Mention the band Mew to everyday folks on the street, and you’re apt to receive a lot of blank stares or puzzled looks.
But reference the band to music fans in the know, and you’re more likely to ignite a conversation on the merits of the Danish experimental rockers.
On albums such as And the Glass Handed Kites and Frengers, the group patented a unique and brainy sound by blending airy, graceful pop with progressive song arrangements, all highlighted by Jonas Bjerre’s ethereal vocals.
A longtime favorite of music critics, Mew has cultivated an ardent-yet-slightly-underground fan base worldwide.
This year has been a heady time for Mew lovers: the band unveiled the album + – in April to rave reviews, with some critics hailing it as the year’s best rock release.
The notoriously slow-to-make-records group hadn’t put out an album since 2009’s verbosely-titled No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry They Washed Away // No More Stories, The World Is Grey, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away. (Try saying that three times fast.)
This summer, Mew released a series of dazzling music videos for + – tracks, including the stop-motion extravaganza “Night Believer,” and a high-energy clip for “Witness,” where Mew invited Facebook fans to Copenhagen’s Republique Theatre to dance in the video.
But the best news of all for hardcore Mew acolytes in North America? This fall, the band makes its first visit to the United States in six years.
Mew’s latest album marks the return of original bassist Johan Wohlert, who had departed in 2006. And though the group welcomed back Wohlert, it waved goodbye to a different founding member, as guitarist Bo Madsen recently chose to part ways with his longtime bandmates. Replacement guitarist Mads Wegner joined the group, which has spent much of 2015 touring Europe and Asia.
In advance of the U.S. concert dates, I had the pleasure of catching up with Mew frontman Bjerre, via Skype from Denmark.
Bjerre is awash in artistic talents—in addition to his work with Mew, he also works as a visual artist and has scored music for films, such as the 2011 Danish film Skyscraper. The singer filled me in on the band’s stage show, recording techniques, and other projects he’s been working on.
Your U.S. fans are very excited to see the band for the first time in six years. Are you guys really looking forward to it?
Absolutely. We never meant to be gone for that long. We’re looking forward to finally coming back.
What are some of the things you like best about visiting the United States?
It’s a great place to tour. And I think for us Europeans, there’s something very filmic about America, because we were first introduced to the country through movies and TV shows. So, there’s something a bit surreal about America. Maybe a little less so now that we’ve spent a lot of time there, but it’s still kind of thrilling, in the sense that it seems like anything can happen in the United States.
For the current tour, the band has incorporated some unique lighting and video techniques into the stage show. You create the animated videos yourself, Jonas?
Yeah, it’s something I started doing pretty early on. I saw a few other bands [using video], and they always kind of ripped off old material, or used old movies or something like that, and I thought it would be more fun to do something that was really connected to our band. I was working in post-production and animation at the time, so I started fiddling with it. I think I did it partly because I didn’t really feel at ease with my role as a frontman of the band. So I thought, if I could do this, it compensates a bit for me just staring at my shoes the whole show.
That’s how it started, and then it became a big part of the show. We don’t always use it. Obviously, if we’re playing festivals in the daylight, we can’t. But whenever we’re able to use it, we do. It’s something I really enjoy doing, because I like the idea of transforming a venue into a different world, a world that fits the music.
That being said, do you feel that the visual presentation of your live shows is an essential part of the concert experience for fans?
I don’t think that it’s a necessary part. I feel that we can perform in so many ways. Also, we’ve been doing quite a lot of smaller, acoustic sessions which we haven’t done in the past. And I’ve been enjoying that just as much. I think each experience is different. It is really about the music.
Also, when we started doing this, I was so into it that I made visuals for every part of the show, and at some point it started feeling like going to a Mew show was like going to watch a movie. And we didn’t want that. It’s a fine balance, I think.
Mew had a key lineup change this summer, when founding guitarist Bo Madsen left the group after 20 years. I found it interesting that Mew stated that Bo had left the band “for the time being.” Do you foresee him returning at some point? After all, Johan did the same thing, right?
It’s a bit difficult to talk about at this point in time. It’s a bit early. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.
How did you guys get connected with Mads Wegner, and how has the transition gone with him in the band?
He’s a very skilled guitar player and a great person, and someone who Johan had worked with before. It’s been really great touring with him. I think we’ve had some of our best shows ever during this festival season. Everyone is really happy to be on tour, and I think that really translates onstage.
Your voice is such a unique and powerful instrument in itself. While you’re on tour, are there certain things you need to do to care for it?
Yes, there are. When we started touring a lot, I realized that I had to keep it in a certain shape. It has a lot to do with breathing. I have a special technique that I use before shows, and I actually do it quite a lot, every day we’re on tour. And it’s a silent kind of warm-up, so it doesn’t bother people too much. It’s not like I’m singing scales. It’s more about the breathing. But I have to do that. We just finished an Asian tour, and I actually caught a flu and was quite sick, but I don’t think it affected any of the shows, because I do this exercise.
Describe the Mew songwriting process to me.
Most of the time, we just play and kind of improvise things together. Someone has a riff or a melody, then the others will join in. And that’s part of why it takes us so long to make an album. When you jam up songs on the spot, you end up taking a lot of time doing it. It’s a lot of trial and error for us. We try out a lot of things that don’t work out. And I think that’s good because you’re at least taking some risks. I mean, there is certainly a bunch of stuff that we’ve done over the years that I’m so happy never saw the light of day. When you listen back to it, you’re like, “What in the world were we thinking?” (Laughs)
But when you’re in the process, it’s good to let yourself try out all these things, because sometimes it’ll open the doorway to something else that’s really cool. So, I think we’ll keep doing it that way. But we are trying to focus our efforts a bit more, so we don’t spend five years between albums.
