FADER 53: Glass Candy

April 08, 2008

When you think about it, it's kind of crazy that Glass Candy live in Portland because they make chilled out italo disco that sounds like it is from New York in the 1980s. Either way, we jumped coasts and spent a couple days with Italians Do It Better main dude Johnny Jewel and Glass Candy singer Ida No and tracked their transition from being a totally hated band to a totally loved one. Check out T Cole Rachel's feature from F53 after the jump, along with home and studio video tours from Jewel and No.

Story T Cole Rachel
Photography Jason Nocito

In one of those magical instances that only a shuffling iPod can provide, I drive into Portland, Oregon while listening to Loretta Lynn's "Portland, Oregon." Apparently some heavy shit went down the last time Lynn set foot here. According to the song (or, to Jack White), the coal miner's daughter not only got her heart broken, she damn near lost her mind, too. As I drive down traffic-free streets dotted with vintage boutiques and a seemingly endless array of coffee hangouts, Portland seems like a place where you might lose your patience, but hardly your sanity. It's a city where people drive cars powered by recycled cooking oil, publish eco-zines or design stuff for Nike. Quaint, cozy and surrounded by tree-covered mountains, it's hardly where you'd expect to find Glass Candy-a couple of beautiful, post-glam thirtysomethings making sensuous disco music about "beatific visions of horror and lovely things." The fact that the duo comes from this sleepy, hippie-friendly town is just another improbable element in what's already been a fairly improbable musical career.

For over a decade Johnny Jewel and Ida No have been producing dance music of the "rock," "electro" or "italo disco" variety. Originally written off as no-talent art punks with glamorous aspirations, Glass Candy did the seemingly unthinkable—they kept their band together and morphed into something sublime. Fans, friends and industry associates all describe the pair as elusive, shy, flaky and standoffish. People in Portland seem to either love them or hate them with a feverish intensity. But most agree Glass Candy's recent surge in popularity is a long time coming—and it could have come much earlier, had they ever actually given a shit.

The band would never have happened if the two hadn't transplanted themselves to Portland. No came from Vancouver, where she had spent seven years working in a Dairy Queen. Jewel came from Austin, trying to distance himself from a religious upbringing. In a music scene as insular and incestuous as Portland's, two people with such a specific and incongruous aesthetic were bound to cross paths.

"He worked at a grocery store just down the street," No recalls. "I went
in to buy carrots for my pet rabbit and I noticed him right away. He had a good haircut, which was rare for a guy in Portland in 1995. I thought he was cute, so I asked one of his co-workers if he was gay, you know, because of the good haircut and all. Little did I know that I'd asked the person who was his total nemesis in the store. The guy turns, walks over to Johnny and—in
front of everyone—asks him if he is gay. I was so mortified I had to take my carrots and run."

Jewel and No moved in together a few weeks later and started making an unholy, art-damaged racket soon after. "He told me that if I wanted to make music, he could be my robot," says No. "Except, he wasn't a very good robot. We had no idea at all how to make or play music. It was all droney and weird and I was trying to sound like Nico. Oh my god! We had to learn everything the hard way."

Listening to Glass Candy's earliest singles—2001's "Metal Gods" or 2002's take on Josie Cotton's camp classic "Johnny Are You Queer"—is to literally hear a band learning how to play their instruments. Known originally as Glass Candy & the Shattered Theatre, the band self-released two singles and then put out an EP on K Records before eventually finding a home with New Jersey's Troubleman Unlimited. The synth sounds and modtastic visuals that would become the band's trademark were there from the beginning, but the early sound—original member Avalon Kalin's fuzzy drumbeats, guitar squalls courtesy of Johnny Jewel (known then as John David V), and Ida No's vocals (something akin to a frightened Debbie Harry or a pissed-off Lene Lovich in a haunted disco)—had a gloriously messy quality that people immediately either found fascinating or wildly annoying. Fans loved them (and loved looking at them), while critics vacillated between indifference and brutal dismissal. As the band progressed, certain elements—the Shattered Theatre moniker, various replacement drummers—eventually fell away. The screechy, bewigged, performance art aspect of the band's early live shows slowly transformed into something more casually elegant. The live drums, usually included in the band's stage show to add "visual interest" eventually vanished, with the guitars following suit. The band released a handful of singles and one uneven full-length (2003's Love Love Love) while testing out nearly a decade's worth of setups and sonic permutations. By 2006 it was clear that the only essential elements in Glass Candy were Jewel, No and a synthesizer.

