Robot’s Feelings Are Good, pivots from the high-concept themes of the Astronaut Trilogy (2015’s Please Come Home, 2017’s The Big Dream and 2019’s Under Stars), refocusing his sharp observational eye on the rich, sometimes heart-stopping drama of daily life — while resculpting the music to match, aided and abetted by ace drummer Craig Blundell.  Released by Inside Out on July 17th on CD, LP and download, Feelings Are Good  is a thrilling, wildly eclectic, moving, just plain fun listen.

Getting the chance to interview John Mitchell was just as much fun — he’s warm, humorous and gregarious, serious about his art and at ease with himself.  And as you’ll see in the video below, he was definitely having a better hair day than me!  An edited transcript of our talk follows the jump.

How would you differentiate Lonely Robot from the other bands and projects you’ve had a hand in (like It Bites, Frost*, Kino, etc.)?

Purely from a personal point of view, It Bites – they were a band I loved when I was a kid, but with the best of good will, [laughs] it very much does feel like somebody else’s band.  Musically speaking, there is always gonna be a certain pressure, I suppose, to make it sound a certain way, within certain parameters.  If It Bites never did split up with Francis Dunnery, I imagine they’d have made a very different sort of music in the modern age. But for some reason nostalgia is a very powerful allure.  And of course, the fans of It Bites of old expect the music to have a certain – there’s little things that make It Bites sound like It Bites, which are little choppy sort of high-up guitar parts and stuff.  Whereas my own music doesn’t have any of that.  Yeah, It Bites is quite fiddly, whereas my stuff’s a little more meat and potatoes, as it were.

There’s still a sense of melody, and some people think it all sounds the same.  Some people think Frost* sounds like Kino sounds like It Bites sounds like …  I don’t know.  As long as it sounds good, I don’t really care! [Laughs]

One of the trademarks that I hear in all your work – you just go for the incredibly catchy hook every chance you can, and I love that!

Oh, well, good, good.  I am the original cheese-meister! [Laughs] 

Where do you think that comes from in the stew that made you a musician? Where did you develop that desire and that talent for putting those together?

Listening to far too much Mr. Mister and The Police would be where that came from.  I’m obsessed with The Police; I think I’ve got everything they’ve ever done.  And let’s be honest, Sting has never really written a terrible, song – apart from maybe “Desert Rose”.  But apart from that, he’s got a pretty good track record sort of fairly memorable, perky choruses.   And certainly when he was in The Police – they are, hands down, my favorite band of all time.

Obviously, a lot of people think that because you’re in a certain genre such as progressive rock that I must listen to nothing but progressive rock.  But I have to be honest with you, all the progressive rock albums I like are all from a very long time ago; I’m a bit out of touch with the world of contemporary progressive rock, apart from the noise that I make and the noise I make with Jem [Godfrey of Frost*].  Which is perhaps a bad thing, or perhaps a good thing, I don’t know.  I’m not really into prog metal as such, and there’s a lot of that around, I’ve noticed these days.  Having said that, there are certain tracks on my Lonely Robot albums which you could describe as slightly proggy metal.

Yeah, I’m a bit old-fashioned; I’ve spent 17 years in the studio, and when I’m not in the studio, I tend not to listen to too much music, full stop.  It’s not to say I don’t feel passionate about music.  I’m forever reading books about my favorite musicians, and biographies.  I’m fascinated by the process, or what makes musicians tick; I’m just a bit – if you spend eight hours in the studio or nine hours in the studio, the last thing you want to go and do is listen to heavy metal or something! [Laughs]  

I’ve spent many years of my life in the studio listening to kids screaming their heads off, and I’m like, “yeah – let’s listen to some … I dunno, Wagner or something instead!”  [Laughs] I like a lot of film soundtracks; I was listening to the Pride and Prejudice soundtrack, which features a contemporary classical score, very piano based, kind of Chopinesque, and it was really very nice.   Boy, that sounded pretentious, didn’t it? [Laughs]

Feelings Are Good is definitely a Lonely Robot album; I hear your musical fingerprints all over it.  But it does feel like there’s a difference between this one and The Astronaut Trilogy.  Where are you coming from this time around — is there a different angle? 

