Mew: Stop Making Sense of It

With their original bassist in tow, the Danish pop-prog titans re-discover the chemistry behind their unmistakable sound on new LP, +-. But don't ask them to analyze the steps between.

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The LP had already been pressed when he remembered the tattoos, which decorated his late grandfather’s wrists. A single plus symbol was inked into one, a minus on the other.

“It was really bizarre,” Mew frontman Jonas Bjerre says. The coincidence is eerie because his band’s new album bears the same two symbols: +-. Simple, concise—especially considering the band’s last album title, the Fiona Apple-worthy 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. But these tattoos were images he’d completely forgotten, at least until after Mew’s sixth LP was wrapped.

They’d originally taken their title from an artist at the graphic design studio M/M Paris, who compared the album to a battery. But stumbling upon this veiled connection—that’s par for the course in the world of Mew, the Danish arena-prog titans who’ve returned to the music realm after a relatively quiet four years. Bjerre doesn’t put too much stock in the tattoos. It’s a weird coincidence, yeah. But his grandfather was a bit of a sailor, and the tattoo’s origin isn’t exactly steeped in family meaning—or any other significance—that he can figure. In fact, “I think he was very drunk when he got it,” Bjerre says, laughing. “But it didn’t really have any relevance, because [the album title] didn’t really come from me. But I thought that was really funny.”

But the other thing Mew discovered leading up to +-’s release—that’s something Bjerre’s thankful for daily. Because in 2014—20 years after the band’s formation, and a near decade since the departure of bassist Johan Wohlert, who has since rejoined—Mew learned to be a band again. Bjerre explains it from Copenhagen via Skype, where it’s one in the morning. He’s sipping from a coffee mug, happy to take these interviews late into the night. “My sleep pattern has been kind of weird for the last couple of days, so it’s been quite good for me,” he says.

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The rest of Mew—Bjerre, guitarist Bo Madsen, drummer Silas Utke Jorgensen—got the news in 2006, on the verge of their first U.S. tour behind the critically loved ...And the Glass Handed Kites, reactions that were a testament to Wohlert’s contributions. The bassist made up one half of Mew’s rhythm section with Jorgensen, and the two added a brutal edge to the glossy beauty of Mew’s higher frequencies. They were dirty but precise, and both seemed to be students of that old jazz saying: “It’s the notes you don’t play that matter.” Both would plunge in and out of Mew’s otherworldly landscape—a smart alternative to the one-dimensional chugging guitars. So the news of Wohlert’s departure was huge, and also delivered during a music video shoot: not only would he become a dad, but he’d also be leaving Mew to do so. He couldn’t juggle both.

“He was really instrumental in finding his own replacement and teaching him to play all the songs,” Bjerre says. “It was actually painless, the way it pragmatically happened, but I think psychologically it was a bit awkward for the band, going on tour without him.”

But the band did carry on, and 2010 saw their first release composing as a trio. No More Stories… might have been a nuanced, experimental effort—one that took a few bold steps in furthering the Mew sound—but after losing a quarter of its whole, the musical DNA of the band had been altered. Bass wasn’t a main component of the record—it was added after the fact, and became less prevalent because of it. The laser focus Wohlert brought to some of Mew’s compositions had gone with him. So when Bjerre met up with Glass Handed Kites producer Michael Beinhorn for the band’s next LP, they focused on capturing Mew’s own spark again. Beinhorn himself was writing a book on not losing creative vision in a world of studio work.

“A lot of [our conversation] was just about not losing sight of doing what you were doing. Why do we feel this need to make music? It’s about that, and not about, oh, we need to put a record out to pay our rent. Not that we were thinking like that, but I think there’s a risk of losing sight. I think when you’ve done it for many years, you need to remind yourself of the actual reason.”

Beinhorn also offered a simple suggestion. Why not bring back Johan?

After all, as he reflects on it now, that’s Bjerre’s reason for making music with Mew. That noise—equal parts gorgeous and ugly, punk and progressive—came from four individuals hashing out material in a practice space. “We have this musical DNA, and that’s the people in the band,” Bjerre says. And Wohlert was still his coffee buddy, after all. “We would talk about life, stuff like that. It was never like, nobody was ever mad at each other. It was understandable, you know.” So, why not give it a try?

Wohlert, who worked on his own music in Denmark, had to weigh the option. But it didn’t take long before Mew was, again, a proper four-piece. And the proof is there just a minute into +-, an LP that sees Mew back in biting, prime form. Maybe opener “Satellites” isn’t a vast departure for the band—though, its sonically divided verses show that willingness to step out of its safety zone—straight up through the band’s 11-minute triumph, “Rows.” Maybe Mew is at its most experimental, its most diverse, but that work has somehow translated to another odd connection, Mew’s accessibility.

“In some ways, it’s a little bit like getting to keep playing with Legos as an adult,” Bjerre says of the album’s songwriting. “It’s about imagination and trying to invent something and try to realize something inside yourself. I just think it’s so funny, there are a lot of artists who work like that. They drink some wine, they play an acoustic guitar, they sing a lot of feelings. But that’s not how we approach it. I believe in hard work, in sitting on something and making something work. That’s exciting. We have a lot of songs that feel like puzzles. We have a lot of parts that shouldn’t work together, but we force them to. And that’s really thrilling, that’s quite different.”

But trying to make too much sense of it? Whether that’s the band re-discovering itself, or picking apart his own lyrics, Bjerre’s quick not to overanalyze. After all, the members of Mew are more grateful than ever to be here. “There’s a lot of stuff like that, when you’re trying to fit it all together,” he says. “It’s the same thing when people ask me about lyrics. I’m embarrassed to say that I usually never have a master plan about them. They just happen, and it’s hard to really know them. It’s hard to really know yourself. So it’s one of those things, and then you try to make sense of it. You feel like you should be able to answer that, so it’s best not to try.”

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