A few weeks ago, DiS' editor met Johnny Jewel, the founder of the Italians Do it Better record label. He produces the acts on the label and is in several of the 'bands' too, including Glass Candy, Desire and perhaps most notably Chromatics. DiS caught up with him for an extended chat about, The Man, The Music, The Label, The Drive soundtrack, and one of the albums of 2012 Kill for Love.
When you devote your life to music, you don't realise you are a kamikaze. You are not brave, you're just young and naïve, and very-very eager. Eager to please others. Eager to excite yourself. Ignorance can be a heavenly bliss. No-one warns you that whilst you bump 'n' grind away your life, spending all those days and nights
drunk facedown in a bosom of sound that you are - somewhat ironically - killing the thing you love. It's like suffocating a kitten, but knowing not what you do. Drowning your love, quite literally, in music. It's like a wheel within a wheel. A blackhole of passion that collapses in on itself... Killing yourself to live.
Of course people find it hard to talk about the ways death and love are entwined. You gorge and gorge on music, stuffing your ears full of tunes while blindly chasing trends around bends. Lost in music, there's no time to pause. Sure, you might hit life's skip button and escape to the country (for a festival) or dive into the pages of a book (probably a tome that an album you love was inspired by), but you'll rarely find solace in silence. Instead, those quiet moments will allow you to shuffle through the earworms you've acquired. There's no guilt nor shame in those refrains, looping over and over, quietening your inner monologue. One minute it's Kylie 'Spinning Around' the next second Peter Gabriel wants to be your 'Sledgehammer' but he's shouting over the beat of 'Bootylicious'/'Age of Seventeen' which seems to crossfade perfectly into 'Hey Ya!' until Jessie Ware's new single fades in...
Meeting the makers of these talbums, songs, what-have-you that you obsess over can be daunting. Sure, it's natural to worry that you'll splurge a tirade about how that opening chord on track three (Your inner monologue yells: 'gah! What's the name of that song!!!') made your heart flex in a way that finally allowed you to cry ('did I say cry? Is that not cool?'). You worry about sounding like a stalker ('did I say a million times? I meant I've heard it a few times... at least twice, yeah...'), but also you need them to know that you're a fan, not just someone doing a job because their band is 'relevant' or 'traffic worthy'.
What you really need to fear is that perhaps they're not very interesting or worse still: they're already jaded about music, especially their own stuff. There's always a chance you'll discover they felt like they compromised too much on this album, and the previous interviewer set off alarm bells. Maybe they're more into style and cool than the substance of music. It can crush your love in a second to discover you've projected your own sense of otherworldliness onto something quite banal. Of course, there's a chance that when you ask about that song that made your life make sense that they'll stop you before you say too much... and reveal a suck-punch to put you out of your misery "oh, yeah, I was just really stoned that night. It's a song about my neighbours dog..." and you'll crumble inside, unable to continue. It'll kill that thing you love.
...thankfully, as I hit the stop button, walk out of the hotel lobby and step onto the grey street, I'm feeling the sort of euphoria you imagine kamikaze's feel in that moment before they hit eject, and watch their plane accomplish its mission.
My fears were foolish. Meeting Johnny Jewel was ninety minutes of bliss. We discussed the power of music, the importance of independence, sound as torture, a life punctuated by records, and love. And death.
Sean, DrownedinSound: I really enjoyed the show the other night… I was waiting to be disappointed because usually you fall in love with a record and you sometimes go to see a band, especially an electronic act, and it seems they have focussed on the record and haven't worked out the difference between their bedroom and the stage…
Johnny Jewel: Those bands are awful live. These days they don’t allow themselves enough time to develop in private.
The music often seems too eager, almost more abrupt…
Definitely. That’s been the number one response from everybody. Like “oh my gosh, I was scared to see it because I liked the record so much, and I was worried…and I won’t listen to any other bands”. But then everyone reels off a bunch of band names that have…maybe not excellent records but great moments that are really strong, they thought. Then they go and see it live and it’s like one moment repeated then diminished throughout the set, over and over.
Or just standing and waiting around for that one song and the rest of the stuff doesn’t live up to it.
Yeah. We did Distortion in Copenhagen, Primavera, Forbidden Fruit, etc and with all the acts at the festivals, with a couple of exceptions: everyone’s just waiting for the single or one or two songs through a whole 45-minute or hour set from bands. It’s brutal, man, because some of the bands are alright but the crowd just wants that one thing.
I remember when I went to see Modest Mouse a few years back, and it seemed like the bulk of the crowd was waiting there for ‘Float On’. There was another 'hit' around the time, but the rest of the set just wasn’t anywhere near as impressive, partly because of the crowd response. 'Float On' was clearly a great song but it felt like with the new material, they were coasting and hadn't spent time thinking about how it might work best live. As if the doing-it-for-TV-factor had forced them to up their game with 'Float On' and every element of the song hit harder and stronger.
