Sometimes it’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been 18 years since Copenhagen’s MEW released their first album A Triumph For Man. The four-piece has been a constant force of eclectic and ambitious indie-rock sound in Europe, long before it became a matter of course that Scandinavia releases some of the finest music that is around. Still, it’s been six years since the band released its last studio album with the epic title No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry They Washed Away / No More Stories, The World Is Grey, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away. It was a time in which MEW carefully thought about their next step. Last year’s return of founding member Johan Wohlert, who left the band in 2006, has been the most important impulse to get the whole machinery started again.
Next month, MEW will finally return with a new longplayer, simply called ‘+ -‘. It arrives on April the 27th, followed by an extended tour around the globe. Just the right time for NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION to sit down with distinctive lead singer Jonas Bjerre and discuss the things that lie ahead for the Danish institution.
I went to the Ja Ja Ja Festival last year in London, and that was the first time I’ve seen you live after being a massive fan since someone let me listen to ‘A Triumph For Man’ a couple of years back. I had the impression that you were trying to break free from the crowd’s expectations…
JB: That’s interesting. That show was right after we did a short Asian tour, and this was a break from studio sessions, midst recording. We’ve never done that before, and it was a really cool experience, because we played some of the new songs, even though they were not completely finished, which gave us a chance to experience them through the audience ears, so to speak. It’s a very direct way to achieve objectivity, because you just can’t help but emphasize with having never heard the song before, so the audience helps you have a reaction to the song as if you yourself were hearing it for the first time. I think that helped those songs in the last steps of recording.
The majority of the crowd was incredibly young. What do you think of the youthfulness of your audience, especially when you guys formed over 20 years ago?
JB: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I think we’ve always had a very mixed audience, even when we started out. We’ve always been very happy about that. I’d like to think that our music appeals to people of a specific curiosity or mindset, rather than specific age group. I’d also like to think that the way we work prevents us from letting our songs and sound become formulaic, which is what I think happens to a lot of bands over time, they start repeating themselves to the extent that they get to sounding almost like a pastiche of themselves. I’m not saying you have to completely reinvent yourself every time, but if you stop challenging yourself, stop trying new things, it’s kind of like putting your flag down and saying ‘this is as far as we go, this is the extent of our exploration’.
The sound on your forthcoming album ‘+ -‘ has gotten brighter and more upbeat. Why the change, and why the decision to change? Is it an alternative draft to ‘No More Stories…’ which ended up being more experimental?
JB: A big influence on the sound was our original bass player rejoining the band. It had been kind of floating in the air for a while. No More Stories was the first album we did without Johan, and we really had to find our bearings back then, figure out how to write as a three-piece. I really like the No More Stories album, and I’m really glad it came out the way it did, but it was more like a cloud of ideas It didn’t have as much direction and shape. It’s kind of its own thing. When we started writing again, we quickly fell back into the same roles, and we struggled for a bit trying to break free from that, because we didn’t want to make a No More Stories part 2. Being a four piece again made it more extravert and focused, I think. Also, we always try to not repeat ourselves; I see each album as its own little world. We did a lot of experimentation on this album too, but in a different way than on the last album.
And why did it take 6 years in the end?
JB: Mostly from ourselves, 6 years is obviously a long time, but it’s not that we spent all those years writing and recording. We toured a lot on No More Stories, and when we finished we all took a good long look at ourselves, and realized that we had been in this cycle since we started out, of writing, recording, touring, writing, recording, touring. So we allowed ourselves a little break. Having said that, we did spend an insane amount of time on it, and my only explanation is that we get caught up in the details a lot. Every time we finish an album we swear to each other that the next one will be quicker.
‘One of the first bands that made some kind of impact’
Your guitarist Bo Madsen once mentioned that MEW’s music is ‘a mix between thinking and feeling’. How do you communicate what you individually feel into your creative process?
JB: It’s hard to say, I guess a lot of it happens on a subconscious level. You know, why do you like this chord progression? Why do you prefer this one rather than the other one? How can you really tell why you like the things you like? It’s a mystery, a lot of it, which is as it should be. Sometimes we plan things out very pragmatically, and sometimes things just come out of chaos, we’ll just stand there and jam and suddenly it gels and something exciting happens. It’s so hard to control it, and I think it’s a mistake to try.
