Going steady since 2003, London Mystery Jets are welcoming their latest album, A Billion Heartbeats, into a world more turbulent than ever. Harrison March speaks to frontman Blaine Harrison on protest, politics and Piers Morgan.
Harrison: In terms of starting out, you guys have clearly grown hugely as a band. Your line-up has altered but how would you say your approach to music has? What are your current inspirations?
Blaine: We have, I mean we’ve had lots of line-up changes and we’ve been making music as a band for coming up to 20 years now so it is a long time and yet, to answer your second question, nothing’s really changed. I still approach songwriting exactly the same way as I did when I started out and I think, in a way, that’s perhaps largely responsible for why we still make records.
I just feel like there’s so much more that I wanna do, that I wanna say. I think, as a band, we almost still feel like a new band and I kind of always want to have that feeling because, as soon as you can rest on your laurels and have this body of work that’s your ‘get out of jail free’ card, in a way your hunger for innovating and for pushing yourself diminishes. So I really feel that it’s actually very important to keep that bar set high, as it is when you’re first starting out as an artist. Everything you need to get noticed is what defines all of your early music and I still feel that pressure on myself. It doesn’t really come from any external force, it really just comes from us as a band. I think we still feel like everything we do has to be the best thing we’ve ever done, otherwise what’s the point?
‘as a songwriter your currency is empathy – to make music that speaks to people you have to find a commonality in experience, in the experience of people around you’
H: This record was created partially in response to the London protests in 2017. At that time, so soon after the release of Curve of the Earth, did you already have plans to develop new music or did the creation of this album stem from those experiences?
B: Well, what happened is toward the end of 2016 the band was becoming a little bit frayed around the edges. Making Curve of the Earth took four years and we spent most of that time in quite a small space together making the record, which most bands could probably testify is really difficult. We produced the record ourselves, we wrote and recorded all the songs in this one room, and so I think at the end of that touring process for that record we all needed to distance ourselves from one another. Jack, the bass player, temporarily left the band; Will, our guitar player, started working on a solo project; I felt very focused on carrying on and diving straight into more music but the other guys were drifting towards the margins.
So, I went away to Iceland and it was in Iceland I thought I would find the isolation – ironically – to crack on with the new record. However, when I was out there I saw that a lot of my friends were going out on the street and were taking part in protests. There was one particular protest for Women’s Day in January, and I saw lots of friends protesting in London, as well as all across the world in Washington and Japan, and I thought it’s all very well to come out to nature where you’re looking at a landscape that hasn’t changed in 100 years, probably won’t in 100 years as long as global warming doesn’t melt the place, but actually maybe where I need to be is back there, back in the thick of it. It almost took going to Iceland to really see that I didn’t want to tell my own story, I didn’t want to write a record about what was going on in my life – I thought what was far more interesting was what was happening in society. I came back sooner than I was originally planning to and I started going to protests and over the course of a year I went to maybe 30 more and that’s where all the songs came from.
H: Curve was a very self-reflective record and it feels like that same tone carries through on Heartbeats. Did this album feel like an introspective process to craft as well as an observational one?
B: You’re spot on about Curve; Curve was very much a personal, rite of passage record. It was about saying, ‘OK, our friends are having kids, getting mortgages, going through all these changes, we’re still doing what we were doing when we were eighteen’. How do we reconcile with that? What should we be doing with our lives?’ I think Curve was really a snapshot of what it was like turning thirty, whereas I think with this record I didn’t really go on that same introspective journey at all. I spent my time outdoors, amongst people and in crowds, on marches, listening to other people’s stories, because I think as a songwriter your currency is empathy – to make music that speaks to people you have to find a commonality in experience, in the experience of people around you. I think actually a march is a great place to do that. A march is a lot like a festival, in some ways, I always say a march is a festival of resistance because when you go to a music festival you spent all this time in fields with strangers whose experiences and stories are quite possibly very different to your own. You’ve lived very different lives, have very different backgrounds, and yet when you’re in this field you’re united by something; the same thing has brought you there that’s brought this so many others. It’s the music but it’s also just being with strangers. There’s something very very powerful about that and I think it’s the same thing that brings people to protests, it’s this feeling that actually we’re not all that different from one another and we can change the world even if it’s in tiny little increments. If we group together, we can actually listen to each other, and I think so many of the world’s problems would be solved if we became better at listening to each other.
