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11th April 2017
It Bites frontman John Mitchell, who also currently exercises his musical chops in the equally popular prog acts Arena and Frost*, branched out into 'solo project' territory two years ago, under the Lonely Robot moniker, for the release of a critically lauded debut album, 'Please Come Home'. The end of April this year will see a sophomore outing for Lonely Robot and its associated character of The Astronaut, titled 'The Big Dream', albeit the setting of space has been switched for the surreally unsettling environment of a woodland clearing, populated by people with a variety of animal heads. Ahead of the album's release, Metal Discovery spoke to John about this nightmarish inspiration, in an interview that also features mentions of Ronald McDonald; Daley Thompson's Decathlon; Muppets; the Fonz; telephonophobia; bananas; and twats. Intrigued by such professed randomness? Then I suggest you read on...
METAL DISCOVERY: Congrats on the new album - phenomenal stuff again. ‘Please Come Home’ was so well received, so was there any pressure when you started working on ‘The Big Dream’…was it a case of difficult second album syndrome, in any way?
JOHN: No, not really. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant but, normally, that second album syndrome, I think it’s something that existed when bands were touring incessantly, and they didn’t really have time to write a second album. But, if you don’t go on tour, by account of the fact that you’re not twenty one years old or whatever, there’s a lot of time to make an album. And, you know what, I don’t find it hard making music. I find it hard making music with other people! [Laughs] The actual process of making music, I don’t think about it too much and, if you don’t think about it too much, it’s really not that complicated.
(John Mitchell on his nightmarish inspiration for 'The Big Dream's cover)
"I had two horrible recurring dreams as a kid: one of them was being set upon by people with animal heads, and the other one was something to do with Ronald McDonald… but we won’t go there!"
Lonely Robot - promo shot
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2016 - Lee Blackmore
MD: So, all nice and easy then.
JOHN: Yeah.
MD: The cover’s very interesting - it struck me of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, mixed up with a bit of ‘Donnie Darko’ and… I don’t know if you’ve ever seen ‘The Bridge’, the Swedish TV series?
JOHN: I haven’t seen ‘The Bridge’, but I have seen ‘Donnie Darko’, though. ‘The Bridge’… is that on Amazon, is it?
MD: I don’t know, although I think it might be on Netflix. But, yeah, the second series had some kind of eco-terrorists wearing animal masks, so it reminded me of that a bit, too. I guess it’s nothing to do with any of that… it looks more like a nightmare than a dream…
JOHN: That’s exactly what it was. It was a recurring nightmare I used to have when I was a kid. I actually returned to the place where I used to play as a kid - that’s where we shot the album cover. I had two horrible recurring dreams as a kid: one of them was being set upon by people with animal heads, and the other one was something to do with Ronald McDonald… but we won’t go there!
MD: Okay, best not to ask about that one then!
JOHN: [Laughs]
MD: You’ve described the general theme of the album as being that of The Astronaut waking up in “a solipsistic haze”… that sounds like you’re describing half the world these days, with their little self-centred online social networking universes. Is that intended to be a metaphor for society, in that way?
JOHN: That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it. You’ve hit the nail on the head, so, yes. I mean, I actually know people who can’t speak to each other on the phone because they find that communication… even over the phone, that’s almost a confrontation too much, if you know what I mean. People are so buried and hidden behind the wall of the keyboard. It’s kind of like people are… it’s kind of a generational thing, but some people are afraid to… it’s almost like that level of interaction seems too personal for some people. You know, it’s kind of weird. A friend of mine, a girl who did the photos for the first album, and sung backing vocals for the first album… I’ve known her six years and, if I phone her up, she can’t answer the phone. She’s got some real stigma attached to it. It’s bizarre and I think, well, there’s got to be something wrong with the world. I mean, I remember not being able to make phone calls when I was about twelve years old or whatever, because I found it scary, but that’s a kid’s thing…
MD: In case Ronald McDonald answered!
JOHN: [Laughs] Exactly!
MD: I have to ask as well, did you consider getting Lee Ingleby back for this new one?
JOHN: Well, I gave him a credit, but it’s actually outtakes from the last one; I didn’t have to get him back in to do it. And there are various other things that I got him to do the first time around, which I kind of dragged out for this one. I do stay in fairly close, regular contact with Lee but, you know, he’s very busy, at the moment; he’s doing theatre up north.
MD: Ah, right. He’s a phenomenal actor as well… very underrated, I would say.
JOHN: He’s incredibly underrated. In fact, I would say to anybody, if you check out on YouTube, I think it’s up there, there’s this one thing that really resonated with me… you know the film ‘Master and Commander’?
MD: Yeah.
