Johnny Jewel has taken the concept of DIY into unchartered and sophisticated territories
“Hey Reef, this is Johnny. What is your bedtime tonight? I’m on a graphic design spree out at the airport… I’m in a really fluid rhythm and I don’t want to break it.”
Johnny Jewel is in the zone. He’s been up since 6am, back in Portland on one of his semi-regular trips to design, paint, and pick up a stack of vinyl, CDs and t-shirts from storage. With a busy day done, and a hectic one set before flying back to LA the following day, we bounce a few texts to lock down a time and place to meet. It’s around 12.30am when he walks into the bar next to Portland’s Mississippi Studios and we end up talking into the early hours of the morning about his thirteen years living in the city, his move to LA, running a record label (in the true sense of the term) and working with Hollywood, amongst other scattered topics. Refreshingly, he insists on chatting for at least an hour, determined to have a conversation that isn’t squeezed into a quick-fire 20-minutes or sandwiched between nervous prompts from a PR. The result is a dialogue that digs into the drive and understated intensity of a man happiest in his own bubble, fiercely determined to work to his own schedule, and deeply reflective about everything he creates.
The brain behind synth pop and Italo disco groups Chromatics, Glass Candy, Mirage, Symmetry and Desire, label boss of the fiercely independent Italians Do It Better, and an increasingly accomplished composer with work scoring music for Bronson, Drive and Lost River, Jewel is a busy man. Relaxed and black-clad, he effortlessly blends into Portland’s late-night boho crowd and you feel he has all the time in the world as opposed to someone who’s been working for the last 22 hours. Juggling the responsibilities of touring, label releases and album output for multiple acts, he’s practically a one-man workshop. A musician, a designer, a producer, an engineer, a mixer, and a photographer, Jewel has always maintained he is happiest out of the spotlight, but when you’re involved in every level of the process the way he is, you quickly run out of shadows.
Born in Houston, Texas, and currently living in LA, there’s been a healthy transience to Jewel’s life since he left Portland for Montreal in 2009. And after living in the Rose City for 13 years, it seems Portland still has a professional, emotional pull.
“It feels more like home than Texas, than Montreal, than Los Angeles,” he says. “I’ve been in LA for two years but I don’t interact with the city at all. I still haven’t been to a show there; I’ve gone to the grocery store about seven or eight times… I really am super isolated but I’m lucky to be able to make it my own experience. I have friends and people I work with who are really into the city, and I hear it’s great, but I haven’t got round to that yet.
“I had such a good time living in Portland,” he adds, “and I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t lived here. Ruth [Radelet, Chromatics’ singer, and Jewel’s ex-wife of 8 years] still lives here, Ida [No, Glass Candy’s vocalist, whom Jewel also dated when he moved to town] grew up here, and then I met Adam [Miller, founding member of Chromatics] in here, even though he was living in Seattle. I’d never have met those people if I hadn’t lived here. They’re my family now.”
Isolation and self-containment become pretty consistent themes as we talk. At face value, it’s an outlook that sounds reclusive and withdrawn, but as Jewel continues to dig into the reasoning, it’s apparent that it’s a pivotal part of how he works. “I’m always alone except for the people I’m working with, so it doesn’t really matter where I’m at. I don’t get that claustrophobic feeling that other people get in small towns,” he says.
“I lived in Austin and it’s kind of the same thing here where you feel you can’t really go out without seeing anybody. I never go anywhere so I never see anybody anyway, you know?” He chuckles. “I just need somewhere where I can work and there’s something about the air that helps me feel awake and motivated. I kind of operate on a 27-hour day, so by the end of the week I’m almost inverted. I just go until I’m tired or I reach the point where I quit being productive and it becomes compulsive.”
Jewel’s move to a metropolis as sprawling as LA seems counter-intuitive to that intent, but the change in scenery proved to be the catalyst he, his girlfriend and his primary group Chromatics needed. Turns out switching Montreal’s snow with LA’s sunshine was less about the lifestyle and more about necessity. His mail was being sent to LA, his office is there, he was constantly in town to work on a film or a commercial or a television show. “I got sick of having to go back and forth,” he says, “and my girlfriend, who’s a Quebecer [and, as history dictates, the singer in Jewel’s third group, Desire], got sick of the snow and she was like, ‘why don’t we just move to LA?’ It’s the first time in five years everyone in the band is on the same coast. It’s been great.”
Today, Chromatics are Jewel’s vision – so much so that many will presume the imminent ‘Dear Tommy’ LP to be the project’s third album, following 2007’s breakthrough ‘Night Drive’ and 2012’s expansive ‘Kill For Love’. The two albums that proceeded those records (‘Chrome Rats Vs Basement Rutz’  and ‘Plaster Hounds’ ) have pretty much been wiped from history, predating Jewel’s involvement as producer, writer, spokesman and label boss, and resembling a completely alien group – one with different members apart from Adam Miller, and a bog-standard indie-rock direction over what we’ve become familiar with: the dirty, romantic sound of vintage synthesisers, crystalline drum machines and brittle, dystopian guitars to drift around city streets to after nightfall.