No one really knows how to describe Mew. Although they'd already been darlings of their home country for some time, the Danish four (now three, since bassist Johan Wohlert left to be a father) first came to the UK's attention with the bizarre, blistering single 'Am I Wry? No' in 2000 and its mother album, Frengers.
They immediately fostered a small but cultish following of fans entranced by the strange mixture of frontman Jonas Bjerre's childlike vocals with erratic, dark guitars and rhythms. Their songs talked of lost castles, ancient kings, unhealthy obsessions and loneliness; their videos, directed and filmed by themselves, depicted fairytales turned sinister – in them, girls danced with bears, blank-faced cats played violins and creatures with crosses where their eyes should be drifted toward the lens.
When they released ...And The Glass Handed Kites in 2005, everyone clamoured to tag them as 'prog' – y'know, 'cause the album was a little bit heavier and had the dude from Dinosaur Jr. singing on it. But still Mew defied categorisation – the gorgeous, boomerang chorus of 'The Zookeeper's Boy' could hardly be called prog, but then its lyrics (“Tall/Just like a giraffe/You have to climb to find its head/But if there's a glitch/You're an os-ter-ich”) weren't exactly prime-time pop either. No More Stories fooled us once again, its lead single 'Repeaterbeater' being a torrid mess of begrudging, grumbling guitars but somehow, also, sublimely tuneful.
Mew will make their only UK festival appearance this year at Truck Festival (24th - 25th July at Hill Farm in Oxfordshire).
I quizzed Bjerre via the faceless medium of email about things obvious and less obvious...
DiS: Hello Jonas! How are you and where in the world are you, what is it like there and why are you there?
Jonas Bjerre: Right at this very moment I am sitting on a train to the middle part of Denmark, a large island called Fyn. I am going there to attend a family celebration ritual. It’s a high-tech train, with internet and everything. And it’s very comfortable, the seats can lean back, but the declination of the seat does make me drop everything out of my pockets, I suppose because of gravity.
We are playing scattered festivals around Europe these days, it’s a lot of fun and quite comfortable but doesn’t feel like a real tour, you don’t really get into the touring state of mind.
How is the horribly futuristic-sounding year of 2010 treating you so far?
Well, I think it’s been much better so far than the rather unnecessary sequel to Kubrick’s masterpiece.
OK, so. The first song I ever fell in love with was actually a song by you – 'Shespider', which I heard when I was 14 in the basement of Tower Records in London (you were playing live in the store). I didn't catch your name and the shop assistant didn't know who you were – I spent ages on the olde worlde penny-a-minute dial-up internet when I got home trying to figure out who I'd seen. Can you remember the first song you fell in love with? Does it still mean something to you today?
I remember that show! In-store shows are always really weird. I remember they let us take any DVD we wanted afterwards, and we all chose The Lord of the Rings, which had just come out.
I think the first song I fell in love with may have been a Kate Bush song, but I was too young to remember which one. My first music purchase was 'The Lovecats' by The Cure on seven-inch. I didn’t know seven-inch had to be played at 45rpm, so I played it in slow motion and thought it was supposed to be like that. It sounded otherworldly, and a bit like being under water. I was disappointed when I found out it was meant to go faster.
When discussing the title of your most recent album, No More Stories, you once said, “I feel like I've been told so many stories in my life I don't need to hear anymore, and so I've kind of given up on being impressed by stories”. With that in mind, why write songs? Do you ever feel like you yourself have run out of stories to tell?
This was a feeling I had at one point in my life, and it was fairly horrifying because it took me right back to that teenage darkness of, “What is the point of all this work of ours?” – that kind of spoiled attitude of feeling entitled to a “deeper sense of purpose”. It went away and I started listening to music again, reading books, watching movies... but for a while I just felt so saturated with all of those things, and I just needed peace and quiet. There is so much stimulus in society today. I think we all need a break sometimes.
My third of the content and energy of the album No More Stories started taking shape when I returned from my “holiday” and felt the tangy sting of inspiration again!
You've been together as a band for almost 15 years – do you feel like you know everything there is to know about each other?
We obviously know each other very well, but there are still hidden sides to all of us. I can’t speak for myself but Silas and Bo are both pretty mysterious sometimes, even to me.
Did the dynamic within the band change when Johan left? Had you ever thought what would happen with the band if one of you had to leave, and did it just feel right to carry on?
It happened so long ago now. It changed a lot of things. The combined psychology of the band shifted and our way of writing became different because the three of us had to each fulfill a part of what was then missing. The three of us are very much in tune about what we want to do, creatively – I think we’ve managed to distill our thoughts and ideas in a very clear way.
One of the most arresting aspects of your music – and one of the reasons I was so attracted to it in the first place – is that you pitch these really dark images and ideas against some very buoyant melodies. As a listener, you frequently find yourself singing joyfully along to some often really messed-up lyrics and troubling images. Is this contrast of light and dark – for want of a better way of describing it – something you've always been interested in? A similar kind of feeling, or conflict, is often evident in your videos...
I think you need both sides of the story, you need night and day, salt and pepper. It always seems very flat to me when you experience music or writing or visual art that has only a happy message with no underlying, untold truth. We may take it to an extreme in Mew, though – maybe that’s what we’re like as people.
So do you like the feeling of surprising people, of perhaps making them feel uncomfortable, taking them out of their comfort zone?
