I was going to write an intro about Glass Candy
and why I wanted to talk with the band's producer Johnny Jewel
, but the interview turned out to be one of the longer and more interesting ones I've done so far, so I guess I'll just let it speak for itself. And oh yeah, Glass Candy is playing with Farah
and the Pretty Vacant DJs tonight at Art Club
(823 Exposition Ave next to Avenue Arts). Here is my conversation with Johnny Jewel:
So you're from Texas, right?
Yeah I grew up in Houston
How did you end up in Portland?
I moved out of Houston when I was 18 and lived in Austin for a couple years, and then my friend and I took the Greyhound up to Olympia in 94, and the northwest just had this vibe, it wasn't because of the scene or meeting people or anything like that, there was just something about the air up there, I felt like there was something really drawing me there. Then I went back to Austin and stayed there for a year, and then just went up to Portland and picked a spot. It was bigger than Olympia and cheaper than Seattle. Its great up there, it has everything you need and you can get a hold of anything you want, but its small enough to still be affordable so you don't have to spend all your time working just to get by.
How did you end up starting Glass Candy?
When I got to Portland I got a job at a grocery store, and I had been working there for two weeks when I met Ida, who was there getting carrots for her rabbit one day while I was working in the produce department. She seemed cool, and we decided to try to make some music. We had similar interests, but then we had some stuff that were polar opposites too. I had never been in a rock band before, I had just done noise and experimental stuff in the early 90's, but we just started messing around with music and she couldn't sing worth a shit, but her lyrics were incredible. Anyway, we experimented with a bunch of stuff, and I was really into the New Zealand scene at the time, like Dead C and Forced Exposure stuff, so we started messing with some dark experimental stuff, and then got into things like Nico that were more vocal oriented with music as a backdrop. That stuff was pretty cool but it was a little too dark for Ida because she's already a pretty dark person, so she needs the music to be a little more upbeat for her to be inspired by it, so we kind of started messing with garage a little bit. We did that for like two or three years and never played a show, and then we decided to put out a record. I put all the money I saved from the grocery store into putting out the first two seven inches, and we had a seven inch before we ever played a show. We weren't sure how people would take it, but it started snowballing right away, which was shocking because we didn't have any friends or anything. Certain people heard about it and there was a buzz.
What is your relationship with Chromatics and the Italians Do it Better record label?
Italians Do It Better is a label out of New Jersey run by these Italian guys, and they gave me the green light to do whatever the hell I wanted because there is a Chromatics song called "Lady" thats just vocoder and very minimal, and they asked about that song, and I told them that it wasn't even really a Chromatics song, it was just something I was fucking around with. And once they realized that, they told me they were starting a label, and they asked me if I'd like to use it as an outlet to put out 12 inches, and if I wanted to put out a record by someone else, they said I could do that too. Its a really experimental and informal label. There are no strings attached and no rules, and everything is vinyl only. As long as they like it too, I can do whatever I'm compelled to do. But it's not just for me, there are other artists too like Professor Genius and a few other new people too. As for Chromatics, they wanted me to record their first record in 2001, and they had asked me to do it because they wanted it to sound like this Glass Candy demo I recorded on cassette, so I recorded their album on cassette. And after they went on tour, the band basically broke up and wasn't talking, but I still wanted to release the recordings because I liked them, and so we released it and everyone was very happy about the way it turned out. At that point, half of Chromatics splintered into a band called Shoplifting, and then the other half, basically just Adam, started working on stuff with drum machines. After that, I didn't see them for a couple years, but then I saw them on tour, and Adam asked me if I could record the new Chromatics record, and I told him that I liked some of his Salsa beats, some of his Suicide stuff, but that his singing kind of annoyed me. I'm just very frank when I'm going to work with someone. Anyway, I was really interested in the girl he was playing with, who was a visual artist, and we started messing with stuff in the studio, and I slowly started having more of a role in the band and playing live, and now Chromatics is me, Adam, his brother, and this girl named Ruth, which is probably the version of Chromatics you've seen on Myspace and stuff.
Well I was going to ask you about visual art and image because based on all the Glass Candy footage I've seen, it seems like the image you project live and in your visual art is very important to you and the group. Would you agree?
