When you write about music, you quickly realize one not so subtle trend—about 90% of the bands you talk to have one request: they want you to make them sound cool. That’s not the case with DC-based outfit GEMS. “We strive to create a sense of existential longing,” explained GEMS producer and singer-songwriter Clifford John Usher between sips of black coffee at Gramercy’s Irving Place, singer and keyboardist Lindsay Pitts nodding in agreement. “Our music always comes from our own life, our own experience—places that are really intense, raw. Some music is not that.”
To be clear, a lot of music is not that. The twenty-something couple first met as undergrads at the University of Virginia in 2007. “We both just hated college,” related Pitts. “It was boring as hell.” They started making music together in Usher’s “not totally garage rock band” shortly after meeting. Now, six years later, the duo make sparse, slow-tempo’d—self-professedly “yearning”—electro pop while drifting between friends’ places in the DC area. The music is gloomy, slow-building, and comfortably vulnerable with lines about lost love and drifting opportunity. It sounds a lot like a more dreamy, romantic (is that possible?) xx. Mazzy Star is an obvious reference; so is Beach House.
Medusa, GEMS’ debut EP, was released yesterday. We sat down with the band to discuss their collegiate beginnings, post-school rebellion, and why everyone in DC jumps ship when they make it big.
You’re just in New York for a couple days now?
CLIFFORD USHER: Tonight. We just came for the night, played a show and met up with some people.
What was it like playing with Anna Calvi?
USHER: It was cool. I actually wasn’t that familiar with her music before we got offered the show and we looked her up online and I actually did kind of like – she has these great music videos and they’re very cinematic and she was great. She drew a really big crowd and people came early for us.
So how did you first meet?
USHER: We both went to the University of Virginia.
Oh, I’m from Charlottesville.
LINDSAY PITTS: No way! Well, we met on the Corner, then we found out we were neighbors. It was 4th year.
Were you both making music the whole time?
PITTS: I joined his previous band then that band split up and we just kept on making music together.
That’s so funny that you both went to UVA.
USHER: We’re not exactly the typical UVA student. I think that’s one thing that we both connected on.
PITTS: We both just hated college.
USHER: Lindsay has a masters in education—
Oh, the Curry school’s great.
PITTS: I thought it was boring as hell. It’s supposed to be great.
It has a great reputation.
USHER: My dad’s a teacher also and something we end up talking about a lot is the state of education in America. I think both of us felt kind of frustrated growing up—because we did well in school, it’s like you get put on this circuit track, you know? I was supposed to be a lawyer, basically.
My parents finally stopped asking me to go to law school last year.
PITTS: Our parents are surprisingly supportive of the music thing.
You had a band and you were in the band – was there an assumption that you were going to make it into this serious, professional thing? Or was it just, ‘we love doing this, let’s keep on doing this?’
USHER: It was different for both of us.
PITTS: For me, I had never really had the guts to pursue something like this. I actually had a job lined up that summer and was like, ‘Do I do this practical job? Or do I keep working at the coffee shop and do the band thing?’ And I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this.’ I think we got more serious as time went on—that this was something that we really wanted to do.
USHER: I just realized that it was something that I really loved to do. And I had the realization in college, maybe my second year of college, that my personal world revolved around making music. No matter what job I got into, I would want to keep on making music. And I would want to keep putting a lot of my time and energy into that. I think my personality is such that when I want to do something, I want to do it to the max. So I was like, ‘Well, if my world is going to revolve around making music, I should at least try to do it, seriously.’ I haven’t looked back since.
So what was your first introduction to making music? Were you playing an instrument early on?
USHER: I played instruments from a really early age. Never really well, but I just loved—actually, one thing that people always say if you’re a musician is, ‘Oh, you’re so talented! I wish I had a talent!’ I just think that the idea that you’re just born talented is a myth. Really what I think it is is that you have an interest. You’re interested in something, and if you’re interested in it, you do it a lot and you become better at it. I was always just interested in picking up instruments and playing around with them.
