Formed 20 years ago in a suburb of Copenhagen, Mew was first in a wave of indie bands to come out of Denmark. While their earliest recordings may hint at more challenging music to come, nobody could have anticipated that they would eventually create some of the most complex pop music ever made. Their songs effortlessly blend indie pop, prog, electronic, dance, and orchestral rock. The band wasn't afraid to play with time signatures, nor were they restricted by convention, only to reveal themselves after multiple listens. Slots supporting R.E.M. and Nine Inch Nails have elevated their status further. (R.E.M.'s Mike Mills once told me that "The Zookeeper's Boy" was one of his favorite songs of the last ten years.) They have been extremely active in the recording process, and have released many video snippets of their creative methods, going so far as to include a bonus DVD detailing the making of ...And The Glass Handed Kites with their concert film, Live In Copenhagen. The 2015 release of the album + - marks the return of bassist Johan Wohlert, who amicably departed in 2006, reuniting the unparalleled rhythm section that is him and drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen, along with guitarist Bo Madsen. I sat down with singer and multi-instrumentalist Jonas Bjerre to discuss their history and surprisingly diverse collaborations, as well as the new album's journey from defunct auto garage, to the basement of a piano shop, to a high-end facility, to eventually helping to resurrect a legendary Copenhagen studio.
What was your first experience like in a proper studio?
There was a guy who came to one of our shows who was running a studio. He was a cool guy, and he came to visit us when we were recording the first full album. He did his recordings on Super VHS, had the whole studio in his house, and was really into the Amiga computer. He didn't believe in PCs or Macs; he wanted to keep it all on the Amiga. It had these programs that had four tracks called FastTracker. We'd just take sounds from different computer games and make it into music. Some of them are on the A Triumph for Man re-issue as bonus tracks.
Where did you record A Triumph for Man?
Here in Copenhagen, in a studio called El Sound; like Electric Sound, but people like to joke and call it "El SOUND," like it's Spanish. I'm not sure if it's there anymore. It was small, but it sounded great compared to what we were used to. I think they had a small Trident console. Morten Bue was engineering. He was cool and he helped a lot of bands like us who were coming out at the same time.
How did you end up getting involved with Damon Tutunjian [of the Swirlies] at that time?
We saw the Swirlies at a festival and just loved them. It was massive and you could hardly hear the vocals, but they made a huge impression on us. We talked to [bassist] Andy Bernick afterwards. Later, from reading magazines, we figured out that Damon was their engineer and recordist. He wanted to have Rich Costey come over to do our record with him, but he couldn't get him at that point, so Damon came by himself and did it with us. He's been involved with the band ever since, and he's always done something on most of the records. He did backing vocals on "156," and a guitar part on another song on [our third album] Frengers. On our second record, he did a spoken word part, which was cut out on some of the releases. I think it's only on the first issue of that album, because it's silly. He did a guitar part on [our fourth album, ...And The Glass Handed Kites'] "Apocalypso". We feel like if he's not involved, we'll jinx it. We have our own little studio, and he has a lot of old gear there.
The whole approach to recording Mew and Swirlies records seems very different!
He was probably most influential on the first record. We had our own idea about what we should be, as a band. I always did things like singing in one register and then doubling it with falsetto. We were very inspired by bands like Swirlies, as well as lots of noise rock bands like Dinosaur Jr., but I don't know how much of that comes through. I think that Damon made that record a little more explosive sounding. He had an influence on the drumming as well, doing these weird breaks where you'd do a snare march on the one, which is also very evident in Swirlies.
Where was Frengers recorded?
A lot of different places. We wanted to work with Rich Costey, but the label wanted to make sure that it was going to sound "right." First they flew him here to do one track, which was "Snow Brigade." We did that at [Copenhagen's] Sun Studio, which is where we worked on the new record, only it's called STC Studios now. Doing that track with Rich was a real revelation. We never knew we could sound so big. It was just really a massive sound, which fit that song well. They were very happy with it, so we decided to do three more tracks. Rich was supposed to fly here, but 9/11 happened and changed a lot of the scheduling. We ended up flying to L.A. and working in a studio in the valley, which had a Neve. We did "Am I Wry?", a new version of "She Came Home for Christmas," and a couple of B-sides. The label was still happy so we recorded some more over here, while [simultaneously] mixing it in a place called Ridge Farm in the south of England, which is closed now. It's a legendary place. Queen and Black Sabbath worked there. Rich had also worked there with Muse. I don't think you can tell, but it was a long process to do that record. We were getting good reviews and were respected, but the first two records sold very few copies. "Snow Brigade" was our big break, and the entrance into a totally different place for us. It put us on the map. One of the magical things about working with Rich for the first time was seeing how he'd mic up guitar amps. He split the signal using a splitter box, and he'd use four different amps. He ran white noise through them, and then moved the mics around until there was no phasing. That really punchy sound comes from that multi-spectral recording. We've been doing that ever since. A lot of producers do it; but we'd never heard of it before, and I don't think that anyone was doing it here in Denmark.
