Onstage and off, Jem Godfrey and John Mitchell make an entertaining double act.
This evening’s discussion of Falling Satellites, the first studio album from their group Frost* in eight years, is a hilarious encounter that quickly reveals the pair’s contrasting characters.
A paragon of efficiency, vocalist/keyboard player and main songwriter Godfrey texts to say he’s early at the rendezvous. Although Prog arrives dead on time, guitarist/singer Mitchell bowls up a little while afterwards in a taxi, wearing a schoolboy-esque smirk and with a cheeky can of gin and tonic secreted about his person.
Falling Satellites is a cracking album; its joyful mix of prog and pop melodies remind us exactly why the band offered such a breath of fresh air when bursting onto the scene back in 2006. It’s great to have Frost* back, especially as in March 2011, Godfrey had pronounced them to be on ‘indefinite hiatus’ – and not for the first time.
“Yeah,” he says now, looking sheepish. “I’ve learned not to say too much on that subject. I’m just shutting up and getting on with it.”
“I’ve got two words for you,” Mitchell chimes in. “Status Quo… Now can we all move on?”
“Yeah, Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins – all very good at fake goodbyes,” Godfrey smiles, and as he does so we erupt with laughter as Genesis’ Invisible Touch is spookily played in the background.
A mere six months after the latest so-called hiatus, Godfrey revealed that Frost* would be making a third album after all, which the band followed with a Christmas show at The Peel and, in May 2013, a spot at the Celebr8.2 Festival. And then, save for live set The Rockfield Files… nothing.
“I grew a whole bunch of kids and some businesses, but over the last three or four years I continued writing,” explains Godfrey of the band’s return. “When I looked at my hard drive, I thought, ‘Hang on, there’s enough for an album here.’
“And once that realisation dawned, it was simply a case of stopping going out or eating,” he continues. “I hunkered down over last Christmas with John. And then InsideOut, our record company, told us that to set up the promotional campaign and set things in place for the tour in June and July, everything had to be done by March, or we’d be playing to a bunch of people that hadn’t heard the album.”
“But prog fans would probably love that,” interjects an amused Mitchell. “You know, ‘Just play the old stuff… Supper’s Ready!’”
Perhaps inevitably, Frost* came perilously close to missing the deadline. “At 1am on the night before the album was to be mastered, I was still in the studio doing backing vocals,” Godfrey chuckles. “It went right down to the wire, but that’s how we roll at Frost* Towers.”
“I love the sound of deadlines whizzing past,” Mitchell laughs in agreement. “I don’t take any deadline seriously, except maybe for death. That always seems like a pretty firm one.”
Jem loves a nice bit of prog when he’s not autotuning Katy Perry or whoever.
Trying to keep things serious, we remind Godfrey that before Frost*’s Celebr8.2 appearance, he’d said the band were working on a record called Six Minutes In September, Part 1, and that Joe Satriani and Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess would appear on it.
“It’s the same album,” he confirms.
“I changed the title because there’s now a band called 5 Seconds Of Summer, which seemed too close, though the line ‘six years in September’ is still in there somewhere, and the idea behind the album remains the same.”
Its concept is, apparently, inspired by “the astronomically unlikely chance of us being conceived to start with, and then surviving into old age”.
“In the grand scheme of things, each of us is only here for a brief flicker, so we should enjoy it,” Godfrey proposes. “Hence the album’s title – in one’s youth you feel invincible, like a shooting star. And what goes up must come down. Philosophically speaking, it’s about the arc of life, man.”
An additional resonance developed as the sessions for Falling Satellites gathered pace.
“On January 8, during the closing stages, my dad died,” Godfrey recounts sadly. “An album about a bloke looking back over his life suddenly became very much about my father.”
Did he get to hear it before passing on? There’s a regretful shake of the head: “Sadly, no, it wasn’t finished in time.”
Each of Frost*’s studio albums has signed off with a massive, epic track. However, they outdo themselves with Sunlight, the new record’s final, six-part, 32-minute suite, which sees Joe Satriani contribute a wonderful solo to Closer To The Sun. This liaison happened in an extremely circuitous manner.
“I’ve got Big Big Train to thank for that,” says Godfrey, before going on to explain how having played a keyboard solo on the BBT album The Underfall Yard led to [BBT guitarist] Dave Gregory introducing him to ex-Zappa man Mike Keneally, who sought a deputy for some concerts he was contracted to perform with Satch in 2010. “Those in turn caused me to play keys for both Joe and Steve Vai for an entire G3 European tour two years later,” Godfrey explains.
“I get on really well with Joe,” he continues, smiling, “but he was very perplexed by Frost*. He told me, ‘I’m watching your videos and I don’t understand what any of you are doing.’ I think he was predisposed to being on our album because basically we were just larking about.”
However, the intended cameo from Jordan Rudess didn’t come to pass. Frost* are full of respect for Rudess, but don’t seem overly concerned by his absence.
“So many of today’s albums are full of special guests,” Godfrey observes, grinning as he leans into your correspondent’s recording device to cough loudly and pointedly: “And for the sake of the interview, I’m looking directly at John Mitchell here.”
The dig at his partner’s project Lonely Robot, which featured Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, Nick Beggs, Nik Kershaw and many more, is playful – Godfrey appeared on it, and at Lonely Robot’s gig at the Scala back in December, after all – but the point is valid enough.
