On February 8th, Toronto’s The Drake will be full of the atmosphereic shadow-pop from Washington duo GEMS. With the recent release of their Medusa EP (available here), I was fortunate enough to catch up with GEMS’ Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts ahead of the show. Read our conversation below as we discussed the inspiration of mythology, their recording process, embarrassing moments, and playing retirement community.
AMBY: What have you two been up to lately?
Clifford: We are mostly working on some new recordings and hopefully putting out a new EP in the next few months or so.
AMBY: Awesome. Speaking of EPs – the Medusa EP came out back in November and I’ve been playing those four songs a lot lately. What’s the significance behind the EP’s title?
Clifford: I think at the time we were really into this idea of mythology. We’ve been reading some Joseph Campbell, an anthropologist. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces which kind of served as inspiration for the Star Wars movies. He broke down all of these myths and stories throughout human history, including world religions and stuff like that. He goes through comparing them and there’s always a common thread that appears. So, we’ve been really into his stuff and it’s pretty mind-blowing. He’s kind of like Yoda.
Clifford: The first song we wrote off of that EP was Pegasus and Joseph Campbell was talking about if Pegasus and Medusa met and how Medusa represents the monster. We felt in our creative process that it was like if you are facing certain fears; if you look at them directly you’re paralyzed. To break free, you have to cut off the head which is kind of like cutting off logic. So, that was kind of the long-winded explanation of where that came from. We also just like the idea of putting our music through the lens of classic mythology, you know?
AMBY: From the titles of the EP tracks, that’s kind of the idea I got out of it (Ephemera, Pegasus, Medusa). I’ve read that the EP has been described as hazy, haunting, and melancholy. Was this the feel you were going for? What exactly was the main goal you had while recording?
Lindsay: That’s a good question. I think that the goal changed a lot. I think part of it, too, is the balance of having goals but being able to go with the flow when you’re creating.
Clifford: I don’t feel like we said we wanted to make a song with, “this, this, this, and this”. I think you can do that, but it would never turn out that way. I think it’s more like we draw inspiration from our lives and where we are at the moment. It’s important to us that our songs are true and meaningful. We’ve experimented in previous bands… Some songs tell stories about fictional characters and that’s not our style. Our songs are about our lives. It has to be honest and true to sing it in front of people.
AMBY: As far as the recording process goes, tell me a little bit about that. How do you start writing a track, and who contributes what?
Lindsay: I wish that we had some kind of formula that we could fall back on. It really varies; sometimes we’ll be playing together and come up with some type of groove we like, or sometimes one of us will write by ourselves and come to the other person with a half-finished idea of a song. You know?
Clifford: I feel that in general, I’m kind of more the beats and Lindsay is more in the world of chords and harmonies and stuff. We both come up with melodies and work on the lyrics. It’s all kind of back and forth.
AMBY: The band start touring North America this week and we look forward to covering the Toronto show this weekend. What are you most looking forward to regarding the shows you have coming up?
Lindsay: Well, I guess the thing that’s on my mind most is that this is our first time flying with our gear.
Clifford: Yeaaaaah… [laughs]. We’re in the process of… We can’t take anything with us so it’s been kind of tricky trying to figure out how we’re going to do these shows and be able to travel with the most essential gear.
Lindsay: I think it’s a good process to go through though; we have to think to ourselves “do we really need that piece of equipment?” and strip stuff down to the most essential elements.
Clifford: “Do I really need all sixteen of these guitar pedals?”
AMBY: Probably not? [laughs] How about this then – if you could only travel with a few essential items, which ones would you bring with you?
Lindsay: I feel like we’d probably re-do our whole set up and bring something simple like a laptop. At this point, I’m really into vocal processing stuff.
Clifford: Vocal processor.
Lindsay: Yea, so a vocal processing unit.
Lindsay: A sampler. And a guitar. You’d have to bring your guitar!
AMBY: Alright, perfect. For one last touring question, what’s one of the funniest things to happen to GEMS while on stage?
Clifford: There was that one time where I tripped and my pants fell down…
Lindsay: [laughs] That didn’t happen! We haven’t had anything really embarrassing happen yet, I just fall down anywhere else. I think my foot got caught on a carpet or something when I was loading a bunch of crap and that was kind of embarrassing. But it wasn’t on stage so it was ok.
Clifford: You were technically on-stage…
AMBY: Just back stage!
Clifford: How did you heal up from that by the way?
Lindsay: I’m still bruised… [laughs]. Nothing really intense has happened yet.
Clifford: I think one of the funniest things was several years ago, Lindsay and I actually – I had a grandmother living in a retirement home in Florida. We were touring through and we had a day off and wanted to play a show for her retirement community. These are all people in their eighties and nineties.
AMBY: Really, really old people.
Clifford: But it was actually kind of fun.
Lindsay: I thought that people would be like, “What is this?” But afterwards everyone was so happy.
Clifford: They were so appreciative. It was really cool, and definitely the earliest show we ever played.
Lindsay: We had to set our alarms, it was weird.
Clifford: Literally at 11:55 there were all of these older people gathered around and they started coming up to us asking when we were going to start.
AMBY: Aw, that’s great.
Lindsay: Cliff’s grandma was like, “It’s actually 11:57 so they still have three minutes!” [laughs]
Clifford: It was great.
AMBY: I’m glad to hear it. As I mentioned before, I’ve been listening to the new EP a lot lately. Who have you been listening to lately?
Lindsay: I’m a huge fan of Sohn, really into that. I’ve been listening to a lot of Peter Gabriel [laughs].
Clifford: I really like the new Death Grips album.
Lindsay: That’s too intense for me.
AMBY: I’m with you on that one [laughs]. Well, now I have the last question for you both. What’s something about GEMS that nobody knows yet?
Lindsay: Most things people don’t know.
Lindsay and Clifford: [laughs]
Clifford: Lindsay’s a vegetarian.
Lindsay: That’s boring! We’re into astrology, and we read astrology every day.
Thank you GEMS, for giving us your answers!
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Alicia Atout | @AliciaAtout