Needless to say, these are weird and wonderful times. They are also extremely stressful for many, as the implications of COVID-19 insinuates its way into the hearts and souls of billions of humans on Planet Earth. But life goes on, as it must, and as it has evolved to. As always, our animalistic spirit shines through the desperation, fear and bewilderment. As the famous psychotherapist Carl Rogers observed, even the most malnourished and deprived plant will continue to strive towards growth and fulfilment. Is it any wonder that Keep Calm and Carry On is such an enduring mantra for the 21st century? Except that it’s now more Keep Calm, and less Carry On. Less going out, for instance. In fact, there is now no going out to see a show, a live gig, or festival. For musicians, along with everyone else, the times have changed, and no-one knows quite for sure if we’ll ever get back to anything approaching pre-CV (pre-Coronavirus).
Blaine Harrison, guitarist, keyboardist, frontman and singer with the much loved Mystery Jets, sounds stoical. Perhaps his spina bifida condition (with which he was born with) has infused a remarkable resilience and philosophical spirit within him, as he struggles to maintain his artistic bearing, one who found music to be a major driving force with respect to his creative needs. When you add in the fact that the band’s new album A Billion Heartbeats, and concurrent tour of late last year, was cancelled because of Blaine’s ill-health, and that the re-scheduled tour for this spring has also been cancelled, well, whoever it was who said these things are meant to try us, is really taking the proverbial piss.
But out of the gloom of cancellations, monetary concerns, isolation, and a general lock down, positivism and opportunities continue to present themselves. As they must.
It’s 9am, an unusual time to be interviewing a musician. After all musicians are often the last in bed due to gigging commitments. And Harrison seemingly enjoys a nocturnal existence. “Generally, I’m a bit of a night owl. When I’m writing I very much work at night. I have a nocturnal routine where I go to sleep about eight, nine o’clock, then wake up and work till the sun comes up, then go to bed. The whole thing is upside down. But the rest of the time I try and lead a conventional life.”
I tell Blaine that just last night I woke up at 1.30 in the morning, probably as a result of the stress and nervous energy caused by the coronavirus pandemic, stayed up till about 5, enjoyed the quiet, and proceeded to be very productive in that time. “At night you can access parts of your creativity in your brain, and you can get those lucid thoughts coming through.” Indeed, on a nightly basis, it’s like the veritable calm before the storm, before the world kicks into action in the morning.
“I keep a journal, and I was looking at it last night, going back a week, where we last played a show (11 March), and at that time there was still no conversation about events being cancelled. It feels like we’re a couple of weeks behind some other European countries, and the prospect of it coming into effect, what we did, still felt quite distant. But, that has all changed in the course of a few days, opening ones eyes and seeing how it encroaches into your own world and into what’s going on in your life. Suddenly this festival isn’t going to happen, and this show isn’t going to happen. And we had some press interviews last week, and our label said everyone at the label had been sent home, and that was the moment I thought, ‘wow, this is a much bigger beast than perhaps we thought it would be’.
“When it came around to Monday (March 15), my girlfriend, all her studies were cancelled. Yesterday (March 16) I put her on a coach back to the west country where her parents live. She was very emotional, and what she was experiencing, I experienced by proxy. Until that point I was managing to be very pragmatic: it is what it is, everyone is suffering, we’ve all got to find our coping mechanisms. But then when I saw her emotional reaction that was the first time it hit me on an emotional level – ‘I’m not sure when I’m going to get to see you again’.
“And my Dad is 70 (Henry Harrison, who encouraged his son, was an original member of the band, and is still active for them, mainly in the writing department), so I’m being told it’s best to stay away from him. And my Sister has young kids, and they are self-quarantining. When it starts to come into your inner circle, that’s when it starts to become quite difficult. These are the people you normally turn to for that support, and strength in numbers.”
Such are the profound life changing aspects of this virus, that for the first time in living memory (or at least since WWII), we are not able to freely visit our loved ones and significant others. Nor join in the communal atmosphere and experience of a pub, or a gig. Our communal relationships are having to be mostly conducted and maintained via the internet: 4G, 5G, and wireless. Or, as happened last night at 8pm (March 26), the remarkable and rather moving hand clapping – outside front doors, and open windows – around the nation, in support of NHS workers, and others. Those who are putting themselves on the front line, and therefore placing themselves at heightened risk.
“We had to move the tour last year because of me getting unwell. This has never happened to us in 15 years. We’ve never moved a tour, let alone moved it twice. It’s going to be hard. I just hope people will be understanding. I’m sure they will, it’s happening to everybody. What’s difficult is that you can’t give any indication of when you’re going to return.
“We’ve got an idea which is just starting to crystallise. We’ve got our own studio in Clerkenwell, where we made the album, which once upon a time was a tramshed, and it’s got this lovely, big, cavernous space upstairs, with all the studios underneath, and we’re talking about finding a way to do a live stream of us performing the record, for everyone who bought a ticket for the tour. Not instead of a refund, but as a gesture, really. And finding a way for other people to tune in as well. There’s another bonkers idea, which we literally thought of last night, and that is something that could involve other artists. It would be more like a festival, but a festival that could be attended, like germ-free. It’s bonkers, but we’re just starting to chat about how that could be possible.
