Progressive rock fans (particularly in the United States) probably did not know what to do with the band Frost* when the debut album Milliontown appeared in 2006. Here was a group that was actively embracing the new frontiers of modern recording, still giving the breathtaking performances prog fans expect, mind you, but almost gleefully ignoring the recording limitations that were regularly adopted and calcified in the genre. There’s a practical reason for this: if a prog band can’t go out and replicate a mindbending performance, they tend to be ostracized.
That didn’t stop the band, or its leader Jem Godfrey. Curiously, it had little effect on their ability to play out either, and that ability to blow the doors down live ensured that the small but loyal fanbase that started in the States would stay just as loyal.
Then the band broke up (sort of).
Then Godfrey appeared in a long series of making-of videos for what would become Experiments In Mass Appeal (2008), Frost*’s second album. Godfrey’s personality perfectly suited the medium, and his amiable demeanor converted more “Frosties*,” but then the band broke up again (sort of).
Fans were tentatively hopeful when, in 2013, news started surfacing. Godfrey was taking some time out of his busy “main gig” as a successful producer/songwriter to make new music for himself. Would it be solo or Frost*? Would it be pop, electronic, or rock? No one really knew for sure except, perhaps, Godfrey himself. 2016’s Falling Satellites surprised many. For those who cling tightly to the traditionalist notions of prog rock, it might have been a huge shock to the system. The club-banging breaks in the midst of the song “Towerblock” induced whiplash in some, but for most (this writer included), it fulfilled the fundamental requirement of progressive rock, in actually being progressive and inclusive, rather than focusing too narrowly on a stoic notion of what the genre must be.
He didn’t do it entirely alone. The first album featured members of the prog institution IQ, and the current band features John Mitchell (guitars, vocals), who has been with Frost* from the start; Nathan King, bass guitar; and Craig Blundell (drums); who both have served on tours with Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield).
But Godfrey remains the nucleus of the band. He has stated that it has been his outlet for more complicated musical ideas when the pop world takes up too much of his creative time. He was responsible in part (with Bill Padley) for Atomic Kitten’s platinum-selling single, “Whole Again.” He won an Ivor Novello Award (an award for songwriting and composing presented by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors — ED) in 2006 for the best selling single of 2005 in the United Kingdom, “That’s My Goal,” for The X-Factor’s Shayne Ward. He has also gone out on tour as keyboardist for guitar-slinger Joe Satriani. In other words, the day job is far more lucrative and successful, but in turn, funds the passion project which, for eleven years now, has been under the Frost* banner.
Having been a Frostie* from the start, it was a thrill to speak to Jem and to ask questions about the band, the music career in full, his garden shed studio The Cube which has become its own legend at this point, and more. Stemming from a naive request on social media, this interview ended up being a thoughtful discussion, and Popdose thanks Jem Godfrey for taking the time to chat with us.
Could you describe the Ivor Novello Award and its significance, and perhaps what winning such an award means to a songwriting career?
People refer to it as the songwriting Oscars. However I think that’s actually the Grammy. Mine was for the amount of records sold that particular year, so it’s not based on any creative merit, which perhaps slightly clouds my judgment of it. Did the phone ring off the hook afterwards? Not really.
I sound really ungrateful, don’t I? I promise you I’m not, but nor am I going to blow smoke up my own arse.
There has been a significant amount of time between Frost* projects, mainly (to my knowledge) because production work is your primary income generator. With nearly every lull for the band, there had been word that the group was, in fact, ended. I have to start with this question: what is the current status of Frost*?
Frost is alive and well… for the moment. I think any band ebbs and flows in terms of its existence. If a band has something to do, then it’s got a purpose and therefore can justify “being,” so to speak.
