The Weekly interview: Mew vocalist Jonas Bjerre

Chris Bitonti

It’s been about six years since you toured the States. Why such a long break? It was a break from everything, really. We toured a lot on [2009 album[ No More Stories…, and the last tour we did took us to Southeast Asia and places like that. We were a little bit spent, because we had been touring for almost two years, on and off, and we decided to have a little break before we started writing the next one because we never did that. We used to live together, too, so it was just full-on band—everything was the band. Everyone wanted to pursue other things for a while, things that we had thought about doing but never had the time to do. [Then] we played South by Southwest this year, and it was such a great experience and really made us feel like it would be great to come back. We’re super excited to come back to the States. We’re really enjoying touring these days.

You guys are obviously talented musicians, but unlike some other progressive-rock bands, your music remains accessible. How do you keep from overindulging on the technical side? We obviously enjoy some prog-rock, but I don’t like prog-rock when it becomes too virtuoso, when it’s like, “Hear how many notes I can play in a minute.” That doesn’t really connect with me in any way, that just becomes showing off and we’re not interested in that at all. We’re interested in conveying ideas, figuring out new ways of writing and expressing something that’s important to us. That is the drive we have.

Do you struggle at all to re-create the produced music live? I don’t think we do. It’s definitely different, because we can’t layer as many things. But on this record, our producer, Michael Beinhorn, was quite adamant that we make the songs work just in the practice space, and we did that in pre-production. We didn’t jam them out; they were written with different styling points, so it was important to him. Also, we had just gotten [bassist] Johan [Wohlert] back in the band—we had the rhythm section back to the original—and he wanted to explore that as much as possible in the music. We really tried to make it a band album, to make it sound like a band playing, and I think we succeed quite well. I don’t think it is that different when we play live. It’s obviously a bit more raw, but it’s not like a totally different kind of scenario.

Do you have to choose which instruments are going to be performed live? We have to do that all the time. And also, we can’t do as many harmonies as on the album but we seem to be quite good at getting around it in ways. Nick [Watts] our keyboard player who we’ve played with for many years, he is very busy when we play live; he does a lot of stuff—backing vocals, guitar and a lot of synths and chords and little counter-melodies—and sometimes he’ll play one of the harmonies on the piano instead of singing it. It kind of comes together in the same way, just slightly different.

Did it take you guys a while in the early days to really be satisfied with your live sound? When we first started out, I think we were just very excited to be able to make a lot of noise (laughs). It was more about playing really loud and having the amps cranked up.

When we first started the band we already were friends, and we were doing stuff together creatively, but the idea of forming a band came about when this whole wave of bands like Nirvana came out, which led us to discover Dinosaur Jr, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and stuff like that, which was more like alternative-rock music. Before that time, we had grown up with ’80s pop music, so I think we started out maybe slightly mimicking some of the bands we liked at the time, and ever so slowly our own kind of unique weirdness crept into the mix. I think when we did [2003’s] Frengers album, that’s when we really started thinking about sonics and how to convey it live. Before that we were too caught up in different things to even think about that. Back then, you just played small gigs, small venues, and you didn’t have your own sound guy, so whoever was there just had to make sense of it.

Mew has been a band since 1994, so more than 20 years. What’s left to accomplish musically? I think it’s about trying to make the most natural album you can, where it just feels completely unhindered in a way. There are always passages you just work too much on. We love working out all the details, but the really magical moments are the ones that come about where you don’t have any idea where they come from—you just grab it out of the air. If we could make an entire album like that, that would be the goal. I don’t know if it will ever happen. I think there is always going to be some hindrance to reach that point.

How important is it to you as a songwriter to blaze new musical trails? It’s very important. I think if you reach a state where you say, “We’ve figured it out; we should just keep doing this,” then it’s kind of just repeating yourself or planting the flag and saying, “This is as far as we’ll be exploring in the world of music.”

I think it’s important to us that it can’t be too easy for us. We have to keep challenging ourselves in terms of where we can take the songs and where we can take music and trying something new every time. I don’t really understand bands that just aspire to sound like The Rolling Stones or whoever. The Rolling Stones already did it. It’s not that you have to reinvent music entirely, but if you can contribute something new, that is what any band should aspire to do.

What is the current music scene like in Scandinavia? It’s pretty interesting. It’s grown so much in the time I’ve been alive. When we started out as a band there were a lot of interesting things going on, but it was so hidden in the underground, because the bands who got signed were signed by people who didn’t really understand what they were doing. They would sign bands that sounded like something that happened in the U.K. four years before, so it was very derivative of the U.K. scene.

Now, it feels like bands really dare to be themselves and maintain their own uniqueness. When we started out it was kind of unheard of for a Danish band to even tour in America. We didn’t have like what they have in Sweden, a long history of successful international bands. We never had ABBA or anything like that, so the music scene was little bit weak. But I think it is just so much better now—a lot of great bands coming out of Denmark and Scandinavia as a whole.

Mew with The Dodos September 19, 9 p.m., $13.20. The Sayers Club, 702- 761-7618.

The Bunkhouse Series at the Sayers Club at SLS is sponsored by Southern Wine & Spirits, Live Nation, Downtown Container Park and Greenspun Media Group.

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