Mystery Jets – Interview – 2016

“We’r at our studio, working on some music today, the same place where we made our album. We’re working on a cover of a European band that are on the same label as us, a Dutch band called Pauw, a psychedelic proposition. They’ve done a cover of one of our songs. It’s like a musical exchange.”

So says William Rees, guitarist and founder of Mystery Jets, along with childhood friend Blaine Harrison, and Blaine’s Dad, Henry. Not only is there that rare combination of father and son in a band, but they’ve been making music ever since William and Blaine can remember, despite the fact that Blaine was born with spina bifida.

“We decided that we wouldn’t make my disability an issue, the same way we didn’t make a big deal of my dad (who whilst no longer performing with the band, is still involved with songwriting) being in the band,” Blaine has previously said. When you factor in the legendary Eel Pie Island, their home for many years, and the fact they recorded an EP with Aswad producer Nick Sykes before Blaine’s voice had even broken, the Mystery Jets story is a little bit different from your average meat and two veg rock band.

After plenty of messing about and development as musicians and writers, the band achieved notice beyond the oasis that is Eel Pie via both their legendary ‘The White Cross Revival’ parties and the release of their first singles and debut album Making Dens, which came out ten years ago in March. “We threw parties there because we couldn’t get booked in London, and actually didn’t want to get booked in London,” says William. “A lot of our friends were under-age and couldn’t get in, and when they did get in they’d be charged a lot of money on the door. It was like they were discouraging you from doing music. It was ridiculous. We thought ‘fuck that, we’ll do it here’. Have more fun with it. And we did.”

William then goes on to give me a potted history of Eel Pie Island, “Eel Pie Island is an island in the River Thames, in Twickenham, near Richmond. It was named Eel Pie Island because in the 1600s, Henry VIII used to stop off there on his way to Hampton Court to see Cardinal Wolsey, and eat eel pie. The island has always had inhabitants, but at some point someone moved onto the island and built a hotel, which also had a jazz club in it. That started life as a middle class holiday destination. It was all polite and nice and suburban. And then in the late 50s it went bankrupt and became derelict, but the jazz club remained and became a haunt for bohemians and beatniks; lots of young people would clamber over the foot bridge onto the island and dance the night away, and drink, and listen to jazz and smoke pot, or whatever. And then it became an R’n’B hotspot for bands like the early versions of The Rolling Stones, and John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd and The Who. They all played there. So, it’s got this incredible musical legacy.

“The jazz club burnt down in the 70s after a brief spell of it being a hippy commune, and it remained rubble for years. Then Henry, Blaine’s Dad, moved there about 15 years ago and it became the band’s headquarters when we were growing up. What appealed to Henry was that musical history and the possibility of continuing that.

“Henry still lives there and we still write lyrics with him, and we do songwriting there. It’s still home really, a spiritual home, although we all now live out in London. There’s about 80-100 people living there nowadays. There are no cars. It’s beautiful.”

Mystery Jets arose at a time when there was a particularly rich and imaginative seam of British ‘screwball’ indie music invading the charts (when the singles chart was just about still something attainable for indie-type bands – Mystery Jets even performed on Top of The Pops), when bands such as The Kooks, Jamie T, Larrikin Love, The Maccabees, Noah & The Whale, and artists such as Laura Marling represented the bright new hopes for indie music in all its eclectic glory.

Five albums later Mystery Jets have remained a remarkably consistent band. A left-field force that, although never quite attaining the heady heights of say The Kooks and Maccabees, their records still make the album charts, and they tour regularly round the globe. But after the Americana-influenced Radlands album of 2012, their future started to look a little less rosy, a little more uncertain. It took nearly four years for the next album Curve of the Earth to see the light of day. “Lots of reasons,” says William, about why it has taken this long. “There was a sense of the band being at the end of a chapter, and needing a new sense of direction, and a new sense of purpose. We had spent the previous ten years on the road and making records, and never really stopping. After the last album we were afforded some time to switch off the machine and take a good look around. We also lost our original bass player, Kai. This was the first time we had made a record without him. We felt there was a Kai-shaped hole that needed to be filled. We found a new chap, Jack Flanagan, who is now a fully paid up member of the band. Getting to know him, getting him involved in the writing process also contributed to why it took so long. So, lots of reasons!”

But, there was more, including the fact they couldn’t find the right musical direction. “On this record, a lot of things were written and rewritten, recorded and re-recorded. Initially, we wanted to make a space rock record. ‘Where’s the next place we could go to as a band’? We’ve always tried to do different things with each record and never try and repeat ourselves. I had a discussion with Blaine, and we were approaching the time about getting the next record together, and we talked about doing something epic and grand, and had a Floydian, mid-seventies feel. Initially, we went down that road, making long pieces of music and trying to build this space-rock odyssey. And we actually did have a record like that which was completed in the summer of 2014. But we had a meeting with our friends and management, and we played them what we had done and everyone in the room was asleep at the end of it,” he laughs.

“We perhaps were barking up the wrong tree a little bit. At that point we scattered off in different directions and didn’t call each other for a few months. We went away and wrote some new songs. It was only then that we were making Curve of the Earth. It’s a kind of autobiography of the last ten years. We cherry picked key experiences and tried to distil them into a song format.” Their most personal record to date, which features lyrical contributions from Blaine, Henry and William, is a record about taking stock, but which returns to a more British sound that mixes up psychedelia with moments of contemporary indie rock euphoria, pop nous and prog-rock leanings. “Perspective is another big thing,” says Henry. “When you’ve been in a band for ten years, and you’re not quite as young as you were, you look at things differently, quite naturally. It’s like the first time you allow yourself to look back and that offered quite fertile ground for inspiration. I guess there was a lot of feelings about that sense of growing up: ‘What am I? What am I doing with my life’? All my friends have kids now, and I’ve spent the last ten years messing about on a stage,” he laughs. ‘But you’re living the dream’! I say. “Living the dream, yeah! But, what is the dream? What does it all mean?”

The beautiful NASA photograph that adorns the cover of the album is both a reflection of their love of space and space-rock, and their desire to look at the bigger picture, to try and see the woods from the trees. “It’s a photo of the earth taken from the moon, and is a shot of the earth at sunrise. It’s the curve of the earth.”

But as they take stock they are as keen as ever to get out there and play. “We just want to play it as much as possible and present it to as many people as we can. We spent a long time on it, so I think we don’t want to let it slip through our fingers just yet. It was a real labour of love. We owe it to the music, to play it, at every given opportunity.”

Brighton will have another opportunity to see the band when they perform as part of the this year’s Great Escape, a city that is close to their hearts. “We’ve played The Great Escape a couple of times. Brighton is really a second home. Blaine’s sister, Dymphna, used to live there. And our co-producer, Matthew Twaites, who is Blaine’s sister’s boyfriend, is from Brighton. It’s always been a good stopover for us, we’ve always been able to hang out there a lot and get to know it.”

Finally, I ask, you must be thankful you changed your name from the Misery Jets to Mystery Jets? “We were called that for a while when we were really young. The band actually started with Blaine, Henry and myself when we were about six or seven years old. We were actually doing gigs at that point. They were in strange little wine bars in the west of France. It was only when Blaine misspelt it on our kick drum that we stuck with Mystery. A happy accident!”

Jeff Hemmings