“After a while, that whole thing of ‘Yeah…
I know him, him and him’ gets boring, doesn’t it?” Godfrey suggests. “It dilutes the essence of the band.”
Steven Wilson told me that having Alex Lifeson playing guitar on a Porcupine Tree record didn’t make a jot of difference to their sales.
Nodding in agreement Mitchell adds: “A rather cynical theory suggests that getting out one’s Rolodex, bringing in a load of chums and sticking them on your record will tap into the fan bases of the other artists, but there’s no circumstantial evidence of this. Steven Wilson told me that having [Rush’s] Alex Lifeson on a Porcupine Tree record [Fear Of A Blank Planet] didn’t make a jot of difference to their sales. So riddle me that, man.”
Prior to Frost*’s formation, Godfrey had carved a career in the world of pop music, having written hits for Atomic Kitten, including their 2001 chart-topper Whole Again, and producing Kiss Kiss for Holly Valance. It still continues to pay the bills, and last year he worked with Take That’s Gary Barlow. “Yeah, Jem loves a nice bit of prog when he’s not autotuning Katy Perry or whoever,” Mitchell quips.
“This is something we talk about a lot,” his colleague replies as the laughter passes. “To me, a song’s a song, no matter how you dress it up. And there are a lot of those in all genres – including prog – that sadly lack choruses.”
With the pop element so crucial to what they do, both are frustrated to learn that an early biography for the album called it “neo-prog at its finest”.
“I hate the term neo-prog – it’s too close to neo-Nazi,” Mitchell thunders. “Neo-prog, to me, is bands like Pallas – that ain’t Frost*. And I mean that in a caring way.”
Lightening the mood, one wonders whether any of Godfrey’s pop clients are aware of his alter ego? Aren’t the Take That guys supposed to be clandestine hobbit botherers?
“I never hide my love of prog but I don’t really know about Take That,” he ponders. “What I’ll say is that people tend to open up to all sorts of music these days, I don’t know whether that’s due to Spotify but I find them to be far less closed-minded than previously. In middle age, I think people mellow out about the stuff they do and do not like.”
Godfrey and Mitchell have been good friends for many years and their mutual affection for each other is glaringly obvious.
“Thinking about it, we’ve never had a single row,” Godfrey considers, “but then again, often we don’t see one another for two years at a time. In closer proximity, things might become more fractious.”
For the first time in Frost* history, they actually got together to write for Falling Satellites, convening at Godfrey’s house, as opposed to emailing ideas back and forth.
“The main difference between us is that Jem has far more attention to detail,” reveals Mitchell when asked about the practicalities of the relationship. “I’m far too impatient.”
“And I’m the opposite,” Godfrey says. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s try this chord,’ but John will have already finished the first verse and slapped down the lyrics. And I’m left sitting there and wondering how he did it.”
“It still bowls me over that in the morning you can have nothing and by the end of the day there’s a song – that really excites me,” Mitchell beams.
All three of us chuckle loudly as Take That arrive next on the jukebox. It’s probably time to start winding down for the night. Still buoyed by the response to his Scala concert, Mitchell reveals that a second Lonely Robot record, The Big Dream, is almost complete. But, in keeping with our earlier discussion, it will feature fewer outside contributors.
“I’d convinced myself that nobody would turn up, but the Scala was packed, though most of those that came were on the guest list,” he points out pragmatically. “I made a massive loss on the night, let’s not dress it up. I’d love to do more Lonely Robot gigs but they must pay for themselves.”
Despite their commitments to Steven Wilson and Level 42 respectively, drummer Craig Blundell and bassist Nathan King have freed up time to join Godfrey and Mitchell for those live dates mentioned earlier. Seven headline shows will bookend a spot at the Ramblin’ Man Fair in Maidstone on July 23. Godfrey acknowledges that in terms of live performances, Frost* haven’t always hit the lofty highs he’d wish for, but with tongue in cheek, he promises “three whole days of rehearsals – none of that slapdash stuff this time. We’re determined to do it properly”.
Of course, Frost* are releasing Falling Satellites into what is, for them, a new landscape. When their previous album, Experiments In Mass Appeal, was launched in November 2008, the first issue of Prog was still five months away from the newsstands, the genre’s renaissance comparatively wet behind the ears. In 2016, just about anyone can release an album. Frost* don’t view this development as being wholly positive.
“Since the industry’s implosion, the culture of the weekend warrior has taken over,” Mitchell complains. “Everything has become narrower and I hate to say it but quality control has fallen by the wayside. If you knew the amount of time, effort, care and God-given talent Jem has put into making this record, placing it in the same bracket as the newie from Platypus’ Hairpiece… that’s just wrong.”
“I’m extremely flattered that people have remembered us because eight years is a long time,” replies Godfrey modestly. “To me, prog became a little too heavy – an awful lot of guitar and double-bass drumming. I prefer mine with light and shade, some melodic content. I’m glad that Big Big Train are reintroducing those, and the whole ‘tea on
the lawn’, pastoral thing.”
And with that, it’s time to say goodnight from him, and goodnight from him.
Falling Satellites is out on May 27 via InsideOut. See Frost*’s website for more information.