Breaking dens: Mystery Jets ditch prog's grey cage for Young Love and pop fun
It’s the title of Twenty One that gives the game away. Oddly quiet since the fuss around debut album Making Dens petered out through the summer of 2006, Mystery Jets have endured the partial loss of founding member and mentor Henry Harrison, now 57, before returning with Erol Alkan and a new set of tracks bursting with the dumb heat and endlessly replenished vigour of youth. Alkan’s guidance in Harrison’s stead has pushed the band to use the expertise fostered under the watchful eye of their elder to new effect; the worn and often prosaic prog of Making Dens re-wired and jubilant in colourful puddles of ‘80s pop.
“I think getting into it we thought it’d be a big dance record,” says drummer Kapil Trivedi when I ask what Alkan has brought to the band. “Big beats, big synths, big bass.”
“We thought we wanted to be the next Switch,” chimes in genial guitarist William Rees. Laughter ensues, before Trivedi picks up the baton. “That didn’t quite work out.”
What did work out are tracks like ‘Hideaway’, ‘MJ’ and ‘Veiled in Grey’ – tracks that are as much the Mystery Jets’ past as they are their future; spooked vocals and telepathically-fused instrumentation given space and dazzle by Alkan’s synth and bass tricks, the band’s personality, however intangible a concept that is, is still retained but happier in the mix.
“What Erol’s actually brought to us is to help us be ourselves more,” agrees Rees. “He’s made us realise what we are and what we’re not. He’s seeing what’s good about us as a band and he’s tried to encourage those bits, he’s been a really good guiding force. He’s made us realise that the second record is a really important album and that we had to take the bull by the horns, and it’s brought out what’s best in us.”
While you suspect that Mystery Jets’ music will never lose what’s best about it as long as Henry Harrison – who, I should mention, has also been known to moonlight as father to lead vocalist and keyboard player Blaine – presides over the band from their spiritual home on west London’s Eel Pie Island, Alkan’s voice is definitely strong in the mix. Aside from the synths littering the sound, the producer’s voice is there in lyrics that talk of “one night of love” and “a man who always sleeps in his clothes“ and other things found in lost morning afters and dizzy, twilit shuffles home, eyes scattering in the rain and orange streetlights.
Wrapped up – this record is the sound of guitar music finding its place in London clublands, courtesy of a man whose presence looms heavy over our glittery, little demi-monde and the sound of Twenty One.
Rees: “He’s more than a producer really. He’s put a lot more love into the album than your average producer would. Even someone who’s the most hotly tipped producer, who’s done great records, Erol’s much more than that…”
Video: Mystery Jets - 'Young Love' (feat. Laura Marling)
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While it’s impossible to ignore the shift in mood that’s coincided with Alkan’s arrival, it’s the band’s part in that shift which is most significant, you imagine – the evidence is in the number of bands flailing waylaid by the act or even the thought of committing a second album to tape, (Good Shoes, Larrikin Love respective and relevant examples).
“I think now there’s a huge pressure on bands making it on their first record,” Blaine says when I ask him if Mystery Jets themselves are surprised by how Twenty One turned out. “One chance – our first record wasn’t like that. We’d been a band for so long that we used the first record to get rid of everything that we had.
“We’d been playing live for four or five years and the second record is almost like starting again, which is why we didn’t wanna rush it. It does almost feel like our proper first record. I do think of this record as our real first record. Making Dens is kind of…”
“Dens is like a scrapbook,” Trivedi intervenes.
“Yeah. With this record we had ten months or a year to write everything and do everything and it’s really a great feeling to just think ‘fuck it, just forget all this stuff, just clear it all away and make eleven songs, make them as good as you can…”
Clearing away? You get the sense that the band have been aching to escape their Den for a while now.
“I think when we were making it we were listening to a lot of different stuff to what we grew up on,” Rees says of the time that’s gone into Twenty One. “We started off listening to early Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer and loads of prog stuff as well as Peter Gabriel and Buddy Holly. In the last couple of years we’ve totally moved on from that, become much more interested in pop music.
