Members: John Mitchell, Pete Trewavas, Craig Blundell, John Beck
Interviewee: John Mitchell
Occupation: Producer, Songwriter, Multi-instrumentalist
Current Release: Radio Voltaire on Inside Out
Recommendations: I’m going with the painting ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ by Turner and musically, Nimrod by Elgar. Possibly not the most off the wall choices but I find them most uplifting. I tend only to read biographies and I’m not sure they could fall into the definition of ‘art’ :-)
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with John Mitchell of Kino, visit the band's facebook page for further information, videos and music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I wrote my first piece on a piano when I was around 8 years old. My dad was involved in the shipping business and he was friends with a lady called Margot Cortwright, who was the pianist on one of the boats my dad looked after. She was very encouraging. I recorded it on a C60 and I think I have the tape still somewhere. My first musical influence was The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst. Of course when I got to be a teenager, it was all Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister followed by Yes, Mike Oldfield and The Police. To this day The Police are my favourite band and probably still my biggest influence. As for WHY? … who knows, must be in the DNA :-)
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Totally. Developing your own style is something that takes time and fearlessness. All I EVER used to do was copy Iron Maiden and then later Radiohead. That’s the downside of getting into music for the first time, literally everyone does it. You just have to trust the process. There is literally no point in creating a facsimile of a band that has gone before, they have already done it. Jumping on the bandwagon of something popular and trying to emulate it is the downside of youth. You grow out of it.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Working on tape on a 24 track was quite a hindrance. My job as producer is to get the best out of the musician. In many ways though, that musician has to be a decent enough player in the first place. These days, if you get a rubbish drummer in the studio, you can edit him into time to make him sound better. You can’t do that on tape. If they play badly, you just can’t fix it.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
It’s the same one I have now. I love it. It’s very rustic and calming. Obviously I started with an analogue console and the dreaded 24 track Tascam and these days, it’s all Focusrite and Macs/Cubase. The most important things are decent I/Os and decent Mics. I’m fortunate enough to have a good relationship with Focusrite and that’s what powers my studio.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Humans excel at creating, machines excel at doing what humans ask of them. It’s all in Asimov’s I, Robot :-)
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
It’s just a LOT quicker getting access to the sound I hear in my head and getting it recorded these days, plus unlike with the tape limitation, you don’t have to print and commit like you used to. Digital recording is a godsend. Unfortunately at the same time it means that there are a lot of badly produced records out there because these days, anyone can have a go and that’s not necessarily a good thing in the aspect of saturation and quality control.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I tend not to ever get into a jamming situation … it’s a pretty inefficient way of writing music. I tend to write in front of a computer screen with a midi keyboard. I always ask whoever I am writing with what they have got first and see if there’s a spark of a verse or chorus and then see where we can take it. It’s always face to face though, I can’t stand file sharing remotely.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Every day is so very different that it’s difficult to say. The only rule I do have is I have to have a change of scene once a day and I try to get outside and go somewhere. Being cooped up in a studio and then walking 20 metres to my house does lead to cabin fever. I get restless easily.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
The process always begins with a title. Once you have that, everything else falls into place. The title sets the mood and the melody in motion and the lyrics almost write themselves.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
An ideal state of mind is being totally sober and devoid of any artificial stimulants and early in the morning. I also don’t subscribe to this ‘having to be in the zone’ malarkey. To me, as long as I have a title to write to, then the rest falls into place.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I don’t really enjoy playing live. To me it’s far too stressful. I prefer to solitude of writing in my studio by far.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Well, in the music that I make, I always like to have an atmospheric ethereal bed for everything to lie on. Sometimes you don’t know it’s even there it’s so subliminal. The beds I use are always 60% white noise and 40% tone. These beds greatly and directly inspire what note choices and mood the music goes in. To me they are totally interlinked.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Actually, I find that smell and music are intrinsically connected. I went to an immersive theatrical production called The Drowned Man a few years ago and it was held in a a musty old Post Office Building. The music was really eerie and it’s bizarre how much the two things seemed interlinked to me. Smell is incredibly powerful in terms of association and recall of past memories.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I don’t think of it as art, it’s light entertainment and nothing more. Music helps people that do the things of real value in the world to do those things. To describe it as art is giving it too much credence.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Probably more cycles of old scenes/styles and retrospect. Things have reached a point where regurgitation is just inevitable. Either that or we just travel down into the midst of white noise even further and music just becomes more and more extreme.