When we last talked with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/prog man-about-town John Mitchell back in 2020, he said that the songs on his 4th Lonely Robot album Feelings Are Good were about “very down to earth things,” in contrast to the outer space trappings of his three previous efforts. The new Lonely Robot effort, A Model Life (released on August 26th), burrows even further into inner space, as Mitchell grapples with recent experiences of loss, loneliness, frustration, conflict and even death. But as heavy as the subject matter is, this album is by no means a downer. Preview tracks like the driving opener “Recalibrating” and the quirky “Island of Misfit Toys” once again reveal Mitchell’s gift for memorable melodies and hooks, his empathetic lyrical journeys from crisis to closure, and his instantly recognizable way with a cathartic guitar solo. Confronting a world in the grip of obsessions, searching for a way through life’s challenges, and emerging at peace with himself, on A Model Life Mitchell invites us to discover what does and doesn’t really matter, charming and comforting us with his remarkable gifts all the way.
In the middle of a busy day filming the video for A Model Life’s “Digital God Machine”, John Mitchell took the time to have a wide-ranging, candid and remarkably humorous chat with us about the new album. Watch the complete interview (including sundry musings and digressions on Netflix documentaries, Phil Collins’ memoir, the forcible learning of Rush songs, changing flat tires near blind curves, grass clipping collection fees and much more) below; a transcription of highlights follows.
The last time we talked, it was about 5 or 6 months into the pandemic – which was right before Feelings Are Good came out. So, my first question for you is a two-parter. How does A Model Life chart a different path from that album? But also, what might the two albums have in common?
The things that they do have in common — I do think of them as quite brother-and-sister albums in a way. I think that in hindsight, I’m much happier with the production on this latest record.
The main difference is, at the time that I did Feelings Are Good, I was still in a relationship, but writing songs about not being in a relationship! But by the time I did A Model Life, the whole thing was over; I was into the whole recovery period of what I was writing about. I approached the songs very differently from that perspective.
And from a production point of view, they are very different. I wanted Feelings Are Good to be a tiny bit more rough around the edges. So, the drum sound on Feelings Are Good is deliberately a bit more trashy; the guitar sounds aren’t quite as refined as they are on this latest record.
They do have a lot in common in terms of that they’re more personal. I’m writing about much more personal subject matter. And who knows what happens next! I might go back to writing about otherworldly things of which I do not know! [Laughs]
I see! It’s true; lyrically, I feel like you really dug deeply this time around. There’s a lot of frustration that comes through, and the emotions you’re singing about are right there, they’re up front. You mentioned the end of a relationship. Are you OK with talking about some of the other things you might have been drawing on as well?
Yeah, of course; I’ll talk about anything. That’s the whole point of this – it’s been very cathartic for me to address certain things. The way that I view things in life – my background is quite complicated. I was adopted by a family, by two people who were considerably older than they would have been had they been my biological mother’s age, who was 17 when she had me.
I find it fascinating that, at the same time in equal measure, I can chart that fact that a lot of my traits as a human being I have inherited, I think, from my [adoptive] mother – a lot of very good traits. They always say, is it nurture or nature? Well, I think largely it’s nurture . . .
A lot of what troubles me over the years has been this strange phenomenon of, whilst having [laughs] unfeasibly vast Impostor Syndrome, I think at the same time I am fascinated by the fact that a lot of the good parts of my makeup are from my [adoptive] mum’s kindness! When you’re adopted by somebody who ultimately – my dad, he basically killed himself when I was 12. Somebody I didn’t really know, but I felt some great duty to live up to in some strange way, whereas I think the opposite is true. Being adopted you don’t have the same sort of genetics. I never have been an academic in the way that he was; my skill set is completely opposite to what his would have been. So, I’m very interested by those things – why it’s taken me this long to realize it’s a fool’s errand to try and chase somebody’s ghost, as it were.
[Tracks] like “Starlit Stardust”, “Rain Kings”, “In Memoriam” – those sound like you’re putting grief on record.
Yeah, pretty much. Certainly “Duty of Care” and “In Memoriam”. “Duty of Care” is pretty much about the twin nature of the relationship with my dad and with my mom. I think it’s been really helpful for me.
I know that [laughs] not everybody’s gonna want to – what did Phil Collins say? He kind of retired from music didn’t he, in the early 90s. And he pretty much said, no one wants to hear another Phil Collins divorce record. [Laughs] And I thought, “well, Phil, you could be right”! But Phil, whether you like him playing drums in early Genesis, or whatever you like or don’t like about Phil Collins, you can’t deny that he’s very good at tickling the emotional buttons that people relate to.