That’s what I mean about developing in private and understanding the difference between the studio and the stage. Even some of the songs that are good or that I feel are strong by artists, they don’t develop them well for the audience. Whereas you have a single and you’re saying “work on your abbreviated version”. I told the rest of the group that, two years ago I said “we’re getting ready for this album and restructuring our set to be like an arena rock show”. Not that we are arena rock but I had to change the way I think of the studio and the song.
My first question was going to be about that, about that transition - from the studio to stage - and how important it seems to you...
Just be completely cut-throat on yourself. Some of the songs we’re only playing half the song, just thinking somewhere between Bon Jovi and a DJ, keeping the set like you’re riding the audience like a DJ but then having these really melodramatic breaks. And then also thinking about – for me personally – making a record and designing a live set is…
As animals we respond to frequency and certain tones, so what note and key each song is in. It sends you on this journey…it goes like that and then that [makes hand gestures] and then that, then it drops off and pulls back up, y’know. The association of major and minor and also a one-step shift between songs is kinda unsettling. Even though each song is in tune, your ear gets used to hearing this one pitch for four-minutes and then to immediately shift a step has the effect of subconsciously kicking in adrenalin or at least grabbing your attention a little bit. Working in the idea of film and things like that, using tension and dissonance to get the blood pumping, so when you have opposing keys next to each other, the transition, if you do it right, is really jarring in a good way.
Did you ever read any of the stuff about the sounds the army studied? I went to a thing with [Trainspotting author] Irvine Welsh and [Fight Club author] Chuck Palahniuk where they did a reading and they had these sounds that were going off – they were almost inaudible, you couldn’t really hear them – and their idea was that they were trying to make people sick in the room…a lot of people passed out but it was a really strange experience. Have you ever looked into any of that crazy shit?
I’ve heard of sound frequency science and stuff. Apparently non-lethal weapons of the future are sound-waves. It’s a really brave new world…
They’ve got things were they use them outside of shopping centres to disperse children because their ears can hear the sounds but adult ears have lost those frequencies.
Yeah, children and dogs…I love children, I have a daughter, but dogs, sometimes when I work at home – I have a small studio in my basement – the dog goes a little crazy sometimes, with some of the frequencies that I’m not hearing. I heard this thing where they were using sound-waves…and I don’t know if they do it here but in the States the police are really into getting into car chases and killing a bunch of innocent people. So now they are trying to find ways to project sound waves onto the car engine to lock the engine or some kind of magnetic…something to where it slows the car down so the car can’t drive and they don’t have to chase the car…
Sounds like something out of Transformers.
Yeah, it’s like exciting but also really scary because who decides who needs to be stopped? It’s pretty weird.
It’s that idea of Trent Reznor being used in a concentration camp in Guantanamo. I found a Spotify playlist of the tracks they use…
That’s interesting. I’m from Texas and in Waco, when David Koresh was in the compound…It was in 1993, he was part of this religious group…or a strain of it called Seventh Day Adventists and he was a cult, Jim Jones-type character. He was in this huge concrete compound in Texas and his wives were all the daughters and mothers…he had 20 or 30 wives. They were locked in and the army was just blasting Metallica and Satanic rock music to drive him out and he eventually accidentally torched the place and everyone came out. That’s the first time I heard of music being used like that. I didn’t know about Trent Reznor, though.
I think it’s a Nine Inch Nails track. What they do is they play it in short blasts. In the tv series Homeland, they show you what they do. They play it really loud for three seconds and nothing, loud for a minute or so, and then nothing. It was almost like listening to those 20-second Locust songs where it’s just a blast of noise and then nothing, then a taste of gentle ambience, then a blast of noise and then nothing. They do it for about four or five hours, then people normally give up around that point. Anyway, we’ve got into talking about torture quite quickly!
I guess it’s an art form as well. People find such creative ways to hurt each other, it’s ridiculous.
How did you first become fascinated with sounds and production…most people get into music and they get into rhythms…there must have been a point where you fell in love with texture?
Texture was first for me. I started picking up music around the age of 13 or 14 and there was always a piano in the house. It really started for me when I got a guitar at a Goodwill, it had four strings on it and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was basically playing bass really primitively and started trying to write songs and started on a boom box cassette, just recording it. Immediately I was really into the idea of recording it, I don’t know why. Then my mum had a cassette player and I eventually figured out I could play one thing here and then record. Also, I was playing drums to it, then I thought I’d reinvented the wheel like nobody had ever thought of this before because I was really ignorant. I thought that bands just played everything on a record, you record it and that’s it and the way it sounds like it does because the band just sounds like that. I hadn’t a concept of production or overdubs or anything .
