Going Back To Where You Belong
Jul 15, 2015
Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Issue #53 - April/May 2015 - Tame Impala
"We get really caught up in the details. It's kind of a sickness," laughs Mew frontman Jonas Bjerre when the protracted break between 2009's No More Stories... and their new album +- is broached. "I mean, we were doing other things, like touring," he says, sounding a tad defensive. But no explanation is necessary when the fruits of such a break are a record as wonderful as +-, and to borrow an easy metaphor from the album's title, its positives easily outweighing its negatives.
The Danish band interjected both some new and old into the proceedings—the new coming with the addition of Bloc Party guitarist Russell Licack as co-writer on "My Complications" and guitar contributions on other tracks, while the old being the reintegration of founding bassist Johan Wohlert, who sat out No More Stories.... They teamed with Bjerre, guitarist Bo Madsen, and drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen to craft some of the most exhilarating music of Mew's career.
"Russell, we'd toured with Bloc Party in the states years ago, so we knew where he came from, and he just provided new ears and a new approach," says Bjerre. Wohlert had left the band in 2006 to start a family, but his return fit these tracks like a glove according to Bjerre. "In a way it was like he'd never left," the singer beams. "We were very fortunate to have him here."
Wohlert's eminently melodic basslines are in lockstep with Jorgensen's drums throughout these gorgeous prog-pop opuses. "Do you think they're too proggy?" Bjerre asks me at one point. King Crimson or Yes they aren't by any stretch, as the act's innate pop instincts kick in on numbers such as "Rows" and "Cross the River on Your Own," leavening any self-indulgence with sublime hooks that betray the band's pop roots.
Yes, the songs are long at times, but they're quixotic emotional journeys, serving the band's idiosyncratic blend of storytelling, that you'll be hard-pressed to notice their running times, which often exceed six minutes. The album's best digested as a whole, a gestalt. This is what Bjerre and co. were after.
Bjerre's reluctant to discuss specific lyrical meanings, wanting the listener to "come to their own conclusions." And with tracks that conjure a spectrum of aural reference points, he leaves the listener with an extensive Rorschach test. The anthemic "Cross the River on Your Own" is a particularly evocative number, slyly intimating mortality, which Bjerre indicates may be the case, but he's loath to give away specifics. "A lot of these songs deal with passage, but as with great films, I think songs should raise more questions than answers."
Talk shifts to the band's provenance, and how it still informs their sound to this day, namely their fascination with '90s indie rock, including Mudhoney, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., R.E.M., and Swirlies. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe came to one of the band's early gigs in NYC ("I could hardly sing when I found out he was there," says Bjerre), which led to the band later opening gigs for Stipe and co. in stadiums throughout Europe.
Damon Tutunjian of Swirlies even produced their 1997 debut album, A Triumph for Man. That thicket of sound is still abundant over 15 years later, as the band left an indelible impact on Mew. Bjerre laughs when he recalls how their meeting nearly never happened at all. "We mailed him a tape, and he wrote us back, asking, 'Is this supposed to be blank?' So we sent him the proper demo and he liked it and agreed to produce us."
"We still keep in touch with Damon," says Bjerre. "I don't know where we'd be if he hadn't gotten that. It's the best blank mixtape we ever made."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's April/May 2015 print issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]
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