How did you end up working with Michael Beinhorn on ...And the Glass Handed Kites?
We'd moved to London. We'd been touring a lot with Frengers, but wanted to try to write a new album quickly. Frengers was a mixture of older songs, as well as some of the first stuff we'd written with new ideas. We set up a studio in the kitchen of our house in London. As we were writing, we decided we wanted the record to be one long progression of songs, but we didn't know who we wanted to produce it. Looking back, I can't believe anyone ever agreed to work with us based on our demos, because a lot of them had no vocals. I just played them out on the piano. We approached Rich, but he was a bit hesitant and didn't think the songs were done. They weren't. We wrote a letter to Michael and sent him some songs, but didn't hear back from him. We spoke to a few other people, and had some interview sessions at our house. We had our hopes set on Michael; we wanted it to be a big-sounding rock album, [and we liked] the guitar sound he got with bands like Korn. Also, he had worked on many different types of music. We were considering just producing it ourselves, back in Copenhagen. Then the night before we had to make the decision, Michael called us and said, "Yeah, I heard the demos. It seems interesting. Let's talk." Johan and Bo went to his studio in Venice Beach to meet with him, and they hit it off. He was renting an old warehouse, with a huge open space with a stairway up each side; one leading to a little lounge area, and the other to the control room. The big room sounded good for drums. He made this little tent for me for doing vocals, and I recorded in there. It had a little bit of damping, but not so much that it sounded tight.
Is that where the documentary that comes with the Live in Copenhagen was shot?
Yes, that's it. Michael did quite a lot. He even got mixed up in the arrangements of the songs, like suggesting we should maybe change a chord for the chorus. He gave us a little more finesse in places, and he did even more so on this new record. He's been following the writing process from the beginning on + -, so we've had his input the whole way. He's super honest, and doesn't sugarcoat things. I think that's what we need.
During pre-production on ...Kites, how did you decide to string the songs together? And how did you ultimately record it so that it would work?
During the mixing of Frengers we were listening to [Genesis'] The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway each night. I think we wanted something more progressive on the next record. We already had done songs that ended up in a different place from where they started. Songs like "Am I Wry" splits in the middle, where we play the middle section backwards and then go into an outro. It has very little repetition. We really liked that and thought we should do that to an extreme, making a whole album where the songs do that.
Obviously you decided on the running order in advance?
We knew at least which three or four songs would run together, even though we didn't have the whole picture. We knew some in advance, but figured out other things along the way. "Why Are You Looking Grave?" didn't have anything connecting it to the song before it ["Chinaberry Tree"], but I figured out that there were three notes that the two scales had in common. Johan and I sang those three notes as a chord, and that swept over into the beginning of the next song. That was the most makeshift transition that we had.
Speaking of "Why Are You Looking Grave," how did J Mascis end up singing on it?
We were obviously big fans of Dinosaur Jr. Bo met him when we were still kids. J was walking around the center of Copenhagen looking confused. Apparently he had lost his luggage and needed to buy some clothes. Bo lent him some money to buy some t-shirts, and he invited us to the show. Bo gave him a Mew t-shirt and he played the show wearing it, which was a big deal for us. Later we'd bump into him playing the same festivals, and he was always really nice. We went to see him in L.A. when he was playing solo and asked him if he'd like to come do some background vocals and guitars. He said sure, but that he was on tour and would have to come back afterwards. He came back and we spent a couple of days together. He did vocals on two songs. He also did a guitar solo that we had to cut out because it was too long for the song, which was a shame, because he's a great soloist. One of the songs he did was, "An Envoy to the Open Fields," and I didn't have any vocal parts figured out. It's this really complicated piece of music with time signatures all over the place, and I had to come up with the part he was singing while he was there. That was a bit challenging, but a lot of fun.
What did you learn from making that record?
If you're not completely prepared, it always takes a lot longer than you anticipate. But there was a really nice, free feeling we got from shaping and figuring things out in the studio. That's why we made our own studio, eventually. We wanted to use it as a composing instrument. We decided that songwriting is most important. If you have a good song, you can always make it sound the way you want, and you can play around with it. We have a couple on this record that we shaped by using weird effects, but I think that just writing a good song is a good starting point.
You guys are good about actively showing your recording process. What made you decide to do that?
Bo was always filming stuff. We were afraid the documentary might demystify it a little bit, but eventually we decided that it would be nice for us as well, like a little diary or memory that we can keep. It shows that time and situation we were in. There was a lot of worrying going on at that point. ...And The Glass Handed Kites was a lot more hard and dark sounding; we had no idea how people would receive it.
