Nothing beats learning on the job. You make mistakes, learn from them, and make new mistakes. For Danish trio Mew, the process started at square one.
“When we started writing, none of us knew how to play any instruments,” singer/songwriter Jonas Bjerre admits. “We learned how to play guitar without knowing what the chords were called. It was just doing what sounded right.”
The guys picked up music theory over time, but on their first couple records (released on small labels in Denmark), there were some technical imperfections. On their 1997 debut, A Triumph for Man, they recorded parts in blissfully ignorant ways. “Some of the bass notes we were playing weren’t even in the same scale as the song,” Bjerre says with a laugh. “We just thought it sounded cool because it had that jarring effect. But it was also just because the sound was a big mush, and we couldn’t really hear what was going on. If we could, we probably wouldn’t have chosen those notes.”
Since then, the trio—which also includes guitarist Bo Madsen and drummer Silas Utke Graae Jørgensen— makes more sophisticated decisions, resulting in a bigger impact. “If you have a chord progression and go to an Em, and the bass plays a C, then you get a Cmaj7 out of it,” Bjerre sites by example. “If the chord you came from was a Cmaj, then you don’t get as much of a transference, so maybe the bass should play a different note.”
VOCAL TWISTS AND TURNS
Mew’s fifth full-length album, No More Stories . . . [Columbia], was recorded with producer/mixing engineer Rich Costey (Franz Ferdinand, The Mars Volta) at Electric Lady and Brooklyn Recording in New York. Costey’s engineer Charlie Stavish also did overdubs with the band in Copenhagen.
Bjerre recorded most of his vocals at Electric Lady using a Wunder CM7 mic (a remake of the Neumann U 47) into a Neve 1073 preamp and Urei 1176 compressor into Pro Tools. And he got pretty inventive with the process.
“When I was younger, I looked to a band like Dinosaur Jr.,” Bjerre says. “[J Mascis] sings low and then adds a falsetto an octave higher. I always liked the effect of that. Also, when we first started practicing, I couldn’t really hear myself that well because we didn’t have a PA. I just put my mic inside my guitar amp, so I had to sing really high to hear myself; otherwise it just got mushy with the guitars. It’s become sort of an obsession of mine that I don’t feel like I can convey the melody correctly if I don’t sing it high. But I like the connection between the two—the combination of the low, breathy vocal and the high, stronger one.”
Bjerre also gets obsessed with layering. On “Cartoons and Macramé Wounds,” which features a lot of calland- response vocals, he hummed 60 layers of “Mmmm” at the end, with some of the tracks following the chords of the song and some doing interchanging melodies.
“We had so many tracks already, so there wasn’t really room for 60 more,” he says. “So I bounced it down as a stereo file using a Tube-Tech summing preamp—to get more headroom and definition—and gave it to Rich.”
Bjerre also experimented with counterpoint melodies throughout the album. “Jonas has a pretty insane vocal range,” Costey reveals. “He can sing so high that he sounds like a five-year-old boy, but his speaking voice is kind of a baritone, so he really has some odd capabilities, and he uses them all. If you have 20 tracks of him doing a background, they aren’t all the same.”
DRY DRUMS & COLD SYNTHS
No More Stories... has a shoegazer-y, liquid feel like French band M83, as well as complex rhythms that hark back to Chicago math-rock bands. When the band brought in demos for the album, Costey had one requirement—that the drums be recorded dry. “Rich is very good with drums,” Bjerre says, “and from the beginning, he said, ‘I don’t want this to be another ethereal-sounding Mew record. I want it to be really tight sounding, and I want the drums to be tight as hell.”
“I wanted something that really had an attack, some drive, and some definition,” Costey confirms. “In particular for ‘Beach,’ we set up some gobos around the drum kit at Brooklyn Recording and just literally kept dampening down the room all around it. I think we taped up the drums a bit. We went with a really odd, detuned snare, and a fair bit of tape on that.”
Drummer Jørgensen played a lot of odd snares, including a ’20s Ludwig used on “Repeaterbeater” and a detuned, dampened Slingerland Radio King on “Beach.” Then there was a vintage Ludwig kit (with a 24-inch kick drum) and an old copper Slingerland kit.
Costey consistently tracked drums through a Neve 8068 console and a BCM-10 sidecar with 1073 modules, with Coles ribbon mics for overheads. But the kit configuration changed frequently. “We’d spend a lot of time getting ‘Beach’ to sound great,” Costey says. “And then the sound of the drums for ‘Beach’ didn’t remotely work for ‘Cartoons and Macramé,’ so we would have to go with a different drum setup entirely.”
