Johnny Jewel & Ruth Radelet

Interview: by Janice Grube

Originally formed as a no-wave band, Chromatics and their lush brand of pop have become one of the more interesting bands to surface from Portland in over a decade. Taking cues from classic acts like Fleetwood Mac, Olivia Newton John, and Kate Bush, and glossing over them with layers of glam, Italo-disco and post-punk, Chromatics create vintage-textured tracks that are as much of an aesthetic as they are a sound.

This aesthetic, a cut-up ‘70s-induced collage of airbrush, neon and glitter, can be traced in part to Johnny Jewel—the musician and producer who’s been an imprint on the Portland music scene since the mid-‘90s. As the mastermind behind other distinctly stylized bands like Glass Candy and Desire, Jewel joined Chromatics after the band moved to Portland from Seattle and slowly dissolved, leaving guitarist Adam Miller as the only original member. But it wasn’t until 2006’s In the City 12" when singer Ruth Radelet joined Nat Walker and the rest of the band that their hypnotic baselines and haunting vocals would melt together to form the moody disco-noir sounds they’d set the precedent for.

As the very first release on Italians Do It Better—the arty concept label Jewel co-founded with New York House DJ Mike Simonetti—Chromatics are hot off the heels of Kill For Love, the group’s biggest release to date. Emotional, seductive and cinematic, Chromatics present music as imagery—the feeling of a slow motion drive through a European red-light District, or as others have pointed out before, “ All in under 103 beats per melody.” 

JANICE GRUBE: What prompted you to move to Portland from Texas?

JOHNNY JEWEL: In 1996, I was looking for music, better air, and I was feeling romantic about the rain. Portland has grown so much since then, but has managed to really keep its allure for me. I didn’t move to Portland for its scene—the air was just magnetic. I felt really alert and inspired mentally. I’ve had my Portland studio since 2003, and now I have one in Montreal as well. Night Drive, Beatbox and After Dark were all tracked and written here. I’ve been living in Montreal on and off for almost four years now, and can’t seem to break my ties with Portland. It still feels like home. My record collection is still in Ida’s [Ida No of Glass Candy] basement.

RUTH RADELET:I was born and raised here, and aside from a few years on the Oregon coast, I lived in Portland my entire life until I moved to New York in 2011. Portland is such a beautiful and livable city. There’s a lot happening, but it still has that small town charm.

JG: All of the elements in your songs seem to work together to create a really distinct sound. What’s the creative process like when you write songs? 

JJ: All four of us write for Chromatics. Every song has a different rhythm to the way it comes to light, but the songs usually begin on guitar. Then we bring in piano to augment the guitars. Then drums to reinforce the piano. Bass is always added last and tends to shift the song the most. Most of the time, the lyrics exist as a poem independent of the music, collaged later with a piano melody.

JG: You choose to cover such random songs from Neil Young to Kate Bush to Bruce Springsteen. How do you make those selections?

JJ: All of the songs we cover have deep personal meaning to me. At key points in my life, these songs were the wallpaper. We put a lot of thought into which songs we cover. We just finished an Iggy Pop and James Williamson cover. It’s really hypnotic. Ruth’s vocals are amazing on it. 

JG: Johnny, in addition to scoring films and producing work for other bands, you also play in Glass Candy and have a side project called Desire with your Chromatics band mate, Nat Walker. How do you find time to do it all?

JJ: Everyone in our crew is very inspired. There’s never enough hours in the day—we all just love to work.

JG: Chromatics have a really cinematic sound. Are you influenced by any filmmakers?

RR: Most of my favorite filmmakers are obvious—I love westerns and gangster flicks, so I would say Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma…and lots of foreign films. We’re all inspired by the films of Roman Polanski, and Johnny is a longtime fan of David Lynch’s work.

JG: The score for Drive has such a dramatic emotional effect. The music creates such a great juxtaposition with the visuals. Chromatics have a song in it and so does Desire. How did that collaboration with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling happen? 

JJ: Ryan had been coming to our shows in LA since 2007. In October of 2010, he brought Nic Refn, Mat Newman, and their whole production crew to a Glass Candy party in Los Angeles. Nic and Mat had used the Glass Candy song “Digital Versicolor” in his previous film Bronson, and wanted more of that sound for Drive. After the show, we were all hanging out talking about Claudio Simonetti, Suicide, and Erik Satie. They asked me to score the film, we drank tequila, and shook on it. The rest is history.

Chromatics's PDX

photo: Richard Bernardin
  • I bartended here for 3 years when I lived in Portland, and I always stop by when I’m in town. They have one of the best patios around. There is also free live music every Sunday. If you’re hungry, order a tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich (I still miss this) and wash it down with a Strongbow cider, which is the employee drink of choice.
  • I love southern food, and Screen Door does it right. I am a bit of a mac and cheese connoisseur, and I am pretty sure theirs might be the best I’ve ever had. They have a great weekend brunch too, and a nice selection of seasonal specials.
  • The best sushi in town, in my opinion. It’s a small restaurant and the wait can be very long, so I recommend getting there early. Everything on the menu is delicious, but the seared albacore sashimi is my absolute favorite. The best way to order here is to ask the chef for his recommendation. You won’t be disappointed.
  • This was my go-to coffee shop when I lived in the neighborhood. They serve Stumptown Coffee, and have a nice assortment of fresh baked goods. The atmosphere is pleasant, and you can choose whether to hole up in a corner and work, or sit at one of the sidewalk tables and do a bit of people-watching.
  • The largest independent used and new bookstore in the world, and they have an excellent selection. It’s absolutely massive, and you will be able to find almost anything you’re looking for. The perfect place to spend a rainy day, of which there are many in Portland.
  • I have purchased much of my furniture here over the years. They have a great selection of all things vintage: furniture, clothing, knick-knacks, even records. It’s set up like a flea market, with different sections for different vendors. It’s packed with merchandise and can be a little disorganized, but if you are willing to dig you can find some incredible things, and usually at a low price.
  • One of Portland’s popular pub theaters, housed in a vintage building with an awesome neon sign. They have pizza and beer as well as the usual soda and popcorn, and the tickets are only $4. In addition to second-run new movies, they show one old favorite or cult classic every week, and they are almost always well-chosen.
  • A wonderful place for a day trip. You would never guess so much natural splendor would be so close to the city—waterfalls, hiking trails and dramatic viewpoints. The nearby Sandy River is a local favorite for swimming during the summer, but beware! The current can be strong, as I have learned the hard way.

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