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.
It’s a similar story for Glass Candy – a group Jewel formed with singer Ida No, who were happy to express themselves as a glam rock/new wave band on their 2003 debut, before electronics took over for their first album on Italians Do It Better in 2007. ‘B/E/A/T/B/O/X/’ will finally get its follow up this year, entitled ‘Bodywork’. That’s an eight-year interim – a stark indicator that time and patience are non-negotiable factors for Jewel. Unwavering in his commitment to never rushing releases out, they’ve become two essential hallmarks that have made his work (in whatever form) enduring, and something he doggedly protects.
“A lot of the stuff takes me years to do,” he tells me. “There’s things I’m still working on that I started in Portland, and I don’t mean songs, I mean actual tapes, actual recordings. Some went to Montreal and got worked on, some came to LA, and they’re getting worked on. The work is open-ended – it feels like it’s never finished, and because of that, it’s not tied to a place. I haven’t been on stage for 16 months, which is really exciting,” he smiles.
“Because I run everything, when I travel it all freezes… everything just gets backed up and that’s why things take so long. I like touring but I don’t have to do it the way some bands do, if they have to make money or are locked into a contract. For me, I tour when I want to tour, and when it makes sense.”
It’s a freedom created by design. Unbound by external label pressures or fixed release dates, there’s an element of control but perhaps more crucially for Jewel, it’s about ensuring that artistic creativity isn’t compromised by arbitrary timelines or soulless business drivers. It’s a commitment to being uncommitted where pressure isn’t the enemy; it’s simply finding and applying the right type.
“I’ve never allowed myself to be put in that position and I’ve never allowed anybody to have power over my output in any way,” he says. “It seems so absurd to me that external, non-creative entities can enter the creative arena and set a timer; it does not make sense to me at all. If you’re undisciplined, I guess you need external pressure, but I don’t think it’s good for creativity. It’s not about vibing and chilling out, it’s about appropriate pressure, competition, ambition… those things that can come from within inside yourself. They’re appropriate pressures that can stimulate you to complete something in a healthy way, not having the schoolmaster yell at you about a pie chart or a graph around the fourth quarter. But it’s all good because they have a pocket of cocaine and they’re cool guys… it’s not my thing. It makes sense to me that the industry that that’s a part of is dying and it deserves to die.”
“It’s still very structure-less,” Jewel later insists. “Like, where does an idea come from? I have no fucking clue. How do you write a song? I have no idea. How do you know when something’s done? – I feel like I’m getting better at ‘pulling the trigger’, as I call it. There are points where you know you have a song; you just have to know when to finish it.
“I’ll let something marinate,” he tells me, “and I’ll wait for months until an element occurs to me to help harmonise or balance the song. I decide to wait but I’m not deciding there’s something missing, you know? That’s why the lack of a schedule is so important, because if you have someone telling me that this needs to be done by a certain time, or I’m telling someone else it needs to be done by this time, I’m not allowing for them to know when it’s done.”
It helps explain the introspection and contemplation Jewel experiences with every release. Where some feel relief, he feels the finality; the acceptance that it’s as close to finished as it will ever be, however frustrating. He tells me: “Any time I release a song or an album, I’m depressed afterwards for while. I’m functional – I’m not a wreck – but I feel a loss because I never want to finish it or close it in the way that’s released because they’re my babies.
“When we released the first single for ‘Dear Tommy’ [‘Just Like You’] everyone was over at my house and everyone was really excited but I just wanted to be alone and I ended up pissing some people off because they wanted me to be joyous and I wasn’t feeling that way. I was really proud of the song but this shit is so personal, and it’s really intense because you put it out there.”
He continues: “I started recording in 88/89, and I didn’t release anything until 94/95 because I was uncomfortable with people knowing I was doing something. It’s the reason I didn’t put anything out there for so long and it’s why when I went on stage I’d wear make up, because I wanted a shield or a barrier. For a long time I didn’t do interviews because I didn’t want to be out in front, but I knew it was inevitable once I started talking. I’m proud but joy isn’t the word when I release music – it’s very contemplative and personal. It’s not like I have regrets but only I know what I want it to be, and of course you never achieve that because it’s an idea, and you can never really make ideas real.”
