Mystery Jets Frontman Blaine Harrison on the Power of Protest and ‘A Billion Heartbeats’
Activists throughout the ages have harnessed the power of music to drum up interest and mobilize the masses. Songs from Lead Belly to Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, and Rage Against the Machine to Riot Grrrl have rallied citizens around causes, and shaped historical trajectories. Just as music can inspire protest, protest can inspire music, kindling latent passions and guiding them toward their due creative realization. Today’s turbulent sociopolitical landscape is particularly rife with sentiments to inspire compelling art, and UK indie rock stalwarts Mystery Jets have effectively tapped into this reservoir for their bold and ambitious new album “A Billion Heartbeats.”
Since their 2006 debut album, “Making Dens,” Mystery Jets have traversed genres, culled sounds from decades of musical history, and delivered deft tunes that strike a winsome balance between colorful edge and pop immediacy. 2016’s “Curve of the Earth” found the band exploring new emotional depths, and the followup tackles heavier subject matter yet. Having always looked inward for material, frontman Blaine Harrison this time mined his surroundings for inspiration, by immersing himself in protests of various disparate persuasions, and feeding off the energy.
Harrison joined the underprivileged and voiceless in their pursuit of justice, assembled with scapegoats and pariahs in competing spheres of intersectionality, navigated the ranks of shills and procurers, witnessed anarchists and fascists trading roles, commingled with citizens protecting old identities and others trying to forge new ones. The environment deteriorates. Social media-addicted zombies wander in a post-industrial wasteland. Polarized, desensitized, depressed youth, misled and manipulated by algorithms, grow increasingly unsure of themselves and their surroundings. Labels blur and vanish in a post-truth world in which objectivity is subjective. In such chaos, there’s no room for escapism in art. But there is still a hope, which Harrison explores in a bold, muscular new set of songs that capture the primal vitality of “a billion heartbeats.” He met with Entertainment Voice to share his journey and the music that it inspired.
In London’s Trafalgar Square, where you recently lived, it seems like there’s no shortage of protests. You immersed yourself in a variety of such demonstrations, and took inspiration from them for your latest album “A Billion Heartbeats.” Tell us about how the music took form from your experiences protesting.
The songs were written during a time when I was actually living as a property guardian in this empty building just off Trafalgar Square, and the time that I was living there was for a period of around a year to eighteen months. This was the end of 2016 ‘til around the beginning of 2018, and obviously we’d just had the EU referendum in the UK. In the states, Trump had just got into office, and it just felt like quite a divided time, politically and socially, particularly living in this country. And I felt rather than write an album about what’s going on with me, I felt that I wanted to turn the lens the other way, and really look at the world outside my window, and, I suppose, explore the truth via protests because I felt like at that time, the newspapers, publications, media all felt like there was such a conscious bias on all sides, particularly in regards to Brexit and all these kinds of very divisive issues.
I really felt like all the media had such strong agendas, and I really felt like actually going out on the streets, venturing into the culture of protests, was a way of listening to both sides and trying to get closer to what people are feeling living in this country, in regards to all sorts of issues — racial integration, gender equality, the pay gap, Black lives matter, the refugee crisis, Grenfell. So with a lot of these issues, going out to the protests in the streets felt like a way of getting closer to the actual human experience behind these social issues, because I think as a citizen, your awareness of what’s going on in all different factions of society is so shaped by your muse. It’s shaped by your news feed on social media, by what you see on television on Question Time talk shows. I feel like our understanding of the mechanics of society in the time that we’re living in is so shaped by all these channels. I felt like it was important to leave the echo chamber, and actually go out on the street, and see with my own eyes how people had seen it.
Did you feel like by the end, your views had evolved from all the exposure to different viewpoints?
I do. I went down to this particular protest, which was against a far right political group called “Britain First,” who are essentially nationalistic patriots, and I think what I saw was people who came from working class communities in poorer parts of the country, and I don’t think there was real hatred of foreigners. I don’t believe that people are inherently evil. I think that people commit horrific crimes because of essentially mental illness, but I don’t really believe that people are actually evil, and I think when I went down to that protest, what I got a real sense of was people whose community had been stripped. Their welfare had been stripped. They had lost their jobs, and a lot of their jobs had been farmed out to foreign workers, and there was a palpable sense of confusion and pain in those people.
Going back twenty, thirty years, British government under Margaret Thatcher stripped so many of these communities of their employment, They took away their opportunities, so in other words, it’s the aftermath, it’s the wake of capitalism and globalization that actually is responsible for the views that are harbored by these people, and I think so often the media narrative, particularly on the right end of the spectrum, is “It’s Johnny Foreigner’s fault. It’s the migrants’ fault. It’s people coming here from poorer countries, sucking our nation dry,” and it’s just not true. I think it’s the decline of an empire, and I think that so many of the problems in this country, particularly in regards to racial intolerance and divisions in our society stem back to imperial times.