They say fortune favors the bold. What brought you back to Rich Costey for No More Stories...?
I think we view things as moving in a zigzag pattern. We wanted to do something a little softer sounding. We [envisioned] a really tight drum sound having almost no room on it. We talked to Rich, and he was really into that idea. He had just moved back to New York, which is a lovely place to work. We started out at Andrew Taub's Brooklyn Recording. It's a pretty cool studio, with lots of weird old instruments. We did most of the basic tracking there, had a month break, came back home, and did some recording in our studio. Rich's engineer, Charlie [Stavish], came with us, and we recorded a choir and some other instruments. Then we went to Electric Lady for more recording and mixed it there.
Johan had left by then. Who played bass on that record?
A few different people. Bastian Juel, who played with us live for many years after Johan had left, played on a lot of songs. Damon played on "Introducing Palace Players." He does this really complicated thing that just works. Bo plays some bass on it as well. It was a very different record to make, because it was the first one we did without having a bass player during the writing process. It took us a while to figure it out. I ended up playing a lot of roots, and essentially stopped playing guitar. I almost felt like there wasn't a need for it, and I'd rather find out root structures to sing on. I mostly wrote on a Korg synth, which made it a very different process from what we were used to. The songs are quite different sounding.
It's very different from ...Kites. You attribute it to writing as a three-piece?
A lot. We had some really interesting results from having to work like that, but it was definitely difficult, and it took longer to write. Even just having someone play root notes [on bass] as you're writing is such a helpful thing, as well as making the groove happen. We had this really sloppy feel that we wanted to have on some of the songs, like a really laid-back backbeat, so it worked really well in those cases. Otherwise, doing any rock songs, you've got to have that interaction between the bass player and the drummer.
What was it like having Johan return for + -? Did you have to start any songs over in order for the bed tracks to feel right?
We got Johan on board long before we started laying down tracks. Silas, Bo, and I had worked on the songs for a good while. A lot of the songs had started to take shape, but we had fallen into the same way of writing as we'd done on No More Stories... [their fifth album]. We all like that album very much, but we did not want to repeat ourselves. I was visiting L.A. and had dinner with Michael Beinhorn. He had some great input on the process, as well as creativity in general and insights into what's wrong with music today, which I agree with. It was quickly decided that he should produce the album with us. He's changed a little bit. All he cares about is creativity, and he has a very free way of thinking about it. He's definitely not in the music business for the money. One of his early, and best, suggestions was that we needed a bass player. We'd had some people come in and play bass for us, as we were writing, but nothing had really panned out. So Michael gave us the last little push we needed to reach out to Johan and see what he was up to. Within a day or two it was like no time had passed at all since he'd left the band, and everything was back to the way it was always meant to be.
With Michael back was Frank Filipetti involved again too?
Yes, he engineered the drums and bass at STC Studios. Bo laid down scratch guitars; I did scratch keyboards and vocals where needed so we could get an idea how the track would work. We were hoping to record in Studio C, and it did sound pretty sweet there; but it's a small room and it wasn't quite right. Frank and Michael were not totally satisfied, so we ended up moving to Studio A. The difference was pretty stunning. Michael does this thing where he puts a pair of really big, stadium-sized, subwoofers in the room and he sends the kick and snare back through them. We'd never done that before. We didn't do it with him in L.A. because we were having some problems with the studio next door — complaints about loudness, because we recorded super loud. I'm glad we could do it this time. It makes the whole thing sit really powerfully, and the room just sounds so massive.
Frank's a big advocate of 5.1. Did he employ any new techniques?
Oh, yeah! Did you know he's mixing all sorts of Broadway musicals? We tried out these new SoundField microphones and got quite experimental.
I read that you guys did pre-production for the new record. What did that entail?
We had spent a month with Michael here in our own studio — an old car repair garage. It was disgusting when we took it over, but we washed and painted it. We started with a Lynx Aurora, but then we got two [Universal Audio] Apollo Duos, which are great, and came with some plug-ins we were interested in experimenting with.
Did anything you guys started at the garage practice space make it to the record?
