The Soft Synesthesia of Mew

For twenty years, Mew has been creating a universe for its listeners; their new album + - is a welcome homecoming.

-By Zack Sigel

When Mew became a band, more than twenty years ago, the “rock god” was the pinnacle of musical achievement and aspiration. It isn’t clear what changed: Napster was still years off, and streaming music wouldn’t supplant record sales for half a decade after that, so there would be no leveling of the playing field. Indie had already taken shape by the time Sonic Youth was calling for J. Mascis to run for president (the offer still stands, by the way, Mr. Mascis), but irony didn’t become exceptional until social media offered a space for its amplification and expurgation. Clinton had taken office on January 20, 1993, so he gave himself the anniversary gift of NAFTA and signed a Republican trade agreement into law that effectively killed nearly a million American jobs. God was dead, or at least his ethos was, and suddenly capitalism was cool again. Only nineties kids will get this: New Kids on the Block, Spice Girls, the time one-half of Milli Vanilli attempted to carjack somebody, the song “With Arms Wide Open.”

So the environment into which Mew released its first two albums was hardly a brave new world, which makes their perseverance all the more impressive. Mew’s music is intentionally difficult to place. Its frontman Jonas Bjerre is soft-spoken, preferring to play down his talents and the band’s accomplishments. He describes their music as “indie stadium”, a perfectly post-Clinton description of music that brings to mind Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana, and references Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine enough in past interviews to suggest a major shoegazing influence. “We’ve been compared to a lot of different bands,” he explained over the phone. “When we did the Glass Handed Kites album in 2005, people starting calling us a prog rock band.” He doesn’t mind the comparison to prog rock, but it isn’t particularly accurate. “But it’s cool,” he said. “If we’re described as a lot of different things, then maybe that means we belong in many different places. That can never be a bad thing, right?”

Mew’s music comes from a place of passion, but also from a place of optimism and hope. Even their darker records suggest a light at the end of a tunnel. Bjerre wants to envelope you in a universe of his creation, appearing to shield one in an aural dome from the phantasms of without. How you choose to enter and leave this world is the exercise of your own subconscious. “I always think the music invokes a lot of pictures,” Bjerre said. “And obviously you have to be careful you don’t take away the images that people conjure up themselves. You don’t want to force images on people.”

As an ethos, Bjerre hopes “you will be challenged to really find it, because all the lyrics are really kind of vague.” He leaves the music open to interpretation, so occasionally you’ll find more nebulous lyrics like “Outside / And it occurs to me, we’ve lost the light / We shared a box in someones dream / ‘Till the ponies arrive.” Musically, too, Mew employs an arsenal of sounds and instruments. Just on the latest record, I counted a marimba, a vibraphone, a harmonium, and several choirs. Mew’s world is meant to dazzle and confound, and they have been making music in this vein since their inception.

I reached Bjerre in Los Angeles, where he is beginning to go on tour to support + – (pronounced “plus-minus”), the band’s first release since No More Stories…, which came out in 2009. No More Stories was also their first album not to feature Johan Wohlert, the band’s bassist, who has been a friend of Bjerre’s since childhood and had played on every Mew record prior to 2006. Bjerre described the effect Wohlert’s departure had on Mew’s sound: “Some of the songs don’t sound so much like a band playing together and more like ideas produced in the studio, and then we pick out different ways to play them live.” One gets a sense that Mew had lost its way; Wohlert wasn’t even replaced, and Mew continued as a three-piece.

But then, last year, Wohlert came back. And Bjerre says it had a huge impact. They regained their sense of harmony, developed over the decades they’ve played together. He contrasts + – to the last album by describing it as a “band record.” Mew was whole again, and the resulting work is something like a return to roots. “It sounds like we had everyone in the room playing together,” Bjerre said. “And it sounded great in pre-production, and then we went and recorded it.” They wanted the music to come from the band instead of from a competent technician, and were pleased to find that “the core of the songs really just worked as band songs.” When Wohlert returned, “the songs took on a much more driven approach.”

