Mystery Jets’ upcoming album A Billion Heartbeats – now to be released in early 2020* – will be the second that the band has co-produced alongside longtime collaborator and close friend Matthew Twaites.
After taking the time to get to grips with self-producing on their previous album, Curve of the Earth (2016), the Mystery Jets have further honed their sonic capabilities with the yet-to-be-released guitar-heavy record, bridging the gap between their signature indie-pop and the heavier rock style they sought to project this time around. The development in sound and vision is evident, a lot of which came down to the decision to make their sixth studio album a guitar-driven affair. Also heavy on vintage synthesisers and recorded primarily in the Brain Yard, a bunker-like warehouse, the final piece is permeated by atmospheric and detailed audio excellence that represents the band’s “cinematic” approach.
Here, Fiona Hope chats to bassist Jack Flanagan and producer Matthew Twaites about the sonic realisation of the new record, the “Mystery Jets process” of music-making and why they decided to co-produce…
What was the album’s recording process like this time around?
Jack Flanagan: On Curve of the Earth we were more out of our depth. None of us – apart from Matt – had ever made a complete record on our own. We were learning a lot, feeling our way through it and trying to find a process. When it came to making this album, A Billion Heartbeats, it felt a lot more confident.
We spent weeks in a room doing pre-production with the band, finding sounds and working out drum and bass parts, with Matt sometimes lending his ears. We make a point of actually getting in a room together and hammering it out as opposed to building it all in the box. Blaine and Will (the two main songwriters in the band), often do quite sophisticated demos, which is a good and a bad thing, as it often seems set in stone. For example, when I heard the intro of ‘Screwdriver’ in the practice room I was like ‘This sounds brilliant, why would we change it?’ That actually happened a lot on this album. Everyone makes songs on laptops now, so everyone’s quite a good bedroom producer. And then when we put our minds together in the studio we realise we’ve actually done quite a lot of the work in the demo.
How does co-producing compare to before?
JF: Curve of the Earth took so long. This time, we were a lot more methodical. To come together in a room and have some kind of cohesive element to it is quite hard to do. In our band, one of the main problems is that everyone is a songwriter, including Matt. You put four cooks in a room, they can all cook a meal completely different from one another. A lot of the time there’s butting of heads, and I think that’s actually a key part to a Mystery Jets creative process because every idea, be it a string line or a kick drum pattern, gets put under a magnifying glass. But, in this album, there was a level of spontaneity that came through more so than on previous records.
What are your particular roles in the music production side?
JF: Blaine and I worked a lot together for this album on his lead vocals. It was very meticulous and precise. Matt is the king of drum sounds; we actually recorded the drums in a different studio called Buff Studios in Canning Town, with a guy called Dan White. Blaine and Will are the songwriters while Kapil (drums) and I (bass) are the rhythm section. But it’s all very varied. I do a lot of synth bass on this record. I used the Sequential Circuits Pro One. I can’t really tell you how much I love that synthesiser, it sounds like riding a motorbike.
The best thing about being in a Mystery Jets studio is the volume of keyboards and vintage synthesisers. A new one that turned up on this album was the Oberheim OB-6. It’s a really versatile, user-friendly synthesiser that can do whatever you want it to do. And we ended up just using one patch on it throughout the whole record within one element of the keyboard. It’s a very big part of the record, that one sound. We decided to use a lot of stock features – I used the Boss Metal Zone, which can be considered sacrilege. Right at the end, we bought a Digitech Space Station.
What was your general inspiration for the album?
JF: We all listen to such different stuff. I think as the band develops there’s more of a cinematic, orchestrated influence. It’s becoming a lot more textural.
One week we’ll be listening to pop records, and then drawing from heavier influences. We all secretly love to rock out, and I don’t think it’s something anyone’s quite had the confidence to do as a band. We started doing a little bit on the last record, and the heaviness of guitar music is definitely coming through on this album. The general rule for this album was to have guitars directly injected (DI) straight into the desk, or through pedalboards. It sounds really direct and in your face. I think people should DI guitars more, straight into the mixing desk, and always put a FabFilter Saturn Multiband distortion on their Masterbus.
Do you have any particular sonic influences?
JF: Right at the beginning, we all really liked Perfume Genius, particularly the song ‘Slip Away’, and the new The War On Drugs record, which were both produced by Shawn Everett. We’re all huge Nigel Godrich fans and we found out that Everett was as well so we became obsessed with working out what was on his Masterbus.
Tell us about your studio set up…
JF: Now we’re in a live-in property in Clerkenwell called the Brain Yard. It’s this big, old warehouse that we’ve taken over the bottom floor of. We have a live room, a couple of writing rooms and a control room. It’s windowless, like being in a bunker, but one of the things I always feel is really important when making music is that nobody from the outside world can really hear you. If you’re underground in a bunker and it’s just you and your mates, it’s a lot easier to do so without thinking someone else might be listening on the other side of the door. It’s a lot easier to lose yourself.
How have you developed over the years to be able to self-produce?
JF: I still think I’m developing as a producer. The more I produce other people, or myself, the more I try and put them in a positive headspace. If you can harness that adrenaline in a really controlled and loving way with the people you’re working with, they can surprise themselves. To me, that’s the duty of production, and a really great producer can make people do things they couldn’t normally do – it’s about encouraging people.
Why do you like to work with Matthew?
JF: He’s our mate, he’s a part of the band. He’s got such an encyclopaedic and technical knowledge of music. To have that person who personally is a lot less intertwined to guide you through is really cool. He’s our George Martin, you know.
Hey Matt! What exactly is your role when working with Mystery Jets? How important do you think a producer-type person is?
Matthew Twaites: When I work with Mystery Jets, it’s very much a co-production thing. I’m there to facilitate and advise, allowing ideas to be realised as opposed to direct and be the boss. It is a collaboration. This record was quite spearheaded by Blaine’s vision.
These days the lines between engineering and production are blurred, a lot of production happens in the box. I’ve been an engineer and producer for a long time, it’s just someone who knows their stuff. With other things I do, I am the “producer”. But I think people are ready to call themselves producers too early. I was a sound engineer for a long time before becoming a producer.
A producer is really important, but some people don’t need them, some people think they don’t need them and could do with them, and for some the producer is the extra member in the band. A lot of it is looking after people, people skills, and mediating disagreements. It’s very much about mood, keeping everyone inspired and conducive to creativity. Overseeing and being the ears in the control room. You need to be as visible or invisible as a band needs you to be.
Studio set up /favourite gear?
MT: I’m a plugins guy – a big fan of Fabfilter and Soundtoys plugins. I like ribbon mics a lot, I use them as much as I can get away with. I like the Benson spring reverb, API 5-12 pres, and we used an SSL-esque desk modeled on the G series on this album.
*The album was originally set to be released on September 27, 2019, but it has been announced on Twitter that the band’s lead vocalist Blaine Harrison had been hospitalised due to an infection and ongoing health problems. The Tweet from Harrison himself read: “Early on Saturday morning (September 14), I awoke with a swelling in my thigh and a temperature in the high thirties. Upon arrival at A&E I was put straight onto the emergency operation list to halt an infection close to my bone from spreading around my body. As some will know, I was struck down at the beginning of the summer under similar circumstances […] Therefore, we have reluctantly decided to postpone the release of A Billion Heartbeats to the beginning of next year, including the instore shows and UK tour.”