Well, sonically, it sounds different to start; we should probably point that out.  When I started making this album, I completely flattened my hard drive.  I kinda had to; I put a new SSD [solid state drive] in my computer, ‘cause I got sick and tired of whirring drives, so I put in an SSD to make things go a bit quicker.  ‘Cause I’m incredibly impatient, and it takes a lot less time to bounce out a track if you’ve got an SSD or a couple of SSDs.

So I started again, and I reinstalled all my software. And I refused to put any VSTis [Virtual Instrument Plug-ins] on there that featured on any of the previous Lonely Robot albums.  I teamed up with a company called Arturia, and they’ve got an old software package called Analog Lab, which is lots of older synths, electric pianos, lots of Hammonds and old Farfisas and stuff.  I kind of just wanted to start mucking around with different synth sounds.

I sort of tried to get away – ‘cause I think I used [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere a lot; I think I flogged Omnisphere to death on the first three Lonely Robot albums.  There’s a lot of ambient, floaty stuff.  And I’ve, for the most part, done away with that.  It’s more sort of retro synth sounds; I kind of got into that.  I really like those kinds of kooky New Wave  kind of keyboard sounds, like in anything from The Cars. That kind of really weird,  Wurlitzerly kind of sound.  I have a great fondness for the early 80s and the New Wave scene, and so I wanted to get some of that into the music.

And the drum sound’s completely different as well.  The first three Lonely Robot albums it’s very sort of a heavy metal drum sound, with a really clicky bass drum.  Whereas this was more of a sort of muted, more like a marching kick drum and a lower sounding snare drum, that was less rimshotty.

From a production point of view, I wanted it to sound like – I didn’t use the same guitar tones as well.  I think I used the [Boss] GT-1000 on it, whereas before I used something called [IK Multimedia] AmpliTube Metal, which was a bit thick.  It was great for those albums, but I wanted to get away from all of that.  So, from a production point of view it’s completely different.

From a song point of view, I’m just not singing about anything to do with space, or anything big.  There’s no great, grand, societal – “Are we all tethered to phones?” or anything like that.  It’s just basically a bunch of songs about “I hated my dad’s secretary, blah blah blah, etc.”  [laughs].  Very down to earth things, and things like that.

I definitely heard the 80s vibe, and I heard the down to earth feel of it.  It seems very – I know that you can write about relationships without something being relationship-driven.  But that seemed to be more of the focus.

Yeah, sure, absolutely.  There’s a couple of tracks about – yeah, you’re right, relationships.  But on the whole, what did Phil Collins once say?  He said, “the world doesn’t need another Phil Collins divorce record.”  [Laughs]  And neither does it need a John Mitchell one.  There’s a couple of sort of personalized – “Crystalline” was about things dying out with somebody and ending terribly.  And “Armour for My Heart” is about the same sort of thing.

But then I’ve got, for example – “Suburbia” is about when I used to go and spend Christmas at my Auntie Reenie’s house in Clapham.  And she had the most horrible neighbors, and they always used to – in England we have these things called net curtains, and people used to sort of pull them back, and peer and nosily see what’s going on.   And so, I kind of wrote a song – there was this couple who had the perfect lawn, and they’d always look with contempt at everybody else.  And then you had the weird guy who had – you know, one of the houses had a guy in it who used to collect old newspapers and  – a completely obsessive hoarder bloke.  So I just wrote a song all these people that I remember from when I was a kid around my Auntie Reenie’s house at Christmastime.  And I remember thinking, “man, I gotta get out of this place, [laughs] it’s making me claustrophobic!” 