Well I think its as important to us as anyone else. I think everyone cares about the way certain things look, and anyone who says they don't shouldn't be believed. In the music scene, there's a lot of identity wrapped up in fashion. Everyone decides what they wear and what is on the record covers, and certain kinds of things culturally right now are considered flashy and certain things aren't. All of them take work and all of them are important in some way. Certain people respond to a Glass Candy aesthetic and certain people don't, but that's what makes the world go around. Everyone identifies with different types of visual images, and to attempt to separate yourself from that is kind of pointless, especially these days in the computer age will all the visual stimulation on the Internet, people just want that instant gratification of being able to see everything. We definitely care about the visual aspect of the band, but that's not necessarily a fashion thing. We care more about the artwork of the band. We don't wear a uniform, but we just want to express ourselves visually and that includes fashion. We don't take it really seriously, but everything is a reflection of who you are and where you want to be and what you identify with, and we're comfortable with that. Anything that anyone wears identifies them with some kind of camp, and if people are into what we are, that's cool, and if they aren't, that's cool too. The art is definitely a bigger deal to us. It sets a psychological head space.
And when I watch your live performances, I notice Ida's striking stage presence, not just how she sings but her whole persona on stage, her whole presentation, it really sets a tone.
That's just her, she's just a freak. That's just her tapping into what she needs to tap into in order to be onstage. She's basically really shy and has to go to this other place to get through it. Its something we don't really talk about and I never know from night to night what she's going to do. If you've seen us a couple times, then you know she's different each time. Its not a shtick, she just reacts to the energy in the room and we try to stay really open to what is going on around us. When we're on stage, we don't consider ourselves the stars of the show. We're the same band and we play pretty much the same music every night on a tour pretty much. We improvise too, but what really makes it different each night is the people in the audience and the mentality and energy they bring. We see a live performance as an exchange between us and the audience as equals.
And since a lot of your stuff is more dance oriented, that attitude makes sense because putting the audience in a role as important as the performer is something that club/disco and rave emphasize.
Well we just sort of provide the music and see what happens. We never have a desire for it to go a certain way, we just try to connect to whatever is going on in the room and try to be a part of it and try to bring a rhythm for people to lock on to.
I was going to ask you about your influences: I'm sure people mention Cerrone, Giorgio Moroder and Italo quite a bit. Are those your primarily influences? If not, what does influence your music the most?
Everything you hear and see as a person trying to create something, it all goes in and it all comes out, so I wouldn't say that anything influences us more than anything else, but I would say that we go through phases where we're feeling certain tones more. Its funny with Italo because a year ago no one even knew what it was or what the term meant, and now a lot of people are getting into it, and we're big fans of it. What I like about Italo is that it's so emotional, and dance music isn't always void of emotion, but a lot of it doesn't have the romance that the Italians do, and we really love the blood and guts of Italo stuff, but thats just one aspect. The band is constantly changing, and we make no allegiances to any other bands or genres. Live, we focus more on the beat because thats what works for us live, but we do a lot of abstract stuff too with no drums, and some that are just piano, and some that are just vocals. We listen to a lot of rap music, and Italo and disco, but Italo is kind of a limiting term, because what does that actually mean? Italian disco? Anything with a really strong pulse and strong vocal, whether its dancehall or Frank Sinatra, is what we're really drawn too. Anything from Missy Elliot to Alan Vega to Iggy Pop, they're all very strong vocalists who paint strong images and set a stage for the music to reside in. It's all very visual, and in my opinion that's what Ida does.
The music is trying to animate the lyrics, which are always written before the music for us. She writes the lyrics, and I get a feel for it visually and try to write music to wrap around the lyrics and underscore the weight of the lyrics. We love horror movie soundtracks, and Ida gets a lot of inspiration from metaphysical books and physics and she's very interested in how the universe works on both a scientific and spiritual level. A lot of the music I make is based on the cultural references to galactic sound since the lyrics deal with these galactic universal themes. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the sounds that represented space were burned into your memory and we use those as a juxtaposition. I'm sure that outer space doesn't really sound like a synthesizer, but because of movies and television, it's a powerful thing to spring off of to take people to that place. Synthesizers are so surreal that they have the ability to take the listener out of the every day organic reality and the tangible things in front of you.
Well it's interesting you say that because on the one hand you're pulled toward the romantic almost humanist aspects of Italo disco, but a lot of your music also has a very cold synth heavy detached feel to it too, you know?
Well the term "cold" I don't necessarily agree with, but I understand that that's how a lot of people perceive it, the synthesizer being icy and cold. But to us, it's more like crystals and trying to put light into sound. Not to be pretentious or anything (laughs), but to us it doesn't sound cold. It does have that juxtaposition and that yin and yang of warm and cold, and we're trying to bring a whole picture, a whole spectrum, and the cold aspect is part of that. Everything is the same, everything in the sun is in us, and all music, movies and books all say the same thing, and it's all part of one sentence, you know? There is definitely going to be a little bit of everything in music if you do it right, and we strive to touch on a lot of different bases.
