#617: Christopher Barnes of Gem Club on new record ‘In Roses,’ the Museum of Fine Arts, and emotive performing

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

When Somerville chamber-pop trio Gem Club were looking for a way to celebrate the release of their second full length, In Roses, which came out this week on Sub Pop sister label Hardly Art, it had to be something special – no ordinary venue would suffice. Enter Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which is where singer/pianist Christopher Barnes and his collaborators, cellist Kristen Drymala and vocalist Ieva Berberian, will perform the intimate album in its entirety Friday night along with a little help from openers Nat Baldwin and visual artist BriAnna Olson.

Vanyaland caught up with Barnes this week for our first ever Local #617 to talk about the event, recording at noted analog studio Tiny Telephone (run by John Vanderslice), why Gem Club will probably never fall into the category of “comedy rap.”


Michael Christopher: The release show for In Roses is very interesting, what with having BriAnna doing her thing and Gem Club performing the whole album live — and that’s not even mentioning that it’s being held at an nontraditional venue in the MFA. How did you come up with the concept?

Christopher Barnes: In the spring of 2012 we took part in a music and film series at the MFA where we played live to some of our music videos. At the time we were working pretty extensively on creating songs for In Roses. When we mentioned that we were working on a new record the events coordinator at the museum asked us to send it when it was ready, and mentioned the possibility of hosting the release.

There’s obviously an aspect of Gem Club’s music that goes hand in hand with art, did that then become a goal to make the show, for lack of a better word, “artsy,” in its location and the lineup?

We had our previous releases for the EP and Breakers at the Lilypad in Inman Square. That was a great venue for us because we could come in and staple paper to the walls and project on it, or fill the room with hundreds of balloons — we could really alter the space. When the opportunity at the MFA came about, I knew we couldn’t physically change Remis Auditorium the way that we could the room at Lilypad, so we began to brainstorm about how to make the event itself — what you saw on stage as opposed to what was in the room; more versatile with video, sound, dance, performance, etc.

In Roses isn’t a hard listen, but it isn’t an easy one either. It’s something that needs to be absorbed almost on an emotional level. How important was it to gear the music toward making that sort of connection with the listener?

It’s very important for me to write music that is true to myself and my own experiences. If I can make something that resonates with others I see that as an honor. I don’t think I write with that singular goal in mind, but I do find it rewarding when others can see themselves in our songs.

Something like “Polly” has an almost painful depth to it. Is it hard to not get caught up in the lyrics when you’re performing something like that live, or is that an aspect to playing in front of people that you enjoy – the laying bare of the inner self?

When I perform I do my best to get to that space. I think that’s the purpose. Sometimes things get in the way and it’s difficult to get there, so you go in as close as you can. We’re always working on crafting an environment where the songs can thrive.

I just talked to The Tumbleweed Wanderers, a rock and soul outfit from the Bay Area, whose latest record was produced by John Vanderslice. Their experience with him was one where he pushed them to get things done and get it done right — especially using analog in the recording sessions. What was your experience like recording in his Tiny Telephone studios?

Jamie Riotto engineered and mixed In Roses. John was always around Tiny giving tours or popping his head in to see how we were doing or how the record was coming along. [He] also knew all the best places to eat or hike outside the city. As far as studios go I can’t recommend Tiny, or Jamie, enough. I was nervous going into it. I think tracking to tape intimidated me. Having come from an all-digital setup it was a bit overwhelming.

I recorded Breakers on a laptop in my bedroom here in Somerville and then brought the files to Q Division to be mixed. At home I could spend as much time as I wanted nitpicking every waveform. Making sure the doublings were all lined up perfect, for example. We tracked Roses at Tiny all to tape. It forced us to get comfortable, quickly, with a new process of doing things and to be okay with the imperfections we couldn’t micromanage with a computer. It tested everyone’s musicianship. There was a lot of pressure to perform when the tape was rolling. But it forces you to make an emotional connection with the audio, instead of a visual connection. I used rely a lot on waveforms; how they look, how they line up. With Roses we could abandon that and really just listen.

It’s been three years since your first LP with Gem Club. What’s the biggest element of growth in the band since Breakers?

There’s been a lot that’s changed for us as a band. I think that playing several larger venues when we were on tour in Europe supporting Breakers really made us realize how important it was for us to fill out the sonic spectrum while we were on stage. I mean, the lowest note you hear on Kristen’s cello on Breakers is literally the “bass” on that record. That’s not the case anymore. Those shows were the jumping off point for experimenting with a blend of orchestral and synth elements that you hear on the new record.


I like to visit the International Poster Pallery on Newbury Street. Go check out vintage Swedish object posters by Leupin or Birkhauser.


Gem Club is considered “chamber pop,” which a lot of people associate with “dream pop.” What are seven genres that you thank God you are NOT associated with?

Lover’s rock
Hard house
Comedy rap

GEM CLUB + BRIANNA OLSON + NAT BALDWIN | Friday, January 31 @ The Museum of Fine Arts in the Remis Auditorium, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston | 7:30 p.m., all-ages, $20 | Advance tickets

Gem Club Flyer

Painting by Yinling Hsu / Design by Adam Larson