I have little experience with New York City. It was often just a skyline that loomed across the river when I visited friends in northern New Jersey or the atmospheric backdrop of a film, that perception of New York that we are given through others’ words and images. I figured interviewing Denmark’s Mew and seeing the band perform at the Hiro Ballroom was my chance to finally make a connection with the city.
Columbia Records’ headquarters on Madison Avenue is one of the most impressive offices I’ve ever seen. Before going up to see Benny Tarantini, Mew’s publicist, I was asked to show picture ID, given a press pass and pointed toward a new series of elevators that were in the rear of the main lobby. My roommate Alan, who kindly drove me up to New York from Washington, D.C., had his picture put onto his pass, scanned from his driver’s license.
When the elevators opened, emptying us out into the main arteries of Columbia’s headquarters, I thought to myself, Bruce Springsteen has probably been here — a picture of him was hanging on the wall to my left. I flushed a little upon noticing that I was wearing a Springsteen shirt, from his Human Touch European tour. My original intention had been to wear my ex-girlfriend’s Swedish high school shirt, but I was interviewing a Scandinavian band; I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard. I failed anyway.
A lone woman walked toward the elevators on the 26th floor.
“Um, do you know where I am meant to go?” I asked, not quite forming a cohesive question.
She smiled. “Excuse me?”
Of course she didn’t. She didn’t even know who I was and, judging from the mop of hair in front of my eyes and the oversized aviator sunglasses hanging from my shirt, I was probably in the wrong place altogether.
I tried to compose myself. “Sorry. Where is Benny Tarantini’s office?”
She laughed politely and pointed around the corner, kindly telling me where to go. This is starting off well, I thought as we walked away.
When Benny noticed me skulking outside his office, he got up to warmly shake my hand. “Let me show you down to the lounge where you’ll be doing the interview,” he said.
Benny is a very likeable guy, his enthusiasm is genuine, and it was hard to doubt his word when he told Alan and me about how excited his team was to work with Mew. He gushed about the band like a proud parent whose son competed strongly in the spelling bee.
As we waited for Mew to finish up another interview, people kept walking by and talking outside the closed doors. People started mentioning a sound check and saying how they might need to borrow Mew for a few moments before my interview.
“Sound check?” Alan whispered to me.
“Maybe they’re doing a radio interview as well,” I said. Alan shrugged, and we waited for Benny to return.
“They’re taping three acoustic songs for Tripwire,” Benny said.
We found ourselves heading back up to the private room, invited to be amongst the few in the audience for the performance. Starting off with “Why Are You Looking Grave?” Jonas Bjerre’s voice was as impressive in this setting as it has ever been through the speakers of my stereo. I couldn’t help but notice — and Alan would comment on it later — that Bjerre doesn’t steal into his falsetto with the ease that we had expected. That actually makes his delivery more endearing. Vocalists such as Colin Meloy can make their talents flow effortlessly, but you can see Bjerre working for those notes. There is a different energy when a singer is obviously working for the outcome, especially with a range as extensive as Bjerre’s.
Mew would perform “The Zookeeper’s Boy” and “White Lips Kissed” to round out the private taping, guitarist Bo Madsen strumming and plucking the melodies on a large, black acoustic and Silas
I have some questions, but I prefer a more conversational sort of discourse, so if you feel like going off onto a point that differs from the question, just go ahead.
Jonas Bjerre: Sure.
I’m sure you’ve answered this question about a million times before, but how did the band start?
Bo Madsen: Jonas and I went to school together since we were six or so, started hanging out at one point when we were fifteen at Jonas’s house after school and playing around with music, and we liked what we did. And now we’re still doing it, ten years later.
Do you get a different reaction in different cities — such as London or Stockholm, away from Copenhagen?
Bjerre: Definitely in Stockholm. Sweden was difficult in the beginning, but it’s really starting to grow for us now. I think that the way people feel about the music is the same everywhere. If people have that kind of sensibility, they will react. But everyone’s different.
Did you guys ever think that America was going to happen? Was there ever a chance that Frengers was going to get released here, and then it didn’t happen?
Madsen: Exactly. We went here for a showcase and everyone said, “We’ll see you in three weeks,” and then it never happened. At the same time, it was the first time we were touring a lot outside of Europe, and we wanted to make a new record, so in a way it was nice that it didn’t happen, because so much was happening at once. But this time we are ready for it. America is the hardest place to break, but we don’t have the ambition to be the biggest band in America. We just want to be able to come here and play.
When I first heard that And the Glass Handed Kites was going to be the first proper American release, I felt that maybe songs like “Am I Wry?” or “156” from Frengers would have been better, but now I think it’s the right record for right now. Tastes have changed. People don’t need that pop sensibility. That’s not to say that And the Glass Handed Kites doesn’t have pop sensibility, but it’s a much more epic record.
Bjerre: I hope you’re right. You can get Frengers on import. Hopefully they are going to release it here properly soon.
Speaking of the epic quality of And the Glass Handed Kites, the first twelve songs flow seamlessly together. Was there a larger story you were telling?