Glass Candy circa 2008 channels a weird amalgam of influences—italo disco, freestyle, krautrock, hip-hop and spooky new wave—and spits them out as something that sounds obviously familiar but surprisingly fresh. "I understand where people are coming from when they categorize us as all these different things," says Jewel. "But Ida is more likely to be watching old Marilyn Monroe movies than listening to Lydia Lunch, and I'm just as inspired by the music from old 1980s cop shows on TV as I am by most italo disco." While the recent renaissance of italo has undoubtedly been a huge boon to Glass Candy's sudden rise in popularity, the success is also due in no small part to the duo's growth as songwriters and Jewel's increased prowess as a producer. As so much contemporary dance music is the product of ironic sample-grabbing, pummeling digital beats and a tendency for winking self-parody, Glass Candy appear to exist in a kind of pristine vacuum, the music always moving towards a state of dreamy refinement.

The birth of their new label, Italians Do It Better, has aided this recent wave of attention. Launched by Jewel and Troubleman Unlimited's Mike Simonetti as a means of showcasing like-minded electronic acts, the label also is home to Chromatics, Mirage and Farah. After the unexpected success of the label's 2007 After Dark compilation, the decision was made to release Glass Candy's B/E/A/T/B/O/X (originally conceived as a tour-only product) as a proper full-length. A series of EPs, a new album and a vinyl release of
B/E/A/T/B/O/X are currently in the works.

If Jewel and No initially seem wary of talking to me (a series of tentative emails preceded any face-to-face meetings), they probably have good reason. Early on, the band battled a perceived connection to the ill-fated electroclash scene. The Pacific Northwest—known for earnest rock music and political punk jams—is not the most welcoming place for a band whose glossy visual aesthetic mirrors the music they make. Most press on the band was more concerned with their looks-Ida No as spaced-out, cosmic glamour nymph, Johnny Jewel as b-team Bowie impresario. Playboy named No one of the hottest women in indie rock ("I was #3, at least," she says). Other press was less kind. One magazine (actually, it was the FADER) called them "terrible-theatrically bad," while even crueler criticisms came from their own hometown. After the Portland Mercury ran a particularly mean-spirited jab at the band in 2000 ("They took our picture and replaced our heads with the hillbilly dudes from Deliverance!" says Jewel), they quit doing press altogether. Any attention-good or bad-became unsettling. "Even reading positive stuff became weird," says Jewel. "I think we were content to just hide away and do our thing. Chasing after success or trying to get attention, I feel like that poisons everything."

There are about as many strip clubs in Portland as there are white people with dreadlocks (a lot), and Suite 304, the studio where Glass Candy records, is right down the street from a few of them. "I've been mistaken for a hustler a couple of times around here," Jewel explains as we enter the former printing factory. There are abandoned rooms cluttered with old mattresses and empty iron-clawed bathtubs. Once full of working artists, the building was eventually overrun by squatters before the landlord cleared it out completely. These days, the only tenants are Jewel and the indie rock band clanging away somewhere below us. Before taking me into his studio, Jewel shows me a cavernous room that offers a panoramic view of the Portland skyline. From here, the city appears to twinkle under a haze of almost perpetual rainfall. One nearby wall has been painted a Pepto-Bismol pink. "Me and Ida did that," says Jewel. "We wanted to take our pictures in front of something bright."

