Everyone has one band. The band that helped to define their music taste – that helped, perhaps, to determine what they did with their lives. They might not be the band whose records you go back to most frequently. They might not even appear on your painstakingly curated list of all-time top 10 artists. But they have somehow remained a constant in your life, familiar and important.
For me, that band is Mystery Jets. I first saw them at the age of perhaps 17, supporting Bloc Party at Portsmouth’s Wedgwood Rooms. From the terrifying first bars of ‘Zoo Time’, the chants gradually growing louder as the band appeared onstage, I was horribly, irreconcilably in love. The homemade percussion, the acres of pedals, the time signatures…they were everything my impressionable ears had ever wanted from a guitar band.
I’m still not entirely sure how, but about a fortnight later I ended up on tour with them. At the time I thought I wanted to be a photographer and, rather than sit in college listening to a tutor with a septic ear piercing and a wardrobe of mildewed Breton tops three sizes too small for him, I decided to just give it a go. I toured with the band on and off for two years, sleeping (or not) on Travelodge floors and wedging myself in the corner of an increasingly dilapidated Transit van. They were, needless to say, some of the very best times of my life, characterised by a feeling of forward motion; a sense of being tangentially connected with something important.
Never was this more acutely felt than during the occasional parties held on the band’s native Eel Pie Island. In the middle of the Thames, near Twickenham, the island is still home to a clutch of architects, musicians, and shipbuilders. The band had practiced for years in a makeshift building attached to an old dock, beneath the house in which father and son Blaine and Henry Harrison lived. Every few months the band would curate a lineup of their friends, and hundreds of excitable drunks would wend their way up the steps of the dock to pack inside the tiny room.
The NME might have coined the absurd ‘Thamesbeat’ tag, but it was these parties that came to define it. A startling, difficult Jamie T; a careeringly drunken Larrikin Love; a furious, carnivalesque Noisettes – they all played beneath a portrait of Syd Barrett, to a relentlessly supportive crowd swigging red wine from plastic jerry cans. For the early part of their career, Mystery Jets and Eel Pie Island were inseparable. In their music the band had created their own, skewed little vision of England. In Eel Pie that world was reified.
After the release of Making Dens the band shed the geeky-boy-in-a-mystical-tree-house aesthetic, and began to explore more traditional rock tropes. If their debut was the sound of the class weirdos being let loose in the music room, then 2008’s Twenty One was the sound of those weirdos realising that, actually, they were cooler than they first thought – and, lo and behold, that girls liked them. The record instantly alienated a chunk of the band’s acolytes; there were mumbles of ‘Judas’ from those who had placed their hope in Mystery Jets as a vanguard for the return of prog. But in retrospect, Twenty One was a remarkably natural progression for a band whose heart had always truly belonged to pop. It was shorn of Making Dens’ foley adornments, and without these the band’s easy melodicism was thrown into starker relief.
The record was undeniably front-loaded, but the first half of Twenty One contains a set of six songs as good as any released that year. Of those, the arms-aloft beauty of ‘Flakes’ provides one of the highpoints of the band’s career. Last June, three years after its release, I watched at Manchester’s Parklife as the band closed their set with the song – and, in the melancholic camaraderie with which they smothered the half-full tent, it was clear that Mystery Jets were already on their way to attaining the status of national treasures, despite the lukewarm reception granted to third album Seratonin.