Big Dreams: An Interview with John Mitchell (Lonely Robot, Frost*, It Bites)
As the frontman of adored bands like It Bites and Frost*, singer/songwriter/guitarist John Mitchell has long since established himself as a leading figure in modern progressive rock. With his 2015 solo debut (under the pseudonym Lonely Robot), Please Come Home, he also proved how well he can steer the creative ship himself. This month, he'll release the even more impressive sequel to that gem, The Big Dream, and I recently had the chance to speak with him about the narrative and motivations behind the conceptual saga, as well as his thoughts on modern technology, touring, and past endeavors.
Hey, John. How are you?
Not too bad, not too bad at all.
Great. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
Congrats on the new album, The Big Dream, too, of course. I really like it. I think I like it more than Please Come Home, actually, which certainly isn’t a knock at that album.
Well, there’s always that argument, isn’t there? You’re obliged if someone says that your newest album is the best one you’ve made, but the reality is that that isn’t always the case. I remember a friend of mine, Sean Smith, who was in a band called The Blackout. I read an interview with him and he said, “I don’t know why we had to do another album. I really liked the last one, but hey, apparently I’ve got a contract” [laughs].
That’s a good way to look at it. Over the past year, I’ve heard a few albums by artists I really like that have disappointed me because they’re too familiar.
It is sometimes easy to kind of lose your mojo and start repeating yourself. Sometimes, it’s just people trying to hit a mark, like if they need to make an album every year. If you go into it with that mindset, you will find yourself repeating yourself. Fortunately, there is no great pressure for me to do this, so hopefully when I do do it, I got at it with a “full steam ahead!” attitude and fresh ears.
I think you do, especially in this case since it’s a direct continuation of the last one narratively.
It’s certainly got a robot on the cover.
You’ve said that its plot is as follows: “The Astronaut wakes up from a cryogenic sleep but finds he’s no longer in space, and is instead in a woodland area surrounded by a group of strange people with animal heads! It's a little surreal, a little Midsummer Night's Dream to some extent. This is something of a solipsistic haze, for want of a better description.” That also sounds like something David Lynch might make.
The funny thing is that when I wrote that originally—well, I didn’t write it; someone at InsideOut put it together—I think I finished the album in October of last year, but I missed the deadline because I had a really bad throat infection. In actual fact, I kind of handed it over and forgot all about it. It’s funny that they still use the same press blurb and I have no recollection of it. That’s my own fault, I suppose. You finish something and hand it in—like writing an essay for school—and you don’t hear about it for a while and then you get your grade, you know, a year later. It’s like someone else wrote it. I didn’t come up with the Midsummer Night’s Dream comparison, but I understand why it’s there.
Oh, okay. How does the cover represent the album?
The cover itself comes from a recurring nightmare I had when I was a kid. I had two of them, but I won’t tell you about the other because it’s really very strange, but the other one was about being set on by people with animal heads. I had a real phobia of anthropomorphic figures; maybe I was eating some bad cheese whilst reading The Wind and the Willows or something [laughs]. Anyway, I just wanted to recreate that particular recurring nightmare and try to face that foible in a cathartic way. I’ve always liked the iconographic and surreal images on album covers. I think a lot of covers these days are, like, a bunch of heavy metal guys standing in front of an industrial post-apocalyptic wasteland looking really mean and moody. There’s that joke about how many Finnish park rangers have to rescue metal bands every year?
Yeah, with all of the black metal makeup and they get lost in the woodland destruction.
Exactly. I mean, I shot it in a woodland, but I don’t think many people have dragged a hospital bed into the woods and gone to sleep there in their pajamas. At least, I hope.
I can’t think of any. How difficult was it to shoot?
The woods I went to is where I used to play as a kid, with my friend Adam. It’s above a little village called Hambleton. It was difficult in that I’m quite a shy person, so laying in a hospital bed while people go by with their dogs is not my idea of a fun day out, I suppose. The only real trial and tribulation was dragging the hospital bed up quite a steep incline. I could’ve done it in post, couldn’t I? Just laid in a bed and do it after. But hey, I think you have to live the photograph to understand the image.
