Although he's been writing, producing and performing for more than a decade as part of the electronic Portland band Glass Candy, the first time film audiences became aware of Johnny Jewel was after he contributed the track "Digital Versicolor" to the soundtrack of Nicolas Winding Refn's oddball biopic Bronson, which brought a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hardy to the States. Jewel is now poised for even greater success, as Refn's latest film, Drive, begins to catch fire in theaters nationwide—and besides Gosling, the movie's other major star are the songs from two of his other bands, Chromatics and Desire. Like what you hear? Stay tuned for more: Jewel and his collaborator Matt Walker wrote a complete (and unused) score for the film that they'll release later as an album called Symmetry. Boxoffice caught up with Jewel in an epic and fascinating interview about the relationship between music and movies—and why his original score was axed.
How did you originally get involved with Bronson and how did that lead to Drive?
For Bronson, I never talked to Nicolas. I think the music supervisor and the editor that Nicolas works with were really into B/E/A/T/B/O/X [Glass Candy's second album] and I believe that's how he found out about Glass Candy. And so that was a typical licensing thing—it was just something that existed that they used in the movie. And when the movie came out everybody was freaking out, and I was like, "What's the big deal?" But I didn't know that they were going to use the song three times in the film, and so then I understood why people were tripping out. It was cool because "Digital Versicolor," is such a sick track. And when I did the album sequencing for B/E/A/T/B/O/X, I was thinking of the industry and how it all works, and how everything is frontloaded with iTunes, where the catchy songs are at the top of the album because of the scroll down nature of viewing stuff on a computer. I was really into the song and I thought that would be a perfect closer, but I knew that it would get overlooked, because it was the last song on the album. But I did it anyway because that's where I thought it belonged. But because of the movie, this song has now gotten a lot of recognition, which is crazy to me because I don't really watch movies looking for music to listen to, you know? But a lot of people get really turned on to music that way, and I never realized that until Bronson because I saw what a difference it made with "Digital Versicolor." People really felt like the song connected with the film.
Anyway, on the day of one of our Los Angeles shows last fall, my assistant got all these emails from all of these Hollywood people saying, "Nicolas is working on this new movie in LA. He wants to meet Johnny. He wants Johnny to do the soundtrack. Ryan Gosling wants to meet Johnny." All this business talk is actually funny, because I watch movies but I live in my own kind of world, so I didn't know who Ryan Gosling was. I'd never seen one of his movies. Then I met him at the LA show, and I met Nic who said, "We want you to do the whole soundtrack," and all this stuff. And I don't really get starstruck but it was even more so because I didn't know who the guy was, and we were on tour, so I was like, "Oh cool." Then right that night my passport was stolen, and I was stuck in LA, and they were in LA but I didn't have any way of getting in touch with them. And a month went by and I never heard anything from them, so I thought this was just one of the things that didn't work out. And then I got a call from the music supervisor of Drive saying they wanted to use [Chromatics'] "Tick of the Clock" and [Desire's] "Under Your Spell," and I was like, "What the f--k?" because they came on so strong in LA. We had a big long conceptual conversation about John Carpenter and Claudio Simonetti and all this stuff, synth-based scores, you know?
So then we started trying to reach out, and it turned out that Ryan was wondering what the deal is with the soundtrack because they were still interested. Plus, I had like recorded for four months—I had recorded a bunch of music for the movie. I immediately went and got the book and I watched all of Nicolas' films and Ryan's films for research, because I was trying to get a feel of what the movie would be like based on what they had told me. But apparently it's just one of those things where there's like six to 10 different people producing the movie, and plus I think the same people had the rights to the movie but it was going to be a bigger production, like more of a blockbuster-sized movie, and somehow the signals got crossed where Nicolas' camp thought I was unavailable because of touring. By that point, this was in February, and they'd already shot it and cut the movie. So Nic flew to Montreal and we rented a movie theater and he and I watched the movie twice in a row, back-to-back. We talked about every single scene and all the music. So then from there, I had a month to finish the score. I did the whole thing. I did the whole score in New York where they were finalizing the movie, doing color correction and all of that stuff. And I came down to New York for a week. But they weren't able to use any of it because there were so many different people involved.
It sucked because they liked the music, and Ryan was super pumped about it because he's a fan. And Nic and Ryan had a real distinct vision, but this was his first Hollywood movie and he was used to having 100 percent control of the process. Honestly, because he's super-intelligent and very professional, I don't really know the story of why some things got used and other things didn't get used. But I had a great time working on it. And for a movie that's not even an hour and a half, I have 14 minutes of music, which is awesome. But I recorded three hours of music.
What is happening with that music that you recorded?