The one that really struck me – oh, good heavens, now I can’t even remember the track name!  It’s the ballad toward the end of the record.

Is it called “The Silent Life”?

That is the one!  Where it’s very – it all of a sudden pulls back and it’s very objective.  And you have the verse about the guy and the verse about the girl, and they’re both pursuing the same thing but from different perspectives.

That’s right, yeah, well spotted!  It’s actually about a couple I know, but I kind of wrote it from the point of view that there’s so much noise in the modern world.

I’m quite a quiet person in terms of – there’s a lot of people at the moment ranting on Facebook about stuff.  There’s this expression I heard once, I think from Peter Jones; he became a friend of mine – you know the guy from Tiger Moth Tales?  And he taught this expression once and it stayed with me.  And I’d like to tell you the context in which he told it to me, but I feel like [laughs] I might upset some people!  But he said to me, “yeah, the emptiest vessels make the loudest noise!”  And I thought that was a beautiful expression.  I thought that’s very true, and if more people just – shut the hell up and just observe the world around them a lot more, imagine how much less arguing we’d have.  You know what I mean?  And that’s kind of what that song’s about, and it’s about a couple I know, actually, who – well, I don’t wanna go and give it away too much.

So musically, the only partner you’ve got on this album is Craig Blundell, and he’s been a constant across all your releases.  What does he bring to the party for you when you’re doing Lonely Robot stuff?

Well, he goes at the same tempo and speed that I go at in terms of work, in terms of work ethic.  Craig is like a Duracell bunny – I don’t know, do you have the Duracell bunny in the States?  He’s kind of like – you can only get Craig for a maximum of about one day at a time, ‘cause he’s always busy off doing the next thing.

So it’s very much like capturing lightning in a bottle.  And the way that we work is absolutely preposterous.  I kind of have these bits of paper, and I write things on them like, for example – I’ll give him a tempo; he might have a rough outline.  We’re halfway through a song, and then it might say, for example, he’ll be playing the drums frantically, and I’ll suddenly hold up a piece of paper that says like that! [Holds up paper with “7/8 NOW!” written on it]  And then he’s gotta suddenly – you know, he doesn’t really learn any of the music; he has his own little roadmap that he kind of scribbles stuff down.  He might have heard this song once, and I just have to keep holding up bits of A4 [8 ½ x 11 paper], so he knows whereabouts in the song he is.

I think on this album we got all the drums recorded in about 11 hours, which was insane, really.  But that’s how it works, and that’s exactly how I like to work.  He’s a man who likes getting stuff done quickly, and it’s quite – he’s the perfect drummer for me.  Because I remember doing the Kino album in 2005 and spending two weeks doing the drums, and after that I never wanted to see another drum in my life!  But that’s just the way Chris Maitland worked.  He’s a perfectionist; he wanted to look at every bar.  And I’m just kind of like, “No, man.  Man, where’s the energy in that?  Just do a take!   Do whatever you’re gonna do, and I’ll give you the roadmap as we go.”  It’s kind of like the NASCAR version of recording drums.   So yeah, he’s kinda cool.

Yeah, I saw him [Blundell] when Steve Hackett came over last fall, and he just strikes me as a technical monster, but incredibly musical, and he’s in the moment.  He does not play on autopilot.

And basically, everything in his life is just about drums.  I think when he joined Steven, because I got him a job playing with Steven Wilson, and when he got the job with Steven, I think a lot of people shot him down in flames.

People were angry at him, because he wasn’t Marco Minnemann!

There’s a lot of very – BOLD, BRAVE, BRASH people sitting behind keyboards, ready to take anybody down that’s giving it a good shot and fighting the good fight.  And frankly, I remember the one time I actually jumped on a forum, and – I UNLEASHED THE FURY at all these people! [Laughs]  And musicians are just supposed to sit there mute and accept all these damning statements from keyboard warriors!  But you know, screw it, why not?  Everyone’s got feelings.

