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A Quietus Interview

Finely Cut: Johnny Jewel Of Chromatics & Glass Candy Interviewed
Lucy Jones , August 9th, 2012 07:38

Chromatics' Kill For Love is one of the classiest and most romantic albums of 2012. Lucy Jones speaks to the prolific Johnny Jewel of Chromatics and Glass Candy about his work ethic, religious upbringing and love

Johnny Jewel is the most brazen man in music. Genuinely audacious, without needing to wear a dress made out of chops or a lobster on his head. Or blast the Olympics as “lethal to witness” such as Morrissey, Head Boring Contrarian, did this week. A quick example: Kill for Love starts with a bold cover of Neil Young's 'Into the Black'. The man has cojones.

He is also the termite of the music world, almost catching up busy old Sun Ra and Frank Zappa in terms of productivity. When I speak to him, he's working on 200 songs. Soon he will have released four albums (Kill For Love with Chromatics, Themes For An Imaginary Film as Symmetry, Body Work as Glass Candy and the second After Dark compilation out this October). He's probably the only artist involved in four major and active projects, which he tours regularly across the world – Desire, Symmetry, Chromatics and Glass Candy. The songs 'Under Your Spell' and 'Tick of the Clock' featured on, and defined, the greatest soundtrack of the 21st century - Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive - last year. I need a cup of tea and a sit-down just thinking about it.

Kill For Love is the album that will introduce lots of new fans to Jewel. Popularity suggests it's likely to feature on 'Best Of' lists at the end of the year, quite deservedly. It's a series of dystopian lullabies that wax and wane over sometimes seven, eight and even fourteen minutes. See what I mean by brazen? The 'Into the Black' cover is a glory – even for a hardcore Neil Young fan. Cellos, tubular bells, cymbals, shuffle beats, bubbling guitars, synths and crepuscular vocals colour the picture. It's not in the least predictable: on 'Lady', there's a beat which recalls 'Gimme Some More' by Busta Rhymes (Jewel is a hip hop fan). The album is sexy with an undertow of menace and tension; sometimes unsettling, always rich.

Chromatics played in the UK early this year. One show was at Madame JoJos, that sweaty little club in Soho, London. Ruth, the vocalist, was spellbinding. Johnny bobbed up and down, his whole body moving violently with the music, as if his equipment was a defibrillator. We left with glowing faces and gleaming eyeballs to flood the red light district with superlatives.

Jewel has blazed his own path since 1996. He releases all music on his own record label Italians Do It Better. He rarely deals with the media; there was no press release for Kill For Love. He avoids television and the internet. He experiments and reinvents constantly, always trying to be better. He's committed to his music in an unusually intense way. He wouldn't tell me why he covered 'Running Up That Hill' by Kate Bush – “I don't think I'd be able to hold it together” – but it could easily describe his daily routine. He is unique in his level of risk-taking – and so far this ballsy attitude is working out just fine.

You've just played dates with Hot Chip, Pitchfork Festival and you're about to start touring in Europe. How to you find life on the road?

Johnny Jewel: I don't particularly love touring. It's gratifying working on big sound systems and seeing the fans and being with everybody but I prefer to be in the studio. I'm more of a writer and a designer than a rock star. I don't detest it and I love the music but I'm not crowd surfing. I'm just involved in my electronics and focus on that.

What about your trademark makeup?

JJ: That's part of not wanting to be looked at. It's ironic. It's a shield and it's a ritual now. It began as a wall because I felt uncomfortable being on stage. I'd get into the war paint mode and it's hasn't stopped since 1998. For men, changing our appearance is uncommon. It's like “OK, this is that Jonny”. I wear a lot of hats too so it's a reminder of what I'm doing at that moment.

Do you need particular environments, times of the day or rituals to write music?

JJ: I'm pretty balanced for being as neurotic as I am. There are rituals but no real repetitive themes. My time is divided in these huge clumps in touring or in the studio. I have rituals which are constantly changing. For example we booked all of our hotels in this trip around Whole Foods. It's so hard to find good food on the road. There's this new NY Company which makes this really crazy juice called called Blueprint milk. Its cashew milk cold-pressed with cayenne pepper. It's also £8 for a little bottle. I thought “it's so ridiculously expensive it must be good” so I bought one and had just the greatest show. Everyday we got up I had to have 2 juices. One in the morning, one right before the stage. I think I'm having withdrawals this morning because I can't get them in Montreal.

So being healthy is an important part of your life?

JJ: I try to counteract the workaholic lifestyle which is very unhealthy: the night owl hours, club life, volume, alcohol consumption. So we try to stagger it with other decisions we have a little more control over. None of us do drugs - I'm a pretty obsessive person so I can't really go there because I'll just go too far. Over the last six months I stopped drinking before shows, only after, which is a totally new thing. My manual dexterity has really improved and I feel more confident with the arrangements than I ever have. It would take the edge off for the adrenaline but now it's just clouding my ability to play. I have to be thinking each night about how I'm going to make the sound good for each stage. When you're on tour with Chromatics, people come to hear every note.

