Johnny Jewel explains to us in detail how much Saturday night needs Sunday morning, and - doing justice to the name Chromatics - he reveals what range of colours he used to paint his brand-new “Kill For Love”.
If make-up is like a shield for him, music is the refuge where he likes to shut himself up. An emotional space in which Johnny Jewel claims to operate by following his instincts, and where he likes to move almost in silence, usually alone. In a way, for the brain behind Chromatics, music is a kind of sedative to get away from the madding crowd. He says that he is constantly recording (although he later ends up releasing only 5% of everything recorded) and this season, we seem to be in luck. 2012 is a year (the last one being 2007), when the time has come for Jewel to put out a healthy ration of material. So far he has released one of the masterpieces of the year, the enigmatic and captivating “ Kill For Love ”. Here he takes the sound of Italians Do It Better to new heights, giving it form and depth - but he assures us that he has other aces up his sleeve for the coming months. Meanwhile, we will soon be able to see him live at San Miguel Primavera Sound.
“Kill For Love” is a huge work in every way. Both emotionally and logistically. It took Johnny several years to shape the hour and a half that the album lasts, but the end result couldn’t have been better sculpted. With it, he seems to have wanted to bend such vast, intangible concepts as time and space to his will; and the forms that he uses to do so are highly seductive. The same thing happened to me with M83’s recent “ Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” - I notice that when I listen to it, I sometimes get the feeling that I am watching a film rather than listening to an album. As a consequence an idea comes to mind: if “Kill For Love” were a film, it would be one of those treacherous, slightly erotic, 70s movies. Something like “Emmanuelle”, I think, without thinking too much about it. When the time comes to chat with Johnny, I decide to ask him about that and a few other things.
First of all I’d like to ask you about Portland. I’m addicted to the “Portlandia” TV series!
Oh, I actually haven't had time to watch it. But everyone says it's really funny.
From what I can see there, it looks like a great city. Why did you decide to move there?
In 1994, I took a bus from Houston, Texas to Olympia, Washington, to see the Yo Yo A Go Go music festival. Most of the bands were based off the West Coast and they never toured Texas, so me and my friend Sean quit our jobs and bought Greyhound bus passes. It took us four days to get there. On the way, the bus stopped for 15 minutes in Portland to get gas. I got out to walk around and something just switched on in my brain. It's difficult to describe, but I felt awake, like I could really focus and work there. I think it was because of the clean air and the river running through the middle of the city. I wanted to move to the West Coast, but was too poor to move to San Francisco or Seattle. Portland was really cheap at the time so I moved there. Two weeks later, I met Ida from Glass Candy, and that's how this whole thing really began. That was January of 1996.
How has the musical scene changed there since then ?
It used to be more indie rock like Seattle, but is very DJ oriented now with a lot of electronic music being the main music of the underground.
In what sense do you feel your music connected to other contemporary artists?
For me personally, there is not much of a direct connection with my contemporaries. But I see that a lot of kids that are listening to Glass Candy, Desire, and Chromatics are also listening to Ariel Pink, M83, LCD, Beach House, Lindstrom, etc.. So in that way, the bands are connected to each other through the fans. When I was in a period of my life where I was writing less and listening more, I felt more connected to the idea of a scene. It's ironic, but spending your life making music for people to share together ultimately separates you from everyone that surrounds you.
"I personally don't consider Chromatics to be a dance band, but that's just a term. It doesn't bother me if someone calls us dance or rock"
Regarding the new songs, I can see connections with the way The xx control space and time. Did they inspire you? Talking in more abstract terms, I also can see connections with the decadent hedonism that The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye has put in the map. Do you know his albums?
We love The Weeknd. I don't know all of his music, but I love what I've heard. He's definitely working from a similar place conceptually in terms of space and mood. Letting the music cry.
There is no doubt that Chromatics sound very languid on “Kill for Love”, almost like an antithesis of dancing. Do you like to dance?
I love to dance, but I have to be in the right mood. I find myself dancing in the studio alone while writing. We use a lot of electronic tones that are generally associated with dance culture so sometimes the lines are blurred between genres. But music is music, and we love it all. I personally don't consider Chromatics to be a dance band, but that's just a term. It doesn't bother me if someone calls us dance or rock. The music is very percussive and rhythmically driven, and people dance at the concerts.
A lot of your songs make me think about the concept ‘solitude’. Is loneliness a concept you try to explore within your music?
It's an omnipresent obstacle that I deal with and it comes out in the studio. Growing up in Texas in the 1980s was pretty bleak for a kid listening to Nico and John Cage. Writing music has always been like a journal for me, so that's the headspace I am in while recording. I feel more connected to the world somehow while recording. But 90 percent of “Kill For Love” was made alone in a studio with no windows in the middle of the night while the rest of the world slept.
