I love Mew, but mostly the lead singer, Jonas Bjerre.
He is so deep and smart.
Each time I read something he says
it just makes me want to get to know him more.
Hmm... I can't really explain it.
Dreams & Spirituality: The Inner Life of Jonas Bjerre
Junkmedia: My first question would be an obvious one: How are you enjoying your first American tour?
Jonas Bjerre: We had an amazing time! It felt like people responded so well to our music and just traveling around the US was such a treat! Sometimes when you tour in a new place and people get into it intensely and you have a great time you can't help but think... my goodness, I get to do this and people will even pay me for it!? It's such a privilege, really, to get to express yourself in this way and connect with people. It's a gratifying experience to know that there are people who share your own peculiar sensibility and imagination.
A self-interested follow-up: Are there any plans to extend the tour? Perhaps headlining in the big cities? I don't think you'd have any trouble doing so.
There are some cities that we could definitely headline at least in smaller clubs, but I think we're looking into getting a great support slot at first, we'll see what happens. All I know is we're doing everything we can to go back as soon as possible. At some point in the fall we'll do a US tour and follow up with another European tour. [Editor's note: Mew will be opening for Kasabian in the US in September and October. Click here for dates.]
Is it strange coming to a place where the musical population is more unfamiliar with your work? Mew is huge in Denmark, and well-known across Europe, and yet in America you're just now releasing your first album...is it at all difficult to be opening for another band?
I really enjoy that. It feels great to play to a crowd that hasn't seen you live before. You get kinda nervous because you realize there are people there who expect a lot from having heard the albums. It's not an unfamiliar feeling to us, just recently we played Italy for the first time and the album had just come out a week before. Of course it's amazing to play in Scandinavia to big crowds but playing to new people is just as wonderful, in a different way. I love traveling and experiencing other cultures.
The two shows you played in New York were at quite different places...the first a smallish ballroom, the second a large open-air amphitheater of sorts...does the band have a preference? You surprised me by stealing the show at McCarran Park, because I expected you to be more at home in the smaller venues like the Hiro Ballroom.
Well we do prefer playing in the dark. Our visuals are secondary to the music but they still help instill a feeling of being somewhere else, as if you could be wholly present in the now yet find your mind wander into other landscapes. Personally I never thought I could do the thing with being a front guy, lead singer character, and I made the visuals to compensate for not being that extravert as a person. But in time I have come to really enjoy the communication with the audience and connecting. And I guess in that respect a show like McCarren Pool can work as well as a smaller intimate venue.
On to your music...I've read that Mew has been together, at least as friends, since you were all in seventh grade...how did you evolve into bandmates, and is it true that you were booed offstage at your first-ever gig? What's the story there?
Well I guess it started with Bo and I. We went to the same school since we were six and five years old respectively. We were extremely different, him being into sports and girls and me being into computers and escapism. But when we were put together in groups (this was a really hippie school with lots of African drumming and sorts) to make an "artistic project," within a week I ended up in the same group as Bo. My most precious belonging at the time was my old grainy Video8 camera which we utilized to create a really pretentious art film. It was about how mankind destroys Mother Nature in pursuit of money. You get the picture. We also soundtracked the film using xylophones and crappy cheap keyboards and that's how it started. We suddenly realized that we were drawn to the same things. We started doing projects together, animation and stuff, although it wasn't until high school when Silas joined (he was the younger brother of a cute girl in Bo's class) that we really became a band in the true sense of the word.
Oh yeah, Bo had a year as an exchange student in the US (a city called Davis outside of San Francisco) and in that year me and a bunch of kids we'd been playing with carried on and made a band called "Chien Orange" which performed one show in which we were indeed booed off stage and people even threw stuff at us. It was at some sinister high school up north. I remember the drummer being left-handed but having to make do with a right-handed drum set.
How does Mew write a song? Is it a collaborative process? Does each member write their own parts, or is there one person calling most of the shots?
