Jonas Bjerre of Mew

by Greg Prato

Are they experimental? Prog? Pop? Denmark's mysteriously-named Mew seem to enjoy creating music that is hard to pin down to a singular style, as exemplified by their seventh album, Visuals, released in April 2017.

Comprised of singer/guitarist/keyboardist Jonas Bjerre, bassist Johan Wohlert, and drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen, the band has been issuing albums since 1997, and are mega-popular in their homeland, as their last two albums (2015's +- and 2009's No More Stories...) hit #1, and the two prior (2005's And the Glass Handed Kites and 2003's Frengers) peaked at #2.

Visuals sees the band at a crossroads in their career, as it is their first-ever release without guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Bo Madsen, who left in 2015. But as Jonas told Songfacts, the change has helped focus the band, resulting in the most speedily-assembled record of the Mew's entire career.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start by discussing the new album, Visuals.

Jonas Bjerre: It's different in a lot of ways. I think it's probably the fastest album we've ever done, mainly because we had a lot of stuff happening around the band, and we had a lot of song ideas, even when we were touring on the last record. So, we had a lot of little demos and ideas when we came back, and we decided to go into the studio quite early, because we had this bad habit of disappearing for years - into a dark cave somewhere - and spending forever on an album.

We really didn't want to be gone for that long. It was kind of like life is a roller coaster, and you go into these different stages, and it's nice if you can at least ease it at the next peak. So, we wanted to do it faster and succeeded in doing it. We kind of surprised ourselves - to be able to do that.

And it felt really good, because we didn't do it that fast, but for us it's fast. So, I think part of the appeal of that is when you finish the album, you still have that kind of feeling, the freshness of the idea of the song in your mind. You haven't forgotten it yet. Whereas usually, we get so saturated with each project that at the end of it, we have no idea what we've been doing - it's kind of a weird haze. So, it feels pretty exciting for us to do it slightly faster than we usually do.

Songfacts: How did the songwriting work on this album?

Jonas: We mainly just played - the three of us - in a small room. There were a few ideas already sketched out, which were written from a sort of "singer-songwriter" perspective, almost, which is a little bit unusual. We've done that in the past on some songs, but more of the songs were written like that this time. A few of them were written just from a beat that Silas came up with, and we just went from there.

It's very different. Each song comes from a different place. Like a different method.

Songfacts: This is the first Mew album since Bo's departure. How did it effect the album's creation?

Jonas: It's hard to say. We've done one album with Johan, as well. It obviously affects us quite a lot. It's hard to put into words, really. He has done a lot of the guitar work in the past - most of it - but we played a lot with our new guitar player [Mads Wegner] on the sessions, so he filled in a lot of spaces. And some of the songs don't really have that much guitar. Some of them have a lot of guitar. I can't really say for sure how it affected it, to be honest.

Songfacts: Favorite songwriters?

Jonas: Kate Bush, Paddy McAloon. One of my favorite bands is the Pixies. I love My Bloody Valentine. There's a lot of different stuff. I can't really say I have a specific preference between classical songwriters and the more experimental stuff. I think both are really interesting.

I usually don't sit in pubs and listen to one guy and his acoustic guitar. Sometimes, it's amazing, but it's really hard to come up with something that is a new way of doing it. I really like using the studio when we make albums. It's a different thing to be in the studio than to be in a live setting. We don't really think so much about the live setting when we write for the albums. It's more of a challenge to see how we're going to do this live, and then we etch out a slightly rougher version of the songs, which I always think is pretty exciting, actually, because you get two different aspects of it.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the inspiration behind several Mew songs, starting with "85 Videos."

Jonas: There's hardly ever a direct narrative in my lyrics. It's more a reflection of different feelings or things that just float out of my mind. That song started out in a weird way. We were in Sicily in an airport, and Silas, our drummer, was dragging this trolley with all our luggage. We were playing at this house, and we brought a lot of gear, and the tiles had this really weird sort of musical rhythm to them. It just sounded weird and cool, so I recorded it onto this little recorder we have. That sort of became the back-laying beat - it's not really that apparent in the song. You can hear it a lot in the bridge, but not so much in other places. But that was kind of the starting point.

Then the lyrics... it's very hard for me to talk about the meaning of the lyric, because I find it sort of limiting in a way to push meaning onto them for other people, because I really enjoy the idea that people can make out of them what they choose or feel like, and how songs can keep growing after you finish them, because they develop even further in other people's minds. But there is a lot of stuff about worrying about things in your life, and it's sort of a call to not worry so much, and that somethings you just can't do anything about it - you just have to get on with your life. Sometimes, the world is a very dark place, and you can feel despondent at things that happen. But some things are just out of your control and you can't let it ruin everything.

