As far as your average indie rock bands go, Mystery Jets can be seen somewhat as an exception. With a career spanning the best part of two decades, they have released five studio albums, acquired a wealth of experience touring around the world and show no signs of slowing down. Having outlasted contemporaries such as The Maccabees and Klaxons, they now have their sights set even higher following the release of long-awaited sixth LP A Billion Heartbeats. Ahead of the release, Jermain Ethell spoke to songwriter and frontman Blaine Harrison about the new album, the past and future of the band and the current global public health crisis that is bound to have a profound impact on the wider music industry.
It’s unavoidable at the moment, but current events have meant that a lot of plans have had to be postponed or cancelled. Over the past twelve months, Mystery Jets have been no stranger to this, having had to delay their record and autumn tour dates through no fault of their own. “We launched the album last summer with Hospital Radio and Screwdriver. The plan after that was very much to get out on the road in the autumn and put out the album, but obviously that had to be delayed by a few months because of me having surgery and taking some time off.” Thankfully recovered, he now mentions that the band and himself have been far from idle during this time. “Although the rest really did me good and it doesn’t look like were going to have a chance to go out and play shows any time soon, we’ve got a lot of fun projects on the go which will still get to see the light of day because a lot of them are more social media and video-based.”
One of these projects was the Mystery Jets’ Speakers’ Corner. Earlier this year, Blaine was involved in a series of panels where the issues that informed the themes of the new record were discussed. Topics included the climate emergency, the refugee crisis and mental health and how we can come together to overcome these woes. “We’re currently looking at a way of doing that kind of thing digitally and we’ve also been working on a series of podcasts that should be arriving later in April hopefully. It’s just about trying to keep the streams of communication open with our audience via streaming and social media.”
"Protests are loud with the drumming, marching and singing and we wanted the music to mirror that."
In the past the band has worked with some well-known names in the music industry such as Chris Thomas (The Beatles, Pulp, Pink Floyd) and Nicolas Taunay (Anna Calvi, Supergrass, Eric Clapton). In Curve of the Earth (2016), the band made their first foray into self-production with the help of Matt Twaites. “At this point Matt is essentially the fifth member of the band” speaking of his involvement in the production of their new record. “Curve was very much a collaborative effort with the five of us in the studio everyday grafting away, with this one it was more Matt and I taking the reins. Obviously everyone is still on it, but in terms of the production and sonics we mostly handled that, and the songs were shaped by experiences I’ve had on these marches and protests.”
“A Billion Heartbeats – in my mind – was always meant to be kind of a sister record to Curve because it is kind of more looking out at the world and the changes happening in society around us from quite an isolated place inside, whereas Curve was very much a record about what was going on in our personal lives at the time.”
"I think Will's been feeling this way for several years and Endless City was kind of his way of saying goodbye."
Recently Blaine and two other members of the band have been living as property guardians around central London. A lot of the inspiration for the new record came from his time living on the Strand where he witnessed countless marches and protests. It is this experience that has led to the production of some of the heaviest material the band have released to date. This is really encapsulated by Screwdriver – a track with riffs that would not be out of place on a Foals record. “There’s something about the intensity of those environments that we felt like we needed to allow the music to speak in that way as well. I think if it was a quiet, polite sounding album it would undermine the lyrical themes, so we wanted it to be sonically aggressive because protests are loud with the drumming, marching and singing and we wanted the music to mirror that.”
Mystery Jets have seen various line-up changes throughout their career and sadly in early February, William Rees – a founding member, guitarist and occasional vocalist – announced his departure from the band. “Will and I formed the band when we were very young, we went to nursery school together. It’s been such a shared journey; our first gig was my tenth birthday” he laughs. “It was a really big moment for us - him deciding to go it alone.” On the new record, Will wrote and sung one of the more sombre cuts such as Endless City. “At this point, Will and I have been making music for the best part of twenty years and there comes a time where, as an artist, you want to go out and speak in your own musical language and make your own mark on the world. I think he’s been feeling this way for several years and Endless City was kind of his way of saying goodbye - it’s quite a telling song of the state of mind he was in. He’s looking in new places to find his inspiration and tell his story in music.”
Although they may have parted ways, Blaine mentioned that “(Will) is still my brother and in fact we still see each other pretty much every day as we work in the same studio. I think the Mystery Jets is very much a family that he will always be a part of. The future is very much unwritten, and the door is always open for people to come back – once a Jet, always a Jet.”
"In a lot of ways we still feel like we are a new band and we’re still trying to prove ourselves to the world."
In 2017, the band played a series of gigs aptly named ‘Jetrospective’ in which they played each of their albums in full over five nights at The Garage in London. Their third LP Serotonin is due to celebrate its tenth anniversary this summer. “Although ten years is a significant period of time, in a lot of ways we still feel like we are a new band and we’re still trying to prove ourselves to the world. I think there is a danger in being too nostalgic and looking backwards too early on. Whilst Jetrospective was amazing and it was so incredible to be reunited with all the different audiences we’ve had over the years, I feel that itch has been scratched now and we just want to focus on making new music and other projects going forward. Maybe for the twentieth?”
Prior to the release of their new record, the band announced that they were having to delay the physical release due to concerns over the welfare of people involved in the shipping and production of the album. “Physicals aren’t being ordered at the moment and that’s one of the reasons we held back the release as they would end up just being stored in a warehouse gathering dust. It felt unfair to our fans for that to be the case, so we decided to delay the album but at the same time we felt the songs just need to be out there.”
In times of crisis such as the current global pandemic, people tend to turn to music as a source of comfort and retreat. It is not to be understated that what is currently happening is likely to have a devastating impact on the community and wider industry. “I think the world we step back into come the autumn will be a very different environment. A lot of the artists who do this part-time may have to throw the towel in and go back to their jobs. There’s also the lack of certainty for bands like us who do this full time, leading us to wonder how we’re going to cope.” Of course, with tour dates having to be postponed and festivals being cancelled left, right and centre it is easy to see why this is the case as artists, big and small, rely on this interaction with their fans to make a living in many cases. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as he says “It has been incredibly inspiring seeing some of the initiative artists have been taking. Everything from livestreams to online guitar lessons, it’s nice to see artists coming together.”
It is well worth giving their new record a listen and with their tour rescheduled for the end of the year when hopefully something resembling normality has returned, do go and see them live and support the artists and venues that showcase the music that you love. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s no longer there.
A Billion Heartbeats was released on the 3rd April 2020 on Caroline International. It is now available on all major streaming platforms.