There’s a heartbreaking moment on the title track of Chromatics sprawling new synth-pop masterpiece, Kill For Love, in which singer Ruth Radelet sings “In my mind I was waiting for change/While the world just stayed the same“. As a summation of the Italians Do It Better weltanschauung, it doesn’t come more concise. The label and its spider diagram of bands and projects (including Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, and Farah) reached critical mass with co-architect Johnny Jewel’s sombre, nocturnal work on the Drive soundtrack last year.
Originally acclaimed for his resurrection of analogue synths, stripped back disco, and array of impressive front-women, Jewel’s body of work has progressed from being a fashionable electronic detour for indie fans (dubbed an Italo-disco renaissance despite not really being Italo disco at all) to a wholly more formidable prospect.
Listen closely, though, and you’ll notice that not a whole lot has changed. Chromatics exist in a time vacuum – that’s not to mark them out as a nostalgia act, but the limited template Jewel and his bandmates work with encourage refinement, and lend a permanence to their fantasy world. With their first show in Dublin in yonks coming up at this year’s Forbidden Fruit festival, the be-harlequined Johnny Jewel drew a pot of Earl Grey and gave us way too much of his time..
So do you think the new Madonna album would’ve been better if you’d written it?
I actually haven’t heard the whole thing, but definitely. That could be true for any number of electronic producers though. I love Madonna, and I really want to like her new stuff, but the production… Her voice is still good, the lyrics are decent, in the proper context. She could still sound good. Things have gone downhill since she signed her 360 deal. She sort of bowed at that point. It makes you wonder, with a lot of the artists we love from the past, how involved they were creatively [in their heyday] by the decisions they make later in life. Maybe they were just surrounded by a real good team of people.
I got that Soul Jazz Voguing compilation recently, which is full of massively diverse, pretty experimental club music, and obviously a big influence on Madonna back then.
It’s strange, club music didn’t used to be on the radio. Now it’s all Eurotrance anthems. Power-ballad torch song hits, well they’re not so much gone as it’s all blending together. There’s not so much of a difference between a country and western song, an R&B track, they all have this trance-y formula. I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the main way you can tell now what genre it’s supposed to be is the lyrical content, the clothes they’re wearing, and maybe the drum production. But even that’s becoming really homogenized.
That’s your fault though, you singlehandedly brought Italo-disco back, right?
That’s true. I accept full responsibility.
Have you been asked to produce acts outside of the Italians roster, somebody who maybe already has a profile?
Oh yeah. I won’t say who, but I’ve been asked some pretty ridiculous things. I turned them down not so much for art’s sake, but just the bullshit of dealing with labels on the creative side. Anytime I get an offer for remix work, which I can’t even waste time on because I have so much personal work I want to do, the first thing I say is “do I have 100% complete artistic control over this project?”, and, of course, the answer’s always “no.” If I turn something in, it’s because I already know it’s good. It’s absurd, in all mediums of expression you have the upper echelons who always want to dip one toe in the gutter, for some reason. And the gutter is where I live, you know. They want to take that brand alignment, and then change it. I don’t understand it. If you come to Italians Do It Better for a project, why do you want to change it to the way everything else is on the radio? It usually takes about two minutes to annoy them so much that they don’t call back. But I’m completely open to the idea. I was raised on mainstream music, I still listen to predominantly mainstream artists, so I don’t have a superiority complex. I just don’t like to have to answer to anybody. There’s hundreds of people to answer to in projects like those.
What mainstream music are you interested in now?
I’m always most interested in hip-hop and R&B production. Except for the crazy stuff that’s going on in the big room house scene, I think it’s the most progressive, creative strand of mainstream music. It’s a lot more experimental than the indie press wants to give it credit for. Vocally, that’s the part that kills the shelf-life of a lot of that music. The nature of the Top 40 is either really sugary, or really in the moment. But I like Kanye, Drake, Wiz Khalifa. The beats that Rick Ross is on, that kind of stuff. It was interesting three or four years ago to see hip-hop artists experimenting with four on the floor, even if that’s what everybody’s doing now. I like a lot of the super-slow, almost dubstep-influenced beats that guys like Lil B are on, the stuff that really drags. What’s crazy is that as advanced, as inspired as the whole thing is, nobody’s delivering albums. It’s a shame. Everybody’s got too much shit going on. Their Twitter, their clothing line, whatever. I think if people marinated with an album for longer, there could be real lasting power, because the production is so advanced. We just have all these moments, singles that have a lot of potential, but then you listen to something that was really hot two years ago, it still sounds cool, but it sounds plastic in a way.
Let’s actually talk about your music. Most reviews of Italians releases categorize them as having this sadness, or darkness, but to me it seems a lot more complex than that. I get the same feeling off your stuff as New Order’s Ceremony kind of evokes, how would you categorize your music emotionally?
Romantic. That’s more an outlook than an emotion, but I don’t see the music as sad, it’s emotionally exposed. For a lot of people that’s associated with melancholy or sadness, because when they reach that point they’ve been broken down. Overall there’s a predominantly bittersweet feeling that’s similar to that period of New Order. There’s this sort of uplifting quality, because there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s just that our tunnel’s really fucking dark and long. I try not to censor myself emotionally, in the same way I don’t try and make a specific point. It’s a holistic view of the good with the bad, and everything is all mixed in. There’s all these intellectual or logical associations people have through repetition of musical tones and rhythms, these parameters that we’re trained to think of in terms of “oh this song is slow, so the music is mellow, and minor so it’s sad”. For me, the elements of the beat determine how slow or fast it is. I don’t like the beat to be crowded, so I usually slow it down. I’m always working with harmonics that tend to evoke emotional reactions. It’s just the tones that sound good, that’s what I gravitate towards. We’re happy people. We’re sad people too, fucked up people, I think everybody is damaged in some way – that’s where our music resides. If I wasn’t happy though, I’d exit, but I’m still here. We’re not a goth band. We focus on certain ideas of loss, but we’re inspired, and things are good for us.
