Glass Candy: Mystical Death Disco
- Words: Michael Byrne
Glass Candy’s Ida No is the lucky sort of person that can slip in and out of the world like it’s a state of mind. In a room with her you start to think she’s more of a phantasm than anything flesh and blood, it’s as if you turned too fast to pull her in from your vision’s periphery, there’d suddenly be nothing there but a billowing curtain or floorboard creak.
When she talks, it’s in the abstract. Concrete answers don’t emerge, just ideas, and Ida speaking the way a spiritual observer or spectral translator might. I ask about her lyrics–which can sound morbid, longing, like she’s so in touch with a dark place. “They’re happy songs,” she says dreamily. “They happen after a resolution or something. Maybe like after a really long meditation. It’s a bright moment.”
The more eyes on Ida, the more she materializes. On stage, she appears as either an unhinged post-everything savage or an archetype of sexy cool, depending on whatever phase this continually progressing band is in. (On their 2003 debut, Love Love Love, they were consumed with guitar-ravaged No Wave; their most recent record, November 2007’s Beat Box, is an icy disco memoriam.) According to producer Johnny Jewel, the pair is just as likely to take on hip-hop next. And if they do, Ida No will continue to be, almost more than almost anyone in music, a materialization–a projected image of Jewel’s sonic fantasy, a grainy night-vision photo held together by an affection for Ziggy Stardust-esque glam.
Johnny Jewel handles almost everything earthly related to Glass Candy, from managing the band to recording and producing. He’s quick to go on about equipment, explaining his gear–a lot of synths, drum pads, never a computer–like a parent talks about their kid. He’s also quick to go on about the ethos of the label he co-runs with Mike Simonetti, Italians Do It Better: no outside management, no PR, the bands are always in full control. He can spend 150 hours on a beat–he works based on a 30-hour day (read: until total exhaustion)–tweaking and obsessing, crossing his fingers that when he gets together with Ida No to actually make the song, she’s written a vocal part that syncs perfectly. “I won’t let her sing on a beat if I don’t like what she’s singing,” he tells me in Ida’s almost disturbingly well-kept Portland apartment (as if when no one else is there, she disappears). “She won’t sing on a beat if she doesn’t like it,” he admits.
Straining across the couch to grab a silver-blue Christmas tree bulb, Johnny explains, “The songs are like this; the songs are made from the reach.” And the reaching is endless–the two estimate they’ve only met perfectly in the middle of the songwriting process less than 10 times (in over 10 years).
Talking about Glass Candy, Ida No and Johnny Jewel both become mystics, twinned spiritualists in their own strange orbit. In the five seasons of Chinese philosophy, he’s the liver and she’s the spleen; he’s spring and she’s the season with no name, floating among the other seasons. Sometimes it’s referred to as “Indian summer” and sometimes it’s just the “center.” “A spring person’s style of speaking kind of has a shout to it. Spring has the energies of bursting forth no matter what; like ‘I’m going to be born into the world no matter,’” Ida explains, grinning at Jewel. You can tell she studies this stuff, and that, maybe, he doesn’t have much of a choice. You also get the feeling she has an ever deeper well of mystical polarities she could draw from; there are brief mentions of something Mayan, hot and cold personalities, and something else that would take an extra 500-word primer on acupuncture to understand.
With a hint of mirth, she goes on. “I am an Indian summer rhythm. The voice is more soft and singing. It’s a really common syndrome in America that people have really congested, angry livers. And they basically attack the spleen.” If Jewel is the liver, there’s a hint at what it’s like in the studio for Glass Candy, an ugly-sounding event he describes simply as “pretty stormy.”
“Every time I record a song, I wonder if [it’s] going to be the last,” says Jewel.
But, after 11 years, that hasn’t happened. Glass Candy has gone from being a pair of awkward Portland artists making music that had as much to do with weird electronics as post-grunge, to the poster children for a new breed of acts exploring locked-in-the-mortuary disco and obscure early ’80s electro-funk.
