John Mitchell (It Bites)

Record producer, sound engineer, composer, singer, guitarist, band member of Arena, It Bites, Frost*, Kino, The Urbane and John Wetton, keen sailor and self-confessed petrol head, John Mitchell is currently one of the busiest and most in-demand personalities in prog. His upcoming live dates alone include the Fish Convention and a UK mini- tour with It Bites this autumn and winter culminating in the much anticipated Frost*Bites concert in London just before Christmas.

DPRP’s Alison Henderson caught up with the multi-tasking John at his Outhouse recording studios in Reading, England, to hear more about his latest plans, why he and John Beck are the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of prog – and his continuing aversion to Rush.

Alison: Thanks for taking the time to talk to DPRP. What are you up to at the moment, John?

John: I’m rehearsing later as I am flying with It Bites to Japan next week to play a one-off gig there (Visa arrives during interview). Then we have the Fish Convention on October 20 and 21 at the Leamington Spa Assembly where we are playing. However, it seems our two usual bass players are both otherwise engaged. Lee Pomeroy who played for us on Map of the Past and Tall Ships is very busy with Gary Barlow and Nathan King is about to tour with Level 42. So an old friend of mine Steve Mills is standing in for a couple of gigs. He learned to play two songs for the two gigs with Fish but he seems really keen. This is the first time he has played for It Bites and he has done a brilliant job getting it all down. However, it is a bit frustrating sometimes when there seems to be more important things happening than It Bites.

Alison: It sounds as though you are incredibly busy as always.

John: Yes we have a tour in December for a month or so. It is important to keep the momentum going following the release of the album (Map of the Past) earlier this year.

Alison: Do you have any plans for a follow- up Map of the Past?

John: I don’t really know at the moment. It will be very strange going back to do an album next time without a theme to it. However, John Beck (It Bites’ founder member, keyboards player and music arranger) and I get on really well together. But we are like the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as I am a very early morning kind of person and he is a night owl. So we usually find a window of opportunity around one o’clock in the afternoon until around 7 o’clock when I begin to lose interest! However, I might dip my toe into another musical style in the immediate future.

Alison: Do you have anything in particular in mind?

John: Yes, actually, I want to do one of my own which is currently going under the title of Lonely Robot. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time and will mean I am not beholden to anyone else in its making. However, I do have plenty of people in mind who I would like to appear on it.

Alison: Who is on your wish-list to guest on the album with you?

John: There are quite a few people like drummer Chris Maitland with whom I played in Kino and who was in Porcupine Tree before that. I would also love Trevor Rabin to appear and also a couple of singers such as Richard Page from Mr Mister and Ray Wilson.

Alison: What can we expect from you solo?

John: This will be the real John Mitchell speaking coming from a production point of view. There is a sound which is associated with my other bands such as It Bites and Kino which comes from John Beck. But this will be a lot more like my other band The Urbane but will be a bit more bombastic even than that.

Alison: What do you look forward to most about doing your own thing for once?

John: The thing I find most frustrating about playing in bands is there are always deadlines especially when you get managers involved. I was thinking a few days ago about how the essence of why people make music gets so diluted by so many factors such as politics and time, then having to think about how we present ourselves on stage and the numerous endorsements involved.

Alison: It sounds very much like the process in The Big Machine, one of the songs on It Bites’ Map of the Past.

John: Yes, you are right! It is the enjoyment of why we are doing it which always seems to get forgotten. As a result, I laugh at deadlines and other people’s agendas! But I have to say, as a result a lot of bands trot out albums year after year and sometimes, what comes out is pretty rubbish and it is seen purely as product. That is not what music is about in my view.
As you know, I play with Jem Godfrey in Frost* and we have only made two albums in our own right and I have to say they are very good. Jem and I have a very similar outlook on music and we are now making plans for the third album for which we are due to start writing on October 7 and 8.

Alison: Do you think this is a malaise affecting prog at the moment?

John Mitchell: There are some brilliant musicians around who called themselves progressive rock but in my opinion, they need to get themselves away from the endless Moog solos because that type of thing is simply old hat these days. It drives me up the wall!

Alison: That you are starting on a third Frost* album will be welcome news to many prog fans especially with the band playing in London this Christmas and headlining Saturday night at Celebr8 point two next May.

