GEMS is the shadow pop brainchild of Lindsay Pitts and Clifford John Usher — two Virginia bred musicians– who met while simultaneously attending the University of Virginia. After years of playing together, their vision coalesced under the moniker GEMS in 2012. You probably remember them as one of the mysterious internet bands whose music was gracing nearly every atmospheric playlist from Silverlake to Berlin and beyond during 2013 with their stellar four song EP Medusa. The duo just released their first full-length album Kill The One You Love (Carpark Records) and are currently touring the country to support the record. The new release unravels R&B sensibilities that were a mere thread in earlier recordings. Pitt’s vocals are as evocative as memory serves and Usher’s production showcases a level of restraint that is astounding in the current pop landscape — as a unit choosing understated to overwrought. Which is equally evident in the stark, often black and white visuals that the band employs alongside their music. I caught up with them while they were barreling towards Denver to discuss the new album and the evolution of the band.
AF: Cliff I see you have a 703 number. So do I. Where are you from exactly?
Cliff: We’re both from the Washington DC area. I grew up in Vienna, Virginia and Lindsay is from Woodbridge. We just moved to Los Angeles four months ago.
AF: How did the two of you meet and start playing together?
Cliff: We both went to University of Virginia. Right around graduation we met. We played music together for years, but we started GEMS at the end of 2012. We knew we wanted to do a band thing the two of us and so we started to lay down tracks as GEMS then.
AF: What’s your favorite fact about one another?
Lindsay: Well I have kind of an obvious fact, but I love it. Cliff is really, really tall. He’s 6’7”. You can’t tell in pictures, but he’s a giant.
Cliff: Lindsay used to play the drums. When I first met her she was taking drum lessons from some old dude who lived in the woods and she would bake him muffins in exchange for lessons.
AF: In listening to the new album your sound seems to be more restrained than on Medusa — how do you see your musical evolution?
Cliff: I feel like for the new album we put a lot of emphasis on trying to carve out our own sound. It’s always an ongoing process, but I feel the new album is more our own thing for better or for worse. I like it. I feel like there’s this thing in music where it’s a lot easier to be successful if you sound like something else that’s already successful and it’s something that’s always frustrated me because I want to make our shit sound like us, you know? I constantly have this thing where I hear some new band that I’m like this is obviously just ripping off this other thing that is already popular. And every single time without a doubt that band gets huge. I’m not knocking things that sound like other things. I just mean it’s a weird phenomena. I guess people just like what they’re familiar with. So I don’t know, maybe people won’t like it as much. But I feel like we’re doing our thing more.
Lindsay: Sure that’s how it works.
AF: Was there a most exciting moment in production on the album?
Cliff: Not really. It was something we were working on for a long time.
Lindsay: Yeah, I felt like it was a bonding. We also reworked so many of the songs. One of the songs on there I think we re-recorded four times over a couple years. We just kept thinking it wasn’t right yet. Eventually we were like ok. We could have reworked it forever. You’re always reaching for something that’s just a little bit ahead of you.
Cliff: This is the only downside of working ourselves. We do all the recording stuff and songwriting ourselves. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop. But I like where we ended up.
AF: Can you describe your songwriting process?
Cliff: We always have a bunch of stuff that we’re working on. Since we’ve been doing GEMS I’ve taken on more the producer role, but we still go back and forth a lot. Lindsay with often start with a song idea where she’s real focused on the emotion and what she’s trying to convey. A lot of times it’s more like about the chords, or the feeling in the chords, or even a non-verbal melody. And I’ll make the beats. We always talk about honing in or sharpening in to the core emotion of each song. A lot of times when we start the lyrics are just gibberish, it’s more about the vibe and the emotion that’s coming through. And then as we rework it we hone in on some kind of thread lyrically.
AF: As a unit you have a pretty chic aesthetic, can you tell me a bit about how visuals factor into the project?
Cliff: Yeah it’s not really a conscious thing so much as it’s all an extension of us in our own weird little world. Actually I think it might also be a product of growing up in the suburbs of DC and living around DC. DC is a pretty cool city, but there’s not really like a lot of cool stuff around. The city is cool especially for the architecture and stuff. But the suburbs of DC, like Fairfax and Tysons Corner, it’s not like you’re growing up in New York or LA and you’re surrounded by cool shit. I felt like we felt like we had to create our own world as an escape from all that.
AF: Are there other projects you’re into?
Cliff: I’ve been really digging the new Autre Ne Veut album. We’ve been listening to that on the road here on tour with them. It’s been fun. I feel like we haven’t listened to any new music in a while. We listen to the radio a bunch, because the aux input on our van is broken, so our options are CDs or the radio– and we can’t even burn CDs now because our laptops don’t have a CD burner. We try to see live music a lot. Like Holly Herndon, we saw her at FORM Arcosanti, this festival that another band we toured with called Hundred Waters put on– that was pretty mind blowing. And recently we went to FYF in LA. FKA Twigs, Mac DeMarco and D’Angelo were some standout acts.
Lindsay: Yeah D’Angelo. He has such control over all of these other musicians. He addresses this group of musicians and they all read each other’s minds everything is so fluid. Great performance.
AF: I know you’re on tour right now, is there anything else exciting on the horizon alongside the release of the album?
Lindsay: We have an apartment in Highland Park right now, that I really like. And I’m excited for when after this tour we go back and to record and make music again. Keep working on new stuff really. Because we’ve been working so hard on this album, getting it out and getting ready for tour, and I’m really excited to sit back down and start writing again.
You can find more on GEMS on their website.
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