Thursday, February 28, 2008

Johnny Jewel Interview

This is the final installment of a series of interviews conducted for a piece that ran in the February issue of SPIN about "The Return of Disco." Originally conceived to note the myriad forms that genre had taken, from Escort and Crue-L Orchestra's brand of big-band disco to the white label disco-edit scene, the piece settled on surveying instead the return of Italo-disco, with Glass Candy's Johnny Jewel being of particular interest.

(As Johnny Jewel talks about lugging fog machines up three flights of stairs, I begin our interview by detailing Antony Gromley’s brilliant Blind Light installation to him)

Oh woah. That’s great. Sight's a major defense system.

It’s so misty, it’s such a humidifier. You can hear people sniffling.

Was there any music playing?

No, just the hiss of the mist. All you can see is the interference of your eyes.

There was a study at NASA with a soundproof room, and this guy talked about this high-pitched frequency. It was the sound of your nervous system. He could hear his blood pumping. Soooo...are we done?

The end! (We both laugh) So is Glass Candy still touring with Architecture in Helsinki?

No. that’s done. We played really fun parties. All those shows were set up like rock shows and we played DJ show type parties on the way back. More underground and low-key. It was cool doing a support tour. We always headlined. We headlined to 3 people and slowly built up. We never warmed up a crowd before. Those guys are really cool and pretty deep taste in music. They’re music addicts.

Tell me about the DJ parties.

We don’t DJ. We’d be the only band, as opposed to 3-4 band bills. Where the sound guy is the DJ, you hear the Tool Peel Sessions. It was DJs before us and DJs after us. It was really informal.

Did Mike talk to you about the piece at all? About the “Return of Disco”? I’m talking to James Murphy, Rub’n’Tug, Lindstrom…

Definitely contemporaries. Everybody’s doing their own thing but we all fit into the same timetable in a way.

How old are you now?

I’m 33.

We’re about the same age. What were you first impressions of disco music?

I didn’t even know that disco was a thing until I was in high school. When I was a little kid, music was music. I grew up in Houston and I didn’t differentiate between Urban Cowboy and disco.

I grew up in San Antonio!

Shamu! Sea World!

Hahaha. Astro World! Water World!

You got the Alamo right next to McDondald’s. The Alamo smells like piss. I went there on a boy scout field trip.

You know they moved the Alamo to downtown, right?

No wonder it’s so weird.

I remember watching Love Boat and Fantasy Island and stuff like that. The TV shows that had disco music, when the adults would go into the nightclub and everybody would be wearing suits and drinking weird drinks. My family didn’t drink. Just the impressions of the strings sections, really ethereal vocals, especially the female vocals. I was really swept away. To me, the vocals in disco music sound like this surreal afterlife, a purgatory. It’s probably based on movies and TV that I saw that had disco music and subject matter about dreams.

Really angelic and very very smooth. And not about the individual, it seemed to be more about a bigger picture conceptually, a group feeling. Lots of handclaps and stuff. It didn’t give the impression of a rock band, where you identify with the singer or the guitar player. Disco was like wallpaper, in a good way, like Erik Satie or something.

Not fully in focus...

Yeah. It’s a different purpose. That’s my opinion. I was really taken by the mood of it. I could’ve told you who Rod Stewart was when I was a kid, but Tay Stephanie (sp?). I didn’t realize it was different from anything until high school during the grunge era, and then disco was really uncool. Even before that. It reached us being whitewashed.

Like Charlie Daniels “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” A disco song. with a fiddle in it. I just never really thought much about musical genres, you try to find certain things. To me it was just music and I loved it. I didn’t think anything about it. my parents didn’t listen to music, we didn’t have a stereo. They bought me a clock radio, they didn’t know it had a radio, as we weren’t allowed to listen to secular music.

Houston in the late 70s, the soul station would play a lot of disco and electro-boogie. I was super into that, that was the first thing I identified with and felt really really excited about. Stuff like “Electric Kingdom,” vocoder stuff. It’s not rap, not freestyle. It’s somewhere between. It’s the transition from rappers rapping over disco to making their own beats. Before it hit Run DMC. Really funky, lots of handclaps, lots of sci-fi sounding synths, and super-minimal.

Like “Jam On It”?

“Jam On It” was MASSIVE in Houston. It was on the radio all the time. Oh My God! This is sooooo great.

Your parents weren’t thrilled.

My older brother hated it. He didn’t consider rap music to be music. He was into Journey, Talking Heads. I love that stuff too. I thought it was awesome. The stuff I really liked was Fat Boys. In Houston they would cross-fade Kraftwerk and Gary Numan with Eric B. and Rakim and Schooly D, it was all the dance club scene. There wasn’t any disco by that point, in the traditional sense.

So when I saw you at PS1 this summer, you made a track out of the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”

We did “Iko Iko.” When that song came out, I was still in Houston. That was bigger than “Jam On It” man!

Was it an homage to it? Why did you pick it?

