On arrival in Dublin for their gig at Whelan’s, Blaine Harrison and Jack Flanagan of indie four-piece Mystery Jets take time to chat with Aisling Kraus about vintage recording gear, chromosomes and the album as an art form.
Having existed as a band for nigh on 20 years (when frontman Blaine Harrison, still in primary school, formed the unit with his dad), Mystery Jets are no strangers to the ups and downs of touring. Nonetheless, the quartet is over an hour late arriving at Whelan’s of Wexford Street. “Luas strike” is the mumbled agreement of those present when the Londoners finally reach the venue to prepare for the first gig of a short tour of Ireland and the UK. Mystery Jets are very much riding the post-album release wave, having released their fifth LP less than a month ago. In the last 24 hours they have shot a new music video on an old fort out at sea, flown to Dublin and (possibly most treacherously) braved the traffic of a rainy, Luas-less rush hour in the capital to make it to a pre-gig interview with OTwo.
Curve of the Earth is the first full-length instalment in the Mystery Jets studio discography in almost four years, and was two and a half years in the making. The group knew they wanted to “live” this record, and in order to give themselves the time and space they needed to do so, they set about building their own studio in a disused button factory, and filling it with choice recording equipment.
“There’s a feeling of the seventies in [the album]…” muses lead vocalist, keyboardist and songwriter Harrison, “but I think that’s less from listening to seventies records and more from obsessing over seventies recording techniques. Because we had our own space, we had to buy all our own equipment and so, I got really obsessed with buying seventies microphones and vintage outboards… There’s something, a quality, a romance about gear that was made to last and is still around forty years later.”
One of the themes that unites a number of the songs on the new record, and that has also made appearances in previous work, is science. The album title and artwork are preoccupied with space and astronomy, and the first track bears the title “Telomere”, which is defined as “a compound structure at the end of a chromosome”. Harrison states that his understanding of science is “a loose one”. “There was something about [the] word [telomere] that was very musical to me… especially when I looked it up and I did some research on what telomeres were. I realised that it would be really interesting to explore the idea of telomeres and the human essence in a musical way… There’s a sort of pulse to the music which to me felt like an interesting way of expressing the pulse of life, of blood.”
Jack Flanagan, bassist and latest addition to the Mystery Jets lineup, adds that: “The whole record is kind of about scale… We wanted it to start almost microscopic, so “Telomere” was kind of the perfect way for that to happen, to be right inside the human body. And then, we tried to make it feel like as you go the whole way through [the album], it grows and grows until eventually, you’re kind of outside and looking back to this microscopic form.”
There’s a pulse to the music which felt like an interesting way of expressing the pulse of life
It’s obvious that the quartet view Curve of the Earth as a single work of art rather than a bundled-together collection of separate musical creations. Perhaps they’ve taken this approach in an effort to oppose the notion that ‘the album’ as an entity is an endangered or redundant species, lacking relevance in modern popular culture. As Flanagan explains, recent times have brought promising signs for champions of the art form that is the music album. “Vinyl has got more value in it again, which is cool because people are going out and buying records… You can make this tangible thing and people will actually… put it on their shelves. Obviously a lot of it is Spotify and iTunes, which I think is a wonderful home for music as well… I actually love it, despite the whole not making any money from it, I feel like it’s so nice to have this thing in your pocket and be able to discover other people’s music with the click of a finger or the tap of a button. I think that’s a really cool thing.”
Harrison feels that the album can never fully lose relevance, as the demand for it will forever be sustained by the like of hipsters, and that perpetual group of kids who lament being ‘born in the wrong time’. “I think for every movement in culture there’s going to be a counter-movement… For all the people saying that the next generation are going to be… brought up ‘on shuffle’ or streaming music and not really listening to things in their entirety, there will be a counter culture and a market for people who do want to hear the whole thing. On the one hand, you have people saying the album is dead and it’s all about doing singles now. [Curve of the Earth] is being stocked in supermarkets, which for us is a first; we’ve never had that. Vinyl sales are the highest they’ve been in seventeen years. I’m not really sure that the album as an art form is dead. I think there’s always, in the background of any generation, a fetishisation of previous times, there’s nostalgia.”
From talking with Harrison and Flanagan, the overarching impression is that this is a band who do things their own way, in spite of trends and without much regard for the favour of the masses, and who take their creativity seriously. “We have always liked the idea of perhaps being on the fringes of any kind of scene,” Harrison notes. “I don’t think it’s ever particularly been something we’ve tried to do… We’ve always found ourselves going in the opposite direction to whatever’s fashionable at the time, and I don’t think that’s to be different, it perhaps comes down to how much time we spend together. We’re more interested in what each other thinks than what anyone else thinks, I think that’s part of being in the gang.”
Curve of the Earth is out now.