The Mystery Jets are one of those baffling anomalies that come around every so many years.
The music they make is borne out of each of their members’ eclectic tastes, varying age gaps and a shared love of their West London upbringings and surroundings.
With a clutch of critically acclaimed EPs and singles under their belts, the most recent of which (‘Alas Agnes’) gatecrashed the UK charts just before Christmas, it seems the rest of the country is finally catching onto their whimsical excursions into folk/prog/hoedown/ska. Next month sees the release of their debut long player ‘Making Dens’, which many predict will catapult the band into the big league.
Drowned In Sound met up with the band’s elder statesman and guitarist Henry Harrison and drummer Kapil Trivedi recently to talk about the past, present and (hopefully) future of the Mystery Jets.
Having completed a sell out UK tour at the back end of 2005 culminating in ‘Alas Agnes’ reaching number 34 in the UK singles charts, would you say your expectations for the album’s success have increased?
Henry: I wouldn’t say we have any expectations at all to be honest with you. As long as it communicates with people. As long as the message gets through, that’s our fervent wish…
Kapil: I think it will do well from word of mouth and gradually sell more as time goes on but, you never know.
The album seems more commercial sounding than the band’s earlier recordings. Would you say there are many more obvious singles on the record?
Henry: Certainly I would say that our early tendency to write very long songs has been slightly subdued by reality. That’s not to say that those songs are no longer relevant – they have a place – but on a tour like the one we’re doing at the moment (the NME Brats tour) where you’ve got just 30 minutes to get the Mystery Jets idea through to people you can’t really spend half of that time playing one song! We’re up against some of the best bands in the country and we’re here to make an impression, not just fill in a blank space, and hopefully people will remember us. I think that is also a characteristic of the album in that we wanted to put half a dozen or more songs across that stick in people’s heads in a powerful way. I don’t think the word “commercial” is the way I look at it. We realise that along with this idea of developing music and going off in a tangent to do our own thing you’ve still got to make stuff accessible to people. For that reason we’ve put some of our shorter songs on this album – the first album –, which I suppose, is a bit of a surprise to us because initially we wanted this record to be a bit of an epic. I mean, it’s still virtually an hour long, which is approximately 30% longer than most other artists’ albums.
Its interesting you mention the word “epic” as I was initially expecting the record to be a type of concept album, based on previous live performances. Do you ever see the band making that type of record in the future?
Henry: I think there is a concept album lurking in all of us…
Kapil: Yeah definitely, I’d second that.
Henry: I think with this album it has a feeling of consistency about it, so from that point of view, it is almost a concept album but its not like ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, its not something that morphs together. They are discreet songs with different textures and different kinds of motions. The other thing that makes it a concept record in a slighter way is that everything was recorded on Eel Pie Island and it’s got all the ambient sounds of the island throughout and its that what brings it together as a whole.
A lot of your songs seem to revolve around eccentric and extrovert characters. Would you say this is almost a mirror-like reflection of the diverse personalities within the band?
Henry: I’d say that one thing which makes our music what it is comes down to this clash of five different temperaments. A lot of bands are based around one essential, central figure who writes most of the music or dominates the rest of the group. With the Mystery Jets you’ve actually got five equally strong personalities who all have their own tastes in music and their own agenda and it’s a kind of miracle that this band has managed to stay together and agree on things and ultimately come up with something that is stronger than each of us could ever dream of doing individually.
Kapil: If you listen to the earlier songs like ‘You Can’t Fool Me Dennis’, they came about by way of the drums and guitars fitting themselves in around the lyrics, whereas newer songs like ‘Purple Prose’ or ‘Diamonds In The Dark’, they were actually written by the band as a whole rather than in a two part lyrical/musical way.
Henry: It’s a bit like Can. I think in a way we’re quite honoured to be compared to “progressive rock” bands such as them because they are a classic example of different individuals with varying tastes in music coming together and actually producing something very memorable and very powerful. That applies to every single one of us in that we try and bring our strengths to the band.
Using Can and Damo Suzuki as a reference point, which member of the Mystery Jets do you see as the most prominent figure that ultimately pulls everything together?
Both: Blaine (Harrison, vocals and Henry’s son)!!!
Kapil: He is very heavily influenced by Damo Suzuki. That’s not to say that all the others aren’t equally as important though…
Henry: …well Can without any of them was not Can.
Does the father and son relationship within the band cause any problem or friction between yourselves or indeed the rest of the band?
Henry: I think we get on remarkably well, and any differences between us are nothing to do with the generation gap. There might be artistic differences in how we interpret different things but I think there is a respect there about having our own opinions and because there are five voices in the band, its not me and Blaine predominantly at all. The other people keep us at a discreet distance from each other so we’re not actually on top of each other all the time. I’d say it’s a very healthy relationship and I see Blaine more as a mate.
Was it always your ambition to be playing in a band or making music in some way with your son?
Henry: No I don’t think it was something I set out to do. If anything it was my knowledge that Blaine was always going to be different to most boys and thinking that music is a universal language and that whoever you are music is a direction that is available to everyone. The fact that he responded so positively is why we’re here. He could have told me to bugger off and gone to play with his Action Men! He has about 20 Action Men – but he didn’t. By the time he got to the age where his friends were saying to him “Your dad is in the band? You’ve got to be joking!” it was too late!
Going back to the characters you’ve used in your songs – Dennis and Agnes to name but two – are these real people or just fantasy figures belonging to certain members of the band?
Henry: Dennis was my accountant. I think what’s quite interesting about ‘You Can’t Fool Me Dennis’ is that the music is very upbeat but the lyrics are very sad so there is this kind of schizoid thing going on, and I quite like that. Same with ‘The Boy Who Ran Away’. The lyrics are very dark and yet the song is very catchy. They are both about real things that have actually happened, unlike ‘Alas Agnes’, which was imaginary. I don’t even know where Blaine got the idea from. The song sounds like its portraying a real person but its actually a fantasy figure – I mean, none of us actually know any transsexual people.