If only Pink Floyd would’ve had that option for A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
I’m doing Pink Floyd on a shoestring budget. There’s nothing quite like laying in your pajamas in the woods in a hospital bed, surrounded by people with animal heads.
It’s a great image. It’s very intriguing.
Thank you. That was the idea; perhaps in this day and age, the visual aspects of music have fallen by the wayside, along with the whole listening experience. I wanted to make an album cover that makes people go, “Well, that’s an interesting image. What’s that about? Why is there a guy walking through London in a space suit?” I just like interesting images. I always found people like Storm Thorgerson interesting. There are a lot of great new album covers out there, but it does get vastly overlooked. I mean, in prog rock you get a lot of bright 3-D covers. Things like pyramids that are computer-rendered. I like the fact that we actually shot it. It wasn’t just knocking something together out of stock footage.
That’s a good point. It does make the image more authentic. Speaking of the music, what exactly the storyline of this one? Where are we picking up from and ending, if you want to say?
Basically, the narrative of the astronaut is a metaphor. People ask me if I’m the lonely robot, and I’m not. It’s a narrative of humankind and the idea of being lost in space is a metaphor for humankind being lost within our own surroundings. We’re at odds with it. I don’t honestly believe that we originated 100% on this planet; I think we’re a hybrid species, and that’s what I was trying to explore last time. This time, I’m exploring the idea of social disconnect, which is something I feel very strongly about, even though I’m a massive hypocrite. I fall into the same trap. I actually know people who can’t answer the phone, which I find very strange. People hide so much behind the wall of social media, with their Z-list celebrity status, that it’s—it’s not a bad thing; it encourages people to reach out to each other, but it it’s a strange world when so much of communication is about body language and eye movement, yet you can’t answer a phone because of it. It’s a generational thing.
I think so, too.
A friend of mine, whom I’ve known for six or seven years but won’t mention by name because I don’t want to embarrass her, but she actually can’t answer the phone. It’s bizarre. It’s a step too far. She had to reach out to people via text rather than speaking, and I find that very odd.
There’s an essay I teach by Sherry Turkle called “Growing Up Tethered” that’s all about how teenagers are stuck to their phones. They need to connect all the time yet they don’t want to interact face-to-face. They think a friendship is fine if you never meet. I mean, it is generational, but I’m twenty-nine-years-old and I do it, too. I think we all fall victim to it.
I mean, this is technically a phone conversation so you’ve already fallen outside of the reamer. Like you say, it’s very psychological. There’s an episode of Black Mirror that’s about that. The affirmation of likes and how people buy likes. It’s like fake news. What is that? As I’m blathering on about this, I suppose I am as stuck to my phone as the next person, but the funny thing was that on the first record, I remember having Steve Hogarth from Marillion come play piano and sing some backing vocals. He has a rule that helps focus you; he says, “Okay, phones away. When we’re working, phones away. I don’t even want to see them.” I guess that’s the same thing as when my parents’ generation thought that television was the devil because it interrupted the flow of normal interaction. Now we’ve reached this other impasse. It’s strange.
It definitely is.
We’re a synthesized society. It’s no wonder that so many people misinterpret what other people are saying when there is no face-to-face continuum. I actually did an experiment with the friend I was just speaking about. I said, “Look, we’re together now, in my studio. What’s the big deal about answering the phone?” I made her walk to the end of the garden to see if she could answer the phone if I called her while being in her field of vision. She still couldn’t. It’s a strange discourse, you know?
Yeah, but it doesn’t seem too uncommon, sadly.
I know, I know. I suppose it bothers me because I’m an old guy now [laughs].
According to the press release, you see Lonely Robot as a trilogy of albums. Is that still true?
Well, it’s really that I’ve got a three-album contract. It’s nice to have that, especially in this day and age. In a way, it goes back to how people were offered eight-album contracts in the ‘70s and ‘80s because it was an investment in the artist to establish the brand and give the artist a chance to breathe and grow. When I discussed it initially and it was a three-album contract—I’m being sardonic, of course—but as a title, I don’t want to limit Lonely Robot. I don’t want to make endless albums about a guy in an astronaut suit; it’s just a title, but I certainly wanted to make these three: Please Come Home, The Big Dream, and the unnamed third one, although I do know what it’ll be called but I don’t want to disclose it yet.
