16th Annual Artist Survey: Mew | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019  

16th Annual Artist Survey: Mew

Jonas Bjerre on #MeToo, Social Media, The Dark Crystal, Climate Change, and Childhood Birthday Parties and Vacations

Mar 20, 2019 Issue #65 - Mitski and boygenius
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For Under the Radar's 16th Annual Artist Survey we emailed some of our favorite artists a few questions relating to the last year, plus some fun personal questions. We asked them about their favorite albums of the year and their thoughts on various notable 2018 news stories involving either the music industry or world events, as well as some quirkier personal questions. Here are some answers from Jonas Bjerre of Mew.

The Danish band formed way back in 1995, releasing their debut album, A Triumph for Man two years later in 1997. But it was 2003's Frengers that first garnered them international attention, with 2005's And the Glass Handed Kites further growing their audience outside of Denmark thanks to songs such as "Special" and "Why Are You Looking Grave?" (which featured the guest vocals of Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis). Founding bassist Johan Wohlert temporarily left the band in 2006 to focus on his family, skipping 2009's No More Stories, but rejoining for 2015's + -. Alas the return of the full original lineup, including founding drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen and founding guitarist Bo Madsen, was short lived, as Madsen left the band in 2015 after the release of + -. The band's latest studio album, 2017's Visuals, was thus their first without Madsen. Throughout the lineup changes Mew's sound has remained a consistent, but unique mix of art rock, dream pop, and prog rock, with Bjerre's unmistakable high-pitched voice and the band's soaring guitars anchoring their signature sound.

For our annual Artist Survey we emailed the same set of questions to musicians about the midterm elections, the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, Kanye West visiting the White House, the #MeToo movement a year later, mental health conditions in the music industry, whether or not they have Flossed, childhood birthday parties and vacations, which Muppets character they are most like, whether or not they are going to The Good Place after death, and much more.

Top 10 Albums of 2018

This is a mix of things I found instantly pleasing this year, and some more challenging listens that opened up to me in time, and inspired me while I was working on animations and painting.

1. BC Camplight: Deportation Blues
2. Beach House: 7
3. Scandinavian Star: SOLAS
4. Tierra Whack: Whack World
5. Anna Von Hausswolff: Dead Magic
6. Lorn: REMNANT
7. Rosalía: El Mal Querer
8. Kareem Lotfy: QTT10
9. MGMT: Little Dark Age
10. Cucina Povera: Hilja

What was the highlight of 2018 for either you personally or for the band? What was the low point? 

We did a relatively short tour celebrating the 15th anniversary of our album, Frengers. In the summer we did mostly festivals in our neck of the woods, but got to play in Latvia for the first time. We also did a show at Stengade, a legendary but tiny rock club in Copenhagen, where we did some of our first shows back in the early days. That was quite fun and nostalgic. In the fall, we had a wonderful tour, playing just a handful of shows in Mexico and USA, then a double show at the Barbican in London, and finally three shows in Japan. It was such a good tour, and a wonderful experience. So that would be the highlight. The low point has been reading the news every day.

What are your thoughts on how the U.S. midterm elections have played out? What do you think the results mean for the Democrats' chances of taking back the White House in 2020?

I was happy to see the Democrats taking back the House. The current political landscape, not just in the States, but pretty much everywhere, has become almost surreal to me. I cannot believe the rise of fascism we see now, in countries like Brazil, the hatemongering, the scapegoating. In Europe too, and in Asia. My country is no exception. It's very hard to trust politicians, most of them seem to be almost entirely focused on making a career for themselves, and lots of money. I don't believe for a second they actually believe all the crap they are spewing out. A lot of them are digging into the immigrant issues, not because it's really a big issue to them or to the country, but because they know it's an easy way to get people's support, because there is so much xenophobia out there. These are sad times. But I still have hope that there will be a peaceful counter-reaction to all this hate. I hope people will have had enough of Trump in 2020, but even better would be to see him impeached. What an absolute ass-hat.

Despite compelling testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and sexual assault allegations from other women, Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in a Supreme Court Justice and many Republican women didn't believe Ford's story. What does this tell you about the general state of the #MeToo movement in 2018? 

