Visuals, the upcoming seventh full-length album from Denmark’s Mew, is the most spontaneous record the band has ever recorded together. Jumping right back into the studio after the touring cycle for 2015’s +- ended, Jonas Bjerre (vocals), Johan Wohlert (bass), and Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen (drums) managed to compose a full album worth of material before the end of the 2016 calendar year. Visuals is Mew at their sharpest yet, the eleven self-produced songs crafting a tapestry of atmospheric music harkening back to some of the very best music to come out of the 1980s (bands like Talk Talk and Prefab Sprout). The album, due out on the shelves this coming Friday, April 25th, is sure to impress. Tracks like “Nothingness and No Regrets”, “Twist Quest”, “85 Videos” and “Carry Me to Safety” standing up to the very finest moments Mew have crafted in their two decades together as a band. Bassist Johan Wohlert was able to spend 20 minutes with PureGrainAudio in the hours before the band boarded a plane for some live dates in Japan.
I’ve had an advance copy of your new album Visuals for a month now and can’t stop playing it. It’s really great.
Wohlert: Oh, thank you, man. That means a lot.
I’ve been listening to Mew for 14 years now. Every album Mew puts out is uniquely phenomenal. Kudos.
Wohlert: I appreciate that.
It’s my understanding that Visuals came together quicker than a typical Mew album tends to take.
Wohlert: Yeah. Very much so. The reason behind that was we wanted to really try and work in a different way where we produced the record ourselves. We wanted to see what would happen if we didn’t spend four years making a record and actually try and do it in a year or so. We were done touring +- around Christmas 2015 and we got started in January of 2016 and worked on and off for a couple of months and the record was finally mixed around Christmas of last year.
Can you possibly describe what some of your demos are like? And how much they might change as you work on them?
Wohlert: Yeah. It all varies a lot. In the past, we didn’t always do demos. We would just kind of go on our gut feeling that everything would just work out at the end of our studio sessions. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t. On this new record, we did a lot of demoing. And I think it was one of the reasons why we could move a little quicker because we kind of knew what the songs were pretty early on in the process. At least, we knew the nature of the songs. In the past, we’ve definitely been guilty of creating a lot of instrumental tracks. Wanting to add vocals of course, but maybe never really getting around to doing the vocals up until the very last minute. In that case, it can really go both ways. You can end up with stunning songs, but you can also end up with stuff that is just not good. It’s tough.
We’re not an instrumental band. We are a vocal band if you want to call us anything. So this time around we made sure that kind of knew 90% of the melodies before starting the recording process. It helped a lot, just in terms of producing the record. I think that was one of the places where we could cut some corners and save some time while recording. When you know what the vocals and the melodies are doing in advance, you can then take the music around those vocals instead of trying to shoehorn a vocal into a big pile of parts that are already written, you know? Sometimes that works, and it’s doable, but you often end up with a lot of parts that just go unheard and can actually muddy up the final results. I also think that is kind of one of the reasons why I’m quite pleased with the production on this record. It sounds pretty defined. It’s still very layered, but it still sounds like there is room in these songs to actually hear what is going on. I always like when people have been capable of doing that.
Do you think that your decision to self-produce played a part in you putting more demos together then? I don’t think Mew have self-produced before. Not on your North American discography, anyway.
Wohlert: Yes, this was the first self-produced record for us. We’ve self-produced demos in the past. But never anything on this scale. And quite frankly, it was a bit of a toss of a coin. We didn’t know if we could actually pull it off. We just knew that flying some superstar producer from America was not really in our budget. So we sort of crossed that off the list. We’ve done that before, and it’s all turned out great. But for us to push the band into a new and fresh direction as a three piece, it was time to do something different. We just tested it out, basically, on a couple of songs and once we had those songs under our belts, we felt like it was doable. We are by no means skilled or experienced producers, but we do know what the band is supposed to sound like. We know what we like and what we don’t like. I think we got it to a certain point with the production and then the guy who mixed it, a guy called Claudius Mittendorfer, played a big part in this album as well. Getting it sounding just as high fidelity as it does. He got as much headroom as possible into the songs. You can’t underestimate the importance of a great mix, you know?
