Six years is a long time to wait in between albums, especially when it happens to be one of your favorite bands. But Mew is one of those acts that makes the wait well worth it. Metamorphosing with each new record, the Danish trio's unique blend of genres has eluded easy classification. Jonas Bjerre's angelic falsetto may be the common ground for all the stylistic range of Mew, but it is also their ability to piece together disparate elements into distinctively sophisticated compositions. And this quality is especially prevalent on their sixth and latest album, +-; it is an amalgamation of exquisite, roaring, and transcendental soundscapes.
Mew were a week into their North American tour when we met up with them in Portland. The high noon was an hour into its journey to the west when singer Jonas Bjerre and bassist Johan Wohlert walked into the bar area of tonight's venue, Wonder Ballroom. Freshly showered and with frothy coffees in their hands, the Danes sat down to discuss the new album, the importance of frengers (fans), and why sad music isn't necessarily about sadness.
Which song(s) on +- do you feel it came about most organically, and where there any tracks you were uncertain of its outcome?
Bjerre: There were a couple of the songs on the new album that came together quite fast. They were very intuitively written somehow. Then there are few that took a long, long time, months and months. There's one song called 'Rows' that started out as an instrumental. It was an instrumental for a long time. And towards the end of it, we put vocals on it. For a while, we didn't know what to do with it really. So it's quite different. I think 'My Complications' that we wrote with Russell Lissack (of Bloc Party) that came about pretty fast.
Because you guys seem to approach album as a concept, rather than collection of songs, do you sometimes find yourself reworking some of the songs for the sake of the record as a whole?
Bjerre: I think on the last two albums we've done, before this one, we were thinking a lot in terms of not necessarily conceptualizing them but thinking of them as a whole bodies of work that had to sort of... I think we were more sort of careful with having it all - has same sounds, same direction, kind of. And I think that's actually what's peculiar about this new album, which I like. We didn't really overthink it too much. When we were writing the songs, whatever the songs became, that was the album. So it's become a quite diverse album - lot of different textures and different approaches to the writing.
I read somewhere that this record was to be a "career-defining". Is it?
Wohlert: I guess you always want to do a career-defining album. I think what we did this time is just (pauses to think for a bit) - we kind of cemented what it is that we do. I think in terms what Jonas just said, we sort of let the songs be what they wanted to be, that was partly down to us trusting our instincts, trusting our style, and our sound. Meaning that, even though the songs are diverse, they would still sound coherent in some way. And it is kind of true that soon as Jonas starts singing, it sort of just sounds like Mew. Even though we go kind of hip hop or maybe kind of "proggy" on the songs. It all kind of meshes together quite easy. Time will show if this is a career-defining album or not, but it was the best album we could do at the time.
What unique traits does each member of the band bring, and what unites you guys together?
Bjerre: It's hard to pinpoint what each member of the band brings to the mixture; it's so many different things. Obviously, it's the different instruments we play, and the different kinds of music we listen to. We listen to very different music. So it becomes this mixture when we throw it into the mix, that's the sum of our parts. And that's what Mew is - I guess. But it is really hard to pinpoint exactly what each member brings to the witch's brew - of our song making.
Is it because you guys have been together so long, it just feels intuitive?
Wohlert: (Shrugs his shoulders) Yeah, I guess. It's just something you don't really put words on. It's just something that kind of happens. We just get in the room, we sort of play, and it comes out the other end sounding like Mew.
What do you feel is the most pressing issue in the music industry today?
Bjerre: There's obviously a lot of stuff happening in the music industry, has been for a long time. I think a lot of labels are struggling to maintain their business structure. And then you got all these streaming services. I think there's a hope that you can still make a living off of music. But a lot has to be done with the different kinds of deals artists have. A lot of artists are complaining that they don't get enough royalties off of streaming; a lot of that goes to the labels. But that really depends on what kind of deal you have with your label. And I think there's still a lot of artists being exploited by production companies, by labels, and I think it's - it kind of has to be a gradual movement from the artists to make sure that they don't get - screwed over.
Are there young Danish bands we should keep our ears open to?
Bjerre: I think there's a lot of good stuff happening with Danish music. I think it's better than ever, really. Choir of Young Believers, Lust for Youth, Communions... it's quite diverse, and it's a very unique music as well. We have a lot of unique bands. It feels like people are trusting their own instincts more. In the past, there was a lot of derivative music in Denmark - a lot of copying the UK scene, the American scene. And I think that we have some very outstanding and unique bands now.
You seem to care very much about your fans with all the social media posts and even having them partake in the making of music videos. How important are they to the existence of Mew?
Bjerre: Our fans, or "frengers" we call them, are very important to us. They obviously - make the whole thing make sense. I always feel like when we finish an album, because we take so long, traditionally, in making albums, you kind of lose the perspective of it. You do always reach a state where it feels like madness, where you have absolutely no idea if anyone's going to like what you have done. You spend so long on it that there's no objectivity left. And then when you come out, you play in front of people... I mean even getting sales number and stuff like that, it's great, but it's not like standing in front of an audience, actually seeing their faces and getting the response like one to one, you know? That's when it really makes sense for us. For some reason we tend to attract people who are very creative themselves, and I'm really grateful for that. Our music doesn't correspond to a specific age group or a specific geography. I think it's all kinds of people who share, maybe a little bit of the same sensibility that we have, the same outlook on life and the world. And a lot of them are very creative. So we love making that part of our world as well, as we did it in 'The Night Believer' video, and as we have done before as well. Part of the new album cover is also designed by a fan of ours in Korea. So it's great when you can have a sort of a dialogue going, a creative dialogue.
Continuing along similar topic: many of us can claim how a certain band's music has changed our lives. Do you recall a specific story where someone has told you how your music has had a life changing effect in their life?
Wohlert: I don't remember any specific stories about fan's relationship with our music, but it is very clear that we're the type of a band that people take it to their hearts - that means a lot and that sort of lives with people. And it has carried people through hardships and tough times. I think that's one of the powers of music in general - it can lift you up when you're feeling - not so good. Lot of people come up and say, "Guys, I just really want to tell you that I went through really tough period in my life, and your music kind of helped me see it through." And that's a very, very humbling gesture. And something I think it is very valuable as a band, and as an artist to get the acknowledgement that music has a healing effect.
Bjerre: You couldn't really aspire to something greater that. Someone recently asked me: "Why you guys always make a very melancholy music? Why is that? Do you want to make people sad?" I think that's the kind of music that always spoke most to us. I think when you listen to music that has that - maybe - you feel like recognize it as a part of you? So that's how music affects me; it makes me feel less alone. Because I think if there are people who make this kind of thing - that I recognize something of myself, then there must be other people like me. It's not that I am a sad individual, but I do have that - I mean, we all have that part of us.
+- was released back in April.