I feel quite strongly about that story being a trilogy.
I was wondering about that because there are other groups, like Ayreon and Coheed and Cambria, who are named after characters in their albums. Since Lonely Robot is also the pseudonym for your solo project in general, would you keep it even after the story is done?
I think Lonely Robot is just a really good name to begin with. People associate it with a sort of sci-fi/musical thing, like film soundtracks meet rock music. It’s actually inspired by Sting’s daughter, Coco Sumner, who wrote a song called “Selfmachine.” There’s a lyric in the chorus that goes: “Lonely robot in a wasteland / Rusting in the harbour's water,” and I thought it was really interesting wordplay. So, I stole it! There you go. You can’t copy words, though, can you? Well, you can if they’re in a particular order, I guess. I don’t know what she was thinking or if she indeed wrote the lyrics to the song.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
It’s emotion vs. non-emotion.
In addition to Touchstone’s Kim Seviour and Craig Blundell returning, you have a new keyboardist, Liam Holmes, and bassist Steve Vantsis replacing Nick Beggs—
Well, they aren’t on the album; they’re the live band.
Oh, I’m sorry!
No, it’s okay. I don’t know where it says that, but yeah, that’s literally the live band. It was basically just Craig on the record and I played everything else. Bonita Mckinney from Creatures of Love sang some backing vocals. I produced them but then they split and I stayed friends with her. She’s got a very interesting voice, an interesting vibrato. It was great to collaborate with her. I see Lonely Robot as a solo thing; I run a record label [White Star Records] but not the one that signed Lonely Robot [InsideOut Music], and it was discussed early on. You can look at it from a cynical perspective, but certainly within the realm of progressive rock, there is a feeling that if you invite other people to your project, then it invites other fanbases and helps establish the brand.
That makes sense. I see that a lot.
Having said that, I understand that from a label and marketing point of view, but on a grander scale, you could argue that Slash did it with his first solo album [Slash, 2010], but then his second album [Apocalyptic Love, 2012] only featured Miles Kennedy and his live band. I agreed that it would be cool to have guests on it, but I wasn’t going to have anyone who was inappropriate or irrelevant. I see a lot of albums with guest musicians and you get the feeling that they’re there solely to make up the numbers and sell the record. If you’d told me when I was a kid that I was going to have Peter Cox from Go West on my record, I would’ve jumped out of my chair. I thought, Well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go with people I really respect and are pertinent to the project.
Certainly, Nik Kershaw is someone I’ve known for a long time. I played guitar on a song that he wrote a long time ago, and in his own right, he’s a great melodic guitarist. Ironically, I did a remix of a track that he played on on the first album the other day [“Humans Being”]. My original guide guitar just sounded like [rubbish] compared to what Nik did, so I feel vindicated that I made those decisions. Everyone who was on that first record really brought something to the table. It wouldn’t have been the same record without them.
Yeah. On this one, though, I wanted to keep it self-contained. It was nice to collaborate with those people, but I don’t want every album to be some massive love-in.
Of course. That’s like Riverside bassist/vocalist Mariusz Duda’s solo project, Lunatic Soul. He has a similar mindset, I think. Anyway, something else I noticed is that The Big Dream feels more cinematic than Please Come Home, with the prologue, epilogue, and perpetual narration.
Absolutely. I make no secret that when I’m not in the studio listening to teenagers scream their heads off, I’m listening to film music and relaxing piano music. You know the Amazon Echo?
Every time I go into the kitchen—or, really, any room in the house—I find myself saying the same soundbite. I’m sure I’m not using it to the full potential; I could get it to do the shopping for me, but these days I always ask it to play the Pride and Prejudice soundtrack. It’s very calming. That’s not to say that I have a problem with heavy metal; I grew up with all sorts of heavy metal and listened to a lot of new metal in the 2000s, but if you spend your entire day in the studio, as I say, listening to angry teenagers complain about the textile industries or whatever, it’s kind of nice to wind down and not listen to that.
