Mystery Jets: Torchbearers of a rich musical tradition

Mystery Jets are heading towards the future of music at lightening speed. And it's their secret fifth member who's taking them there. They explain how to Fiona Sturges
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For many an aspiring young musician, starting a rock band is about asserting independence and sticking two fingers up to the older generation. Not so with 20-year-old Blaine Harrison, the shock-headed lead singer and keyboard player in Mystery Jets, who counts among his band-mates his 55-year-old father Henry.

Last week the band released the debut album Making Dens, a wilfully barmy creation that has delighted and baffled reviewers in equal measure. The album comprises a series of oddball yet highly literate songs such as "Alas Agnes", a tale of a woman who has a sex-change at the behest of her lover, only to be abandoned for someone else, and "Little Bag of Hair" which details Blaine's childhood memories of hospital treatment for his spina bifida. Musically, the sounds are more diverse than the "prog" tag would have you believe - "Zootime" was written when the band was listening to a lot of Steve Reich and Philip Glass while " Alas Agnes" was written as a tribute to The Smiths' "William, It Was Really Nothing".

Mystery Jets hail from Eel Pie Island, near Twickenham, a small village marooned in the middle of the Thames that was once rather uncharitably described as "50 drunks clinging to a mud flat." The island has a long musical heritage - Dickens mentioned the Eel Pie Hotel in Nicholas Nickleby, describing it as a place one could "dance to the music of the locomotive band". In the Sixties the hotel became a retreat for artists, poets and musicians, and resounded with the early performances of George Melly, the Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and The Who.

Henry and Blaine, who have lived there since the mid-Nineties, take the island's history extremely seriously. Along with fellow Mystery Jets Will Rees (guitars), Kai Fish (bass) and Kapil Trivedi (drums), they look upon themselves as torchbearers of a rich musical tradition. Would that the other residents shared their enthusiasm. Following a series of free concerts early last year during which they welcomed up to 600 gig-goers at a time in their boatyard, their neighbours complained to the local authority. The band has since been issued with a formal noise-abatement order.

"Can you believe it?" sighs Henry, shaking his head in disappointment. "I felt like framing it. Here they all are living in a place with this extraordinary musical history, and they don't even like music. They're not the least interested in the spirit of the place."

"I don't think they were that impressed with 600 people tramping up and down the footpath either," adds Blaine, diplomatically. "I guess you can't blame them for that. But it's a shame as our music has always been bound up with the place in which we make it." Refusing to be thwarted, the band decided that if the people couldn't come to them, they would take their music to the people. Following the highly successful and largely self-financed Eel Pie Revue, in which Mystery Jets toured the country with 16 like-minded acts including The Noisettes, Jamie T and The Ludes, they have since spent nearly all their time on the road. Last year brought supports slots with Bloc Party, British Sea Power and Futureheads, and this year they took part in the prestigious NME Awards Tour where they shared the bill with We Are Scientists, Maximo Park and Arctic Monkeys.

Few seem more startled by Mystery Jets sudden rise to fame than Mystery Jets themselves. Such is the band's profile these days that people they've never met greet them on the streets like old friends. Formerly a faithful Radio 4 listener, Henry confesses he switched to Radio 1 after it started playing the records. He's become rather partial to the NME too, ever since the magazine voted him as the "18th coolest man in rock".

Yet, despite this unexpected surge in popularity, Mystery Jets are keen not to be linked to any particular music scene. "Being part of a scene gives you a lifespan," notes Rees. "Obviously we wouldn't want that. But more importantly we don't want to be pigeonholed as a fashion band. If you're not fashionable, you've got nothing to lose, have you?"

Looking at them, it's clear they've got nothing to worry about on that score. Not for them the skinny ties and natty suits of your Franz Ferdinands and your Strokes. "Thrift-shop chic "would be the kindest way to describe Blaine's sartorial style, which takes in tweed pedal-pushers, diamond-weave knee socks and strings of beads. In dark coat and jeans, Henry looks much as you'd expect a 55-year-old ex-architect to look like, his collar-length, dandyish hair the only signifier of his current occupation.

