The myth of Mystery Jets is easily told. Out on Eel Pie Island, off the coast of Twickenham in west London, bands from the Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd once played at the Eel Pie Island Hotel. When the hotel burned down in 1971, the island was left as a relic of an ancient, lost r'n'b civilisation. Here Henry Harrison formed a band with his son Blaine, who has spina bifida, as singer, and school friend William Rees on guitar, when both were at infant school. As they grew up, adding bassist Kai Fish then drummer Kapil Trivedi to what became Mystery Jets, they revived Eel Pie's musical ghosts by staging parties there.
Finally the father-and-son band from London's oddest outpost were signed to a major label, . Their first two records, Making Dens (2006) and Twenty One (2008), referenced the prog-rock excesses of Yes and included Latin lyrics, while managing Top 30 hits. They staged a fine tribute to their hero Syd Barrett on his death in 2006, and seemed to fit snugly into his eccentric English freak-pop tradition.
But the four Jets merrily consuming lunch and cider in a north London pub (dad Henry only joins the band in the studio these days) feel they've outgrown a past that now seems as distant to them as that old hotel's ashes. Their new album Serotonin is a big, bold pop record about emotional extremes, the product of fast times from Berlin to Nice, made by self-described "jaded" 25-year-olds who sometimes feel they've already seen too much.
"It's funny," considers the shaggy-haired Harrison, "because the whole time people have talked about our roots in Eel Pie Island, and you go into this mode where you have about 10 different things that you say. But when I think about it, I don't even remember being in that band."
"We were children then," says Rees. "We were quite late developers. When we were 19, 20, 21, we were so cherubic, weren't we? We were just little kids." Harrison agrees. "We spent all our time in a Portakabin playing music, not seeing girls, or getting wasted, or any of that stuff. But now we've been thoroughly soiled by rock'n'roll..."
Serotonin is named after the chemical that many anti-depressants are based around: "the machine in your body that decides whether it wants to pump out happy feelings or sad feelings," as Harrison explains. "Serotonin makes you want to piss when you're nervous." Songs such as the title track, "Melt" and "Show Me the Light" span these extremes of feeling.
"Those three songs are about wilder experiences, as I'm sure you can imagine," says Rees carefully. "They're about natural chemicals, and unnatural chemicals. Last night someone who I haven't thought about for five years called me, and it suddenly made me think of myself five years ago and the ways I used to behave. That person's a stranger now, and I miss certain bits of him. "Show Me the Light" is about a loss of innocence."
"The whole record is," says Harrison. "It's a jaded album."
"We've all swung quite hard from innocence to experience being in this band," considers Fish. "This album was us finding some balance. It is quite a special age, your mid-twenties, because you start to see a lot of very exciting things, like the parties, the scenes you hang out in. But then you see a lot of that's paper-thin, and doesn't have any weight or meaning. I have a conversation with myself about right and wrong sometimes, like it's Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. Growing up together in this band is like the end of that book, where he's in this corridor full of rooms that he can explore that represent different spaces in himself. And some of it's incredibly bad, sitting up on a hill killing people, and some of it's psychological."
"A series of doors," ponders Harrison. "Where sometimes you know something's wrong, but you do it anyway. Now I've stopped drinking all the time, I can step through others..."
"I sometimes feel like a Judas to myself," Rees says. "I say things I don't mean. I wake up in the morning and tell myself not to, but then I do it more."
Press for details of the sybaritic excesses Mystery Jets have been indulging in behind their veneer of quirky innocence all this time, and Harrison and Rees's bad break-ups from long-term relationships and shaken faith in love, and the typical hedonism of a band on the road, seem as bad as it gets. If that's true, their mix of desire for experience and regret at battered ideals mean they remain more decent and innocent than they think.
They began writing Serotonin in an old railway carriage on a Cornish farm, and continued in Berlin. "Berlin is the one place you can really shed your past and start again," says Rees. "A lot of people go there looking for some kind of creative spark or new energy. We lost ourselves in pretty much every way there. Bits of our brains are still left in Bar 25."
"We played this indie night billed as Crystal Wolf Eaters at White Trash," Harrison happily recalls, "probably the only place you can get a tattoo whilst eating a burger, whilst listening to German rockabilly. We swum naked in the lakes under the full moon, and smoked East German Revolution cigarettes, which are so strong that you only need two tokes to get cancer, basically... we had several girlfriends, one on each arm..."
Chris Thomas, the legendary producer of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK", John Cale's Paris 1919 and Pulp's Different Class, watched those mad days in Berlin, then took them to his plush Nice chateau to make Serotonin. "Chris is a real lover of sensual things," says Fish admiringly. "He loves his food and going up volcanoes at the other side of the world. He went out with Nico. He told us about John Cale taking too much heroin when he thought it was cocaine... and George Harrison told him he was responsible for finishing off the Sixties, by putting the phasing effect on The Beatles' "Helter Skelter" that Charles Manson said inspired his killings."
Thomas's old-school producer's ambition remains to make a hit record. The band felt the same way. "Our aspirations for it are huge," believes Rees. "We want to go out there and be as big as we can." Fish agrees. "We've been self-indulgent recording in the past, leaving in certain aspects that no one else is going to pick up on, but in our heads is a nice thing."
Long-term fans may miss the private, quirky cul-de-sacs Mystery Jets once revelled in, which have been largely jettisoned for Serotonin's streamlined sound. Rees believes they have retained their musical soul in the process. "Everything I like has a line or image that's hard to swallow. I pray to God our music's like that, that it's link to people is like their own private tunnel. On our first record, we filled everything up with characters, you can see that on the cover. We leave space for the listeners to fill in now."
Mystery Jets' faith in love and their own more eccentric instincts may have been shaken with age. But the bond between them remains profound. "It's friendship," says Harrison, to general agreement. "The main reason we came together is out of blood. Me and William went to nursery school together. Kai's parents lived with my parents in the Seventies. We might even be related. People shared toothbrushes and all sorts of funny things in those days. Kapil's actually half-Irish, and I am, our families fought in the same Celtic wars."
"We are like twins," Fish agrees. "We have the same weird dreams at the same time."
Mystery Jets have outgrown their beginnings. But they are still adding to Eel Pie Island's legends. "Yeah, I guess so," Harrison muses. "Everything looks better in retrospect. When we're Chris's age we'll have embellished our stories so much we'll be responsible for the Sharon Tate murders..."
'Serotonin' is out now on Rough TradeReuse content