An Extremely Long Interview with Johnny Jewel
He prepped me for a failed interview, and then spoke for 86 minutes. If you get through the whole thing you deserve some kind of internet attention span medal.
Johnny Jewel. Photo by Vinna Laudico
Despite being at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound (the most chill festival in the world), Johnny Jewel is business as usual. When we begin Skyping, he immediately apologizes for not showing his face—he simply isn’t sure how to get the video functioning. Unconfident about his wifi signal, he prepares me for a failed interview, but then 86 minutes go by and all is good.
It’s amazing he can afford so much time, seeing as he's probably the hardest working human in music. As the songwriter/producer behind Glass Candy, Chromatics, Desire, and Symmetry, he’s forever either jetting across the world or holed up in a studio. That is, when he isn’t also operating his own label, the prestigious and highly worshipped Italians Do It Better.
In 2007, Jewel christened his new label (a joint venture with Mike Simonetti of Troubleman Unlimited) with the release of After Dark. Since then, IDIB has broken through to the mainstream with features in Nicolas Winding Refn’s jaw-dropping getaway/revenge flick Drive, which Jewel was originally attached to.
After numerous delays, Jewel finally dropped After Dark 2 with little notice last month. And like its predecessor, the comp is a worthy “album of the year” contender, thanks to new tracks by all of the usual suspects, plus new label artists like Appaloosa, Twisted Wires, and Farah. Jewel told Noisey about why it took so long to come out, all the other things he has on the go, how Italians Do It Better is an anomaly in the music industry, and how he’s never seen an episode of Breaker High. If you get through the whole thing, you deserve some kind of internet attention span medal.
Also, while you read it, check out Symmetry: Themes For an Imaginary Film. It's amazing.
Noisey: Are you still living in Montreal?
Johnny Jewel: I just sold my house there. By the time this tour is over I’ll be living in L.A. I just bought a house there last month. I was in Canada for four years. My girlfriend is really sick of the snow. She’s a native Quebecer and she really wanted to move. And I ended up having to be gone more and more from home because of television and film projects, which is all based out of L.A. I don’t like to travel, I don’t like to be away from my home studio, which is where I live. Our mail order office has been in L.A. for about a year now, which is also where the label headquarters is. Our distributor is in San Francisco. Booking agent and manager are in L.A. And I already spent two months here this year working on film stuff, so it was more convenient right now. And Megan was going crazy to get out of Canada. I really like living in Canada though. I guess it’s a multitude of reasons. I never thought I’d ever move to L.A. I used to hate it. Ten years ago if you had told me I’d move there I would have said you’re insane.
Congrats on releasing After Dark 2. Originally you said you’d release it in 2012. What happened?
It was finished in December and I was thinking it was going to come out in 2009, honestly! I didn’t ever expect it to take this long. Another thing that was kind of freaky about it taking so long, the longer you wait, the more expectation builds up. Not only for the fans, but also the people involved with the record. The more it becomes a concept, it becomes its own entity. And the idea of the record is very specific. And between 2009 and now, I went through periods where I couldn’t figure out the puzzle and didn’t want to release it. Then finally I saw the light at the end of the tunnel in 2012 and got very excited and said, “Oh yes, yes, it’s coming out!” I produced, recorded and either wrote or co-wrote all the tracks, so I was very much involved in it, but I can only work on one song at a time. That’s how I work . But in terms of finishing a track, I constant write and chip away at lots of different things, but in terms of final edits and mixes, I lock myself in a room with a track for a few days. It takes me five or six days to really finish something after it’s all written and the structure is there. What was happening was, I was finishing a track, and there were 15 or 20 tracks that were in the running, 27 that were set aside for the comp. What was happening was, I was getting to song five or six, by the time I got to those tracks, they were so much better than the first track, and the same was true for ten to 15, just in terms of the execution. I don’t really know what I’m doing musically or sonically. I just listen to it and try to figure it out. I’m like a monkey with a really high tech tools and electricity, but I’m only used to sticks and fire. So I was growing a lot as a producer while working on it, especially from a mixing standpoint. I don’t have an engineer or anybody to tell me mathematically what I need to do, so I just kept finding myself thinking I was close to the end, I’d realize that I had only just begun. All of the songs went through this cycles multiple times, to the point where I said, “This is as good as I can do with these specific songs, unless I wait five years to have some sort of epiphany.” So I finally accepted my position with it. I also put it on ice for three-and-a-half months after finishing it, just because I was so