Neither could the band's sources of inspiration exactly be described as fashionable. Where their hip contemporaries owe their best ideas to The Jam and The Clash, Mystery Jets reveal more of a liking for prog-rock behemoths Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Indeed, such is their prog pedigree that The Futureheads' Barry Hyde went so far as to call Will Rees "the new Steve Howe", referring to the guitarist of Yes. Yet, while in past interviews they've happily paraded their affection for all things prog, today they are keen to play down the association.

"Our music isn't about nostalgia," explains Henry. "It's about drawing all our influences together and creating something new that people of all ages can listen to." For Blaine and Rees, the main source of inspiration has been Radiohead. "A lot of bands want to experiment and venture into different fields but very few will rip up the rule-book in the way Radiohead have," exclaims Blaine. "They are a guitar band that stopped using guitars. If there's one thing we aspire to do, it's to keep tearing up the rule-book. If we start seeing a pattern forming in our music we get really pissed off. We've learned that if you approach something from a different angle, you start speaking a whole different language. As a band we have no idea where we're going. All I know is that if we get the chance to make a second or third album, it will sound nothing like this first one."

In 1990 Henry gave up his career as an architect and got divorced from Blaine's mother Helen. Finding himself with too much time on his hands, Henry flouted one of the cardinal rules of parenthood - thou shalt not inflict thy musical tastes on thy children - and set about educating his son in the ways of Seventies psychedelic rock. By the time Blaine was eight, he was the proud owner of his own drumkit and a copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. That same year father and son began jamming together and, with the addition of Will, Blaine's friend from nursery school, Mystery Jets was born.

"Most men have a mid-life crisis by buying a sports car, a motorbike or a rowing machine. Henry forms a band," quips Blaine. The name originated from a period spent by Henry living under flight-paths at Kew. The London Evening Standard ran a story about "misery jets", though Henry felt that Mystery Jets would better reflect their upbeat sound.

The group played their first show in earnest when Will and Henry were 13. It was a disaster. Save for a few well-meaning friends, nobody came. Afterwards the band retired to their boatyard-cum-rehearsal space. Rees notes that their early EPs were bizarre even by their standards. "One of them started like a reggae album and then went onto soft rock and ended like a prog oddity," he remarks. When it came to ambitions, says Henry - there weren't any.

"I never worried about what lay in the future," he explains. "It wasn't about making a living or getting famous. To me it was just fun, and a good way to spend time with Blaine. Funnily enough Blaine and Will were the ones with the rock'n'roll dream. There was a period when Blaine spent three years living with his mother in the south of France, during which he and Will created this fantasy world as they exchanged letters. They used to send each other drawings of what the band would look like. Come to think of it, it looked a lot like Queen."

When it came to making a debut LP, Mystery Jets ignored the time-honoured tradition of retreating to a soundproofed studio and did much of the recording out of doors, a situation which accounts for the distance chime of church bells and even the odd quacking duck on the finished product. The band insist that the unusual choice of percussion instruments was less about being different than simply making use of what was around them. "We played with dustbin lids, hubcaps and colanders simply because they made interesting sounds," reveals Blaine. "The sounds you can make out of ordinary objects are delightful. You can run a twig along a metal fence and get an amazing sound, one you can't get from a guitar. To me that's totally radical."

At the very least, such unorthodox methods shows that rock'n'roll rebellion is alive and well in Mystery Jets, even with an old bloke in the band. For Henry, the boundaries between hell-raising musician and watchful dad have become somewhat blurred in the last two years. "I don't lay down any rules except with punctuality. If these guys were drawn to drugs, maybe I wouldn't be as relaxed as I am. I think we've all found music-making when you're straight and sober is a lot more rewarding."

As far as Blaine is concerned, having his dad in the band is the most natural thing in the world. While on band duty he addresses his father as "Henry" but for the rest of the time he coyly admits to calling him "daddy".

"I've never had that rebellious streak that other kids have. Maybe my adolescence is yet to come, I don't know. For me, it's incidental that Henry is older than the rest of us. We're no different from any other band - when we go out, he comes out too. It may seem odd to others but since it's always been this way, I can't imagine life in a band without my dad."

'Making Dens' is out now on 679