Ever walked down a street and wondered what’s going on behind the closed doors on either side of you? Yes? Well, had you been walking down London’s Archway Road in 2005 the answer may well have been four lads from Denmark establishing their seminal album.
It’s fifteen years since Danish alt-rock band Mew repurposed the kitchen of their then shared North London home into a rehearsal space and plied their energy into writing what would become And the Glass Handed Kites, their fourth album. Recorded as one long piece of music, the album was a departure from their previous releases, but one which would impress critics and eventually win over fans.
Now a trio following guitarist Bo Madsen’s 2015 departure, Mew are returning to London to celebrating the 15th anniversary of And the Glass Handed Kites with a special performance on our Royal Festival Hall stage. Ahead of their gig on 12 May 2020, we caught up with lead vocalist Jonas Bjerre to talk about the writing and performing of this remarkable album.
For those who may not be familiar with Mew, how did you come together as a band? And which acts initially inspired you?
Three of us were at school together from the age of five or six. We had a fondness for doing creative stuff. This kind of culminated around age 14, when we decided to form a band. I think the excitement, and idea, of being a band came from the alternative rock wave. That started for us with bands like Nirvana, who were a sort of gateway-drug to other bands like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine. But in parallel to this influence I think the stuff we were each exposed to earlier – all kinds of artists like Prince, Kate Bush, Genesis and Eurhythmics – had a deeper impact than we knew at the time.
You’re joining us at Southbank Centre to celebrate the 15th anniversary of your fourth studio album, And the Glass Handed Kites, what was the inspiration for that album?
This was our second album on a major label, and I think both us and the label wanted it to happen faster than the previous one, which had been a sort of selection of songs from a rather large catalogue of pieces. This one was more focused, and written within a specific period of time. We were staying in Highgate in London, in a house on Archway Road, and we made the kitchen into a sort of practice space.
It was a very focused process. I think working on that record was almost the only thing we did in that period of time; not many distractions. Our lives had gone through so much change in a very short time, and I think we used whatever we were feeling about that; putting that into the songs. And we wanted to write it from a blank canvas, so that it would represent where we were at that point, rather than picking up older pieces that had not manifested into finished songs.
The album is in effect a continuous suite, what prompted you to take this approach, with songs merging into each other?
I don't think we ever consciously decide the mood of the albums, that just happens on its own. But I remember we fleshed out the idea of the whole album being written as one story, with each song segueing into the next; very few pauses. I remember when we finally heard the whole finished thing, in one go, I thought it was insane, I thought it would be way too much for people to take in.
A review in Pitchfork at the time of its release, described ATGHK as ‘fairy-tale rock glory’, which was very different to most of what was out there music-wise at the time, particularly here in the UK. Were you surprised by how well the album was received?
Ha! Yes, I remember that one. I didn't really have any specific expectations. I think there was some apprehension in the inner circle, that it might be too much of a departure from the previous album. We had an online forum back then, and I remember the reaction on there to the first single was pretty negative at first. People thought it was too hard, too heavy. I was more concerned about that, how the fans felt, than the reviews, which were predominantly quite positive. But I think it really grew on people, and now it's definitely one of the favourites. The album ended up being more successful than the previous one.
Do you each have a favourite track from the album?
On that particular album, I think we all have different favourites. One of my personal faves is 'A Dark Design', which we have never played live yet, but we will, on this tour. I also really like 'The Zookeeper's Boy' and 'Special', which seem to be favourites with a lot of people. I think Silas’ [Utke Graae Jørgensen, drummer] favourite might be 'Circuitry Of The Wolf'.
Do you still get satisfaction from performing the tracks from ATGHK now, fifteen years on from its release?
Oh yes, absolutely. I tire of playing them in rehearsal spaces sometimes, but that completely goes away when you're on stage, and the audience reacts. I feel like I am experiencing the songs through their ears and eyes somehow.
Has how you approach performing the album changed in the time that’s elapsed? Have you adapted or altered any aspects for performance?
We've had some experiments over the years, but for the songs on Kites we tend to go back to the original form. We do change the segues though, the order of songs and how they transit into each other. This tour will be the first time we actually play the original arrangement.
In addition to songs from ATGHK, you’re also performing a number of other tracks, including some rarely heard B-sides. How did you choose what to put in the set?
The B-sides will be fun, I think we'll be trying out a bunch of them in rehearsals, and then choose the ones that best translate to a stage. Some of them are quite weird. And then we'll choose some other songs from the catalogue. The intention is to play songs that we haven't necessarily played a lot before, and likely even some we've never done live before. It's gonna be challenging, and we enjoy a challenge.
And lastly, how’re you feeling about taking to the stage here at Royal Festival Hall? And in front of a London audience?
We love playing London. It's such a cool, hectic city with so much versatility. We lived there together for six years, so obviously we have a lot of memories of London, and playing there is special. We're all excited about returning, and to be playing such a beautiful hall. I think we'll fit right in.