One sonic trend, especially apparent on songs like “Screwdriver,” is a new directness and immediacy that favors bold gestures over subtle filigree. Considering the album’s subject matter, did you take this approach to lead by example in a call to action?
Well, I think it’s definitely a heavier sounding record for us, and “Screwdriver” obviously is the song that opens the album, and I think we really felt the album needed to open with that sense of intent and muscular sort of robustness that we wanted to carry on through the record. In terms of where that sound came from, I think that very directly, it was inspired by the subject matter of the songs.The record sounds the way it does because when you’re on a march, when you’re at a protest, it’s such a multisensory, intense, immersive environment. A lot of people don’t go to protests because it makes them feel anxious, and I can totally understand why.
The feeling when you’re heading to a protest is a little bit like going to a festival. I’ve often thought that protests are kind of like festivals of resistance. There’s a very similar feeling. That sort of slight sense of dread when you’re going to a festival when you’re going to spend three days in the mud is not that different from when you’re going to a protest, because you’re going to be immersed in this multi-sensory overload for a number of hours. I always find you come out feeling more hopeful. It’s almost a bit like exercise. I think before you go to the gym, there’s always a slight sense of dread, like “Oh god, it’s going to be such a mission,” but actually, you come out the other side, and you feel great because you put your body to task, and I think when you go to a protest, you’re putting your body to task, and you’re putting your conscience to task as well, and I think we wanted to reflect that in the sound.
With the current circumstances, your song “History Has Its Eyes On You” seems quite prescient, with lines like “Let’s redesign how we co exist.” Expand on this line in the context of the song and in regard to any greater meaning it might have taken on.
Well, I don’t like explaining lyrics too much because I always think it’s more interesting to let people read into it themselves, but taking that particular line, it came from the international women’s day marches around the world, and at the time that I wrote “History Has Its Eyes On You,” I was living in Iceland. I had a very bad phone signal when I was living up there, but on one particular day, I was actually hiking, and I managed to get some bars on my phone, and I looked on social media, and I saw these images coming through from lots of friends of mine in London and in New York and in Los Angeles. It was the International Women’s Day Protest, which of course had in part come out of the Me Too / Time’s Up movement, and also out of Trump coming into office. I think all of those social conditions were very much wrapped up in what brought about this sudden spike in female-led activism. Seeing all these images, I suddenly felt this very strong urge to celebrate women who had given me strength in my life.
I grew up with my mum and my sister in quite remote parts of France. It was an existence where I think I really saw what a single parent could be capable of, and that was my mum, and she showed so much strength. We didn’t have a lot of money, and didn’t have access to a lot of the luxuries of the modern world because it was a quite remote part of the country. I think I really wanted to look at other women, particularly single mothers, but also women who are just instilling strong values in their children, particularly in their daughters, and really, I wanted to, I suppose, address this idea that our generation can be the change that we want to see in the world. I think we’re living in such an interesting time, where the fabric of things like gender equality, mental health, the fabric is being ripped up and stitched back together into new patterns. I think that’s really what that line is about. Let’s take a closer look at the way we are to each other. Let’s be more responsible. And it’s also partly towards the idea of consent. Dating is a tiny corner of, I suppose, that world that I’m talking about, but it all comes down to the same thing. I think particularly men, it’s as much our responsibility to try and redress the balance in society, in terms of the gender bias, and that’s really what that song is about.
You’ve spoken of how guitar music, once the default format for protest fare, has taken a backseat today to more outspoken genres like grime. There appears to be a tongue-in-cheek quality to your evocation of tireless hippie spirit in the upbeat tune, lyrics, and title of “Campfire Song.” How much of this is ironic?
(Laughs) It wasn’t written as an ironic song. I’m a big fan of irony in comedy. I like irony in literature. I like it in film. I like it in pop culture. I don’t really employ irony as a tool in my songwriting. I think the concept of a guilt pleasure is never one that I’ve associated with. I suppose “Campfire Song” is the closest to what someone might say is a guilty pleasure song on the album. If I say I love, like, a Whitney Houston track, or if I say I love Pet Shop Boys or I love Boy George, I mean I love Boy George. I’m not saying I have an ironic appreciation of what he does. There’s no irony. I just really appreciate it, and I think in that sense, the sentiment that’s expressed in that song is quite genuine. I love pop music just as much as I love Queens of the Stone Age or LCD Soundsystem or Black Sabbath. I like all types of music, and I think essentially songwriting is about storytelling to me, and I think “Campfire” is really a song which is telling a story, which is really my journey in protests.
