At SXSW, Mew Discuss Their Lengthy Break and What’s to Come With ‘+-‘
Danish art-rock giants Mew stomped through our stadiums in the mid-aughts, expanding our minds and sonic palettes with a swirl of prog bigness and alt edge.
Then they disappeared.
Their last album, released in 2009, bore a prophetic (and extremely long) title: 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. Though singer Jonas Bjerre and bassist Johan Wohlert grew up together, the latter had already left the band at that point -- he was due to become a father -- and then the pages of the calendar just seemed to peel away, until now. On April 28, Mew will release +-, their sixth disc which not only commemorates their 21st year as a band, but marks the happy return of Wohlert. With producer Michael Beinhorn (Hole, Marilyn Manson, the Bronx) back on board, a new home on beloved indie label Play It Again Sam and a guest spot from New Zealand pop oddball Kimbra, Mew are poised to rearrange our inner ears once again. We talked to Bjerre and Wohlert at SXSW:
Welcome back! Where've Mew been?
Jonas Bjerre: Good question. [Laughs] We toured a lot on the last record and at the end we needed a break. We'd never really stopped to recharge the batteries. So we did that, then we had this idea that we wanted to make our own studio. We were pretty much completely unsuccessful, but we did spend a lot of time on that.
Jonah Wohlert: It's a hard thing to do when you don't know what you're doing.
And Jonas, you had taken some time away to catch up with life?
Wohlert: Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. It ended up being seven years out of the band, which is a long time ...
Bjerre: But it was only one album, which says a lot about our rate of creation. We take a long time writing. We get very caught up in the details.
Did you learn any valuable lessons in your time apart?
Bjerre: I think it's very clear to everyone now that we didn't start the band because we each individually wanted to be musicians -- we started the band because it was the four of us, we grew up together and we wanted to do something together. We did the last record without Johan and it was hard to find our roles. We each had to occupy different roles that I don't think fit us as individuals. It was much harder to write as a three-piece and the result was a very different album.
Wohlert: It's a great album.
Bjerre: I'm quite happy with it, but it has a different core to it than others we've made as a band. It feels complete when it's the four of us.
Wohlert: Rediscovering the joy of being in a band with other people was pretty crucial to me and I needed to step out in order to do that. Life happens, you get kids and all that, and it all takes time away from what you're doing. I think I'm in a much better place within the band now than I was when I left.
What brought the two of you back together?
Wohlert: We gotta give some credit to Michael Beinhorn. The guys enlisted him as the producer and played him demos, and he was very quick to say, "Guys, I think you should call Johan and get him involved again." He thought it was missing something. We'd been talking about playing together here and there over the years, but nothing materialized. This was sort of like, "Okay, if somebody else is thinking it too, maybe we should try it out." We said, "No strings attached and let's see if it feels good." We played for a couple days and I remember thinking it could have been seven months instead of seven years. It was like, "Oh yeah, this is what we sound like. That's Mew."
You've known each other your whole lives. What's your chemistry like?
Bjerre: When we started playing together we listened to the same music. We grew up with '80s pop and got into alternative rock and that was the driving force. Now, we're very different people and we bring different things to the melting pot. So in that respect, Mew is more than the sum of its parts -- people twist things in different directions and that makes Mew. It's almost like the band is its own identity that you shouldn't mess with. You have to let it be what it wants to be. We've learned a lot about not letting our individual egos get in the way of what we can do together.
What are you biggest creative differences? Or your respective expertise?
Wohlert: Jonas has a particular way with arranging vocals that none of us has. The rest of us can write a good song, but it's always going to be unique when he comes up with a vocal line. Sometimes he starts with an unexpected note, but his approach is very schematic. There's a logic to it where you know it's him, that it's Mew.
Bjerre: When Johan's around, things definitely get more focused, more precise and more driven. Before he came back, we were on the verge of making the same record again, which was more of a cloud of ideas, where it doesn't really sound like it has a band core. With him, it congeals and becomes this full body and has bones.
Which is the Mew sound -- occupying a heady space, but with direction.
Wohlert: That was one of the earliest things we discussed with Mike Beinhorn, that there needs to be a rediscovered direction. In that way, it's a departure from the last record. The songs are sharper, more defined, which looks back to some of the older work we did together. I think there's some reminiscence to the Frengers album.
Do you feel any newfound freedom, being on an indie label?
Bjerre: It's different. I'm really happy with our days on Columbia. We were with them a long time and I think they did a great job. But if you wind up with someone who doesn't really get your record but still has to work it, that can be detrimental to your campaign. There are many countries in Europe where we never spent enough time because we just didn't have the support in those territories. Now we know it's people who get it, because if they didn't, they would pass it onto someone else.
Wohlert: Looking back and being older, wiser and less arrogant about everything, I have to give a lot of credit to the label. When I look at young bands starting out, I'm thinking, "How on earth are they going to get anywhere?" I don't have the numbers on how much was spent on tour support for Mew, but we're a live band thanks to the grand machine of Sony, because they poured money into us being able to tour. That's how we became good and that's how we gained a fan base. I think it's often overlooked that good things can come from a major label investing in your band.
The new album's title is remarkably concise.
Bjerre: Especially compared to the last one.
Wohlert: [Laughs] Short as they get!
What does it symbolize?
Bjerre: It started with one of the artwork guys from M/M Paris saying he felt the album was like a battery. I'm not sure what he meant, but I took it as a good sign. This is an after-the-fact rationalization, but this is the most versatile album we've done. The individual songs go as far into the different corners we've been carving out as anything we've ever done. So it has a lot of different colors, a lot of contrast.
Wohlert: I don't remember who told me we were thinking about calling it +-, but I loved it straight off the bat because it's very precise. It's unusually catchy for us as a band, which goes in hand with the way we approached the songwriting. We have some very extroverted songs on here, and then we have the longest and probably most proggish track we've made ever too. But that's part of the plus-minus charm.
Mew have always struck a duality, to a degree, between experimentalism and accessibility. What's your favorite pure pop musc?
Bjerre: Kate Bush.
Wohlert: But is that pure pop?
Bjerre: No, but it's intelligent pop.
Wohlert: Pet Shop Boys. They had a couple of records back to back that were mind-blowing.
What about on the experimental side? What's your favorite far-out music?
Wohlert: One thing we all like is Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. I guess in passages it's pretty weird, but oh my lord, it's so imaginative and so otherworldly. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway ... four dudes played in a room for three weeks and then walked out with this monster opus of a double album. It's just mind-bending. We're always compared to Yes, but the thing with Genesis is that the melodies are still there. It's still super emotional, whereas Yes, or Rush, becomes a bit more jazz-noodle.
Bjerre: It's like they were a pub band at heart. Same thing with one of my favorites, the Pixies. It has the aggressiveness, weirdness, and quirkiness, but it's pop songs.
Wohlert: It's Buddy Holly underneath.
Bjerre: You feel like someone is inviting you into the music.
And then clobbering you over the head?
Bjerre: Exactly. You have both aspects and that's what makes it brilliant.