In winter of 2006, during my brief but rewarding time as an entertainment writer for boutique women’s mag Frankie, I listened to an album by a Danish band I had never come across. And The Glass Handed Kites was in a giant pile of new-release discs in Frankie‘s Sydney office. I glanced at press releases, waiting for something to catch my attention. The presser with Kites quickly conveyed that Mew were both Danish and “progressive”. This was the Pavlovian trigger that peaked my interest. I grew up on progressive acts like Focus, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Wishbone Ash and Pink Floyd, but was unfamiliar with groups considered part of the modern prog movement.
So I sat and listened to Mew. What a blissful discovery. I was immediately captivated by And The Glass Handed Kites. Opening instrumental ‘Circuitry of the Wolf’ was foreboding, a loose flesh of ragged guitar hanging from the bones of a lumbering, percussive beast. When singer Jonas Bjerre’s soft vocals appeared in the tumult – glacial, serene and an unsettling counter-point to the off-kilter rhythms beneath – I was abundantly aware that I was hearing a record unlike anything I had ever encountered.
When the four-track centrepiece of Kites arrived – ‘Fox Cub’, ‘Apocalypso’, ‘Special’ and ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy’ – I was sold. Mew had released the best record of 2006 and perhaps the most innovative rock album of the decade. Nine years later, Kites remains in its own dimension, incomparable to the output of any other rock band in the world. Mew are fiercely original, but never distance the listener through their experimentation.
When No More Stories… arrived in 2009, I was elevated to another plane of consciousness. Where Kites felt like a walk through the night-drenched woods, a dream journey through gothic fairytales, Stories… was a breathtaking excursion through the wonders of a parallel dimension. It was dynamic in ways I’d never experienced, alive with dancing melodies often too stunning for human ears to bear. But, the truth is, no words do Stories… justice. It could be the most perfect rock album of the past three decades. How does the human brain digest and process a track like ‘Introducing Palace Players’? Can it ever?
Mew released their sixth studio record, +-, this year. After a dozen listens I’m still computing it. It’s joyous, perhaps more segmented than their other records, but still a far more cohesive venture than any of their contemporaries’ recent efforts. Mew are unlike any other.
This month I was lucky enough to speak with Jonas Bjerre, vocalist of Mew. He was on the phone from Paris, where he was visiting family. It was the day before the devastating terrorists attacks. We spoke about Mew’s process, his abstract approach to lyrics, the triumphant return of original bassist Johan Wohlert and finally meeting their Australian frengers.
Mew are finally coming to Australia. Why has it taken so long?
We had many offers, and we were very close to going year ago. We were in Indonesia doing some shows and we were supposed to go to Australia from there. I can’t remember what went wrong but logistically it just didn’t work out. It’s been very frustrating for us because we’ve been wanting to go for so long. And we have some very cool fans there. We have a fan club called Mewstralia and we obviously wanted to go and visit those guys and see what it was like in Australia. We’ve never been. We’re very happy to finally be able to go.
What can we expect from the tour? These days do you perform songs from throughout the entire back catalogue?
Yeah, pretty much. It’s a nice mixed bag of songs. We obviously enjoy playing the new songs but there are songs that we always play which are part of a Mew show. These last tours we’ve been on have been so great and everyone’s enjoying being out. It’s been so long since we did extensive touring this way, so everything has a very fresh energy about it.
No More Stories… was such an epic record, and in many ways a masterpiece. Was it difficult to know what to do next? Did the band have a conversation about where the music should venture on the following album?
Yeah, we always have those conversations and we agree on things, and then it becomes something completely different. We try and plan it out, but I think it’s a mistake to try and plan it out. Music has a life of its own and you can never really control your own inspiration. It’s more about being a vessel for ideas and that’s how it’s always been with us. But we do want to try and make every album its own thing, we don’t want to repeat ourselves.
And that was a very good thing about Johan rejoining the band on this one, because it had begun to sound a lot like No More Stories…. We didn’t really know how to break out of that form at the time. I really like how the album [+-] really sounds like a band playing. That’s what we wanted to do this time around.
It’s clear that Mew still believe in the album ideology, and want to craft a record that takes the listener on a journey throughout its duration. However, some bands believe the art of the album is dead and people are only listening to a few songs from each record that comes out. But would you say Mew reject this idea?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a big fan of albums, we all are [in Mew]. When I discover someone new, it takes me a whole album to fall completely in love with their music. Because one song… I don’t know. I do listen to individual songs as well, but that’s mostly because I’ll think there’s only a couple of songs on an album that are really good. But, for me, it’s rare for me to listen to a whole album where I think everything is great. But I just like being in this world, even if there’s a couple of songs that don’t click with me right away, I like being in someone’s idea for a while, and just take it all in.
With +- was there a particular song that set the tone for the rest of the album?
