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On New Ground

Aug 07, 2009 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

On August 25th, Danish band Mew will release perhaps the most ambitious (and ambitiously-titled) album in the group’s decade plus history. 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 marks a sonic left turn from the more aggressive guitar-based textures of the band’s last album, 2005’s And the Glass Handed Kites. On the road to No More Stories…, the band suffered the loss of bassist Johan Wohlert, who left for fatherhood; still, remaining members Jonas Bjerre, Bo Madsen, and Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen have forged on to create one of the best albums of the band’s career. The day after Mew’s performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Bjerre talked to Under the Radar about the band’s new album, continuing without Wohlert, and being invited to support Nine Inch Nails on that band’s final U.S. tour.

Are you guys still in Chicago?

Jonas Bjerre: Yeah, we’re actually in a van headed for some sort of radio session. I think we’re two hours late. I’m not sure we can even make it there in time. It’s outside of Chicago somewhere. Something called the Daytrotter sessions. Otherwise, good. Yesterday was Pitchfork, a nice festival. Very cozy. The whole mood of the festival was very nice.

I’m going to get right into it, because I know you have a busy day. There are some differences with Mew these days. You lost Johan [Wohlert, bass] after the last record. When did he tell you he was leaving the band?

We had been touring Europe a lot on the Kites record, and we were scheduled to release it in America and then go there and tour a lot. He had just found out that he was going to be a dad. We were in the middle of shooting the video for ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy,’ and then he told us. We knew a bit in advance before everyone knew. This was back when it was still 2005, so it’s been quite a while, and we’ve got used to the idea and we’ve toured extensively with our new live bass player. But it was still a different process making the record, only three people writing. We’ve kind of had to fulfill a few new roles, each of us.

I wondered how Johan’s departure affected how you approached making the new album and, ultimately, how that affected the album you ended up producing.

Well, we changed the method a lot, of how we write things. We needed to change a few things in order to keep evolving, we felt. The songs came together in many different ways. Some of it, we just kind of started out with having a rhythm pattern that we then bounced off. It was different. We were writing in a lot of different places, and sometimes sending stuff to each other. It was nice. It was kind of a liberating feeling being able to write in a different way.

The last album, I understand, was written in jam sessions, for lack of a better term.

Yeah, and most of it just in our house in London. And this time, we started writing slowly while we were touring in the U.S. If we had two weeks off, we would go somewhere together and have writing sessions, so it was more fun. It was not quite as rainy and dreary…. We would go to France, or we would go to the countryside in Denmark and we’d just have a piano and an acoustic guitar and we’d write some stuff there. It wasn’t like a steady set up all the time, which I think helped a lot in trying out new things.

Did Johan’s absence contribute to the fact that this album is less aggressive than the last album?

I think the reason for that, most of all, is that you always have a counter reaction to what you’ve done. You want to do something different than what you just did. We felt the last record was very cold and dark sounding, so we wanted to make something warmer sounding. There’s still a bit of rock tendency in it, but it’s not quite as aggressive-sounding, I guess, than the last one. And I don’t know, it would probably would have been a lot different if Johan would have been writing with us. It’s really hard to tell. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is the reason for how things turn out. What inspires you and what you end up doing, it’s a mixture of so many different things.

You used some unique recording techniques, like on “New Terrain,” with part of that vocal being recorded backward. Did you do more experimenting in the studio for this album than in the past?

Yes, I would say so. We used a lot of different instruments that we haven’t used before as well, like a lot of mallet instruments. I don’t play as much guitar on this one. I play very little guitar on this one, because we just wanted to keep the space, and for each role to really be heard. Like Silas’ drum parts and Bo’s guitar figures, we really wanted to be things that you could hear really crisp in the sound and not have as much noise and disturbance. But I wouldn’t really say it’s more sparse, because then we added all these details with synths and samplers and vocals, but it’s in a different way than Kites was.

It almost seemed to me that, putting “New Terrain” first, with that backward vocal right at the start, was almost like a statement of purpose. Like, look this is not And the Glass Handed Kites any more.

Yeah, definitely. When we wrote that part, we kind of felt like it had to be the introduction, because it had this kind of urgency to it. Even though the lyrics are quite abstract, it felt like it really carried the message, something that we weren’t even sure of. We just felt like it had to be the introduction to the record.

The choir that you used on “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” was from your old grade school?

Yes it was. We went there a couple of times. First we went there and we recorded some at the school, and then later on we had some of the kids come out in our studio in Copenhagen and record some there. It was cool. It was just fun to go there and teach them the parts and have them sing. They weren’t like classically trained or anything, they’re just kids, and I really liked the wobbly sound of that.

The album was recorded in Brooklyn, and it sounds like you came in with a lot already written.

We did, but we’re the kind of band where our demos never really make sense to people, because there’s layers missing, and it’s all in our heads. We keep changing things until the next minute, so it’s very hard to convince producers to work with us. [Laughs].... We did some in Brooklyn, we recorded a lot there, like the basics, the drums and bass, and also that studio, Brooklyn Recording, has a lot of really cool old antique instruments, just really bizarre things we used that were really fun to play around with. And then we went home and we did like the kids at our school and we did some mallet instruments there, and then we went back and finished it at Electric Lady in Manhattan. So we kind of recorded in three different places really.

Before you go, I wanted to ask what it was like to get the opening slot for Nine Inch Nails’ final tour. Were you fans of theirs growing up?

Yeah, especially when I was in high school. Those records, like The Downward Spiral. I saw them play in Japan quite a few years ago when we were doing a festival. And then I kind of left it alone for a while. And then I started getting into it a little bit again. I think, obviously, they’re a legendary band, and we’re quite thrilled to get this slot. We were a little bit nervous in the beginning. Trent Reznor had been asking a few times if we wanted to come on tour, but we hadn’t been able to because we were working on the record. And then we finally did it. We were a little bit nervous about his audience maybe thinking we were too soft, and I’m sure a bunch of them do, but there definitely was a very good response touring with them in Europe.

Oh, so you’ve toured with them already, so there are no plans for doing anything differently.

No. At first, we talked about, like ‘Wow, we better do the heavy set. The rock songs.’ But we kind of just do what we do, and it works pretty well. I think we’re definitely very different bands, but there are certain similarities I would say, so there’s something for people to pick up on I think.


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Kyle Lemmon
August 8th 2009

Yes! I look forward to hearing that Daytrotter sesh (if they ever recorded it).