immersed in it. I needed to have fresh ears. So I spent the beginning of the year in L.A. working on film stuff, not beat-oriented at all. It was strings and electric piano, Malay guitars and noise. So I hadn’t been listening to any beat music, and when I came back to this after a while with fresh ears I really liked it. That was something that’s very important to me with this specific album. I always want to like what I’m doing, but this album in particular because I was toying with the past and I wanted to do that respectively in the concept of After Dark. So it was very important for me to really like it and that I could live with it. Whereas with an album, I view it different from a compilation. An album I can disintegrate parts and come back into focus. With a compilation I really want it to go chugging along like a train, and all having the same hardware and the wheels on the tracks, but having different compartments. I guess the bands represent different cars of the train. Everyone shares the same drum set and the same bass, so that was one of the core ideas of it. Within that, as a producer, there is a sense of obedience amongst the tracks, which is very challenging because you can’t just pull away like with an album. With Kill for Love and Symmetry, I could pull back and come back hard, and that variety in tone makes it easier to make a record. This is why compilations often suck.
That’s so true. I can’t think of another compilation, besides the After Dark comps, that I listen to on a regular basis.
People thought I was crazy for making one, because nobody listens to compilations. Now, especially with electronic music, compilations are disposable. People hearing about different bands and picking out singles that they like on iTunes, it’s not about digesting them as a whole. I still listen to albums, and I listen to singles more than I ever have in my life, but I still listen to albums.
After everything you’ve just said, would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?
I think other people think I am one, and I will nod in agreement, but I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist. I know when something’s done and I know when something’s not done. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes things happen really fast and sometimes they take years. I have an instinct that I’m not willing to let go of and I will hold on to it. One of the reasons why I started Italians Do It Better is because I didn’t want someone telling me when a record was due, or when something needed to be written or recorded. Or when I needed to go on tour. I believe in doing things when it’s ready. It’s a dangerous game because the world is moving so fast. But ultimately the only reason we’re having this conversation is because I love music. And that’s the path that it’s led me on in my life. I never set out to be a successful musician, but musical decisions have always guided my life. For that reason, I will stay true to what I really feel… Like if I feel something isn’t finished I won’t release it. Definitely in this digital world we live in, you can feel the pressures from all directions – positive and negative. From the fans that want to hear it, to festival bookers that don’t believe an album exists! For me personally, this is my life and what I’ve chosen to do with it. You just have to understand that pressures are healthy but you don’t have to base decisions on them. They have their place, and I appreciate the obstacle it creates to make the artists stronger. But you can’t let it crush you or influence you artistically because it’s a game you can’t win. You’re only hope is to listen to your own instinct.
When you first announce an album do you have any idea when it will come out?
No. Not at all! This is something I need to learn about. I’ve kinda been in denial about, well two different things. One: how big we’re getting. And two: how information is digested by the public. For me, I don’t read blogs, I only check my email. People send me thing that I might check out, but I don’t really understand how people wake up and read websites, read the news, watch television. I don’t do any of that. I watch TV shows and I watch films, but I don’t watch programming or syndication. I kind of live in a bubble, I don’t have a water cooler. There’s nothing bringing me back to reality in a lot of ways. In my mind, I guess, I still think music is digested and information is distributed in a similar way to when I was more in public environments. But that was 15 years ago. Also, we used to have a lot more freedom with information because we weren’t dealing with a core group of fans… Any time a band starts in an underground type of environment. Your immediate surroundings are your peers and that sort of branches out into like-minded people in other cities. In our case it was conceptual artists and designers, writers, photographers, musicians, and all of those people understood the idea of the idea. And as you become bigger, you reach more people, which is the goal. For me, I want everybody to hear the music. The people that you start reaching, they look more at the reality of something and less at the concept of it. So then, where we used to push ideas a lot on MySpace or always trying to put out demos as fast as possible, because we were really excited about the music, now if I wanted to do that it would have a detrimental effect because the general public