While on their only U.S. visit at South-by-Southwest, Jonas Bjerre and Johan Wohlert of Mew sat down and talked with QRO. In the conversation, the singer and bassist discussed their upcoming new album, + – (including the ultra-short title…), playing SXSW, Wohlert’s return to the band after leaving to have a child, leaving major label, trying not to take so long with the next record, the Danish music scene today, the music industry today, and much more…
QRO: How is South-by-Southwest treating you?
JB: Very well. So far it’s been pretty fantastic, actually. It’s been a long time since we’ve played in the States, so it feels very welcoming here.
QRO: How do you feel about performing your new, yet-to-be-released album, in front of music industry-type crowds? It’s not a normal show…
JB: I don’t really think about it that much, when I’m on stage.
We’ve been playing some of these songs live, during the recording. We did a little bit of touring, which is kind of new for us. Usually we finish the record, and then we go. We were able to try out some of the material in front of an audience, which I think was really great. Kind of put yourself in their place, sort of hear it objectively.
QRO: I was wondering, how much have you played the new album in front of crowds before this?
JB: Did we maybe test out half of the songs, the ones that might work out the best, if you will?… [laughs]
I think the record in general has a little bit more of a ‘live-friendly’ vibe to it. I don’t know how consciously that was, but we wanted to make something that was a bit more focused, as compared to the last record. That also meant that the songs sort of had to feel good with just the four or five of us playing, which is little bit of a new thing. In our band, we usually had the approach that, ‘We make the record, and then whatever happens live, we’ll have to sort out of later.’
But this time around, it was kind of the producer [Michael Beinhorn], he was like, ‘Well, if you go in the room, and if it doesn’t sound good with you guys playing, what’s the point?’ [laughs] It’s not that black & white, but it’s a fair point to make because we are a band; we’re not a studio project.
QRO: How was making + – like?
JB: It was a lengthy process. Johan joined, rejoined the band, and we had started writing a little bit without him. Very quickly, it was turning into the previous album, where it was a less of a band-core, more of a cloud of ideas, in a way. When Michael then came over to Copenhagen, he just said, “You guys are just missing something.” We had talked, over the years, about writing together again, so that was kind of the last push we needed to start talking about that. And then, pretty quickly, it was old times…
QRO: Johan, what was it like being back in the studio/back in the band?
JW: At first, a bit surreal, but at the same time, we’ve known each other since we were kids, so I’d say for the most part it felt very natural, very, ‘Oh, yeah…’ It almost felt like seven months and not seven years…
When you’ve been playing together for a long time, it just becomes second nature. The way that Silas [Jørgensen, drums] and I sort of locked together as a rhythm section. We just do what we do, and it pretty immediately sounded like Mew.
QRO: Did you have to get approval from wife & kid first? Or did they just want you out of the house?…
JW: She was very supportive about the whole idea. She thought that’s where I, in many ways, belonged. My kid is a bit too young to understand too much of it, but one day he will. At least he knows the name now, so when I’m playing a festival and stuff like that, he’s like, ‘Daddy’s playing the festival…’
QRO: And Jonas, how was it having Johan back?
JB: It’s great. It’s wonderful.
Sometimes when you talk about things – we’ve been talking about during interviews – you start realizing things yourself, as you’re talking about them. One thing that occurred to me was really that we never, individually, when we started out, it wasn’t like as individuals, we wanted to be musicians. The band was based around our friendships; just wanting to do some stuff together. We kind of developed our own musical language that way.
The band is really the sum of the four of us, and always was, so just seems natural, to me.
QRO: What was it like going back to being independent, after having been on a major label?
JB: So far, it’s been really great. I don’t have any negative thoughts about Columbia – I think they did a great job with us. But we might be a bit too ‘quirky’ to be a major label band.
One of the things that used to frustrate me a little bit was, you’d experience going to different countries in Europe that maybe the guy, the head of the label in some country, didn’t get it, and then you still had to work with these people. If people are not into it, then they’re not going to do a good job. They just can’t, because you’ve got to have that kind of excitement.
