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A Quietus Interview

Killing Chickens & John Cale's Gums: Mystery Jets Interviewed
Ben Hewitt , February 1st, 2010 08:01

Ben Hewitt has sushi with the Mystery Jets to discuss their new album and falling asleep in German peep booths

Sheltered from the brisk January cold inside the Tortoise and Hare sushi bar in Kensington, the Mystery Jets are in the middle of trying to explain why they had to kill a chicken while they were writing their third album in Cornwall.

“It’s probably our favourite part of England,” says lead singer Blaine Harrison, his long straggly hair falling on either side of his face. “We were all staying in caravans on a farm.”

Guitarist Kai Fish joins in to elaborate on this bizarre indie version of The Good Life. “Yeah, we were on a farm, taking care of the animals. We milked cows, fed the sheep, looked after the chickens. And there were cats.”

“I looked after the cats,” says the band’s other guitarist, Will Rees.

“Yeah, you were the cat man,” agrees Kai.

Blaine takes over again. “But when we had to sacrifice a chicken”, he says, to laughter from his band mates. “That was a lot of hard work. If you have two cockerels, two alpha males in the group, it’s trouble.” He leans over and produces a mobile phone with a video clip of said poultry squawking and being hung upside down, as bemused waiting staff hover around our table and watch on. “The smaller cockerel had an inferiority complex and kept attacking the bigger one. So we chose to kill the smaller one.”

“It wasn’t easy though,” says Kai. “He put up a really good fight.”

“We didn’t do the actual killing,” interrupts Blaine. “The farmer did that. First he strung it up but it kept clucking” - at this point Blaine produces a terrifyingly loud impersonation of a wounded chicken - “and the farmer said, ‘It’s ok, this is normal‘. 15 minutes later it was still clucking. So he had to take it outside and wring its neck.”

And what did you do with the chicken afterwards?

“We ate it,” grins Kai. “But it tasted awful. It hadn’t been fattened up, so he got the last laugh. We had really severe diahorrea for about a week. He got his revenge from beyond the grave.”

You said if you have two alpha males in a group it causes a problem. Is that ever an issue for the Mystery Jets?

Blaine laughs. “Oh yeah, it happens in the band all the time.”

“It’s Blaine and Kai”, says Will. “It was like seeing the Mystery Jets but on a farmyard. The chickens were acting out our lives.”

In an hour’s time, the Mystery Jets tour bus will arrive to take the band on their European jaunt with the Arctic Monkeys. After their second, poppier album Twenty One was released in 2008, they’ve changed record companies, swapping 679 for Rough Trade, and have set their sights on writing a “purer” follow-up record which owes less to the proggy influences which dominated their debut Making Dens - Syd Barret, Super Furry Animals et al - and defines their own sound. Apart from a lead single, which may or may not still be written according to the band, work on Luminescence is practically finished. “Actually, it’s not going to be called Luminescence now,” says William.

Really?

“Yeah. It’s going to be Cocksure. Either Cocksure or Balls Deep.”

“It’s going to be somewhere between Luminescence, Cocksure or Balls Deep”, says Blaine.

“How about Essence Of Cock?” suggests Kai. “Or Essence Of Deep?”

Deep Essence”, replies Blaine. “It’s a chill out album.”

So then, Luminescence, Cocksure or Balls Deep - whatever the hell it ends up being called - is set to come out in early summer this year. As the Jets start ordering from the menu - Kai plumps for Salmon Teriyaki, Blaine just has a beer because he “already had his pop tarts” earlier in the day - we discuss the new album. How’s it different from their previous records?

“I think it’s a change in direction to a certain extent,” says Blaine. “I think ever record in its own way represented a change in terms of direction, but I think this time it’s a heavier change. It’s quite a live album with the five of us playing at the same time, so we didn’t get bogged down layering things on top of each other. And it’s definitely rockier - for us. I think maybe our second album was quite pop, so we all bought a distortion pedal and decided to turn the amps up quite a lot. We found our own inner rock gods.”

You’ve said that it’s more you, too. That this is the album in which you hope to truly define yourselves.

“It’s definitely less referential”, says Kai.

“Yeah, I think at the time all the records have been us - whenever we’ve made an album we’ve always put all of ourselves into it - but this one feels like it’s borrowed less from other things,” agrees Blaine. “It feels a bit purer in that sense. When we first started out we wanted to be like five different bands, so with Making Dens we wanted to be a prog rock band but also loved The Smiths and The Cure. On the second album, with Erol [Aklan], we stripped away a lot of the excess flesh and it lent the record a real pop sound. I think with this album we put a bit of meat back on, but it feels very necessary.”