Most of the time it is 100% collaborative. We will usually bounce off each other and kind of weave patterns together in a long process. Sometimes one person will bring an idea or riff or rhythm into the room and we'll work on that. I think these different ways of creating also make sure the albums have more dynamics in every sense, so you'll have really compact songs that work towards a more obvious end and you'll have songs that take a bit of time to get your head around but that might hit you just as hard because their intricacies will catch you off guard.
What about the lyrics? Are they yours completely?
I do write the lyrics. It seems right when I am the one that has to sing most of them.
Still on the topic of lyrics...artists really run the gamut in their attitude toward their own lyrics...some avoid narrative and simply try to evoke images which support the music, like Sigur Ros, while others insist that the poetry is foremost (Sam Beam, for instance)...where on that spectrum do you lie? What purpose do lyrics serve, especially as related to the music?
I am very much inspired by my dreams, not always in a direct sense, but the imagery I experience in dreams (it can be both horrific and amazingly beautiful) I feel is a reflection of my true life, a secret language of symbolism spoken to me when I am at my most open minded and vulnerable. So although my lyrics can seem vague and even non-sensical at times, to me they are very honest. It's important to me that the listeners have their own experience of the lyrics (and the music for that matter) and that I leave a lot of room for interpretation. The lyrics should invoke images and feelings and only ever hint at meaning.
Why did you choose to write lyrics in English?
There are many reasons why. The most obvious one is that we grew up listening to bands like Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, etc. English speaking bands. Another is that the English language is a rich language with many synonyms providing you with a wide range of nuances. I also enjoy the fact that even though the lyrics are not full of direct narrative and could be considered "abstract" they are still available to more people this way, we are alienating less people. That is linked with ambition as well, I suppose. We have written in gibberish too and actually I wrote a whole song in Japanese as well. It's fun to challenge yourself like that.
Is it true that lyrics, or the ideas for them, come to you in dreams?
Oh yeah I guess I already filled that one. It's important that you distinguish between dreams being words already, quickly written down on your note pad, readily at hand by your bedside, and the fact that dreams can simply... inspire. They mean a lot to me. I don't need to analyze them or understand them, but the way they make me feel can change everything. I feel like they are the fuel I need to make up something new. It's like finding your way back to something inside of yourself, something you thought you lost. We recently went to a lecture that David Lynch gave on transcendental meditation and lot of the stuff he talked about sounded familiar to me, similar to dreaming.
"1,5,6" is one of my favorite songs, and I was thrilled to hear it at Hiro. However, the significance of the numbers is a mystery to me. Could you clear that up, or is it destined to remain a secret?
You know, I didn't really intend for it to become this big mystery. But the first time someone asked me I realized that I didn't feel like telling anyone. I know it sounds a bit selfish, but I've chosen to keep it to myself. It is a bit personal. I do apologize.
Question of details to settle a debate between a friend and me: In "Apocalypso," what is Nolan time? Also, is the chorus "care lines, care lines thumbed it up," or "Caroline, Caroline summed it up"? Ha, thanks for entertaining this stupid question.
Apocalypso is about the fear of Death. I have a lot of anxieties; in fact I'm chock-full of them. And in recent years I have come to believe that they all derive from fear of dying. Many of my nightmares involve bodily malfunction and disintegration. When I was staying in LA recording the album I got this horrible tooth ache. I have a fear of dentists as well (so I take very good care of my teeth) and was trying to put it off, always keeping whiskey in my mouth, that sort of thing. But in the end I had to go and it was actually not such a bad experience. But the pain was pretty excruciating and the dentist was called Doctor Nolan. But in reality, I don't know why I'm even telling you this story because at that point the lyrics were already written and the name was just a coincidence. I guess I have no real explanation for it. In the chorus, it's "Care-line, Care-lines thumped it up".
The accompanying videos at the Hiro ballroom were quite beautiful...do you design these for each song? Do the images come to you afterward as you listen to the music, or were they present all along, as a sort of creative drive behind the music and lyrics?