QRO: Did you feel any extra pressure making this record? Like, following up on the well-received last release, going indie again, all the time since the last album (2009’s No More Stories… – QRO review), etc.
JB: I personally don’t feel a big pressure from outside; for me, it’s more like satisfying our own expectations.
JW: This is our sixth record, so that also teaches you that judging it now as ‘the best thing we’ve ever done’, or how people usually go about it, is premature. Now, it feels really good, the reaction we’ve gotten from media and stuff, just initial reaction, has been overly positive. And it feels like an evolvement from where we were on the last record, so it kind of ticks the boxes of what we set out to do.
Then, in five or ten years time, you’ll look back at it and say, ‘Yeah, those five songs are great; those five are maybe not the best we’ve done.’ It is a bit cliché, but it is just an image of where we are at that given time, and these were the best songs we could come up with.
QRO: How did Russell LissacK (Bloc Party) get involved?
JB: We’ve known him for a few years. We did a tour with Bloc Party in America. He’s a really cool guy; he’s interested in a lot of the same things. I don’t know actually, but I think he’s the one who invited us on that tour, seen some of our shows in London and stuff. And we always liked the way he plays; he has a very unique approach – you can tell that it’s him. Bo [Madsen, guitars] always wanted to play up against him.
We hadn’t really done that before – we’ve had guest appearances on the album before, but we haven’t had people in the writing process before. So this was something we wanted to experiment with, and we did it with that one song that he’s on – he came over and wrote it with us, from scratch. And then Nick [Watts,] our keyboard player, came over and wrote another song with us.
That felt a bit more open, which I think is a very positive development for us. We wouldn’t work with ‘co-writers’ the way that mainstream artists do, I guess, but we liked this. It’s been a good experience, having friends over.
QRO: And I have to ask: why the ultra-short title to the album? Is it to make up for the ultra-long title to 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…?
JB: Partly that… [laughs]
QRO: This title does translate into every language…
JB: Universal, yeah.
QRO: Why only these shows in Austin for this visit to America?
JB: It’s mainly just because doing a whole tour is a bit premature without the record. These days, you have to be pretty certain you can sell the tickets. Agents, bookers, concert promoters, I think they play it a bit more safe than maybe they used to, because it’s a tight business these days.
So record out, see how it fairs, and then you plan your tour accordingly.
QRO: Are you planning a full U.S. tour around the release date of + –?
JW: Yeah, we would love to. Just the reaction we’ve gotten here at SXSW has been extremely uplifting and positive. I, personally, have never toured here with the guys, so I didn’t have any real idea of what the vibe around the band was, and it just feels like this is a band people are really into. If you like Mew, you’re really like it.
QRO: You guys seemed like one of ‘the acts to catch at SXSW’, because you hadn’t toured here in a while, you’re only playing these SXSW dates…
JB: I think we’re very fortunate that people who follow what we do, they’ve been quite patient with us. We’ll have to wait and see – it’s been a long time since we’ve toured, so which places are we gonna play, we’re gonna have to wait and see.
QRO: At this point, you’ve all done events like this before. Do you ever give, or are asked for, advice from younger bands from Denmark?
JB: I do sometimes, yeah.
I think I have been asked for advice a few times, mostly about ‘how do you even start?’ Because it’s obviously very different. And that’s another thing – I don’t even know how you start now.
QRO: Do you get any state support from the Danish government?
JW: We’ve gotten some, but never like the full government push.
And I’m pretty good with that, because I kind of put an honor in ‘making it yourself.’ I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with supporting culture or anything like that, but if it fares, it fares. And I kind of take pride in the fact that, with the help of obviously our record label, we’ve built this little thing ourselves, and I think that there’s a certain pride.
QRO: Some of these SXSW shows have been outdoors, like the FADER Fort show. Do you do anything differently when playing outside?
JB: Daylight makes a difference. We used to always tour with a projection screen, for each song, but we haven’t been doing that for a while, just because we’d done it for such a long time, take a break from that. But that obviously made a different. Sonically, we don’t do anything differently.
QRO: Are you already thinking about the next album?
JB: Not in specifics, but we’ve talked about ways to approach it.