It’s an awareness and deeper-thinking that informs every step of the music making process – from the nuances of a single instrumental element to the more philosophical question of trying to deconstruct the meaning of what’s being created. They’re questions and thoughts that clearly sit with Jewel from the early concept, right through to completion. “A more concrete example is mixing an album or mixing a song,” he says. “I could listen to a single drum all day long if it’s a good sounding drum. So I want you to hear that drum, and every nuance of the vocal, of the guitar, of the synthesizer, of the hi-hat. I’m trying to push all of this forward but not everything can be on top, so for me part of finalising something is marrying the relationship of those elements permanently. In my ideal world, everything would be the loudest thing. But it’s funny because I slave over the mix and I know that 99% of the stuff is going to be heard on a phone,” he laughs. “It’s a Wagner-style tragedy that I find amusing. I schedule everything like vinyl, and I know it’s getting streamed like ‘the hits’ but I got to make the record I want to listen to, on real speakers, from a real turntable. I’m the one that has to live with that.”
Listen to Chromatics’ gilded pop atmospherics and it’s hard to imagine Jewel not hunched over a mixing desk, 22 hours into a 36-hour session, trying to perfect every element, every harmony, every fleeting dynamic. The balance and beauty of Chromatics’ last record, ‘Kill For Love’, felt like an album that was obsessed over, and even though Jewel might be aiming for perfection, he doesn’t consider that to be a defining factor.
He says that even though he spends so much time with a record that he’s labelled a perfectionist, really he isn’t. “I like the blood and guts,” he says, “I like it messy, I like it raw, so anyone who says I’m a perfectionist hasn’t heard my record because there’s so many mistakes, so many frayed edges, and things that are out of pitch, or rhythms that are off, and that’s imperfect in its own way.
“I love how raw something I recorded 10 years ago sounds compared to something I’m working on now, on the same equipment. We live in a time where musicians are so ashamed of their past and there’s this intense desire to start a new project, change the name, shroud it in mystery, and hope that no-one checks out what you used to do because it doesn’t define you as a person anymore.
“It’s the only art form I know where change is a bad thing. It’s crazy because in film it’s celebrated, and each film is different. In music, people have this sort of hang up where if I’m going to make a certain type of music I have to dress a certain way and only listen to this type of record. For me, music is a journey and the music I make doesn’t reflect what I listen to, and the way I look doesn’t make sense for the music I make. None of it defines anything else and there’s no identity wrapped up in it. I’m a person who happens to like certain things for certain reasons, but I don’t have to re-define who I am as a human if I want to make an artistic expression. ‘I’m a heavy metal guy, I can’t do this, I’m a house guy, I have to live like this, I’m a punk guy, I can’t do this.’”
Change, though, is a factor. There’s defiance not just in the way Jewel works but in the creative decisions he makes. Taking years to release a new album is a bold stance but having the conviction to return with a different sound only happens with genuine confidence and a willingness to engage with fans. These subtle evolutions gave ‘Night Drive’ its dark disco nuance with the soft-funk of ‘I Want Your Love’ and the marathon, minimal slink of ‘Tick of the Clock’, but also enabled follow up ‘Kill For Love’ to bloom with grander, ghosting dynamics. Characterised by the airy ‘Running From the Sun’ and the languid ‘My, My, Hey, Hey’ twist of ‘Into The Black’, it felt like a big, blended step towards the winding scores Jewel has evolved into over the last few years. And, if recent tracks like ‘In Films’ and ‘I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around’ – teased from the forthcoming ‘Dear Tommy’ – are any indication, this time Chromatics are set to amplify the aloof with more anthemic intent.
“I never want to make the same record twice,” Johnny states. “Even though there’s a sound, the albums are eclectic and I can take a really hard stance as a producer to be defiant. It was like when I put ‘The Tick of the Clock’ on ‘Night Drive’, everyone thought I was insane. There’s no singing, there’s one note, it’s sixteen minutes long… it’s part of the album. If people are going to skip over it, fine, I don’t care. It ended up being understood years later but only after it was sugar-coated for people.”