Frost will certainly be a thing until 2020 as the timetable for the next three years is fully formed – over the winter, I’m going to finish off an EP called Others, which has the final six tracks from the Falling Satellites sessions that didn’t fit with the theme of the album for various reasons. That will be released sometime in Q2 2018. After that, I shall probably take the summer out and then start properly on album four in the fall of 2018. I expect it’ll take about a year to complete, as I can only work on it part time, and so will probably be released in Q1 or 2 of 2020. After that, I’d quite like to do what (former IQ member) Martin Orford did in 2009. I’ve always wanted to take up beekeeping…
Falling Satellites seemed to have a convoluted childbirth. At first, the project was to be a two-disc, full-on concept album, then became a single album. If I recall correctly, it was also initially to be a solo album, very electronic in nature. Then there were wranglings with how it would appear, either under contract with the label or as an independent release. Could you set the record straight on how the album go to be what it was?
I wouldn’t say it was a convoluted birth; it was more a case of letting it evolve as it needed to. It certainly veered all over the place as it came together, but I think that’s all part of the creative process sometimes. Anything creative that’s nailed to the ground from day one just because somebody says that that is how it’s going to be will never truly flourish as it should do.
Initially, it was indeed intended as a solo release to get around the three album deal Frost* had with InsideOut. However, as the songs progressed, they were so obviously Frost* songs that it seemed very childish on my part to try and wriggle out of a record contract that I’d signed in full understanding of what it would entail. Not only that, but InsideOut were nothing other than hugely supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process, so I was doubly embarrassed. One thing they did suggest however was that it should be 45 minutes long. Personally I agreed, but I knew I’d get a lot of criticism if I did it, so I chickened out and made it 60 minutes. There was enough material to have made a double album, but I felt it was more concise to pick the best of the best from the sessions and made a really good single album rather than a more rambling and long-winded double. It’s like lots of films these days: why do they have to be 2 ½ hours long? It doesn’t make them better. Plus, you get a sore arse.
When I first heard Falling Satellites, it seemed like it was a series of snapshots of endings. In specific, I got this impression from “Towerblock,” “Lights Out,” and at least in title, “Nice Day For It.” Was that the intention or have I misread?
It’s about the human life cycle; more specifically about my dad’s as he died just as I was finishing off the album. Initially, it was more generic than that, but after he died I realized that many of the lyrics could have been about him and his life. Some tracks are absolutely about him and the aftermath of his death – “The Raging Against The Dying Of The Light In 7/8,” for example, is about his final months. The lyric “Seen seldom relations, driving in rain” was about driving to his funeral. It rained heavily and continuously on the day we cremated him.
He was writing a book about his experiences as a child during the Second World War when he died; he talked about being able to read his comics by the light of the fires from the bombed Docklands during the Blitz. That image really struck me, hence the lines about “the lights from the fires in the sky,” and stuff like that.
My life has moved from largely being about beginnings to being more about endings. I’m closer to death than birth now, which has been a sobering revelation. I feel like I’ve hardly got started.
Anyways, the general theme of the album is – we’re here for a very short time, be magnificent while you can.
Have you strung an electrified fence around The Cube to keep Steven Wilson from stealing away any more band members?
It took Craig two days to record his parts for Falling Satellites, the same for John, too. And I didn’t even see Nath as he emailed his parts over. I’m a terrible employer really, Steven’s much better.
One of the most appealing things about Frost* — to me, at least — is that you aren’t indifferent or neglecting of the current sounds of pop music and pop production. That is certainly a part of your larger career as a producer/musician, but prog rock tends to not be so progressive. More often, the form self-replicates or is very beholden to other (older) musical forms. Is there a conscious effort on your part to integrate or is that just a natural response to the types of music you’re involved with, that they’re bound to intermingle?
Partly. I think it’s getting better anyway with bands like Haken, Kepler 10, and the other newer (younger!) prog bands that are emerging. A lot of prog is an exercise in nostalgia both for the bands themselves and also their audiences, and that’s totally okay. But I’m a fine one to talk. “Nice Day For It” couldn’t be more “Duke’s Travels” if it tried!
I’m proud of “Towerblock” though. It’s been very divisive.
How in the world did you wind up involved with prog rock anyway?
It’s Isaac Newton’s fault – “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I wanted to make a mad, totally over-the-top prog album to keep myself sane in the midst of all the squeaky clean teen pop I was employed to write at the time. I didn’t realize it would snowball like it did…
The creation process for Experiments In Mass Appeal was heavily documented on social media, in videos, on the Frost* website. There was less of it for “The Dividing Line” from The Philadelphia Experiment, and almost none but the occasional blog post for Falling Satellites. To my knowledge, even the website is gone. Do you feel the process was too exposed for Experiments? In your mind, was there too much promotional involvement in the creation of that album?