would be thinking it’s the final thing. When I first toured with Desire and really wanted people to hear it, we brought a tour demo with rough mixes of the coming album. I realized that people became so curious about the project and it just spread like wildfire on the internet. And then when the album came out, I realized that nobody actually had the final version of it that I liked. They all had the demo. At the shows, I’d ask kids that had everything on the label if they had it and what colour they had and they’d say the red one, the demo. And I’d say, “Please take this one,” even if they didn’t have any money. “I want you to hear it. This is how it’s supposed to sound.” For my own sake as a producer, I wanted people to hear the final product and I have to be more secretive about what I’ve done up until that point. So I have to be more careful and shut up about release dates! At Italians Do It Better there aren’t any employees, no publicists, no nothing. So it’s me calling the pressing plant. For example, I’m on the road right now and at my home in Montreal I just got a stack of test pressings. If I could listen to them right now I could put them out. But I can’t hear them till I get home, which won’t be for another three-and-a-half weeks. So you lose a month that way. That’s why there are delays because I’m traveling so much and I won’t let anybody else make those decisions. I’m kind of a control freak. We’re a bizarre model, but that’s just the way it’s always been. And I’m okay with that. I think that ultimately the shelf life is the number one thing. I care, I always want things to come out fast, but not at the risk of something not being ready. Fortunately for what we do, time is our friend. Maybe for other people time is their enemy and you really have to work it, hype it and push it really fast because you feel something is slipping away. But our records still sound good and I’m really proud of that.
You say you have a bizarre business model.
It’s not intentional, the way that it’s run. I think something will be ready so I put it in the store, but there’s a hold up or something. It’s not sadistic, like I’m there saying, “Hey, don’t you want this?” I’m also realizing more and more that our blog comments are being quoted on press sites as proper information. I mean the store and blog is official, but it’s informal. What I’ve started doing now is… I don’t get the whole pre-order thing, especially for digital music. I just want to buy it when it’s ready. I started giving people a two or three day heads up because they might be at work or on vacation, and things have been going so fast that the fans were feeling unlucky because they weren’t given proper warning. The actual release, I don’t like to give too much of a warning. The way I discovered so much music was stumbling into a record store and flipping through it, not having a clue of what it was. Or just seeing something new for the first time, and I really like that intimate connection with the listener. I think that the industry, the business of it is oversaturated. Even on a small scale it’s the same. Bands have managers and lawyers before they play their first show. That’s cool, but it’s not my thing. Fortunately, because I run my own label I can do things as I see fit. Some people may be annoyed by that, and I apologize. It’s not to be an elitest or a snob, I just don’t like advertisements for art. That’s something I feel really strongly about. I’m not trying to trick anybody into liking us or listening to us. We do it because we love it. People will eventually hear about it. If a record’s out of print, well, we’ll eventually repress it. Unless you’re gonna die in two days, you’ll get the record at some point in your life. There are so many things that I’ve wanted and felt I had to have right then, but got a week later and I still lived. I try not to have a marketing strategy, but by not having one it seems to be an alternate strategy, y’know?
If I could snap my fingers and have the vinyl ready as soon as I finish the mixing I would. For example, After Dark 2 was finished in December and it could’ve been released in March but I was dealing with vinyl pressing issues. The test pressings were fine, but I had this dream of having it on glittery gold vinyl, which, I never should have said anything about because that’s not possible! I found a way to mix glitter into the gold and it sounds like total shit. It looks cool, but even then it doesn’t look as great as I wanted it to. Then I thought let’s do gold foil stamped paper with record grooves on it, like a photograph of a record printed on gold metallic paper. We did picture disc tests, so the record would look metallic and reflective. That sounded even worse! I was excited because they were so heavy and it’s a triple LP. The record was about seven pounds altogether. It was really, really heavy. But it sounded so bad. I mean, it is music and it’s for hearing. Plus it’s such a bass-heavy compilation too, that was the issue - all of the bass was getting lost on the picture disc. So I have some relic tests, and those will be the only ones that exist. Now we’re going with traditional vinyl. There’s a reason why records are the way they are. And there’s a reason why my Benny Hill picture disc sounds like shit.
You mentioned a film score. You just released After Dark 2. You have a new Glass Candy album in the works. How do you prioritize your work load?