But I think you raised a good question because I think the image of singing a song around a campfire is sort of everyone’s worst nightmare, to a point. It’s like at the end of the festival, and someone gets a guitar out, and you just think, “Oh man, put it away, put it away.” I suppose we’re playing with that idiom. We’re playing with that imagery of what a song around a campfire could be, but I think really it’s more of a metaphor for the idea that a campfire is a place of intimacy. It’s a place where stories are shared, where knowledge is passed down, and experiences are shared, and I think really that’s what this song is. It’s sort of a retelling of my journey with protest culture, I suppose.
“Hospital Radio” which pays tribute to the British NHS (National Health Service) is atypically free-form, with music culled from years of recording. Did you deliberately seek to evoke the feeling of spending time in and out of hospitals through fragmented sounds?
Yeah, I think I did to a point. The lyrics in that song are intentionally kind of stream-of-consciousness, I suppose. The most recent time I had been in hospital when I wrote the song, I was quite heavily sedated with morphine,and I had a lot of diary entries from that period, and I was looking back at the diary entries, and I even had things like voice notes and half scribbled down notes on my phone, and I looked back at all that stuff, and I thought, well, I’d like to try and capture that headspace I was in when I was in hospital recovering from my surgery. I wanted the song to feel like the experience that inspired it, and I think when you are in hospital, and you’ve only got limited visitors, and visiting hours are often cut short, and then you’re left there on your own, and you might be there for twelve hours before anyone can come and see you again. I really wanted to communicate that sense of, I suppose, isolation and loneliness through the lyrics, using slightly more abstract imagery as a way of communicating that.
You’ve described some of the more atmospheric parts of your song “Endless City” as recalling ‘80s avant-pop act Talk Talk. You’ve also generally cited Syd Barrett as a major influence. Tell us about how more outré influences make their way into your relatively accessible sound.
I suppose the commonality between the music of Syd Barett and of someone like Talk Talk is that there is a very palpable sense of being lost in a world that they’ve created, in an imaginary word. You listen to “Piper At the Gates of Dawn” or you listen to “Spirit of Eden” or “The Color of Spring,” two Talk Talk albums that I love, and there’s a very similar sense. It’s almost like this kind of dreamlike reality that comes from somewhere very deep, from the subconscious. And I think the fact that music can conjure up that sense of just floating adrift in sound is something that has always been a big influence on us. I love bands like Sigur Ros. I love Low. It creates textures and creates a sense of ambiance where you don’t know quite where you are. I think you’re quite right in saying that our music is perhaps more accessible than some of those artists, but I think I have an appreciation for both, I think I appreciate music that can make you feel like you’re actually in the moment, that can really kind of slap you across the face and make you have a real sense of exactly where you are in time and space. But I also appreciate music that can make you feel like you’re lost adrift in a sea of your own imagination. I think both those things really have a place in music, and both those worlds have an equal influence on what we do.
Your new songs describe a society “desensitized and hyper-normalized,” and allude to the mental health dangers it poses. On the other hand, the title track seems to channel the energy of protest toward positive change, reminding us in our collective plight that ”there’s love in pain / And comfort in suffering.” How optimistic are you about life after the Covid-19 crisis, and why?
I think, first of all, we’re going to be changed beyond recognition by this period of isolation. I think it’s what the world perhaps needed. I think maybe it was the universe’s way of sending us all to our bedrooms to have a think about what we’ve done. I think we’re all slowing down, we’re paying more attention to our bodies, we’re finding new ways to connect with each other, we’re getting to know our communities better, what vulnerable people around us need, understanding what we can do to help each other, and I think also understanding what we need to help ourselves — if we needed reminding. We need food on our tables. We need the warm hug of a family member. We have a new appreciation of animals. Requests for dog adoptions in the UK have skyrocketed because people are longing to feel closeness. I think in the absence of human contact, we’re finding new ways to communicate, you know — all these channels that are opening up — your zooms and house parties and Google hangouts and FaceTime and chat, I think all of this is symptomatic of us craving human contact.
And I think maybe what we needed was just for the great machinery of the world just to kind of grind to a halt for a second, for us to really recognize what’s actually important to us. And I think that’s very linked to mental health because I think we’re so wrapped up in our daily existence of trying to keep the wolf from the door, trying to keep our heads above the water, trying to keep the taxman from the door, trying to keep food on our family’s table, trying to excel in our careers, trying to live life and look good on social media. All this envy we have for other people’s life, all the parties other people are at, holidays we’re no on, diets we’re not eating, bodies we don’t have — all of this stuff is so toxic to our mental health, and I think a lot of those systems have been derailed by the Covid-19 virus and the quarantine, so actually, I do feel very hopeful, and I think we’re going to come out of this on the other side with a much more developed sense of how important it is to be connected with one another and to appreciate the time that we’ve got.
“A Billion Heartbeats” is available April 3 on Apple Music.