I create all the visuals. I have some skill from working in post production and I still really enjoy doing animation. It's a tricky thing (and time consuming) because I want to take people somewhere else, and perhaps expose myself a little bit, show people what's inside of me that way, instead of going "Hey! Are you guys ready to rawk!?". And I utilize parts and concepts from the other members, for instance Silas made these white Fimo clay sculptures which I then animated in a sea of black water. At the same time I want people to make up their own images as well, so we only use visuals in certain passages. It's funny when people sometimes after the show say stuff like "I really liked the grey bird that shot out of the stomach of the living mountain" and you just go, "That never happened, my friend. That was all in your head." So far the visuals have always appeared after the music. I'll just sit and listen and images will form in my head. It'd be interesting to do it the other way around at some point.
You've recently lost your long-time bass player to fatherhood...has that been difficult for the band? How does that affect the touring life, and how has Bastian acclimated to the band? Do you foresee him being a full-time member eventually, or will he remain an auxiliary player like your keyboardist?
The band (including Johan) have known each other since we were very young. It's kind of like a band of brothers. And Johan leaving was a big change in our lives and it was hard to adjust to. But Bastian is amazing, he's a calm and harmonic person and he puts a lot of positive energy into touring, as does Doctor Nick Watts, our keyboardist. But as a band we are just three people now, it would be weird pouring a totally new chemistry into it, we've grown up together musically and in some ways there's a positive aspect of being just three now.
How did Bo get to be so damn cool?
You know, I ask myself that very same question almost every day... ha ha. I suppose he was born to be cool.
While in concert, do you prefer to play an instrument, or just sing? I noticed you do both, and I admire your comfort without an instrument. I've seen a lot of long-time musicians who, when stripped of a guitar, get a bit awkward, ha.
That awkwardness is very familiar to me. I used to always play guitar, for shelter. Slowly Nick took over some of my guitar chores and eventually we re-arranged some of the songs to have just one guitar part, in fact in a live show that often works much better. But the instrument was a weapon, made me feel safe, and it took some getting used to being without it. I am at a point now where I do really enjoy just singing.
This may sound like a naive or pointless question, so if it makes no sense, feel free to disregard...as an American, the sound of your music feels very strange and new, in a good way. There's a darkness involved, but also a hopeful, triumphant quality...it seems very reminiscent of my idea of northern Europe, though that sentiment may be quite silly since I've never visited. But it's a quality that seems to be evident in other musicians from the area, notably Bjork or Sigur Ros. Which isn't to say that your music is the same as theirs, but only that an other-wordly kind of essence pervades. Do you think there's something in the psychology of the people/geography/mindset of northern Europe that produces this type of art, or am I speaking utter American nonsense?
I think that is a very relevant question. It is clear to me that there is a certain kind of melancholy present in a lot of Scandinavian music, a sort of blue tone. It would be an easy way out to just blame the long dark winters but in turn we do have the long Indian summer evenings. I could never live in a place that doesn't have seasons. I need the cold to appreciate the warmth. The children's tales of H.C.Andersen are full of beautiful sadness. In my mind there is something reliable about sadness, it's always there, always available. Whereas happiness is a fleeting feeling, something that can easily be torn apart and usually only persists for a limited time. The reason why I prefer melancholic music is that even though the sadness gets inside of me, I also feel like it's an outlet and I feel like it recognizes something inside of me. That ultimately makes me feel better than happy music does.
Who are your musical influences? Who are your lyrical influences?
Musical references have changed over the years. We were certainly influenced by 80's pop music when we were kids, that I think is still evident in some ways. Prince and stuff. As teenagers we were our own little tribe of kids listening to Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, etc. Then later on other pop music sparked our interest, like Prefab Sprout. Stina Nordenstam from Sweden was an influence, and of course the Swirlies from Boston. Damon of the Swirlies has been a long time collaborator of ours. Lyrically I think I might be more inspired by authors than by other lyricists. I'm really into magic realism, the most obvious ones I could mention would be Franz Kafka and (contemporary) Haruki Murakami. Virginia Woolf is great too. I like lyrics that don't try to explain the situation in full because that would only leave a sort of flat frame work of what's really in it. If the reader is not obliged to make up her or his own mind about the content it becomes really redundant and I feel like the whole thing is pointless. I love books. Touring, you get a lot of time to read. Recently I'm reading Michel Houllebecq which can be a bit depressing but his writing is very rich and interesting. As for Scandinavian writers my two favorites are both Norwegian: Knut Hamsun and Lars Saabye Christensen.