I collaborated with Matt Walker who plays drums for the Chromatics and Desire, and we're going to end up releasing some of that stuff on Italians Do It Better [Jewel's record label] under like an imaginary film project called Symmetry. It was already in motion and we were working on kind of wallpaper, not like forgettable music, but sort of abstract mood music. You can only put so much abstraction on a pop record before it like tips the scales and feels imbalanced or possibly indulgent for what a fan of a rock or pop record wants, so for the last three years I've basically been piling up stuff that's gone into the Symmetry pile, and we're going to release different volumes of it, and my score for Drive is about half of the first one. So it's really cool, and the music will be heard—I'm sure because it's film-based, the score will probably end up in a ton of other movies. Because it's perfect for film: it's abstract enough, and it's not locked into a pop structure, which is really good visually because I know editors have trouble with really strictly structured music.
It sounds like there were just too many cooks in the kitchen.
It was just that there were a lot of people involved. I mean, the Cannes poster said "From the makers of Wanted," which was completely inappropriate in my opinion because the movie is not that at all. So as with anything this big, you have to have the creative side and the business side, so everybody has a different vision, and if I'm a business person, all that matters is dollars and cents—and I understand that. And if I'm a creative person, all that matters is the artistic aspect of it. So they both have their place, so I think everyone was trying to find that balance, and I was just in the studio making beats like crazy-basically, every type of propulsive, motoric kind of synthesizer thing imaginable I did. It was car-like or heartbeat-like or adrenaline or angelic, because I received the same reference movies that the other composers received. A lot of the stuff was like Brian Eno references, some Angelo Badalamenti [who did the music for David Lynch's Blue Velvet], and some of the temp soundtrack was from The Social Network, so it was like electronic sounds.
It was really cool and I really enjoyed talking to Nic, because we're both so conceptual and really detail-oriented. He's not a musician, but he really understands the visual aspect of music. I always tell people I'm not really a musician. I'm more a graphic designer but I use sound. And he responds to that, which is why he likes my music because it's more tonal, and it keeps you hooked but it doesn't dominate the picture. I guess maybe I'm in a musician world, but I don't meet that many people who are really neurotic and detail-oriented, and everybody on the film that I talked to was looking at the movie under a microscope, which is really cool because in a studio, I'm really into finesse and subtlety and all that. That was really cool to find, to be in a situation like that, but it just was too late in the game. I mean, a month isn't a long time for a movie score.
How specific were Nicolas' requests? Especially since the music in the film seems to articulate a lot of the emotions the characters don't say?
We went over every inch of the movie. Nicolas is super specific. When he first told me he wanted to use "Under Your Spell," he went through the whole Jewel catalog because he couldn't get hold of me, so he was really set on using those tracks. I was like, "Really?" because I could not picture it, especially with the spoken part in the middle. But when I saw the movie, I understood it. Because he has a 7 year-old daughter that he's reading the Grimm's fairy tales to right now, and he's really into the idea of the movie being a fairytale, he was really into the fairytale aspect of the lyrics with the picture, like sort of speaking for it. And I feel for the College track "Real Hero," it's the same idea, but it was a little too blunt because it's almost too literal, especially since you hear it twice in the movie. But when I saw it with "Under Your Spell," I got chills, because it's a real song—"I fell in love and then I was sick"—and it's used in the movie in the exact same way that I was feeling it when I wrote it. He definitely got the nuance of the song, and understood what it was supposed to mean, and he wanted to give that emotion to the viewer, that same feeling.
But we talked about music in terms of color, because I always think of musical tones not in terms of base, mid range, upper-mid and treble, but in terms of water, earth, air, fire—you know, the basic elements. So we were talking about things like, I felt like this part of the movie, for this particular scene, it shouldn't have bass, because bass is like an earth tone which is usually used for something more sinister or emotional. But that particular scene was more ambient and dreamlike so I felt like we should music in the upper register, like floating clouds, rather than something that would weigh it down. We talked about those kind of details, specifically in terms of the movie, and I'm not sure if in the final cut this is something that comes across because this was something they were sort of struggling with in the editing room in New York. But Nic wanted to do this whole thing where sometimes the music is abstract and you are in Driver's head and he's isolated—obviously, until he falls in love. And then it would be a specific thing where it'd be like, "Okay, it's abstract," and then it shifts to where it's now the sound in the room, but it's still the same music, so it's like tonally, there would be this sort of drift. You're in his head and now you're out of his head, watching him. He knew exactly what he wanted. They really, really worked hard on it. Nothing was like tacked-on. I mean, we had a 30 minute conversation about how loud his keys should jingle in the hallway.
Everything in the movie is very, very detailed. Even the "Real Hero" song you mention, it seems as if it's there twice because it communicates two different things.
