It’s hard to imagine a time when bands would be chastised for broadcasting their work from computer screens and relying solely on electronically engineered beats to keep the tempos. Take a time machine back to Portland circa 2004 and you might have found that conflict when the Chromatics decided to make a monumental shift towards what they are today. Rewind one year earlier and Chromatics were an entirely different machine, playing wiry, abstract post-punk among a sea of similar bands with very similar aesthetics. All of that changed when Johnny Jewel, who was making his own massive aesthetic shift in Glass Candy, joined up with Adam Miller (Chromatics’ original founder) along with vocalist Ruth Radelet and, eventually, drummer Nat Walker. Ditching punk for pop, electronic lullabies, and mirror-balled disco rhythms turned out to be a revelation for the band and that smooth transition can be heard in the grooves of 2007’s exquisite Night Drive. It would be five years of constant recording and re-recording, re-writing and editing before Jewel and the band finally released a document that was able to represent the sleek obsidian sound design of what Chromatics had become.
The sprawling, 90-minute Kill for Love is that monolithic document that propels Chromatics into the future. Not only does it accentuate Jewel’s pop leanings on songs like “Candy” and the stunning title track, but it also highlights his moodier turns as a composer, placing glacial, experimental instrumentals in just the right spot to make the album a conceptual trip into black holes and neon horizons. Kill for Love serves as a landmark moment for Chromatics, even if it is merely another step for Jewel as 21st century renaissance man. In addition to touring for Kill for Love, as I found out through an e-mail exchange with Jewel, he’s also finishing up a new Glass Candy record and moonlighting in Desire with Walker, as well as working solo as Symmetry. All of this and recording the next Chromatic epic might make one think Jewel is burning the candle at both ends, but I’m under the belief that the world will be all the more better as a result of his exhaustive schedule.
I suppose I’m going back quite a while asking questions about the first record, Chrome Rats vs. Basement Rutz. I realize those first two are records you weren’t a part of, but I’m interested in knowing about the shift that occurred when you joined the band and recorded Night Drive. What was it that prompted the radical aesthetic and musical change in Chromatics?
Johnny Jewel: I produced Chrome Rats, and Adam wanted it to sound like this Glass Candy CDR demo that I produced. It was recorded on two separate four-track cassette machines live. Then I had the tapes chasing each other in an effort to be in sync onto an eight-track recorder. The resulting sound of that demo is so weird, kind of like Gary Glitter listening to the first Damned record. We did the same thing for the Chromatics LP. The same two machines were used. We rented a house and recorded about 24 hours a day for four days. The morning we finished, the band drove to Minneapolis to start their month-long tour, and I went to work in a grocery store. By this point, we had all been awake for about 48 hours straight, and I had to go chop watermelons into millions of pieces in a freezing cooler. A week later, I began the grueling process of syncing the tapes and deciding which tracks made the cut. The band had a rough tour and pretty much broke up on the road. No one seemed to be talking to each other or to me, and no one really cared about how the record turned out. I was left to figure it out on my own.
I spent the next month or so mixing at a studio after work. The end result is a postcard frozen in time of that explosive period. I love that first record. After a few months, Adam reformed the band as a duo that grew into a trio for the second record (Plaster Hounds). The trio ended up turning back into a solo project, and then Adam started making music with Lena (Okazaki). The first Chromatics single “Beach of Infants” was released in 2001 with a drum machine and a guitar, and Adam wanted to return to that original concept. They asked me to produce their third LP. The record would take four years to make, and would eventually be called Night Drive. We had released a 12-inch with Lena called “Nite” in 2004, and it was the first major step towards the new sound. Adam felt he had reached his limit writing alone. I saw the obvious spark he had and could tell that with a stronger sense of production, his sketches could reach really far. This was the real beginning of our writing relationship. In the classic tradition of Chromatics, Lena left the group. At this time I was living with Ruth and she had sung on the Mirage song called “Looking for Love.” She laid down the vocals for “In the City” in about 15 minutes. She was holding a beat-up guitar amp mic in one hand and the lyrics in the other. It was supposed to be a rough demo, not a real recording. I was kneeling on the floor controlling the tape machine with my back to her. I just started crying while she was singing it. It was over, the song was finally done, and I knew from that point on, no one was ever going to want to hear anyone else sing a Chromatics song ever again. That night, we put the song up for download at 4am on our Myspace page. It was pure magic.
