Danish rockers Mew return to Hong Kong for Visuals tour, singer Jonas Bjerre says new songs more ‘spontaneous’

SCMP

The last time alternative Danish rock band Mew performed in Hong Kong, lead singer Jonas Bjerre had his fortune told in Yau Ma Tei by “a very sweet, old hunchback man”.

“He was very thorough. The fortune was very personal; about my love life, my future and my career,” Bjerre recalls.

It was a fitting way to spend time in the city for a band famed for its atmospheric, dreamy, alternative rock sound and lyrics that dabble in spiritual and emotional themes. Formed in 1995 in Copenhagen, Mew enjoyed a steady rise to indie-rock royalty after the release of their acclaimed third album, Frengers, in 2003. The album title also spawned the affectionate term now used to describe the band’s dedicated legion of fans.

Currently touring to promote their seventh album, Visuals, Mew are preparing to play for their Hong Kong fans again, this time at Kitec in Kowloon Bay on September 18.

Speaking from California on a day off during the band’s North American tour, Bjerre had been spending time balancing the celestial with the practical: sorting out the band’s laundry while catching the solar eclipse. From Los Angeles, the band was preparing to jet to Singapore for the start of their Asian tour, which concludes in Hong Kong.

Mew recorded and self-produced Visuals in just a year – a brisk pace for a band that had a reputation for taking at least three years to complete a record. The resulting collection of songs feels airier and more energised than previous releases.

Self-producing also gave them greater room for experimentation and risk-taking. The song Candy Pieces All Smeared Out has a shape-shifting, almost progressive rock structure and feature the bleeps and bloops of Bjerre’s childhood Amiga 500 computer. Twist Quest, meanwhile, features a quirky, sax-inflected melody that tips its hat to Talking Heads.

Recording Visuals was a “joyful” process, Bjerre says, owing to the momentum of going straight from touring into the studio. “It felt more intuitive and spontaneous, which is what we wanted. It’s been the curse of the band to spend forever on everything.”

The accompanying videos and artwork are equally playful, with colourful kaleidoscopic images projected onto silhouetted faces and dancing bodies that shimmer in the dark. Bjerre had always managed the band’s onstage optics, but decided to also take charge of all artwork for Visuals in keeping with the album’s independent spirit.

“A lot of the songs were written from visual ideas. Kaleidoscopes are like little spiritual symbols of symmetry that we felt fitted the album well and gave it an otherworldliness,” he explains.

Each song represents its own “chapter and narrative” – the opposite approach to 2005’s labyrinthine And The Glass Handed Kites, which was designed to be seamless and listened to in one sitting. Writing so succinctly this time around was a challenge though, Bjerre says. “That’s something we’ve looked up to in other bands, but have never really been able to do … It’s just a different discipline to what we’re used to.”

Despite Mew’s sound being shaken up on Visuals, the songs sit comfortably alongside older tracks during live sets – to Bjerre’s relief. “It’s funny because each album is so different, but in a live setting, you play those songs back to back and it all falls into place somehow. It all just feels like a part of our sound. It all sounds like Mew and works really well.”

Visuals was the first album recorded without founding member Bo Madsen, who said farewell to his bandmates in 2015 after 20 years with Mew. But the guitarist’s departure and the task of songwriting as a trio “didn’t feel like that much of an adjustment”, Bjerre says, as the band still had touring members Nick Watts and Mads Wegner.

“We’d been touring a lot after Bo left and had been listening to demos together. It still feels like there are a lot of people on the tour bus because of our crew, and there are still five people on stage.”

Heading to Asia always feels like coming home for the Danes, thanks to their sizeable army of Frengers throughout the region. This year the band performed in Thailand for the first time and in southwest China for Chengdu’s Strawberry Festival – a “chaotic but cool” experience, Bjerre says.

“It’s such a privilege for us to be able to come and play somewhere so far away and be met with that kind of love and appreciation. We’re so grateful for that.”

Mew’s previous Hong Kong show, at The Vine in Wan Chai in 2013, holds many fond memories for the frontman. “I had a really nice experience … [Hong Kong] is such an inspiring city. The crowd was amazing and we met a bunch of fans afterwards, who were great. There was a really positive vibe about the show.”

After playing at Kitec, Mew will perform a string of European shows before wrapping up the tour in December. After that, Bjerre will have time to unwind and think about the next chapter. That might involve him jumping back into the experimental electro-pop supergroup Apparatjik alongside Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman, A-ha’s Magne Furuholmen and Swedish drummer/producer Martin Terefe.

“We work on things here and there,” Bjerre says. “It’s hard to find time when everyone isn’t doing something else. We just supported Coldplay for a few shows and I spoke to Guy. And Martin came to our New York show. We’ll definitely be doing things in the future. It’s like a little club where we can get together once in a while and just have fun.”

Mew’s busy schedule means Bjerre probably won’t have time to revisit the fortune-teller when he’s in town, but he doesn’t need someone to tell him that things are looking good for the band. “Even though it was a tough year with artists dying and Trump being elected president and all that terrible stuff, all in all, it was a really positive year making that album.”

Mew, Sep 18, 7.30pm, Music Zone, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$490, Ticketflap

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