What is Not
Not bad for something that all started in a Fred Meyer grocery store. Johnny was working the produce section and Ida was buying carrots for her rabbit. They talked, and something clicked. They’d known each other for a week before they moved in together, each still working on their own musical projects. They dated for a time but “the liver killed the spleen,” explains Ida matter-of-factly. Eventually, the band she was in broke up and Johnny Jewel approached a “distraught” Ida, saying simply “I would like to be your robot.”
They started with the idea to make the music they make now, more a morbid, minor-key take on disco than the “Italo” tag they so often get stuck with. Early incarnations, however, yielded what Johnny calls “Nico-y darkwave with disco beats.”
“We sucked so bad we just sounded punk,” he adds.
So, Glass Candy just made punk, and the critics called it No Wave, tossing out references to The Contortions and Lydia Lunch as if Glass Candy came from the same womb. The truth is, neither No Wave nor punk nor broken disco quite describes Glass Candy’s sound, although strands of these genres’ difficult, decadent DNA are woven throughout this band’s 10-plus years of trouble.
Though happy days are hardly here, neither bandmate seems surprised that Glass Candy is finally hitting its ice-blue stride, with Jewel’s unpredictable nocturnal thump finally matching Ida No’s inward-gazing meta-poetry of love and death. With a shrug, Johnny Jewel says, “The body needs both the spleen and the liver.”
Ida’s Tape for Johnny
God, help me out with this Gemini. Seriously, draw me a diagram.
The Normal “Warm Leatherette”
“Quick...let’s make love...before we die!” Hey, calm down. Patience is a virtue. We’re in a band, not a burning automobile.
Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire”
“I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher.” Everyone who knows Johnny experiences this feeling daily.
Olivia Newton-John “Have You Never Been Mellow?”
“There was a time when I was in a hurry; as you are, I was like you. I don’t mean to make you frown, I just want you to slow down.” Everyone who knows Johnny tells himself this daily.
Bill Conti “Theme From Rocky”
Go to your corner and come out swinging. He’s so pressed for time, he usually skips the corner, and he never stops swinging... even in his sleep.
Diana Ross “Do You Know Where You’re Going To”
Do we know where we’re going to? Hell is not an actual place that some force outside yourself sends you to–it’s a state of mind. We’ve learned this together. I’m so glad everyday we decide to keep smiling, no matter what life is showing us.
Survivor “Eye of the Tiger”
Johnny’s so focused, it’s almost frightening. He keeps a tiger’s-eye stone around his neck constantly. No heat in the studio and holes in his shoes, and he still skips his Wheaties while putting in a 20-hour day. The trouble is he doesn’t know when he’s having a food crisis, and, oh boy, does he get crabby.
Judy Collins “Send in the Clowns”
No matter how trying life can get, Johnny can always make me laugh in the middle of it, which reduces huge troubles to silly inconveniences. We’re so lucky for our lives. Johnny always helps me remember that life is just a game. What more do you need in a friend?
Boots Randolph “Yakety Sax” (The Benny Hill Theme Song)
He’s as funny as that!
Johnny’s Tape for Ida
It ain't what you do... it's the way that you do it.
I Dream of Jeannie Theme Song
Basically anything with flutes, chimes, or a horn section is a hit with Ida. This is probably what she hears in her head when she’s going jogging or doing yoga.
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (Traditional)
“Life is but a dream.” This is Ida’s theme song. “Gently down the stream.” Ida honestly believes this is possibly the best song ever written.
“I Wish I Were an Oscar Mayer Weiner” (Commercial Peel Session)
Bill collectors can’t harass you when you’re an Oscar Mayer weiner. And no one asks you to give the second verse one more try when you’re an Oscar Meyer weiner. Ida would be 100 percent content.
“Silent Night” (Traditional)
“All is calm.” She loves the night to be silent. And I only make beats at night. So we don’t live together anymore. Anyone in their right mind wouldn’t want to hear me trying to find the perfect snare sound for 13 hours straight. Who can blame her?
John Paul Young “Love Is in the Air” (Mike Simonetti’s White Label Version)
This is written on Ida’s oxygen tank she keeps backstage. When Mike spins records at our shows he always plays this song. Ida immediately lights up and starts doing this fucked-up dance. I can’t describe it. It’s like clockwork. Since we made the rule that Glass Candy members had to be air signs it’s been smooth sailing.
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