Interview with John Mitchell (Lonely Robot/It Bites/Arena)

John Mitchell
Photo: Rebecca Needs-Menear

Multi-instrumentalist John Mitchell is a busy man. Not content with recent releases by Kino, Frost, It Bites and Arena he has just released Please Come Home by his latest project Lonely Robot. Mick Burgess caught up with him to find out more.

You’ve just released your Lonely Robert album, Please Come Home. Are you pleased to finally get it released?

I’m feeling really positive about this. I finished the album sometime last year so it’s strange discussing what it’s all about as the recording was all in the dim and distant past now but I’m pleased that it’s finally out after so long.

There’s a few reviews starting to come through that are really positive. Is that easing the nerves a bit?

I think if you’re true to yourself I think people can see the honesty and can see how much this means to me. The reviews have been really good which is great. Not everyone will like it but so far it’s all been pretty positive.

You have been involved in It Bites, Frost and Kino recently. What was your motivation to start a completely new project?

My motivation was that we were starting to write another It Bites album and it wasn’t really going very well and it was hard trying to define which direction we were heading in after Map of the Past. We recorded a couple of songs that were good but it felt like we were recording It Bites songs by numbers. Then Fish called up and John Beck went off to work with him for a while and I was kind of left wondering what to do next so I thought I’d go off and do my own thing.

How would you say Lonely Robot differs from other music you have done?

I think it’s a lot less retro than my other work. I know John likes the bells and tinkles in It Bites and it works well in that but I didn’t want to do that with Lonely Robot. I wanted to get away from that and do something different and create something more atmospheric rather than relying on Moogs and Mellotrons and stuff like that. Bands back then used those as that’s all there was but I wanted to use as many different atmosphere’s and kinds of synths that I could. I just wanted it to be a bit more contemporary.

Where did the idea for the name Lonely Robot come from?

I’m a fully paid up nerd. I love Sci-Fi and love that film called Moon directed by Duncan Jones who is David Bowie’s son and all of that sort of stuff. The idea for the name actually came from an album by Sting’s daughter Coco Sumner called I Blame Coco and on that album is a song called “Self Machine” and in the chorus of that song is the lyric “Lonely robot in the harbour”. I thought that was weird, why would a robot be in a harbour but something just clicked and I was intrigued by that and decided I’d have that so I nicked the name from Sting’s daughter.

You did the writing, lyrics and production yourself. You have sole responsibility for the album. Was this a pretty daunting prospect to start with or did you enjoy the freedom to go musically wherever you wanted?

I was like a kid in a sweet shop. I wasn’t daunted at all. In It Bites, me and John write the music, well I come up with the music and he arranges it. It’s nice to have that freedom and to get up in the morning and crack on and do what I want to do musically. In a band there’s a fair bit of compromising to do and you also have to sit around and wait for other people to turn up. Doing this by myself I can just get on with it.

Did you write the material specifically for Lonely Robot or were you able to use some ideas you’ve had lying around for a while that weren’t suitable for anyone else?

I didn’t write a single note before this. All I had was a little notebook with 11 song titles in. I find it difficult to write a song without a title first. I think having a title just helps me to write. Sometimes if I don’t have a title I’ll stare blankly at my bookcase so you’ll find titles like “The Tall Ships” and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” have come from looking at books in my book case. This time I had the song titles and I knew what I wanted to write based around those titles.

Is there a theme running through the lyrics or does each song stand on its own?

There is a kind of theme running through it relating to the issue that I don’t think humans originated on this planet. I think human behaviour is so destructive to its own environment that if we did originate from here then we’d be at such odds with our surroundings. I think we’re a hybrid species as we have the fight or flight instinct with the more animal instincts while at the same time we have a more cerebral side too. We’re kind of conflicted so that’s where the theme is coming from. I wanted it to be cinematic like a movie soundtrack with Rock guitars. I’d actually say the theme was more in the audio than in the subject matter though.

How do you tend to write? Do you have a clear vision of the music and all the different parts or do you gradually build the song up piece by piece?