I would say it's come a long way, but it is going to be a long process, and there is still lots to learn. I was reading an article about how it's now become harder for women to get hired on Wall Street, because men are now afraid of hiring women. The MeToo movement might have exacerbated this, but it is not the cause of it. There is just still a lot to learn. The fact that many Republican women did not believe Ford's story, I can't help but think of battered woman syndrome. Same with women who defend Trump in spite of his blatant misogynistic behavior. So bizarre.

A year after the #MeToo movement, do you feel things have gotten better or worse in terms of issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and misogyny in the music industry?

I have never really been a witness to any sexual harassment in the music industry, and I haven't even heard many tales. But that was part of the problem, wasn't it? People didn't feel like they could speak out. I think that part of it at least, has gotten a lot better with the movement. People feel less alone in their experiences, and they dare speak out. As a man, I don't see much of it, so I am the wrong person to ask. I do believe that all these things coming out, people have certainly been made aware that this kind of behavior is not acceptable, and with the massive repercussions it has had for many people, I am hopeful that it will result in harassment happening less and less.

Be honest, did you Floss in 2018? (Meaning the dance craze, not the dental care.)

Flossing is very important, but I have not heard of this dance.

Which Muppets character are you most like and why?

I think I'm mostly like Kermit. Even if he's a bit boring. I don't know, I think he's a nice guy. He tries to avoid conflicts and stuff, that's a bit like me. But if I could be any Henson character, I'd go for one of the mystics in The Dark Crystal. Or maybe one of the UrSkeks. Those guys really know what's going on.

Are you less of a fan of Kanye West now that he's visited the White House and has in other ways supported President Trump?

I'm actually not very familiar with his music, to be honest. It's just something I've not been exposed to, or sought out. But so many people rate him, he must be pretty good! 

I don't know, I just think he seems like he lost his mind a little bit? Didn't he retract some of the things he said? But yeah, him showing support for Trump seemed really crazy.

And if what he meant in his tweet about abolishing the 13th Amendment, was that slavery still effectively exists in the prison industry, then he should have said THAT instead, shouldn't he? Because that I really do agree with. I don't know, he seems a little nuts.

Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit tragically took his own life this year. What should be done to improve mental health conditions for musicians?

Depression is a terrible disease, in which you believe that you are seeing the cold, unloving world as it truly is, while others see it through rose tinted glasses. The truth is, you are seeing the world through a dark veil, which, in many cases, actually manifests from inside of you. I think a lot more has to be done, worldwide, to combat depression, and to let people know there are places and people they can reach out to, and that you are not alone in having these problems. I am glad to see there is less of a stigma, because brave people have spoken out about their mental illnesses. I don't know for a fact that musicians are more likely to suffer depression than everyone else, but there does seem to be a great number of super-sensitive people attracted to the musician life. In my experience, a lot of people who get up there on stage weren't really "built" for that, at least not starting out. They probably started out as shy people, tinkering with instruments at home, or with friends in a garage. And all of a sudden, it is required of them to get up there on stage and face a big crowd. For a lot of people, that's the scariest thing in the world. I think touring life can be quite taxing, especially for some people. And that can lead to various excessive indulgences, which creates an ever-deeper spiral. I'm sure something more can be done, addressing the issues a touring musician is faced with.

In 2018 there were more dire predictions about climate change and we witnessed some of its likely effects firsthand with various deadly storms and forest fires. What should touring musicians be doing to better offset their carbon footprint? How bad do you think it needs to get for governments and corporations to take stronger actions to fight climate change?

It is unfathomable, how there can still be people who deny this is happening, and that we are responsible. Look at Trump saying "I don't believe it," thinking that his uneducated, small-minded, narcissistic opinion matters against all the scientists in the world. It's also telling how many climate change deniers have some kind of stake in the coal or oil business. I often find it amusing how people seem to pick and choose when to believe in science, and when not to. They'll gladly fly a plane, drive a car, go the hospital when they are sick, use computers. But when science says Earth is 4.54 billion years old, they say, "No! Surely not! It's only 6,000 years old and people used to ride around on dinosaurs!" That's the mentality we are up against. I think it's definitely true that we, as individuals, can do a lot. Live more responsibly. But I think it really has to come from people in charge. I think we need to ration things. Things like travel, things like eating meat, and how much electricity each household can use. We have to pull together and save our planet. And alongside this, we need to stay hopeful that science will find a way to reverse the damage we have done, even if it does look bleak. Is it responsible to tour, to fly across oceans to play shows? Maybe not. I would sure miss it, though.

