Some bands take the easier route, and then there is Mew.
Matching their fascinating, enigmatic album titles and lyrics, the Danes’ music follows its own unique path, transporting a pure-pop sensibility through ever-evolving scenery and around exhilarating hairpin bends, making music as layered and expansive as it is charismatic and melodic.
Following Mew’s fifth album 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, they are releasing a career-defining record, this time with the much shorter title of +-. The symbols capture the extremities of the band’s DNA: the pop ingenuity - Mew could be the new A-Ha if so desired - and the ambitious expansion of progressive giants such as Genesis and Yes.
“It’s like a photograph that’s been soaking in chemicals for a long time, to exaggerate the contrast,” reckons singer/spokesman Jonas Bjerre, on behalf of guitarist Bo Madsen, drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen and returning bassist Johan Wohlert. “It represents the far regions of what Mew can be.”
At the spectrum’s end that Pitchfork has labelled Mew’s “dream thunderstorm pop”, there is ‘The Night Believer’ and ‘Satellites’. ‘My Complications’, ‘Interview The Girls’ and a particularly frenetic ‘Witness’ also tap Mew’s more accessible side, but even then, the music is deliciously skewed. “Some people view songwriting as a craft involving an acoustic guitar, candelight, red wine and thinking about a girl you like,” says Bjerre. “That’s been done to death and doesn’t interest us. Yet sometimes, in spite of everything we try out, it can be just like that! But we prefer it happens by accident.”
And where Mew add, “knee-buckling curveballs” (Pitchfork again), there’s ‘Rows’, 11 epic minutes spanning pastoral and symphonic passages, while the seven-minute ‘Cross The River On Your Own’ is an extended serene finale. “Even if ‘weird’ means ‘almost unlistenable’, it’s always better than ‘predictable, cynical and generic’,” Bjerre feels. “Our songs can be more like puzzles.”
On top, the subtle electronic pulses on ‘Water Slides’ and ‘Making Friends’ hint at contemporary R&B influences. “None of us wants to just repeat ourselves,” the singer declares. “We’re also trying to make the music that we’d like to listen to, that’s missing from our lives, and we can’t allow ourselves to compromise,” he adds. “For us, music is about a mixture of expression and invention. We like an immediate impact, but also layers you can stay within. It works best when we achieve both.”
“Johan leaving was a big deal,” Bjerre admits. “We were about to do our first proper long US tour when he got the news about becoming a dad. There were no bad feelings, and we all remained friends. But It’s really difficult for a rock band to write without a bassist, and Johan was great at the root changes, the harmonic structures. We’d talked about playing together again, for fun, so we had Johan join some writing sessions. He’s a great bassist, he’s very positive and energetic, and he's got great ears, which really help when composing.It's amazing to have him back.”
Another plus is Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack - on guitar and co-writing duties for ‘My Complications’ – who Mew first met when the bands did a US tour together. Bjerre had downscaled his rhythm guitar parts, “partly because Bo has found his own unique style, and it left more space for him. I still play guitar on the older songs, but I think Bo has missed someone to play up against, and since we’d already discussed including others in the writing sessions, it was perfect to ask Russell. He contributed greatly to ‘My Complications’, as the initial riff is like a dialogue between the guitar parts. His energy also really affected the song.”
One further plus is changing labels after three albums and the compilation Eggs Are Funny (named after the very first song that Mew wrote) for Sony. Now with [PIAS], it means Mew are no longer reliant on foreign subsidiaries to match the enthusiasm of Sony’s UK wing that first signed them and the US wing that took the deal over.
The one minus was Mew’s usual prolonged recording process, which partly explains the five-year gap between albums. “We always swear we’ll do the next one faster, but do the opposite!” says Bjerre. “Great ideas can appear out of nowhere, but you try a thousand things to complete them. Maybe it’s the fear of letting go, or maybe that Scandinavian Protestant ethic – you can’t enjoy anything, it must be perfect or it’s nothing! But the process creates a lot of what makes Mew unique.”
Given Mew songs can resemble puzzles, Bjerre ‘s lyrics can follow suit. “I find it brave when people are blatantly personal, and I’ve tried to a certain extent, like ‘Cross The River On Your Own’, about how relationships develop, all those big life decisions, but I tend to write abstractly, to veil the reality. I want listeners to discover things for themselves. What would, say, 2001 A Space Odyssey have been like if the end had been explained? I prefer mystery.”
The mystery of how a band has remained so intact over time is largely explained by the fact Bjerre, Madsen and Wohlert have known each other since the age of five. As young teens, computer geek/synth-pop fan Bjerre and sportsman/Prince fan Madsen were thrown together in an art class. Together, they made a short animation and soundtrack. It was the year before Nirvana exploded, “which made everyone want to be in a band,” Bjerre recalls. “So we started one.” But it only got serious when they discovered a friend’s kid brother, “who spent all his time drumming and listening to Black Sabbath. Silas changed everything for us.”
So did a My Bloody Valentine concert, which led to discovering US shoegazers The Swirlies, whose guitarist Damon Tutunjian ended up producing Mew’s 1997 debut album A Triumph for Man. It was released on the their Danish publishing company’s in-house imprint Exilbris, as was 2000’s Half The World Is Watching Me, on which Stina Nordenstam co-sang ‘Her Voice Is Beyond Her Years’. Tracks from both albums were re-recorded for their international/Sony album debut Frengers. Another pivotal moment was discovering the linked-songs concept of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which shaped the way …And The Glass-Handed Kites (whose guest singer was Mew hero J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, after Madsen had bumped into him in Copenhagen) turned out. Wohlert’s return is this album’s pivotal moment.
“Part of our strength is that we have grown up together, personally and musically,” says Bjerre. “We have our own inbred musical language. Even on the Copenhagen scene, we were isolated, doing our own thing.”
Isolated, idiosyncratic, stubbornly individual – In the studio or on stage (judge by the live bonus CD with the deluxe version of + -), there really is only one Mew. All pluses, no minuses.