John: It is all down to Prog promoter Jon Patrick (Twang) who really does work hard for the cause. He came up with the idea of the Frost*Bites gig at the Scala in London. It is really brave of Twang to take a punt like this. Mind you, as I am appearing in both, it is going to mean a bit of a head wrestle as the note quota in Frost* is very high, then I have to play guitar and sing with It Bites. I am going to need as much brainpower as I can muster that night!

Alison: But your abilities to multi-task seem endless. You appeared at both Loreley with Arena and It Bites at Celebr8 the same weekend in July. And I hear that both Frost* and Arena are now confirmed as two of the bands for Celebr8 point two in May next year.

John: Yes, that was a very hectic weekend. I have been in Arena for 16 years since I was 23 and I was also in Kino and The Urbane, so for me, it is business as usual but I have to ensure my diary does not end up with everything on top of each other. As a musician, I am thankful that I can do several things as I think if I was with just the one band, I would get really bored. But It Bites and Arena, my current main bands, are such totally different things musically.

Alison: So how did you get started in music?

John: I taught myself to play the guitar when I was 12 but I also had a good guitar teacher called Pete Lincoln. He was great because he gave me a tape to listen to at each lesson.

Alison: What kind of music did he give you?

John: It was all instrumental but it was people like Giant’s Dan Huff who is a fantastic guitarist and singer. Pete Lincoln could also sing as well, in fact he did backing vocals for Cliff Richard and Shakin’ Stevens. He was also in a new version of the Sweet as its singer.

Alison: What kind of music were you listening to back then?

John: I was discovering music such as Yes but through Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe. I loved them. I had a four track which I thought was very exciting through which I wanted to capture the feeling of wonderment I had of it all. I had an Amstrad and I really liked the idea of being able to have the purity of recording whatever comes into your head. Once you are in a band, the margins get defined for you.

Alison: What about afterwards?

John: I joined a band with some school-friends and was obliged to play songs by Rush, and like Brussels sprouts, I just cannot get a taste for them at all. Geddy Lee has always sounded like a cool munchkin to me.

Alison: Coming back to the present, Map of the Past, in my opinion, is one of the best prog albums to come out this year. Can you shed some more light about how it came about?

John: I love the programme “Who Do You Think You Are” and especially the one recently with Patrick Stewart who was trying to find a meaning to his life through his family history. I lost my relationship with my Dad when he died when I was 12. I just felt a bit disconnected especially as I had been adopted and my cousin became my surrogate big brother. I am still in some ways finding my identity and this man in the photograph which I found at the family home in Cornwall is at the centre. It is about the way the picture made me feel when I looked at it.  I am forever getting told off about living in the past as I love programmes like Life on Mars. The past does hold a certain mystery for me even when we were driving down to Basildon Park, the National Trust stately home where we had the photographs taken for Map of the Past. Even doing them had a special thrill for me especially as we took along an accordion and a violin with us. It all felt really nostalgic.  The album was recorded here at the studio so I was coming at it from a music producer’s point of view. From a personal point of view, I was extremely satisfied with the way it all turned out.

Alison: There are deeper subjects within the album and indeed within your other work with It Bites.

John: I tend to be a bit of a delicate flower when it comes to watching television. I was watching a programme about people with facial disfigurements who needed prosthetic s but I always look at it from their point of view. It is the same with the song Tall Ships and I do not mean to come over as a morbid character but I am obsessed with the sea and love to go sailing when I can. I also like the Nordic/Viking tradition of a tall ship coming to get your body once you have passed on and take you away.

Alison: And we have already talked at some length before about the story behind The Last Escape.

John: The song is inspired by Terry Pratchett’s programme about the case for assisted suicide which featured Andrew Colgan who was an It Bites fan who suffered from MS and decided to end his life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. In fact, the last song he heard was an It Bites one. It was a terribly emotional programme which opened the debate on whether we should take our own life. For most human beings, it is a very cerebral response. But if there is no hope of recovery from a condition like MS then where is the rationale or the quality of life?  Andrew Colgan said it was like walking down a tunnel which got narrower and narrower as he went on; and it became more of a fight for him to survive as a result. It takes a very brave person to acknowledge they are not going to improve and are going to be increasingly suffering as time goes on. That is a real shock to the system having someone decide they are going to end their life on TV. It is equally disturbing for a human being to watch somebody else die.  I had sleepless nights thinking about the programme as it really upset me. The song is about the way that programme made me feel. The one consolation was they drove Andrew around the countryside in Switzerland before he died and he said he quite liked it there. My feelings about it still remain unresolved and it is still all very hard to quantify.  This whole programme struck me as to how much this is at the very essence and the reason for doing music though others might prefer to spend more time with their hair straighteners. That attitude drives me potty.