Bjerre: I think the reason is more of a musical nature. We really like songs like “Am I Wry?” We like playing them live because they change direction a lot and you don’t necessarily know where you are going to end up when the song begins. Then we had the ambition to make a whole album like that, that would constantly grow into different parts and side alleys.
That’s probably one of my favorite aspects of the record. You can get four or five songs in and you don’t know where you are. And then when you go back and listen to the songs individually, they are complete pieces.
Madsen: Exactly. We were trying to make something whole, like one movement that describes something that has a beginning and an end and a long progression in it. We were trying to grasp everything, in a way. It could be anything, a story you are going through.
What is the biggest difference between doing Frengers and the new record?
Bjerre: We’d made a number of indie releases in Denmark, and we’d been writing songs for a number of years together. We took our favorite songs and recorded them for Frengers.
Madsen: And we wrote half of the songs just for that record.
Bjerre: [laughs] Yeah, one half was written in a short time quite intensely, the other half was songs we had written over a number of years.
Like “She Came Home for Christmas”? My roommate Alan played that to me for the first time. I had heard the version on Frengers, but I didn’t know there were earlier chapters of Mew.
Madsen: There are two earlier versions of that song — and like six demos.
Bjerre: [laughs] And some of those songs changed a lot. “156” changed a lot.
Madsen: And some stayed the same — just bigger sounding.
Bjerre: This one [And the Glass Handed Kites] was much more intensely approached. We really had a clearer idea what we wanted to do. It was a very focused effort to finish writing the songs. We were staying in our place in London and writing every day. Me and Silas’s kitchen was made into a practice place, and we would meet there at 10 or 10:30 each morning and play all day.
And when someone would leave after writing at like 5 o’clock, maybe someone would still be writing. Maybe Jonas would still be singing all night.
Bjerre: [laughs] Yeah, I kept Silas awake a lot with my singing.
What sort of influences come into play when you write a song? Is it very different with all of you? Do you listen to very different music?
Yeah. All kinds of music — classical music, some afro-beat. You just have to be open to what’s going on around you.
Madsen: We have a foundation of music we all agree on, but from there it all grows in different directions.
What were the types of records that were playing during the recording of And the Glass Handed Kites?
Madsen: So many different things. Back in the day we had a common taste, but now we listen to quite different things.
Bjerre: We kind of grew. We were inspired by bands like Dinosaur Jr, the Pixies, My Bloody Valentine. We shared that common interest, which was very different from what other kids (in Denmark) were listening to at that time. Silas is very inspired African music, which is fairly evident in the rhythms (on And the Glass Handed Kites) even though it doesn’t sound too African.
Definitely in the intensity of the drums. It feels bigger than other bands’ music, even bands attempting similar things.
Madsen: He’s featured a lot on the record — the drums are quite loud at times. The last record was a guitar record; this one is much more a drum record. That is why I don’t like it at all. [laughter]
The reviews I’ve read say the drums play a strong part in the telling of the story.
Bjerre: It creates all the drama.
But as far as during the writing process, I don’t really know what we were listening to at that period.
Bjerre: We were staying in L.A. We weren’t really writing much then, but we were listening to a lot of stuff. But I don’t think you can actually hear it on the record Miles Davis. [laughter]
Madsen: I can actually hear it on that one song with the cowbell. [laughter]
Jonas, sometimes your voice follows the keyboards, sometimes the keyboards follow your voice. How does that come about? Do you write the keyboard melodies originally, or do the keys end up following your voice?
Bjerre: Sometimes while we are writing music, I will write the melody on piano and sometimes that makes — it’s kind of a syndrome I have, that I am partly trying to get out of and also enjoy, where I feel to really convey the melody right I have to sing high. If I sing low it’s more murky; of course, if you record it right, it will sound great anyway. The same thing with the piano. I really enjoy the sound of my voice mixed with different instruments playing, but actually we downscaled it quite a bit on this record.
Especially comparing it with the first song on Frengers, “Amy I Wry?”
Bjerre: [laughs] Yeah.
How was working with J. Mascis, speaking of deeper voices?
Bjerre: That was one of the great things about working with him, was that his voice was so different from mine. Creates a great contrast.
“Envoy to Open Fields” is probably my favorite song on the record.
Madsen: That’s not a big favorite with the fans.
Bjerre: We really enjoy playing it. It’s probably the most progressive song on the record.
It is a bit of a departure in the end of that twelve-song flow on the record — especially with J. Mascis offsetting your voice and the guitars.
Bjerre: There is a lot of spontaneity in that song. When we recorded it, everything wasn’t completely figured out, and we played around a lot with it in the studio — coming in with different melodies. That is always very enjoyable when the song is like a living, breathing thing until the very end.
Does that happen a lot? Do you guys come with an idea that ends up changing a lot in the studio?
Madsen: Not really. It’s a continuous process and stuff keeps coming in all the time. But it’s not like things come together in the studio. We write the songs for a year or so. We aren’t a band that goes into the studio and writes our songs there. If you want to put enough information into a song to make it last a while, you can’t make it up on the spot. You have to develop it over a long time. Impregnate it.
