We've often entered the Frost(y) Arena of It Bites front-man John Mitchell, however with Lonely Robot, the singer and multi-instrumentalist has struck out on his own and released his debut solo effort Please Come Home. For Mitchell followers, like myself, there are many parallels to be drawn between this new album and much of his previous work and yet there's no doubt Please.. is different. A cohesive theme runs through all of the songs that make up this captivating piece of work, as do a number of recurring musical motifs. Add in a guest list which includes Steve Hogarth, Pete Cox, Nik Kershaw, Nick Beggs, Heather Findlay and Kim Seviour and there's little doubt that what Mitchell has created here will be one of the most talked about Progressive releases of 2015. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid starts tongues wagging…
John, you're known for being in numerous bands and collaborations. Have you always had ambitions to put a solo release together?
Not really, I've always felt comfortable in bands. However, in recent years, I have become ever so slightly megalomaniacal and so the timing feels right [laughs!].
And how did you find that process. Was it easier with you having sole control over the project, or was it harder having total responsibility over getting the album finished on time, even with a whole host of guests adding their contributions?
It was the most fun I have ever had in the studio. People forget that working by committee is not only hard because of the compromise but also because you have to wait around for the other people to show up. With this, it was a case of get up in the morning, write a song, end of day, finished song totally recorded and completed. Even I find it hard to argue with myself and at the end of the day, if it doesn't get done then I only have myself to blame.
You've mentioned that Lonely Robot is inspired by your "love of science fiction and interest in the evolution of the human race." That's a hugely interesting, yet vast starting point for an album. More specifically what are the thoughts and emotions behind the album's theme?
The basic remit is my belief that we as a species probably didn't originate on this planet. No other species is so at odds with and destructive towards its environment. We're almost like a virus and the planet is warming up to deal with us accordingly much like a human body does. At the very least we are a hybrid species. We have basic fight or flight instinct but we also have a sentient and philosophical side. We're basically conflicted.
….are we still evolving as a species, do you think?
Devolving probably [laughs!]. Every species constantly evolves to fit to its surroundings. I'd imagine we're all going to end up with super extended texting fingers before too long. Is evolution a good thing? I think we probably did less damage when we were water bound, depending on what you believe. Anyways, that's a whole other can of worms, don't get me started on Darwin!!
To me personally, Lonely Robot conveys a longing for companionship, or at least a more organic form of emotional contact than many daily routines really offer these days. In this age of constant electronic communication, are we losing the art of creating actual human connections?
You've hit the nail on the head right there. Absolutely that's what this album is about. "Please come home" is a metaphor for the disconnect we all experience on a daily basis. We've become a synthesised society. Why is it more important to wander round staring at a black oblong box being all "social" when in fact you're neglecting the very person you are with. Attention spans have diminished VASTLY since the advent of smartphones. If you're talking to me, I DEMAND 100% of your attention and vice versa. Steve Hogarth had the right idea when he came in to do his keyboards. "Right John, phones off and let's focus on the here and now". I love that bloke.
Ahh, Mr Hogarth… I'm a huge Marillion fan and very interested by the contribution of Steve Hogarth to Please Come Home. Most people would want to have him singing vociferously on their album. However, while H does sing on the album, it is his keyboard skills you were keen to employ. Why was that so important to you? …and should you have asked him to sing more backing vocals?
I seem to have offended a few pundits with that choice [laughs!]. Truth be told, H is a fantastic pianist and he makes my version of the parts he recorded sound like I had boxing gloves on. I wanted to shine a light on that side of him as a musician, we all know he's one of the greatest singers out there! True to form, you can't keep a good vocalist down and there just so happened to be a vocal mic looming large. He suggested putting down some backing vocals, and hey, who am I to stand in the way of such a talent? Some folks suggested that I relegated him to the backing vocal bin to make myself look good which is faintly bonkers. I'll get him doing a lead vocal on the next album just to assuage them [laughs!].
Having Peter Cox on the album is quite fantastic too. Had working with him been something you'd long been keen to do?
Peter is probably my biggest inspiration as a singer. We're both baritones and we both sound a bit dusty so there's a common ground. Obviously he's the golden voice of the 80s and I'm a bit of a guitarist having a go at being a singer. Peter is one of the nicest chaps you could ever meet and as humble as they get. He's also a massive film nut like myself so when we go out for dinner, we're never short on hot debate! In short, having him on the album was a dream come true, but having him as a friend is the best thing.
I find it interesting that while for some the 80s is a terminally uncool musical time, the likes of Nick Beggs, Nik Kershaw and Peter, have all in recent years been recognised as the talents they are and slowly welcomed into the current "Prog" fraternity. What do you put that down to?
