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Hearts of glass

Exclusive: A European jaunt with synth-punk innovators Glass Candy, with new illustrations from Johnny Jewel

It’s 3am at Primavera. The night is cold and the wind is up. Onstage, Ida No moves her hips with purpose and mystery to a dance beat spun by Johnny Jewel, the mysterious figure to her left. She raises her hands in large circles above her beehive to clap out the rhythm and runs on the spot as she delivers her mesmerising atonal chanteuserie, with its sensuous whispers and occasional wild art-punk screech. Her loose lamé minidress catches the flashing lights like molten gold. Jewel punches out syncopated rhythms on a synth he bought in a Texas gun-shop at the age of 18. The crowd heaves with devotion as No’s voice cuts through the vocoder pulse like a laser through dry ice. “That’s right everybody, this is Glass Candy,” she intones during “Warm in the Winter”, the heart-bursting Moroderish utopia that closes their thrilling set. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” 

This year Glass Candy release their third album, Body Work, on Jewel and Mike Simonetti’s label Italians Do It Better. It’s a record about breaking free of habitual behaviour patterns, and their first full-length since 2007’s widely lauded B/E/A/T/B/O/X, which, in its odd, quiet way, was perhaps the most exciting disco record of the century thus far – warmer than Confessions on a Dance Floor, more primal than Random Access Memories. Since then the seductive Italians aesthetic has come to greater prominence through the use of songs by Jewel’s projects Chromatics and Desire in Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-stylised Drive (2011), but the label still puts records like this year’s outstanding compilation After Dark 2 up on iTunes unexpectedly and without fanfare, refusing the banner ads and billboards favoured by such supposedly press-shy acts as Boards of Canada and The Knife. No also has a habit of nonchalantly declining interviews, citing either shyness or a desire to focus on the show, and Dazed’s request for a phone conversation is initially met with “she doesn’t have a phone”. Never before has The Germs’ punk manifesto “What We Do is Secret” so acutely applied to a pop band: as secretive heads of the family go, Johnny Jewel makes Charles Manson look like Kris Jenner.

The bright afternoon after Glass Candy’s turbocharged performance, Jewel pads softly through a Barcelona hotel lobby in a leather jacket, “tears of a clown” under his eyes and two small apples in one of his dinner-plate hands. If he’s trying to go incognito, he missed a memo. “It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thing,” Jewel smiles, offering one of the pieces of fruit from his rider and biting into the other. “It’s dangerous and risky, but the rewards are remarkable if you get lucky, and we’ve been very fortunate to be abstract and oblique 
enough to hold people’s curiosity. I was working in a grocery store (in Portland) for ten years and Ida was working at a Dairy Queen. When we’d both get off work we’d go to the studio. It was always about the passion for the music and we never thought anybody was going to be listening.”

Before Drive there was Refn’s unsettling crime biopic Bronson (2008), in which Glass Candy’s “Digital Versicolor” soundtracks an unsettling blue-washed scene of the murderous protagonist being leeringly intoxicated by a pole dancer. “There’s a very erotic sense of building to the song,” says Refn. “It’s very operatic and borderline camp, and the whole point of the movie was to show Bronson in a kind of opera. ‘Digital Versicolor’ has that chaotic, erratic behaviour.” Like the output of the rest of the Italians crew, Glass Candy’s music is extraordinary not just for Jewel’s intuitive knack for a hook, which can be found elsewhere, but also the lingering raw-knuckled scruffiness in their epic, avant-garde pop. Sound designer Michel Gaubert, who used “Warm in the Winter” to accompany Balenciaga’s workwoman-meets-replicant AW12 collection, agrees. “What I like about Italians Do It Better is it’s lo-fi but so precise,” he says, speaking on the phone from Paris. “Ida’s voice against this music that’s completely controlled creates a tension – it sounds live but it’s not live.” As Jewel puts it, “I love the futurism of perfection, but I also like being the bloodstain on the perfectly white room.” 

It’s a tension between precision and animalism that  germinated in the band’s snot-nosed early singles “Brittle Women” (1999) and “Metal Gods” (2001), released through Calvin Johnson’s label K Records under the name Glass Candy and the Shattered Theatre. At a time when suburban kids with dial-up the world over were going into Mr Topper’s and asking for a Karen O, they were a Pacific northwest incarnation of the same bloodthirsty spirit that drove New York City’s art-punk revival. “Ida’s very punk,” says Jewel of the band’s lyricist, explaining that No is not a pop singer, but “microtonal, like a blues singer or a rapper.” Does he still think of Glass Candy as a punk band? “Oh yeah! Definitely. It’s mostly because of Ida. She loves The Damned. She’s very unaware of what anything means. She doesn’t care about business, she doesn’t care about fashion, she doesn’t give a fuck. She doesn’t understand where she fits in – she’s like a magical unicorn person.” A punk that traded her leather for lamé.