Are you ready for artificial intelligence and a more automated future? Some predict that it may come sooner than we think and will lead to massive job losses.

There are also a lot who believe that AI may serve as an important tool to solve some of the huge problems facing humanity. But yes, there will certainly be consequences. The biggest threat in AI lies in the potential to have AI control weapons of mass destruction. This is not an unlikely thing to happen, as AI can react faster than human beings. As is true with most new tech, there are pros but also cons. As a musician, I can't help but think that the more convenient we make our lives, and our work, the more we are taking ourselves out of the equation. Sometimes it's in the effort of doing things, that we find happiness, not so much in the final results. It is like they say: it's the journey, not the destination. It's a basic need in people, to feel they have a purpose. But a lot of things in this world are steering more towards simply consuming, receiving information (some false, some true) and just being constantly stimulated. AI is going to bring us more of that, I'm afraid. I think human beings need to get better at detecting what actually makes them happy, and what just shuts off their brains.

What's your favorite birthday party memory from childhood?

I had all of my school class over at our house, I think I was seven or eight. My parents had somehow scored some dry ice, and we put it into buckets of warm water and it formed a carpet of heavy smoke on the floor, which we were dancing around in, watching Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" music video, which I had on videotape.

What was your favorite family vacation as a kid? What was your least favorite?

I used to go camping with my parents in a white cargo van, which had makeshift living quarters in it, I had a bunk bed built in. I really loved that. I had this great love of the rest areas on the freeway, where you could stop to get gas and have a meal, and you could sleep on the parking lots, even though it wasn't really legal. I liked these places between places. And I would listen to a lot of music, read comic books, and play pinball at the campsites. I don't really have any bad vacation memories from childhood.

What's been your most surreal experience in the music industry?

I have had a lot, but one that comes to mind is supporting the Pixies at a show in Washington, D.C. a number of years ago. Joey [Santiago] and Dave [Lovering] came down before we went on stage and welcomed us, and were just so nice. I couldn't even really think of anything to say. I had been since age 14, and continue to be, a massive fan of the band, and getting to meet these people felt surreal. We also hung out a bit after their show (they were performing all of Doolittle) and everyone was great. I didn't get to meet Kim Deal though, who left early after their show. But Nick [Watts] from our band met her outside the venue, and she told him he had "really nice teeth for an English guy." Another surreal experience was playing a show with Sigur Rós somewhere in Sweden, almost two decades ago. For some reason, it was arranged for us to play at some strange little hotel (or something) and our audience consisted of elderly people having dinner. I think most of them felt it was all a bit loud. After we played, a woman came up on stage and gave us each a white rose. It felt a little bit like being in a David Lynch movie.

When you die, do you think you're going to the Good Place or the Bad Place?

I think my consciousness will either dissipate into nothingness, or there is some greater field of consciousness that it will entirely join with. Either way, I will experience the ecstasy of my own ego death, and be released from any suffering.

Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee also passed away this year. Which of his characters (Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, etc.) meant the most to you/did you most identify with?

I liked Spider-Man the most, because he felt more relatable than most super heroes. He was kind of a screw-up, had personal problems, etc. 

In the Trump era do you feel that it's a responsibility to make political music and/or speak out about political issues or do you think it's better to provide your listeners an escape from the never-ending bad news feed?

I think if you are able to contribute to either of those, you are doing a good job.

Where do you stand on social media in 2018, is it uniting humanity or ruining the world? And which platform do you find most useful and which one do you think is doing the most harm?

I enjoy posting things, and feeling connected sometimes. It's fun. But I do tend to feel happier, the more I leave my phone in my pocket. I sometimes miss the freedom of being disconnected, and even if I can choose to turn it off, I don't feel really free from it, because I know there are emails and things lingering in the ether, waiting to distract me from the joy of existing.

[Note: A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in Under the Radar's Issue 65, which is out now. This is its debut online and the full version of the interview.]

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