Any song that I pick to do anything with is based on whether there is an idea and I cannot tell you where an idea comes from. I don’t do anything based on a concept. I was painting this wall listening to the 12” on repeat and it has an instrumental. And I started humming the Dixie Cups version of “Iko” and realized that the phrasing was perfect for the vocal phrasing of “Iko” and it was something I wanted to fuck with. The instrumental is obtuse and before the 16-bar formula kicked in with hip-hop so the verse just goes until they run out of words and then it goes back. “Iko” is a call-and-response, so you need even parts. It felt good to do something from Houston, but it wasn’t part of the concept. It just worked. Ida was open to trying it. it seemed appropriate. People loved that shit. We’re not trying to appropriate Geto Boys. It’s a sick song, a classic.

It’s Houston and New Orleans, geographically close. Sugar Boy Crawford was from New Orleans. All that was thought about afterwards. I just started humming it. There’s a lot of (Glass Candy) songs like that: “Rolling Down the Hill” beat goes perfectly with the acapella of Young Jeezy “Go Crazy.” “Computer Love” is in the exact key and tempo of Biggie’s “Going Back to Cali.” It’s things I noticed in weird ways, logged onto MySpace and listening to iTunes at the same time. that was the only one we did something with. I felt comfortable as they’re both covers, a conceptual marriage of regional classics that go together. Everybody knows “Iko” and everybody knows Geto Boys. But it was a one-time thing.

I remember Glass Candy as a more glam and rock and then moving more towards the studio. Was it less of a band?

I’m the only one that plays any of the music on the records. It’s always been a studio project. Our first two records have drum machine and synth. We were more synth, there was no guitar, I played bass live through a synthesizer. It sounded punk because we weren’t very good musicians. We were never setting out to sound a certain way. In ’99, we were into the Bee Gees and (the Stones) “Emotional Rescue,” “Miss You.” Just the disco coming from a rock perspective. We did our first tour, at the Knitting Factory, the bass fell apart and we finished the tour with a guitar. Ida liked the way it sounded, so we did that for awhile. Guitar is such a rock instrument. I’ve used electronic drums on every single record I made. Sometimes they’re dirtier. Keyboards and electronics have been with us the whole time. I’m a better beat-maker.

Personally, I don’t know anybody that does the shit. All my friends are rock people and I’ve had to teach myself from scratch, so the music is becoming tighter and more danceable. Our tastes are always changing. It’s in the mix together. It’s not a conscious effort. We’ve always viewed ourselves as a disco band in the conceptual sense. We were thought of no wave for awhile. Now people think of us as Italo, which is as accurate and inaccurate. Glass Candy is enigmatic, every song we do is different. When we write a song, all the ideas that we have goes into that song. we’re finishing a double LP in March. We want each song to be its own entity. Each song could be a record in and of itself. Stringing it together is a difficult thing. We’re feeling the dancehall drum tones, which are more overtly electronic. the electronic drums were more acoustic sounding, and lo-fi, people would just assume its live drums. Drum machines are on every single record. Now were pushing the tones forward.

Socially, it’s still a rock scene for you?

That’s changed a lot because of the age group. The cut-off is about 25. The people go to bars, not to shows. They don’t go to dance nights. The crop is different. The younger kids aren’t as prejudiced towards hip-hop as the people our age. They don’t have a problem embracing it. for the kids growing up and going to clubs now, they don’t have this idea…

With the internet, and MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, everyone’s a star and everyone’s life is celebrity. Even if it’s not super-famous, everyone thinks “this moment is being capture, this moment is being photographed, and people are going to see this.” And because of that, the shift has gone off of the artist performing and it’s more for the younger people, they don’t separate themselves from you that much, which is awesome in terms of breaking the ice and having a fun night. Mentally, we’re on the same level as the audience. We give them respect. We wouldn’t be there if they weren’t there. the whole night is a party, the kids aren’t thinking “I need to get their ass rocked off.” Or “There’s no drummer or no guitar.” It was more an obstacle when we first started putting on shows. People were more hung up on certain things. The more popular electronic music, they become more open-minded. A live rock band is cool. But there’s a million ways to exist and put on a show. Our shows are like DJ plus. I DJ the beats and play synth, she sings, and we interact. The younger audience is way open to it. it’s a different thing. It’s changing. In Europe, it’s not a rock scene at all for us. It’s different all over. City to city. LA is different from San Diego. Houston is different from Austin. Certain cities are more rock-oriented.

The younger audience and the computer age, people being exposed to shows on YouTube or a dancehall show. Fifty people on stage with mics, one DJ, no live musicians. They’re killing it. it’s fun, it feels live. It’s a moment. It’s not karaoke. When we first switched to beats, people were like “It’s like karaoke.” Okay, we like karaoke, too. Glass Candy has always been an outsider band. we never really make sense if you judge us on the status quo. We only make sense in the context of what we do. Some people like the records and the live show is more rock and they’re disappointed.

Do you vascillate between rock and dance yourself?