JOHN: There’s a bit with Hollom’s death, because he plays Hollom, the guy who everyone picks on, and they blame him for the fact the wind’s disappeared; they think he’s cursed the ship, or something. He starts believing himself and the only way to deal with the situation is to throw himself overboard, which he does. And there’s that scene - ‘Hollom’s death’, I think it’s called - on YouTube, and it’s absolutely heart-breaking. The way he delivers it is absolutely breath-taking. He’s a phenomenal actor.
MD: He’s got such a wide range. He should be doing big Hollywood films constantly. I remember him from ‘Spaced’ originally, the old Simon Pegg thing, if you remember him in that?
JOHN: Yeah, I remember him in that… but I think the first time I saw him was ‘Ever After’ with Drew Barrymore, that he did when he came out of drama school. And he’s such a nice guy, as well; he’s really down to earth. And I just like him… he’s a geezer!
MD: And you’ll try and do something with him in the future again, you reckon?
JOHN: I hope so, yeah. I mean, he came down and did the voice-over here… he’s a very busy guy; he’s in demand. But I agree with you, I think he should be a household name.
MD: Exactly.
JOHN: I’ve heard he’s shortlisted to be the next Doctor Who… I don’t know whether that was a rumour or not, but I think he’d make a brilliant Doctor Who, personally.
MD: Definitely. Your fellow Frost* buddy, Craig Blundell, played all drums on the album, which I gather was a reciprocal thing at times, as you wrote a couple of songs based on certain rhythms and patterns he came up?
JOHN: Well, yeah, because I mean, the thing is with Craig, it’s easy to exaggerate to seem important and it’s easy to say, “yeah, this guy’s so busy”… but I don’t think I know anybody as much of a workaholic as Craig. I mean, literally, his diary is rammed. Absolutely rammed. Around the time I needed him to do the drums, I think he was just about to go off with Steven Wilson again. It’s a blessing and a curse, in a way, because I helped him get the gig when I put him forward for the job. When Steven was looking, when Marco Minnemann wasn’t available to do it anymore, I recommended him. But, of course, I shot myself in the foot, because I can’t get hold of the bugger!
JOHN: We had a day - literally, I went there for a day for him to do the drums on the album and, of course, the album wasn’t quite finished - and I knew this was my one window of opportunity. Two of the tracks on the album, I hadn’t really written. One was a half-written sketch and the other one I knew was going to be based around a sample. It was a very short sample which I nicked from a science fiction film, and distorted and reversed, and all sorts of things. And I knew that was going to be the tempo of the song, so I just got him to play drums at that tempo. I said, “look, just give me every kind of crazy drum pattern for ten minutes and I’ll piece it together later, which he did, and that was the song ‘The Big Dream’.
MD: Talking of lifting something from a science fiction film, there was one bit on the album, and I can’t remember the track title now, but I thought it sounded a little like John Carpenter… well, a John Carpenter film, ‘The Thing’, but I think Ennio Morricone did the soundtrack to that one, but the pounding bass reminded me of that. [Subsequent to the interview, I checked this out again, and the passage of music I was referring to was two thirds through the album’s title track]
JOHN: Yeah, well, John Carpenter famously… you remember that ‘Little Britain’ thing where they used to take the piss out of Dennis Waterman?
MD: Yeah, little Dennis Waterman!
JOHN: [Adopts high voice] “Write the theme tune, sing the theme tune”! John Carpenter’s got that reputation a bit, hasn’t he, because he does his own tunes and that. But, you know what, I’ve got ‘The Best of John Carpenter’… it’s really simple stuff, but you know what the really funny thing is? The naivety. The stuff that he writes is uber, uber simple. But, then again, one of my favourite soundtracks is for the film ‘Moon’, and that was by Clint Mansell. I think he played the whole thing with just two fingers, like ‘Track & Field’ or ‘Daley Thompson’s Decathlon’… just hitting two keys on the keyboard, and it sounds sinister as anything. And, I don’t know, sometimes the simpler the things, it’s the naivety of it that sets it apart and makes it more sinister. The ‘Airlock’ track, that’s what I wanted to get from that, you know.
MD: I think it’s a real, natural talent to make the simple sound epic, as well.
JOHN: Well, exactly, and there’s so much more to film soundtrack writing these days rather than just organising French horns and this, that and the other, you know. A lot of it’s sound design. Trent Reznor’s brilliant at it, and Atticus Ross as well. And John Murphy, who did the ‘Sunshine’ soundtrack - they’re not overly technical, neo-classical arrangements. I mean, don’t get me wrong - I love Alan Silvestri, and Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner, but there’s something to be said for reinventing this genre. And reinventing progressive rock because, I mean, that’s the most parodied genre of all time.
MD: Yeah, and you talk about John Murphy… I mean, ’28 Days Later’, the famous piece of music from that film must’ve made him a millionaire. So simple, but so effective, too.
JOHN: Absolutely, and I’m glad you mentioned that one because that’s fucking brilliant.
MD: It is, yeah. Used on that old Peugeot advert back in the day and all sorts.