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Interview: Johnny Jewel of Chromatics and Glass Candy

"For me, that magic element is time. And perspective."


Johnny Jewel of Chromatics
Noel Vasquez/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment

Johnny Jewel is the prolific producer behind the Italians Do It Better label and their roster of artists: Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, Mirage, Farah, and Symmetry; a family of electronic acts who operate in an eternal night of long drives, opulent discos, and aching sadness. Taking his name from a Television song, Jewel has been a huge catalyst in bringing electronic sounds into indie music; both Chromatics and Glass Candy started out as noisy, no-wave-ish rockbands from the Pacific Northwest punk scene. 2007 was Jewel's breakout year; with Glass Candy's Beatbox, Chromatics' Night Drive, and the Italians Do It Better compilation After Dark amongst the best albums of the year. In 2011, there was a spike of interest in Jewel following his key soundtrack work on Nicolas Winding Refn's acclaimed thriller Drive, after which he introduced Symmetry, his soundtrack-ish instrumental electronic project. Late in 2011, Chromatics returned after a long lay-off, with the single "Kill for Love," and the news of a new Chromatics LP, also titled Kill for Love, would be out in 2012. With the subsequent arrival of After Dark 2 and hopes for Glass Candy's much-anticipated Body Work to finally materialize, it's been a bumper year for the hard-working producer. Jewel talked about his 2012 from "a burnt-out parking lot in a pretty sketchy parking lot in Toledo, Ohio."

Interview: 16 July 2012

Glass Candy were one of the first bands I remember making all their music available for free, on MySpace and via your website. That's how I came to know you and love you.
"We were one of the first bands to give away our songs for free. Everyone thought it was insane back then. But it just seemed inevitable. We knew the way music was going. And we saw the positives in it; and look, now we're having this conversation years later because you got to hear those tracks back then. That website wasn't us; some fans made it, made links to all of our early demos and seven-inches and 12-inch, and like 15 different CDRs, because every time we went on a US tour, Glass Candy would make a tour-specific CDR of raw studio work that we were messing with. So, some kids made links to it all, so we just supported it and told people about it; but it's not official. One day I'll have to go through all those old tapes and make proper mixes, but that feels like a weird thing to do with your time when you're still really active."

Is there ever going to be a Farah record? Does it really exist? It feels almost like a myth at this stage.
"Actually, on this trip, I'm listening to a bunch of mixes. I can't work on it, because my studio is all analog, so I need to be at home to work, but I’ve been listening to it. The title track, 'Into Eternity,' is probably going to be the closing track on After Dark 2. We recorded 23 songs in November 2008. While we were recording, she was in and out of the emergency room three times; it was this two-week period of total hell and awesome music. It was just really, really difficult, so it's been difficult for me to visit the tapes because they're so intense. So, I've been working on it in stages over the years. I still feel like I'm figuring out what to do; because we were recording all day every day, all this stuff. So, going through those tapes can be hard, because there's no pretense with Farah, you're just straight inside her mind. And maybe you want to be there, and maybe you don't want to be there. But the album is definitely happening, I promise. It's not coming soon, but when it gets here, it's gonna be good."

The current culture is to just get things out as quickly as possible, but you're very much someone who takes their time with albums. Why is that so important to you? And how do you manage to shut out what I imagine is outside pressure to get these things done?
"Well, the outside pressure is nothing compared to my own pressures of my mind, to make something that lasts and something that's good. It's very rare that someone can make something like [Nirvana's] Bleach, this album that was recorded in six hours, and have it last. Some people can do that, but that's not how I work, that's not where my strengths are. For me, the goal is to make a good record, and I have to work on it until that's how I feel about it. And I need that distance from the music, almost as a second collaborator; like, when I come back to the track I hear it fresh. I get a better view of the music with time and space. That's something that's really crucial to the development and quality of the music. If I could do it fast I would. I work constantly, and I work relatively quickly in the studio, but once I hit a wall I don't force it; I stop until it opens itself up to me. I feel like the song is unfolding itself, and it's my job as producer to get out of its way when I need to, and just let the magic —or whatever you want to call it— happen. And for me, that magic element is time. And perspective. We've always gone against the grain; not for the sake of it, but just the whole way we've done everything since 1999. We're never going to be on Top 40 radio —the music is a little bit too abstract and not strong enough, it's not strict enough pop, there's too much space in it— so I don't really try to care to compete in that way."

But don't you ever wish, yourself, that you can turn things out quicker?
"No, I just want things to be as good as they can possibly be. There's one Chromatics, there's one Glass Candy, there's one Farah, there's one Mirage, there's one Desire. My job is to make those bands as much like themselves as possible, and to throw everything from the music industry out the window. Because that's the kiss of death for bands that start getting attention; they think 'how do we please everybody?' But you can never please everybody, so I don't try to please anybody. It's difficult to take that time, though, because people think things are a hoax. People think the Farah record is a hoax. People thought Kill for Love was a hoax. People think there's no Glass Candy album. People think there's no After Dark 2. It's like, 'Jesus, let me have the room to make a f**king record!' But, in the end, everyone who was stressed out and anxious about when the Chromatics record was going to come out, well, now that's all done; the album is out and it's out forever. No one really remembers what it was like waiting for the record, because now it's just there, permanently. And if I were to rush a record just to get it out a few months earlier, then an inferior record with be there permanently. And that's not something I'm willing to do."