I think a lot of things I’m writing are relatable subjects. And it’s not just me that has gone through these things in life. I have found it cathartic to write about it. And if I find it cathartic to write about it, I’m sure somebody might find it cathartic. But the next time around I might write a completely cheery reggae record, so who knows? . . .
You’ve mentioned not fitting in and not wanting to be part of any cool kids ‘club that would have you as a member. Is “Digital God Machine” part of that as well?
What it’s about is quite plain and simple. Something that’s always struck me as bizarre is that — you think about a band you don’t particularly like. Well, you might not want to go on record and mention a band you don’t particularly like! There’s lot of bands I don’t particularly, whose music I don’t particularly like . . . But I’m never gonna go on an Internet forum – although I’m talking to you now about it. I don’t feel the need to say unpleasant things on the Internet. And I always found it really bizarre that people do say such unpleasant, unkind things on the Internet for no apparent reason! They just like to watch Rome burning, and I find it an extremely strange phenomenon. As my dear old mum used to say, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” . . .
That’s what that song is about; it’s about people that troll. And of course, progressive rock, as a genre of music, I think it seems to be, more than any other genre, you’ll find people that just have a habit of saying unpleasant things on band forums and unpleasant things generally. It’s bizarre! So that’s what the video’s about really. And the ironic thing about the video is, if we put this video and people don’t like it, it’s about trolling and they’re trolling a video about trolling. Which is like typing “Google” into Google! [Laughs] I almost want them to troll the video. So, there you go!
The other thing I noticed that [you have] these spoken-word snippets across a few tracks, especially toward the end of the album. And they’re indecipherable, at least to me; I turned up the volume as loud as they could. What are they doing in the songs?
The album is called A Model Life. And largely it’s kind of an ironic title; what I’m saying is how high people’s expectations are these days. And how there’s a sense of entitlement. And how people spend so much time projecting some phony version of a perfect life that they’re living on Instagram. There’s this need for positive affirmation at every turn.
And so, I found this rather beautiful set of monologues by people who are, sadly, now all deceased. From a much simpler time, talking about things they’ve learned. One of the chaps in the background there is about 101. And he’s talking about his time growing up. And how things were so much simpler and how people didn’t have such high expectations. And people were kinder to one another, etc., etc., etc.
And you could say it’s phony nostalgia, but I honestly do believe that the way society is going – the basic inability to communicate and the risible – it’s bizarre, the anger that people seem to have! . . .
Now musically, I heard two things off the bat – I heard a lot more guitar and I heard a lot more marimba! Those two things usually don’t go together – how did that happen? [Both laugh]
No, they don’t. Look, I’m gonna come clean! A lot of my favorite bands in the 80s for some reason used marimba. I think it’s in [The Police’s] “King of Pain”, there’s a marimba sound. There’s a Mister Mister song with marimba. And I just thought, “Marimba needs to make more of a comeback!” You only hear it in dance music.
And yeah, there’s a lot more guitar. And I thought to myself on this album, you know what? In the small, small pond of progressive rock which I inhabit, I suppose I’m quite well known – if I am well known for anything – [for] playing long, soaring lead guitar solos. And we banned them from the last album we did, the Frost* album [Day and Age], and said “No guitar solos!” Cause Frost* is famous for playing widdly-widdly fast guitar playing and fast keyboard playing and technical prowess and wizardry. We thought, “we’re gonna confuse everybody; we’re gonna make an album of songs with none of that!” So, we did that.
But then I looked at my guitars longingly in a rack and I thought, “I miss you guys!” And they looked back and they said, “Yeah, we miss you too, John. Come on; play us!” And I did! So, that’s why there’s too many guitar solos on this album.
It seems like a successful reunion, though. I’m glad you could rekindle the relationship!
[Laughs] Yeah, we’ve fallen back in love with one another. Long may the epic guitar solo continue!
Again, with this album, I grew up listening to people like Jeff Healey. I’m not some blues guitar player, but very sort of bluesy licks. I realized – well, hell, you know? Gilmour, Healey, people like that are my favorite guitar players! So, I’m just gonna stop the 16th notes for a minute and just play some big stuff instead.
Yeah, go for the emotion instead of the flash.
That’s it, that’s the one! Exactly that.