Songfacts: And you directed the song's video, right?

Jonas: Yeah, I did. A lot of the songwriting on this record, we had this idea of calling it Visuals quite early on, because we've been using visuals, doing a lot of animation for the live shows pretty much since we started out. And I liked the idea that as we were writing each song, we picked a place where the song took place. Like a scenario for the song, visually.

That was just something that we thought about a lot during the songwriting. It's hard to say how much it informed the songwriting, but it helped with the decisions during the writing.

I'm thinking about a new live show for us with visuals - I have been very fascinated with kaleidoscopes lately. Like, how you can film a sequence - any sequence, almost - and you transfer it to kaleidoscope, and it looks beautiful, no matter what it started out as. So, I was experimenting with that, and I thought of making these ever-changing faces from kaleidoscopes, and then projecting them on our own faces. So that was the idea: to create this other world where you're an ever-changing figure. That was the idea of the video. And I made it in a week, so we didn't have long to do it. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. It's stressful.

Songfacts: "The Zookeeper's Boy"?

Jonas: Definitely the chorus is quite unique - there's a lot of counterparts. Vocally, it's a big piece, the chorus. It was originally the outro of another song we have called "Special." When we played it to our producer, he said, "That has to be a chorus. That can't be the outro of the song, it's crazy."

So, we turned it into a song itself, and I'm pretty happy that we did that at this point, because it's one of our bigger songs. We had done a lot of multi-layering of vocals, but it was actually reversed. It was a chord sequence that our bass player came up with, and then I was whistling a melody, and it was kind of cool. But we did that years before, and I pulled it up again. I tried playing it backwards, and it became a much more interesting melodic progression.

I think often times it's a great tool, because the chord changes might have become more dull. When you're doing the chord changes, you're searching for that release every time. And sometimes, that can hinder the melody a little bit, because you already have the release in the chords, and you don't need it so much in the melody. Sometimes, you can come up with really interesting things that way. So that is how we came up with that backwards melody.

We were living in London by then, and we had this piece. It was a catchy melody, and I just sat there listening at night, while everyone else was sleeping, and I started singing over it, and singing these words that came to me. I didn't write them down or anything - I just sang them. It was so inspiring.

Songfacts: "Why Are You Looking Grave?"

Jonas: That was written on an acoustic guitar. We had a tuning we used a lot on that album, that I think was EAEG#C#E, and we used it on a lot of songs. So, it had this kind of drone-y, strum-y feeling to it, and we turned it into an electrical song.

We were in LA recording, and we went to see J Mascis play. We approached him afterwards, and said, "Hey, we have this song we'd really like you to sing on." And he was like, "Yeah, I like that. I'm on tour now, but I'm going to come back to LA in about a month." He did, and he came and sang on it, and it was really cool. He played some guitar on the album, as well.

Songfacts: "Am I Wry? No"?

Jonas: That was again an experiment. I came up with this simple baritone riff, and Bo came up with this really cool counterpart for it, so it was kind of a call-and-answer thing - just the guitars. I always thought that felt like the chorus, and everyone else in the band thought what I thought was the verse was the chorus. But it was a really cool song and had this nice modulation in the outro, where it goes somewhere else. But there was something in the middle that was kind of hard.

It was an awkward song, because it had the rhythmical changes and the chord structure changes were awkward. Something we do often is when we find something that feels awkward, instead of giving up on it, we force it to work somehow. So, we kept at it, and again, I had this thing where the bridge part had this almost celestial string part that comes in. And when I was running that backwards, it became this other melody that I am then singing. It's almost like a mirror that meets at the end: one part stays on, and then it meets its own mirror, and then turns backwards again. I don't know how apparent that is in the song, but it was what it needed to fit it together with the rest of the song. So that was another backwards thing. Those are the only two songs... well, one more, where we used the backwards approach, so it's funny that you mentioned those two songs.

Songfacts: And what is that third song that uses the backwards approach?

Jonas: It's called "New Terrain," which actually is two songs at once. So, if you play it backwards, it becomes another song, called "Nervous." It was kind of tricky to make the words. You record something, you hear it backwards, and you assess, "What does that sound like that I'm singing?" And then you sing on top of that. We did that, and it was kind of like going back and forth between backwards and forwards, until we had the finished song. So that was quite an experiment, as well.

April 20, 2017. For more Mew, visit
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