We take an enormous amount of time between each album, and that’s part of why it sounds the way it does, but it’s also not always beneficial to our being able to keep doing what we do. We have talked about trying to figure out a way to do it faster. Part of it is a little bit letting go of this overly controlled, and getting caught up in the details, which is something we enjoy, but sometimes we’ll move things around in such small and specific areas of the song, even before it’s a finished song, even before we have the chorus or whatever. We’re trying to get more smarter about that.
JW: The business is changing, and I think you’ve gotta be more active if you want a career in this business. You’ve gotta get a better game plan, the next time around, and we’re doing that as we speak.
QRO: So, after all this time, you’re still learning new things?
JB: Yeah. It’s also been so much a rollercoaster in the ways that you go away for such a long time, you’re just in your own little world doing something, and you’re kind of removed from everything else. And then you go out and promote it, and you’re part of everything again. These really extreme changes in how you spend your daily life is sometimes really confusing. I think that we’re gonna try to ‘stay in the world’ as we’re working, and how we’re gonna do that, I don’t know. There’s lots of things to consider.
QRO: What’s the Danish/Copenhagen music scene like these days?
JB: I think it’s really good nowadays. I think there’s a lot of really original-sounding bands that are just sort of more courageous, doing what they want to do.
When we started out, there was this kind of naive approach. A lot of the bands that got signed were very derivative of what was happening in the U.K., and the unique bands, they didn’t really get picked up. Some of them are still around, but a lot of them just kinda gave up. I think now it’s more fruitful.
JW: In a way, I guess because there’s no money left in the business, you don’t really have to think along commercial lines, because you will have to have a real job on the side, because it’s not an option, living off your music. Who cares if you do really obscure, weird thing. Obviously, everybody would probably prefer living off their music, but when it is what it is, I guess it’s, in many ways, artistically liberating that you don’t have to chase that golden contract, or whatever it is that people used to do.
JB: That used to be, the dream was to get signed, and once you got signed, you were set. And now, you don’t even have to be signed. You can do so many different ways.
But I think that it’s a positive thing, because I think it encourages people to just do what they want to do.
JW: That’s the upside of it. The downside is – in some ways, we got lucky, ‘cause we kind of established a brand for ourselves, when there was still funds to be invested in bands. But what do you, if you’re a new, starting band? How do you break through? You gotta go naked on stage and do all that silly shit…
JB: And you gotta be very active in many different ways. You gotta create content, constantly. You can’t just sit and make an album for five years.
QRO: I was wondering about that, because that seems to be how you guys have done it…
JW: But the downside of that whole thing is that everything is so gimmick-ridden. It’s all about the gimmick – who cares about the actual content? Because there’s somebody new with a better gimmick the week after, you know?
That’s why we hear a lot of really lousy music these days. I’m not pointing fingers at anybody, and music goes up and down over the years, but everything is one big gimmick these days. And that’s kind of because you’ve gotta yell the loudest to be heard. And that sucks, to say the least…
QRO: It’s all about the viral video – you could do that, and then a week later, no one cares…
JW: And in ten years time, are we going to remember any of that autotuned songs that all sound the same?
We might remember certain things, probably, but it’s to be seen. It certainly feels a bit hokey and empty to me…
JB: The mainstream is very gimmicky, and also it’s just become so formulaic, the mainstream. There are of course some interesting things happening, but it sounds almost generic, some of it. ‘I’ve heard this song million times – I’ve heard it last week, someone did this song. It was exactly the same, almost…’
JW: The bar is set pretty low in these years.
JB: The upside to that is that maybe it’s not that difficult to make something better, I don’t know…
JW: There’s goods & bads to the state of the business.
JB: You reach a certain point where you just don’t give a shit anymore. We do our own thing, and that’s something that a lot of people appreciate, and that sort of gives us freedom to not care too much about what anybody else is doing. Which is a luxury, I’m aware of that, but it’s also just that’s what it should be like. Who cares what anybody else does? Just do your thing, and be good at that. And try to be as unique as you can.
JW: In the media, music is a competition, with all the reality shows. And the idea that music is a competition, I really resent that idea. Why would it be a competition?