Interview: Jonas Bjerre of Mew

words by Heather Schofner | photo by Ari Marcopoulos | Thursday, August 6th, 2009

mewMew’s music is like one of those seeing-eye pictures — as you delve deeper into it, three-dimensional pictures are unveiled, and the hidden meaning behind the beautiful colors and sounds is revealed. Their 2006 release And The Glass Handed Kites was extremely well-received by critics all over the world, and their new release (set to come out on August 26) promises to have many ears pointed their way. Jonas Bjerre, currently touring Europe supporting Nine Inch Nails on their farewell tour, took a moment to answer some questions about the band’s collaborative nature, their life on tour, and the creation of their new album, No More Stories…

What instruments/roles did the members of Mew play on No More Stories…?
Silas Graae on drums and percussion, Bo Madsen on guitar and bass, and Jonas Bjerre, vocals and keys – although, I would say that’s a very simplified version of the roles we each play. When we write we all write together and everyone has ideas for the overall structures. Each of our parts are determined not only from the effort of the individual but also from the suggestions and critique provided by the others.

When did the band start out, and how did you get together? I read that Mew was originally formed in 1994, and that you’ve only had one lineup change, in 2006 when Johan Wohlert left the band. What keeps you together? Are you close friends?
Bo, Johan, and I grew up together; we went to the same school and got to know each other at the age of six. We did not start out as a band – it was more like a hobby, a serious hobby. An art project with animation and performance and little weird bits of music we put together. We found out we had a lot of interests in common, like alternative rock (first Nirvana, then onto the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, and so on) and art house cinema. Silas joined during our first year of high school and that’s when we became Mew.

What place do you currently consider home? Is your home base still Denmark, or have you relocated to somewhere new since your career has taken off?
We moved to London when we first got signed there; we decided to do so to help our career, but also to try something new. We spent four years there and then our deal was moved to the States. At that point, we no longer had much reason to stay in London, and we briefly considered moving to New York but decided against it, as we missed home. Copenhagen was always home.

Who would you say your influences are, musically or otherwise?
It’s kind of a mixture. Bo was hugely into Prince before the alternative rock wave washed over us. I used to listen to what my parents were listening to at first, I guess…Eurythmics, Jean-Michel Jarre. Silas was probably into rock music before we were, things like Black Sabbath. Then, later, after our minds opened to alternative rock, we found our way to other pop acts, like Prefab Sprout and also more left-of-center things like Stina Nordenstam.

But aside from music, I think films were a great influence. Film scores, and the moods of film. I remember being a kid and kind of subjecting myself to experiments, forcing myself to have the patience to get into slow things, art stuff. I used to record my friends talking and then listen to it backwards on my Walkman, just to see if it would do something to me.

Bo would do these daredevil things; he was more about experiencing life, taking in everything it had to offer and getting inspired by it in a big way. Silas is hugely into African music and avant-garde things like Terry Riley, John Cage, and especially Per Nørgård. But he also has a big place in his heart for bands like Dinosaur Jr.

While listening to No More Stories…, I was enveloped in waves of thick sound, and it brought to mind some of my favorite instrumental moments by The Cure, those on Disintegration. Do you see the similarity I’m referring to, or do you disagree?
My first ever music that I bought was the Lovecats seven-inch by The Cure. But no one had told me you had to play it at a different speed so I was always listening to it at 33 RPMs. I was a little disappointed that it was meant to go faster — I was so mystified by the slow version, in a good way. I guess there’s a certain romance and melancholy we might have in common with The Cure? I don’t know, I think we all have a few of their records, but they were not one of our major things we listened to.

Could you describe the songwriting and recording process you go through to create your music? Does everyone in the band contribute equally, or is there a primary songwriter in the group?
It differs a lot, especially on this album. We definitely contribute equally to the songwriting; mostly the parts appear with all of us in the same room. Sometimes we’ll send stuff to each other, sometimes one person will bring a part into the room and we’ll add onto that until a song appears. On this record, the writing started while we were touring in the states on “Kites” — whenever we had some time off from the tour we’d go someplace and write. Also, we’d go to the countryside in Denmark and do some writing there, sometimes just with a piano, an acoustic guitar, and some percussion. Or it will be an experiment for starters, like, “How would it sound if we did this? Could that become a song?” It’s good to have a selection of different methods.