The self-sufficiency of Jewel’s disco empire has extended exponentially. His projects needed a label to release their materials without the need for buying into the conventional music industry, so he built Italians Do It Better; we needed to arrange a photo shoot for this feature, so Chromatics own Ruth Radelet took care of it. Jewel doesn’t employ a PR team to execute the usual round of press interviews and promo trails, leaks and well-placed video premieres, which is essentially why we’ve been trying to interview him for three years. It’s about ultimate control, but also maintaining a personability, especially where Jewel’s predictably hands-on approach to social media is concerned. He doesn’t care for Twitter – in any of his project guises – but Jewel personally posts across the Facebook pages of Chromatics, Glass Candy and his lesser known Anglo-French trio Desire, while Soundcloud has become his invaluable distribution tool – he gave ‘Kill For Love’ away through the streaming site, and has so far followed suit with the first three tracks from ‘Dear Tommy’. He tells me: “I think a lot of bands don’t take enough time to interact with their fans in a way that the they can understand the evolution that’s happening between records. There’re a lot of things, conceptually, that you can share through social media that help prepare for directions that shift or change. It takes a lot of work but it’s an artistic process in tandem with the music that’s really fun for me personally. It’s a chance to experiment and share ideas that are visual or referential but that are part of the concept of the band or where the record’s going.”
This idea takes us back to the importance of the creative freedom Jewel has built, not just for himself, but also for everyone associated with Italians Do It Better. With Glass Candy three albums and 15 years in, and Chromatics five albums and over a decade in, Jewel has diligently tended the garden beyond any fleeting hype – something he feels others neglect all too easily. And with so long between albums, Jewel’s work neatly avoids the trap of music fashions and fads – his records arrive when they’re ready, sometimes accompanied by kindred releases, but often isolated and always unapologetic.
“Another thing that bands don’t do is protect their creative process,” he states. “That first album or whatever that has a breakthrough… there were a lot of people that hated that album, you know, you just never heard about it because the overall reaction was so positive. Nobody agrees universally that a first album is good, it’s just the band focuses on that and the people that don’t like it just aren’t writing about it yet. By the time the second album comes, people want to start attacking. You have to protect your creative process so that you can make a free record, an instinctual record like that first one. It’s very rare that people protect that space, either they think they’re great and they can do no wrong, which is often the case, or the personalities in the band are stretched apart and the chemistry isn’t there in the same way. All these things pollute the water and if you don’t take conscious steps to protect the band from that kind of shit, you’re going to make an inferior record second time round and it just diminishes from there.”
Jewel also argues that lack of awareness can be just as damaging, particularly if egos are left unchecked.
“I also think that bands don’t need to read press,” he says, “it’s ridiculous. Are you an artist or not? If you’re not an artist then why are you posing in an artistic industry? Go sell vacuum cleaners if you want to make money. I’m a curious person but I don’t have the drive to make a film and I’m not going to make a film just because I could or because I think it’s cool.
“There’s a naivety with a lot of people’s early work, they’re unaware of how it happened in the first place and then they’re really quick to take credit for it. Ego is an enemy and that’s what kills great chemistry.”
Manipulating publicity is also a major gripe for Jewel, and he has no sympathy for those that try and play the game but inevitably get steamrolled by the hype machine.
“There’s a reason you hear about bands and then you don’t or a certain amount of time passes and then it becomes a comeback,” he argues. “It’s because they use publicity as a weapon and it’s their own fucking fault!
“You’re an idiot if you think that when there’s a push there’s not going to be a pull. I don’t feel sorry for bands that cram stuff down everyone’s throats, but it’s lopsided how hard they push versus where they would have gotten by word of mouth. The thing is people are in a band and they go, ‘I want a manager, I want a publicist’. Bands have lawyers before they play their first show, which is crazy, and if you’re going to play that game, you need to be smart enough to know that it’s going to kill you.”