“Out of really difficult times, there are always good things that could come out of it, and is a good chance for independently spirited, creative thinking people, to find solutions to make the most of the situation. I think all of us are going to have to do that in our own way. And it’s not just artists, but anyone freelance, who maybe runs a club night, or a venue, cafe. Everyone is going to have to find their own way of navigating this. I think the truth is the world will be a different place when we come out of it the other side. And hopefully, it will be a good place.”
While gigs will have to be transformed, and be essentially non-contact events, for the foreseeable future, music will still be released and consumed in pretty much the same way as before, albeit not nearly so much in public settings. Listening to music will become even more of a solitary, personal experience, perhaps with a loved one, or a family in tow. It will perhaps be more akin to how it was often consumed back in the 60s and 70s, in particular – the classic image of a young person listening to their 45s on a portable deck player springs to mind.
“One of things I think about a lot is, so much of the way music is consumed now is on the move. We all have the entire history of music at our fingertips, in our pockets, and so music is something that accompanies us on our everyday travels, and that’s fantastic,” says Blaine. But, I think also it’s very much wrapped up in this constant need to be entertained, the myriad sources of distraction that the modern world provides us. And life is so busy and full of noise, and full of distractions these days. Music is wrapped up in all that. But this time, perhaps it will give us a chance to re-establish a new connection with art, creating a new space for records to be appreciated in a slightly more contemplative manner. That’s what music was when I was growing up, that’s the relationship that my parents generation had with music, you would sit around and you would put on a record, and it was enjoyed communally. I found my Dad’s record collection when I was a teenager, and I thought ‘what the hell are these things, these spaceship shaped discs’. And when I put on the first record, that moment, that connecting with that format, putting it on and flipping it over, it blew my mind, and it really created a whole new relationship with music. I still have a record player, and I still love to put a record on in the evening. Lots of people have very busy lives, and don’t necessarily have that luxury, But, yeah, this may give us the chance to connect with records in a more intimate, or shared way. Going to festivals and gigs is off the cards now, so maybe this is a way of reminding ourselves that music can be enjoyed with our loved ones, or anyone in our immediate surroundings. Chucking a record on, that can be the strongest medicine there is. I still think music is stronger than any antibiotic that anyone has ever invented. It has a way of reflecting back whatever we need in life, whether that’s something to channel our anger, sooth us, to comfort, to articulate what we’re feeling, to channel whatever it is going on in our lives. That’s a positive way of looking at it, I think.”
Blaine has also recently connected with social movements and politics, in a way that he has hasn’t done so before, the Mystery Jets essentially being a band that wrote many autobiographical, playful, opinionated, and personal songs, scattered throughout their catalogue, from the debut single ‘Zootime’ of 2005, through to their debut album Making Dens in 2006 and subsequent albums culminating in 2016’s Curve of the Earth.
“The building I’m living in at the moment is the Tramshed, and it’s a Property Guardian space,” says Blaine, detailing the inspiration for A Billion Heartbeats. “It’s really another way of finding affordable living in a city. At the time I was feeling a little out of love with London. Spaces for artists were becoming fewer and fewer, and people were being pushed further and further out, lots of friends were moving town, moving to Brighton, Margate, Hastings, just trying to find affordable living spaces. I was right on the edge of leaving (London), and then thought about what about becoming a property guardian? I got in touch to see what was available, and they said ‘come on down, we have a viewing today’. It was the whole floor of an office building, overlooking the strand, and ran the length of a whole block, like the size of five-a-side football pitch. Me and my girlfriend at the time said we’ll take it. It was slightly more than we could afford at the time, but I saw this immediately as an opportunity to not only experience London in a way that I probably wouldn’t get to experience again, but I also saw the creative potential. It was a space I could work in and live in. and I thought ‘what about making a record about the world around me?’, because our last record, Curve of the Earth, was quite an inward looking album, about changes we were all going through, coming into our 30s. I thought with this record I wanted to turn the lens the other way. Not even that I wanted to, I just felt at that time it was impossible not to.”
Potent and politicised, A Billion Heartbeats already feels like an album for the times, even though it was made pre-Coronavisus. The album and tour had previosuly been scheduled for release at the end of 2019, but Blaine had been hospitalised for much of the summer of 2019, spending much of his time in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, a place that has been something of a home from home for him over the years as he struggled to deal with his condition, and his fluctuating health. At the time he put out a statement praising the NHS…
The band had wanted the new album to “feel like it was punching you in the face, and there is certainly a heavier, rockier feel throughout, on tracks such as ‘Screwdriver’ and the strident call-to-arms of ‘Petty Drone’, but still mixing in their quintessentially psychedelic and progressive rock foundations, in forming what Blaine calls “psychedelic anger.” It is in essence a collection of songs about what’s going on in the outside world.