Did you use any interesting techniques or equipment? Do you have a favorite amp, mic, instrument, recording technique, etc.?
We use a wide variety of instruments and recording techniques. We try to keep expanding the ways we can put sound together. We’ll often mix together two or more sounds for one part, like a piano, a synth, and some 8-bit sample of our voices, making the instruments less recognizable. However, on this album we have a lot of concise, pure sounds, too. Lots of mallet instruments, for example. Granular synthesis was used quite a lot, Kyma and Max/MSP.

Many ambient sounds, things like bubbles, reverb-y tapping sounds, and looped, slightly distorted vocals appear on No More Stories… If you’re inspired to do so, could you describe in a bit of detail some of the interesting touches to the songs you added that you’re fond of?
There is a bunch of water percussion on “Hawaii,” various percussive sounds created by hitting and spilling water. We also tend to use arpeggio, but mostly not in straight intervals. For instance, there is a flute part in “Cartoons and Macramé Wounds,” in which each note in each chord was played in a different pattern. It makes for a great texture and movement, rather than the same old “pad” sound.

On “New Terrain,” the opening track of your new album, behind the refrain there is sound that sounds kind of like someone’s voice being played backwards. I read on the internet that if the song is played backwards, a poem is revealed. Is this true? If so, what is the poem, and who wrote it?
It’s a different song when you play it backwards. I wrote the lyrics for it, both forward and in reverse.

How much of a role did your producer Rich Costey play in the studio? Did he provide you with a lot of strong guidance/assistance, or was he more of a laid back producer?
He was very much involved in getting the song structures right — we did three weeks of pre-production in Brooklyn. Before that, we had sent him demos, he made comments, [and] we sent more. He also flew to Copenhagen at one point and went through all the songs with us. I believe some producers cover the engineering side, getting the recording to sound great. Then there are producers who are more like mad professors that inspire and bring out the best in the band. Rich Costey does both. And that’s the way we like it.

Does your touring lineup differ from your studio lineup?
When we play live we have two extra musicians with us, Doctor Nick Watts on keys and Bastian Juul on bass guitar. They both also contribute with vocal harmonies and sometimes percussive instruments. In the studio we mostly play all parts, the three of us, although this time Bastian played most of the bass guitar, Bo did some, and our friend and collaborator, Damon Tutunjian, did some. Doctor Watts also did some of the keyboards.

But in the writing process, and most of the studio work, it’s mostly just the three of us. Our sound is very layered and textured, so we need to be a few more people on stage.

What are your favorite foods on the road?
We have a healthy rider. No crisps or candy. Celery, hummus, carrots, that kind of thing. Eating bad food on a tour will make you tired and sad and will eventually have a bad impact on the shows.

I’ve unfortunately never attended one of your shows, but I’ve heard from multiple people that they’re fantastic. A close friend of mine saw you live and said there was interesting videos being projected on a backdrop as you played. Where did these videos come from? I’ve heard a rumor that you actually filmed them. If so, what was your inspiration for getting involved in that type of work? How long have you been working in that artistic medium?
I used to work in post production doing special effects, compositing and animation. Since Mew was always inclined to include visual parts for music (ever since our first ever project), it seemed like a natural step to include visuals for the live shows. You should come see a show. [Here is one of Jonas’s animations for a song called “Louise Louisa.”]

Speaking of your live shows, that’s so exciting that you were hand-picked by Trent Reznor to open up for shows on Nine Inch Nails’ farewell tour! How has the reception been at the shows? Did any of the gigs go exceptionally well, or exceptionally bad?
It’s gone really, really well, actually. I think all the gigs have been good, and although I am sure there are people in the audience who don’t get into Mew (that will always be the case when you’re a supporting act) I think the reception has been great so far.

Have you gotten to know Trent? If so, any plans for a collaborative project together?
Yes, and he is an amazing guy, and very talented. I don’t know about collaboration. We shall see.

Do you see any similarities or common themes in your work and that of Nine Inch Nails?
I think in general there the ambiguity of our respective music is apparent and has similarities. The contrast, the anguish and the hopefulness, maybe some kind of escapism (although with different flavor).

Earlier, I mentioned my curiosity about your work with video as an artistic medium. Do any of the other band members have any artistic or musical projects that they’re working on, on the side?
We all paint and draw and create things in many different ways.

Who did the art for your album cover?
Two French guys called Michael and Mathias comprising the company m/m (of Paris). They make strange and wonderful things.

Do you have weird moments in which you find inspiration in unlikely places?
That happens all the time. Traveling is one of the most inspiring things. But really I think most the inspiration comes from the work that we do, the way we communicate. It keeps the flow of ideas going.

Lastly, what are your plans for the future?
Much touring. And hopefully a lot more music to come.

  • I love mew! I love heather too!

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