The brooding, wonderful sound of GEMS is the brainchild of Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts, catching the attention of Swide’s Ben Taylor who wanted to know more about the duo.
Every now and again, a band emerges on the scene whose songs strike a chord, haunting you and drawing you back to listen to them again and again. That’s exactly what Washington based Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts’ moniker GEMS did to me when I stumbled across them on Soundcloud. Their mix of shadowed love, nostalgic instrumentation and dark, mysterious presentation urged me on to contact them to find out more about who they are and what they are putting out there... and they certainly delivered. Take a moment to listen to All I Ever' below and read what they've got to say for themselves.
Who are GEMS and under what circumstances did you meet?
CJU: We met late at night, on a crowded street outside a bar in Virginia. Right away, it felt like we’d known each other forever, or maybe in a past life.
When I think of GEMS, I think of precious stones or prized belongings. What does it mean to you and how did it come to be the name of your band?
CJU: I saw a quote somewhere about how diamonds are formed in incredibly high temperatures, from massive amounts of pressure. It struck a chord with me as a metaphor for our creative process. Lindsay and I have been through a lot together. We spent several years wandering the country, sleeping on couches or a blow-up mattress and recording song ideas on a little 8-track we took around with us. I like to think that we use our art to turn the hard times we’ve had into something meaningful and beautiful.
How did you ‘discover’ music? And what do you each of you bring to GEMS?
LP: I used to love going to the library as a kid and copying tapes with my sweet double tape deck (the original pirating??) My mom has always been an avid consumer of music and I grew up listening to Black Sabbath, Cream, the Stones, the Beatles, Alice in Chains, Metallica. Perhaps making softer, subtler music was my way of rebelling. I also played piano growing up and studied music in college.
CJU: For me it was the ‘bad’ kid next door. He was always being expelled from different schools and he smoked cigarettes and played the electric guitar. He taught me how to play Nirvana’s ‘About a Girl’ and lent me all of their CDs. As far as what we each bring to the band, we really write the songs together. One of us usually comes up with an idea and the other helps flesh it out. Lindsay is a master of harmony and chords. I’m more about melody and bass. Lindsay often starts the words and I often finish them.
It was your song ‘All I Ever’ that caught my attention and the mix of influences that I’ve picked up on with the song structure and lyrics enchanted me. Tell me about the song and the use of call and response you’ve used.
LP: When we decided to form GEMS, we made a decision that we wanted this music to be extremely personal and true. I was going through a tough time and had written some pretty dark lyrics but needed another verse. Cliff sat down intending to write something for me to sing but what came out was his own gut response.
The theme of love within GEMS’ work to date isn’t particularly joyous… where is the light?
CJU: You can’t have the light without the dark, and I think what we are finding, what we are dealing with in our lives right now is the shadow side of love. When you know someone so well, you’ve seen them at their best and their worst. But having some darkness makes the light seem even brighter when it is there.
Your presentation has been very minimal to date, opting for black and white photography, including the work of Rene Magritte. What connects your choice of imagery to your sound? And which influences the other more?
LP: In this day and age it’s impossible to separate visuals from the music. Music has always been the most important thing to me, but I recognize that most people are probably going to come across GEMS first on the Internet. I want them to experience it in a particular way. Black and white adds glamour. I want to cast a spell.
You’re set to play at SXSW this year. How do you guys feel about playing live, in general? What do you want your audiences to take away from a GEMS gig’?
CJU: I love playing live. I crave it. The whole point of making music for me started as a way of expressing myself but became much more about connecting with other people, and the live show is how I really feel that connection. We’ve had to take a serious break from playing shows in order to record and flesh out our vision for GEMS, but I am itching to get out on the road.
LP: When I go to shows, I want to have an existential experience. I want to leave and see the world and my life in a different way. I’d like to have that effect on other people, but I’d also be happy if they just had a really good time.
The harmonies found in your work are glorious, particularly during the last 15 seconds of 'Heavy Lines'. When was the last time something gave you an overwhelming feeling of joy?
CJU: Taking a walk the other day, alone in the park. The sun was setting and the bare trees were all bathed in golden light. I really believe that type of joy is probably available to us all the time but we are usually too distracted by the voices in our heads to notice.
If you were to invite me on a night out in Washington, what impression of the city would you like me to have?
CJU: I always tell people that DC is a great place to visit. It’s like a modern, American version of ancient Rome, the political hub of the country. It’s very clean and sophisticated. The monuments and architecture are incredible to see at night. If it were summer, we could get drunk and wander carefully manicured paths lit up with the marble ghosts of statesmen and fallen soldiers. It’s fun to be a tourist here. That’s something we don’t do often enough.
LP: Sometimes it’s hard to look past the ill-fitting suits and red and blue ties that define DC. But there are a lot of exciting new outlets for art and culture here too.
Where would you hate to hear GEMS music being used?
LP: A torture scene in a movie. I can’t handle those.
For more from GEMS:
All photography by GEMS