I read an interview with Robert Rodriguez and when he made his first short film he thought he’d invented editing as well…
It’s funny, my first MOOG, I got that because I was subjecting myself to a medical study in Austin, which a lot of musicians and hipsters do for this company called PharmaCo . You subject yourself as a guinea pig and they give you money and I was like “how can I get this synthesizer?!” He did the same thing to fund the original version of El Mariachi, the cheap one. I heard that he was kind of legendary and it seemed like if you needed money for a studio project or were trying to buy a large piece of equipment or something. Just don’t do your drugs, don’t drink coffee and go to PharmaCo and test for the study and go and get some money. Then I heard of the four-track, so I got a four-track cassette, then that evolved into an 8-track a few years later and now 16 or 24. By the time I got to four-track – this was like in around 1994 – I really started seeing that I could, first of all, put the tape in backwards and play everything in reverse, which I found really exciting. Especially messing with attack and decay and stuff like that.
Did you speak in reverse?
No, I tried to do some “Turn me on dead man” type stuff but I got bored of it pretty quickly. I did a few things but I was more interested in writing melodies backwards or writing a melody and then playing it backwards, reversing the tape and then making the bassline that way. Because I work primarily alone, I learned early on that I had to do things to add elements of chance to what I am doing so that it’s like having a collaborator.
Collaborating with yourself in reverse?
Yeah, is it Duchamp with the idea of chance operations and art and refusing randomly generated numbers to correlate to colours to help make the art more lifeless ego-based? Those ideas and theories of rules…I don’t get that anal about the idea…having that spark against yourself gives you a more objective view of your work, especially when you’re editing stuff. When I started with the four track I was so used to balancing things and I was like “I have two whole tracks” and then I started messing with field recordings, then I was hooked. Around that time is when I started, I guess in the mid-90s there was a resurgence or awareness of things like John Cage, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and things like that. A lot of things were being reissued on vinyl and Thurston Moore just started Ecstatic Peace! And he was also doing the label with all the free jazz stuff. All this stuff was coming up at the same time as Slint and a lot of the Thrill Jockey stuff. This indie fusion was happening in the mid-90s when I was 18 and that’s what I was really into and that was the basis for me buying electronic equipment. Then I made some noise records, as you’d call them now but experimental records, back then. It wasn’t jazzy or anything like Tortoise but it was ambient and in ways similar that sort of stuff. I was really into the New Zealand noise scene and that was all deconstructed Joy Division slash Black Sabbath drone-rock noise stuff…the Flying Nun stuff too. There’s such a huge relationship between Flying Nun and Chromatics that no-one has ever picked up on. It’s dark, it’s new-wave but it’s like post-post-post, has one foot in experimental and one foot in sugar. That stuff was really a big deal to me. A couple of years later I moved to Portland and met Ida from Glass Candy and she was trying to make a band and no-one would be in a band with her. Portland was much different in 1996 than it is now. We met when I used to work at this grocery store; I’d just got a job there. She basically started talking to me because of my haircut; no-one had a good haircut and now everybody has a pretty decent haircut.
It’s the Urban Outfitters of the modern world, isn’t it? You now can’t spot someone that’d be your friend if you were 16…
It’s crazy, we used to cruise the streets at night trying to find cool people, it was so lonely, it was brutal. I like Mudhoney, but Portland, Seattle…it was like the dark ages in the 90s. Now electronic music is the new grunge so it’s equally retarded.
It seems like America’s just discovered EDM…which is a term I don’t think I’d seen someone writer seriously until about 2 months ago and then it’s in Billboard, the New York Times and there’s a feature in every paper at the moment…
The American perception of electronic music is really laughable. Now it’s high-brow all of a sudden. We were crucified for so many years for using electronics, especially live, after being like a punk band. It’s the home of rock ‘n’ roll or whatever but there’s so much baggage from what is live, what is a band…it’s really, really strong. It’s changing but they still want to see it…
Like Justice with their amps…give them what they want even though it’s not…it’s the aesthetic of what they want so they can’t question that.
We saw them in Barcelona and they’re really prog-rock, too. The record I feel isn’t mixed as well as the first one where the drums are incredible, everything is just so maximised. The new one, I like the music and samples but I feel like it just doesn’t hit as hard, nowhere close. But live, it sounds great.
Have you ever met them?
I assume you’d get along…
We have a lot of friends in common but we’ve never actually crossed paths.
I interviewed one of them about two years ago and the last 20 minutes of the interview was about software and how they spent time in their tour-bus trying to work out the exact software someone had for making a record…that’s their game in the tourbus. I don’t know how they go away and check who got it right, there must be a Wikipedia entry or something…
Like a crossword puzzle at the back of the newspaper…the answers are upside down or something? I love them though; I don’t think they get enough respect in the intellectual press.