I kind of want Lonely Robot to be a perfect amalgamation of two things I love: film soundtracks and heavy rock. With “Prologue (Deep Sleep)” and “Epilogue (Sea Beams),” I wanted it to scan like a film soundtrack. I wanted it to be a nod to the greats like Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. The first one was a nod to Clint Mansell, who did the Moon soundtrack, which was very simplistic. I understand that he played all of the piano with only two fingers, like he was playing track and field or something. It’s so sinister and it works perfectly. It’s like sound design. I’ve got a great fondness for traditional score-makers like John Williams and Thomas Newman, but I really love the modern guys, too, like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the people who did The Social Network. That had simpler themes but it still worked.
There’s also Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Yeah! I grew up with that. It was the soundtrack to my early ‘20s. Everybody wants to do that now; I’m at the back of a very long queue [laughs].
Speaking of Clint Mansell, one of my earliest memories is seeing the video for “Ich Bin Ein Auslander” by his band, Pop Will Eat Itself. It scared the hell out of me.
Yeah, I imagine it would’ve. Then again, that’s what music should do. It should provoke that sort of emotion.
Totally. His soundtrack for Requiem for a Dream contains some of my favorite instrumental music.
Oh, what a film that is. That’s when we discovered that Jared Leto is actually a great actor. Even if you think he’s a bit of a nob and you don’t like his band, you can’t argue that he’s got acting chops.
Unless I’m mistaken, there’s also more narration on this album, right?
Yeah, there is. On the first album, I had a guy called Lee Ingleby, who was in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Master and Commander. I think he’s one of the most underrated actors this country has ever produced. He should be a household name. I heard that he was listed to be the next Doctor Who at one point, but that never happened. He’s a monster but he’s not as known as he should be. It was an honor to work with him.
I bet. He gives a great performance.
I have to be honest: I respected him so much as an actor that I didn’t even think about if his voice would fit. I just wanted to hang out with him.
Well luckily, you did. Another connection I noticed to the first album is the line “Please come home, lonely robot” near the end of the title track. I love conceptual continuity like that, so it really stuck out to me.
Yes, although the first time is a more positive version. It means a lot to me, that turn of phrase. It was a perfect way to end that piece of music. I like the juxtaposition of how it was positioned on both albums. I liked the album for the first time in months the other day and it kind of stood out in the way I’d hoped it would, so I’m pleased with that, at least.
As you say, this time it feels more isolating and sparse. It’s quieter.
I’m glad you noticed that.
Of course. I always look for the kind of thing. One of my favorite bands—and a really criminally unknown one—is The Dear Hunter. They have phrases and music repeat throughout all of their Act records. I wonder if there are any other links like that on The Big Dream.
Well, the main difference isn’t so much a reprise. There’s a philosopher called Alan Watts who was a heady philosopher in the ‘60s. He talked a lot about solipsism and us being a part of a greater imagined thing. It was his way of explaining the fantastical and all of the coincidences that come together to create what we know as life. You can take it for granted. It’s kind of strange thing. Maybe it’s just me, but I notice that the longer I stare at a word or an object, the more bizarre it looks. If you stare at trees long enough—and I know this’ll make you think I’m a complete lunatic—but if you stare at trees long enough, they start to look really weird. In your world view, you just take them for granted. It made me think, What if this is all just pre-programmed solipsism? Trees are so otherworldly, but you’re so used to seeing them from your frame of reference. If you stare at them long enough, it’s like pulling back the curtain and seeing the wizard. It’s like being in The Matrix [laughs].
I see what you mean. It’s like looking at a word that you’ve written a thousand times but suddenly it looks misspelled.
Exactly. It’s the way the mind processes things. It’s like déjà vu. Maybe we’re programmed with this information and if you start to question it enough, you’ll wonder about the empirical evidence. That’s kind of what I wanted to explore on The Big Dream.
It’s very hard to wrap your mind around, but I see what you mean. It’s deep. So, the first single for the album is “Everglow.” Why was that chosen and how does it fit into the narrative?
I didn’t pick it; the label did, and then they announced that I had about seventy-two hours to come up with a video. I kind of made a rebellious video that has more missing frames and edits and glitches than any video known to man. It’s an anti-video and it gives you a headache.