There has been an upsurge of sorts with regards to music coming out from Denmark. How important was that for your musical development, and how do you feel that you have contributed to it somewhat?
JB: I think the scene has grown a lot here. There are lots of exciting things happening. I like going to see bands here now, much more than I did when we started out. There’s also more access for bands now to go and do shows abroad, but it’s still something you really have to want to do. When we started out, playing internationally was like some far away wonderland, a dream. Denmark didn’t have a history of that sort of thing, at least not in our spectrum of music. And to be honest, a lot of bands just weren’t very good. A lot of it was derivative of the UK scene, only 3-4 years too late… incredibly, oftentimes those were the bands who got picked up by labels, while the interesting and more unique bands somehow got overlooked. But things slowly changed, and we were one of the few first bands that got through and somehow made some kind of impact. Of course I’d like to think it’s because we were great! But I also think a lot of it came from this stubbornness in us, persistence, insisting on doing things our own way. It was a bit naive in a way, I guess. But it paid off.
It looks like a good mixture persistence and passion brought MEW to the place where they currently are. And that sometimes calls for a break and new artistic adventures. ‘You do learn new things from it,’ explains Bjerre the need for solo projects and other adventures outside of the band. He himself contributed music for the soundtrack to Skyscraper back in 2011. Something that clearly had a positive effect on his band. The singer explains: ‘It’s important to kind of listen to your gut and not force the band to be something it’s not.’ He makes clear that MEW are not interested in sounding ‘like twelve different bands at the same time.’ And out of that the four Danes really created something like a unique feature. Although they combine different influences you recognize a MEW track immediately, especially on the forthcoming album. And this clearly isn’t the worst thing to say about a band that’s been around for two decades.
You guys have been known to produce tracks that sound ambient, almost ‘shoegazy._ What has been a breakthrough in that sound, if it were, in your newest offering as compared to your previous ones?
JB: We’re kind of a freaky mix of things, in a way. We started out listening mostly to 80es pop, growing up. Good pop music. Some of it you would even call experimental by today’s standards, PRINCE, KATE BUSH and all kinds of other stuff. I listened a lot to Jean-Michel Jarre when I was a kid, in my grandparents cabin, I really liked how those compositions felt like other worlds. Then NIRVANA came out, and that’s when we got that push, the idea of ‘how cool would it be to start a band?’ Before then, we did different kinds of creative things (3 of us went to the same school, since we were 5 years old). But after that, the whole idea of having that kind of identity or a little club. And we started going to shows. We were about 14-15. We saw MY BLOODY VALENTINE, and it was like nothing we’d ever experienced. The idea of this beauty hiding inside cascades of almost unbearable noise, I think this all helped shape us, all these different elements.
‘Our fans are very creative’
Do you have any new approaches that you would love to experiment with in the future? Have you ever felt possessive with a certain sound, say, the MEW sound that you were one of the few who liked/created/knew about and then it blew up?
JB: We have giant notebooks full of ideas to try out, but really the bulk of it mostly comes from the 4 of us playing together. Yeah I don’t know… sometimes friends of mine send me links like ‘this band really ripped you off,’ and I listen, but I can’t really hear it… I think it would be presumptuous to claim that we were the start of any of it. We just try to make the music that we would like to listen to. I think that’s a really good starting point for any band. We’ve come to know a lot of musicians, who like what we do, sometimes I feel like we’re a bands band, you know? And our fans are very creative. They just make amazing things, and that makes me happy, feels like we are at least an inspiration to some people. In reality, I’m still so grateful that there is even people coming to our shows, and buying our albums, that we get to experience that kind of appreciation. It’s still kind of unbelievable to me.
We are all about hope and passion. What role do these elements play in your daily live as an artist?
JB: We’re very passionate about what we do. That’s not to say we take ourselves extremely seriously or anything, it just means that it’s really important to us. We don’t expect it to be as important to other people, or for other people to be as passionate about it. But when they are, that’s obviously a real gift. And if I could choose one thing to convey in music, it would probably be Hope. I like songs of despair, I love the feeling of identifying with someone else’s melancholy, because it feels like being understood, you know? It feels a little less lonely to hang around on this planet if there are people out there who can express the feelings you have but cannot explain. So music gives me hope, and if it’s sad and dark it makes me happy. Isn’t that strange? I think music is my favorite kind of hope.