Few things put me at peace the way Gem Club does. Like staring at the moon, with stars dimming out of focus, clouds at all sides, churning with a rain that never falls—it’s a melancholic kind of contemplation, yet ever-assuring, as I know that this pure, unrelenting beauty lies just out of reach, just one squint away.
Gem Club, comprised of Christopher Barnes and Kristen Drymala, has soundtracked many a late night while I’ve worked on my own art, often making me wonder what types of visual influences might exist behind the sound fueling mine. Christopher has been kind enough to open up his and his partner Jared’s personal collection of textile art, as well as, chat for a few on his path to music and his admiration for Japanese boro.
I know very little about Japanese boro, can you tell us a little about what it is and it’s history?
In rural Japan back in the 19th and into the early 20th century cotton was very scarce. Most early Japanese garments were made of hemp, but for northern Japan these clothes had to be thickly woven, were often uncomfortable, and did not retain warmth very well. So when cotton was introduced to Japan, it was seen as a luxury item for rural poor. Cotton was brought from warmer districts such as Osaka and other cities by ships, where people bought fragments instead of a cloth roll as it was less expensive. It was common for these textiles to be passed down through generations, where they would be patched and mended to reinforce them for the next user. It’s sort of an unintended art form, which highlights preservation and the importance of reuse and recycling.
You hold degrees in fields outside of music. For you, was music an unintended art form? What paths lead you to form Gem Club?
In some ways yes. For a long time there was no real path. Well, I mean I was making choices that would ensure that there would be none. I had graduated from university…I’m not quite sure how that was pulled off. I was very much a mess. Somewhere in there I decided that I wanted to go back to school for music but I was having a difficult time keeping sober and going to school. School wasn’t a joke either, I think sometimes people think that going to study music means you’re playing the guitar all day. That’s part of it, but there’s a lot more going on – composition, ear training, theory. I had written songs before I went to school, and they were very personal and I never played them for anyone. They were also very bad. School forced me to have to perform in front of an audience, something I don’t think I would have otherwise ever attempted. In that way, I feel like had I not gone to school much of what would later happen with Gem Club would never have surfaced.
Boro are deceptively simple, made of only cotton, indigo and thread, somewhat mirroring the elements you use to compose your music–piano, voice and strings. Both achieve an incredible amount of depth from so few raw materials. Can you speak to this minimalist philosophy that seems to underline both the art you collect and the music you create?
This is an interesting question and something that I’ve never really thought of before. I feel like people would notice these flaws, the holes that needed to be repaired and they would cover it up, they would mend it. I don’t really think they would think twice about it, I mean which piece would go where. You saw that your jacket had torn and you fixed it because you didn’t want the hole to get bigger or you didn’t want to be cold or whatever. I don’t think there was a lot of concern for aesthetics. We admire these pieces for the unintended end result–the insane array of patches and stitching–but to the Japanese, the heavily patched side would typically be hidden.
I think with my work I tend to obsess about the missing pieces, often to my detriment. It makes me nuts. I remember working on Lands for weeks trying to find the right textures for the horn and the cello to fit underneath the chorus. There is a lot to learn from boro–not only about the history of the textile and the people who were using them, but also in it’s creation. Instead of fussing over these holes, worrying what piece should go where, or waiting around for that perfect piece to surface, the garments were just patched and with time you could eventually step away from these objects and see this fantastic end result.
Thank you Christopher.
You can explore more of Gem Club’s music on their website and stream both the LP, Breakers and EP, Acid and Everything here. I highly recommend you get a copy of Breakers (on white vinyl) while it lasts.
All images above are courtesy of the collection of Christopher Barnes and Jared Graves. I want to extend a very special thank you to Jared for photographing all of these for us.
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Think or Smile | Nathaniel Whitcomb © 2011