Nine Songs: Mystery Jets
Blaine Harrison brings a sense of historical significance to the songs that have defined him.
Mystery Jets seventh album, A Billion Heartbeats, is more overtly politicised than their previous work, which Harrison attributes to a newfound socio-political awareness, as well as being surrounded by politically conscious music his whole life. What’s interesting is that the songs that have defined him - as an artist and a human - have very little political thought behind them. Instead, they’re defined by the stories that surround them and the stories that surround his listening.
Harrison’s political awakening came in 2003, when he participated in the anti-Iraq-war march, which gathered the biggest protest crowd to date but didn’t have any political affect whatsoever; the war proceeded. Disillusioned with politicians, the songwriter became interested in the political mechanics of Britain. As a disabled person on benefits, he was curious how those systems are monetised, as well as his own part as a cog in the machine of society.
Towards the end of the making of Mystery Jet’s sixth album, Curve of the Earth, Harrison knew something intuitively; he wanted to write a record that embraced social commentary. “As an artist, your work is ultimately a time capsule of the moment it was created in. As art outlives you, I thought ‘Well, if I’m going to write a record about now, what injustices am I seeing outside my window? And how can I use music to tell stories about the injustices I’m seeing in the world?”
The culmination was A Billion Heartbeats, which covers everything from the rise of the alt-right, fourth-wave feminism, the refugee crisis and toxic masculinity. “These songs came from marches I was going on in 2017 and 2018. Marches felt like festivals of resistance. Places where you’d meet people with different experiences to you, but you’re united by the same thing that brought you there, which is being moved by the power of gathering together.”
Recognising the importance of sharing stories and being united by the human plight, he launched a podcast, Speakers Corner, which gives a platform to marginalised powers and furthering his social responsibility as an artist. With guests such as IDLES’s Joe Talbot, Harrison tells me he wants to “create a space for people to have positive discussions and share ideas about the future. I don’t see that in the mainstream media, which focuses on fights to sell stories.”
This political awareness and understanding of the role of the artist to comment on society is linked to the politically conscious music Harrison listens to. “The most formative artists in my musical upbringing all made political statements. Be it Neil Young talking about school shootings, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters on fascism and consumerism on The Dark Side of the Moon and Joni Mitchell on environmentalism with ‘Big Yellow Taxi.’”
Interestingly, none of these artists feature here, instead he explains that as with his own writing, he wanted to tell a story through his Nine Songs. “These are songs which at some point have been my ripcord to get out whatever has been going on in my life. They’ve been a comfort, a solace and a music space to guide me - guiding beacons in my musical journey.”
Perhaps Harrison gravitates more towards the sentimental revelations of Daniel Johnston and Beck, because comfort is more easily found in music, without the heaviness of a political heartbeat? “When I’m on my own listening to music, I’m more drawn to music which I’m connected to emotionally.”
His choices are brim full of emotional connection, be that through the poignant car journey where he heard that first Lou Reed song, the ways that certain records shaped Mystery Jets sonically, or the lessons he learnt from artists ahead of him.
Together, they belong to the same category of great indie and rock storytellers. They’re the very best of rock, as lyrically evocative as they are melodically. Harrison may be brilliantly political on and off the score, but what it all comes down to is that he is painfully aware - of his society, his musical colleagues and himself - and the songs that define his life is music that heighten his awareness.
“This is from Lou Reed’s sixth solo record Coney Island Baby, which was released in 1975. Whenever this song comes on it has this incredible ability to transport me back to a specific car journey; I was nine years old and I was being driven to Heathrow in the back of my Dad's car.
“My parents had recently separated, and I was living with my Mum in France. I had to fly back to the UK for hospital operations, which is why Dad was driving me to the airport, to fly home to France. Nine years old is quite young to fly on your own, and I remember it being a traumatic experience to say goodbye to one parent and then fly across what felt like an entire ocean, especially after surgery.
“On this occasion my Dad had Lou Reed playing and “Coney Island Baby” came on. I was too young to understand the lyrics, but I felt them. I received the sentiment of the song even in my tiny child mind. It cut through everything in that moment - I can still smell the leather of the car seats, I can still taste the tears rolling down my cheek and still see the tears on my Dad’s face in the rear-view mirror. I actually usually skip this song when it comes on, because it’s almost too much to be transported back into that sort of pain.
“As a lyricist, I really scrutinize lyrics and I always try and follow the story when I listen to music. When I fall in love with an artist, I’m always Googling the lyrics and trying to work out the various meanings and duality behind the words. With a song like this, which I discovered when I was so young, the lyrics are almost unimportant. It’s more about the feeling that they convey.
“There probably is a narrative there, but when I listen to the song its lost on me. I’m absorbed by the feeling of being in that car.”
“When I was about ten, I was given The Compact King Crimson on cassette tape and that’s what led me to “21st Century Schizoid Man.” This song is from In the Court of the Crimson King, which has the screaming face on the cover, and the face is inspired by the Arthur Janov book The Primal Scream. Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis.