In terms of bass (sometimes played by live bassist Bastian Juel) and guitars (by Madsen), recording staples included a Fender Precision Bass and ’50s Fender Telecaster, Fender Jaguar, Sears Silvertone, and Gibson SG guitars.
Synthwise, they used a couple analog synths, including the Yamaha CS-50 and the Moog Polymoog. But they also aimed for a modern feel, using McDSP plug-ins to get some cold synth sounds and granulating effects on vocals and pianos. But the mainstay was an Access Virus TI keyboard, used to achieve perfectly icy sounds.
“[For cold synths], you’d want to use digital oscillators, which is why the Virus was an appealing synth,” Costey explains. “I have a bunch of analog synths, but that’s not going to get you there.”
LEARNING TO LET GO
With complex arrangements and as many as 150 vocals per song, there’s a lot of competition for space in the mix. One resolution was to give each new melody a chance to shine and then back off to give another part its time in the spotlight. “The first time the melody comes in, it’s higher in the mix, and then it kind of goes away,” Bjerre says. “But in your head, it’ll sound just as loud, even though it doesn’t stay as loud.”
But often when things get crowded, parts are tossed away completely. “That’s the really hard part, letting go of something that you like on its own, but in the mix it just doesn’t sound right,” Bjerre says. “A lot of songs on this record had like six different vocal melodies, and some of them were almost as good as the one we chose.”
But the first things to go are redundancies. “Quite often someone wants a part to sound bigger, so they’ll track the same guitar four, five, or even eight times, and at a certain point, you’re reaching a case of diminishing returns, and so you use your best sense to make sure that each section isn’t getting too muddled,” Costey says.
CHANGING MINDS & SUPPLYING SURPRISES
The band switches up their songwriting methods—jamming in the practice space, writing demos alone, writing together on guitar or piano, or sometimes Bjerre will just sing over a beat and add chords later. The problem is, they don’t know when to stop. “Our songs aren’t ready for recording until we’re done recording them,” Bjerre confesses.
“In some cases Jonas is working on vocal melodies, and the arrangement underneath him is changing,” Costey says. “Mew songs are very complicated, and they live in this weird nexus between architecture and free association. I think that Jonas is constantly on a surfboard trying to keep up with the changing ways that can happen in the band.”
But by never committing to parts until the end, the guys stumble upon some interesting experiments, such as the backward parts in “New Terrain.” “We’ll find the melody is more surprising played in reverse because you would never come up with that progression or melody. What would have been long syncopations become short syncopations, and you hold the notes in peculiar places.”
Other experiments involved Jørgensen playing the bicycle spokes on his bike. And he and Bjerre once filled up buckets with different levels of water and patted their hands on the water to get different percussion pitches for “Hawaii.” On the same song, they fused a kalimba melody together with a toy piano.
But by the end of the recording process, they had more parts than they knew what to do with. “We had to throw out a lot of pieces to make it all fit,” Bjerre laments. “Some of my favorite pieces were actually lost in the fire.”
FOUR THINGS RICH COSTEY CAN’T DO WITHOUT
ARP 2600 synth: It’s a jack-of-all-trades for creativity. It’s a raw-sounding synth, but I also use it for signal processing. When I’m mixing, I’ll put bass in it for some overdrive. Occasionally, I’ll have the guitar player plug straight into the mic pre, and we’ll put a couple of mics right on the ARP 2600’s speakers. It sounds towering, and it’s typically really quietly coming out of a little synth.
Neve BCM-10 mixer: I bought it six or seven years ago, and I use it every single day all the time for everything. I mix on a [Neve] 88R, but I still have the BCM-10 getting a serious workout everyday. Sometimes with modern recording, things are just too clean and bright, so I’ll just through the 1272s into my mix bus, and it warms things up and gives you a bigger sound.
EAR 660 compressors: I’ve rarely printed a mix in the past 10 years that didn’t go through them. They sound really sweet. They’re really open on the top end. There’s almost nothing that goes into them that doesn’t sound better on the other side.
Access Virus TI synth: We used it for most of the keyboard sounds on the album. One of the ideas for the album was that there would be this icy backdrop of keyboards, so we’d spend time programming the synth to get it to sound as cold as possible. Imagine four guys in a room trying to program a synth: “No, that one’s better. . . .” “No, no, turn it back that way. . . .” “No, I liked it better before.”