Alison: Prog rock is all things to all people. It is just find your own particular journey perhaps.

John: I remember being Holland with Kino and Chris Maitland. Steve Hogarth was also in Holland at the same time and had just heard the album. He said to me “it’s a bit fairy boots music” which I thought was a very good expression for it. I was at the Prog Awards recently and it struck me there that everyone wants to be contemporary; everybody wants to be relevant and cool.

Alison: Speaking of relevant and cool, tell us the story behind the video for Cartoon Graveyard.

John: (Laughs). We brought in John Stone who is a 22 year old producer who I got to know through the band Lower Than Atlantis who I produced here at the studios. He had the idea of shooting the video in my front room and passing it off as the dinner party from hell with the other guys in the band treating me with total contempt. Nathan (King) spent the whole shoot on the telephone and it looks as though I start hallucinating.  The producer brought in some random ladies to appear in it and thought it would be fun to put them in these Venetian masks. It was all very strange and that was even before the food fight broke out. It took me three days to clean up the dining room afterwards!

Alison: Talking about all the other projects in which you are involved, I see you are one of the guest artists on Rob Reed’s new Kompendium album, Beneath the Waves.

John: Oh yes, I went down to Wales to do that! It is all a bit sketchy now but I have heard a clip of it since then. I have also been singing for Martin Barre, who incidentally is a lovely guy. I have really enjoyed doing this, singing the songs of Jethro Tull; in fact it was a highlight of the year and a fun project to do especially working with Pat O’May who is French and looks a hairy Brendan Gleeson though his parents are Irish. He is a fantastic guitarist.

Alison: You seem to be at an interesting place in your life in so many ways.

John: In many ways, I feel as though I have come full circle. I really like to recapture great writing with other people and in musical relationships with people like Jem Godfrey as we have similar personalities. There is something really exciting about being in a room by ourselves and to see what we come up with from basically a blank canvas. I am sure that is what Jon Anderson did when he made Olias of Sunhillow. I always start with a title to which I write such as Lonely Robot.

Alison: And what about John Beck?

John: To this day we still have not had an argument. I am basically the writer and he is the arranger and often, things are not what they seem on Map of the Past as we kept in his guitar part on flag and there are parts where it is me playing keyboards. Another reason is our lifestyles are so different. I am very impatient and he can often be like Lord Lucan as it will take you days sometimes to get hold of him! At the same time, I have to tell you that Bob Dalton is an absolute metronome of a drummer and a very loud one too. I have to now wear earplugs on stage because it sometimes sounds as though he is chopping wood behind me.

Alison: Do you still feel you are being compared to Francis Dunnery being the front man in It Bites?

John: I am conscious that still happens but I do not feel threatened in any way. I never wanted to be a front man as such and I do it reluctantly to fulfil a live obligation. To me, it is only the music that matters at the end of the day.

Thank you for sparing the time to talk to DPRP, John, and I am looking forward to catching you again on the upcoming It Bites tour in Southampton and London.

It Bites tour dates:
Saturday 8th December: PLYMOUTH: White Rabbit
Sunday 9th December: BRISTOL: The Exchange
Tuesday 11th December: SOUTHAMPTON: Talking Heads
Wednesday 12th December: WOLVERHAMPTON: Slade Rooms
Thu 13 Dec: MANCHESTER: Club Academy
Friday 14th December: GLASGOW: ABC2
Sunday 16th December: Frost*Bites, LONDON, The Scala
Website address:
Sunday 9th December: BRISTOL: The Exchange
Tuesday 11th December: SOUTHAMPTON: Talking Heads
Wednesday 12th December: WOLVERHAMPTON: Slade Rooms
Thu 13 Dec: MANCHESTER: Club Academy
Friday 14th December: GLASGOW: ABC2