How do you keep the sound and aesthetic of each of the four bands separate and strong in their own right?

JJ: Every band has a different theme. I see them in colours that I can't really describe and it's easier to put them into lyrical or thematic content. Glass Candy is more galactic, inner space, outer space, those universal themes of metaphysical things. Chromatics tends to be more about loss, more Dear Diary style. Desire songs are about love and Symmetry songs are about time and space.

You're incredibly prolific. What drives you?

JJ: I'm very competitive with myself and I always want to do better. I'm never content to pat myself on the back. Even after a show there's always something I would have wanted to do better. I'm always looking for the pure essence of an idea, to try and capture that as a producer. I will definitely keep working until it's right. But right can be a disaster. Right can be raw. Lots of my recordings would be considered mistakes in performances.

What was the idea behind bringing the idea of technology (there are lots of technological references in Kill For Love) with the recurrent theme of love? The album feels cold but also romantic.

JJ: It's an extension of the work of a producer called Shadow Morton who worked with the Shangri-La's. He was the producer who brought this dramatic girl group, soap opera idea into music. The voicemail on 'There's A Light Out On The Horizon' is about the detachment of technology and the way that we have these walls between each other. Even with emails, you read it when you want to read it, or they say they didn't get it, or it bounces back. You're always struggling with detachment and separation in a romantic relationship too. Technology is a good metaphor for that. In general one of the major themes on the album is disintegration and I think it's impossible to really look at technology objectively without thinking about decay. It's supposed to be so futuristic and bright and clean and minimal but everything ends up in the trash – your computer breaks, you drop your phone in your coffee. Everything we create ends up in the garbage, and so do we. That's romantic [chuckles].

On 'Back From The Grave' Ruth sings: “Mother you're gone, and father you're gone." Whose parents is she singing about? Are your lyrics autobiographical?

JJ: They're my parents. I always write about myself. I have a two-year-old daughter and that lyric was written six days before she was born. I had this dream when I woke up inside a coffin that's buried. It's in a white room with black walls. When I dug myself out there was no one. It was the world as I knew it but vacant. It was unsettling especially because it wasn't fantastic. It was normal. I went to my mum's house she wasn't there. My dad's been dead for a long time. I went to the school and playground, nothing there. I started looking up and being like, “What's the point?" When I woke up I started thinking about having a daughter. I didn't really like my father, but he was also a child and at a certain point you realise that people are people. It sounds silly or like a Depeche Mode lyric but it's true. Babies are born, monsters are born. Some of the things I've done aren't good, some of them are good. My lyrics are very directly connected to personal experiences even if's reflection.

'Kill For Love' is about those little pieces of you that die when somebody you love isn't around anymore for whatever reason, death, distance or breaking up. Part of me that they held or that we shared is gone. I kind of keep that away from everybody and then slowly over time you build these walls and become detached. It's kind of like killing yourself. People don't understand that that's what the song is about. It's totally unhealthy and it's not the correct way to be but it's the way a lot of people react. In its own way it's a romantic notion for respect. They're not just catchy hipster lyrics! There's a lot of thought. Kill is a strong word.

The voicemail on 'Night Drive' is Ruth and I talking. We were a couple for eight years. The day that she broke up with her new boyfriend she called me really upset. So I said I'm going to send you an email and I want you to leave it as a voicemail. She hated doing it but I said “just give it a shot”. When I spoke to her on the phone she was so wrecked. It's part of being a producer you have to pounce on those moments. It's fucked up, but I think she found it cathartic, especially after hearing it.

'There's A Light Out On The Horizon' is the most dramatic song on the album. It wouldn't be a surprise if the song ended in a gun shot or a blood-curdling scream.

JJ: Actually at one point in the record there was some screaming but I took it out because it was upsetting everybody in the band. It was coming out of this really angelic cloud of sound and then some violent screaming. Every song has multiple meanings. The 'Back From The Grave' title is also a nod to a garage rock comp from the 60s. It's eight volumes of this really amazing American garage rock made by teenagers who only had 45s. 'Back From The Grave' is also a nod to Chromatics – we view ourselves as a zombie band and that's the aesthetic we go for with the dark clothes, makeup, and formality of the dress shirts.

There's was no press releases for Chromatics and you release music on your own label Italians Do It Better. Is that about creative control?

JJ: Yes, and also a lack of respect for the music industry. I have this crazy notion that if music is good, people will hear it and they will like it on their own, but apparently I'm one of the only people that thinks that. It's crazy the games that everybody plays, bands that fall into these pitfalls, they're embraced and then destroyed. It's ridiculous because there are a lot of talented young artists. But they can be lazy, overconfident; they're not giving themselves the time to develop. They want to be pampered and get an advance. We just blaze our trail. It's risky and it's reckless from a business standpoint with no label or publicist behind us but our only hope is to be as extreme as possible within what we do. I write music the way I want to hear it.

