A passage to indie: Mew are Denmark’s gift to prog rock
Danish indie rockers Mew are a tangle of contradictions, Paul Kay tries to solve the riddle
"PROGRESSIVE" IS often used to describe Danish rockers Mew - and with good reason. Their expansive indie rock transports the genre to a nigh-epic realm and the live shows are similarly ambitious in scope and execution.
Mew are progressive in helping fans experience their music, as a recent multimedia collaboration with electronics brand Bang & Olufsen demonstrates. Yet they remain resolutely traditional in their beliefs of what the band and its albums represent. The paradoxes make Mew a band that is difficult to pigeonhole.
Formed in suburban Copenhagen in 1994, Mew began life as a four-piece, with childhood friends Jonas Bjerre, Bo Madsen and Johan Wohlert joined by Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen. A first album, A Triumph of Man, was released in 1997 and, by the time Wohlert left in 2006, Mew had recorded three more studio albums and built a reputation as one of Europe's most intriguing live acts.
"I think we've always had a playful approach to music and a need to be inventive," lead singer Bjerre says. "That's part of why we make choices that seem strange to a lot of people. But if you connect with it, I think it really holds something special. We really do put our heart and soul into it.
"To me, music is about exploring your imagination, and expressing yourself emotionally. And I think we've gotten a lot better at it over the years."
The breakthrough came in 2003 with the release of a third album, Frengers, and a stint supporting R.E.M. touring Europe. Two years later, And the Glass Handed Kites saw the band's musical ambition swell to grandiose levels. Mew drew acclaim from the likes of Pitchfork.com which gave the album a glowing review and described the band as "Queensryche meets Sigur Ros".
While the music is always the biggest attraction, the band - Bjerre in particular - take great pains to ensure the live visual elements match the feel of their sound.
"I started making animations for our shows," says Bjerre. "I guess, back then, it was partly because I was a much more introverted person than I am now, and I didn't really think a singer could get away with that. The projected images partly came to be compensation for looking down at your shoes with eyes closed."
While the November 4 show at The Vine in Wan Chai is at a venue smaller than Mew has become accustomed to, Hong Kong fans should expect a rich live show.
Featuring support from American dream-pop darlings Wild Nothing, the show will include tracks from Mew's previous albums, particularly 2009's snappily titled No More Stories Are Told Today, I'm Sorry They Washed Away // No More Stories, The World Is Grey, I'm Tired, Let's Wash Away.
Expect to hear some unfinished tracks from an unnamed forthcoming album. The new album is a milestone in a near-20-year career: Mew's first of the post-Sony era after parting ways in January.
The change in dynamic has been an energising experience, says Bjerre. "Primarily it changes the way things are being handled around the album," he says.
"It's been an interesting learning curve, because we have taken control of everything ourselves, but we feel invigorated from being the captains of our own ship.
"And we're super excited about the future of the band, and being able to just make things happen, when we decide and as we decide. It feels liberating."
Bjerre is quick to say that leaving a major label has not changed how the band approaches the music. "In the end, what it really comes down to are the fans. It's the fans make your career in music possible, not companies. And in this day and age, you are swimming in ways to reach the people who choose to follow what you do.
"Traditionally, labels were the stations that created the most revenue, from record sales, but their power in that department is falling away, and they need to look at other options, just like everyone else in the music business."
The band have used their freedom in the Bang & Olufsen collaboration. The result is a curious app. Smartphone users can discover Mew's new single by following audio cues and "locating" components of the song by moving their device until the sound reaches a crescendo. Awkward to put into words, it's an innovative way to experience richly layered sounds.
"We had this idea that we wanted to present some of our ideas and music in a different way," says Bjerre, "and we got to talking to these guys at B&O, which is a classic Danish hi-fi brand.
"It developed into a collaboration, which has been a lot of fun. And the app is a great platform for giving people a little bit of insight into the upcoming album, in a totally different way than we usually do things."
But while Mew are keen to explore new ways to connect with fans, some things are sacred. "In some ways we are still a bit conservative. We still really like the idea of an album, rather than individual songs. However people listen to the songs, on YouTube or any other platform, is secondary to what we consider the body of our work, which is still entire albums. And it feels like jumping into another place each time."
The band love nothing more than playing live - good news for Hong Kong fans. "Going out into the world and playing your music to the people who care about it - that's the pinnacle of it."
Mew and Wild Nothing, November 4, 8pm, The Vine, 29 Burrows Street, Wan Chai, HK$490-HK$540 from ticketflap.com