“My Dad told me that at the time of the book and album there was a real fad for going out into nature and screaming guttural sounds. It became this zeitgeist self-help technique and I believe that’s what influenced the book, but essentially, it’s a guy having an existential meltdown and the song taps into that.
“I think because I was young when I heard it, I didn’t appreciate this more complex meaning, and at the time I just appreciated the sheer aggression of the music. It was also the first time I’d ever heard those complicated time signatures and polyrhythms, as well as the combination of distorted guitar and saxophone.
"I hadn’t grown up on jazz, so I sort of thought it was for nerds, but when I heard this and heard the sax on the time signatures I was like ‘This is like jazz rock’. In the Court of the Crimson King is hailed by lots of people - like Shellac - as the first Math Rock or Post Rock record. They also invented heavy metal if you think about it, because they were doing riffs before Black Sabbath.
“Our first album, Making Dens, is heavily indebted to King Crimson. We very much wore our influences on our sleeve in the beginning, and we had this approach of throwing everything including the kitchen sink at our songwriting. Whenever I listen to Making Dens, I hear the chaos of a band trying to sound like King Crimson. They’ve been a big influence for Mystery Jets.”
“I dropped out of university because the band was starting to be quite busy and my friend Daniel Stone, who was an artist, made me a mix CD. It had a different Daniel Johnson song called “Speeding Motorcycle” and when I heard it, I went down a Daniel Johnston rabbit hole. I’ve been down there ever since.
“Johnston taught me a lot of lessons. When we started the band, I was the drummer, which was my first instrument, but when the lead singer left I reluctantly took over lead vocals. I really hated the sound of my voice and it's taken me many years to get comfortable with it.
"Johnston was the first artist I heard who really sang in his own voice, he had this really squeaky teenagers warble. It sounds like a kid lost in his own world, in a basement, pouring his heart out into a tape recorder. It had such a profound influence on me.When I discovered his music, between Making Dens and Twenty One, I felt that it was okay to not like your own voice, and it was okay that I’m not Morrissey or Thom Yorke - the people I was trying to emulate at that time.
"Discovering his music taught me that but it also taught me to sing your own truth, to tell your own story, and to not be afraid of revealing your ugliest and most private parts of yourself in your music, because that’s actually how people relate to songs.
“A song is a place to hide your ghosts. When you write a song, you’re building a house for your demons to live in. I think Johnston taught me that too. Maybe with A Billion Heartbeats I’ve built a house for a generation’s ghosts, but I’ll have to let other people decide that.”
“I got into Neutral Milk Hotel by accident. Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire mentioned this song on an interview, and I explored it and found the Aeroplane record. It was like discovering a secret. There are very few records that I’ve had that relationship with - you hear it and you don’t want to share it with anyone.
“The story of the record is so unique and a bonus as to why I love it. Jeff Mangum hadn’t been taught about the Holocaust in school, so when he discovered Anne Frank’s journal in his mid-20s', he picked up this book and was like ‘What’s this?’
"We take it for granted that we know Anne Frank’s story from a young age, but imagine if you stumbled across that book without the context? It would be incredible, and so it had this profound impact on him, to the point where he kind of invented a relationship in his subconscious mind with her, whereby they were old friends. It became like a soulmate relationship where he got to know her through his dreams.
“He practiced lucid dreaming in the making of the record by waking up and putting himself back on the edge of sleep. He managed to have these lucid dreams that he could control; where he could walk through passages in his imagination and he got to know Anne Frank through that space.
"All the songs were written in this otherworldly space, and that’s why it’s quite a surreal record lyrically. I visited Anne Frank’s house listening to In the Aeroplane over the Sea and it created an even stronger bond between me and the record.
“Also, around 2013, Mangum announced some really intimate shows. It was about thirteen years since he’d toured the record, and I believe he’s got bipolar and is very reclusive. I somehow managed to get tickets to his Union Chapel gig, and for the author of a cult record like that it’s a very small venue. We just sat there and wept, it was like a funeral. There was this incredible sound when he was performing, and I looked around me and realised that the sound was the whole audience singing the lyrics under their breath.
“No one wanted to disturb his performance by singing but everyone in the room had this profound connection to the songs. He came back on for three encores and when he finally left the stage the security couldn’t get people to leave. They were refusing to leave the pews, stomping, in fits of tears. It was like a divine presence had just left the building.
“This song has been my medicine at different times in life, curing me from different struggles like mental health or loss. Its music that has never failed to move me.”
“I grew up in London, but I spent my teens in the countryside, and I’d come to London on the weekends. It was the early stages of the band where we were meeting new people, getting drunk and stoned - all of those really formative experiences of exploring the decadent debauchery that London has to offer. Then at the end of the weekend I’d have to hop on a train and go back to the sanity of school life.
“Whenever I hear this song it evokes that feeling, the sense of the early days of the band and discovering my gang. Your early twenties are about finding your tribe, which is what I did during that time by travelling to London and having those formative experiences with them. “Last Train to London” evokes that sense of finding where you belong, and it happens to contextually fit in with my experience at the time.