It’s no surprise that these shortcuts elicit such a strong reaction, because they’re the antithesis to everything Jewel has patiently built over almost two decades. Put into the context of his story, even at close to 2am, his frustration and depth of feeling is palpable to what he sees as a cold cynicism fuelling dead-eyed capitalism at the expense of creativity. It brings us onto his role within Chromatics, Symmetry, Glass Candy and Desire, and whether each band is an opportunity to satisfy his curiosity and explore something different. It certainly seemed to be the case with Symmetry, Jewel’s instrumental duo that eventually became the outlet for his alternative soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s movie Drive. Jewel had been commissioned to score the film but was later overlooked for Cliff Martinez (who included Chromatics’ ‘Tick The Clock’ and Desire’s ‘Under Your Spell’ in his soundtrack), later resulting in the release of Symmetry’s two-and-a-half-hours-long LP ‘Themes For An Imaginary Film’ in 2011. (“I know it’s not a nice thing to say, but my score was superior,” Jewel told The Guardian in 2012. “It was the director’s choice, Ryan’s [Gosling] choice… but in movie production, there’s a money side and a creative side, and they don’t always meet in the middle.”).
“It’s kind of about working with different people,” says Jewel, of his multiple projects. “For example, Natty [Walker], he’s with me in Desire, he’s with me in Chromatics, he’s with me in Symmetry and now he’s working on the new Glass Candy record with me as well. He’s incredible, a total genius. He’s really coming from a hip-hop background so when we work we really get into beats where there’s no room for vocals… or the kind of vocals we would normally write. With Megan [Louise, of Desire], she has an incredible voice and a wider range than Ruth and Ida, and had a sound that was good for a type of pop that didn’t work with anyone else.”
It’s a similar story with Ruth Radelet and how her rootsy musical background became the perfect foil for Chromatics’ evolving noir pop, or how Ida No became the ideal contradiction that made Glass Candy work. It’s a familiar story of opposites attract. Says Jewel: “One of the great things about Chromatics is that Ruth would have been the antithesis of what Chromatics used to be. It’s the difference of her coming from a blues and folk background juxtaposed with electronics and distance. It’s not about ‘you’d be perfect for this’, because that’s what a lot of bands tend to do. For me, it’s about the counter-balance.
“Ida and I are so different in every possible way but we make a complete idea. There’s a strength in opposites and a lot of bands are kind of bland because they’re stylised and all going in the same direction. It’s opposites and polarity that makes bands. You need explosiveness, tension, friction – that’s what makes a good band. If you can find a way to have unity within that, it’s incredible. It’s difficult but if you don’t have that, the art isn’t as complete and you’re only telling part of the story.”
From depressed contemplation to defiant confidence; happy isolation to a ‘family’ of friends, there’s a paradox to Johnny Jewel that sits just as effortlessly as his music. The make-up, designed to help mask early insecurities became a beacon in the same way Chromatics’ effortlessly enigmatic electronic pop helps shadow the intensity of its chief creative force.
“There’s nothing anyone can tell me about my own work that I haven’t thought about for a 1000 hours already,” he tells me, “and that includes praise, criticism… everything. I have a severe lack of interest in what other people think about what I do but I am happy when people connect with it. I want more people to hear it, and I want it to spread because music is so important to me and it’s exciting to think that your music is reaching people, becoming important to them, and doing the same thing for them that bands did for you.”
You wonder if Jewel will ever allow himself to enjoy the spotlight instead of simply accepting its inevitable glare, or if the post-release contemplation will become any less intense. At this stage it seems unlikely but there is at least time – he always makes sure of that.
“As an artist you’re not realistic, you’re crazy… and it’s not because I kinda look gothic,” he laughs. “It’s the desire to transcend the conflict between concept and reality and it’s the idea that it’s beautiful and it’s unattainable. It’s what we chase and sometimes you just want to hold onto it, and letting it go is a reminder that you never really held it in the first place. I have to have my moment with each thing in that way. So much music I work so hard on I will never release and no one will ever hear it. There’s something beautiful about that.”
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