Are there any current bands you're particularly fond of?
We just did a tour with Bloc Party and I really like them - both as a band and as people. I like Animal Collective, their newest album Feels is just so full of ideas and wacky details. There's a band (or maybe it's just one person?) called Why? which has a lot of interesting ideas in it. I need music that surprises me and doesn't go for an easy impact because that impact fades too fast. But all in all I have to say it's not often I stumble upon music that really gets me going.
Aside from more touring, where will Mew go from here? Any plans to record a new album, or are there any new songs knocking around your head?
We always tend to write when we have a bit of time off. Right now I think we have a whole collection of ideas and little parts but we're far from having written an album. We are going to France in September and spending about ten days writing before we go back on tour. It's important to us to keep creating, even when we're busy, because it's ultimately the drive that we need to make sense of things. Depending on how much touring we have still to do on this album we will probably go into the studio sometime early next year or maybe sooner, hard to say.
Do you have a favorite song to sing/play live?
It depends on my mood. We each have songs we prefer playing. I love playing the crescendo and outro in "Comforting Sounds." I love screaming my heart out! ha ha. "The Zookeeper's Boy" is tricky but I enjoy the stamina it gives me that everybody on stage sing different parts, it feels grand and together.
Is Mew a spiritual band? Perhaps you can only speak for yourself on this one. The music itself sounds spiritual, but often the lyrics point in another direction...what role does religion or spirituality play in your music?
I see Mew as a spiritual band in a way. But we are not of any precise faith and could not claim to be religious. We have created our own spirituality and some of us even believe in magic. But for us the challenge is to find your own belief rather than just growing up with something already cut in stone on your behalf. I have seen things I could never explain to anybody, really intense impossible things. I interpret them my own way though and that seems to work for me. What's most important is that people are allowed to follow their own path and that no one on the tour bus would ridicule a person for meditating or believing in something that's hard to fathom. The same goes for the world at large.
There is a theme of lost love in a lot of your songs. Why do you think you're drawn to this subject matter?
I am drawn to the loss of innocence and the purity of feelings you had at a certain point in life. Being a teenager was so binary, you know over-the-moon-happy or suicidal. There was something very pure about that and it was like being a blank book, each page changing your life. Lost love is a big part of that. After that things became more nuanced for me which I also use, but I try to make every line count. I think part of what people think as "growing up" has to do with letting go of really important stuff. The colours of your spirit, the playfulness and curiosity. We try and keep all of those things in our music. This is not to be confused with infantilism, which I find revolting, it's not about refusing to mature, it's just about remembering what's important and allowing yourself to really FEEL. And of course the need to express yourself is much stronger when you are experiencing feelings of hurt and melancholy.
My favorite song is "White Lips Kissed." Are there any great stories surrounding it? Again, please excuse the question, but I really love the song and would like to know everything about it!
White Lips Kissed is about two things: the ending of a relationship and my own general way of thinking. Everybody experiences hurtful things and some people are sensible enough to not linger and to just move on. I was never that sensible. I tend to see the glass as half-empty. I am getting better though. This song was a bit of therapy for me, it's really about never allowing yourself to feel happy because it only means you have that much deeper to fall. The unstableness of happiness versus the certainty of sadness. Relationships are difficult in my line of work, there's a lot of traveling, a lot of time apart. This was the last song we recorded, the only one we didn't record in LA. We felt like the album needed this song.
What have you guys been up to in the States in the off hours? Any time to pursue sight-seeing? What are your hobbies back home?
We did a lot of sight-seeing! We've been to NY before and mostly did some shopping and went to some parties and bars, had a lot of fun. Bo sat next to Huey Lewis on the plane to Denver and had him sign his recently purchased copy of "Symposium" as Plato. We drove up to Boulder. There was some nostalgia around the whole Dynasty thing. Staying in LA for a while I had time to see some of my friends there and had a wonderful time. As for hobbies... we are a creative bunch, ha ha. I usually do something with visual art, animation or painting, that kind of thing. In fact we are all really into drawing. Bo is an avid fisherman. Silas goes for long walks in the forest and listens to music that most people would find obscure. But mostly we play music and that.