“I moved into that space at the end of 2016, and we had just had the EU referendum and Trump had just got into office,” says Blaine. “It was the beginning of the craziness of the last four years. I had never been particularly engaged with politics, and I felt that my opinion wasn’t worth anything, or that I could articulate my views. But then I discovered protests, and started attending protests around the end of 2016. Because I was on the Strand, which is one of the main arteries to Trafalgar Square, which is the home of protest in the country for the last hundred years, these protests would literally pass under my front window, and I would come down and join them, really as a means of educating myself, and see what people were feeling, as a barometer of what people were angry about, what people were passionate about, and what drove them to take to the streets. The feeling you get is akin to a festival. I’ve always felt that a protest is like a festival of resistance, it’s got a similar feeling, it’s strength by numbers, a place to shout and sing, to feel empowered, and I think that’s fantastic. And I felt I was looking for an alternative to the media narrative on whatever it was, like the shortage of NHS beds. The songs on the record were each inspired by what I saw and the songs and chants I heard. I wanted to hear what the public had to say about that, and what the messages were at street level, and what wasn’t being reported in the news.”
The album’s lead song ‘Screwdriver’ is essentially about the far-right, and figures within that, such as Tommy Robinson. Screwdriver is also the name (actually spelt Skrewdriver) of the notorious white supremacist punk rock band of the 80s. “I didn’t know that at the time,” says Blaine, “but it’s quite apt in a way. That song came about from a Britain First protest, which I saw advertised on Facebook, and the name of the event was ‘Let’s Go Throw Bottles of Piss at Fascists’, and I thought ‘is that how you deal with fascism? I don’t know, let’s go and find out’. The protestors outnumbered the Britain First attendees, by about 5 to 1, as you would expect. But, it was an interesting thing to observe, and I followed it along, and managed to end up in the journalists and photographers holding pen, which was right where the Britain First speeches were taking place. And the protestors were bottlenecked, a little further away down the embankment, and as all the speeches were going on, the English Defence League showed up, with Tommy Robinson, from the opposite direction, and they got bottle-necked. And Britian First started harrassing the EDL. I think what Britian First were trying to do was separate themselves from the more traditional football hooligans associations of the far right. It was fascinating seeing this happening, in the press pen, finding myself separated from the protest. It afforded the luxury of having a degree of objectivity amongst it all. The sang came from posing that question, ‘an enemy is only what you fight them with’. And at that time they were being fought with by milkshakes. Every other week there would be a different figure, whether it be Nigel Farage or Tommy Robinson, people were getting milkshaked. As much as that has comedic value, I started asking, ‘well, how do you deal with this?’ Maybe what you need to do is listen to them, and maybe that’s something we’re not getting right, and I think that’s perhaps why lots of people in working class communities, who are probably traditionally Labour voters, have moved over to the right end of the spectrum, and haven’t been listened to, and they do feel disenfranchised. Those attitudes are maybe coming from places of fear, and those communities feeling like they are losing their identity, and they are losing their wealth. You can then zoom out even further, and the finger of blame points very much to capitalism. And I think that links through to where we are at now. I think that’s one of the changes we are going to see after this has all blown over, society is going to have to take a much closer look at itself, and how we got here.”
As an album A Billion Heartbeats achieves a balance of passion, fear and hope. Amid the colourful melange of rich harmonies, heavy guitars, pastoral interludes, and rallying cries, the album’s essential message is about personal responsibility, and the power in becoming engaged. In these extremely trying times, it really does feel like an album for the moment, perhaps Mystery Jets most powerful, and yet eloquent work yet. It’s also a fitting testament to their enduring staying power, one of the few active survivors from the last great indie guitar generation of the mid-00s.
The album title-track itself, ‘A Billion Heartbeats’, features the line “In the cold silence between their words”. I asked Blaine what he meant by that. “That particular line is from a quote I had in a journal, from somewhere. A lot of these quotes lose their origin and I can’t always remember where they come from, but it came from ‘The English have their real conversations in the cold silence between their words’. I thought there was something in that, something in our Englishness. For example, having spent time in America making albums or touring, I think people are much more frank about what’s going on with them, talking about how they’re feeling, and the English have a tendency to bottle this stuff up. It’s something you see on the tube, people don’t really make eye contact, they lock down into their own worlds. It fitted the song. So ‘A Billion Heartbeats’ is a song about Grenfell, about the way communities came together in the wake of Grenfell, the resilience that those communities showed, and the way that London actually came together, and somehow managed to heal itself. I think we’re seeing that again now, and that song could equally be applied to what’s going on now. We always need reminding of how resilient we can be, and when we see outselves as a whole rather than separate entities, or divided in our politics, or in our generations – ‘oh, it’s Gen Z versus the Boomers, or Gen X’ – all these different human constructs we put up, ultimately all they serve to do is to divide us. And that is perpetuated by the media, and by social media, and I think what that song is trying to do is remind us of our oneness. It sounds hippy dippy, but we do need reminding that we are more powerful together.