PITTS: I took piano lessons and sang in choir which is like really boring.
USHER: You did show choir.
PITTS: Yeah, I did do show choir… that came up recently… ugh. It was really fun at the time. It’s pretty cheesy.
So what kind of stuff do you guys listen to?
PITTS: A lot of Tears for Fears. I’ve been listening to a lot of Seal. I love Seal. Peter Gabriel. Um…what else?
USHER: That’s what we listen to for fun. We celebrate an anniversary of the first time we played a show together just the two of us like 6 years ago. I gave Lindsay a limited edition Seal “Crazy” 12”.
PITTS: It has the song “Crazy” on it like eight times. Different remixes and stuff.
That’s pretty epic. So when you started this project, did you have a specific idea of what you wanted the sound to be? How did it evolve?
PITTS: We actually recorded an album before we started that this band that we just scraped. It was a step in the direction, but not there yet. We try to strip as much away as possible.
USHER: This album we did was not quite garage rock but very live sounding rock music—and it didn’t feel right. We had something in our heads of what we wanted it to be; to put you in a certain emotional space. But I feel like a big part of finding your sound is to play around with what instruments you have at your disposal and just see what works the best. I think a good example of this is a breakthrough I had singing. For a long time, I thought I couldn’t sing. I thought I was a terrible singer. I realized, when I discovered a capo – you can put a capo on your guitar and it changes the key – that my voice could sound really good. It was just a question of figuring out where I sounded the best. And it takes time. I feel like we’re finally starting to figure some of those things out.
PITTS: We have more of a palette or a place to start. When we used to start a song, we would be like, ‘Anything’s possible!’ I guess we tried to impose more limitations with ourselves with this project and work with certain constraints.
When you’re writing, do you start with a central idea or melody? Are there certain ideas you’re referencing?
PITTS: It depends.
USHER: I feel like every time you write a song, you’re answering the question, ‘How do you write a song.’ Then, you do something that works really well and you’re just like, ‘Oh, I’ll easily create this next time!’
No, not at all. But that keeps it interesting. It doesn’t feel scripted.
USHER: I guess that’s a necessary part of the creative process. Part of me always wants to make it formulaic. I wish I could just come up with some formula and crank it out, you know? I do think that idea sounds worse than it is.
PITTS: We labor over everything forever. We’re really perfectionists about everything.
USHER: It’s not supposed to sound that way. I was reading this book on how to write in college and one thing it said was, ‘In general, things that are easy to read were more difficult to write.’ I think that’s true with music writing, too.
It can take a lot of work to boil something down to the core.
USHER: To make it sound effortless. It’s not effortless to write something that reads effortless for sure.
How do you like DC?
USHER: Sometimes DC seems a little cold or sterile, but there is a certain austerity to it. There’s some really cool things about it. It’s not like New York where anything that you’re interested in, you can find. You have to make it for yourself in DC, but you can do that. There’s not a lot of competition. You can make things happen.
That’s cool. It’s not over-saturated.
PITTS: But it’s hard, because there’s not like a warehouse space.
USHER: There’s no industrial part of town.
PITTS: So there are no places to covert.
You have to play in someone’s brownstone.
USHER: Yeah. They do have some really awesome old carriage houses. We were living with a friend in this 100 year-old carriage house in this neighborhood called Shaw. That’s the kind of thing you can’t get in New York.
It does seem like whenever something starts to take off for someone, they move out of DC.
Lindsay mentioned you might move to New York.
USHER: I think we also have this romantic idea of never living anywhere and just traveling around.
PITTS: Paying rent, especially if you’re not going to be there doesn’t make sense.
What do you want to do with the project next?
USHER: I think we’re gonna put out a new EP in the new year, around February.
PITTS: We’re gonna put out a video. And hopefully, we’ll tour. I really want to tour Europe.
That’s pretty cool – after doing this for x amount of time, it’s happening. Have you recorded the next EP?
PITTS: We like to work under the gun.