Probably down to the fact that in the 80s they were subversive enough to be secret agents with legitimate pop music careers when secretly they're all massive prog heads…. well all except Peter, he's a huge fan of guitarists, and blues players at that. He likes It Bites though! Even anti society Johnny Rotten is a secret prog head, the whole punk thing was a massive scam [laughs].
You must be delighted to have all three on the album?
I am indeed… I hadn't thought about it until just now!!
You've also used the sublime talents of Heather Findlay and Kim Seviour. Did you feel that the album needed a female touch to get some of the themes across, or was it just a case that they're both bloody fantastic singers?!?
Well I always wanted to do a duet and Heather does a lovely line in soft breathy Kate Bush style vocals when called upon and when you add my Tesco Value Peter Gabriel impersonation into the mix, I think it makes for quite a nice tune, Heather sung it beautifully. As for Kim, we've been good friends for about 12 years now and we've always talked about doing something together and this was that moment. "Oubliette" is more of an "Adam and Eve" style song though and less of a duet.
Musically there are touching points to your work with It Bites, but for me Lonely Robots feels more like an extension of Kino. Is that purely down it being yourself who basically wrote all the material for both those albums, or was it a more conscious decision to revisit that style?
Well I wrote the bulk of the music on Kino so I guess you're hearing facets of my song writing style. I do have certain motifs that crop up from time to time and I guess that seeing as I didn't consciously write in any particular style on this album that that's what you're hearing.
Will we ever see Kino again, do you think?
No, there would be no point. I was full of the joys of spring when we set out on the Kino path but I was quite naïve back then. I wanted it to be a proper band and a vehicle for my writing but the reality is probably that not everyone was as committed to it as I was. Pete has a lot of time commitments with Marillion, which is his day job so to speak, and he also has Transatlantic and Edison's Children as well so Kino probably isn't so far up the list, which I totally understand. Chris [Maitland ex-Porcupine Tree drummer] sort of knocked it on the head before we had even finished the album as he wanted to get a steady income from West End work which I also totally understand. So in short, my vision of what I wanted Kino to be was in fact not to be and the whole thing sort of transmogrified into It Bites, which wasn't really the intention from the outset but hey, I've got Lonely Robot now, Lonely Robot is the new Kino! [laughs!]
Having followed the build up to Lonely Robot, I was completely captivated by the shots of you walking through London in a full astronaut outfit. What was the thought behind that?
The thought was that I wanted this album to be visually striking as much as it hopefully is in the audio department. I knew what the cover was going to be before I had recorded a single note and the "man out of time and place" angle is an extension of that. It sort of bring to mind the Connecticut Yankee in the court of King Arthur idea. I like the way Peter Gabriel has always had a furtive visual mind, same as David Bowie and I think that side of things gets sort of sadly overlooked these days.
Was it quite a nerve racking thing to do?
Only when I had to take the helmet off and make eye contact with people, then I felt like a bit of a plonker. The helmet was my shield [laughs].
Obviously it's going to be difficult to play many Lonely Robot shows. Do you have any plans to help promote the album?
Not sure, I'll do a few gigs if there's a call for it, but I don't want them to be low key as I feel it would do the cinematic nature of the music a disservice. In other words, you won't see Lonely Robot at the Dog And Duck in Croydon.
I recently saw John Beck hobble onto stage with Fish in Glasgow (he'd been to A&E that day!). Everything seems to have gone quiet on the It Bites front. Are there plans for a new album, or any shows….?
I'm sure we'll reconvene writing at some stage. I read somewhere that Fish said that It Bites is on an indefinite hiatus. That's probably quite true. I must confess I was struggling a bit with what direction to take it after Map Of The Past, and that whole album cycle left me feeling a little deflated if I'm being honest. I'm sure my mojo with return at some point though and if those gents want to get back on the horse with me, we'll ride off into the musical sunset together!
And you also have a new Arena album, The Unquiet Sky on the way. What can tell us about that in terms of style and sound - or anything else for that matter?
Not a great deal. I've just done my guitars and it sounds like Arena all right. If anything I can sense a bit more of Clive's musicals sensibility creeping in. Sadly, I was a bit tied up with Lonely Robot this time around to really contribute to the writing process.
The album's release is followed by quite an extensive, 20th anniversary tour of Europe. Can you believe it's been so long, and how much do you enjoy restarting the Arena machine again?
It seems like yesterday when I joined. Time really does fly. The tour is a long one for sure and I'm most worried at present as to who is going to feed my cats. This time around we're renting a space in Devon to rehearse which should be interesting and I'm looking forward to getting out there and giving it what for.
That's all my questions John, thanks for taking the time to answer them. All the best with Lonely Robot, I have to say I've really enjoyed getting to know it.
Thank you mate, I'm glad you like it, it means a lot.