Do you consider yourselves perfectionists in the studio?
Yeah. And to an unrealistic degree, where we can sometimes spend weeks on a tiny detail, and then at the end of that we realize it’s not even a song yet—it’s just a part of a song and maybe we won’t even use it, but we just spent two weeks getting it right. That kind of thing. That attention to detail almost inhibits us at times from finishing albums. But I think we’ve learned a lot. I think we’ve realized what we shouldn’t do, what we’re really bad at as a band, and what we’re good at.
It seems like your songwriting process is relatively democratic, where the band members each contribute quite a bit to the songs.
After having one of the longest album titles in history with No More Stories… you went with one of the shortest in + –. I presume that was intentional?
It was something we talked about. We wanted to have a really short one this time, maybe just one word. Album titles are really difficult, because you’re looking for something that’s supposed to sum up all your efforts and everything that you’ve put into this piece of work. We talked about batteries and the pluses and minuses at the end of them. And we thought that was kind of a good title, because in some ways this was the most diverse album we’ve ever done. There’s some really progressive rock influences, and there’s some shorter, more precise numbers on it too.
From what I’ve read about the making of the + – record, it seems like Johan’s return to the band really helped in terms of getting you guys more focused and achieving the sound you wanted for this album.
Yes, absolutely. The one album that we did without him was a very different process. Listening to it today, it’s very clear to me that we didn’t have a bass player in the writing process. The bass parts are kind of written as an afterthought, which makes a huge difference to the rhythm section. And I really love that album, I think it’s great, but it seems sort of like a cloud of ideas, and very floaty to me, and it doesn’t really have that harder core that we have as a four-piece. That was one of the things that Micheal Beinhorn [producer of + –] mentioned pretty quickly in the process, that he was missing Johan’s bass playing in the rhythm section. We had already talked to Johan over the years about trying to write something with us again, but for him to rejoin the band was a big commitment. He definitely turned things around for us a little bit, and we needed that.
Your band has released some very striking music videos this year, including one for the track “Witness.” There’s so much energy going on in that video, it must have been a blast to film it.
It was done quickly; we didn’t even do that many takes. Then a week later it was edited, and it was finished. Usually it takes a lot longer to do a video. It’s nice to know that you can do things more spontaneously.
The fans in the video look like they got quite a workout.
Not everyone in the band had to be in every take, but the fans were in every take, really giving it their all. So, we’re grateful to them. Everyone was pretty drenched in sweat by the end of it.
The Mew sound combines two distinct elements—you’re very skilled at the dreamy pop kind of sound, but also have the experimental side. Most bands couldn’t pull that off so successfully. I’m curious about what type of music the band members listen to outside of Mew, and who you consider your influences to be.
When we were kids, we all just listened to what our parents listened to. At the time, my parents listened to a lot of Eurythmics, Kate Bush, a lot of pop stuff from the ’80s. I think that had a definite influence on me. But the thing that really made us to want to be in a band is the alternative-rock wave. We got into Nirvana, then discovered Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth. And that was sort of the flame that made us want to be a band.
But I think all those ’80s pop influences, and the sense of storytelling those bands had, kind of sneaked slowly into our sound. It’s kind of a mixture of everything. I’m happy that you think we combine those elements really well. It seems that when we try to do one of them, say we try to do a straight pop song, it kind of sucks. We have to make it quirky, otherwise it doesn’t sound like us.
That’s interesting—if you try to lean one way more emphatically, you feel it doesn’t work.
Yeah. We have a couple of pop songs that didn’t really fit the band, and they didn’t end up on the albums. Our old producer, Damon Tutunjian, refers to those songs as “the shame of Mew.” They don’t really fit. (Laughs)
In non-Mew news, you recently collaborated with Duran Duran for a song on their new album.
Yeah. I was traveling and they sent me an email asking if I wanted to try to sing on a track. I really like Duran Duran a lot, and obviously they’re a band I’ve grown up with, and are legendary. I was really curious to hear what kind of album they were making. I really liked the song they sent me, and it had the same kind of thing I loved about the band in the old days, which was kind of this mysterious storytelling narrative about it, musically and lyrically, so I jumped at the chance.
Are you still involved personally with creating soundtrack music for films?
I haven’t done any complete soundtracks, other than that one movie that I did a bunch of years ago. But recently I did a little bit of instrumental music for a film called Desire Will Set You Free, which is based in Berlin. It’s fiction, but it takes place in the queer underground of Berlin. It’s a really cool film. Peaches is in it, and Nina Hagen. I’m very excited to see the finished edit. Once in a while, I take on projects like that, when there’s time. It’s a lot of fun. It’s such a different way of working with music, because it’s just meant to be a part of something else.
Beyond this tour, what’s next on the horizon for Mew? Do you think there will be less of a wait before fans see another record?
That’s certainly the plan. We’ve been listening to demos and stuff on the bus, so I’m pretty hopeful that we’ll start working on something fairly soon, and there won’t be as much of a wait.
Mew will perform at Webster Hall in New York City on October 10. + – is available now. For more info, visit mewsite.com.