While most contemporary dance music exists under a glossy veneer—digitally processed vocals and computer-engineered beats—Glass Candy adopt a much more jagged, roughly-hewn version. Despite the Moroder-ish sheen that permeates their best work, there is a decidedly human quality to their synthetic sound. The artificial strings and Casio trumpets
of B/E/A/T/B/O/X's "Beatific" and "Candy Castle" feel like the result of human fingers pressing down on a keyboard, rather than something conjured through laptop clicks. "I don't use computers at all," explains Jewel. "Not because I don't believe in them or because I think they are bad, I just don't know how. All our equipment is very basic and I taught myself how to use all of it." He points to a stack of books laying under a vintage synth. "Manuals," he says with a shrug.

There's a growing list of DJs and producers clamoring to collaborate with Glass Candy (everyone from Diplo to members of the DFA label),
but given the band's unorthodox way of recording, the answer is almost always no. Jewel has developed his own specific production methods and
No refuses to record using headphones or a stationary mic. "She sings into a handheld microphone while dancing and twirling around with the music playing loudly in the room," says Jewel. "Everything is recorded together, which is why people can't really remix our songs. It's all one thing. The words can't really exist separately from the music."

The following morning I walk into Doug Fir—a chic combination of restaurant, bar and music venue connected to my hotel—and spot Jewel
at the bar. It's 10am and he's washing down his pancakes with whiskey.
"I promise I'm not an alcoholic," he says, explaining that he's been up all night in the studio. "Sometimes if I eat a giant breakfast and have a drink, I'm finally able to go to sleep."

Since he and No have given up their day jobs, Jewel spends anywhere from nine to 12 hours a day in Suite 304. "That's why I have about five friends, man," he jokes. "Everyone else is asleep whenever I'm awake. I can usually only spend time with people when they are in the studio with me." This explains how Jewel has been so prolific in the last couple of years. Aside from Glass Candy, he also plays in Chromatics, another Portland band with a growing following thanks to After Dark and their haunting Night Drive album. With Chromatics, Jewel works alongside Adam Miller and vocalist Ruth Radelet (who is also Jewel's longtime girlfriend). Ida No is romantically involved with Chromatics' drummer, Natty. While the webs of connection between the two bands may appear intense and complicated to the casual observer, Jewel and No shrug it off. "The drama between any of us is long in the past," says Jewel, and leaves it at that.

While Jewel spends most of his time in the studio, No spends most of her time avoiding it. She prefers being at home—reading, writing, doing yoga and dancing to Diana Ross. She claims to love performing and touring, but other aspects of the band—recording, booking shows, dealing with promoters—falls on Jewel. Any coked-out disco queen fantasies the band's music might conjure are quickly dispelled after spending about five minutes with her. She is sweet, funny, soft-spoken and not stressed about anything—a nice balance to the relentless energy of her bandmate. "If we were describing ourselves according to geography, I'd definitely be the city and Ida is the country," says Jewel. "She understands the importance of taking it easy. I don't."

Sitting on No's sofa with her giant cat on my lap, it finally seems appropriate that Glass Candy live in Portland, Oregon. She lives in an artfully-cluttered duplex apartment filled with quirky antiques and evil-faced stuffed animals. While Jewel rummages through the kitchen for something to eat, No takes me to the basement. "This is where all the scary stuff is at," she tells me. The basement is more like a Glass Candy archive, full of old stage outfits, show posters and original album sleeve art. Despite the fact that he and No have not been romantically involved since the earliest days of the band (and haven't actually lived together for years), many of Jewel's childhood possessions still reside in her basement. The place is a telling reminder of the friendship that lies at the heart of the band.

"A lot of our problem early on was that we were just really struggling in every possible way," she says, while considering Glass Candy's recent good fortune. "Struggling to get by, struggling with each other and struggling against the world. I think we really, finally, just grew up. You realize that things don't have to be hard. You get rid of that youthful idea that everything has to be difficult in order to be authentic, that idea that you're not keeping it real unless you're miserable. You learn to enjoy your life…or something. God, I don't know." We go back upstairs.

In the studio with Johnny Jewel

At home with Glass Candy's Ida No

FADER 53: Glass Candy