Martin Hudson asks John Mitchell 6 questions
John Mitchell is the brain behind the band project Lonely Robot. After the success of the trilogy, Please Come Home, The Big Dream and Under Stars we might have thought that was it and time to move on but John had a trick up his sleeve. It was about this time last year when I visited him at his Outhouse Studio in my home town of Reading and the last of the trilogy was out there. No talk of another album then from John but here it is twelve month later in the guise of Feelings Are Good and guess what? It has nothing to do with the trilogy or outer space!
John is well known to us former Classic Rock Society people and beyond as the guitarist in Arena and vocalist / guitarist with Kino, It Bites, Frost* and The Urbane plus the lesser known A. So on with the six questions, this time down the telephone;
Classic Rock Society folks and fans of all the projects that you’ve been involved with since joining Arena having a general idea of what you are about, but I have been asked on a few occasions what you did prior to Arena. I simply reply that I don’t know. So what was happening prior to Arena?
The first thing I did was set up my studio. I did have a couple of temping jobs. I worked for Prudential but my two ambitions as a kid was to either work on an oil rig or work for the Prudential which was pretty low bar really. The Prudential was one of those jobs where if you are a temping guy and you’ve nothing to do some bloke will come along and get a bunch of roller-decks or cards and mess them up so you can put them back in order so you are doing something. So I just thought it was a waste of my time. This was at a time when my studio just wasn’t happening and so needed some kind of income. I literally got married very young and very quickly and we were both doing temping jobs. I began by starting at nine and leaving at five and gradually it slipped to something like ten till two and couldn’t be bothered. That’s when I realised the only thing I could really do was make music and produce other people’s albums. So I threw myself in to my studio.
Then I produced a band where Mark Westwood was the guitar player called White Trash and he was playing for Nick Friedman who was a Aussie soap star at the time from Home and Away. So I played guitar for him for a while then I got a whiff from Mark that Arena were getting rid of Keith More. So that was it, aged twenty-three. I lied about my age because I heard that the minimum age requirement was twenty-five because anyone under the age of twenty-five was grossly immature (John laughed). That’s still the case ………. And that’s how it started. And my first Arena gig was for you at the Classic Rock Society at Herringthorpe Leisure Centre in Rotherham. I remember that very well because we were about to release The Cry.
I put it to John that Arena and all of the bands mentioned above have different leaders and different sounds even though progressive rock is the outstanding genre. How did he draw a line between the band’s sound to be able to adapt to each methodology?
I do find it confusing and difficult to get to grips with in the world of progressive rock, present company excepted, people seem to love indiscriminately like for like bands. I’m talking to you and you have a broad mind but I do find it hard to get my head around what people like and what it is that I do with the same fervour with what Arena do. They are such vastly different things. Arena has something of a gothic approach, it’s all church organs and quite theatrical where as my stuff is quite a lot more poppy. I don’t want to seem disingenuous to anybody but I do find that part of it confusing and certainly from a guitar playing point of view Arena has always been Clive (Nolan) and Mick’s (Pointer) band and always will be. So I came to realise this fairly early on, the way Arena puts the music together is a polar opposite as you can get to the way I put music together. The writing side of Arena is very much Clive’s domain and it is his baby and certainly Mick as well. You can contribute little riffs and stuff but you can’t contribute finished songs. I think the closest I ever got to a finished song was when a couple of albums back I put a ballady thing together and Clive went away and wrote the words for it. I originally had different words for it. So it’s always going to get chopped around. I don’t feel removed from Arena in that respect but they do feel very much like family to me. It is twenty years now and I think people don’t realise those guys have been with me through thick and thin. Like when my mum died they all came to the funeral and Mick’s always been there for me. So, because I do music in my own right some people have queried why I still do Arena and the answer is quite simple.
Frost* is Jem’s baby and the buck stops with him but it is very different with him. For example at the end of last year, you might remember, Jem hired a holiday cottage and we went away for a week and we both sat in a room each day and wrote songs together. That was very much collaborative where he would come up with some musical idea and then I’d write the lyrics and sing a guide vocal and we’d flesh it out. Obviously he’ll take those songs away and extrapolate and maybe change them around and still the buck stops with him, but it’s much more of a collaborative effort.
I’m going to say to Kino being my baby because I was the guy that was approached to put it together. We did the Urbane album, Glitter, and had limited success. Inside Out in Germany are a progressive rock label and they thought they’d experiment a bit to see if they could sell something a bit more poppy and it didn’t work. They stuck us on tour with Kings X and we had a great time but Inside Out had made their name selling to progressive rock fans and The Urbane was never going to go that brilliantly. So Thomas Waber approached me and asked if I wanted to do something a bit more proggy because I think he liked my sense of melody. He said I could get who ever I wanted in the band so the first person I wanted was John Beck and we got him on board. Then I heard Pete Trewavas had always wanted to work with him. So I was conduit to that.
With It Bites the sound was already created and with my first It Bites album, The Tall Ships, it was very much does this sound like It Bites? At first I found that experience a bit difficult because there was such high expectations and Frank (Dunnery) is such a charismatic chap to follow. He’s quite outspoken on Facebook and says quite contentious things to get a reaction. Well (John laughed) we’re all attention seekers and he likes working the room as it were. I’m not in any way similar to the guy so fronting that band was very difficult. It was big shoes to fill and some people got it and some people didn’t. Nostalgia is a very powerful allure and peoples memories of It Bites just before they split up were the memories of their childhood and you’re competing with that. You’re out of the starting blocks and you’re already handicapped.