Did you find that your writing process differed on Visuals without Bo as your fourth contributor? Did you approach things differently at all?
Wohlert: Funnily enough, no. It was very much the same kind of process. The past couple of records the guitar really took a back seat to the songs anyways. In the sense of driving the songs and centring the songs around an instrument, anyway. Particularly on the record that I wasn’t on, the No More Stories record, it was very keyboard-driven. And you have the +- record as well well, which was created pretty similar to this one, where the foundation of the songs would be based around drums and keyboards and bass and the guitar would sort of be an afterthought – something you’d add onto the production. None of us are really guitar players, per se. So we kind of had to write the songs and have them working as kind of bass, drum and keyboards kind of thing. But always keeping in mind that we wanted to add guitars to the record.
But the songs themselves, I think the record sounds like this: to us, it felt like we were kind of doing a clever pop record from the Eighties. We were drawing inspiration from bands like Talk Talk and Prefab Sprout and The Smiths. Bands like that who are not guitar heavy but use the guitar in their music in a really elegant way. And that, with the exception for a few places on the record, was sort of the goal. To try and make this refined and clever kind of a pop record. For us, it was kind of a natural thing to try when you’d lost your guitar player. It would have been foolish to then try and make a full-on guitar record. At least, that would have been a bit upside down in a way, you know? This is what felt natural to us – that the guitar was an overdub instrument as much as vocals and keyboards were.
Now you’ve utilized some lovely saxophone parts on Visuals. I don’t believe you’ve used sax to this level of prominence on any of your past albums. Sax fits in quite nicely with your material on many of these new songs.
Wohlert: Yeah. I think that goes along very nicely with what I said before about the overall aesthetic of this record. Saxophone was always used to great effect on Eurythmics albums and Pet Shop Boys records and stuff like that. There were parts that just sounded like a treat, like on the “Twist Quest” song. It comes in with sort of a (replicates the tones by mouth for me) funky thing. There’s a lot of groove on the record which is another reason why I feel like Visuals is more of an easy listen. Not like it’s in one ear and out the other, but it flows very nicely and the elements of groove and African funk kind of influences lend themselves to the saxophone in a way.
We’ve used sax before, but it’s always been tucked away in the mix and it’s always been used in a more psychedelic free jazz fashion. We’d be blowing some blasts of disharmonic things in the background of our songs before, it could have just as easily been a keyboard or something synthesized. I think that sax fits stylistically with this record without being cheesy. We experimented a fair bit with them on this record. I think it was my idea to feature sax to the level that the instrument is on this album, honestly. We didn’t know whether it was going to be too much over the top for us. When you hear it, it just seems like it fits “Twist Quest”. It gives the song an effective twist, in some fashion, you know?
Yeah. I’d agree. I don’t know if you’ve ever had any comparisons to Pink Floyd before, but I think you are going to get them because of the way the sax is utilised on a few of these new songs.
Wohlert: Yeah, I think so too. Obviously, they are a big band for us, but not a band that we drew as much from on this record. I think on the last one, the +- record, there were some songs where we were touching on on the milder progressive side of rock history. We weren’t really as proggy as we were on And The Glass Handed Kites but were more into groovy kind of semi-proggy songs like Pink Floyd would do where you still have a groove and a pulse but around some really weird arrangements and not so much these long and epic songs. They are one of my favourite bands. Pink Floyd are amazing.
Trip out with Mews’ new “85 Videos” music video
From a vocal standpoint, Mew are untouchable. There’s no other band in the world that can pull off Jonas’ vocal styles. I’m curious to know when the first time was that you heard him sing, and then knowing that you would be able to create beautiful music together?
