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Interview: Mew

We catch up with Johan Wohlert of the seminal Danish art rock trio ahead of their glorious return to Hong Kong

Written by
Graham Turner

Spend any kind of serious time listening to Danish trio Mew and you might just reflect on the often-pernicious nature of genre labelling. Often described as ‘art rock’, listen to Mew’s Comforting Sounds and you could pigeon hole them emo, given the song’s ‘emotional’ content. Elsewhere, Introducing Palace Players is as fine an example of prog rock as anything by The Mars Volta, Tool or Pink Floyd. Psychedelia, indie, pop, we could do this all day, such is the breadth and scope of sounds tackled across Mew’s seven-album repertoire.

The breadth of genres can be challenging but it’s never muddled – there’s always a tangible sense of Mew in every song. This sense of self isn’t just clear in the confidence in which they experiment musically, but in the eloquence of which they talk about themselves, their music and their live shows. Something we are privy to when we catch up with Mew’s bassist, Johan Wohlert… 

You guys have always incorporated visual elements into your live shows. But with the new album, the two have become somewhat synonymous. Why is that? 
Good question. It stems from the fact that, as you said, we’ve always tried to merge the two. This time around, we just wanted to go all out. There’s just something really powerful about imagery and music together. Also, it creates a really nice atmosphere in places that people have been many times: their local club or venue, and then all of a sudden, they come in and see this really spaced out, out-of-this-world looking visual show accompanied by music. It transports them to a different place than what they’re used to being in. It’s all about creating something new and exciting for people to see. 

Would you say a Mew live show is like a multi-sensory experience now?
It’s definitely something that people come up to us afterwards and say – I’m in no way advocating drugs by the way – but people always come up and say, “I wish I was drunk or high when I watched this because it’s so trippy.” Myself and the rest of the band are very much straight-shooters, so it’s fun to get those kinds of reactions.

You self-produced your latest album [this year’s Visuals]. How was that experience?
The main perk of it is you can work to your own schedule. It wasn’t really that much of a conscious choice to begin with. It was more like an experiment where we said ‘let’s just try and do a couple of songs’. Pretty quickly, we had a handful we really liked, heading in a direction we really liked and it wasn’t really necessary to bring in someone to help produce. We had gone from being from a four-piece to a three-piece and that meant we needed to make this record a more internal affair.

You guys have been doing this for a long time now, you must have a fairly good understanding of what Mew is. It probably negated the need for a producer in that sense…
There’s definitely that. With time and with records, you gain experience. You already know more about what you want out of your band and what you think are the weaknesses and strengths of the band. But we’ve always been firm believers in not setting up too many rules before starting the recording and writing process. Songs tend to take a life of their own after a while and sometimes, you ruin a good song if you force it into being something it really doesn’t want to be. 

There aren’t many bands that have numerous songs that can make fans in the audience wail and cry just from a melody or a particular lyric. How do you feel when you see those kinds of reactions in the crowd? 
It’s very humbling when people come up to you after the show and say: “In all honesty, your music really changed my life and helped me through a very, very dark time.” I think it’s strange because we’re not really that serious as people. We’re quite light-hearted and positive, deep-down at least. We never really incorporate any form of irony in our music. It’s always very pure. That is what people really relate to. It’s honest. It’s not trying to be cheeky, it’s not trying to be sexy, it’s not trying to be fancy – it is what it is. Somewhere in that blend of ingredients is just a very pure form of honesty that I think appeals to people who like our band. If you can couple that with a good melody and an ear for an emotional sound then you’re onto something that’s really powerful.

You’ve been around for 20 years now. Do you take stock and reflect on what Mew was then and what it is now? Do you feel much has changed?
I think the essence of what the band is trying to do is still very much the same. Obviously over time, you want to explore new things and try out new directions with the band. I don’t think we would’ve been satisfied doing four more albums like Frengers. Music for us has always been about trying to do things we’re essentially not great it, but in the process of trying you become really good at it. That’s the appeal – to dip your toes in uncharted waters and try, at least, not to repeat yourself too much. That’s the greatest appeal of creating, that sensation of creating something exciting and new to you.

You played a pretty epic, sold-out show in Hong Kong a few years ago. What made you decide to come back?
Asia is actually one of the places in the world where our career is at its height. Hong Kong has always been this elusive thing we’ve never managed to go to that many times but we went there in 2013, which was around the time we were making +-, but I was involved in the studio at that time so didn’t go on that trip. I’ve always been really bummed out that I couldn’t go because it’s one of those iconic cities of the world. I’m a big fan of urban architecture, landscaping and vibes of big cities – I’m really intrigued by that. It’s been very high up on my bucket list and I’m excited that I finally get to go with the guys.

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