Interview by Tobias Carroll
Death by Audio, October. I’m watching Gem Club play on a bill alongside several of their labelmates. Groups like The Beets and Jacuzzi Boys are yet to come, and the mood in the room seems focused on the noisy and/or garagey side of pop. Gem Club are different, organized around stark arrangements and surprising harmonies and subtle arrangements. The room watches them, enraptured, hearts breaking in slow motion. Christopher Barnes, Kristen Drymala, and Ieva Berberian play a restrained set, pushing at the boundaries of release. It’s an impressive night, and one that expands upon the strengths of their recent album Breakers and their not-as-recent EP Acid and Everything.
And hey, Barnes has fine taste in books. See below for more.
Many of the songs on Acid and Everything focus on an offscreen subject, whereas for Breakers, the first person is much more of a presence. Was that a conscious progression in your songwriting? Or was it a case where these particular groups of songs fit together more easily?
The songs on Acid and Everything were composed in a month and often the subject matter didn’t really reveal itself until the songs were completed. I was very much caught up in the process. Those songs on the EP are more second/third person narratives. With Breakers, there were certain songs that I knew that I wanted to include on the record, like 252 and Party, which are very personal songs…so in some sense the subject matter of the other tracks needed to create a space where songs like 252 could exist.
For the songs on Breakers, did you generally have the arrangements in mind, or did they come about as the songs begin to be played in a practice space or live setting?
Most of the arrangements were carefully decided upon after the skeletal structure of the songs had been created. Because a lot of the piano and vocals are so spare, I spent a good amount of time trying to eliminate any excess from the arrangements but also wanted make sure that the pieces still held interest. Its difficult for me to not get swept up in being overly critical of everything during this process. My whole less is more approach can be really frustrating because I spend more time than I should obsessing over space and subtraction. I usually end up walking away from it and coming back ten minutes later like why was I putting up such a fuss over three notes.
Where do the images in your lyrics come from? Are you echoing actual spaces and people, or leaning more towards the archetypal?
I still feel rather uncomfortable with who I am and where I’ve been. I mean, the person who I was even a few years ago is so drastically different from the person writing Breakers, but those experiences and those relationships are still very present in my life. You know? It feels natural for me to communicate in metaphor and use image heavy lyrics. That, and I don’t really relate to story songs or songs with a detailed narrative. It doesn’t offer me much on the second or third listen. I’ve heard that story already. Unless you’re Joanna Newsom.
Do you do any writing outside of the band?
I keep notebooks that are full of scribbles and thoughts about lyrics and song ideas. A few lines here and there, but I feel as if I’ve been doing exactly as I want with Gem Club so far, so I haven’t had a need or urge to work outside of it.
What have you been reading lately?
After I finished the record I’ve been reading a lot of short stories. I just picked up the collected works of Lydia Davis. I really think she’s incredible. She strays from the typical short story narrative structure — beginning, middle, and end. You’re thrown into each one and each is only a few pages, but the content and writing is outstanding. I also started re-reading Flannery O’Connor and Carver. I’m going through Salinger’s Nine Stories. A friend recommended I read Solaris. Its unbelievable. I never expected it to be so beautiful and so unsettling at the same time. I’m overwhelmed by that ocean. You could say mildly obsessed.
(Photo: Charlie Engman)