Do you work on all things at all times?
"Yeah. I wake up in the morning and I wanna work straight away. So I just start making music. I don't ever predetermine what I'm going to be working on, I just let it happen. The only time I focus on one thing is when I'm trying to mix a record, but even then I'll be in the middle of mixing it and I'll just start writing a new song for a different project. I don't know if writing is ever going to stop one day; so I just try to capture as much stuff in the moment as possible. So, I'm always juggling. Write now, between Chromatics, Farah, Glass Candy, After Dark [2], the new Desire album, and writing miscellaneous soundtrack stuff, I'm probably juggling around 150 pieces of really solid music. And each one of those things gets nudged, constantly, by working on other things. Like, one day I'll just be really focused on working on hi-hats on just one song, another time I'll spend the whole day picking through different vocal takes for a whole lot of songs. I just let myself go where the inspiration is. Like, I'm like our fans: I, too, have a desire for albums to be completed. But if I let that thought enter my mind, it starts to influence my decisions; you start making decisions based on how quickly they'll accomplish what you want. And that’s not the way to make music. Ideally, you want to function in the studio as close to a trance-state as possible. The means when I'm supposed to be finishing After Dark, I'll end up working on Desire stuff, or working on new Chromatics material already, when that's the last thing I should be doing. If I think about it, I really should be working on finishing the Glass Candy album, because that's what people really want to hear, but instead I'm doing new stuff."

Do you conceive of how you want the album to be, in your mind, before you start out? Or does that only reveal itself as you go through the process of making it?
"I definitely have a clear idea, but it's really abstract. It's the equivalent of trying to imagine a new color, or something. I see it in my mind, instinctively, but I couldn't communicate it to you. Little bits and pieces come to me that I know I want. With Chromatics' [Kill for Love] there was a really specific drum sound I was going trying to find, and eventually I had to have a drum-machine built for the album because nothing I was using was working. With Glass Candy, it often starts with Ida's lyrics; when I hear them I immediately think of arrangements; like whether something's going to be a piano-and-strings type song, or a harder electronic song. I have these instant instinctive reactions to songs, just like I have this instinctive feeling in me of how the album should sound as a whole."

How did you think Kill for Love should sound?
"I knew Kill for Love needed to be more polarizing than Night Drive. The guitar parts needed to be more guitar-ish, the abstract parts needed to be more abstract. When we were still in the middle of working on Night Drive, I already knew that the next record needed to be more extreme. Then, there was kind of like a blue foggy colour in my mind that I knew Kill for Love needed to have, like a heavy atmosphere; like the way a fog rolls in off the tide. The sort of thing that isn't really in the architecture of the music, but it's still omnipresent, in the air. The trick was trying to retain that sense of mood through all the different songs on the album. It's one of those things that you can't put into words, but when you hit it you know you hit. When I finally got the drum sound right on the Chromatics album, I was like: 'Yes! That's the sound!' You have to make something that occupies the right space. I'm always trying to find the right shape or color to fit into that space, and to leave room for the vocals. In Chromatics, I have to leave room for the guitar and Ruth's vocals, so I can't be as aggressive with the synthesizer as I can in Glass Candy. You can't have everything competing all the time."

Can you work with that same kind of instinctive approach when making music for films? Or is it a completely different process?
"It's completely different. Working on a film is, for me, really odd. Because I've never creatively worked for anybody. Some people are graphic designers or something, so they're used to being creative for other people; but everything that I've ever done I've done for myself, or if I've had a job it's been manual labour. So I find working for film really difficult. Essentially, you're working in service of the director's vision, and that can be really exciting. Parameters can be inhibiting, but they can also be liberating. When you're working in this very abstract world of sound design, when you have a completely open field, it's kind of difficult to decide where to go. But a director often has a specific idea of where they want you to go. At first, that's great, but they want to be constantly talking to you and going through what you've done, and for someone like me who doesn't have to answer to anybody —someone who makes their own records, produces their own records, releases their own records— that's annoying. It's not even so much the director, but it's everyone who's paying the director. They all have an opinion, and 90% of those people have no clue what art is. That can be so frustrating. But after a while, I started to think of it as this very specific exercise, like training with ankle-weights on. It's definitely made me stronger, as a producer, for sure."

How much did the success of Drive change how many people are listening to you, or how the world perceives you?
"I'm not entirely sure, because I kind of live in a bubble. But I know that Drive meant that a lot more of a mainstream audience were exposed to electronic music, and were made curious about it; that's not just for us, but everyone on that soundtrack. I'm talking about in the States, where electro is always at odds with rock for some ridiculous reason. It opened a whole host of new listeners to be curious about certain things, and I know we benefited from that. But I don't know how tangible the benefits were. We're just starting to tour now [with Chromatics], and so we're just starting to see some of the difference it has made. It's amazing how many people are turned onto music by movies. That seems so strange to me, because I'm a music guy, I'm always digging or music on my own. Usually, if I hear music in a film, I already know the song. But for most people that's not how it is at all, so there’s no doubt that a lot of people heard Chromatics for the first time in Drive."

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