If the Jets have found the ability to rock, then it has a lot to do with the presence of Chris Thomas on production duties. With a CV which includes work with the Sex Pistols, Roxy Music, John Cale and Pulp, the band are eager to impress what a huge influence he had on them - both in and out of the studio. Several times they remark how “very cool” he is, and how he “became part of the band”. He must have shared some good rock & roll anecdotes?

Blaine laughs. “Yeah. Most of them involve John Cale.”

Can you tell us one?

“They’ve just become friends again. We’re going to ruin it”, says Kai.

“Ok,” says Blaine. “Chris made Paris 1919 with John, which was one of the reasons we wanted to work with him, because it’s one of our favourite albums. For the next couple of years they went on tour, and there was one in time in France when John was pretty big into his drugs, someone gave him what he thought was coke. He did a couple of lines, and it turned out to be heroin. Chris marched up around this square outside the hotel to stop him passing out, but eventually he did and woke up in hospital. They were about to go to Paris to do a TV show when John woke up and said ‘Chris, you see those syringes? Put them in your jacket and we’ll have them on the bus’.

“So they were on their way to the TV show and snapped them open. It was liquid so they could only rub it on their gums, and they were in the middle of performing this song on TV and their mouths went completely numb. They couldn’t even mime.”

They may not have reached the same proportions of debauchery as Cale, but the Jets are no strangers to fun on the road themselves. Blaine, for example, reveals that he enjoys more freedom on tour now that his father Henry now travels with the band, prompting Kai, tongue-in-cheek, to joke: “Blaine tends to only sleep with one or two girls at once when Henry’s there. When he’s not there it turns into a giant orgy. It’s pretty hardcore”. Recently, meanwhile, they relocated to Berlin to preview new material under the guise of the Crystal Wolf Fighters - a decision which led to a tense encounter when Blaine encountered the disgruntled members of the band Crystal Fighters who wanted to know why he’d pinched their moniker - and in the process corrupted Chris’s children. “Chris doesn’t know about that though”, says Kai quickly. “Let’s just leave that there.”

“When we were in Germany before, a couple of years ago, it was pretty wild,“ reveals Blaine.

Didn’t someone get lost in a strip club?

“Yeah, that was Kapil [Trivedi, Mystery Jets drummer], wasn’t it?” says Will. “In a peep booth.”

Blaine laughs. “Yeah, he got last in a dark place. We were on the bus about to leave, and we suddenly realised Kapil wasn’t there. And we rang him and he said ‘I don’t know where I am. It’s blue. I can only see blue lights’. So one of our roadies - Barry the Hippy - said ‘Ok, I think I know where you are’, and set off into the streets of Hamburg to find him. He found him curled asleep on the floor in a wank booth.”

“He was just like a wet hanky on the floor”, laughs Kai.

On the surface, the Mystery Jets seem like a band without a care in the world, happy to while away the time talking about killing chickens, John Cale’s numbed gums and falling asleep whilst wanking in seedy booths. But beneath the jocular exterior lurks a palpable sense of determination. They talk openly about wanting their third album to propel them to new heights, and help them reach a larger audience than they’ve previously enjoyed; they reveal their disappointment that their last album wasn’t quite the hit they had hoped for, which led to 670 being unable to offer them a new deal. For a band who were renowned for their quirkiness when they first emerged, it’s a surprising attitude.

“That was really annoying,” says Blaine. “When you first come out as a band - and it sounds really horrible - but you need a hook for people to hold onto and a story for people to exploit. I guess what was frustrating was that we didn’t make any of this stuff up. Being in a band with an old guy never seemed weird to us, but I guess to other people it was. And it seemed like it took people a long time to start getting over this funny story and start listening to the music and the lyrics. It was so frustrating. Now we’re in a position where don’t have that hanging over us, and hopefully people will listen to it for what it is.”

Some things never change, though. No sooner have we finished discussed their ambitions for their new album and are about to wrap up the interview than Blaine delves into his pocket to find his mobile phone and producer another video. This time, it’s a man dressed in a penguin suit playing the theme to Star Wars on the bagpipes, who they asked to play on the new record.

“He was a coked up South African city trader, and a semi-professional bagpipe player,” says Blaine. He was really good at playing Star Wars, which is what he normally does at weddings and Bar Mitzvah’s dressed as Darth Vader. He was going to play on the last track of the album which has a sort of highland feel to it, but it didn’t work out. We wasted a whole day in the studio but we got a good video out of it.”

It doesn’t sound much like Star Wars.

“It goes into it. I don’t think he knows that he isn’t on the album,” he laughs. “It’s OK. I don’t think he can even remember who we are, let alone whether he’s on the album or not. He was pretty high.”

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