I have a good memory for music and I have a good idea of what the song will be like before I even start. I work quickly and I can get up in the morning with an idea and by the evening can have a fully recorded track.

“Airlock” has such a simple, hypnotic piano line running through the song. Is the piano line where you started with that one?

I just started with a sinister piano motif, something to scare small children with and built it up from there. It’s a nod towards “Your Imagination” by Willy Wonka but more sinister and then it had all of that epicness behind it and I wanted to end it with a cat merging into a baby and back into a cat again which is probably the most frightening sound there is.

You have an impressive collection of guests on the album including Nick Beggs, Peter Cox (Go West), Steve Hogarth and Nik Kershaw. Did you have a hit list of artists you wanted on the album?

I did have a list of people I’d like to play with and actually someone reminded me that I had Richard Paige from Mr. Mister on there too but I didn’t know him but I do know Peter Cox, Nik Kershaw and I know Steve Hogarth the best out of all of those guys. I’ll be brutally honest. The record label said that nobody knows who I am so I’d better get some names to appear on the album…Ha!! That’s one side of it but the other is that I’d never get anyone onto an album just for the sake of getting them onto an album. I didn’t want anyone on the album for the sake of it and I think everyone on there has upped the ante and brought something to the table. I don’t think people tend to think of Nik Kershaw as a lead guitarist so I wanted to show what he could do as he is actually a very, very good lead guitar player. Steve Hogarth is a really good pianist too so I wanted people to hear that.

Did you have a clear idea of who you wanted when you were writing?

I didn’t have a clue who would do what when I was writing. Heather Findlay from Mostly Autumn was the first guest to perform and she had a four hour train journey. When she set off I didn’t have a thing written for her so in the time it took for her to travel down I’d written a song for her to sing on. There’s nothing like a bit of pressure to get things going.

Were you able to work with many of the guests in the studio or did time and scheduling constraints mean that they had to send in their parts over the internet?

Nik Kershaw has his own home studio so he worked there. Peter Cox turned up and did his vocals in three takes then we went for lunch which is nice. Steve Hogarth rocked up too and did his parts in a couple of hours and then we drank non-alcoholic beer for about six hours and pretended we were drunk.

Many people consider the likes of Nick Beggs, Nik Kershaw and Peter Cox as 80’s Pop stars and don’t realise the level of musicianship they actually have. What was it like working with them?

They’re like secret agents masquerading as Pop stars when secretly they’re massive Prog fans listening to King Crimson to confuse everybody and now they are showing everyone what they really are like. Nik Kershaw said to me his next album will be a bit Proggy and Nick Beggs is the Prog bass player for hire at the moment.

Why did you decide to choose Lee Ingleby to do narration on the album?

I think he’s one of the best British character actors that we’ve got and I think his moment to shine is yet to come. He’s a brilliant actor and seeing him in Master and Commander when he throws himself overboard was heartbreaking. I spoke to him on Twitter and he wanted to do it. He came down to Reading where I live and did his part in 20 minutes.

Have you any plans to take Lonely Robot out on the road?

No plans as yet but I’ll willingly do whatever the record label wants me to do. I don’t want to do it on the pub circuit or anything like that. It’s cinematic in scope and I’d like the live shows to reflect that. I want the shows to be an event with a proper stage show. I don’t want to do it half-cocked or I don’t want to do it at all.

What is the current status with It Bites, Arena and Frost?

John from It Bites is out with Fish so he’s tied up there at the moment but I’m sure when John returns and if we have something to say musically then we’ll do a new album together. As for Frost you’d have to ask Jem Godfrey but I think at the moment the whole thing is on indefinite hiatus. As for Arena, we’ve just finished the guitars on the record and we’ll be out on tour very soon.

Do you have any other projects lined up over the next year or two?

Nothing else at the moment other than studio work, producing bands and hopefully Lonely Robot will do well so that I can do another album and I think the label are signed up to that so we’re already talking about the second one just as the first is out.

Please Come Home by Lonely Robot is out now on InsideOut Records.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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