“It came from a dream I had,” Jonas explains, mumbling humbly. “I always tend to be more inspired during the night. I woke up one night and had this idea. I don’t always know what the lyrics are about, they’re just images that I come up with and I just write them, it’s sort of surreal.”
To call Mew ‘sort of surreal’, of course, is like saying Bill Gates is ‘reasonably well off’. If the sprawling, soaring bliss-rock of their breakthrough third album Frengers (2003) - particularly the ecstatically icy space ballets She Came Home For Christmas and NME Single Of The Week Comforting Sounds - projected a sense of glacial fairy tale wonderment (the sort of thing The Brothers Grimm might have written after a month on the road with Hope Of The States) then their fourth record ‘Mew. and the Glass Handed Kites’ is an even greater leap into the unknown. Redefining the concept of an ‘album’ - and, indeed, of a ‘concept album’ -and the Glass Handed Kites is an eccentric 60 minute rock headfuck, flinging musical ideas, distorted nightmare images and heartbreak choruses at the listener with what at first seems to be a random ferocity. One minute we’re sailing towards Valhalla on ‘Chinaberry Tree”s crusade-rock stomp, the next we’re being asked “Why are you looking grave?” by J Mascis over a My Bloody Valentine throb, the next we’re in the middle of an ethereal ballad about hiding foxes. Initially it sounds like ten bands playing ten different albums at the same time, which we’re tuned in and out of by some insane studio engineer; repeated listening, however, reveals a remarkably unified work that picks up the experimental baton of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ and drenches it in Mew’s unique other-worldy glisten.
“We wanted it to be one long song,” says bassist Johan Wohlert. “It’s difficult to do it and it’s a difficult record to listen to but it’ll keep you interested for a really long time.”
“It’s quite a mouthful,” Jonas adds. “We took the idea of making a record a long journey all the way on this record.”
“We knew that we had it in certain songs,” says guitarist Bo Madsen. “We had the elements of it on ‘Frengers’ and we knew it would be a huge challenge for us as a band to spread that out over 60 minutes but we also knew it was something we’d always dreamt of doing, making a body of work, making a masterpiece that you had to listen to from A to Z in order to make any sense of. It was a fucking tough record to make but it was what we had to do. We could have made a ‘Frengers Part Two’ but it wouldn’t have been right. We always go the hard way around, and that’s what gives it its uniqueness, that we spend so much time dwelling on the details. One of the fun things about playing in this band is that it is about challenging the structures, challenging what can be done within the context of rock music. It’s good that you try, for the sake of art, to push your limits as a band, and your limits of perception. The first time you think it’s fucked up but the tenth time you get around to it it starts to make sense. One of the things that makes it fun for us is trying to fuck with people as to what can be done. It’s all been assembled together by small parts. It was a big jigsaw puzzle, totally beyond anything we’ve ever done.”
So how did we get from an elementary school playground in Hellerup, Denmark, to a bombastic medieval madrigal space opera track entitled Saviours Of Jazz Ballet? Mew - completed by drummer Silas Graae - first met in the seventh grade, charged with making a film for a school project about the end of the world: their film consisted of them introducing the film over and over again in slow motion. Recognising in each other a taste for apocalyptic art, they soon became the school’s alternative clique and were a band long before any of them could play any instruments.
“We became very ambitious straight away,” says Jonas. “We were ready to make a record after a couple of months.”
Denmark, sadly, wasn’t quite ready for them, and it was only after a failed outing as Orange Dog (they were booed off at their first gig) and a short sabbatical to America for Bo that the band reconvened as Mew in their late teens. By now Jonas was working part-time in a post-production company, using the facilities after hours to make his own animations which became part of the Mew live experience, illuminating their lengthy jangle-prog compositions inspired by My Bloody Valentine, Pixies, Dinosaur Jnr and, curiously, the Pet Shop Boys and Prince. At their very first gig an agent for a book publishing company caught them and was so impressed he convinced his company to completely change their business plan to record and release the debut Mew album, A Triumph For Man (1997). Limited to 2000 copies it’s now a highly-valued rarity and was a critical hit in Denmark coming, as it did, a mere week after the first Aqua record.
By the time second album Half The World Is Watching Me was ready for its release in 2000, Mew’s relationship with their parent company was fraying at the edges, so the band created their own label, Evil Office, to release it. No sooner did it get an initial limited release in Sweden, however, than they were snapped up by Sony for a world-wide deal and decided to pull the new record and re-record the best of their catalogue for an international audience. The result was Frengers, a tenfold leap in sales figures and suddenly Mew found themselves thrust into the ‘big time’ of one-bedroom London squat-holes and lengthy Transit van tours of the M6.
“Our whole England experience was pretty hardcore,” Jonas remembers. “We moved to London and to begin with we didn’t know if we were going to be making any money, so we moved into a small flat with two rooms. We slept in the same room in bunk beds for years. We used to drive to Glasgow and then all the way back and sleep in those bunk beds. Those tours were really tiring.”
“It almost killed us but we made it through the other side,” says Bo. “It prepared us for what it means to be a touring band, getting us into that whole rock’n’roll circus.”
And it was cramped around that stained-formica kitchen table that and the Glass Handed Kites took on its shifting, spectacular shapes. Around the core of their trademark expansive pop operatics (The Zookeeper’s Boy, The Seething Rain Weeps For You, Special and Why Are You Looking Grave? which features a crack-voiced J Mascis) and Cocteau Twins-esque, star-gazing winter balladry (White Lips Kissed) they weaved intricate freeform passages and inter-looping refrains (see first single Apocalypso, described Jonas as “not quite the end of the world and not quite Carribean dance music”) to create a record that isn’t just in perfect symmetry with the current Nu Gaze stylings of The Radio Dept., M83 and The Earlies but shimmered with hyper-real celestial Dance Of The Planets atmospherics that were uniquely Mew. And, um, it’s all about death. Obviously.
“Each song deals with different aspects of life and fear,” Jonas explains. “Sometimes it hits me that everything we do is a distraction from the fact that we will end up suffering and dying eventually, which is quite a cynical way to look at it but you can look at it like that. Music is another way to keep your thoughts elsewhere in a way, the artist wants to leave something behind. So it’s trying to deal with those things without making it too obvious. There are things that run deeper but it’s not really important for the listener, it’s more about how you experience the record, not what was intended.”
I see. And those rubber-mouthed, nipple-eyed sea creatures, what do they represent?
Jonas smirks. “They represent the dark voices in your head.”
Keep having those nightmares...