I talked to Nicolas' wife about it, and she and I had the same view of the song. It was almost like an anthem, although the movie is so open to interpretation in so many ways, do you know what I mean? But it's a great track. He had me write for it to see if I could do something that was more suitable for it. But I was so used to it seeing it in the movie too that I felt that I couldn't write anything better for it than that. It's such a good song and such a good singer too. The Electric Youth girl is awesome.
How much did you want to include your bandmates from Desire, Chromatics or Glass Candy? And what sort of suggestions or pitches did you make to Nicolas?
I didn't pitch anything. Those tracks were already selected before we even spoke. I brought Matt Walker from Chromatics and Desire out, and like I said we were collaborating for a film project anyway. But really I was doing 99 percent of the writing. Mostly what the other people in the bands do is they bring in vocals or lyrics. And I wasn't really feeling a lyrical view on the movie, because most of the music in the movie is instrumental, which is my department, so it wasn't like, "Oh man, it would sound great if [Glass Candy vocalist] Ida No sang this" or whatever, because I was really leaning towards instrumental, almost monotonal, abstract music with really intense jabs of percussion—as close as you can get to making a drum machine sound like a car, like super dirty, pulp-sounding like the movie and the book. So there wasn't really a desire for like, "Oh man, what if Adam from the Chromatics put down some guitars or something like that?" Everything was leaned towards more abstract-sounding things, and that's what I do.
You have a blog with a bunch of images—drawings—from the movie. Was that just to get inspiration?
Yeah, me and Adam from Chromatics drew those. I have a lot of weird rituals. One of the first things I did was I took the book and I highlighted all of the phrases, things like "last day," "sanctuary," all of these different phrases from the movie that stimulated my brain, and I'd print those words really big and put them on the wall. Or while I'm writing—this was sort of like a mantra—we were drawing pictures while watching the movie every day. Because everything I do is like going into this camp mode where we would cut ourselves off. I was watching the movie while taking a bath, I was watching the movie while eating, like every day. Because there was only so much time and I wanted to know the movie inside and out, and I can't be watching the movie while I'm actually writing. While I was actually trying to figure out melodies and things like that, I had to watch the movie as much as possible. We drew almost like every scene—there's like 150 of them—so we drew so much, and then I forgot about them and then stumbled across them a couple of weeks ago.
The film Bellflower also uses Chromatics' "Running Up That Hill," and the movie Vacation uses a bunch of Glass Candy songs. Did these opportunities all happen simultaneously, or do you think Bronson opened the door for people to be more aware of your music?
No, films have always been using stuff. They've just kind of been more underground. There's this new Salma Hayek movie, a French movie that uses [Chromatics'] "Law of Life" pretty substantially, like four minutes of it. I think one thing I can say though about Bronson is that I'm a musician so I don't watch a lot of films. I watch the same things over and over again because I'm into certain moods from like movies of the ‘80s or the ‘70s, but I couldn't hardly tell you any actor's name or anything like that. I watch it really abstractly. Similarly, my appreciation for fashion is very abstract. I don't know brands. I don't know anything that's cool or whatever, but I can tell you conceptually that I like the shoot, or the collar or the design. And I think the film people are the same way with music. They know what they like, but they don't know everything that's going on in music because it's such an all-consuming genre to work in. So they're really up on films, and because of that, I think once people started hearing someone's music being used in a film, they go, "Oh what's that? I want to check it out. That's hot." I think maybe Bronson did that. But it's not necessarily that people are trying to jump on the bandwagon or anything, but more like people are finding out about the band, because we don't do press. We don't do anything. We just make music and release it and if people want to listen to it, they can find it themselves.
It's the same thing with fashion—it's like when Lagerfeld used Glass Candy in a couple of shows, then a lot of fashion people started picking up just because they didn't really know about it and they really connected with it. So I think that in this industry, the more people that see Drive or Bronson because I think Nick's an up-and-coming director, they'll check out the band and be like, "Oh s--t!" And when they see how much stuff there is to choose from, I think they'll find a lot of it works with picture, which wasn't the intention but it just kind of ends up that way.
How much of your music that gets used is just pure licensing and how much of it do you decide if—or how—it gets to be used?
I decide everything. I have full control over my music and I own all the writing and publishing and stuff so for that aspect, there's no one that needs to be consulted. My general rule is if it's a student film or an indie film, there's no strings attached. People can use it for whatever they want. Like Bellflower started off as a really small project, and I was like, "Yeah, use whatever you want." And then, if you sell the movie or if it gets picked up, call me. So for the underground, I'm really supportive. People can do whatever they want. I don't care. As it becomes bigger, then I get a little more concerned. First of all, the movie industry is notorious for screwing over musicians. Second of all, it's going to be seen by more people. But when I make a song, it's like I have my view of it, and everybody else that hears it has their view of it, and they have a relationship with it and I feel like that relationship they have to the song is equal to mine. The fact that I made it doesn't really matter because I don't really feel like I made it. I feel like I uncovered it or something. So I'm not going to be like, "Oh, this doesn't represent the band." Of course it doesn't represent the band, it's a f--king movie!