That’s what they get, though, for giving you such a small time frame.
I wanted it to be a bit like a blipvert. If you were to slow it down, there are a lot of images and words and slogans that happen so quickly. No one’s figured it all out yet. There are a lot of things I’m saying that—if anyone can be bothered to sort through it all [laughs]. Most people just look and say, “Why did you do that? Now I’ve got a headache and I’m foaming at the mouth.”
It’s very clever to go for. I’m sure someone will try to uncover all of that.
Well, it is progressive rock. If people found the time to play Black Sabbath backward, I’m sure they can find the time to slow this down, right?
Yeah. Good point. Tell me about the bonus songs on the special edition.
This version of "Why Do We Stay?" has a different person singing it than on Please Come Home. This version is with Kim Seviour, an old friend of mine, whereas the original had Heather Findlay from Mostly Autumn. I did a vocal outtake version and intended Kim to sing it then, but the vocal got swapped out for Heather because Kim was already on another track. So this one is like an alternate version. The other two are just stripped-down acoustic versions of "In Floral Green" and "The Divine Art of Being.” It’s like every time you make an album, the label goes, “Oh, well Japan will want a bonus track.” Okay, so you kind of have to do these things. I don’t really want to write a half-assed song for the sake of making up the minutes or fulfilling the criteria, so I’d rather take a song I’m proud of and scaling it back or doing an alternative mix.
That’s a good approach. I think a lot of people do that, like Bruce Soord from The Pineapple Thief.
Yes, he does. Of course, the other argument is that I’m just lazy [laughs], but I’m going with the more pertinent version that I don’t want to dilute the art.
It’s also true that a lot of people will look at progressive rock and think that it’s all about virtuosity and ego. “Look how fast and long we can play,” etc. The quintessential example of that is Dream Theater, at least in the minds of many naysayers.
Yeah, that’s not really my thing.
The testament of good songwriting is if you can take it down to just the vocals and chords and get rid of the embellishments. Does it still stand up?
People get confused about what progressive rock is. A lot of bands think that you start by taking a load of erroneous music and glue it together and hope that it’s over nine minutes. That’s not what it is; progressive rock is, to my mind, writing a pop song and then chopping it up and fucking it up. The other thing is what I call “through-composition,” sticking things together without any real purpose. It sounds like a bizarre, horrible quilt. I don’t appreciate it and those aren’t the bands that I listen to. I like bands like Carpark North and bands that deconstruct pop music, not the other way around. Not try to create something just for the sake of it.
There are bands like Anathema, Nosound, and Gazpacho that focus on the melancholic atmospheres and songwriting instead of technical showmanship.
I like Anathema. That’s more of where I feel aligned to, not these poor man's Genesis bands that are doing the rounds now. That’s the eternal question: “What is progressive rock?” It’s a word that gets shortened to “prog” and I don’t that word at all because it’s an ugly and loaded word. Can’t you think of something more pretty to describe something we all love?
It’s interesting that so many people make a distinction between those terms and the connotations between them.
The other day, someone described my album as neo-prog. I’ve only ever heard the word “neo” mentioned in association with Nazis, so I don’t really like that one for starters. Also, when you say that phrase, it makes me think of the aforementioned Genesis tribute bands from the early ‘80s, which I’m not getting into.
I guess the most famous one is Marillion, but they definitely came into their own with Steve Hogarth.
Exactly, and they’re not that anymore, are they? Don’t forget that I’ve got a great fondness for that band even then, though, so I’m not picking on them.
There are bands these days that try to sound like that, so I’m not naming those guys, but the bands who are trying to create it again, kind of third generation. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
I see what you mean. A lot of modern bands seem content to just emulate the greats. Going back to the record, do you have a favorite song? I know it’s like choosing a favorite child, right?
Yeah, but I really like “Hello World Goodbye.” I had my friend in mind when I wrote it. He passed away over a year ago and it made me think of how transient things are. How little time you have. I don’t wish to sound maudlin, but I think that one resonates with me the most. I’ve lost a lot of friends, so it’s a bit of a comfort.
It’s a very poignant piece, and it works well as the album closer (well, aside from “Epilogue”).