Well, we did most of the writing there, apart from vocals, which I mostly wrote at home. We also did a bit of writing in a house in Sicily, back when we were trying to pinpoint what we wanted to do. We had hoped to get the practice space into shape so we could do most of the record there, but we were not able to get a good enough drum sound. And there were too many standing waves for bass, even with a lot of wall coverings and bass traps. Guitar parts were another matter, and Bo ended up recording most of them there. At one point we were located in different cells: Bo doing guitars at our space, Silas doing percussion out in this really cool place near Copenhagen called the Ninth World, — they have a ton of weird percussion stuff out there — and me doing vocals at home. We ended building a soundproof booth at my apartment, set up a few mics, and did my vocals there. It's very comfortable for me to work at home. If I want, I can get up in the middle of the night and record. You don't really need a studio to do vocals, so it's silly to rent an expensive space. The main vocal mic was Michael's old [Telefunken E LAM] 251, going through an old Tube Tech MP1A, a dbx EQ, and his Urei 1176 D compressor. The second mic was an [Audio-Technica] AT5040, which we sent through a Rostec [LMA8] preamp. Those are very fast and sound amazing. I think we also used a dbx compressor on that one. The third mic was a Wunder CM7, which I really like, also going through a Rostec, and I think directly into the DAW. At some point we were trying to use all three mics at once, but I was moving around too much, making it virtually impossible to stay phase-aligned. I predominantly used the 251 on the leads. I shifted between all three for doubles and harmonies. Finally, for some really loud, high-pitched, almost screaming layered vocals, I used a Shure SM7, which is my favorite mic for that kind of thing. I think, depending on what sound you're after, there are definitely pros and cons to recording vocals in a dead room like that. On this album it was something I really wanted to do, because I liked how it sat in the basic tracking. It seemed to fit the album very well. I ended up doing my own comping. I sent the results to Michael, who would write very detailed notes for me like, "Can you try to hold that note a bit longer?". After awhile we had gotten to a place where I could do most of it by myself. When it came to harmonies and counter vocals, he was a great help too, because I tend to try out a lot of different stuff. Oftentimes it's too cluttered if I use all of it. So, as usual, he was a good second pair of ears.
Do you strive for pristine takes, or can you accept one that feels good, even if it's not perfect?
I try not to be too picky, in terms of pitch, because it becomes an obsession for me. I also have this idea that I have to sing really high to convey the melody. I have a few songs on this one that are a bit lower than what I'm used to. I decided not to try overdubbing an octave higher on every song, because I always feel inclined to do that.
Who is the guest vocalist on "Night Believer" and "Water Slides?"
It's Kimbra. Rich Costey was mixing and co-producing her album and asked if I'd sing on her song, "The Magic Hour." It's a beautiful track, and I jumped at the chance to do. She is a brilliant force of creativity, and actually sang some backing vocals on "Interview the Girls" as well.
Any other guest players on the record?
We actually opened up a bit to co-writing on this album, which is something we've never done before. Not on a grand scale, but Russell Lissack came over to visit us in Copenhagen for a few days and recorded some guitar parts "My Complications." He's an amazing player, and Bo had wanted to work with him for some time. We first met when we did a tour in the United States supporting his band, Bloc Party. Nick Watts also contributed to this album, both in a recording and co-writing capacity. He's a very talented man, and he brought a lot to the song "Cross The River On Your Own."
Both you and Michael are into modular synths. The middle transition in "Rows" sounds sliced up in an interesting way, with arpeggiated parts driving some songs.
Michael brought his Serge [modular synth] system, which was used a bunch of places on guitars. Bo was playing guitar through his long chains, with multiple amps, and they put the sum through the Serge to create these bubbling, ethereal soundscapes. We added a bit of electronic percussion and drums in places too, some of which went through modulars. It takes forever to set up patches, so it was a fine balance. The arpeggiated synth was mostly an Analogue Systems modular, although we also used soft synths in a few places. We ran drums through all kinds of equipment at one point, but eventually it just became too boomy and chaotic for the tracks.
With such dense music, mixing must be tough.
Mixing is always frustrating. I always feel like it's a compromise, so that's my least favorite part. Even though it's wonderful to hear the song sounding great, I always feel like, "Oh, but you can't hear that harmony anymore." A lot of what we've been doing over the years has been pretty dense, so I guess it suffers sometimes when you're not getting the idea across clearly. It does, but there are always little things that go missing.
You seemed to have some hold ups with mixing. Who ended up mixing what songs and where?
We brought back Rich Costey. We had fun making the album, but we did take our sweet time. The deadline was pushed back quite a number of times. This obviously makes it hard to meet with other people's schedules. Rich is a sought after and busy mixer, so we had to do it in a few bulks of time. We didn't go to L.A., but we were able to listen at night. We would communicate with Rich and his assistants over Skype, with the nine-hour time difference. It was pretty cool, and he did a great job, as always. We finished up at Grapehouse Studio in Copenhagen. Christian Alex Petersen mixed one for us there, which we kept because it sounded totally right for the song. He's a young guy, extremely dedicated to his craft and so very talented.
How did you end up at Grapehouse?
We first met with Freddy Albrektsen and Christian at another studio called ToneArt, where we went to record piano parts since it's located underneath a piano store. We really clicked with them, and we got Christian to come and engineer at our own space for the guitars. Later on they left ToneArt and bought up this legendary studio in Vesterbro called Grapehouse. They got it totally in shape, with a beautiful sounding board. We ended up recording a bunch of stuff there too, and Christian did a great mix.