A cat walks through a forest, playing a fiddle. A swarm of glutinous, fleshy sea aliens with nipples for eyes comes bubbling out of the deep. A zig-zag of electric space laser lightning shooting out of the screen. J Mascis with the glowing eyes of a devil.
These are among the weird, Lynchian visions that fill Jonas Bjerre's nightmares night after night. And Jonas has many ways of wrangling his nightmares. Some become animations projected onto a backdrop while his band--Mew, the innovative purveyors of Danish space-pop--performs turbulent complex soundscapes, building from skeletal guitar arpeggios to universe-quaking crescendos. Others, like the baseball-capped mini-Durst inhabiting "The Zookeeper's Boy," become the heroes of the poppiest song on the year's most iconoclastic new album, And The Glass Handed Kites.
"It came from a dream I had," Jonas explains, mumbling humbly. "I always tend to be more inspired during the night. I woke up one night and had this idea. I don't always know what the lyrics are about, they're just images that I come up with and I just write them, it's sort of surreal."
To call Mew "sort of surreal," of course, is like saying Bill Gates enjoys a "modest income." If the Mew's 2003 breakthrough album Frengers-- particularly "She Came Home For Christmas" and the NME Single Of The Week "Comforting Sounds"--evoked the sound of the Brothers Grimm using a Radiohead tour as the springboard for a new set of fairytales, then And The Glass Handed Kites is quickly simply a leap into the unknown.
Redefining both "album" and "concept album," And The Glass Handed Kites is a mind-blowing 60-minute rock maelstrom flinging musical ideas, distorted nightmare images, and heartbreak choruses at the listener with skull-cracking ferocity. One minute we're looking toward Valhalla from a "Chinaberry Tree," moments later we're asked "Why are you looking grave?" by guest artist J Mascis over a throbbing guitar squall, and next thing we're in the middle of an ethereal ballad about foxes. What initially sounds like 10 bands playing 10 different albums at the same time, tuned in and out of sync by some ADD-riddled studio engineer, reveals itself after repeated listening as a remarkably sustained and unified work, picking up the experimental challenge of cutting edge Britpop from Wire to Kid A and drenching it in Mew's otherworldly sonic brew.
"We wanted it to be one long song," says bassist Johan Wohlert. "It's difficult to do it and it's a difficult record to listen to but it'll keep you interested for a really long time."
"It's quite a mouthful," Jonas adds. "We took the idea of making a record a long journey all the way on this record."
"We knew that we had it in certain songs," says guitarist Bo Madsen. "We had the elements of it on Frengers and we knew it would be a huge challenge for us as a band to spread that out over 60 minutes but we also knew it was something we'd always dreamt of doing, making a body of work, making a masterpiece that you had to listen to from A to Z in order to make any sense of. It was a tough record to make but it was what we had to do. We could have made a Frengers Part Two but it wouldn't have been right. We always go the hard way around, and that's what gives it its uniqueness, that we spend so much time dwelling on the details. One of the fun things about playing in this band is that it is about challenging the structures, challenging what can be done within the context of rock music. It's good that you try, for the sake of art, to push your limits as a band, and your limits of perception. The first time you think it's f--ked up but the tenth time you get around to it, it starts to make sense. One of the things that makes it fun for us is trying to mess with people as to what can be done. It's all been assembled together by small parts. It was a big jigsaw puzzle, totally beyond anything we've ever done."
So how did we get from an elementary school playground in Hellerup, Denmark, to the bombastic space madrigal titled "Saviours Of Jazz Ballet"? The members of Mew--later joined by drummer Silas Graae--first met in the seventh grade, where they were assigned a film project about the end of the world. The future Mew responded by making a film that consisted of a loop of themselves introducing their own film running over and over and over in slow motion. Recognizing in each other a taste for apocalyptic art, they soon became the school's alternative clique and were a "band" long before any of them could play any instruments.
"We became very ambitious straight away," says Jonas. "We were ready to make a record after a couple of months."
Denmark, sadly, wasn't quite ready for them, and it was only they were booed off the stage after calling themselves "Orange Dog" and Bo returned from a short sabbatical to America, that the members, now in their late teens, christened their musical enterprise "Mew." By then, Jonas was working part-time in a post-production company, using the facilities after hours to make his own animations which became part of the Mew live experience, visual backdrops to the band's extended compositions inspired by My Bloody Valentine, Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr. on one hand and Prince and the Pet Shop Boys on the other. At the very first Mew gig an agent for a book publishing company was so impressed he convinced his employer to completely change their business plan in order to record and release the debut Mew album, A Triumph For Man in 1997. The 2000 copies of the Mew debut's limited edition are now highly-collectible rarities, though the record did become a critical hit in Denmark.
By the time second album, Half The World Is Watching Me, was ready for release in 2000, Mew created their own label, Evil Office, to release it. Following the record's initial limited release in Sweden, Mew was signed by Sony for a worldwide deal. The group pulled the new record and decided to re-record the best of their catalog as the first Mew international release. The result was Frengers and suddenly Mew saw a tenfold leap in sales figures, finding themselves in the "big time" of squalid London flats and lengthy trips hauling equipment on the M6.
"Our whole England experience was pretty hardcore," Jonas remembers. "We moved to London and to begin with we didn't know if we were going to be making any money, so we moved into a small flat with two rooms. We slept in the same room in bunk beds for years. We used to drive to Glasgow and then all the way back and sleep in those bunk beds. Those tours were really tiring."
"It almost killed us but we made it through the other side," says Bo. "It prepared us for what it means to be a touring band, getting us into that whole rock 'n' roll circus."
Sitting around a stained Formica kitchen table, the members of Mew began work on the songs--"The Zookeeper's Boy," "The Seething Rain Weeps For You," "Special," "Why Are You Looking Grave?" (which would feature a cracked-voice J Mascis), "White Lips Kissed," "Apocalyspo," (the first single, which Jonas describes as "not quite the end of the world and not quite Caribbean dance music")--that would form the shifting spectacular soundscapes of And The Glass Handed Kites. And, um, it's all about death. Obviously.
"Each song deals with different aspects of life and fear," Jonas explains. "Sometimes it hits me that everything we do is a distraction from the fact that we will end up suffering and dying eventually, which is quite a cynical way to look at it but you can look at it like that. Music is another way to keep your thoughts elsewhere in a way, the artist wants to leave something behind. So it's trying to deal with those things without making it too obvious. There are things that run deeper but it's not really important for the listener, it's more about how you experience the record, not what was intended."
I see. And those rubber-mouthed, nipple-eyed sea creatures, what do they represent?
Jonas smirks. "They represent the dark voices in your head."
As long as he keeps having those nightmares, we can all enjoy them together. Thanks to Mew.