A lot has been made of the band’s devotion to West London and “Eel Pie Island”, and a number of bands have emerged from that area since the Mystery Jets first appeared in the public eye. Do you see yourselves as figureheads of a new up-and-coming London scene?
Kapil: I remember Jamie T saying something to Will (Rees, guitarist) about how his artwork is really influenced by us – he said he’d spent so much time looking at the design of our record sleeves. I don’t really know if we’ve influenced bands directly but Larrikin Love played on the Island recently and they did a cover of ‘You Can’t Fool Me Dennis’, so maybe they are? I don’t know really…
Henry:…you see, I think we are anti-scenesters. We were starting to get known when the whole Libertines thing was at its most hyped. It was like a magnet, with people being sucked in to make the same sound and look the same and hang out together. We are totally averse to that. We’re glad to be outside of the “magic” circle.
Kapil: We once played a gig at the Rhythm Factory in London and we were headlining over all of these Libertines lookalike, soundalike bands, one after the other. We were on last and we just stuck out like a sore thumb, complete outsiders. It was like people were saying to each other, “The Mystery Jets? Who on earth are these guys?” and it felt great.
Henry: I suppose you have to accept that some journalists will try and make everything into a scene. I suppose when you think about it, there’s not much else going on in West London. I mean, you’ve got East London with places like Shoreditch and Hackney where all the fashionable, “in” bands hang out, whereas over in the West, in places like Richmond, Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith there isn’t much. For a start there are hardly any venues so I think its healthy that they’ve written about us and Larrikin Love and Good Shoes as being part of a scene, and it’s fair to say that we all get on well with each other. In that aspect, you could argue that there is a scene, but musically, we’re all very, very different. Ultimately, I wouldn’t call it a scene, I’d say its an emergence of a musical wave that counterbalances what’s happening in other parts of London.
You’ve had mostly good press from all aspects of the media. Would it bother you if they turned against you at some point?
Henry: Personally I’ve been bowled over by the quality of the press we’ve had., because I really didn’t expect to be understood or appreciated in this lifetime! As for the coins turning, of course they’ll turn as what’s popular today is not necessarily popular tomorrow so it wouldn’t surprise me if one day people turn around and say “The Mystery Jets? They’re so self-indulgent!” although none of that would be real. It’s just how we are.
With the band making so many references to Eel Pie Island, do you actually get tourists turning up there now trying to spot the odd member of the Mystery Jets or Larrikin Love?
Henry: I think we do! People actually cross the footbridge onto the island to see us now… Kapil: …and most of the other residents on the island even take the time out to smile at us too! Before we used to get funny looks or comments like “You’re the ones who make that horrible racket aren’t you?”
Henry: I think your place of origin is hugely important and I think we’re just dead lucky that ours is an island with all the romantic and musical associations that go with it. I mean, you walk over that footbridge and think to yourself, “Christ, Syd Barrett used to walk over here” and that for me is just so exciting. Of course he walked around other parts of London also but he created some amazing music on the island and that alone makes it so powerful.
Kapil: Sadly, we’ve now been banned from playing on the island over complaints of noise pollution!
Do you see yourselves as five mavericks in a similar way to Syd Barrett?
Henry: I think he stands out as a major influence on all of us and that’s why he’s in that circle there (pointing to a copy of the initial artwork for the cover of ‘Making Dens’, which sadly won’t see the light of day due to copyright wrangles). Unfortunately, the photographer who took that picture of Syd would not allow us to use it on the final sleeve. I think it’s a tragedy because that particular photograph of Syd Barrett is like going into his head. He’s a model of a kind. His originality and vision is something we haven’t really seen from anyone else since.
The title of the album, ‘Making Dens’. Is that a reference to anything in particular?
Henry: It’s a reference to the final song on the album, which is also called ‘Making Dens’ and is about the death of my mother when I was six. My preferred activity at the time was making dens, and it’s a kind of way of retreating into my inner world and physically building my own environment around me. Also, it seemed like an incredibly apt summary of how we make music as a band and even how that song came together, because Will wrote a lot of the music and then all this incredible music came together and Blaine’s voice just weaves like magic throughout the whole song.
Earlier on you made a point about ‘Making Dens’ being the FIRST album. Does this mean you see the band being around and making records for a long time coming?
Henry: I’ve got songs that I’d written five, ten years ago which just weren’t right not only for the first album, but also for maybe the second or third ones as well. They deal with territories which I don’t feel the band as a whole are ready to tackle at this point, and yet at a later date these things need to be tackled. I’ve got 8,10, maybe 12 songs that are ready yet I don’t see them happening for the next two to three years. To me its right that an album has a complete, appropriate feel to it and is of its time. I see at least five albums already in my own mind, that’s assuming that people like us and we can keep getting the record company to let us release our music.
Kapil: There’s a song on the album called ‘Little Bag Of Hair’ which Blaine first wrote when he was in High School. That’s been around for a good five years or more.
Henry: Some of our songs go right back.
Does that mean you are partially dependant upon achieving a certain level of commercial success for the band to function long term?
Henry: I don’t think its dependant on overt commercial success. If we ever compromised the songwriting in order to achieve commercial success that would be the death of us. The fact that a lot of our newer songs are four minutes rather than twelve doesn’t necessarily mean that we are trying to sell out.
Kapil: All of our songs have a place and a meaning…
Henry: …and over time they’ve risen. It’s a question of where you actually place them. For example, we’ve several songs that we regularly play live yet we haven’t recorded yet because we’re not happy with the results, and until we find the right people to mix them they’ll stay un-recorded.