It is more about what I feel ready to finish. And that’s why the priorities are sporadic. If I could finish everything it would all come out at the same time. There are a lot of things I’m working on, but some take longer. That kind of dictates what comes out when. I was really trying to finish Kill For Love, After Dark 2 and Body Work all in the same year. But the truth is for Night Drive, After Dark and B/E/A/T/B/O/X, there was five years leading up to that point. And that was five years of not touring globally, and five years of not doing film. When I work on film or TV, it’s a little more annoying because they have their own schedule, which I’m not used to. I usually follow my own artistic rhythm. For instance, working on Drive slowed down Kill For Love because that was so intensive and it had to be done right then. It was draining too, and there was a recovery period. That’s the only time I don’t do what I want to do. But I try and limit that. I choose projects carefully, so it’s not just dictating everything. We’re in a weird situation where, we’re in Europe right now, and we’ve been here a bunch, but we’ve never been here in a normal band type of way, like with a van or bus. We always fly from show to show, which is very strange. It’s like we’re a band, but we fly around like DJs. And because of that, there’s a different kind of rhythm to the way the business end is handled. You can have the opportunity to do something cool, but they won’t know until the week before. Whereas normally a band tour will be booked like five, six months out. So working where I have to use someone else’s schedule can be inconvenient, but also in doing these really cool things, like galleries, fashion events or film stuff, because we’re less flexible. So, the scheduling is the main reason I don’t like working for other people.
So what film scores are you working on? I read Logan’s Run…
I’ve been working on that one for about three years, but that one is still in pre-production. It might not even happen. Ryan [Gosling] left the film, and Nic [Winding Refn] isn’t sure what he’s doing. I have a pile of stuff for Logan’s Run that is awesome, but it’s a work in progress, and it’s very different from anything else that I’ve ever done, so it’s really easy to know which things are for that.
I just scored a TV pilot for Fox that is a homicide show with Chloe Sevigny as the star. Another thing I’m doing is an indie film in L.A. called Beautiful Now, which is basically the last five minutes of a woman’s life before she blows her brains out. Basically her life flashes before her eyes and it’s a series of fantasy cycles from the last eight years with her friends. It’s a really optimistic movie, ironically, but it’s dark as well. And there’s another movie called Pimp, which has Mary J. Blige and Dakota Fanning in it. Supposedly, Rihanna will have a cameo too. It’s about a female pimp who falls in love with one of her girls and they try and get out of the game. It’s a really weird, different story. Both of those films are being made by female directors, which I’m very excited about. But when she pitched it to me, she described it as a cross between Mean Streets and Thelma & Louise, which sounds pretty funny, but it’s quite gritty. And then the other thing I’m working on, Ryan is shooting his first film as a director right now in Detroit. He also wrote the script for that, it’s his first official script. And that one has Christina Hendricks in it, and it’s called How To Catch A Monster. It’s more doo-wop, disintegrated rockabilly mixed in with industrial sounds. So we’ve been listening to a lot of Alan Vega and the Shangri-La’s. It’s a really bizarre, fantasy-type story, in the vein of Goonies meets Twin Peaks.
How difficult is it to keep all of your projects different from one another?
On the compilation I wanted the lines to blur, but also have a commonality to them. But in my mind it’s very, very easy. Appaloosa are French and German, and we co-wrote the songs, but they were augmented for the compilation. Same with Twisted Wires, Mike Simonetti and Farah as well. The three that are closest together are Chromatics, Desire and Glass Candy. Those are easy for me to keep apart because of the way that they’re written and the ground that they cover in my mind, even though they sound more like each other than some Bob Dylan song. To me they’re very different. Glass Candy is a maximal, macro view of the universe. Chromatics is inward and deals with death and themes of loss, introspection. And Desire is more what is in your immediate surroundings, like your relationships with people you love. It’s not in outer space and it’s not your loneliness, it’s the way you move through the world with other people. Musically Glass Candy almost always begins with Ida [No] writing the song a cappella, and then I decode it using a drum machine first. Chromatics almost always begins on a guitar. And Desire almost always begins on a piano. I play the piano a lot differently than I play the guitar, and I think about rhythms differently than I think about melodies. It’s always really distinct in the embryonic stage of a song, I know exactly what band it’s for. It’s coming from a different place in me, y’know? And for the people that are super into the label, they see that difference. But for people who see the label from a distance, it sounds similar because it sounds more like each other than external things, which I understand.
