In September 2019, indie heroes Mystery Jets were two weeks out from releasing a career-defining sixth album, hot on the heels of sets at Glastonbury, Truck and Reading & Leeds over the summer and propelled by the power of lead single 'Screwdriver'. That track took on the far right over a stomping riff and a call to "Fight them with love!".
Fast forward six months and Blaine Harrison, bassist Jack Flanagan and drummer Kapil Trivedi have had to navigate a lengthy delay to the record's release while Blaine recovered from an operation, as well as the departure of founding member Will Rees. Since we talked to the Jets they've had to postpone their tour (again) and the physical release of the record due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. You'd forgive the band for being downbeat, but when we get Blaine and Jack on the Dorkphone they're both in high spirits about finally getting their songs out into the world.
"It was two weeks before the release, so it was pretty hairy," Blaine reflects of the original delay due to his time in hospital. "It had to happen. Unfortunately, we tried everything in our power to find a way of sticking to the original plan and putting the record out in September and going on tour in the autumn. But it was actually our record label that said, it can wait. I suppose I just feel so thankful that we've got a team around us that put our wellbeing and health first."
"I think maybe 20 years ago, the music industry wasn't built that way," Blaine continues. "We've become a lot better, I think, in terms of mental health, being aware of not putting artists under too much pressure. I think it was really nice for us to recognize that our fans were happy to wait for the record to come out when I was out of the hospital. So that's something I'm really thankful for."
Neither are the band worried about having released over half the tracks on the record prior to it finally being unleashed in full. "This way like we've done with 'A Billion Heartbeats', putting out six tracks [before the album], it's a completely different way of releasing music. But it feels actually really exciting as an artist as well because you engage with your listeners and then by the time the record comes out it's almost like the final gift. So as opposed to being the start of that dialogue, it's almost the culmination of the dialogues; it's a different way of looking at it.
If 'Hospital Radio', the lead-off single released last summer, was made pertinent by Blaine's time in treatment, the full-blown coronavirus crisis gripping the world has highlighted the necessity of robust, well-provisioned and crucially universal healthcare. The track positively screams out of the speakers in a rally against the degradation of the NHS by consecutive governments. "We will be the air inside your lungs."
After originally planning to release 'A Billion Heartbeats' in September 2019, did sitting on the album give the band any nagging doubts about the album? Jack is unequivocal. "I stand by it, I'm really proud of it," he affirms. "It's actually nice because, by the time the process is over, you can barely listen to the songs anymore, because we self-produce stuff and you're kind of stuck inside it. [Now] we've had this long break from it, it's nice to actually give it a bit of a rest from listening to it before we go into rehearsals because everything feels so fresh and new again. And I hope that translates to the performances."
Those performances, now pencilled in for December 2020, will have to take place without founder and guitar maestro Will Rees, after he announced his departure last month having started the band with Blaine at the age of eight. "I think it's quite a natural thing, it was never a case of kind of growing apart," Blaine explains. "We've been on this incredible, lifelong journey together making music under the band's name, but obviously as well as [that], any musician also has a hunger to express themselves in their own right."
"Something that I feel very passionately about is that our band is very much like a family. I mean, you know, my dad's in it, so in the most literal sense it is a family. When we did our Jetrospective shows at the end of 2017 it really just reaffirmed something that I've always sort of felt all along which is that if you're a Mystery Jet you can go out into the world, but you can always come back..." "It's an open door," Jack offers. "You never know what the future holds," Blaine continues. "That's the thing in music, it's impossible to see further down the road than about six months because anything can happen." Never mind six months, even in the six weeks since Dork chatted to Blaine and Jack, the sands have shifted around the music industry more drastically than any time in recent memory.
With the album finally set for a digital release in April (the vinyl will have to wait) and the tour now shifted to December, the Jets will be using the run to continue their work with Attitude is Everything, raising awareness of accessibility issues in live music.
"In two or three cases, there are venues which are in the process of going through the assessment," Blaine explains, referring to Attitude is Everything's charter of best practice. "But it's about going to those venues and speaking to them and helping educate them. Rather than just say we will point-blank, not play your venue, it's important to perhaps have one or two shows where you go there and show them what the requirements of a disabled artist or audience member are, because a lot of the time I think there's almost a preconception that this idea of a disabled artist is almost a mythical being."