How do you balance working on Lonely Robot with your other projects, like It Bites and Frost*? It’s clearly less of a band mentality since it’s all your vision, I suppose.
To be honest, I’ve never understood referring to these things as “projects.” To me, a project is something that finishes, like making a table. That’s a project. I don’t start anything with the idea that it’ll be done, so I find it off-putting. I don’t know. Arena was a band—well, it still is a band—that’s largely dormant. It Bites was a band and I don’t know if we’ll ever do another album. Kino was a band that I didn’t intend to only last one album, but everybody had their own priorities. These things have their time and place; I’d never intend to run them concurrently, but sometimes circumstances prevail and you have to get on with your life and do something else.
So this is what I’m doing now, and I don’t like to look backward too much. I’ve heard a lot of people say that I’m the busiest guy in prog or whatever, but I’m not. I’m not in as many bands as Mike Portnoy, for example.
That’s certainly true.
He runs these things concurrently. It’d twist me around if I had to remember six setlists. These days, it’s pretty much Frost* and Lonely Robot and that’s enough for me. I’m happy with that. I understand that Arena might be doing something again, but it’s like a big sleepy dog that gets up from in front of the fire every five years. I don’t foresee us doing another It Bites record; it’s down to everyone being on the same page and being enthusiastic about it. There’s no point in doing something if you’re going to carry passengers. I don’t think it’s the other guys’ fault, though; we had bad management at one point that killed it off for everybody.
You make a great point. It’s like how people are finally done—I think—asking Steven Wilson about Porcupine Tree news. He’s doing what he’s doing now, so you can either go with it or don’t.
At the end of the day, what would be the point? He writes all of the music anyway, so now he’s just stuck a different badge on it. It’s like when people ask me if there will be another Kino record. I wrote the first album anyway, so it’s a moot point. [Lonely Robot] is just another way of expressing the same initial idea. I don’t mean to do a disservice to the guys who played on it, but I was the chief songwriter and I’m continuing to write music under a different moniker. Obviously, I think people have this sort of folk singer mentality about progressive rock in that they like to hold onto things. I understand that, but at the end of the day, it’s still me making the music. It’s just under a different moniker.
Exactly. As long as you’re leading it, what’s the difference, really?
It Bites was a thing that, to be honest, is somebody else’s legacy. There’s no running away from that fact. It always felt like someone else’s band because these guys were from the old band and as much as I wanted to be the captain of the ship, it was a bit of a struggle at times. I’m not saying that we’re never going to do something again; I never say never, but certainly at this point in time I’m not really interested in doing that. It would involve far too many compromises that I’m not willing to make.
Nor should you. Lonely Robot is doing just fine for itself.
You just have to go on with what you’re doing it and do it the best you can.
Speaking of touring, any plans to tour The Big Dream?
Not really. It doesn’t have much appeal to me. You know, I’ve committed to doing a launch gig [at Sub89] in my hometown of Reading on the 27th of April, and then I’m doing a gig with Marillion the next night, and I was asked to do the Trinity Live festival on the 27th of May. Beyond that, I don’t really know. It’s not something I particularly enjoy anymore, to be honest with you. It’s fun to do, but the logistics of it and the fact that you never quite know if you’re going to break even or lose money—it’s a lot of hassle I can do without. I’d rather stay home and do the gardening [laughs].
It seems like a lot of bands are of that mindset. The days of needing a concert to promote your new record are disappearing, especially with the advent of the internet. It’s no longer the big draw that it used to be, for multiple reasons.
Plus, it’s the cliché of album-tour-album-tour. It’s like doing a tour is the default setting; in my mind, it’s not. You can go through all the effort in the world but some people in England can be so bloody lazy and take it for granted. I could announce a gig in Manchester and somebody twenty miles away will say, “Oh, I can’t do that. When are you going to come and play my town?” Well, I’m not. Do you know how far Manchester is from me? C’mon, make the effort. Meet me halfway, you know?
Absolutely. That’s ridiculous.