Now, this is maybe a bit more of a muso question, but it was the one that hit me with the album. Your melodies – as you say, they’re always soaring, always going someplace really fun. You’ve got hooks all over the place. But where does your sense of harmony come from? Cause it seems to me that you do your verse, you do your bridge. And instead of going straight forward into a chorus, there’s always some sort of sideslip with chords. It’s like you’re moving to a parallel dimension or something. How do you pull that off?
I don’t really know as I think about it. All I can tell you is that, from a compositional point of view, certain albums that I grew up I really found interesting. Like Seal’s first album. Do you have Seal in America, do you know him?
He did that “Kiss from a Rose” song. I don’t know if you know that one.
Yeah, that was probably his biggest. And in the prog community, we know Tony Levin played with him.
That’s right! And, of course, that was in the one of the Batman soundtracks. That was from the first album that he did, Trevor Horn produced it. There’s a song that he did called “Violet.” The first chord is he did, it’s like an E over an A, then it’s like a major 7 chord, and then it goes to F. It’s kind of like this [demonstrates on piano]: that chord there; that chord there; then he goes to that chord there. Beautiful chords!
But it’s that thing where normally what would normally be an A minor to an F, it’s an A major to an F. And that’s the kind of thing that [film composer] John Barry made popular. I’ve always loved those kind of modulations. Say you would go from E Major to C# Minor then to C Major. Those kind of weird, unexpected changes that you don’t really hear a lot in popular music. Unless you like Barry, or indeed Seal’s first record.
You hear a lot of that in Frost’s* music; I think that’s something that Jem [Godfrey] found resonant when he first discovered that Kino album, which was the reason he got in touch with me; we both had that shared affinity. There’s a song called “Perfect Tense” on that first Kino album, which modulates between relative major and minor keys. And that’s something that I’ve always found very interesting.
I think that’s why I don’t like a lot of music from the 70s, ‘cause it was before people started doing epic, weird modulations. There was a lot of music in the 70s which was like G, C, D, G. Very simple, sort of folk-based songs like, I suppose you could say “American Pie”. Which is obviously a classic song, but it doesn’t veer from the harmonic path too wildly. There’s a lot of rock music and pop music in the 70s which run[s] along basic chord structures. Going from one relative key to another. And those things are fine, and this was, I suppose, before popular music became more experimental. Obviously, you get a lot of those weird modulations in jazz music, but in popular music you didn’t really that kind of thing too often.
Until various people came along, and you started hearing weird stuff like that in the 80s. Like Level 42 had this song called “It’s Over”. And it was absolutely beautiful, the way it shifted between keys. To me, unless there’s some sort of weird interval where the vocal jumps and it points at another note in a different chord, then I’m not interested, do you know what I mean? There has to be a twist to it somewhere!
Yeah. And even in today’s environment, that kind of shift – as you say, your melody anticipates where you’re going, but it’s not where people are expecting, so that kind of makes it pop!
Yeah, that’s exactly right! You find a weird chord, and all of a sudden, the top note of what you’re singing might become the 9 of the next chord, and it catches the ear. 7 and 9s, when I sing a vocal melody, are always the things I try and pick out. There’s something about the 9th; you play a 9 chord, for example, there’s something that sounds very bleak about it. Neither happy nor sad, but kind of uplifting. I’ve always loved A-Ha, the Norwegian pop band from the 80s. They’re a wildly underrated band; they’ve written some absolutely beautiful songs. My goodness! I could just sit and listen to them all day; I flew out to Berlin not long ago to go and see them at the Mercedes Benz Arena. They didn’t have the massive production, but they were absolutely beautiful! I’ve got a lot of time for that band.
Cool. Now, if I remember correctly, you told me that Craig Blundell recorded the drums for Feelings Are Good in about 11 hours. Less time or more for A Model Life?
No time! I’m gonna come clean with you; I’ve been coming clean with everybody. It is Craig Blundell on the album. But I don’t know if you’ve noticed: Steve Hackett has been on tour forever! He’s never not on tour! Maybe he doesn’t have a house; maybe that’s the problem. Maybe he’s between houses! But he’s always on tour. And good for him, cause let’s be honest; no one’s been touring for the last couple of years. And I think he’s probably got the itch back to go and do it!
Unfortunately, that means his drummer, Craig Blundell, is always on tour with him! So, on this album I connected with Craig. I said, “Look, is there any way that you can do this remotely? I can’t help but notice that you seem to be going round the world; there seems to be some marathon around-the-world race that you’re doing with Steve Hackett. And there doesn’t seem to be a time any time soon that you’re gonna be back in the country, and I have a deadline for an album that I have to hand over! Is there any way we can record remotely?”