You mentioned Ryan Gosling. Did you get involved with him through Drive or did that happen before you worked on that soundtrack?
He started coming to Chromatics and Glass Candy shows in L.A. around 2007. Somebody saw him. He seems to be pretty shy, so he wasn’t coming up and talking to us. I finally met him in 2010. When all of the Drive people were out in L.A. and they were about to start shooting there was a Chromatics and Glass Candy show, and they came. I met him and didn’t even know who he was.
You didn’t watch Breaker High back in the ‘90s?
No, but Megan from Desire is obsessed with that show because she’s Canadian. He grew up in Cornwall, which is where Megan’s mom and dad lived, and she lived as a baby. They lived in the same town as where Ryan grew up.
But no, I didn’t know him. The whole L.A. celebrity thing is weird to me. We had a great night, a great show, but then when we met everyone was taking pictures of us. And it annoyed me because I was meeting someone I didn’t know anything about, and he was saying he was a fan of the music and he was dancing all night, and I was trying to talk to him the way I’d talk to a kid buying a 7”. And it was this big deal made of it, but it was the same thing. And so then later I said, “Let’s see what the big deal is about this guy.” Then I watched some things and was like, “Oh, okay I see why everyone acts like that. It’s Ryan Gosling.” But I met the director that night too for the first time, even though we’d worked on Bronson together. Everything was really chill. I mean, I barely know Ryan. I’ve run into him a few times since then. We talk on the phone, email and text sometimes, that’s it. There’s no real bond there or anything. I actually know Karl Lagerfeld better than I do Ryan. But people project this idea of us, but it’s not like that. Everyone is too busy.
You’ve performed for Karl a few times, right?
Yeah. Chromatics did the runway show in Paris for Chanel. And Glass Candy did his book release party in Berlin a few months later. They’ve been using our songs for six, seven years on the runway, but we hadn’t done anything in person until then. He’s cool. He’s easy to hate because he’s such a cartoon, but he’s really passionate about what he does and he’s very intelligent. I was really impressed, because I’ve always spoken through his assistants. But we’ve hung out. There’s a reason why everyone knows who he is. He’s very talented and loves what he does.
Speaking of design, the label has a very specific aesthetic. Are you also responsible for the album art for Italians Do It Better releases?
Oh, I do everything and then Adam [Miller, Chromatics] and I do the drawings together. But it’s all mine and it’s kind of evolved. The music has changed, but even the early 7”s look the same as new records. There are elements of glam and disco mixed in with elements of dada and punk. I don’t use computers on the design stuff, so whatever I can do at Kinko’s is what we come up with.
I actually find it pretty liberating because I can touch it right away or colour it. I can reach the end of it faster. And the aesthetic lends itself to the application, in the same way that the primitive sound of the music is coincidentally also what we happen to like. I don’t need to stress that it doesn’t sound pro or maybe the vocals are a little rough, because I like that.
Last but not least, when are we gonna get a new Glass Candy album? I think you first announced Body Work in what, like 2010?
I’m hoping to be able to get to it and finish it… it’s been tracked, and I don’t know how many songs will be on it but I have 17 sets of lyrics and vocals that we recorded that are just incredible. I’m looking forward to digging deep into it when I get to L.A. because once we get back from this tour Adam is grabbing all of the tapes from my studio in Portland and driving them down to my place in L.A. because I’m too paranoid to ship any of it. And then we’re gonna get into it in L.A. and I’m really hoping these movie schedules aren’t a pain in the ass. That’s one of the things with the Chloe Sevigny show, is that I’m not keen on the schedule. I’d rather be working on Body Work, even though I think that show is cool. If I could have it my way though, the album would be out in the fall. The material is hot, and that would be the ideal release for me, having After Dark 2 out five months before that. But we’ll see. There’s also a Symmetry album done and there’s a Chromatics album that’s two-thirds of the way done. In terms of writing. My goal would be Body Work in the late fall. In the cold months, Symmetry. And in the spring, the Chromatics album. And somewhere in there the Farah album and the Fred Venture album reissue or the release of his home recordings.