A surprise soundtrack album, an untimely death, a chance opportunity and a Hawaiian full moon… peak inside the Red Room of Johnny Jewel

Johnny Jewel, record producer, composer and member of synth-rock outfit Chromatics, has a rather complex relationship with ‘Twin Peaks’. David Lynch’s mysterious horror drama series has played a significant part in his life, and not always for positive reasons.

“When ‘Twin Peaks’ was on TV originally, I’d seen a few episodes, but hadn’t seen the whole thing,” he explains. “I got more into it when renting it out on VHS in 1993/94 when I moved to Austin. I had a really good friend and that was our tradition, we’d watch ‘Twin Peaks’ every night. He ended up killing himself in 1994 and after that it was almost impossible for me to watch the series, because there was such a strong association with him.”

So when David Lynch and Dean Hurley (Lynch’s sound and music designer of choice) approached him about using music from his ‘Windswept’ album, as well as Chromatics playing at the show’s popular tavern, the Roadhouse, in last year’s ’Twin Peaks’ revival series, it wasn’t a decision he took lightly.

“I had to think about whether or not I felt like we could do it justice,” he admits.

More on that later. Back in May, on the first anniversary of the premiere of ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’, Jewel released a surprise instrumental album called ‘Themes For Television’. Created using outtakes from his previous album ‘Windswept’, the 21-track offering contained melancholic synth whines and delicate cymbal washes reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic ‘Twin Peaks’ score. But while track titles such as ‘Red Curtains’ and ‘Black Room’ make reference to the cult TV drama, Jewel says that the music was never created with ‘Twin Peaks’ in mind.

“It began completely unrelated, before there was public information that ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ was going to happen,” he reveals. “So it was just one of those instinctual things. As an artist you follow inspiration, you dive down into a rabbit hole. It’s pure coincidence. It was only during the last leg that it was with ‘Twin Peaks’ in mind.”

Jewel says that he found he kept coming back to a particular palette of sounds, and it was during this period of exploration that Chromatics were asked to perform at the Roadhouse, leading to one of those “moments of serendipity” where he was in a certain headspace. And while the titles on the album are linked to the show, there’s nothing verbatim about them.

“I’m a huge fan of the sonic language that David and Angelo created, but there are no literal references”.

Back to the Roadhouse. The dive bar that residents of Twin Peaks frequent contained performances from the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Hudson Mohawke, with Moby even making an appearance playing guitar alongside Lynch alumni Rebekah Del Rio. So how exactly did Chromatics find themselves performing there? It seems Dean Hurley sought them out.

“Chromatics had released a single called ‘Shadow’ on SoundCloud and Dean Hurley had got a hold of it,” explains Jewel. “When it came time to present options to David for what the Roadhouse could possibly sound and look like 25 years later, Dean thought we would be a really good fit and David responded really strongly to the lyrics.”

While he says it was an amazing opportunity, his main concern “up to, during and afterwards” was to treat everything with the utmost respect and for the band to do the “very, very best” they could do. Chromatics notoriously don’t rehearse, but this wasn’t the case in this instance.

“We rehearsed for this because we wanted to do a really, really good job.”

Like most of the cast, Jewel and the rest of the band were completely in the dark about the contents of ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’, but it was something he somewhat cherished.

“It was very important to me that I never asked any questions,” he reveals, “that there were no curiosities, there was no anything. I was aware of a couple of things, but it wasn’t appropriate to be asking questions and it felt disrespectful.”

In a somewhat Lynchian vein, Chromatics long-awaited fifth album was delayed when Jewel destroyed the 25,000 existing copies of the record after a near-death experience of his own. Announced back in 2014, ‘Dear Tommy’ will finally be released later this year, but what happened that prompted such a visceral reaction? It seems an annual Christmas holiday to Hawaii went awry when Jewel was swimming in a bay and the tide shifted, sending him further from the shore than he anticipated.

“Everything was fine and then it was full moon,” he says, ominously. “I think this was the first full moon in 38 years on Christmas, and the water kind of shifted.”

While being continually moved further from safety, he suffered from extreme muscle failure, which then triggered a panic attack.

“It was horrible. It felt like the bottom of the world was opening up and that it was going to swallow me, and the water was 100 per cent indifferent. Externally it was very calm.”

Thankfully, one broken bit of Styrofoam later meant he was able to float back to land, but the experience had a profound effect on him.

“I spent a long time thinking about if I wanted to release that version of the album and it was kind of the realisation that I have more time. I can make it better. I want to give these songs the life they deserve.”

He says that he allowed himself to “breathe musically” and running his own Italians Do It Better label means he’s not constrained to the pop album cycle.

“I have that kind of freedom to make those artistic decisions,” he offers.

While there’s still work to do (“I’m going through all of the mixes I have for this version and trying and focus on what songs I want to be on it”), ‘Dear Tommy’ is finally slated for release in the autumn. We ask if there’s a specific meaning or person behind the title, and Jewel tells us there’s meaning in everything they do.

“It’s a love letter to my friend who I watched ‘Twin Peaks’ with, as well as another friend of mine,” he explains. “In the band we all have our Tommys. They come into your life, tell you something about yourself, or show you something about the world you didn’t know, and they exit, usually through death.”

And so we’re back to ‘Twin Peaks’. Inevitably. We wonder whether Jewel has any of his own theories about what happened to Twin Peaks’ Homecoming Queen, Laura Palmer?

“I have no idea,” he replies, after pondering for a few seconds. “Death’s beautiful, you know? It’s important to not have answers”.

‘Themes For Television’ is out on Italians Do It Better

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