Bjerre: If you have been playing the song for a long time and you aren’t tired of it yet, then it’s a good indication. But if you write it in the studio you like it right then, but then a few months later you think it’s boring.
That also goes with some of the sounds. You get scared when you find new keyboard sounds for a part of a song that sounds very different.
Madsen: I had actually forgotten about that. We usually use a lot of older, fatter synths. But this time we used a cold sounding DX-7, which was hard to integrate into the sound. It was like, This is really fucking cheap sounding or cheesy. But it was a great sound. We felt so bold using it. [laughs]
Are there any bands from Denmark, or from Scandinavia in general, that you feel haven’t got the attention they deserve?
Bjerre: There are a few underground bands. There’s a band in Denmark called Lords of Destruction. They are pretty amazing. But, it seems like they don’t really want the attention.
A friend of ours Klaus writes some very dark music. He’s called Symptoms.
Bjerre: It’s very picturesque post-rock, very “alone in the city” kind of thing.
Is it a mostly electronic project?
A lot of guitars and distorted drums.
Bjerre: He’s actually made two of his records available on his Web site for people to download.
You guys are playing with Bloc Party on Saturday. I can see you guys playing with them, even though your style of music is very different. Is it difficult to pair you guys with bands to tour with?
Bjerre: We’ve had some bad matches a few times. I think that because our shows are very emotional, grand and visual, even if it’s not the audience’s cup of tea, they can find something in it. We haven’t had anyone booing us off stage.
I asked the guys if they had anything else to add, but they all smiled shook their heads no. They’d already been through a few interviews that day and there were plenty of other journalists queued up to ask more questions of the Danes. Benny had already poked his head in to politely ask that I wrap it up.
Later that evening I would see Mew again, this time performing at the Maritime Hotel’s Hiro Ballroom. The venue was beautiful, a serious Asian influence prevailing throughout the moderately sized room. Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling, emitting a very soft light that bounced off the large paintings on the wall behind the stage. The architecture was equally as impressive, complementing all the other details.
Behind the stage was a large screen Mew would use to employ that “emotional, grand, and visual” element that Bjerre had mentioned earlier. Throughout the songs, images and lyrics would appear almost to the point of over-stimulation. Live, Mew is nearly flawless. The members are unafraid to play with their creations as they did with “156,” softening the impact of the first chorus so as to make the following choruses that much more powerful. They are as competent as any live musicians I’ve ever seen.
With so much happening around him, Bjerre’s voice settled perfectly into the music, and I wouldn’t have noticed the slightest effort in his delivery if I hadn’t seen them play earlier. Images of animals with human mouths, sometimes playing violins and constantly in motion, would have been distracting in any other situation, but here it felt as though many of the usual rules didn’t apply. Even though they are from Denmark, the band members made New York City their turf for the duration of their performance. It was all on their terms, and nobody was complaining.
Playing large sections from both Frengers and And the Glass Handed Kites, the show displayed every talent the band members possess. drums were so impressive that it made me think of the old ’60s Gretsch kit my father is storing for me until I find a rehearsal space to move it into — and I wondered how I could have ever let them sit for so long. Every strike resounded through the small room, claiming that second as its own, holding together the guitar lines. The quietest member of Mew was behind the loudest apparatus, and the irony was not lost on me. It seemed fitting.
“Am I Wry?” a song that had come up repeatedly in the interview, may have been the highlight of the show for me — that or the ending of “156,'”where Madsen’s vocoded voice sang “1 5 6 ,” with Jonas replying, “Don’t you just love goodbyes?”
Hearing the differences between “The Zookeeper’s Boy” and “White Lips Kissed” in this setting as opposed to the small room at Columbia Records was quite an experience, especially having it happen all in the same day. Even now I can only think of comparisons, none negative, between the performances.
“I don’t feel alright in spite of these comforting sounds you make,” Bjerre sang opening the evening’s closer, Frengers’s “Comforting Sounds.” I’ve missed Sigur Rós and Mogwai on every tour, but for the entirety of “Comforting Sounds” I was all right with that fact. Building so subtly and passionately, the song incorporated the elements I love about both of those bands and made them their own. It’s a song of two halves, the first which was so soft, beautiful and entrancing that no one dared speak, the second building into a harrowing and haunting finale easily on par with the best of the post-rock genre.
And the lights went up.
Later we went out to a small joint called the Belgian Room in the Village where I drank Maker’s and ginger ale and began to think about the day’s events. I found myself talking to the bartender about the importance of music and film being able to transport someone into another person’s shoes. We somehow ended up talking about Bill Paxton, amongst other pressing issues, during which I looked out into the city.
Not only had I been able to see Mew play live twice, been able to sit down and talk with the band members, and question the mechanism that creates some of my favorite music, but I had finally made that connection with New York City that I had never been able to forge before. It may have been the second bourbon and ginger ale talking, but all that matters is that I believed it.
“Chinaberry Tree” stream“The Zookeeper’s Boy” stream