“It’s just like pure enjoyment when you listen to it,” the guitarist continues. “It’s pure ear candy. That’s what we’ve been getting out of music recently. Just pop. Even quite obscure stuff like Strawberry Switchblade and Buggles and more kind of left-field pop records from the ‘80s – things that the Human League and Heaven 17 were doing, the Sheffield stuff. Pop in any form, basically.”
The band cite Timbaland’s work on Nelly Furtado’s Loose as a more contemporary source of inspiration, though it’s the 80s-born synth and sax of ‘Two Doors Down’ that is the real show-stopper. You wonder if a Dad who raised his kid on Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer would approve of a track that sounds like Squeeze covering Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, but the band are quick to hang on to a member who still plays a major role everywhere except the live stage.
“Though Henry’s kind of taken a back seat from the live side of things he’s still very much a member of the band,” Rees says. “We still write songs with him, he’s still involved with all the artwork ideas and the video ideas and just… he is a band member, he just doesn’t play live with us any more ‘cause I think he’s like 58 or 60 now and he’s an architect.
“He owns this bit of land on Eel Pie Island where we started out and he wants to put his energy into that. So there are a number of reasons why he’s taken a back seat.”
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How has his absence affected the band dynamic on the road? Has it changed Mystery Jets as a band?
“I think it’s kind of, um… I mean not having Blaine’s dad there has sort of allowed us to do what young bands do. You go out on the road, get on the razz – we always have fun on the road, but we’ve just been having a little bit more fun,” ponders Rees.
“It’s important not to have that older influence. I mean, imagine if your dad ran DrownedinSound, god forbid, and you got a job there with your dad and your dad was like ‘come on son, you should be doing this’. And really guiding you… It’s so important to make your own mistakes and to learn from them properly – I think not having Henry there on the live side of it has actually really re-invigorated us.”
“We feel like we’re going out of the nest,” Trivedi embellishes.
“It’s more honest, isn’t it?” Rees resumes. “He’s still the Brian Wilson figure, he’s still there at Eel Pie and we talk to him every day.”
It’s just a short hop on the District Line into town, but the band seem to have come a long way from those early days on the island. For one, they’re not allowed to play or host parties there any more, having narrowly escaped a £20,000 fine from the council after a prestigiously hectic final Eel Pie shebang in 2006, but there was a self-determination too, to “move away from the island” and a desire that “everything be different this time around”. To this extent they’ve been traipsing across the capital, recording Twenty One at four or five different locations instead of the single Den they inhabited last time ‘round. Have they noticed any differences in the London they’ve been traversing these last few months and the city they originally stepped out in, back in those distant, heady days of 2005?
“The musical landscape from when Making Dens came out to now is just completely different,” says Rees. “I think things are a lot more colourful now and people are trying different things. Dance music and indie is kind’ve the same thing at the moment…”
Yeah, the barriers seem to have completely gone.
“Yeah, I think that’s great. There are really great things happening in the urban world that I don’t… know… anything… about. [laughter] Even manufactured pop stuff is pretty cool at the moment. ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis…”
I dunno, I can’t get past that as a kind of soundtrack to post-natal depression…
“It is, but it’s…”
Nah, I know what you mean.
And I do, I think. Mystery Jets may not be the next Switch, but they are the tonic to a rabble of bland pop dabblers, the musical dilettantes who took that ‘80s new-wave message of style over substance to its logical, but whimpering conclusion. Trained up with much music, courtesy of Messrs Harrison and Alkan, the band are well-equipped to dive into that treacherous era and return with their own spin on it, rather than anything that sounds like a hollow re-hash. Difficult second album? Twenty One sounds effortless, buoyant and buoying in its new-found sense of fun and Saturday serendipity.
Mystery Jets second album, Twenty One, is released through sixsevenine on the 24th of March. Ten of the eleven tracks from it can be heard now at the band's MySpace.