Abstract question time: are there certain qualities in art which grab your attention? Or those which turn you off? I ask because when I hear your music, it seems very genuine, but I'm not sure I could speak eloquently on why I find it so. I think a lot of fans would agree, and tend to identify with the band for similar reasons. On the same token, a lot of music I hear seems to strike a false note. I don't know if you have any over-riding philosophy on what makes certain art "real," or "genuine," but if so, I'd love to hear it. Is it just talent and obeying your instincts?
I would say it involves being true to yourself and listening to the voices inside! ha ha. I like art, any art, that makes me feel something useful. Usually it's something that conveys genuine emotion and speaks to my imagination. I absolutely loathe art that is based only on an "idea", especially when it presumes that the emptiness of itself is somehow relevant to other people. Stuff like "hyper-realism," that to me is just absolutely worthless. Modern art is so focused on commenting on the state of art itself and it becomes all in-bred, you know? My two favorite painters are Francis Bacon and Vilhelm Hammershoi. Bo is a big Munch fan. As for music, I mostly don't like this whole rock and roll idea, especially when young bands do all they can to sound like some other old band. If I see a description of a band that reads "punkpop band with lots of attitude" or "good ol' fashioned rock n' roll!" I generally stay way the hell clear of it. I want bands to do their own thing, to be themselves, to be imaginative. And I guess to have that certain sensibility that I can relate to. I am glad that you find our music to be genuine, it is genuine to us and I think that translates to our audience.
As a sort of follow-up, do you feel that art is a subjective medium? Is it possible to judge one band better than another, for instance? Those who say no to this question would argue that any kind of belief on the topic is just opinion, and art can only be "good" as it pertains to each individual. As an aspiring writer and a current critic, I think about this a lot...is there a role for criticism, or is negative criticism more or less pointless? I'd like to hear your thoughts on that one.
In my opinion it is a mixture of the two but I lean towards thinking that it's mostly subjective. If you introduce someone from America or Europe to Balinese gamelan-music they are likely to not even perceive it as "music." They may think of it as an "atonal racket." But to people who have grown up with this style of music it is a whole different matter, and they will be able to pick up the nuances of the "racket" and evaluate the performance. On the other hand, as long as you keep an open mind you can learn to understand and appreciate all kinds of art and music. Much like learning a new language and, possibly, just as hard. Sometimes the notion that there is no inherent value to any art or music, that beauty indeed is in the eye of the beholder, or rather, that art does not exist unless there is someone there to experience it, can be a bit depressing to me. It takes something away from that feeling of immortality that can accompany creativity. Ultimately I think you need to create for yourself first and foremost, be true to who you are and use your art as an outlet of your feelings and thoughts. What comes second is the appreciation of your fans, of those who follow your music and feel something from it. That creates a connection without which you would get to feeling really lonesome.
Reviews are important, not only in terms of your career but also it is nice to have someone eloquently put words to what you are trying to do. I usually say I enjoy good reviews and if we do sometimes get bad reviews they don't bother me, because in that case the critic is obviously wrong. Ha ha.
Who are your favorite filmmakers, either past or current?
Personally I would have to mention Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo. Also Czech animator Jan Svankmayer. David Lynch - I think Twin Peaks was a big influence on me and his films are like the cinematic equivalent to some of the magic realism writers that I enjoy. Stanley Kubrick we all like. Bo is a big Casavettes fan and we all have a fondness for Mikael Haneke. One of my favorite movies is True Stories by David Byrne.
Lastly, and most important of all, which is the better city: New York or Los Angeles?
I would probably have to say New York, but then I've never stayed there for a long period of time. But it seems like a really exciting city, multicultural and there's always something happening. I spent four months in LA and I just don't like that you have to drive everywhere (especially because I'm a bit too flaky to be a good driver). My impression of Americans is a pretty good one in general though; people I've met seem open minded, curious, tolerant. The weather is nice in LA of course, but I find myself missing the seasons. The snow and the rain and the cold.
September 2, 2006