Article and Photos by Christine Beaderstadt
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Gems is an unusual band for Seattle. Two drummers. Two keyboardists. And a whole lot of sound. That’s it. Made up by city transplants who originally studied jazz at the University of Texas, Gems is a constant fixture in the Capitol Hill music scene. But like that lamp on your desk, they’re unfortunately easy to overlook. It’s our loss really, because the Gems’ sound is not typically heard at Chop Suey, the Comet Tavern or other Capitol Hill venues.
Their electronic style has characteristically had a small but devoted following, and the Gems are slowly but surely carving out their slice of the musical pie. Their experience with music, from classical training to formal study at college, is evident in their sound; while still staying on the same page as the electronica genre, Gems colors outside the lines with their clear yet psychedelic sound.
I recently chatted with Gems about their current work on their second album and their beginnings and progression as a band.
Christine Beaderstadt: How would you describe Gems?
Gary Palmer [keyboardist]: We’ll improvise together and hone down things until they eventually become compositions, and that’s what we play live.
CB: So is every performance different? Or do you also improv live, too?
GP: No, generally, performances are our compositions. The same song we play [finished in the studio] is roughly the same [live]. Just the initial thing comes from improv.
CB: Now that you’ve been together for a few years, where do you see the band going?
Adrian Van Batenburg [drummer]: [toungue in cheek] To the dark side.
CB: Are you intellectualizing where you are at musically at all or are you just kind of playing gigs around town?
GP: Well, we’re playing gigs and seeing what happens. We’re trying to get as many people as possible to hear what we do, and then see where it goes.
AB: We’re planning on what we’re doing, picking our spots for our shows. Also, putting together ideas for a music video for our new record.
AB: We’re about halfway through our new record. We’ve got all the tracks laid down.
GP: We’re about to start the mixing process.
CB: How is this sophomore album different from your debut?
GP: Initially, with our first one we did it all ourselves, raw, basically live. So this one we are recording with Matt Brown at the Track Shack. He’s got good ears and we trust him.
CB: Do you notice a difference in your style at all? Any changes?
[3:30] GP: We’ve yet to hear the final sound. We lay down the tracks and he mixes them. I’m really excited to see what he does in the mixing process. What we see in the end is going to be way different with the sound than if we had just mixed it ourselves.
CB: How do you feel about your sound being potentially different then?
GP: I feel good about it because I trust the talent involved… [We’re going to] end up with a different thing.
Dan Rappo [keyboardist]: The last record was fine, a DIY project, but I think this time we trust the engineer’s taste implicitly. It’s not to say we’re not going to have any say in what we’re doing.
CB: Would you ever mix it yourself again? Or is [hiring a mixer] a progression to more serious music-making?
AB: I think we’ll do songs ourselves here and there exclusively ourselves, and then we’ll do fuller, more thought-out projects with [someone else].
GP: I think it’s interesting what is added to have someone else with different ears come to the music [with] their perspective.
CB: What, then, do you think is happening with Gems? How does this change relate to you guys and your music specifically?
AB: [On this second album] You’re going to [hear] more of an ocean [effect], with the highs and lows. The first record is really even sounding – the drums are all even, and [now] you’re gonna hear places where the drums drop out and a lot more effects a la Flaming Lips where things are distorted and messed around with, things that are more prominent, that we’re going to feel as a producer, come out. All of us feel like everything we do is equal, right, in a way, with just the four of us.
GP: Yeah, that’s a good point. When we listen back we’re going to mix it so you hear all the parts all the time.
AB: Matt Brown had to remix a song of ours for a film… and we liked what he did, so we decided to do a record with him. That was totally different with what we did with our first record.
DR: I think when you have an emotional attachment to something you created, of course you’re going to want to hear “more me, more me,” [of your instrument] so when you get somebody who doesn’t have an emotional attachment it can make it easier.
CB: What sort of musical backgrounds do you come from? Are you more classically trained, Gary?
GP: I have some classical training.
DR: He just has that look about him. [Laughs]
GP: My training has been in jazz. I got into music when I was first taking jazz lessons. My teacher got me into it.
AB: We all went to University of Texas together [and studied music].
GP: That’s how we met.
CB: So how do your jazz influence and training influences the sound of Gems?
AB: I think it influences our writing process, more than how it sounds. Like Gary was saying, we’re able to record our jams, listen to them, figure them out and what we’re going to do, and be free to create together. We don’t have a situation where somebody has ever come in [the practice session] with something already done or [even] done at all. Everything is done all together. It’s never been like, “I got this one keyboard part. Or I got this drum beat.”
CB: So walk me through how you start a track, a song. You have a regular rehearsal time and you all come together…
AB: Yeah, we show up.
GP: Somebody starts playing something, other people join.
CB: So it’s a really jam-bandy start.
GP: Yeah, but then we listen back and say, “Oh this part’s really good.”
Jake Evans [drummer]: It started with a joke. We were going to be called “Jams” and then we wanted to call it “Gems.” I don’t like jam-band music personally.
CB: Why not? As a drummer, that surprises me, because drummers tend to get more attention in jam sessions.
JE: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know, I just don’t like the music.
GP: It starts there [jam-band-like] but it doesn’t end up there. We don’t have open sections in our songs and think, “Okay, we’re going to see where this goes for 10 minutes and then come back.” We may incorporate that later but at this point [in writing songs] we just start with open stuff and then picking and choosing and re-working things as they become very specific.
CB: Are you aware of your audience, your demographic, and are you playing to them at all?
JE: No, we’re playing music for ourselves.
GP: And hope that other people like it.
CB: And has that been the general response [from the public] then? Are you paying attention to your listeners?
GP: Well, the fortunate thing with this group is that we create music we like and then a lot of people also like it. We play it for people and a lot of the time the response we get is really positive. [9:33]
CB: What’s your hope for Gems?
JE: To make a living.
GP: That would be great. I mean, all of us would like to make a living playing music.
AB: We just started doing collaborations with other people, working with vocalists. We wrote a track, gave it to a vocalist, then they worked on a melody.
CB: That’s a big departure from just instrumental.
AB: Yeah, but they’re friends of ours and it’s a natural thing.
CB: Will that be on your sophomore album, then?
AB: Yeah, at least two tracks [are with vocals] and we’ve actually [recently] performed a set already with one vocalist.
CB: And how’d that go?
AB: It was good. Nobody could hear the vocals at all, though, and the sound guy was terrible. It was a great experience for the band. That’s pretty exciting to do something different like that.
CB: Are you fearful at all of turning away some of your audience by adding in vocals or is this a natural progression for Gems?
AB: [straight-faced] Extremely fearful.
GP: I would say we’re really excited about other people that could be drawn to the music [by] having words on it. There’re a lot of people who only relate to vocal music. That’s a huge market, and if we could have vocals on some of our stuff and draw people in who wouldn’t even think to check out instrumental stuff, they might really dig what we’re doing once they hear it. It’s a great opportunity for us to reach a broader audience.