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John Mitchell: 'The Big Dream'
Released: 28th April 2017 (Inside Out Records)

andy rawll
Words: Andy Rawll

john mitchell

Already well-respected as a frontman, songwriter and producer, in 2015 John Mitchell released his debut solo album, 'Please Come Home', under the dystopian name Lonely Robot. This provided him with a musical vehicle that enabled him to explore lyrical themes that straddle science-fiction and philosophy and deliver aural landscapes and powerful melodies that evoke the great cinema soundtracks of his youth.

This second release is the next part of what is envisaged as a three-part adventure of the Astronaut, the central character in Mitchell's story. When we were introduced to the Astronaut on 'Please Come Home', he's a lone astral traveller, drifting in space. On 'The Big Dream' the Astronaut awakes (...or does he?) from cryogenic slumber to find that he's no longer in space, but in a strange land populated by people with animal heads. So far, so 'Nursery Cryme'.

From a musical standpoint, the sense of aural cinema that pervaded the first episode continues here, complete with unsettling sound effects and portentous orchestration that bind the album as a whole. However, as you would expect from a master-musician like Mitchell, the work is full of fine songs, virtuoso performance and widescreen production. It's also an album of diverse mood and tempo, with the simpler, slower songs, particularly the gorgeous 'In Floral Green', equally drawing attention.

Unlike the first album, this was recorded almost single handed by Mitchell, with Frost* drum buddy and Steven Wilson acolyte Craig Blundell adding wonderfully inventive percussion towards the end of the recording process. That being said, Craig's contribution to the vibe and impact of the album is immeasurable, from the subtle Bruford-like fills on the introspective 'The Divine Art of Being' to the Portnoy-like flamboyance on the title track.

It's ironic that that Lonely Robot's nearest sonic reference point in John's canon is the much-loved, but short-lived 'Kino' project, which means 'cinema' in German and a number of other languages. Indeed, key track 'Sigma' with its choppy rhythm and anthemic chorus would fit perfectly alongside beloved Kino track 'Letting Go'.

Although a keyboard-driven album, in the finest neo-prog tradition, John unleashes beguiling guitar lines and searing solos, with the one on opening track 'Awakenings' particularly good. 'Everglow' is perhaps the centrepiece of the album with its crunching Dream Theater type intro and verse and chorus that would not be out of place on the last superb Frost* album, with a complex yet effortlessly played solo delivered at its climax.

Most certainly a recommended release for fans of Mitchell's previous work or those yearning for a second Kino album. Indeed, this is widescreen kino of the highest calibre and should appeal to an audience beyond the normal prog crowd. I'm already looking forward to the next episode to find out what the Astronaut does next.

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'The Big Dream' continues your intended trilogy about the Adventures of the Astronaut. First of all, who is the Astronaut?

"It's a metaphor that I invented to describe human nature and how people feel disconnected. It's not a concept album, but I like the imagery of what the Astronaut represents. With this album, I was exploring the idea that our version of reality is more skewed than it appears to be. In other respects, the background to this album references some of writings of Alan Watts, the hippie philosopher from the 60s, on how he sees the world."

Did having that concept in place make it easier to develop this second album?

"Composing the music wasn't the difficult part, as that's second nature to me, I do that all day long. For me, so long as you write to the song title, then for me most of your problems are solved. If you think of a song title as a cloud, then all the lyrics are like drops of rain and the music underneath it is the green grass. For me it's got to be from the ground up. You've got to know what the song is about and the mood of the song before you start. If you have a strong title then everything writes itself."

How does your approach to song-writing for Lonely Robot differ to your other bands (e.g. It Bites, Arena, Frost*). For example, 'Everglow' has quite a Frosty vibe and reminds me a little of 'Signs' from the recent Frost* album 'Falling Satellites'?

"I co-wrote 'Signs' with Jem [Godfrey]. He and I are quite competitive when we do music. He's a great inspiration and I do find myself sometimes referencing his chordal ideas. We have a mutual love of the film composer John Barry and the interesting way he makes melody work. So, if it does sound like Frost* then that's no accident."

john mitchell

The previous album, 'Please Come Home', included a number of guest musicians, in addition to yourself and drummer Craig Blundell, whereas this time, the album is credited as recorded by just the two of you.

"Since I started this particular interview cycle, I've had all sorts of suggestions: like was it a financial thing, are you just a megalomaniac? I do prefer to be self-contained. It was really nice having all the guests on the first record, but I made a conscious decision very early on that I wanted to get people on it that were very valid.

