Interview: Johnny Jewel (Italians Do It Better)

In the first of a two part feature on the Italians Do It Better label, we speak to Johnny Jewel, the creative spark behind the imprint, responsible for everything from the vinyl and flyer artwork to production for the likes of Desire, Mirage, Glass Candy and Chromatics. In a rare interview, the Montreal-based producer spoke to Juno Plus editor Aaron Coultate about the new After Dark series, the pitfalls of hype and why he is an artistic caveman.

Hey Johnny, Juno Plus here, where are you at the moment?

I’m at home, in Montreal.

You moved to Montreal from Portland, is that right?

Yeah I’ve been here almost a year now. I had been in Portland for almost 10 years. I was actually thinking about moving to Europe because I knew I had to get out of the US. As it turned out Montreal is bit of a halfway house, it’s European in many ways.

When did you first start getting into disco music?

Well when I was young, I listened to a lot of Top 40 stuff, hip-hop, a lot of club music. I grew up in Houston in the 80s, there was no internet and no record stores. I listened to a lot of Blondie, New Order, and in the 90s I found out about punk. I was taking art classes and I got into Warhol, and I got into the Velvet Underground, then Yoko Ono and a lot of female artists.

How did you get into disco music?

I was always into ABBA and the Bee Gees, but it wasn’t until I was in bands and started playing out that I would hear DJs playing more leftfield disco. It took me a long time to warm to, at first I didn’t get it at all.

“It took me a long time to warm to disco, at first I didn’t get it at all”

What kind of band were you when you started Glass Candy?

With Glass Candy we started out as a synth band, but our synths broke on a road trip so we borrowed some guitars. We stayed that way for a while but eventually we got the keyboards and drum machines back.

Do you think your sound has changed much?

Well I understand how to make music much better now. I never knew how to make pop music when I was younger, I was a noise musician.

How did you hook up with Mike Simonetti?

I remember he called me because he wanted to have us on the label he was running at the time (Trouble Man Unlimited). You know, he’s from New Jersey, his accent is very harsh, I totally didn’t trust him (laughs). He wanted us do a release but I wasn’t keen because it was CD only. So I asked to do a 7”, he said OK. I did the artwork and purposely left the name of his label off – I wanted to see if he was serious about the music. We did another 7” with no label, and one track that was 21 minutes long. But he never said a word. We slowly started to build a relationship, and I found him to be an awesome guy to work with.

How did you two come to form Italians Do It Better?

We came to a fork in the road with TMU. I wanted to start my own label and gain some momentum, and TMU was quite diverse and eclectic, which is cool, but I wanted a little more focus, more of a theme. I thought we could benefit from having a tighter label.  Mike was already tossing around the idea of Italians Do It Better, so we went with that.

We printed off 300 copies of After Dark, really just as promo for a Glass Candy tour. Then Pitchfork got a hold of it and reviewed it and the whole thing blew up from there. We had 5,000 orders for an album that didn’t really exist. That was the start of it all really. It’s strange, because we had been doing the same stuff for five years, but all of a sudden everyone liked it, it was what everyone was responding to. What we were making was now a genre.

“We had 5,000 orders for an album that didn’t exist”

Do you ever worry about becoming too popular?

A lot of people have mimicked our sound – it has become trendy in terms of production. When I first started doing things with strings and bell and horns, it was still considered cheesy and I was getting crucified for it. Now it’s standard for a nu-disco track to have all that stuff on it. But sounds can have different meanings at different periods in time. I’m glad people are into something that I helped create, but it has its benefits and problems.

Like what exactly?

It’s a thin line between doing your own thing and simply trying to stay ahead of trends.  It didn’t blow up in the mainstream, there was just this super buzz around the underground. The ideas were picked at, and reproduced in a more digestibale form. I’m not saying I invented the wheel, but I was here from the core of this cycle, it’s the nature of how movements work.

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How does that make you feel?