Wohlert: Thanks for the compliment. That’s a good question. I think Jonas was very productive in his young days. He was always sort of a creative child and a creative soul. His dad used to play in bands when he was younger. He obviously encouraged Jonas to pick up the guitar. He went out of his to expose Jonas to music. I spoke to Jonas recently about this and Jonas was never really into the guitar at an early age. But as soon as he found out that it was actually quite a lot of fun to play around with a guitar, you know, he embraced it. There were always guitars around his house. I attribute a lot of the reason that we were able to become a band to Jonas’ dad having those guitars. I think Jonas dad gave him a four-track early on. You know, one of those TASCAM early, really simple four tracks and Jonas just immersed himself into that world of creative output.
I just remember getting early demos of songs that he had written that really moved me. They didn’t sound great in a technical sense, but there was just this specific vibe to them that I really liked and that Bo and Silas really liked. I think that a lot of the confidence in the band grew from that. We could tell that we had some kind of sound going on that all of the other high school bands were not even close to having, you know? They might have been faster players than us, or better players even, but they were too busy sounding like everybody else. We didn’t really sound like anything that we knew of. It was very early on that we kind of knew that something was up. And in a good way. I do remember on the last record, the +- record, having been out of the band for seven years coming back and hearing him and his vocals and really being impressed. It was a “Wow man, you have evolved” emotion. The rest of us might have evolved, but from the last record we’d done together to what was happening on +-, Jonas sound was a million times better vocally.
Jonas kind of did his vocals himself on the +- record, and it struck me quickly that he had sort of found his sound. He’s found a natural way to make himself sound quite otherworldly. He’s honed his craft of multilayering his vocals and singing in three octaves to such an extent. I just remember being thoroughly impressed with how much better he was sounding on that record compared to anything I had heard him do prior. I think he took that new confidence and skill and just worked it all over this new record as well. He’s sounding really good on this new one as well. I think he has a wonderful voice. The main thing is that he sounds like him, and combined with the way we write songs, it gives the band a very distinct sound. At the end of the day, that always the most important thing for us. To sound like Mew, and not like anything else out there, really. If you pile through the great artists of our time, they usually just sound like their own thing, and that is what makes them great. If nothing else, we’ve always got that going for us. (laughs)
I’ll add onto that thought that Jonah can replicate his parts live. The first time that I went to a Mew concert, I kind of expected the vocals to suffer somehow live. And they totally did not. Everytime that I’ve seen your band, I’m struck by your ability to pull it off. All of it. Everything sounds bang-on. It’s a testament to your skillset as performers.
Wohlert: Obviously, you can have good days and bad days. But it pretty much sounds the way it sounds. You just have to capture it really well on the record. But to get it into a room and run through a PA, it pretty much sounds like it sounds on the records. Slightly rougher, with the live elements and all, but you are right. It tends to come off accurately. It was never really a concern of ours to do that. We never created records with a goal of being able to do it live. But it’s always nice when you are capable of making a good reproduction of it live. With time, it became an element of creating our music. With the last few records, it was certainly increasingly important that we be able to play them live – just the four or five of us, you know? We have enough experience together now to know that the songs that feel great to play are often the ones that also sound great. And then ultimately wind up making it into the live set. Whether you want it or not, that is the main part of our business model now – touring. Bands these days obviously need to be able to play live in concert. So you want those live performances to be as good as they can be.
With that said, will you bring Visuals to North America again? And tour it here?
Wohlert: Most certainly, yes. I don’t know when, exactly, but absolutely. We are coming back. I think we had the best tour of our career last time when we played North America. I’d never done it. I’d always wanted to try it. I left the band just prior to Mew really trying to play North America. But getting to do it on the last album was just super heartwarming for me. It was humbling, the fact that we could go to all of these cities and see people who the records meant so much to. I was flabbergasted for the month and a half that we were over. It’s very truly one of the best places for us to play, no B.S.