This meant a return to the process that’s worked so well all these years, which is to say a slow-burn of ideas and sounds. “We kind of just play together and somebody will come up and move into some piece,” Bjerre said. “It’s a lazy process because we kind of jam everything out together in the room.” The songs grow out of this collaboration into the dreamscapes that have become Mew’s repertoire. He described the way he hopes the music will “grow in the consciousness of other people,” but it sounded like the music grew out of a shared consciousness of the band. “There’s always a couple songs that start out with an idea,” he said. “Maybe some kind of imagery you could put music into, just something you want you try out. Then that becomes a song.”

David Lynch once described his creative process as diving into “an ocean of pure, vibrant consciousness.” It’s where he “catches” his ideas, which he somewhat inexplicably calls fish. But when you are completely submerged, Lynch writes, “It’s bliss. You can vibrate with this bliss.” Out of these vibrations come the sublime psycho-horrors that populate Lynch’s films like bad dreams.

Bjerre is a fan of Lynch, and I pointed out the incongruity between their work. Even in their darker records, Mew’s music will never terrorize the subconscious in the way Lynch’s films do. And yet Bjerre follows much the same process as the horror director. “I wouldn’t be able to say precisely what inspires me and when it did,” he said. “But it’s more like it gets processed in your subconscious mind and then it comes out in a different way.” For Mew, this means an upbeat, even hopelessly positive record. Bjerre told me he always looks forward to the surprise of it. Echoing Lynch, he said, “You come up with something and you have no idea where it came from.”

So when Bjerre draws from his nightmares to create a record, he is working from the same paradox as Lynch. Lynch uses the peacefulness of meditation to encounter nightmares, and Bjerre’s work also understands the way that light must necessarily inform darkness. Even though + – is a much more positive record, Bjerre took care to install “the dualism of having something underneath.” It’s there in its spectral music, or “in the lyrical content or just in a weird kind of drone underneath everything else.” He is dealing with forces in opposition to each other, juxtaposed against everything else. “I think a lot of what we do has that juxtaposition,” he said.

“We always go through this process where we get so caught up in the details,” he said, describing the feeling that goes into each record. “Like it gets too much, like you feel like you’re going mad, in the process, and that’s why it’s always so gratifying to come out on the other side, and then present it to be people and get the response. It really feels like we’re hidden away from the world a bit, when we’re making records. Personally, I want to get out of that cycle, because I don’t want to be away from the world for too long, I like being out singing the songs to people.”

So much of Mew is about feeling your way toward the paradoxes at the music’s core. Bjerre takes inspiration from the way a city like Tokyo or New York blends the modern and futuristic with the traditional and the old-school. What makes these cities so inviting are what he calls “little oases”, pockets of tranquility surrounded by the hectic rush of bodies moving through space and time, somehow connected, and somehow lost, with the music at the center of the collective unconscious permeating all. “It’s more about people with a certain sensibility or state of mind,” he said. “They find beauty in what we do and I kind of feel like if they do then it must be because we have something in common, some kind of worldview or a way to deal with emotions.”

It’s a sentiment he even brought to the band’s name, which has a surprisingly synesthetic origin. “I just like the word ‘mew,’” he said. “It has this symmetry, like this imperfect symmetry, and it’s pointy at the edges and soft in the middle. It’s the small e.” When focus-tested, sound board-manufactured pop music is employed to satisfy some arbitrary tenet of capitalism, how refreshing it is for a band to adhere to an artistic principle that can’t be unambiguously summarized. “[Mew] means a lot of different things. It means to shed your feathers, to build a wall, it means to make a whimpering sound,” he said. “It’s a versatile word.”

Bjerre thought he’d first seen it referenced as a quotation from Shakespeare, and over the line, it sounded as if he were reciting the phrase “and the gulls mewed.” There is no such phrase in Shakespeare, but I believe he meant a different one, from Richard III, which reads, “More pity that the eagle should be mew’d, / While kites and buzzards prey at liberty.”