Kill For Love was narrowed down from 36 songs. Body Work was narrowed from 45 to 15. Have you got plans to release that material?

JJ: There's a Billy Joel quote where he says he never throws away a piece of music away because it will always find its way into another song and I think of songs like that. Some of the new Chromatics album has already been written. It's really, really good. It'll take at least a year and a half to release.

What are the links and thematic constructs that bring the new After Dark compilation together? How are the songs united?

JJ: The way I'd describe the new compilation is in a colour; it's a pulsating blue, cyan, an electric blue. That's the common theme and then there are shards of red and pink from Glass Candy that spike through it (this is why I try not to describe things because it's really strange the way I say it). There's a coolness in terms of temperature to it, with our version of jazz. It's mellow, it's not super electro but it's this really rhythmic train that keeps on moving and everyone hops on with their song. The word God is used a few times and there are overtones between heaven and hell.

Are you religious?

JJ: I was brainwashed for 17 years in Texas by Christian churches and you don't ever really get rid of it. Speaking in tongues, baptised in the holy ghost, all that stuff. The lake of fire and that biblical imagery does things to an impressionable brain. When I was around 18 I really had to divorce myself from it. The problem with being brainwashed is you're told there's an answer and Christianity is the answer but when you decide it isn't the answer, you still think there's an answer somewhere, so you're trying to find the answer – but there isn't an answer. You're always trying to find something tangible and black and white

How do you get through that?

JJ: I work. That's one of the things that motivate me. I go crazy if I don't work. You can thank them for that! And I'm still terrified of hell. There's a Mirage song on After Dark called 'Lucifer' and it's about a nightmare I had as a child. I'm in a basketball gym with Satan, who looks like a normal guy. He's on the other side with a tick-tocking wristwatch which reverberates like the rhythm of a heartbeat. Then these naked babies start manifesting and he picks them up and starts throwing them. I try to catch them but they smash on the wall and eventually it's a bloodbath. Satan starts laughing in the rhythm of the clock ticking.

That's horrible.

JJ: Finally it stopped when they took a grandfather clock out of my bedroom and eventually out of the house.

Is must be cathartic for you to write about hell. Is that why you regularly use the image of a ticking clock?

JJ: Definitely. The clock has so many levels to it. There are the parallels between clocks and drums, especially in electronic music. It's a huge symbol of the desire to be less animal in the world. Also the patriarchal symbol of father time.

Are you aware of what people write about you? Do you read reviews?

JJ: I don't go on the internet. I do my emails, Italians Do It Better store and site. I'm not on Facebook - somebody else does that. I have a Yahoo email account and a flip phone which says a lot. Also time is short and I don't want to spend it reading music blogs – I want to live. I'm not Amish or anything like that; it's just about priorities and decisions. I'd much rather be in the studio than watching a panda sneeze.

You allow your music to be used in adverts. Does this allow you to experiment with own projects?

JJ: Of course. I do it because I want people to hear the music. Allowing your music to be licensed has major economic benefits but we also allow it for thousands of student films a year and festival films with no budget. If there's money to be made, give it to us, if not, don't give it to us. It's not a means to the end.

Which song are you most proud of and what makes you pleased with a song?

JJ: I'm really proud of 'Don't Call' (Desire), 'Under Your Spell' (Desire), 'Digital Versicolor' (Glass Candy), and 'Lady Operator' (Mirage). What makes it exciting to me is how direct, powerful and striking they are. When they go right in the centre of the bullseye they were supposed to go. Indie bands today don't have a back catalogues like Sonic Youth, Daft Punk or The Cure so I feel really proud to have a catalogue with a strong shelf-life.

Why did you cover Neil Young, and open Kill For Love with the song?

JJ: The songs we cover are all about a drastic change or a traumatic event in my life, tracks that define a certain period. Right after my Dad died in 1993 I moved from Houston to Austin. I worked in a grocery shop for $3.85 an hour and a guy who lived above a print shop let me sleep downstairs. When his girlfriend came over they'd smoke pot, make out and blast Neil Young. A couple of months later Kurt Cobain killed himself and the lyric "it's better to burn out than to fade away" was part of his suicide note. I was really into Nirvana and I identified with Cobain in terms of not feeling like I belonged.

When did you record it?

JJ: Ruth and I broke up and I had moved to Montreal. I came back to Portland and it was the first time we'd talked. We had this five or six hour long conversation and I said, "Let's track this song”. She was like, “You asshole." And I said, "Let's just try it." She nailed it first time. It was just a guitar and vocals live and it was incredible. I want the music to be at those real moments. We tracked it and for me it was a symbol again of me moving out, shifting my life and losing somebody: my father, Ruth, moving on. It also became a symbol of the band's rebirth. Also I wanted to remind ourselves that, despite dabbling with electronics, we come from song-based, indie rock culture. It's about carrying that torch.