Dare to Dream Pop: Why Gems Ditched the Rock Rulebook and Pursued Internet Fame Instead
In early 2012, electronic-pop duo Gems took a handful of home-recorded songs and posted them to the online music repository Soundcloud. Months passed. Over time, Gems (stylized as GEMS) periodically posted a new single here, another there, accompanied by a new promo photo—often a shadowy image of singer Lindsay Pitts, pouting in black and white.
Last week, Gems' total Soundcloud listens broke 400,000.
To place that number in perspective, guitarist/producer Clifford Usher, 28, and Pitts, also 28, bring up the stats for their old band, Birdlips. Under that name, Pitts and Usher recorded a few albums' worth of lo-fi psychedelic folk music. “In five years of touring and doing shit with Birdlips, we had about 60,000 plays”—or 15 percent of Gems’ plays, says Usher. Not bad, considering Gems scarcely had to leave Woodbridge, Va., to do it.
To Usher’s surprise, people paid attention to those Soundcloud statistics. “After we put out the first song, our manager got in touch with us,” he says while lunching on a chimichanga at El Charro, a Mexican restaurant off of I-95 near his dad’s place, where he and Pitts were camping out when we spoke on a recent weekend. “Our booking agent got in touch with us after the second song. Stuff has just been building from there.”
As Gems, Usher and Pitts craft brooding and ethereal pop. There are woozy keyboards and tons of reverb. The music owes a clear debt to the icy sounds pioneered by the British post-punk label 4AD, but you also might catch a whiff of Baltimore-based indie songwriting duo Beach House or Los Angeles neo-goth singer Zola Jesus. Gems are good with a hook—and even though the production flourishes lend the music a cold and grey sensibility, the songs don’t tend to sound morose or miserable. On Tuesday, the duo put out its first official release, Medusa, a four-song EP that collects a number of the singles they posted on Soundcloud. They are hoping that some of those plays translate into real sales.
After graduating from the University of Virginia in the mid-aughts, Pitts and Usher led a fairly nomadic music-based existence. “[Birdlips] spent a couple years touring around,” says Usher. “We were in L.A, Texas, Florida, Las Vegas for a little bit. Basically, wherever we could stay for free.” “We just floated for a long time,” says Pitts. The band got some positive write-ups and developed small following, but never took off.
Eventually, money got tight and the pair washed ashore in the D.C. area, near where Usher grew up in Vienna, Va. Not long afterward, Pitts and Usher decided to scrap Birdlips and start over. For a year, they worked on a set of songs that crossbred their folkier sensibilities with scrappier sounds drawn from garage rock, but wound up canning the results. “It just didn’t feel right,” says Pitts.
They were crashing with some friends in Shaw when they produced the first Gems songs using a laptop and some digital recording software. They switched up their look to match the shift in sound, ditching waifish neo-hippie garb for something closer to the Zara catalog.
Usher and Pitts also made some fundamental adjustments in their approach to music-making.
Some of these choices were wrought from hard-won experience (don’t play every crummy house show) and others were savvier adaptations to the Internet-driven music world. For one: Write singles. “For a long time we had the approach that we’re writing an album and everything was part of an album statement. But then you put it out and it’s over. A few people listen to it and then it drops off the face of the Earth,” says Usher. “It just kind of made more sense to start doing a song at a time.”
Gems decided it needed to cultivate a focused aesthetic. According to Usher, they realized that the record they made during their lost year was too confused. “That band we were doing in between was somewhere in between what we’re doing now and garage rock. I just feel like that in-between space is not a good place to be,” he says. “Stuff that’s in between gets marginalized, it gets lost, because people don’t know how to categorize it.”
And they let go of some old rock-band routines.
“We used to have a mentality that you go and you play shows and you build up an audience,” says Pitts. “That didn’t happen for us, basically,” Usher says. “We drove across the country six times.” This time, they opted to save on gas money, for the time being. “Basically, all signs pointed to bands that were successful using the Internet,” says Usher. “We focused on that with Gems.”
Jimmy Morris, an Arlington-based Web developer who publishes an electronic-leaning indie-rock blog called Head Underwater, found Gems not long after they posted their first songs to Soundcloud. The music clicked with his tastes—which he describes as “something that has a psychedelic component. Electronic hip-hop-type beats”—and he was sold. “The reaction was fairly mild,” says Morris. “I guess I got maybe 20 reblogs, which isn’t a ton.” But through his site, the band caught the ear of Jessi Frick, who works at the public relations and artists management firm Goldest Egg. She liked what she heard, and eventually reached out to Pitts and Usher about managing the band. “There's something to be said for an artist who can compose and perform such understated, restrained pop music that's still exciting,” Frick writes in an email.
When Pitts and Usher wrote songs for Birdlips, they sealed themselves off from public scrutiny until they had a finished product. With Gems, they’re more interested in feedback. (Though, not the noisy kind.) They play works-in-progress for friends, but also make use of the prompt reaction—or damning lack thereof—that social media provides.
“What has been helpful has been using data and using feedback to figure out what’s working and what people are responding to. That’s what’s been most effective for us,” says Usher. “I wouldn’t say we’re making music for [sites like] Hype Machine. But, it’s like, if doing a few little things—like throwing in a cool thing in the beginning [of the song]—are going to mean that tens of thousands of people will hear our music, hell yeah, I’ll do some sort of production trick.” ("Medusa," with its breathy opening whimper, is one single that seems to do that well.)
Gems even crowd-sourced its band name. Sort of. “After Birdlips, which is perhaps one of the worst band names ever, we spent months and months trying to come up with a band name,” says Pitts. “We’d try them out on people at parties to see if they could remember them.” Usher had snatched the name Vandal Gems out of a lecture by mythologist Joseph Campbell, but it didn’t pass the test. “We went out and every single person at the end of the night was, like, ‘Something Gems?’” Vandal was quickly dropped.
Balancing murky atmosphere and crisp digital sheen, Gems' songs seem to come from a streamlined, ultra-fashionable future realm. A place that does not necessarily exist, but if it did, it wouldn't look like Woodbridge. If anything, though, Gems has been an exercise in what is and isn’t necessary for music-making. Turns out a hip environment might not be required at all.
“I feel like Woodbridge is sort of a blank slate,” says Usher. “This whole Gems thing has been very empowering for us. We always thought we needed things that we didn’t have to do music. We needed a recording budget. We needed a nice studio. We needed a record label. A manager. We needed all these different things that we didn’t have.”
“Running out of money made us realize that we have to do everything ourselves,” says Pitts.
“Yeah,” says Usher. “I felt like it was kind of, we have to create our own world ourselves.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery