There are few contemporary record labels with an aesthetic as refined as Italians Do It Better. Since first forging their imprint in the early '00s, the label has sculpted a sonic landscape of synth-tinged disco and electronic narcosis. At the forefront of this movement is Johnny Jewel. The label co-founder is also the mastermind behind outfits Glass Candy, Desire and most notably Chromatics. After taking a break from his many other projects, March this year marked the release of Chromatics' critically acclaimed studio album Kill for Love.
Released five years after their sophomore Night Drive in what was arguably the breakout year for Italians Do It Better, 2007, Jewell shares why this lull could be perceived as abnormal in the notoriously hyperactive music industry, and why the complexities of Chromatics are fundamental to the group’s success. "It's the way that I've always worked. I always make multiple versions of songs because I can never decide," he notes carefully. "For me there's two parts to the studio work – the song writing and the production. As a producer I'm always trying not to destroy the song, I'm trying to reinforce it. As a songwriter I'm trying to leave room for production. Because I do both roles in that way and because I collaborate with everyone else it leaves a lot of open-endedness with the music. With Kill for Love, for every song that was recorded potentially for the album there's anywhere from six to ten different versions, edits or mixes where we focus on the drums or the piano to figure out what works best. The final versions that you hear are kind of like the 'greatest hits' of all the best moments that I found from working on all of the multiple angles of the songs.
"The song that's before a song and the song that's between two songs – I needed to find the balance of which mixes I was going to use to bring out what I consider to be the strengths within the album and perhaps mask where I'm struggling, or what I perceive to be a weakness in a song. Some songs I needed to pull back in a certain way because I felt that the song before or after really needed to hit harder. Because I was treating it as an album and not a group of singles. Music is just a bunch of transient notes – the only real meaning in music is the space between the notes, what note is before it and what note is after it. That's what makes music."
Released a mere three days after being mastered, Kill for Love was left with virtually no time for promotion or publicity. "Once I had the record finished I wanted everyone to hear it as fast as possible," shares Jewel. "I wanted them to have a chance to listen to it before they had a chance to read about it. I wanted 14-year-old kids and music writers to all hear the record at the same time. It was a bit of an instinctive and reckless move on my part, but the record is doing well and a lot of people are getting into the conceptual side so I'm really happy with that - I wouldn't change a thing about it."
A working musician for the entirety of his life, Jewell notes the difficultly in sustaining a career in the contemporary industry. "For a big part of the time that I was doing this I always had a job. In fact I got fired from my last job because I toured too much. For a while I had to donate blood for money so I could still pay my studio rent," he laughs amicably. "A career has never been the goal –music has always been the goal. I definitely think that if you're going to try and stay afloat economically then you have to become more creative and kind of dangerous in the ways that you handle your business. You have to take more chances. It's more necessary to be unique to survive these days. From a technological side, it's really difficult for a blossoming artist to hold onto the attention span with all of the external pressures. I think it's more difficult now than it ever has been. But so what? If people want to make a living then they should go and get a real job."
Last in Australia with Glass Candy for the 2008 V Festival, Jewel notes his excitement to finally bring the Chromatics live show for its debut down under. "We'll have a bunch of electronics with us," he divulges. "Ruth [Radelet] spends her time on stage singing, playing guitar and also playing a mono-synthesiser from the '70s. I play synthesiser and a few drum machines and some processors that I've been messing with. Adam [Miller] plays guitar and also has a keyboard and vocal synthesiser and Nat [Walker, drummer] has a bunch of pads and triggers that hold down the rhythms. We're kind of halfway between the rock band and the electronic band on stage - but all the tones have been blending together really well. By the time we get to Australia we'll have done three tours in Europe and two in the US," he laughs gently. "We'll be nice and warmed up for you guys."
BY TYSON WRAY
CHROMATICS perform alongside Beck, Sigur Rós, Santigold, Liars and plenty more at Harvest, held at Werribee Park on Sunday November 11.