Danish rock band Mew have been doing the rock n’ roll thing for over 20 years. They’ve seen the independent music scene evolve and traveled the world in support of some great albums while maintaining a unique, quirky anthemic sound that perfectly translates around the world.
The high-energy band is also returning after a long hiatus from releasing music. They put out their sixth album, +-, earlier this year (listen to it if you haven’t already). They’re a rare breed, successful outside of their home country and a name that you’ve probably seen on a festival lineup or an upcoming shows list but may have brushed past because you thought they were inspired by some pocket monster from a video game (they weren’t).
I got to talk to lead singer and songwriter Jonas Bjerre about their upcoming return to the United States. The tour includes a stop at The Fillmore this Saturday with San Francisco’s The Dodos and it’s guaranteed to be a great show. Mew is known for putting on incredibly energized live sets and doesn’t disappoint, still learning new things after all these years. I asked Jonas about what kind of effect the time off had on the band and their creative process, playing in San Francisco before and working with producer Michael Beinhorn again on the new album.
The Bay Bridged: You guys haven’t done a headlining tour of North America since 2009 with the release of the last album and so much has changed in the world and the band since then. How are you feeling about coming back for a full-fledged tour?
Jonas Bjerre: We’re all excited. We never meant to be gone for that long. We never meant to spend this much time between making albums, but it just turned out that way. We just played SXSW this year and had a great time there and we feel like that it’s going to be good. We love touring the states and I’ve missed it and we’re all really excited to go.
But you’re right, a lot of things change; every time you make an album, it’s a different world, because we take so long.
TBB: A lot of things happened since the last album, like one of the members sat out on the last album because he had a kid, but now you have the original lineup back together.
JB: Yes, yes.
TBB: Was he able to sit in for recording the last album?
JB: Yes, but we had a different guitarist for touring. It’s been a little bit open doors in the last seven years but the main core is the same.
TBB: I’d imagine, you have been together for over 20 years now and it’s got to be harder as time goes on to keep pulling everyone back in to do another one. The main core, as you said, really must be there because you all love doing it.
JB: Absolutely, and that’s important. If you don’t love doing it you have to take a break because you have to really want to do it, otherwise it’s going to suffer.
TBB: You were all working during the time off, the last album may have came out 6 years ago but it’s not like you finished and were like “Break.” In that time off what felt different about returning to the studio to make another album, what made you want to come back and do another one?
JB: We always wanted to, we just toured a lot for the last one for a couple years and I think we just looked at each other after the tour and said, “let’s take a decent break now.” We never did that before. We always went straight back into writing and we used to live together as well — we don’t anymore — but for many years everything in our lives was about the band so I think we wanted to have a little time off. People had different ambitions, things they hadn’t been able to do in the band’s schedule, so I think it was good everyone got to try their hand at other stuff they wanted to do and that was very inspirational for everyone. It was a good energy to bring back to writing when we finally did start. It was almost like a year off from the band after the last tour.
TBB: And what do you feel you personally take away from that time off? Was there somewhere you visited or another project you worked on that influenced you a lot?
JB: I released some music. I did a soundtrack for a film, and I worked with music in some other ways that I hadn’t done before and it felt really good because I think that when you’ve been in a band for so long you start doing things a certain way and it’s good to get away from that. You just sorta un-learn all of the habits you’ve gotten and I think that helped a lot. I think also that I can definitely sense in Johan, our bass player, that he is so… I never stop being grateful being able to do this for a living, I’m always grateful, whenever I feel homesick from touring for a long time I always remind myself what else I could be doing and how lucky I am to be able to do this for a living, and I could certainly tell by Johan’s energy that he probably needed to step away from it for a little bit to really know what it is we’ve got going on, how fortunate we are to be doing this.
TBB: Kinda a meditative moment to reflect and be grateful for how far you’ve come and how lucky you guys are to go out in the world and tour and make a living off of your music.
JB: Absolutely, and I think that’s part of what makes people happy is to be grateful.
TBB: That’s fitting for the music. It’s obvious from listening to the music, but you’ve also said that if you had to sum up Mew’s music in one word you would put it as “hope” and that’s very fitting.
JB: Yeah, I fully believe that.
TBB: With you returning to do a tour and taking the time off you’ve still been performing for so long, with the new album out is there anything surprising in playing songs from the new album, +/-? Have any of the new songs surprised you in how you’ve been performing them on stage?
JB: Yeah, we’ve had that a lot during our whole career because we’re used to finish records and then figure out how to play them live. On this one that was one of the things our producer, Michael Beinhorn, really wanted to put forth, was that we should have the song work as a four-piece and just be able to play them in a practice space and they should sound complete because that is the best offset you can have. Obviously you embellish a lot of things on the record, but we did try to make the songs work in the live sense before we even recorded it. We had to change a few things, you always do when you go on tour and play the songs live. You always figure out new things about the songs that you didn’t really think about and you sometimes regret “aw, why didn’t we do this on the album!?” but I kinda like that the songs get to keep growing afterwards. I like that they’re never really complete.
TBB: That’s what’s fun about going to live show. Do you have any one song in particular from the new one that’s taken a life of its own?