The point I was trying to make is, look, if Steven Wilson deigns to book this guy, you should trust Steven Wilson’s judgment, not your own.  Who knows best?  Not you; Steven Wilson!  He’s the guy that’s worked with every drummer on the planet, and he’s been doing this for 30 years.  And it’s like, you know, give the guy a chance!

And of course, he did up his game; I don’t think he realized what he was getting himself into, but by the time – he grew into the role, and he was the perfect drummer for that album cycle.  And I think obviously now Steven’s gone in a much more sort of poppy direction.  They haven’t parted company in a bad way; it’s just — I think Steven wanted to try somebody else.

It’s all happy in the land of Craig.  I think he’s going a bit nuts with this, because he’s used to running around the country doing drum clinics and stuff.   And I think — he’s certainly a bit of a workaholic, and now all the work’s been taken away from him, I think he has a bit of a tough time.  I jumped on his master class last weekend, just to see what it was all about, and I’ve got to be honest with you, I didn’t learn anything, ‘cause I don’t know anything about drums!  But it was nice to be there witnessing the man with his flock, so that was kinda cool.

I know there you were making plans for a Lonely Robot microtour, going live in Europe at the end of this year.  Do you know anything about what’s gonna happen or not happen, or is everything just in total flux? 

I was supposed to go on tour in October with Arena, and that’s not happening now.

Yeah, everything keeps getting pushed back on this side of the pond as well, because nobody knows.  And it seems like you take it, and in the meantime you don’t know what the heck to do.

Exactly!  I was of the opinion we should put this release back, but at the end of the day everybody in the world probably wants to put their release back until next year.  And frankly, the machinations of Inside Out are probably gonna collapse if they didn’t release any music.  And I’m not really [laughs] a big enough artist to start making demands about “I think my album should be released in January!”  Of course, people are still gonna be able to buy this album.

But as for the tour, I don’t know.  It’s December; it’s unlikely.  To be perfectly honest with you, I think it’s unlikely.

In a “worlds of if” world: if you would go out, who was gonna be in the band?

It was gonna be the usual suspects.  Steve Vantsis on bass, who’s my friend, he’s Fish’s kind of man at arms.  Craig.  And my friend Liam Holmes, who’s the keyboard player.  He comes from a more musical theatre background, so he’s more of a classically trained musician; he’s super-duper tekkers on the synths.  So that’s gonna be the core four musicians, same guys I’ve always had.

That’s right, ‘cause you’ve done a few shows as Lonely Robot, I know.

Yeah, I did a bunch of shows when I first did it.  Bizarrely, I thought I’d be like Prince, and I had a couple of girls in the band.  It didn’t – it was kinda quite stressful, in a strange way.  So probably, partly my fault; it was a different dynamic.  And then eventually I got a band together with Steve and with Liam and with Craig, and that worked really well; we all got on really well.  It was a cool thing to do.  Barring any them getting hit by a meteorite, hopefully that’s gonna be the line-up going forward.

I know that you own your own studio [Outhouse Studios] and you’ve also got your own record label [White Star Records].  But as you say, with the business as a whole grinding to a screeching halt, and then trying to figure out how to start again —  how has the coronavirus, how has the lockdown effected these other facets of what you do?

Well, it’s completely annihilated it!  I haven’t had anybody in my studio; I did a couple of mixing jobs, but on the whole … it’s been fortunate in some ways, because I haven’t had a lot of time off recently.  So it’s been nice to just go for lots of walks in the country with my friend, and just lie in my hammock and read books.  But I don’t know what I’m gonna do to try and restart the machine at the studio.  And a lot of musicians aren’t gonna have money to come in the studio.  I don’t know what’s gonna happen.  And I’ve said that the government in this country has been painfully, woefully ill-prepared to deal with this situation, and to be honest with you, I think everybody over here is kind of at their wits’ end with them, really.  So who knows?