Yeah. It’s that sort of attitude that grinds me down and makes me not want to do it. As bitter as that sounds, it’s a fact. I did a gig once with It Bites near Liverpool and a Japanese family flew in just for the gig. I’m not saying that that’s not slightly obsessive, but it’s a devotion to something that they love and I think people are spoiled in [England]. It makes me feel disinclined to make an effort or run the risk of having a poor turnout. I did a gig at a massive venue in London and it was well attended, but I won’t like to you: it was mostly because the guest list ran like a toilet roll. There were probably 200 people on the guest list, and another 500 people bought tickets. I don’t want to run that risk.
You shouldn’t have to. As I said, I think a lot of progressive rock bands are in the same boat. To your point, a lot of fans in America are the same way.
Well, exactly, and the best way to nip that in the bud is not play into it.
Last year, you released the four-track covers EP The Nostalgia Factory to promote the launch of White Star Records. Any plans to do something like that again?
No [laughs]. I did that to give the label something to release once we set it up. It was a bit of fun, but recording covers doesn’t interest me particularly. I did it in agreement with my label partner, Chris Hillman [Magick Eye Records], and it was fun to do, but it’s a means to an end. It’s the recording equivalent of a tribute band. I don’t really see a point in that when there are so many great bands out there that aren’t tribute bands.
It also seems like artists who do an album of covers seem to do it because they’ve run out of original things today. It’s like an admittance of defeat.
Yeah, it’s a means to an end. I’ve done a couple of covers on YouTube because I really like those songs, but to actually put it out there as an artistic statement is different.
Totally. So what are you listening to these days?
Just film soundtracks, really. I just bought the Arrival soundtrack. I just like anything that’s calming, like cats and film soundtracks. Having said that, a friend of mine took me to see the Rammstein film the other day.
That’s it. I’m only, like, thirty years too late, but I quite like them. There’s something cartoonish about them, and I’ve still got a fondness for heavy metal. I’m trying to be down with the kids, man!
You have to say hip, right? I’ve never really listened to them, but I teach an essay by Marilyn Manson called “Columbine: Whose Fault is It?” and he mentions them. I play my students “Amerika” and we discuss what it’s actually about vs. what the media might say it’s about.
They’re a very sardonic band. I spent a week sort of being obsessed with them and reading about them and they’re nothing if not tongue-in-cheek, which, with all due respect to Germans, you know, Germans aren’t the most humorous bunch of people. I quite like the irony of that alone. As Manson said, though, Rammstein’s songs didn’t make anyone shoot anyone else. The idea was already there. It’s ridiculous. It’s so bizarre that people feel the need to swing the pendulum of blame when something goes wrong. With Columbine, you could blame the first fifteen years of someone’s life, not Judas Priest or Marilyn Manson. No one wants to hold the mirror up to themselves; they want to blame someone else.
Have you read his essay? It was published in Rolling Stone.
No, but I read his book. He’s a very bright guy and he’s saying that it’s just light entertainment. It’s not to be taken literally. It’s a small-minded individual that can’t make the distinction.
I agree completely. So, final question: Who would you like to work with on tour or in the studio that you haven’t yet?
I was thinking about that the other day, actually. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of him in the States, but a guy called Neil Hannon from a band called The Divine Comedy. They were an indie band in the ‘90s and ‘00s in England and he has a quick wit and sarcastic sense of humor. All their songs were very feel-good and he just comes across as a very dry and pithy guy who writes really good pop songs. I find him inspirational. I saw him live and you can just tell that he’s like that cool and entertaining older brother you wish you had.
I’ll have to check out some of his work.
Yeah. Beyond that, no one, really. Yeah, it’d be nice to hang out with people like Peter Gabriel or Trevor Rabin, but at the end of the day, someone has to tick all of the right boxes. They’ve got to have a sense of humor and a message or an energy that you want to share in that you don’t have yourself. Neil Hannon is someone I could align with in the studio. The Divine Comedy is what you might call baroque pop. It’s over-the-top with horn sections and well-arranged, but the glue that makes it hold together is his lyrics. He’s got such a turn of phrase.
That makes me think of The Dear Hunter and Emanuel and the Fear and Bent Knee. They’re all kind of like chamber pop.
They wouldn’t be out of place in an Austin Powers film.
I guess not. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to speak with me, John. It’s been great.
Likewise, Jordan. Take care.