I love the futurism of perfection, but I also like being the bloodstain on the perfectly white room – Johnny Jewel

Jewel’s hippyish hyperbole won’t be winning him prizes at the science fair any time soon – he goes on to attribute his and Ida’s closeness to an astrological connection – but what he lacks in logic he makes up for in oddball charm and wide-eyed sincerity. He dated No for two years, was married to Ruth Radelet of Chromatics for eight, and has now been with Megan Louise of Desire for four years. And while he declares that he has no friends apart from his collaborators, he can see the funny side of this uncommon closeness: “Every time Ida shows me lyrics, I’m either crying because I’m so moved...” He pauses, before continuing with perfect comic timing: “...or I’m like, ‘What the fuck is this?’”

Born in smalltown Texas as plain John Padgett, Jewel loved to draw as a kid and was popular at school “in a punk rock, wild skateboarder kind of way.” Although he was prohibited from attending concerts due to his family’s strict religious beliefs, he discovered music via chart compilations sold by the registers of convenience stores, on which Donna Summer would appear side-by-side with The Doobie Brothers. At 19, he undertook a clinical trial to roadtest drugs that were not yet on the market. “The day before I found out my friend killed himself, and when I went in all I had was Unknown Pleasures and Seventeen Seconds on cassette.” The black circles he wears below his eyes are in memoriam to those close to him that have passed away. “It ended up being the perfect release. When they were dosing me I was floating above the bed. I’ve only had an out-of-body experience twice in my life. That was the first.”  

The other time was when recording Glass Candy’s “Warm in the Winter” in his Montreal studio in October 2010. “It was freezing and my studio was covered in snow. The whole song is eight minutes long and it’s all by hand. You can hear how insane the synthesiser is! I had a tape delay so I wasn’t hearing what was playing, I was just embed-14playing rhythm. I got into a trance and floated up above watching my hand do it. It’s like when you’re in a lucid dream, and you realise how beautiful it is but you don’t want to focus on it because you’ll wake up. That’s why at the end you can hear it fall apart. It sounds like finally losing it and trying to hold on.” 

Backstage at Koko in Camden a couple of weeks later, Ida No appears doe-eyed with pursed lips and blond hair loosely clumped with moisture from tonight’s triumphant headlining show, for which Chromatics were the opening act. “The crowd was really pretty,” she says by way of explanation, her eyes wide and seemingly unblinking. She’s nothing like the disco-punk heroine onstage shortly before, when she flung herself into the audience three times to crowdsurf under the ex-theatre’s gargantuan glitter ball, and as she gazes with a ponderous expression it’s clear why Glass Candy manager Alexis Rivera describes her as “a female Bowie”. She is unconsciously aloof, indescribably magnetic, and secure in the knowledge of her pop-star allure. Warhol would have loved her. Accepting a bottle of Beck’s, she nips to the dressing room to slip out of her iridescent minidress. “She never fails to surprise me,” says Chromatics’ drummer Nat Walker, her boyfriend of six years.

Actually, I feel really lucky to be able to hang out with Ida every day, because she’s probably the most unique person I’ve ever met – Nat Walker, Chromatics

“Are you familiar with the physical realm?” No quizzes, speaking over her Portland landline for her first print interview since 2008. We’re talking about Body Work, which at the time of writing is about four tracks from completion. “There are different types of ‘body work’ to help people let go of addictive patterns of behaviour.” She herself is a believer in the therapeutic power of Rolfing, a technique similar to massage that disrupts unhealthy habits in connective tissue. “It makes it so a hunched person can actually stand up straight again – and start functioning properly! So it’s really cool. And for a lot of people, what’s being broken up has been caused by something that’s very emotionally connected. People will scream and cry and have blocked-out memories come rushing to their brain.” The appeal of this mildly alarming experience is partly a reaction to our digital existence. “Facebook or Twitter is probably going to be an extension of whatever your social persona already is. You’re not gonna necessarily work things out through something like that.” No’s lyrics, which consider the world at its most cosmic, galvanise the spirit just as her aerobic performances work the muscles. It’s only in this mindset that she feels good about the world.

Will Glass Candy ever enter the mainstream? “I hope there will never be a crossover! The internet has changed the way that the whole thing happens for bands like us, and I like our audience exactly how it is right now because I can be as weird as I want.” The cult of Glass Candy debunks the myth that hashtags and viral campaigns are the route to success in a digital age; Body Work will be released on iTunes without warning at some point in the next few months, and none of the recording process will be Instagrammed. This summer, Jewel moved to Los Angeles, and is currently working on scoring Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, How to Catch a Monster, as well as a Chromatics album due before the end of 2014. But isn’t it frustrating that more people don’t know about Glass Candy? “It’s hard to be frustrated when it’s constantly growing,” Jewel says. You don’t have to shout the loudest to get noticed. But if you do, as Ida No does every night of her performing life, that can feel pretty great too.