The last time I saw Glass Candy, somebody was complaining that you kept hitting bum notes because you were jumping around like a kangaroo. That’s stupid, because obviously putting on a show is more important than sounding like your records, but given that Chromatics are going to be playing bigger shows this summer, is there a pressure to be more polished?
Well, fun on stage has a lot to do with the amount of alcohol intake…
…No Earl Grey?
Both. God, I love caffeine. Chromatics and Glass Candy are very, very different live. Glass Candy is a lot more punk. I’m very proud that I don’t practice, it’s part of not using a computer on stage. And then being drunk. And reacting to the audience. And trying to DJ and loop with the one hand. And play synthesizer with the other. And jump around. Something bad is going to happen. It’s not like with a guitar strapped to you. And I refuse to play a keytar. I just refuse. So Glass Candy’s always very raw. Chromatics is more subdued in a way. There’s not a sense of pressure, because I don’t care about being professional, but about respecting the music, and meeting the audience half-way.
I remember Dublin pretty well. I don’t know if you know this, but you like to drink a little. So me and Ida [No, Glass Candy vocalist] decided to join in the fun. I had my first real Guinness. I went through a Guinness phase, which happened to coincide with when I was over there. Now I’m in a tequila phase. I banned whiskey from myself because I was getting into trouble. Anything brown, I stay away from these days. Anyway! Chromatics, the audience is there for something different than Glass Candy. I appreciate that, I know what my relationship is to the music, and I’m just there for the listener, and to celebrate something. We always want to do good, but I don’t want to sing for my supper at the same time. We hope that the audience will engage with it, take us as we are. We’re very conceptual. With electronic music, the way we keep it fresh is by not rehearsing, we experiment with the songs live. We keep it from being a karaoke band, like so many bands you see. It’s a real challenge for a lot of people, because so much music is computer based – it’s hard for bands. You’ve heard of this thing called the internet, right? Obviously, acts are getting big before they’ve ever played a live show, and within the hipster scene we still have these weird rock and roll ideas of what a show is supposed to be. We still want rock and roll in electronics – so a lot of acts are horrible in a way, because of how we’re preconditioned to consuming them. Chromatics are lucky, because we come from punk, we’re able to incorporate both elements. It’s challenging though. I have a month and a half to prepare for Europe. We’re trying to bring back tracks from five years ago to play live. Chromatics’ strength is in those really stretched-out moments, but of course, they never translate live. Although actually, we played with Pulp last week in New York, that was all-seated, and this show in Vienna that was all-seated – then you get to play songs. If you’re playing in a club or a disco, you have to realize you can’t attack somebody with this ten minute magnum opus.
You said before that you see yourself as more a graphic designer working with sound. What kind of art did you make before you were a musician?
I’d never done design before Glass Candy, but we needed a cover for our 7 inch. I messed around until we had something that didn’t look horrible, and I started experimenting more with posters for shows. Before I started making music, I was a painter, that’s what I wanted to be. I started feeling claustrophobic about physical media, like, why am I making all this shit, I only have four walls, and there was only so many cute girls I could give things to. I discovered guitar, and that totally took over. I didn’t mess with art again until we needed the cover. Most cover art is horrible, so I thought, well, I can at least make something that looks that bad. I never make art unless it’s for a record. I let it build up til we have a release. My favourite tool is sound. I love visual, I love film, but the graphics is a means to an end. We found our voice and it works.
Which artists were you interested in before music took over?
As a painter I was really into Marc Chagall and Cy Twombly, and I always like the ideas of the Dada movement (not so much visually as conceptually. Andy Warhol’s a pretty obvious one. I really like Raymond Pettibon, the guy who did a lot of the artwork for Black Flag, Sonic Youth – that’s a big influence on the Chromatics line-drawing aesthetic. I think the whole concept of Warhol, really bright colours, and the idea of the product is important for us. It’s interesting to see that our record covers were strange when they came out, and now there’s this whole scene that employs the same imagery. For me, it’s cool, I like that I’ve had a hand in removing text from album covers. You’re starting to see that more and more. Just more obscure looking imagery, more vagueness. Covers used to look more like advertisements.
There’s also the influence of downloading on artwork, there’s more emphasis on summing up music with one image than trying to shout the loudest on a supermarket shelf.
We’re lucky our aesthetic was in sync with a general movement based out of technology. People often say that our visual aspect complements our music perfectly, but for me that’s such a ridiculous thing to say. There’s no correlation between sound and vision. It’s two totally different senses. It’s the repetition, our work is so consistent – you see it somewhere else, and you’re like “Oh that looks like Italians Do It Better, it must be downtempo electro”, and usually that’s the case. It’s became a sort of language. A heavy use of black, and a heavy use of electric pastels – hipster Italo!
Chromatics Kill For Love is out now. They play Forbidden Fruit festival this June Bank Holiday weekend.
Words: Daniel Gray