Tue 28th Apr @ 7:30 pm
Mystery Jets: A Billion Heartbeats
All great albums start from a unique perspective. But try a window on the Strand, in an abandoned office block, overlooking the kind of political upheaval London hasn’t seen in a generation. Mystery Jets’ Blaine Harrison was living as a property guardian right round the corner from Trafalgar Square when found himself witness to an entire year of protests. Every weekend from January 2017 on, people were marching for a different cause: “In the space of six months it was Black Lives Matter, the huge ‘Our NHS’ march, Unite for Europe,” he recalls. “Then the solidarity sleep-out organised by Help Refugees, where we slept in Whitehall for the night… The protestors would wake me up in the morning. I’d just walk down and join in.”
Over the course of that year, Mystery Jets’ sixth long-player, A Billion Heartbeats, was born. “This album wasn’t about making pointed opinions,” says Blaine. “It was about being a mirror for what’s going on, reflecting back the way people are feeling.”
The first single Screwdriver is an uncompromising look at the rise of the rebranded alt-right in the UK, built around a powerfully positive message: “Fight them with love / then the world will be ours”. The haunting, melodic Hospital Radio counteracts images of those “missing in action” or “staring at the ceiling” with a battle cry of “our blood is not for sale”. By turns tender and fierce, abstract and full of classic rock energy, A Billion Heartbeats achieves a balance of passion, fear and hope. In a sense, it’s not just their “state of the nation” record but their “state of a generation” record too.
In the last few years, a lot has changed for The Mystery Jets: the band tell the story of the music industry at large, and the challenges facing young creatives in London. Guitarist and co-chief songwriter William Rees had gradually fallen out of love with the city, relocating, as so many young artists have done, to Margate. Endless City is about that transition, a paean to his hometown,
“Where the people run on fear – you might disappear trying to survive.”
“Whenever I came back I was thrown into this petri dish that was running at a rhythm I was unable to keep up with,” he says. “In Margate, songs wanted to be written. In London, they don’t want to come out. It’s not tender enough. The clock is on…”
Blaine had begun his writing process in the usual way – with a period of creative solitude, travelling to Iceland at New Year’s Eve in 2016 and making his way round the country in a VW camper van. He rented a room in the small port town of Seyðisfjörður, hoping to get his ideas together. But this time, they just wouldn’t come. Climbing up the Oraefajokull Glacier, he got a burst of reception on his phone and messages from friends at the 2017 Women’s March came pouring in.
“I suddenly had the sensation of: that’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I realised I had done exactly the wrong thing, removing myself from where it’s happening. Brexit had gone through seven or eight months before; Trump had just come in, why was I cutting myself off?”
Exploding on to the indie scene in the mid noughties from beginnings on London’s Eel Pie Island, Mystery Jets have always ploughed their own musical furrow. They’re unique for the unusual network of relationships at their centre: Blaine and Will have known each other since nursery school; drummer Kapil Trivedi joined them in 2003 as a teenager and – famously – Blaine’s father Henry Harrison, once a touring member, remains an invaluable part of their creative process, a “conduit” for ideas and a “walking library” of literary references, taking the band’s lyrical sketches and pulling extra reading from his shelves to help them expand their thoughts. “He just keeps pushing you to make your words the most rounded, the most touching they can be,” says Will. Bass player Jack Flanagan joined the band five years ago and instantly meshed with their sensibilities. He co-wrote the haunting Campfire Song with Blaine and Henry, a song which sets the process of coming of age against the political backdrop of the last 20 years: “Marched in our thousands against a war nobody could give us a straight answer for”.
While 2016’s The Curve Of The Earth was an inward journey, Harrison explains, A Billion Heartbeats points the lens outwards. He was working late one night in their studio, a converted tram shed in Clerkenwell, when their long-time collaborator Matthew Twaites casually mentioned he’d read that the average human has a billion heartbeats in a life time.
The album inspired by those words is not just about the political issues that face us, but our individual human attitude towards them. Petty Drone is a stunning call to arms, thick with the melodies of seventies Queen and what Will describes as a kind of “psychedelic anger”. The song’s energy belies its dystopian lyrics, inspired by the Adam Curtis film HyperNormalisation, and the modern phenomenon of surveillance capitalism: “Ostracised, de-nationalised, re-categorised… polarised, de-sensitised…”
“It’s about mental health in broader terms,” says Blaine. “The paranoia you feel on realising all our experiences are being mined and sold back to us. This very new form of dysmorphia caused by our dependency on dopamine shots from Instagram.” It really effects how you start to see yourself.” It’s a message reinforced in the tender Watching Yourself Slowly Disappear: the struggle of the individual to keep faith in an era of disenchantment.
The album’s political messages are subtle. History Has Its Eyes On You was inspired by the Women’s Marches (“Sister I can see you’re tired of waiting for a sign, and this is it – let’s redesign how we co-exist.”), and by Laura Marling’s podcast, Reversal Of The Muse, in which Marling suggests the masculine spaces of recording studio and record company boardroom directly affect the way women’s records are made.
It’s an equivocal perspective that underpins the album. Amid the colourful cavalcade of rich harmonies, heavy guitars and rallying cries, the album’s essential message – about personal responsibility, and the power in becoming engaged – reinforced in the closing song ‘Wrong Side Of The Tracks’, an airy anthem that looks you in the eye, with a challenges: “Tonight no one can stop them, only me and you.” The track was inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish girl currently leading the European campaign against climate change. “The song says, who are we to fuck up our future for our children?” says Blaine.
The band self-produced the album with the help of Matthew Twaites. “It’s dense and very direct,” explains Jack, “because it’s less reliant on traditional ways of recording – it’s pedal board straight into mixing desk. More modern than anything we’ve ever done.” This small detail made a big difference: “We plugged everything straight into the back of the computer which five years ago would have been seen as sacrilege,” says Blaine. “You get the wave form hitting the circuit board really hard, which makes the sonics really direct.”
Kaps describes the new technical demands placed on the band: “When you self-produce, everyone is their own mini-producer,” he says. “I had to learn how to drum with three opinions being thrown at me – to run the “opinion gauntlet” without getting your arm blown off. But there is a family feel. We’ve had very different experiences in life, but we have always learned to communicate with something other than external experiences. Our differences help us connect.”
“We have known each other for so long, it’s beyond close,” agrees Will. “It’s a ride that we are committed to. What else are we going to do? I mean, look at us, individually. Look what the band is made of – a father and a son? It’s a colourful life, and I value that more than other things.”
The album features the artwork of Joshua Jackson, a banker-turned-photographer whom Harrison met on the marches last year. Unknown to him, Jackson had taken photos of Blaine sifting through placards after the protests – mementos of resistance and hope he has become fascinated by.
We increasingly hear from popstars that music should be an escape these days – that there’s enough suffering in the world, enough misery on the news, without writings songs about it too. A Billion Heartbeats makes all that sound like a bit of a cop-out. These are songs of protest that get the heart racing in joy; high on hope, and serious in their message. Proof, basically, that music speaks louder than words.