People are influenced by it, they polish it a little, and it makes its way up into the mainstream. It doesn’t just happen with music, it’s the same with film, photography, design. I’m trying not to react for the sake of a reaction, I’m just working harder. It lights a fire in me to progress. You cannot predict what will happen next in terms of trends, and trying to figure it out is counterproductive. If I read the press, it’s always with a grain of salt. It’s only one person’s opinion. Especially if it’s good press, it’s dangerous to believe your own hype.

Mike Simonetti describes you as an incredibly hard worker, almost obsessive. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I wake up everyday and I’ll go until I get exhausted. I don’t use computers so everything happens in real time. In Montreal, there’s only three places you’ll find me; in the studio, at the coffee shop making art or at home. When I’m on tour I can party and get that out of my system. I get all this energy built up and when I get home I’m on fire. I have always had this intense work ethic. In some ways I guess that’s commendable but in others it’s depressing. I was doing it 15 years ago when nobody cared.

You do all the artwork to IDIB … how important do you think that is to the overall image of the label?

It’s completely essential. I think that’s one reason why we’ve had the reaction we did. There’s a consistency in the artwork and design, and people respond to that. The Glass Candy stuff – it’s all the same artwork that I’ve been doing for 10 years. There’s the cut up, post-punk Warhol stuff, the Art Deco fonts … design is all suggestion, there’s no musical connotation, it is two totally different senses. There are concepts behind all the imagery. There’s a purpose to all of it.  I’m making art constantly, maybe 1 in 50 of my designs will ever see the light of day, and for every record sleeve there are 20 that get thrown in the bin.

You clearly have a penchant for analogue equipment – how did that come about?

I bought some drum machines, a bunch of synths from the early 90s and some mono synths from the early 70s. The old synths are all worth a lot now, I paid $20 for them when I bought them. It’s like, there’s no such thing as a vintage laptop now. A few years back people thought synths were stupid, especially ones that could only play one note. Don’t get me wrong, I love computer music, but artistically speaking, I’m a cave man. Where I’m coming from is blood and guts. All the drums are played by hand, we don’t make loops. People often ask how the music is so loose, that’s because I don’t quantise the music. I feel like im a relic production-wise, but most people can’t play a synth so my ability to play a synth by hand is something I might as well embrace.

“Artistically speaking, I’m a cave man. Where I’m coming from is blood and guts”

How does this equipment stand up in a live show?

We play the synths live, but there are a lot of mistakes as a result of drinking and dancing (laughs). People can’t believe how many risks we take when we play live.

How long does it take for you to finish a track?

With Glass Candy, Ida and I have 35 songs we have to whittle down to 15 or so for the album. But some take longer than others. “Miss Broadway” took four years, “Geto Boys” took three.

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Wow, that’s a long time. You sampled the rap version and not the Isaac Hayes original for “Geto Boys”, right?

“Geto Boys” was a weird one. The sample is from the Geto Boys song “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me”. We sampled the rap song, not the Isaac Hayes version, because we thought that sounded better for what we were trying to do. The Geto Boys are from Houston, my home town, so it’s a really important song for me. It was the first rap single from Houston that went worldwide. Ida was dead against it. It took me two years to convince her, she thought I was stupid. Commodifying black culture is taboo in the US, but everybody is influencing everybody so there should be no taboo. When we first played it live, nobody got it, but now it is one of our best live songs. A lot of people in Europe probably have no idea about the Geto Boys, but that’s why we made it obvious, by naming our version after them. We wanted to pay homage to them.

What are you working on at the moment?

The new Italians Do It Better compilation, After Dark 2. That should be out in late January or early February. There’s also new Desire, Chromatics and Mirage on the way, but the next AD compilation is the most important thing right now. In late spring we hope there will be another Glass Candy album, and between now and then we’ll bring out Night Drive on vinyl. There’s also the Farah LP which we’ve been working on for three years. There’s also some new 12” artists and some more Twisted Wires stuff to come. We are also working on Desire and Glass Candy’s first videos – I’ll be co-directing them.

Interview: Aaron Coultate

Next week, in the second part of our Italians Do It Better feature, we’ll be speaking to the label’s head honcho Mike Simonetti.

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