‘Satellites’ was one of the first songs we wrote and it had a very different feel to it. We even played it live pretty early on and it’s become a lot more driven. But that song, for me, is a good example of a Mew song and the way we put songs together, as kind of a puzzle and it has all these elements that I think are our sound, you know? Still it had something almost kind of celebratory about it that I really enjoyed. And, in a way, I think that set the mood for the album.
When you guys are making an album do you give any thought to how songs will translate into a live setting or are you happy to make a studio record and worry about that translation afterwards?
On some of our previous ones – on No More Stories… especially, because we wrote that without a bass player. Bass was kind of added as an afterthought. There is a lot of production ideas on [the album] and they were difficult, some of them, to translate to a live scene. We didn’t really think about that making the album. Which I think is fine, but on this one our producer, Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Marilyn Manson, Herbie Hancock), made great efforts to make sure that the songs sounded complete even with us just playing them in a room. That they didn’t need layering. Obviously we put a lot of layering on them anyway but it’s cool that you can really hear there’s a band playing, and they were very easy to translate to the stage.
When you’re making an album does the band find it hard to know when a song is complete? Do you rely on the producer to rein in the ideas?
I think it’s hard for us because often times we’ve started recording before the songs were finished (laughs). It’s kind of like the songs keep changing right up until the last moment. We keep adding new ideas and taking things out, that way it is a bit of a challenge. But I think it’s a necessary part of record-making for us. Otherwise it wouldn’t sound like us.
We have a feel to how we play together that we’ve built up over many years.
Would you say Mew are perfectionists?
Yeah, I think in some ways. I think everyone likes making a mistake that sounds good and then keeping that in there. We don’t want it to sound like machines making the music. We have a feel to how we play together that we’ve built up over many years. It’s a different feel so we try and retain that in the recordings.
Your guitarist, Bo Madsen, has left the group and has been replaced by Mads Wegner. Was Bo a difficult guitarist to replace?
Yes, definitely. Big shoes to fill. But our new guy that we tour with is a brilliant guitar player. He’s done so well. He’s a really good guy.
I don’t really write like that. It’s a multitude of different things in one song. Sometimes they hone in on a particular subject, but I’m the only one that knows that because the lyrics are so veiled.
Mew have been together 20 years now. Besides switching from Danish to English, has your approach to writing lyrics changed since you started?
Yeah, somewhat. I think I still retain the original approach. When I was a kid I listened to records and made up my own mind about what the lyrics were. I would hear them differently and then be disappointed when I read the lyrics, because they weren’t as dream-like or strange as I’d like them to be. The reason for [my approach], firstly, is because that’s the only way I know how to write. Sometimes I try to write more directly but I never sit down and think, “I’m going to write a song about my pet that just died” or some girl. I don’t really write like that. It’s a multitude of different things in one song. Sometimes they hone in on a particular subject, but I’m the only one that knows that because the lyrics are so veiled. And I like that because I want the songs to belong to the listener more than myself. I think when you do it that way the song can get to keep growing in other people’s minds, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.
In a strange way it’s almost as if your lyrics are another instrument, a tone designed to enhance the mood of a song.
Yeah, it’s not really a narrative. I like when people do that [narrative style] – I think some people do that amazingly well. But that was never really my force.
In a broad sense, are there any themes across +-?
I think there’s a duality that is celebratory and also a little bit gloomy. And I think that’s a running theme in all our stuff, but with slightly different nuances on each album.
Was there much material that didn’t make the album or do you guys tend to write as many songs as you require?
There’s always a lot of parts, there’s usually not many complete songs. We had a couple of bonus tracks here and there. But usually the stuff that gets finished is the album. But we have a lot of parts. Sometimes we go back to something. “Oh, we had this part and we never made it work. It’s so beautiful, it could work in this song.” But it doesn’t happen that often really.
Will it be another six years before we hear another record? Or will it be sooner?
It will be sooner. I mean, I fear to make a promise but I do think we’ll get our stuff together much sooner this time.
What would you have thought of +- if someone had played it to you when Mew were releasing Frengers in 2003, and told you that this is how your band will sound in 12 years?
I would have been impressed with how big it sounds, I guess. When we did Frengers we were quite impressed with how big we could sound then, especially working with a producer and having a lot of time to make the record, which was new for us. Obviously the new one sounds even more grandiose. And, also, it’s more ambitious, obviously, with the twists and turns in the music, so yeah I would have been impressed. I think I would have liked it, but it’s so hard to tell. We wanted to get hypnotised one time and listen to our own music as if it were someone else, and hear our own impressions of it. We tried to do that for a music video, but we couldn’t do something so specific unfortunately. It didn’t work out, but it was a fun experiment.
What is on the horizon for you after this Australian tour?
There’s more touring, up until Christmas. Next year? I don’t really know what’s going to happen next year. I think we’re going to talk about starting to write some more stuff. There will be probably be some more touring as well, but everyone is really excited about making new music. I think it’s going to be a good year.
+- is out now.