Blaine's enthusiasm for the work they're doing is obvious even over a crackling phone line, and he stresses that accessibility isn't just an issue for when someone arrives at 7pm for doors. "For someone with a disability, that journey of going out and seeing a show begins at home before they've even booked that ticket. Because they're already questioning, will l be able to find someone to come with me? Do I need to buy two tickets? Will the taxi be able to drop me off in front of the venue? Will I be able to get into the venue? Will I be able to get served at the bar? All those questions are so important for someone with access needs, and they need to be addressed right from that very point of seeing an ad for a show or festival that you want to go to. That event needs to feel accessible from that moment. That's where that journey begins."
With small venues coming under increasing pressure from developers, gentrification and strains on their revenue streams, Harrison says the fight for accessibility is inextricably linked. "The more that we can help make these places cultural institutions, the more people there will be to fight them, the more cultural value they have. Thekla (Bristol's legendary floating venue) is a great example of somewhere that has been saved. It's not the most accessible venue, you know? But it has been saved. It's about working with venues and saying, 'let's look at some of the things that you can do' rather than just saying, 'we're not going to play here', it's about looking at those steps together that can be taken."
When they (eventually) arrive at these venues, they'll come boasting their most powerful, cohesive (if not necessarily quintessential) collection of songs, their messages born on the streets of London over three years of attending protests and absorbing their sentiments. That marked a contrast from the way they approached crafting the album's predecessor. "I would definitely say the themes of 'Curve of the Earth' were very personal," explains Blaine. "It was quite an inward journey, because although it had this kind of expansive feel to the sonics, the subject matter of the songs are very much about things that were happening to us.
"I think after having, in a way made such a personal expression through those songs, I think it felt that the only way was to then actually look elsewhere. I felt that rather than writing from the outside looking in, as we did on 'Curve of the Earth'," Blaine says, quoting that album's centrepiece, the soaring 'Bubblegum', "This was about being on the inside looking out."
"Obviously also the last four years since 'Curve' came out the world both culturally as well as politically has changed hugely," admits Blaine. "Trump came in, and the referendum was in the summer of 2016, just after 'Curve' came out. So because of the geopolitical and cultural landscape changing so much, it felt like actually, that's where we needed to turn our attention as songwriters.
"I do think, as a songwriter and a storyteller, your art is a reflection of the times you're living in, and that very much felt like where we needed to go next."
That change of focus applied not only to the emotion and inspiration behind the songs but also a shift in how the Jets captured those sounds on tape. "Sonically speaking 'air' was very important to 'Curve of the Earth', this sort of sensation of airiness in the music," Blaine elucidates. "We wanted that kind of ethereal quality to pad out the songs. It was a very layered record whereas 'A Billion Heartbeats' it's quite a guitar-heavy record and I think it was really important for us that the guitars really feel like they're smashing against your eardrums." The band achieved this by hunkering down in the studio, which they describe as a "bunker" and plugging guitars straight to the mixing desk and eschewing amplifiers. The result is their most direct and punchy release to date.
With six songs already released as singles (re-hyping a release after such a delay will have that effect), there's still plenty to delve into when the album is released. 'Campfire Song' crackles on a kindling of an anthemic chorus, gut-punching verses and a soaring key change in the middle section. "You know when you stumble across something that's wrong, but it feels so right?" chuckles Jack cheekily. "It's one of those things that's sort of a dark secret that you learn as a songwriter. Once you've got that tool in your belt, you need to be very careful… and use it seldomly," Blaine continues. "I think on 'Campfire Song' it just felt like it was in the spirit of the song to kind of lift it at the end. It goes up a tone and a half or something, so quite a lot. Key changes are I suppose so associated with cheesy pop songs. We wanted to recontextualize the idea of what a key change could be." It certainly has the desired effect here, sending the final chorus stratospheric and transforming a mournful song of solidarity to something ecstatic.
'Cenotaph', with its haunting hook, "Every exit is an entrance somewhere else", deals with the division riven by the U.K's 2016 vote on EU membership. "Brexit is something that has palpably divided the country, across a generational divide. It's ruined Sunday family lunches for the last four years. It's been so depressing, so polarizing and divisive," sighs Blaine. "But I think what I wanted to do is to try and find hope amidst all the bad. In the verse, it says: "Sad melodies pass down the boulevards, stars in a sea of blue." That was inspired by the EU People's Vote march. I mean I went to about three of them and it felt... I suppose heartbreaking."