‘It’s really important to be able to stand up and say, ‘I’m not happy about the way the world is and I wanna change it,’ but also to lift people’
H: 2017 was a big year in terms of British politics and political awareness; it was a seminal time for Britain. You open Heartbeats with a vivid depiction of that year on ‘Screwdriver’, calling the protests “an almighty thunderstorm” and describing “hooligans in uniform”, as well as using the same kind of religious rhetoric often heard at protests. Do you believe this album to be a protest of its own and what would you want listeners to take from it?
B: That’s a really good question. I suppose it is a protest. What the record is about is the spirit of protest. It’s trying to tap into the thing that gets us off our couches, off our arses, and out onto the street and actually leads us to believe that our voices mean something. I don’t know if you can relate, but I didn’t feel politically active for a long time. My journey with protests started with the anti-Iraq war march in 2003 (showing my age here). I went on this protest with lots of my friends’ uni mates. At the time of this protest, it was the largest democratic gathering in British history and we filled the streets of London and it didn’t do anything. It did absolutely fuck all. Blair still conceded to Bush, we still went to Iraq and we bombed the living hell out of the place, and I think after that a lot of my generation felt very disenfranchised with politics. Here was Tony Blair who was heralded as the great uniter of the people, here was New Labour, it was this new vision of politics, and I think young people felt completely ignored.
I really distanced myself from politics for much of my twenties and early thirties. It was only in the post-referendum environment that I thought maybe we do have the power to change things. A lot of it was your generation, actually – I think Jeremy Corbyn made a lot of people feel politicised, and I would include myself in that. He spoke to us in a language we understood. He spoke to people with respect, with dignity, and although ultimately he perhaps lacked the leadership skills to unite the country, I think what he did do was unite young people. We owe him so much for that, and I think that’s why protest has become such a strong democratic tool again, because for many years, for fifteen years, it was lost in this country. You look at Extinction Rebellion – whatever you think about that, you can’t mess with the fact that they mobilised a huge, unprecedented, amount of people. That’s what we’ll remember about this time: the way that people were brought together and united in their voices.
‘The music that we’re most known for is quite uplifting, positive music, so really what I wanted to do was to try and bring that to the tradition of protest, to try and find a way of uniting our gripes and frustrations’
H: This album feels like a triumph sonically, not necessarily a major departure from the last record but a building upon it. Many of the tracks feature pretty evocative instrumentals; ‘Hospital Radio’ comes to mind as a favourite. Obviously a lot of the album’s themes and ideas are reflected in its lyrics but what did you hope to inspire with the album’s actual sound?
B: I wanted to make a record that felt angry but also hopeful. It’s quite a difficult thing to do because we’ve never been known as an angry band. When I think of the songs people would associate most with us, they are quite uplifting, happy songs and the thing is both are really important. It’s really important to be able to stand up and say, ‘I’m not happy about the way the world is and I wanna change it,’ but also to lift people. Political music, in particular, can be very divisive and can really isolate people because I think that’s what politics does.
For the past four years, families have been falling out around Sunday lunches over British politics so I think we were very careful to not make it a political record. The music that we’re most known for is quite uplifting, positive music, so really what I wanted to do was to try and bring that to the tradition of protest, to try and find a way of uniting our gripes and frustrations with what it means to live in this country at this time but also find a way of showing a path through that swamp. The way you do that is by realising that we can be so much bigger than this. If you spend all your time online or reading newspapers, what sells newspapers is bad news, is bad weather, is Piers Morgan, it’s basically pitting people against each other for clickbait. That’s how mainstream media works. If you protest against that and look outside of that, you see that we can get on really well. Leavers can have a good time in the pub with Remainers and people on the Left can find commonality with people on the Right. That’s something that I want to be reflected at our gigs when we finally do get a chance to take these songs on the road. Our music isn’t for the liberal, our music is for the people.
A Billion Heartbeats will be available on all streaming services from April 3. The physical release of the record is delayed until June.