I wanted to ask you about how you met Farah and if she told you about the first write up we did on her for the blog.
Well I actually don't really know Farah that well, but let me tell you how I met her. She wrote Glass Candy on myspace a while back when she was covering our songs live, and we don't really have a computer. We're not anti-computer, we just don't have one. Anyway, she emailed us saying that she was doing Glass Candy covers, but I wasn't able to really ever hear the songs because I didn't have sound on the computers I used to check email. Eventually, she mailed us a tape that her dad had filmed of her doing some of our songs at Rubber Gloves, and we were just struck at how intense it was, and obviously she's not a professional singer, but traveling around and playing with so many bands, it's rare that you see something that's so bizarre and out of left field and shocking, and we were struck by how strange she was and how it wasn't ironic. There was a lot of passion. And even though she was playing a Glass Candy song, she was making it her own and connecting lyrically. It's hard to describe, but it's just something that when you see it it affects you in a certain way. So then I told her that she should do a show with us the next time we came to Texas, and by the time she did the show with us, she had her own songs that I liked better because they were so raw and totally fucked up. I'll say that we're not really musicians, we're getting better but we're more visual artists (Ida is a poet) and we're coming from more of a design angle instead of a musical angle. Music is the medium, but we're basically just a concept band. So for us to see something like Farah, which is 100% conceptual, we were blown away by the fact that she doesn't look at music the way most musicians do. I was very moved by her lyrics too, and I offered, she didn't ask, I offered for her to come to Portland so that I could make some beats for her, and she said ok... I liked the way it turned out, and after we recorded it, I played it for those guys in New Jersey, and they were blown away, and they asked if she wanted to do a 12 inch for Italians Do it Better, and she said ok. It's being pressed right now, and I'm not sure if we'll have them done for the show.
I don't really know her that well or anything, but I don't care, I know the music and like the music, and that's enough for me. Her and I don't really talk that much unless she has questions about stuff or we want to talk about stuff she's working on, but she never told me about the thread. I found out about it about a month and a half after. A producer in France who is a friend of mine did a Google search for "Johnny Jewel" and "production" looking for some info, and he came across it and sent me the link. And then I read it and I was like, oh my god, this is hilarious.
I think she got pretty mad about all of it, and for some reason she got really mad at me about these comments, and asked me to erase them. My response was that I certainly didn't want people to say mean shit about her, but this blog is a public forum, and if I start erasing comments, then it'll ruin the whole thing.
Yeah, I don't believe in censorship in any capacity, but Farah is very emotional and she's also new at all this, and she's getting the hang of it and figuring it out as she goes. But I believe that if you put yourself out there and you're going to make a record or put music on Myspace, you kind of release it to the wind and people can say whatever the hell they want. It doesn't matter, you know? She makes music because she wants to make it, and no matter what anyone writes it doesn't change that fact. After I heard about it I talked to her and explained to her whats important and whats not in terms of what people say, but I think it's awesome because she's really intense, and theres going to be a love/hate relationship, some people will really love it and some will hate it, and that's not going to change. That's the way it is with anything else I work with, and I think that's a compliment because she is affecting people in extreme ways. People are either really inspired about it or pissed off by it, but in a world full of half assed watered down art and media where nothing is shocking, I thought it was really cool that people were so perplexed by it. They were like, is this a fucking joke or what is this?
The nature of the blogosphere is just like that with anonymity. A lot of people aren't saying who they are, and a lot of people are just having fun fucking around and don't mean it as viciously as it seems. I thought it was great and really interesting to see how long the thread was, like what, 200 comments long?
(laughs) Yeah, something like that.
And I think Farah needs to understand, she'll have to let stuff go or not be involved at all. It's really not that big of a deal, and when you're a local artist and people are starting to take interest in you outside of your local scene, some people around you will be excited about it, and others will look inward at their own frustrations and failures or whatever, and wonder why people don't care about what they're doing. If I hear music I don't like, I don't listen to it. I just turn the dial, and it doesn't make me mad. I think all music is important, and just because I'm not getting something out of it doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. And with Farah, she's really out there, and theres a niche for it. Some people are really going to like it, but most aren't. And that's fine. It's art, not business.