The night is one of the other concepts most present in the heart of Chromatics.
I was born in a hurricane in Houston at 9:45 pm. I have always felt excited by the stillness of night and the race to do as much as I can before the sun comes up.
What’s your relation with a concept like ‘time’ (in music)?
I like music that breathes and becomes part of my environment. The use of space in sound is one of Chromatics’ strongest points. We explore repetition and let the music drift in and out of consciousness. This gives the feeling of ‘time’ in music. For some, it’s boring. For us, it’s heavenly. Time is the one thing we never have enough of, but in music we can fantasize about stretching out moments and making them last. They say mother earth and father time. Time is supposed to be masculine and logical, but to us, the concept of time is tragically romantic.
The first thing that calls the attention about “Kill For Love” is its length. Sometimes, because of the length and the changing moods, it feels more like a movie than like an album. Did you have in mind the idea to make an album that long from the beginning, or was it something that just came up?
We knew it was going to be long, but we didn't know it was going to be this long. When “Night Drive” came out, it was originally released as a tour only demo CDR. Then it exploded. We made 300. Then overnight we had orders for 15,000. That was a huge jump for us, so we just took the plunge. I didn't want to rework a record that people were already falling in love with. It was really difficult, but I had to let it go. We released the demo version officially and that was the end of it. After that, I promised myself I wouldn't do that for the following album. I wouldn't release it until I felt like it was done. No matter how short or how long it ended up being.
I t took you five years to complete it; as happened with “Night Drive” and “Beat Box”. Why so much time?
Editing, mixing, writing, splicing, mastering, rewriting, remixing. These things are very time consuming, and we don't work on computers, so that time is multiplied. This combined with the need to walk away from the music for months at a time, causes the records to take forever. The goal is to go from concept to reality without discolouring the original idea of the song too much. What our albums lack in punctuality, they make up for in shelf life.
I think the original tracklist was narrowed down from 36 tracks to 17.
All of the tracks were selected on the album in order to complement the entire picture. Like a painting, the album is balanced by multiple colours and strokes. The pop songs are deep red, and those can only be three or four minutes long. The red is so vibrant that you are immediately drawn in, but too much can be overwhelming. Once the pop pulls you in, the muted blues of the abstract tracks hypnotize and sooth you. In between these extremes, there are violets & lavenders. Up close, these moments seem like distinct opposites. From a distance, they combine to make a complete image. The 17 tracks on “Kill For Love” are sequenced to make one huge arc.
"The blurred photo of the twelve string guitar was rich enough to capture the emotion, and vague enough to not be an advertisement. It took us nine months to finish the cover"
It’s funny that you say that, because I think that the guitar and the violet/pink colors of the cover totally capture the spirit of the album….
It was very difficult to decide on the cover for the record. I knew I didn't want to use a portrait like on the other records. We worked on about thirty different covers that were illustration based like “Night Drive” and “In The City”, but they weren't even close to touching on the feeling of the album. We needed something less graphic and more hazy. The blurred photo of the twelve string guitar was rich enough to capture the emotion, and vague enough to not be an advertisement. It took us nine months to finish the cover. I was really scared that we wouldn't be able to figure it out. But it's perfect!
Would you agree that Chromatics sound more classic than ever on “Kill for Love”?
Definitely. The concept of Chromatics is fully distilled on this album. Ideas that we were only able to imply before, we were actually able to achieve on “Kill For Love”. We are already writing for the new Chromatics album, and hope to take it even further.
The band also sounds more rock-oriented. In that way, the opening with the Neil Young cover - and its lyrics - is totally deliberate and demonstrative, isn’t it?
This record is more extreme on all sides, and the rock side is more rock for sure. We come from indie rock, so it was important to me to use the idea of the guitar as a symbol. It's the root of where Chromatics is branching out from. We are an electronic band, but we think like a rock band in a pop sense. The Neil Young song is very important to me on a personal level, so I wanted Ruth to sing it. We recorded it in early 2009, and it was pure magic. It was the first song her and I recorded after “Night Drive”. In the computer world we all live in now, I like the idealism of “rock n roll can never die.” I thought it was the perfect way to open the record. I wasn't sure if we were going to be crucified for it. We did it because it felt right.
Chromatics also sounds more ominous and desolate than before on “Kill for Love”.
We definitely wanted this album to be heavier, in both music and in mood. “Night Drive” is melancholic but there was a romantic optimism throughout the record. “Kill For Love” is more fatalistic, and deals with themes of loss and disconnection more.
In that way, “The Eleventh Hour” is a track that really intrigues me. If you listen to it without knowing is Chromatics, it’d be difficult to guess it’s yours …
It's true. The same is true with tracks like “Tears Of Pain”, “Killing Spree”, “Shining Violence”, etc. We like to have these moments in the records where we are less visible as a band. Almost like an intermission for the listener.