That is something I think about a lot. I always liked that in music I listened to, when it sneaked around my expectations and took me by surprise. It reached deeper into me, because I was not prepared for its direction. But to me it’s not an uncomfortable feeling. I hope people don’t find our music uncomfortable either, it’s certainly not meant to be!
Of course this feeling is at its sharpest the first time you hear a piece, but that initial discovery stays with you. At least that’s how I feel. Most songs on the radio, they are so predictable you already know the whole song after a few seconds of listening.
On the other hand, I don’t feel like our music is avant-garde or difficult to get into. We always strive to have a balance of immediacy and complexity, which can grab you and which you can delve into, all its layers and ideas and characters.
Your lyrics and videos seem to be inspired by a lot of dream/nightmare imagery and (il)logic. There's a surreal, cryptic quality to them – like they're based in a fantasy that's close to but not quite reality. I think it's safe to say you're interested in exploring the strange and the uncanny in your lyrics rather than the everyday – and that you're interested in analysing our internal rather than external worlds. I'm sounding ever so pretentious here, but... have you always been interested in these things? Could you maybe talk a bit about these themes?
I am very attracted to magic realism. I've read Kafka’s The Trial numerous times, and I think David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series has some of that as well, the magical and disturbing in the midst of everyday (boring) life. These things are much more interesting to me than fantasy novels. It’s the offsetting of what you’d expect that takes you off guard – and it makes a deeper impression that way.
I am not an analytical person, though. It’s not so interesting to me, why I do the things I do, I just enjoy the process and the outcome. It’s like when you watch a fireworks show, you simply experience the shapes and colours, you don’t question the chemicals and compounds that were used to create the explosions.
A dream can have an underlying feeling of deep importance, even if (or especially if) what happens in the dream is absurd. I don’t presume to understand the meaning of a dream, but I do feel inspired oftentimes to use some of its imagery, and it often feels like an energy is released when you dream, an inspirational energy.
It’s hard to talk about, because most people always look for – and expect to find – an explanation. I have very few explanations to give. I feel like Mew’s music poses more questions than offers explanations. Also, I feel that the meaning music holds is not determined purely by the artist. Each time you listen to a specific song, and it makes an impression on you, you add to its meaning, the sum of its meaning.
A lot of your videos are films made by yourselves, and I know that when you were younger you made friends – and formed the band – through making films together. Do you tend to 'think' in pictures rather than in sound, or in sound rather than in pictures?
I feel like being aware of what you do while creating can be a hindrance, at least to me. I’d like to think that I let the subconscious do most of the work. Bo is usually the one in the band who stays aware of the grander picture, knitting the red thread. There is a lot of imagery in my lyrics though, and I make the visuals that we use for the shows. I like lyrics and music that create a sense of place and atmosphere, a feeling of some unfamiliar (or perhaps actually very familiar) situation, rather than a direct narrative about how we feel about life and love, that sort of thing.
Which other filmmakers and visual artists do you really admire? Who inspires you?
David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, Hayao Miyazaki, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Jan Švankmajer, David O’Reilly. To name a few.
All the guest vocalists and musicians you've worked with on your albums – from Stina Nordenstam to J Mascis to Becky Jarrett – have had really unique, unusual and unconventional voices. What attracts you to the people you work with?
We like unique voices, we like unique characters. It’s funny because a lot of very popular singers, be it rock or singer/songwriting folks, have very similar voices, very similar ways of singing. And people will go, “Oh, she has such a pretty voice”, a soft, round headvoice with a bit of hoarseness to it – in short, a really conventional, heard-before expression. A singer may be technically skilled and do well, but the way he or she uses her voice is just very boring to me, because sounding like their idols is the be-all and end-all of singing to them. And it’s something that’s quite unique to music; you don’t see painters trying to copy exactly the pre-Raphaelites, for example. What would be the point? I would much prefer listening to a singer who is off-key and technically inferior, but who has a personal style. That’s not to say the singers you mention are technically bad, they’re actually quite skilled – they just happen to have very personal styles of singing to boot!
As you've grown older, has music become more or less important to you? Do you ever question the importance of making it, or the reason why you're making it?
I think the importance of music changes on a daily basis, in the sense that some days you just need music more than other days. I feel like there is an amount of expression and movement in listening to music, as well as creating it. Sometimes it can be down right therapeutic. Sometimes it can make you want to dance. Sometimes it can make you feel connected to the world and it can make you discover things about yourself. Sometimes it’s just a great big pleasure!
Are you working on new material at the moment?
We always work on stuff, sometimes in concentrated writing sessions, sometimes just in spontaneous bursts. What we have now are some beautiful, very direct things along with some layered, almost flooded extravagant pieces of music which will need to settle before we can figure out what to do with them.
Lastly, for anyone attending Truck who hasn't seen you play before or doesn't know your music, how would you describe yourselves to them? Why should they come and see you play?
Oh man… I gotta make a sales pitch, huh?! I am not sure I have a talent for that kind of thing. Well, here goes...Come see us, because what we do might not be what you’d expect and it’s full of colours and feelings and shapes and it moves a little differently from most things. And also, for each person who doesn’t attend the show, a million puppies with big wet shiny eyes will jump off a mountain into a fiery death.
Mew headline the Truck stage at Truck Festival on Saturday 24 July.