We do still have a website – www.frost.life
It was all part of the concept of “Mass Appeal.” It was an experiment for me too, really. The conclusion I drew was that too much information is a bad thing. There were a few people that had imagined a lot more into the album than there was when it finally came out and so were left a bit disappointed with it. Others thought I was a bit of a tosser and so were put off. That said, lots of people enjoyed it and I think it began a bit of a spate of other bands doing something similar, which was nice.
After all that filming, I think old Isaac Newton reared his ugly head again. I’m currently of the opinion that I’ve had my 15 minutes, have some dignity, go and sit back down in my chair, shut up and get on with things rather than waffling on quite so much.
Plus, I don’t think filming us now would be quite so entertaining. We all were quite a lot happier then, I had less children so I wasn’t as tired all the time as I am now. I don’t think the recession had hit either by that point, so the planet was in a good place relatively speaking. Plus, we were much less likely to all die in a giant planet-wide hydrogen fireball than we currently are, there wasn’t a narcissistic psychopath in charge of the free world, and the U.K. hadn’t just committed economic suicide by voting to leave the E.U. It’s doesn’t feel like party time on Planet Earth right now.
For the most part, the band seemingly has stood as an alter ego to you. However, over time John Mitchell seems to have become much more a bandmate than perhaps was his initial role. Where do you see his place in terms of what Frost* was/is?
I think if you’ve got the two of us, then you’ve got “basic” Frost*. I don’t in any way mean that to denigrate what Craig and Nath bring to the party, far from it, but when you have Craig and John in Lonely Robot for example, it’s totally not Frost*, even though there’s 50% of the same people involved.
John has an extraordinary charisma, which is quite beguiling to witness. He can scowl more enigmatically than anybody else I know. He’s got an amazing physical presence. People go a bit funny when they talk to him, whereas they say, “Alright Jem, you walloping old knobber!” when they talk to me.
Not really. I’m not on the new album at all!
As digital recording and distributing continue to dominate the music world, prog rock remains one of the hold-outs for the album as a structured collection or statement. Even so, artists are finding it difficult to maintain careers based on Spotify stream revenues, and the fragmented singles market is not particularly conducive to the album format, either in physical form or as an intellectual construct. What are your thoughts on this? Is the genie really out of the bottle and artists have to accept they are doing this for the love of it, if not the financial benefit from it?
I think we have to accept that the million dollar days are behind us, and do you know what? I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. It’s become much more of a democracy now. Record labels aren’t force feeding us what they think we should be listening to, WE get to choose now, and that’s great. Plus, it broke down all the ivory towers and gave some real pompous arseholes a smack in the mouth with the humility hammer who felt they were owed a living off the backs of musicians’ efforts.
People’s music tastes are much more wide ranging and varied now as a result of platforms like Spotify I think, and there’s less snobbery, too. People can like Taylor Swift, Oscar Peterson, and Frost*, and that’s okay. Are musicians paid fairly enough? No, I don’t think we are, but it’s relative.
Nobody should “expect” to make a living at anything in the arts anyway. That sounds very brutal, but it should be about expression rather than commercial gain. The process is the reward. You might have to be an electrician as well, but if that’s what it takes to buy you time to be creative, then that’s what it takes. I worked in radio stations making promos for six years when I got going. Nobody sets out in life to make radio promos for plain paper fax machines or Rolos, but it got me access to Pro Tools and paid the rent. Frost* has never been profitable, it takes money rather than makes money and always has. I do other stuff to pay for it.
Is the album dead? I think it is for those for whom it was never that important anyway, but for those who still value it as a thing, it’ll never go away.
Thanks again to Jem Godfrey for taking the time to speak with Popdose. You can learn all about the band at: http://www.frost.life
P.S. About the asterisk: There is, in the United States, a band called Frost featuring guitarist Jack Frost from Seven Witches. There is also a famous black metal band called Celtic Frost. And now you know, in part, why the asterisk is there.