We are re-releasing The Tall Ships on vinyl and there is to be a new It Bites album in the future. I’m not going to lie to you that in the current climate the It Bites album re-release and new album are keeping me afloat at the moment. It’s a fact we’ve signed a deal. We’ve been talking about doing one for about five years now but it’s never come to fruition. It’s taken a year to get it together and now we’ve got this far we’ve got to do it. So it will be Bob, John (Beck) and myself plus a bass player. We said ages ago we’d never have a permanent bass player after Dick (Nolan) let us down. Maybe it will be me and John again like we did on Tall Ships. It’s very unlikely we’ll tour it either.
So on to a band project that is John’s baby, Lonely Robot and a new album that might have taken many by surprise. John was left to explain!
So this is my baby and three albums in five years and then surprise, there’s a fourth one (John laughs). It’s quite simple and I might get a lot of grief for this but I said from the beginning it was always three albums because it was a three album deal. I had to fulfil the contractual obligations hence the trilogy idea and then I wanted to do another album and asked why I couldn’t make music under my own name? Thomas (Waber) is very much of an opinion from a business point of view and he is a business man in the business of selling records. He is of the opinion that if you give the illusion of it being a band, of going under the moniker of a band name then it will do better financially. Whether or not that’s true I don’t know. There are people out there that don’t know that Lonely Robot is me which kind of proves my point really but he was quite adamant that we’d established the brand of Lonely Robot and we should continue along that route. People do associate the sound of Lonely Robot with those three albums which have a very definitive sound but I want to get away from that sound now with Feelings Are Good, or slightly get away from it. I don’t want to make a disco record or anything but I don’t want it to be all ethereal and want to be able to write straight ahead songs. It was strange the other day when they were writing the press release for it and someone said, ‘where’s the astronaut for the cover picture?’ I kind of wanted to make a point that we’ve done with that.
There is no theme, no concept and are all separate songs and all about very grounded things. Nothing to do with space and I’m very happy with it. It’s a different album in some respects although I suppose I do have a signature sound. When I made the album I flattened my computer drive and reinstalled everything and didn’t reinstall any of the plug ins or instruments that I used on the last two albums just to make sure I wasn’t going down that road again. So they’re all new songs. I never write songs unless I’m told I have to write songs which is probably lazy of me. There’s none of that having songs left over from the last album. Never, never, never, never! Here’s the thing, songs encapsulate a moment in your life and what you were wanting to say at that time. I was in a different headspace mentally this time last year.
So on the previous Lonely Robot albums there have been special guests. Are there any surprises on this one?
No, none! Again I am going to give it you in pounds, shillings and pence, the idea was to get the guests on and although I’m very proud of the guests I did get on I would not change a note on that first record, but I believe if you’re going to get somebody in get someone that’s going to bring something to the table. Some people though, and I’m not mentioning names, get people on for PR value. It isn’t for artistic value but entirely PR value. There is nobody on this record apart from me and Craig Blundell, just me and Craig and that’s it. On the last one Steve Vantsis played a bit but on this occasion I just wanted to get it done on my own.
The Coronavirus pandemic is proving to be something unique and affecting people in very different ways. Musicians are obviously suffering due of social distancing. How had it affected John Mitchell?
Fortunately I’m not a musician that relies on gigging and I can take or leave gigging. One of my pet hates in life is when you release an album and people ask when are you coming to my town or village to play or whatever and it’s a very British thing. I think British people are very spoiled when It comes to live music but that is where the studio is important to me, but that’s completely knackered for the time being. Let’s be honest there’s going to be no gigs this year and I really don’t know what the guys, the bands that record and tour are going to do. People like Lee Pomeroy, I feel his pain although I think he does a bit of library music now and then. I think by June I’ll be able to start to get people back in the studio again but live music and large gatherings, forget it. Mick (Pointer) seems to think we are still touring Arena in October and I haven’t got the heart to tell him that it ain’t going to be happening.
So what is happening for the rest of the year for John Mitchell?
Well I’ve got to do this It Bites album because money has changed hands and apart from that I’m playing guitars on the Frost* album. We are a lot further down the line with that. Jem’s started sending tracks because I obviously can’t just turn up and play guitar in the studio at the moment which kind of suits me because I like working on my own. So Jem’s been farming out various backing tracks for me to play guitar on which I’m doing at the moment. I’m thoroughly enjoying that but beyond that I’m like most people I just don’t know. I just know I want things to be very different like moving forward with the way I do my own stuff. I’m very proud of Feelings Are Good but for me I only wanted Lonely Robot to be three albums. I think when it gets released on July 17th some people are going to think, ‘hang on a minute’. I’m going to turn round and say, ‘exactly, I did say’ (he laughed). Music is my thing although I’m quite good at changing tyres, I’m not hopeless but I have watched James May’s Man Lab from start to finish so I have learned a few skills along the way. I do though concentrate on one thing and one thing only and as I say I’m doing this It Bites album because I do feel we haven’t finished what we started but beyond that I’d like to focus it a bit more.
Feelings Are Good will be released on Inside Out Music in July and I fine, but different, album it is too.