It’s been more than half-a-decade since the Danish dream pop band, Mew released fresh material.
In preparation for their first American tour in six years, behind their latest studio effort entitled +-, frontman Jonas Bjerre spoke with ListenSD’s Connor Cox about the band’s extended hiatus, their writing process, and the concepts behind the group’s abstract aesthetics and lyrics.
Hi Jonas! Where are you right now?
I’m in Copenhagen. I’m packing. Leaving tomorrow for the States.
How long’s your tour?
I’m guessing you’re hitting both coasts? All major cities in between?
Yeah, we’re playing a few places we’ve never played before like Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Do you know what the fan reception is like in those cities?
No, I have no clue…
Mew has a strong European fanbase. What’s it like in the States? Obviously you’re always going to have the fans in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco.
Yeah definitely those cities, but I think there’s also Chicago that’s good with us.. yeah there’s a few places where we’ll play smaller venues. But I really think of the Unites States as a bunch of countries (in some ways) more than as one country. Each State is so different.
Do you guys tour the States often?
No, it’s been a long time since we did a proper tour in the States, so we’re really looking forward to it. It’s always been great when we’ve done tours. We’ve always enjoyed it.
Do you not tour in the States as much because of the cost?
It’s partly the cost, but really it’s been awhile since we’ve done any proper touring. It took so long in making this record. We toured a little bit in between, but not much.
You guys were gone for almost six years.
What was happening?
Well we toured a lot on the last record. At the end of it we wanted to take a break. We never took a break before. We used to live together in London so we never had time away from each other. We thought it would be healthy. We didn’t know how long the break would be. We just thought maybe six months doing some other things… I think it was good that we did it. Everyone came back with a new energy, you know? … Then we had this dream of turning our rehearsal space into a proper studio. We tried so hard to make it work but we just couldn’t get the sound right there. It sounded terrible for drums.
Do you guys record in Copenhagen?
Yeah this last one was recorded entirely in Copenhagen… in different studios… On the last album we recorded in New York and the album before that in Los Angeles.
What’s the benefit of recording in different studios?
Well one of the different things about this record is if we were home the whole time – and I think there is a lot to be said for going somewhere new with the mission of competing something – because when you’re at home you have everything that would normally distract you. Your friends, your family… It’s a little less efficient. And that’s partly why it took longer on this record.
I don’t think we’ll do that again… I think next time we’ll go away… But we were slow. We get so caught up in the details of things. Too caught up. Sometimes it’s crazy.
Do you think that has to do with the maturity of the career?
Well the first album we ever did, we finished in one month. Ever since that we’ve taken longer and longer.
Do you think when you’re young you have the pressure of putting out music to stay relevant. But once you’ve made it, you have the luxury of taking your time?
You have the luxury, but maybe when you’re younger you haven’t quite set the bar so high? You’re still trying out things. And you’re still impressed with just the fact you can make some noise… when you’re older you have more quality control.
Your lyrics are very ambiguous. What are the general concepts of the songs? I love the new song “The Night Believer”. What’s that song about?
I think it’s a song about unfulfilled dreams… It might just be the circle that I’m in or the people I know, it feels like everyone is so determined to become a specific thing… In some ways I think having no ambitions must be total bliss. If I could just live my life I would be in a state of bliss. It’s kind of a curse. But ambition I often think is wrong, you know? I think if you have something you want to create then it’s worth doing for its own sake. Then if you have success with it, that’s amazing, but if you do it to achieve success, the mindset is flawed from the beginning… I don’t understand why you’d work really hard to be famous and I think a lot of people are ambitious in that way.
What’s “The Zookeeper’s Boy” about?
Oh, I wanted to make a children’s album. [Laughs] I wanted to make a cartoon – because I also do animation – and I wanted to write a song called “Animals of Many Kind” and we actually released it as a b-side. A lot of the parts are from that song. So it’s a mixture of this children’s song – and like you said -about dreaming towards something.
I read you guys worked with Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack on this last album. What was that like?
It was great! We knew him because we did a tour in the States supporting Bloc Party. I think he was the one who invited us into the studio. He had been to some of our shows in London and liked the band. We hit it off and stayed in touch with him afterwards. We had been talking about bringing other people into the writing process because the writing process is always quite daunting. It takes a long time and you always lose perspective…
There are some unusual aesthetics to Mew’s albums. We talked about song lyrics, but the album artwork and album titles are quite different. Can you shed some light on the reason behind the album art and title of +- ?
Both came from MM Paris who is this designer duo in Paris and they’ve done a lot of great stuff over the years. They did our last three albums. I think everyone in the band is tired of the aesthetic that’s immediately pleasing verus “Oh it’s a beautiful photograph! And there’s a nice font that says the title in the corner”, you know? It looks nice, but then that’s it. You don’t think about it anymore. So we always try to do something that might be kind of off-putting…
Where did you learn how to sing? You have a very interesting vocal range? Did you practice or is it just like that?
When we started the band nobody had ever sung. We started the band in the 8th grade and nobody wanted to be the singer… finally I started singing.
I remember in high school our music teacher tested everyone’s range and told me I was bass. This was before I found my voice. I started singing higher because we didn’t have PA system so I plugged my mic into the guitar amp and I had to sing really high to make my voice stand on top of the guitars.. just to be able to hear myself.
Did you ever have any training?
I had a little bit of training one time after we first started touring. I got hoarse after a week so I got lessons on how to use muscles.
I remember I had trouble singing a part on a record. I knew how I wanted it to sound but I just couldn’t get it right, so I went to this expensive voice coach and he said “Just sing it like this” and I said “no that’s not how I want to sing it. That sounds bad. I want to sing it this way.” And he said, “Well you can’t.” [Laughs] “Well sure I can! It’s just hard, but I can do it.” “No, no, no… you’re doing it wrong.” “Well then I want to do it wrong!” [Laughs]
Finally I was able to sing it the way I wanted it to sound with a lot warming up, but that was the last experience I had with a voice instructor.
What have you been listening to lately?
Death Grips. I really like Death Grips… There’s a Bolivian singer called Luzmila Carpio that I really love. Especially one of her albums that I think is amazing… that’s my latest discovery.