“It’s a stark contrast to the previously mentioned songs, which are a little darker and heavier. It’s a feel-good tune to me, although it’s a song which has a kind of sad, bittersweet mood in the lyrics, like “I really want tonight to last forever / I really want to be with you.” I felt that bittersweet feeling at the time.
“It’s also just a great disco banger! It’s mixed so loud and so relentlessly; and sonically it’s an incredible song. I’m uplifted whenever I hear it, it makes me feel elated. I always drop it when I DJ, it bulldozes the songs on either side of it when I play it.”
“I discovered Cass McCombs’s music when we were making our fourth album Radlands, which we choose to make in America. At that point we’d all been living in London for years and we were looking for a taste of another life, another existence, and we found that in Texas.
“We moved to Austin and lived there for about four months, which doesn’t sound like that long, but it was long enough to immerse ourselves in Texan culture. We went to make the record in this old colonial era ranch house, right out in the middle of nowhere and it was perfect. We had racoons raiding our dustbins, rattlesnakes under the back porch, and a rifle. We even used it to shoot tin cans.
“I think it was our first week in Texas, and we went to the local record store in Austin. I always like to ask the guy behind the counter what he likes to listen to, especially if I’m in a different place and the Texan record store guy said, “You’ve got to hear the new Cass McCombs record."
“We put it on, and from that moment it totally shaped what Radlands went on to become. We actually went out to Austin without any songs written, but once we heard Cass McCombs we realised it had the DNA of what we wanted to make. “County Line” is a very slow song. It has a sense of longing about it, a dream-like half-remembered memory mood to it. He’s just got the loveliest voice which is so evocative, and it really captures the mood of Radlands.”
“This is track two on Beck’s Morning Phase, his ninth studio record, which I discovered after touring Radlands around America three times. I’d always appreciated Beck from a distance, but I never had an emotional connection to his music. I loved “Loser” and it was fun to spin him at an indie disco, but I didn’t have that real relationship with his music. But when this came out it blew my mind; it was such an incredible record.
“It was written and recorded as a counterpart to Sea Change, his previous record. It used a lot of the same musicians and it was recorded in Nashville. It has that real blissed out, opioid induced country music feel to it - very floaty. To me, it really felt like it was his mid-life crisis record, the musical version of him buying a Bugatti and running off with his secretary.
“Just like with King Crimson and Cass McCombs, Beck’s Morning Phase completely influenced Curve of the Earth and it gave us the sonic blueprint for that record. The blueprint was this woozy, washed out, ethereal, very spacious, widescreen feel. There are tinges of country there, but it’s more of a headphone stoner record.”
“I suppose this is another more upbeat song. I feel like I can remember it from one of those Best of the ‘80s compilations from when I was a teenager, but unlike a lot of the songs from that era, it has a lot of real lived experience and heart to it.
“Although these songs are in chronological order, this had an influence on me when we were touring with Klaxons in 2007. At the end of the tour I stayed in New York to write on my own for a few weeks. I’d read that Mike Scott from The Waterboys was living on the East Side, and I would walk around that area every day listening to “The Whole of the Moon” hoping I’d bump into him. Which I never did, unfortunately.
“I love the story behind this track. Essentially, one night Mike Scott had been out drinking and he met this girl. As he walked her back to her apartment, he told her he was a songwriter and she said “Well, then write me a song now.” He looked up at the sky and there was a half crescent of the moon, and he wrote the first half of this song on the walk home, just to impress this girl. I was so blown away by the romance of that.
“I would sit on this bench at a dog park and think ‘How do I summon that greatness in a song.’ A few days before I flew home, I wrote “Two Doors Down”, sat on that bench in that dog park. And I feel I’ve got Mike Scott to thank for that.”
“I’m a latecomer to Sharon Van Etten. I only heard this towards the end of last year and it melted me. It’s actually my girlfriend and I’s song.
“The song is about Etten bidding farewell to New York, where she was living in her 20’s. When she was leaving the city, she wanted to write a song that was a farewell to the landscape of her 20’s, which became “Seventeen.” In the journey of writing the song she visited these places where she danced or met people and where she’d had these formative experiences of her young life. One of these places was a club that’s now an Italian restaurant.
“It’s a song about gentrification, about how a city has different lives, and that feels so true to me and it really resonates. On my walk to the pool that I swim at in London, I walk past this derelict building which used to be a club I danced in when I was 17 and coming up to London.
“Now it’s empty and filled with squatters and whenever I walk past it, I feel this pang of something that I can’t describe, but that “Seventeen” managed to encapsulate. That feeling is like, ‘All these memories took place in that building and only the people who were there can tell those stories. Anyone else who walks by just sees an empty building, or an Italian restaurant.’
“I think “Seventeen” is really about that. How street corners and physical spaces can have very powerful human memories and experiences hidden in the brick and mortar. So, for me it’s a song that encapsulates a feeling of loss - the loss of innocence perhaps.”