We can resonate over in the US.  [Both laugh]  Going back, when you started up White Star, what was your goal for that?  I know you did at least one album with Kim Seviour, who I think is a great artist.  What was the purpose behind White Star?

Well, originally it was to release my own music.  But then I realized that in order to do that, I very much rely on album advances as part of my yearly income.  And with White Star, we are a small label; [me and] my business partner Chris Hillman, we don’t have vast amounts of money to throw at things.  It was originally supposed to be a vehicle for my own stuff, but we then actually ended up just doing other people’s music.  It’s been a fun thing to do; I can’t say it’s generated any vast amount of money.  In fact, it hasn’t generated me any money.  In fact the opposite is true!

Certainly, if the objective was to have fun, discover new artists and try and push them, then that’s been a success.  And we have brought some new bands out onto the scene that perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise been heard. I’m particularly pleased with The Paradox Twin.  My friends in Quantum Pig[laughs] as silly as the title is, it’s a really good album.  We’ve done some cool stuff; from that perspective it’s been a success.  But anybody owning a record label in 2020 is a madman – including myself.

You’ve said that when you’re not making music, you’re not listening to a lot of music.  It doesn’t sound like you’re necessarily a guy who likes to go hang out with all your other buddies in the current prog scene, either.

I’m very good friends with Jem Godfrey, and I like hanging out with them; that’s always been a fun thing.  I sometimes hang out with [Level 42/Frost*/It Bites guitarist] Nathan King.  Apart from that, I don’t think I’ve got any prog buddies!  No, I’m quite a solitary creature.  I kind of spend a lot of time on my own; I certainly have done recently.  I think that I’ve only got one rule, and the most important rule in my life is, at least once a day, go outside.  Otherwise, I do find myself getting cabin fever.  So I religiously go for two very long walks a week, and I try to get out of the house, even to walk down to the shops once a day.  I live in a particularly urban area [laughs]; there’s something exciting going on!

Anything else coming out that you’ve been involved in that we should be looking for in the near future?

Well, the next thing that’s gonna come out is probably gonna be the next proper Frost* album; I don’t when that’s gonna be either.  That’s what we’re recording at the moment, and I started putting guitars down.  And it’s ground to a bit of a halt, ‘cause I think Jem’s got other business to attend to.  But that’s gonna be the next thing on the radar, probably.

Beyond that, I mixed an album for a lady called Doris Brendel, who sings backing vocals for Fish, which is very good.  You should check that out.  I only mixed that album; I didn’t have any creative input into the actual core, into the playing on it or anything.  But it’s a very good album I highly recommend.  That’s gonna be out in September, I believe.

So, no, apart from that, I’m having a bit of well-deserved time off.  Well, I did actually find a Frost* duo gig that me and Jem did, which we didn’t realize was being recorded that got recorded, at the end of last year.  So I’m gonna mix that; I think we’re gonna put that out.

But I’ve actually got to get round to doing it.  I’ve been incredibly lazy since this all started, I must confess!  A hundred days of not doing a great deal.  But what a wonderful thing to have, you know.  I’ve spent a lot of the last five years pretty much flat out, so this is a nice time.  In some ways, it’s nice to be reflective.

Is there anything else you’d like to say particularly to the readers of Progarchy, to folks out in the world at large?

Hmmm … yeah.  Have a good time … all of the time!! [Laughs]

It sounds like you do your best to do that, so that’s good advice to take.

I do a lot of sailing, and I find that helps calm me down a lot; it really takes my mind.  There’s nothing quite as relaxing as sailing if the weather is right.

Well again, congratulations on the new album; I’m looking forward to hearing the CD of Feelings Are Good when it comes in a few weeks.  And I wish you every success.  It was great talking to you; thank you so much for taking the time.

You too, Rick.  Thank you very much indeed!

 

— Rick Krueger (with thanks to Roie Avin for arranging the interview)

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