"It was nice working with friends and Peter Cox was one of my favourite singers when I was growing up and Nick Kershaw I've always worshipped, but it had to relevant and just not for the sake of putting their names on the cover of the album. The label did say to me on the first record, it would establish the brand if you had some 'names' on it and I like to think that everybody brought something to the table. This time I wanted to be more of a hermit and get it done on my own."

I hear a female voice in 'In Floral Green', 'Symbolic' and 'Hello World Goodbye'. Is that Kim Seviour, who guested on 'Please Come Home'?

"No, it was a girl called Bonita McKinney, who used to sing with a band called Creatures Of Love. She's got a very unusual voice with a fast RnB style vibrato that I think worked well with my voice."

Yet again, Craig's drums really bring the songs to life, like on 'Divine Art Of Being'. How much did he influence the arrangements?

"He's got so much in the diary, so when I came to do the drums I literally had one day to get it done and then he was off on tour with Steve Wilson again. For example, on the title track I knew it would be a certain tempo, which was dictated by a science-fiction sample that I used, so I got him to play at that tempo for ten minutes and told him to go bananas and then I wrote the song around various patterns that I found in his drumming."

john mitchell

The title track is really cinematic and evocative, much like what Steve Hackett achieved on his new album 'Night Siren'. Do you ever envisage turning the Astronaut trilogy into an extended movie or film?

That's where I'm coming from. When I'm not in the studio I listen to a lot of film soundtracks. My first proper album on cassette was the soundtrack to 'Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom', but I also liked Heavy Metal, so my music is a fusing of the two things. For people that refer to it as progressive rock, I don't even think of it as that, I think of it as film sound tracks with Metal guitar. I'm very fascinated with the visual side of things. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get the funding to do the grand ideas I have in my head.

"I do have a video coming out any week now and it's something that I was very forthright about what I wanted and it links towards my favourite science fiction film."

Your website mentions that you enjoy sailing. Does this fire your imagination or is just a form of escapism?

"Like music, sailing for me is real-life escapism. It's about as free as you can feel. I love bobbing out to sea until I can't see land any more - that's my peaceful place."

What can we expect from the live dates in terms of a mix of songs from the two episodes?

"I'm going to be doing up to around four songs off the new album. To begin with, at Reading and the Marillion gig, we're going to do just three songs including two that people will have already heard, 'Everglow' and 'Sigma'. I'm old school like that, if you go and see a band you don't want to be bored to death by something you've not heard. Ease them in gently, I'd say."

Finally, it's been a sad year in terms of prog musicians ascending to the great gig in the sky, particularly John Wetton whom you toured with. I heard your version of his song 'Battle Lines' that you recorded with Liam. That must've been hard to do. What are your recollections of John and was there anything particular you learnt from him?

john mitchell

"I learned an awful lot of things from him. It's still strange for me as it's not really sunk in. I was absolutely convinced that he was going to get better. There were two different versions of John, there's John that had a drink problem and there was John that overcome that. My strongest recollection of John is talking to him about a lot of those things. My own Dad died from the same disease, alcoholism, when I was 12 and it felt like a full circle to me that he overcame it and my Dad never did.

"On a lighter note, I do remember one thing that John always used to say to me. 'Johnny (he was the only person to ever call me that) - three things you should know about playing live on stage. Never wear a watch - it always makes the punters think you've got to be somewhere; Never take the piss out of your fellow bandmates on stage - he felt quite strongly about that after watching the Eagles live in the 70s and they made a mockery of each other and also Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey always having a snipe at each other. The thought that was incredibly unprofessional. And most importantly, if you fuck up, never apologise'."

We also just lost Allan Holdsworth, whose influence you can hear on many of the guitar parts of It Bites' 'Once Around the World'. What did his playing mean to you?

"I know for a fact that he was a massive inspiration on Francis Dunnery, so it really came to me second hand. When I was a kid, I didn't know anything about Allan Holdsworth, but I knew about Francis Dunnery. Then of course, later on when I played with John Wetton, I had to learn Allan's solo from 'In The Dead Of Night'.

"He was an amazing guitar player, the way he thought about music; he didn't see chords, he just saw the notes inside the chords moving around the fretboard. Everybody has their own way of understanding music and I have to say that the way that Allan Holdsworth understood music was mindboggling and it's a great, great shame that he's now passed on.

Tour dates:

Thursday 27th April: Sub89, Reading
Friday 28th April: DeMontfort Hall, Leicester
Saturday 27th May: The Assembly, Leamington Spa

24th April 2017


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