It appears that a lot of the projects from the Troubleman days morphed into the Italians Do It Better clan. Has that community always been in place and did everyone’s visions coalesce and transition smoothly or did you ever take flak for ditching punk for disco and soft rock?
JJ: The only Troubleman–Italians Do It Better crossover is from the bands I am directly involved in and (Troubleman and IDIB founder) Mike Simonetti with Capricorn Rising. I think most of the Troubleman bands are broken up now. The real shift happened in 2003 with Glass Candy’s Life After Sundown 12-inch. That paved the way for what Chromatics would eventually become. It also made the first leap towards “After Dark.” We were crucified at first. You have to remember this is when The White Stripes, The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were ruling the world. We love all of those groups, but we were part of a different undercurrent that was just starting to bubble up. I remember getting heckled at Glass Candy shows in the US because we had a saxophone solo on “Nite Nurses.” Indie kids were like, “Yacht rock sucks,” or “Hey, you are not playing live drums,” or “You are a fucking karaoke band.” We were shocked at the hostility around that period. It was clear to me that a major shift was coming. Some people were enamored by it, and others were afraid of it. Now almost every indie band has a Macbook on stage playing their songs for them, and M83 is rocking sax solos across the globe. We love that things are always changing. The lines are so blurred with everyone listening to everything now. It’s so exciting. Music is music and the definition of what “live” means is becoming more and more abstract.
How do you distinguish between the music that is placed on a Chromatics record, opposed to Glass Candy and various side-projects like Symmetry?
JJ: The purpose of the song is what divides the bands in my mind. All of our work overlaps to a certain extent, but the bands can be divided into the four major food groups conceptually. Chromatics is death; Glass Candy is life; Symmetry is space; and Desire is love.
When you first approached the Symmetry project, were you challenging yourself to compose a score and eschew the pop songs?
JJ: When I started making records, I wasn’t touching pop at all. I was messing exclusively with sound design and noise. My first record was released in 1995. It was a double album of early experimentations with electronics recorded between 1992 and 1995. I released a string of anonymous noise records in the late 1990s under different numeric codes when I was living Texas. Then I moved to Portland and met Ida No. She is a lyricist, and for the first time since I was a kid, I found myself trying to write pop again. It was so difficult to make that jump. A lot of people have this idea that pop is inferior to sound or that composition is a higher art than pop. For me, they both have their challenges. Pop is very difficult to pull off. We are still learning. With sound, there are no parameters. In some ways the lack of rules frees you. That kind of openness can also be maddening. With infinite possibilities, it’s hard to choose a direction. Someone said that total submission is absolute freedom. Chromatics are just now starting to experiment with submitting to pop.
Which came first, you doing this stuff for your own enjoyment or the opportunity to score Drive?
JJ: I was asked to write the score for Drive because Nic (Winding Refn) and Ryan (Gosling) saw the potential for the screen that Night Drive hinted at. And that potential all comes from my experimental background.
I imagine, given the length and the amount of instrumentals, Kill for Love is in a way a score for another imagined film. Or is there a feature already shot that this will accompany? Are the videos we’ve seen so far a part of something bigger?
JJ: The videos are strictly mood pieces. They are not meant to tell a story, but to give a sense of environment like a dream. Director Alberto Rossini is really interested in creating a fantasy for the viewer to get lost in. Around 1997, Ida and I were crossing paths with Miranda July in Portland. She was kind of going back and forth between Olympia and Portland a lot. We would take the train to Olympia to see her perform to a room of 30 people. Her idea of life being the movie really rubbed off on us. Kill for Love is a journal of where we have been the last few years.
With that in mind, does the record have a distinctive narrative to it that you can explain?
JJ: Kill for Love can be summed up in one word: disintegration. It is about killing those pieces of yourself that you shared with someone that is now gone from your life. It is done out of respect for what you shared with them and to not let anyone touch that part of you again, dying a little each time until you feel nothing. Even though it’s not admirable to self-destruct, you did it for the love you shared with someone.
Going beyond Kill for Love, what will the next Chromatics record sound like? Did you want to wipe your mental slate clean after Kill for Love and shift again, or is it going to be a continuation of the sound we hear now?
JJ: I have no idea where Chromatics is headed. We hope to finish another Chromatics album in about two years. Time will tell of course, but we are working on a shorter album that will be around an hour in length. At this point, it’s more electronic than Kill for Love.