JB: I think “Making Friends” is, we had trouble getting it sounding right in the live setting for some reason but we simplified a few things about it, made it more direct in the live setting and that works really well. It has a nice lilting move to it that we can emphasize more. That’s one song we really enjoy playing these days that we had trouble with at the beginning.
TBB: For the new album you sang in a higher range than you normally do, how is that going in performing?
JB: I don’t know if I sing higher, I definitely use more of my spectrum. I also sing quite low in a few places. It’s great but I do a lot of warming up. It’s a little like doing some sports or something like that, you have to be physically be able to do it. We just finished an Asian tour where I was suffering a bit from the a flu, but if you really put the effort in and do your warm-ups and stay in shape then you can really get through it and I don’t think our shows suffered from it.
TBB: How would you best describe the current live Mew show?
JB: I don’t know. The whole crew and band as we’re touring these days people seem to be enjoying touring more than ever. I think we’re really having fun with it and we’re really enjoying playing the new songs and I think that translates to the audience. It seems the more fun we have on stage, the more enjoyable it is for the audience. It creates this positive feedback between us and I think there’s a real magical feeling to being on stage that I’m super happy with.
TBB: That’s great. Is there anybody that you feel influences your music right now, any new artists that you see?
JB: There’s definitely things that I’ve enjoyed, but it’s so hard for me to pinpoint exactly what inspires us because I think it’s everything that you go through: books you read, music you listen to, movies you watch, and your life. I don’t know, I don’t think I can think of anything where I can say “clearly, I was inspired by this thing.” I think we communicate a bit more on stage than we used to somehow, we’re more able to turn to each other and catch these waves of something happening and enjoy that together and I think that works really well for us. I’m not sure if that’s because we watched bands do that, I don’t know why.
TBB: You’re coming back to San Francisco, any memories of playing here or being on this side of the world?
JB: Yeah, I remember very vividly both our shows at The Fillmore and The Independent as great experiences, I really like San Francisco a lot, we haven’t gotten to spend much time there but I remember staying at this legendary place called the Phoenix and I got up early and went to the Museum of Modern Art and had a really nice day. I can’t wait to go back, excited to play The Fillmore again, it’s beautiful. They made a really great poster for us last time we were there.
TBB: When you come to San Francisco you’ll be playing with The Dodos, did you have any say in choosing them to support you?
JB: Yeah, I’ve listened to them, I only knew them through some friends of mine who really like their stuff. I remembered listening to them a while ago so when they put forth them as being a band to play with us, I was all for it.
TBB: You worked with Michael Beinhorn, a legendary producer, and you worked with him before on the album before last, how did it feel going back to work with him on this new one?
JB: It felt great. I think that he’s quite different now as a person. I think he’s really looking at things in a way that’s questioning everything. I had dinner with him in Los Angeles before we started recording and originally I told him about the ideas we have and I played him some things, but he had some really good things to say about it and we had this long talk about creativity and the original feeling you have when you start out doing creative things–this feeling that we really need to serve because when it starts becoming your job a lot of people lose that and it’s important to maintain that.
He originally flew in to Copenhagen to listen to us play our ideas and he thought that something was missing because we got back to writing music the same way as we did on the last album, as a three-piece, and he was missing Johan’s drive, the bass, and it is very different writing music without a bass player because you have to sort of picture the roots more than actually hearing them in the mix as you’re writing. It made for a really different album than the last one. I really like that one, but we wanted to get back to the band core so we invited Johan in for writing and that was really Michael’s doing in much of that, getting the songs to sound like live songs.
TBB: And he’ll be touring with everyone again?
TBB: You are now completely independent, on your own label. How does that feel this time around?
JB: It feels really good. I mean, we were really happy being on Columbia before, we were with them for a number of years and they did great by us, but I think that the major labels, the roles they have is different now. I remember when we first came to America, there were so many people on our team and since then a lot of people were laid off, they scaled down a lot of things, and I feel like being on a major is good now if you’re a real popular pop act or something like that. But for a band like us it doesn’t make much sense anymore, so I think we found a home now that feels much more appropriate for us.
TBB: There are foreign bands that find audiences here now more than ever, but for every one that gets discovered there has to be many others that don’t make it just because they don’t get that support.
JB: We are kinda a weird band, we are kinda quirky. I think we fit into independent more. If we had continued on a major, I think we might have felt some kind of pressure that was more radio-friendly or something like that, and I think that would have been a shame if we didn’t make the kind of music we like. The music we’re creating, we shouldn’t be pushed, so I’m really happy with where we are.
TBB: Any other final thoughts that you’d like to share in regards to where the band is going, what’s to come, the tour, anything else on your mind?
JB: We’re aiming to make the live shows as spectacular and enjoyable as possible. I think we all learned a lot in the last few years, especially about ourselves. I think we learned a lot about taking off these habits and we want to be more part of the world than hidden away in a cave or in a studio somewhere. I think we’re going to make music more part of our daily basis.
TBB: So we won’t have to wait six more years for a new Mew album.
JB: No, no, that’s a no.
Mew, The Dodos
September 26, 2015