Gozamos writer Matthew Persson talked to Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts, who together make up the D.C.-based duo called GEMS, while they were in their hometown for their current North American tour. They talk about their organic music-making progress, being a begrudging dream pop band and where the heck their name means. Their first EP, Medusa, , is out now:
Gozamos: Did you both grow up there [in Washington, D.C.]? What’s the story on that?
Clifford John Usher: Yeah, [Lindsay and I] both grew up in northern Virginia; D.C. area. And we actually met in college at University of Virginia.
At what point did you realize you wanted to start a band?
Lindsay Pitts: Well, Cliff’s been in a band I guess since he was in middle school or high school. [He] asked if I wanted to join a rock band that he had at the time. I did — and the band broke up, like pretty much right afterwards. But we wanted to keep making music, so we just kept doing it.
So why GEMS? What’s the significance behind that name?
CJU: We kinda liked how it was one word. There was some kind of quote that was talking about how diamonds are formed under intense geological pressure. And it kinda resonated — this idea that something beautiful can come out of really intense situations; a lot of pressure. I think that was something we related to. I think we were a little bit thrown off by the“starting a band” questions. I don’t think we ever looked at it that way. When we met, we both felt this musical connection and we just played music together all the time, and have done that ever since. I mean it felt like it was something we had to do; it’s not like we were like “this would be fun” or something. We try to have fun with it too.
LP: And we do have fun with it.
What’s been your experience as musicians so far? Like recently you’ve been on tour a lot.
CJU: This is going to be our first more extensive tour. We started this band only a little over a year ago, so mostly we’ve been making songs, and as we’ve finished them we’ve been putting them on Soundcloud. The response has been really good on the internet, which was really cool. And that basically allowed us to go to SXSW last year, hook up with a manager and booking agents, and things have just kind of started taking off. Right now we basically have a bunch of people who are waiting to help us [release music], and we’re just trying to write music and get it out there.
So based on that, I’m going to assume there might be a full length album in the works?
CJU: Definitely, at some point. I think we might try to release another EP first. It feels like it’s been working well to break things into smaller pieces. Take things one step at a time. It is funny that basically when we started this band we put a song up on Soundcloud and this song got more plays and more attention more quickly than any of the albums we’d put out in previous bands over the course of several years. It was pretty cool to see that kind of response, you know? We were like, “Let’s just do this a few more times, put up the songs as we’re working on them, get feedback and see how people are even digging our music before we try to spend a bunch of time recording an album.”
The first time I noticed you was on a blog, and it was the song “Void Moon”. Was that your first song?
CJU: That was the first song we put up online.
I really dig that. How do you feel about that song and your development as a band? It seems like you’ve pretty much stayed to that same style.
CJU: It’s funny that you say that. I listened to that song recently and hadn’t heard it in a really long time; we stopped playing it a while ago. This is the kind of thing where it’s more like we’re so close to it that it feels distant to us. I mean I guess it’s kind of reassuring to hear that it’s not that different, that it still sounds like us. Back then we had a different set up.
LP: I played guitar on that song.
CJU: We were both playing electric guitars. Lindsay ditched the guitar recently. Kind of streamlined our setup, playing synth and samplers. I’ve learned a lot about mixing and production since we’ve been doing all the recordings of the tracks ourselves. And I’ve been doing beat production and stuff like that. I feel like I’ve come a long way since then. Maybe it’ll be a little more apparent once we get the new EP finished.
Could you briefly describe the processes behind making your music, like all beats, and just bringing it all together to make one thing?
CJU: I usually I make the beats and Lindsey’s really good at coming up with chord progressions. We don’t really have a formula; I’d say generally we do some passing back and forth.
Your label is definitely dream pop. How do you feel about your contribution to that particular style of music?
LP: One of our friends would say, “You guys are gonna have to say you’re something; otherwise, people won’t know how to see you.” But I feel like now we’re trying; I guess we make dreamy “pop” music, but I feel like we have a lot of different influences.
Was that a label that the internet placed on you?
LP: I feel like if one blog says you’re dreampop then every other blog, is like “Oh, that’s the norm for them.”
CJU: Yeah, I mean it felt really weird to us. I think every artist probably hates the question “what kind of music do you play?” It’s really hard to sum up everything that you do in two words, a label or phrase. I think it seems like it’s been effective. People who like dreampop have been digging our music and passing it around. But I feel like most people have no idea what dream pop is you know? I don’t even know if I really know what it is.
Yeah, what would you say dream pop is?
LP: (Laughs). A lot of different bands kind of use the label and they don’t necessarily sound the same you know? We place a lot of emphasis on songwriting and having good lyrics. I want our songs to be able to be played on any [medium], like a guitar or a piano, and I feel like sometimes some of the dreampop stuff relies just on the production. That might have a cool sound, but then there’s not much [substance].
I definitely appreciate that you want to play music that can be better conveyed by other people, that’s more universalized rather than just limited to just one genre.
CJU: I think it’s important to have a dialogue with what’s happening right now in the music world, but ultimately what is most important to us transcends that — or we hope it does. Mainly, we focus on trying to make something that’s real, you know? Something that comes from our lives and that we can feel a hundred percent authentic about what we’re putting out to the world.
Well I definitely like what you guys have done so far, and i’m looking forward to seeing what you’re doing in the future. That’s about all the time I have left, do you have any parting thoughts?
CJU: You guys are in Chicago right?
Yeah, you’ll be here March 7th right?
CJU: Yeah, we’re psyched! We just played Chicago for the first time last month at Subterranean. It was a really fun show.
I caught that show. It was great.
CJU: Oh, awesome! Yeah, it is a cool town. It was really cold; I guess it hasn’t gotten much warmer. (laughs). We’re looking forward to coming back — and maybe we’ll bundle up a little better this time.
LP: Yeah. (laughs)
Be prepared! Well, thank you guys so much and we’re really excited to see you again soon.
LP: Definitely come say hi!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.