While the torment of Brexit maybe seems small-fry compared with the pandemic we're currently getting our weary heads around, the ordeal allowed ugly far-right ideas to rear their heads and caused very real pain to a lot of people suddenly feeling unwelcome in the UK. "I don't identify with this idea of nationality," Blaine tells us, the conviction in his voice palpable. "I think nationality, like sexuality, is a human construct. It's not real. There isn't a giant fence around Britain saying on this side of the fence you're British on the other side, you're French or Dutch or Belgian? It is a construct. This notion of nationality, I find is actually so toxic. I wanted to find an expression of hope in that kind of post-referendum landscape that we've been living in for the last four years."
The euphoric melodies of 'Watching Yourself Slowly Disappear' are rooted in tragedy, Blaine writing the song over the course of a day having heard about the disappearance of Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. Despite not being able to collaborate directly with the band in the past, Harrison clearly had an enormous respect for Scott. "I just always really admired the songwriting and the kind of emotional honesty that he always spoke with in interviews and in his lyrics. When the news came that he'd passed, I felt very affected by that. At the time I was on a writing trip and staying in a boat on the river outside of London. I was surrounded by water and I suppose the lyrics really came from that. I wrote it in one sitting in about three hours, which is very rare for me. Normally songs come from drafting and redrafting trying to get inside the lyrics, whereas that song really came out. And I think that was because what had inspired it was so direct," Blaine reflects.
The band hope the song can encourage further dialogue around mental health, with the refrain 'You can't help feeling weird' reassuring us we aren't alone. "I suppose really the song is both a tribute to him and also an appeal to artists and people just to be open about vulnerability. We're living in a time where mental health has been hugely de-stigmatized, which is amazing.
"We need to keep those conversations because we're all going to have times where someone in our circle, be it a friend, someone we work with, a family member is going to suffer from mental health. The way that you deal with that is by being there as someone to talk to and recognizing if there's anyone around you that needs someone to chat with. I think Scott's music always did that. Because he was so open with his vulnerability and talking about whatever he was going through in his music, it's something that we can all do more and get better at."
Expanding on the song's origin is something the band were cautious of doing when putting out an initial press release to promote 'A Billion Heartbeats', "I didn't want to make it too explicit because I felt that… it's always tricky explaining lyrics because... I've got no problem with it, but I think the truth is we all will find what we need in music," Blaine explains. "We will find our own meanings and find our own associations with songs because we relate them to our own experience. I wouldn't want to necessarily put it in people's minds, to define it because it's so awesome that we find our own place with songs-" "You can't really shut someone in with it, can you? Everything's gotta be open," Jack offers.
"We have a song on 'Curve of the Earth' called 'Taken by the Tide'," continues Blaine. "And that's a song which was about Kai [Fish, the group's old bass player] leaving the band. But actually I never really talked about that too much. And as a result of that, we've had messages from people all over the world saying 'this song spoke to me and in such a way because of my experiences'. I think if I had come forward and said, this is what the song's about, this is what I want you to be thinking about, those people wouldn't be able to find themselves in that music. And I felt the same about 'Watching Yourself Slowly Disappear'."
'Wrong Side of the Tracks' closes the album with a tribute to the youth climate movement, "This hypocrisy in the way politicians and corporations have run the world for the last 30 years, it's taken young people to point that out. I wanted to write a song about that. How I feel so much hope." A restrained and plaintive piano track reminding today's firebrands "Don't grow up, it's a trap", it comes imbibed with a real 'Last Gang in Town' energy and a wash of pathos.
With the album having been informed by years of protest in the UK, is there a despondency seeing how far we are from tackling climate change, privatization and the spectre of nationalism? "I feel that protest is all we've got. It's how we communicate togetherness, our compassion, our resilience. We're now looking at a further five years of Tory leadership, so I think we need to keep that spirit alive. And I think that's one of the purposes of this record." 'History Has Its Eyes on You' sums that sentiment up perfectly in verse. "Be kind and never quit, take pride and keep those fires lit."
Taken from the April issue of Dork. Mystery Jets' album 'A Billion Heartbeats' is out now.
Featuring Easy Life, The Strokes, Tones & I, Sorry and loads more.