But when I write for a movie, I really have to be into the project. I told Nic that when they asked, I was like, "I'm open to the idea but I've got to see it and I don't want anybody in my business. Let me feel it, and then if you like it, take it." That was the initial conversation. I'm not down to be a slave for the movie business or something. So Drive is the only movie I've ever written for, and then it was so many people involved that no one is going to hear it in that context. No one's ever going to see the soundtrack that I made for the film with each scene. So it's like, you do all that work and there's so much you can't control that I'm not going to write for something I don't really believe in as a movie since everything gets chopped up.
How much did this affect the release of your other projects?
It stopped everything in its tracks, man. I didn't even plug in my computer barely. It was like everything went on hold because it was such a tight deadline. It was like 18 to 20 hours a day in the studio, tracking, for five weeks. We went on tour in Europe and I got the call from Adam Siegel [producer of Drive] right when we landed in Switzerland, saying, "Hey, we want you to do the soundtrack." Because after I was finally able to get ahold of Nic, I began working on tour during sound check—I would be writing down notes and things like that—and then when I came home, it was like everything stopped, and I was just doing the soundtrack. But it's not in a bad way. In a linear time sense, it stopped everything, things were pushed back, but the process was so intense and abstract that it was really what I needed. I was saying how I really wanted to take a break and do more abstract shit that no one's going to hear. So now, coming back with Glass Candy and the new Chromatics album, which is finished now, it's just like coming back with a vengeance, we're really feeling the beat. Because it's not like you don't know what you're hearing anymore, but sometimes it's good to work on something else—which is why I do a lot of visual art, too. But I've never had to write for somebody else's vision, you know, where Nic was like, "I want this, I want this, I want this," so I tried and that was like a really hard exercise. But then coming back to beats where I was in full control, this is my movie. So it was like wearing ankle weights and then taking them off-now things are really happening fast. It was a really good experience in that respect. But it definitely held everything up. I'm only one person, and I gave everything to Drive for the period I was working on it, so that means I didn't do anything else.
Do you have any pieces of the score that people can check out for their own comparison? Like for the car chase, Refn uses "Tick of the Clock," but did you compose something original?
Well, people told me I should put out my own soundtrack for the movie. But I feel like that's disrespectful or reactionary—like, oh, check this out. Where I prefer that the music be heard on its own in an abstraction. So everything I did for Drive will surface through the Symmetry project over time, but I don't want to say, like, "This is for this, and this is for that." Because I feel like it's not doing the movie or the music justice, and plus everybody's happy, there's not like a weird back story. I feel like it makes it seem like, "Oh, this is what it should have been." Like for the underground people, they want to root for me or something, and I want people to just like enjoy the movie and not think of it like that. It's just Hollywood, man-there's so many people involved in a project and it's insane. It's not how I do things. I mix it and I master it and I process all of it myself, and like no one else is involved, you know what I mean? This was a huge project with hundreds and hundreds of people, but for that reason I don't want to do a comparison.
Plus, all of my work is unfinished, because when I went to work everything was in the malleable stage so it could be altered. And then after New York, I was like, "Well, okay, then I won't finish until I'm ready to finish it for the Symmetry Project," so everything's in pieces. So there's nothing that's like a mix that I think would do it justice to hear it at this point, but it's all going to come out. It's really great music, and it's really inspired. But people can do like they do with Pink Floyd and Wizard of Oz, you know.
How soon then can we look forward to a new album from one of these acts you're producing?
Well, we have a new 12" that we had with us in LA [over Labor Day], and it will have two singles from the new album—it will be a double-A-side single. And then we could have the album done for the fall, but then it's like because Chromatics is coming out at the end of August, I want to let Chromatics breathe, and then we'll tour for the Chromatics album in the fall. Glass Candy will tour in Europe, too—it will either be December or January, I haven't decided. It just kind of depends. Ida is here for another week and a half recording, so it's going, really, really well, but one of the reasons my s--t takes so long is because I like to let it sit after. I mean, the single that's coming out was recorded two years ago, and it's amazing-it sounds great-but I'm just weird that way. I don't know. And like a good film, it unfolds over time, you know, because it's multidimensional. There's a lot of things going on conceptually and electronically that are really subtle, and it takes time to do that. You know, you've got to live with a song for a long time and let it become part of you and shift you slightly, and then the old part of you that started the song is still under there. And that's one of the keys to the way that I work, and there's no way around it-it just takes time.