I don’t think of myself as either. I think of myself as a graphic designer that’s working with music. I’m not a musician, she’s not a singer, she cant sing melodies. She can only sing microtones, like a blues singer. We’re really weird, probably we shouldn’t be making music but we love it and we do it. it comes out sounding really unique. We do our thing, we don’t think about where we fit in. That’s for writers to think about.

Why separate Italians from Troubleman?

It came about naturally. We were on tour. We played with Farah for the first time and I decided I was going to produce her. I just did this Chromatics track, “Lady,” which was not really Chromatics, just me through a vocoder. We used it as a Chromatics track to expand the concept of the band. Mike like that song. I never play him stuff I'm working on, he hears the record after they’re in stores.

I record a ton of stuff not appropriate to Glass Candy. Mike said “I’m thinking about starting a joke label called Italians Do It Better. Would you want to do an anonymous project on it?” I told him about Farah. Originally IDIB wasn’t supposed to be Glass Candy or Chromatics, it was supposed to be instrumental dance music and then we toured and I thought about how in dance culture, hip-hop, dancehall, and disco, the crew, the studio, the family is a big thing for labels. Some people like Wolf Eyes, they hear Glass Candy and think it’s shitty. We love Wolf Eyes, they love Glass Candy. Fans are sometimes specific. We could use the momentum to turn them on to something else. I pulled everything I was working on over to Italians and just like that crew, family, cult vibe, there would be a unified aesthetic. All the records look so great. The Ed Banger shit, the drawings are so amazing. There’s a cohesive movement. The hip-hop families, Rocafella, Dipset, there’s a unified aesthetic. Color schema. It’s strong psychologically. People want to see unity.

They want to have something to identify with.

It’s a symbol representing a certain feel and a certain idea. We wanted to do that. When you’re buying records, especially vinyl, you might be shy about getting it. the idea here is to have an association. It’s exciting to have a family thing going on.

You have complete creative control.

That’s very nice. Being able to make sure that every record looks top-notch printing and pressing. Because Mike puts everything on the bands, some don’t care about packaging, it lowers the bar for the label. We care about the cohesiveness of everything. Especially in the digital age, why buy a record when you can download it? The complete package, we care about.

I noticed that the CDs have this mirror effect.

For me, I’m a Gemini, so yin-yang and two sides of the same coin. I’m the designer. For me, symmetry is very powerful for me. Also too, the twelve inch, if you flip it over, it’s like Black Sabbath Sabotage, one side is forward. For me it’s the duality of the label and my life and the way I think about things. There’s a plus and negative. An up and down. It’s a superstition of mine, acknowledging that balance. With anything you do to connect with people. It’s the way the whole universe is built, right? If you can build something that’s based on those same principles, it will connect with people abstractly and in a psychological way that people won’t think about. People just know they like the way it looks. It’s not a shtick. Sometimes it looks good.

It’s you and Ida, man and woman.

It’s duality. We’re both air signs. My moon is in her sign and her moon is in my sign. Everything that we do, the label does, it happens in twos. It just seems appropriate.

DJ Harvey talked about punk and disco as being closely related, in the idea of dressing up as a punk or dressing up for the disco.

I think that everything is the same. I think everyone dresses up, whether it’s jeans or some crazy outfit. It’s all expression. I think music is a symbol of expression. The closest tie between punk and disco would be small camps doing things their own way, putting out records in their own way. To me punk isn’t an aesthetic, it’s a state of mind. To me, Clint Eastwood (the character) is punk, making your own way. Individual vision is at the core of those things. That’s what strikes me. That’s why I like punk. To me it represents a freshness. The thing with disco, we’re definitely heavily influenced by the past. We let it come out in a natural way.

There’s no disco band or new wave band that sounds like Glass Candy. We’re not setting out to replicate this holy grail vintage disco sound cuz that’s not fresh. The only reason disco is making a resurgence is because younger people are discovering it for the first time and it sounds fresh to them. Therefore, it sounds fresh against what’s on MTV. It’s not because it was the only good music ever made its all relative. I think punk is the same as classic rock when it started. To me it’s all punk. Anything fresh and new is punk. I don’t think any music is unrelated to any other music. It’s all music. I understand it’s easier to file genres, I don’t see myself as any different from any other producer, from Air Supply to Dr. Dre. It’s all the same. Especially these days, everybody’s working on the same computer programs. The main difference is vocal and drum productions.

Everything else falls in-between.

The punk on MTV is no different from the country. it’s the same corporate versions, the style, the accent, and the singing, and the way the drums are produced. It’s all pop songs. Our songs are repetitious, it’s pop music.

I like how Chromatics Night Drive slowly fades away.

A lot of people listen to music really late at night. At that point you’ve passed out or you’re done making love or whatever. It opens the CD up for room ambience and conversation and we step into the background. We slip away. It’s the pulse of what’s going on. For me, that’s the sound of the road and the way it looks. I really like winding records down. I don’t like to go out with a bang. Most of the record happens early on.

It too has a duality to it.

The CD starts, peaks, then dissipates. That’s the idea. It’s intentionally minimal.