Is there a main theme running through the album?
The main theme of the album is disintegration. Memories fading into dreams, and eventually into nothing. The death drive that ultimately returns the music to a base organic state.
I asked you because some songs seem to have continuity in others, like “Running from the Sun” and “Birds of Paradise” …
“Running From The Sun” tells the story of Saturday night fading into Sunday morning, and what those two worlds mean as symbols. Saturday night is the club. Sunday morning is the cathedral. “Drinking blood from a paper cup” is a reference to communion. The two worlds are set as opposites in our society, but they need each other to survive. On Saturday night we rebel, on Sunday morning we repent. Without Sunday morning, Saturday would have no need for a release, and without Saturday night, Sunday morning would not have anything to look down upon. The song makes the metaphor of the moon running from the sun. If it wasn't for the sun, we would never even see the moon. And as we race through the streets at night, we are both running from the sun with the moon, and also running towards the sun as we get closer to dawn. That is why you hear the tropical birds singing at the end of “Running From The Sun”. The night has finally stretched itself into dawn. This duality is a major focus on the album. Nothing is black and white. “Birds Of Paradise” is the duelling sister to “Running From The Sun”. Both songs sing at each other from flip sides of the same coin.
I particularly love the use of the vocoder on “Running from the Sun”, I find it really fitting.
We used a 1970s vocoder with some modified vocal harmonizers that were built in Montreal for the song. It was crucial that the duality the songs shared was illustrated by the use of a synthetic voice. The vocoded singing told the story in a more psychologically-removed way than a live voice could. And in “Birds Of Paradise”, Ruth's warm vocals tells the more emotional side of that same story. Being huge fans of Kraftwerk and Whodini, we have always experimented with robotic vocal processing with Chromatics. Check out “Date With A Vocoder” from 2004, “Lady (Demo)” from 2006 and “The Wanderer” from 2003. For this album, “These Streets Will Never Look The Same” and “Running From The Sun” sounded completely superior with electronic vocals. So we just trusted our instincts.
What about the albums by Glass Candy and the “After Dark” compilation that you had announced? Is there a release date?
I learned from “Kill For Love” to never guess on a release date again. When I told Pitchfork that I was hoping to have the album ready on Valentine’s Day, everyone took that as an official statement. I am a perfectionist. Always trimming here and there, so release dates don't really work so well. I can say that “After Dark 2” is a summer record in mood, and I hope it sees a summer release. We've been working on it for over three years, so a lot of work has been done already. I am in the post phase of the compilation. Editing the song structures, reinforcing the rhythms, etc.. It's a very bouncy record so far. Very romantic and fun. Great pop songs from Mirage, Glass Candy, Farah, Desire, Chromatics, Symmetry, and Mike Simonetti. Glass Candy's new album “Body Work” is such a monster. It's so good and Ida is at the top of her game. I am not even going to try to guess on a release date for that. It's a massive amount of work and it's going very, very well. It's the release I am personally the most excited about.
And what about Desire?
Desire is giving two or three songs to “After Dark 2”. We aren't going to begin tracking for the new record until the winter of 2013, but the album is already written. Right now, it exists as four track recordings of vocals and piano. All the pieces are there, I just need to figure out what direction I want to take the rhythms in. For each record, I pick one electronic instrument to be the tonal core of the record. I still haven't picked which synthesizer I want the voice of Desire to have for that new record.
I also wanted to ask you about Symmetry. Was it really different working on “Themes For An Imaginary Film” compared to your other projects?
Nat Walker and I were working on Symmetry at the same time as Desire, Glass Candy, and Chromatics. When we work together, we don't set out to make a beat for any specific project. We just write, and improvise. We decide later which group it suits. What ended up becoming Symmetry was a bunch of music that wasn't lending itself to vocalists as much as other things we were doing. For two years, the project was nameless. We didn't know what to call it, but we knew it was for Symmetry. As a producer it was refreshing to work outside of the pop structure a little more. We spent many nights lost in space. It was wonderful.
Did Symmetry help you when it came to implementing new ideas for “Kill For Love”?
“Themes For An Imaginary Film” was such a challenging record to mix. For that reason, “Kill For Love” sounds a million times better than it would have if it were released first. On Symmetry, I was able to focus completely on the musical voices without leaving room for the lyrics. This caused a lot of the tones to be more in the foreground, whereas before they were masked by the singers. In the end, I was forced to sonically maximize every corner of the mix in a way that I hadn't really done before. As a result, it has been hugely beneficial to the mixes of the pop albums we are doing.
Lastly, tell me: what do you find in music that you can’t find anywhere else?