Interview: Mystery Jets
Formed on Eel Pie Island in 2004, Mystery Jets have long established themselves as one of London’s most prolific and chameleonic indie-pop outfits. For their latest long-player, the lads sought inspiration in Austin, Texas, and came up with a concept album called Radlands.
Band leader Blaine Harrison chatted to us about gunslinging in Austin, bizarre rider requests, the story behind Radlands and why playing a cemetery was a dream come true. Read the interview below.
Can you tell us a bit about the recording of Radlands please?
Well, we went out to Texas in the spring of last year and rented a big house in the middle of the woods, on the Colorado River, about half an hour outside Austin. We didn’t really go out there with expectations; we just brought some songs and our guitars, and we sourced all the equipment out there. We basically built a whole studio in the house, which gave us the flexibility to record whenever we wanted and make as much noise as wanted. So we wrote and recorded a lot out there, and then we came back to England in the summer and played some festivals and finished off the record with Dan Carey, at his studio.
And how was it working with Dan Carey?
It was really, really great. I think he’s just like us really: he got into working in music just through the love of listening to records, and he likes all and everything. And he was the first person to show belief in the record. When we came back from America, we had so many scraps of songs/bits and pieces, and he was the first person to say,“Right, I think you’ve got the album: you don’t need to write any more.” He gave us a lot of confidence in what we had.
Why Austin? If you’d gone to New York or LA, do you think you’d have made a very different record?
Yeah, possibly. It was the right place to go to because I think the kind of records that influenced what we were doing were Americana and 70s country music. If we’d wanted to make a dance-y record, going to New York would have been great. I mean, I think our previous record is almost a bit like an LA record: a big, panoramic studio production, which sounds very expensive. Which it was. (Laughs) Whereas this record was about stripping it all away, recording everything very simply.
Your albums are so diverse, sonically! Is that a happy accident, influenced by your surroundings, or are you consciously trying to change with each release?
I think we put ourselves in environments that we know we’re going to respond to. So there is an element of thought that goes into it. But really, we just absorb influences from things around us; you’ve got to be a sponge when you make music or art. You want to absorb things out of the air and make something memorable from it. When you set a tape recording, it’s magical: you never know what’s going to happen.
So what were the key influences on Radlands?
I would say Harvest and After the Gold Rush by Neil Young. Cass McCombs’ Wit’s End, particularly ‘County Line’, which was a defining song for us. And Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was a big record for me. It was all demos he recorded from reel-to-reel, on his own with just a guitar and a harmonica. It’s really spooky-sounding but has really classic songwriting.
And why the title “Radlands”? Was it inspired by the film ‘Badlands’ or is it just a play on words?
‘Badlands’ has this great visual identity and we wanted our album to sound how ‘Badlands’ looks, if that makes sense? Like a classic narrative set in the barren southern states; that was the dream we were chasing. And why rad? Well, we’ve always wanted our shows to be celebratory and fun, taking people out of the every day and sucking them into an environment where anything can happen. So I think “Rad” is a hint at that really; the sense of fun that the whole project has to have to make it something we want to do.
It’s a concept album, isn’t it? Was that always the intention?
I think we’ve been wanting to write a concept record since we started, but it can feel quite contrived sitting down and saying, “Right, we’re going to write a record about hunting”, or, “We’re going to write a record about shopping.” There’s so many things you want to say and, in this case, just having a protagonist allowed us to do that.
There’s lots of different themes and stories, all linked by a central character called Emmerson Lonestar. You can listen to the record in two ways: as a collection of songs that are loosely about our experiences, or you can thread them together. All the pieces do actually slot together and we’ve written a three-part graphic novel that’s coming out at different points of the year that basically sets out the whole story. But, at the same time, it’s important to us that people are able to see it as a collection of songs. You can get out of it what you want but it’s a weird, twisted, sci-fi/western, really.
Do you have a particular favourite track on the album?
At different times I like different songs, but I have fond feelings for ‘Lost in Austin’, which is the penultimate song on the album. It was one of those songs where I was a bit worried it wasn’t going to make it, because it didn’t have lyrics until the day that I sung them, and they were a bit throwaway and weren’t really working. And we had this idea of calling it “Lost in Austin”, which was the name of the blog we were keeping while we were living out there. So we condensed all the experiences that we had out there and put them in that song. I really like that, because it’s really autobiographical.
And what was the best thing about being in Austin?
Everything. (Laughs) Guns, fishing, barbecues, racoons, skunks...
Did you use guns a lot?!
We had a gun which we would shoot at things with. Nothing living. I don’t know why we’re living in England... I would love to go back out there and record again. I think our work in America has only just begun...
Did you check out the local musical talent while you were out there?
We hear your launch party for Radlands was quite unusual! Can you tell us about it?
Yeah, we basically set up a stage in Abney Park Cemetery, which is one of my favourite places in London. It’s like a secret garden; all overgrown, with about 250,000 graves. I’ve always thought it’d be a brilliant place to play a gig. They’d never had a show out there before, so there was a lot of red tape to get through. But we had a margherita bar, and pizza for everyone and a great stage. It was a dream come true.
It was also recently announced that Kai left the band. Was it a shock to you when he said he wanted to leave?
It wasn’t a shock because it was a very gradual thing, a slow fade. I don’t really know what to say about it... We’re still really good friends and we’ve got two new guys in the band so it’s like a completely new version of Mystery Jets touring this record, which is really exciting.
Is your dad still in the band too?
He helps write lyrics but he doesn’t tour. He plays a bit of piano too, though not on this record. But he was out there quite a lot with us in Texas: hanging out, drinking beer, writing lyrics. He’s still a massive part of what we do.
So what’s on your rider?
We like our dark rums, especially rare, posh ones. Rum and ginger, yeah. Other than that, we put a lot of stuff on that we never get. We once put one of those ball pit things on our rider. We didn’t get it.
On the song ‘Greatest Hits’ you discuss dividing a shared record collection after a break-up. Could you name three records you would never part with for anyone.
Loads of people. For years I’ve been trying to find an opportunity to do something with Robert Wyatt, who is a massive hero of mine. I think he’s quite sick, so he’s not doing that much at the moment. But I would love to do a remix or collaboration with him. I’d love to do something with an orchestra too. We’ve always talked about making a really orchestral-sounding record. Nothing too overblown, but we’ve played with some string players before who were really fantastic, called The Elysian Quartet. I could definitely see us doing something along those lines, like a Walker Brothers record.
What’s the plan for the rest of 2012?
I know we’re doing Reading and Leeds, the Dublin Camden Crawl and The Great Escape in Brighton. And we’ve got our own Brixton show in May and then probably a bigger tour in the autumn.
Finally, what's your proudest achievement so far and what would you still like to achieve?
I think my proudest moment is us not falling apart! Because there’s so many things that we could have fallen out over: getting dropped, band members leaving... But we’ve always stuck together through it. This is the only band we’ve ever been in, and we’ve been in it since we were children so it’s like a family.
Ambitions? A big thing for me is playing places we haven’t played before, and there’s loads. We’ve never made it to Russia, Greece, Brazil... I just want to see the world and play gigs!