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Friday, Dec. 19, 2008

Mystery Jets ditch the quirky and turn up the pop


By ALEX HOBAN
Special to The Japan Times

They formed their group when they were only 8 years old, but after years of playpen antics it wasn't until 2006 that Mystery Jets made it into the public eye with their debut album "Making Dens."

News photo

Back then, their eccentric wonky-prog ramblings were met largely with shrugs and the odd finger pointing at them for being the musical equivalent of a bunch of grownups playing overzealously in a sandbox. With singer Blaine Harrison's dad Harry performing live with the band on tour, people focused more on the novelty of that than on their musical merits.

Consigned to the bargain bin in the minds of many, the band enjoyed a swift and unexpected renaissance this year, as their second album, "Twenty One," reinvented them as pure pop purveyors. Singles such as "Young Love" and the irresistibly brilliant "Two Doors Down" shocked everyone into realizing that when they put their mind to it, Mystery Jets were a force to be reckoned with.

Ringleader Harrison spoke with The Japan Times, charting the band's progression in his own words. It all started off with what came to be known as the White Cross Revival, a series of parties in a recording studio built beside the band's home on Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, England, a community of just 50 homes where Pete Townshend once owned a studio and The Rolling Stones played in the 1960s.

"That was a long time ago now, maybe four or five years ago when we were starting off," says Harrison. "The first one was my for sister's birthday party. The idea was just to put on a gig for our friends that was more like a party. After that we decided to do more, because the space was so suited to it, and they went down so well, and we ended up having more and more people coming."

That would have been all well and good were it not for the fact that those parties were held not in a properly equipped music venue, but in the band's studio.

"It was a warehouse space that was part of a boathouse that my dad built on Eel Pie Island, and we'd been using it to rehearse and record our first album," explains Harrison. Nonetheless, the parties continued until "we didn't know 90 percent of the people in the room. It got heated to the point we had to stop doing them, because we were getting so many noise complaints and it was getting out of control, almost turning into a minifestival in our rehearsal room."

Since those formative days, Mystery Jets may not have had an illustrious Top 10 hit or high-profile magazine covers, but as the critical acclaim and word of mouth grows, so does the size of their shows and the number of people who trumpet their greatness. Still, it does not escape Harrison that the strength of their roots are what got them where they are today.

"I look back on those times very fondly; they were very much our window into music," he says. "I'm glad it happened in such an organic way and that it was all under our own roof. I think it was a good thing we avoided playing the London club circuit, which is kind of the inevitable way of breaking through to people. We avoided all the Camden pubs (venues on the regular North London circuit) because they just rip you off, charging your friends loads of money to come and see you play alongside two crappy Led Zeppelin cover bands. Putting on the parties was our escape from that — we did it for ourselves to see if something happened, and it did."

The band are now enjoying a second wind of success. Their '80s-inspired video for "Two Doors Down," all lurid colors and overblown hair, gave them an indie-disco hit. The song was voted into the Top 5 singles of 2008 by British tastemaker magazine NME, while the band's international touring schedule took them as far as this year's Fuji Rock Festival, the band's second appearance there. In this second incarnation, Mystery Jets have pulled no punches, writing songs to be played on the radio as a reaction to the oddball label they had previously been tagged with.

"After the first album we felt we needed to redefine ourselves," says Harrison. "We wanted to remove the stigma that had been attached to us — the quirky band from Eel Pie Island with their dad in it. This time we didn't want to have any gimmick, as for a while it felt like that was overshadowing the music. It became quite tedious only being asked about my dad. Henry doesn't play with us live anymore — he still works with us, writes with us, but he's more of a manager now.

"Musically, we wanted to put across a more direct message. Being described as a quirky band never really excited me. I wouldn't describe a band as quirky; it sounds a bit sarcastic. We wanted to stop being viewed as a bunch of pirates with toys, so we moved off the island and started making records elsewhere."

By "elsewhere," Harrison means studios around London, and it was this geographical change that gave rise to the atmosphere in which the band started writing bona fide pop hits.

"We realized that we didn't want the [second] record to be so all over the place as the first one," explains Harrison. "There was definitely a more conscious move in the pop direction. We didn't want 2 1/2-minute-long singles with 7-minute album tracks. That wouldn't work. We wanted it to be a light, half-hour guitar record that appealed to pop sensibilities, which was the complete opposite of what we wanted to do on the first album — we were trying to be a bit of Mars Volta, a bit of Pink Floyd, a bit of The Smiths."

Harrison says the band learned some valuable lessons from the mistakes of the band's first album.

"We've learned now you don't need to be five different things on the same record — you can just make five different records," he says. "However, we don't dismiss the first record. We needed to make that, but we did learn from it and have moved on. We'd been the Mystery Jets since we were 8 years old, so the first record had all those years of experience and ideas mixed up into it. For the second record all that baggage was out of our system, so it has a much more direct feeling, especially as it was written in the space of a year or two."

Mystery Jets start the New Year with the close of their world tour, which will wind up in Japan on Jan. 8. They'll then head back to England to set their minds toward a third album, decamping to the studio and no doubt undergoing another reinvention.

"We'll be in Australia on NYE," says Harrison. "It's going to be the middle of summer, then we're going to come to Japan where it's . . . freezing . . . and then we're not going be touring anymore. The tour for 'Twenty One' is over. Japan will be an amazing place to put a close on this period, surrounded by the bright neon lights of high-tech Tokyo! Then we're going to back into the studio to record album three. I can't say what it's going to be like yet though. . . . But I promise it'll be another step!"

The Mystery Jets play on Jan. 8 at Club Quattro in Shibuya, Tokyo (6 p.m.; ¥5,500 plus one drink; [03] 3444-6751).

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