Johnny Jewel is a busy man these days. After I wait four days for a response about possible times to talk to him on the phone, he e-mails at 8 on a Friday night to let me know that he’ll be available for the next 12 hours or so. But, actually, he writes, “After 1 a.m. would be best.” I’m not at home. No BlackBerry either. When I finally read the e-mail at 2 a.m., I look at my phone, think about my sleeping roommate, and cautiously call.
“Oh. Hey, man. Yeah, I just gotta drive Ida [lead singer of Glass Candy] home. We’re just finishing up some vocals. Can you call in about 30 minutes?” Sure. I call back in 35. “Oh. Hey, man. Yeah. Um. Listen. I’m just getting some things together. Can you call back in about 20 minutes? I’m really sorry about this. Things are crazy over here.” No problem. I call back again in 25. And we talk for an hour and change — mostly about why he’s so damn busy.
“I don’t produce all the bands on Italians Do It Better, actually,” he gently corrects me early on in our conversation. It sure seems like it. Of the first four 12-inches that Italians, the label that Jewel and Mike Simonetti run together, he’s had a hand in three of them. Jewel is one-half of both Glass Candy and Farah, as well as one-third of Chromatics. (He also does a bit of mixing for Mirage, the only actual Italians on the label thus far.)
Things haven’t always been this way. Until recently, Jewel’s main music outlet was Glass Candy. He was there from the beginning, in 1999, when the group began its career as a no-wave band, fueled by serrated guitars, big and dumb drums, and intoner/screecher Ida No’s personality. But as time went on, Jewel’s interest in synths grew. “We had a drum machine on our first 7-inch,” he tells me, “but it took me much longer to get comfortable with introducing synths to the music. At some point, I just felt like I’d done everything I could do with guitar.”
You won’t hear many of them on After Dark, Italians’ first compilation. Instead, Glass Candy’s contributions to the album are covers of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love,” disco girl group Belle Epoque’s “Miss Broadway,” and “The Chameleon,” a song performed originally by Dark Day, an avant-synth project DNA’s Robin Crutchfield formed after he left the legendary no-wave group. When guitars are heard, they’re put into service of the groove — helping to propel the rhythm-heavy compositions along their way.
Jewel’s move to death disco, as many people are calling these glacially paced tunes, is hardly a bid to cash in on the Big Beat 2.0 sound currently proffered by Justice, Simian Mobile Disco and the like that is making waves in the States. Glass Candy, Chromatics and Farah all favor open space and atmosphere over the hypercompressed anthems currently rocking clubs. (Jewel tellingly counts Goblin as a much bigger influence than Moroder.)
But even as each is guided (in some part) by Jewel, they all have a different character. Chromatics, for instance, was originally the brainchild of guitarist Adam Miller. Jewel was simply supposed to record and produce the band in 2004, but soon began working very closely with Miller — and became a full-time member of the band. The recently released Night Drive, a tour CD-R, which flits between slow-motion disco pop and Italian horror soundtrack ambiance, is anchored by an excellent cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and got a rave review in Pitchfork.
Plano, Texas’ Farah, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery. Jewel tells me that his introduction was a videotape of her singing Glass Candy covers, accompanied only by Casio and a drum machine. Intrigued — not least because she reminded him of an ex-girlfriend — he invited her to sing “Love Love Love” onstage the next time Glass Candy were in town. When she opened with some of her own material, he was hooked. “She just has this raw power. I was really moved. Like, really moved.”
After his current tour with Glass Candy, Jewel will be recording more with Farah in December and January. And after that, the new Glass Candy full-length should be released in early 2008. “February. Hopefully.” In the meantime, you can probably find their current tour CD, Beatbox, on a file-sharing network near you. Don’t worry: Jewel doesn’t care all that much. “I’m very into keeping it for free so that people can hear it and be ready for when we come into town.” Considering the speed at which Jewel has been moving, though, don’t be surprised if they have a couple of new ones to premiere anyway.
Glass Candy play with Architecture in Helsinki at the Troubadour on Tues. & Wed., Nov. 6 & 7.