And he said, “Maybe there is; maybe I could record the drums at soundcheck.” And I said to him, “Well, that would involve you playing them acoustically, and I’m not” – anybody that knows anything about Lonely Robot know that the drums on Lonely Robot albums are [digital] v-drums; they’re not acoustic drums. And that’s just the way I like to work. It’s still got the DNA of Craig playing the parts he plays. MIDI is MIDI; I suppose if I play a piano part, I play it a certain way, and I try not to overdo it on the quantizing. I like to keep a certain amount of – I hate to use the word “feel”, cause that can be easily construed as mistakes! [Laughs]
But I said, “is there any way you’ve got a couple of days off?” Cause he’s endorsed by Roland; I thought he could get Roland to send him a [v-drum] kit wherever he’s got a couple of days off and he could do the drums. I set up a Dropbox, but then he got into a bit of an incident; there were some riots in Los Angeles, and I think he was a witness to some pretty bad stuff. I didn’t really wanna trouble him too much; I didn’t wanna hassle him, ‘cause it was quite a difficult time for him.
So, I thought, “Well, I don’t wanna get anybody else on the record. I need to get this record made; it needs drums on it.” I suppose I could have done a folk album! So, what I did, which was time-consuming and painful, is that I revisited every single nuance and instance of Craig playing drums on previous albums and previous recordings that I’ve recorded him. And it’s not just Lonely Robot stuff, but other things that I’ve recorded him playing.
And I stitched it together out of previous performances to make the parts that I wanted to hear. So, yeah, it was absolutely time-consuming, but we have played so much music together over the years that I know that if I take that start of drumming from there, and maybe that chorus from this song and wing it all together, then I’ve got what I wanted to hear. It’s not ideal; that was the bulk of the time during recording this, getting the drums right. So, I don’t wanna do that again! ‘Cause I enjoy the process of sitting in a room with Craig and jamming with him and mucking about. It’s great fun, and this was far from ideal. But I got the result I wanted in the end. Not the method I would have gone for, as it were. Like I say, a lengthly pursuit, but got there in the end . . .
So, are there any plans for live work soon on the back of this album?
We do have a tour which has been moved several times, which is occurring in February. Whether or not that’s doable because of the European visa situation – obviously because of the whole Brexit thing. So that’s one question mark. And the other question mark is if people are still tentatively– Steve Hackett obviously notwithstanding, doing very well, selling lots of tickets – but these smaller bands such as myself, people are still quite tentative about seeing a band.
If there are enough tickets sold and it doesn’t cost too much to get from country to country, we are doing a few dates in mainland Europe, and indeed England. So, all being well, yes, that will be happening in February.
And of course, anybody in the States want to throw a load of money at me, I’m more than happy to come and do one of the many progfests or indeed the Cruise to the Edge or wherever! I’ll even play the Louisiana Hayride if required. [Laughs] Won’t go down too well with the country folk!
Now, once we’ve digested and enjoyed A Model Life, you tend to be a pretty busy guy. Is there anything we might look for coming from your other bands or projects in the relatively near future?
Well, Arena has an album [The Theory of Molecular Inheritance] coming out, which has been three years in the making. I can’t remember exactly what date it is, but I think it’s gonna be out in September sometime. Beyond that, nothing immediately, no. But I always like to keep busy, and as I say, this album did help me through a very difficult time. So, I hope that maybe, whatever it is I do next will be without that mental baggage. But indeed, inspirational in a different way, I hope. I don’t know what it’s gonna be yet – but we will find out when the muse descends, as it were.
Got it! Anything else you’d like to say particularly to the readers of Progarchy?
Be progarchic!! Defy all convention! [Laughs]
We’ll work on that! So, that’s really about all I have. But I wanted you to know that I really have enjoyed the new album; I’ve really been getting into it. I’m looking forward to getting the CD when it comes out in a few weeks. I think whatever goals you had, I think you hit them. It’s really quite a moving piece of work. So, it was not simply just “toss it on and get down”; there’s more substance to it, and I hope that people can see what’s behind the surface there.
I hope so. My mission goal for the last album – I’ve seen some people associate Lonely Robot with this whole astronaut thing, but I hope that people can see that it’s just a name. And I’m still writing music, even if it isn’t about otherworldly things, it’s still just as valid in a different sense.
I think you’ve brought it down to earth, especially with A Model Life. It was great talking to you again; thank you so much for taking the time.
You’re very welcome. Thank you, Richard!
— Rick Krueger