New Music To Know: Gem Club Finds Inspiration in Love, Death & Porn on Latest Album ‘In Roses’

"I think I'm happy with being called melancholy. Like, it's fine, I'll own it."
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Gem Club (Tonje Thilesen)

By Shannon Carlin

Before listening to Gem Club’s “Soft Season”—a song on the chamber-pop band’s lush new album, In Rosesyou should familiarize yourself with the tragic tale of Joey Stefano.

Born Nicholas Iacona Jr. in Chester, Pennsylvania, Stefano was one of the biggest stars of gay porn in the early ’90s. He appeared in 36 films in just five years and even earned himself a spot in Madonna’s 1992 Sex book. But in 1994, at the age of 26, Stefano—who had been diagnosed HIV positive four years before—was found dead from a drug overdose believed to be caused by a speedball, a lethal mix of cocaine, morphine, heroin and ketamine.

Christopher Barnes, Gem Club’s pianist, vocalist and primary songwriter, told that, growing up gay in the dawn of the Internet, he was aware of Stefano and his work. “There’s a few images that you come across when you decide to enter the world of Internet pornography,” Barnes said matter-of-factly over the phone.

But what struck him most about Stefano’s story was how both charming and tragic it was.

“I think that I have this romanticized idea of the male figure and this romanticized idea of pornography, and it speaks so much to fantasy and reality,” he explained. “It seems like such a sad story, to pass that young and to pass under those horrible conditions. That was really the jumping off point of that song ['Soft Season'], trying to contextualize that positivity of it and also the negativity of it.”

With layers of piano and strings, “Soft Season” itself is funereal, with Barnes mourning the loss of a man who died too soon (preview the song on NPR). But the singer also pays tribute to a misunderstood man, managing to do so without passing judgment on the young man’s choices. It’s similar to the way Sufjan Stevens humanizes the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. in his song of the same name, giving context for the man we now know as “Killer Clown.” On “Soft Season,” Barnes never once mentions Stefano by name, choosing to instead pay his respects by evoking the actor’s spirit in lines like, “For as long as it lasts, I’m a boy on my back.” It’s almost as if Stefano could have been any young man if the circumstances were different–including Barnes himself.

Christopher Barnes of Gem ClubGem Club’s Christopher Barnes (Frankie Nazardo)

Due in stores Tuesday (Jan. 28), In Roses is the follow-up to Gem Club’s 2011 debut albumBreakers. With this new collection, Barnes—who collaborates in Gem Club with cellist Kristen Drymala and vocalist Ieva Berberian—wanted to deal with fantasy and reality by taking a look at the relationships in his own life, whether they be real or imagined, ongoing or of the past.

Listening to the song “Michael,” for instance, you can’t help but feel like you’re getting a detailed look at a past relationship that went wrong. With his haunting whisper, Barnes sets the scene: “I can see it in your eyes/It’s in your back, your chest/It’s emotion rise/It’s the color black/I can feel it.”

The song is not about one past love in particular, but about Barnes’ own ability to bring the worst out of people. Something he admits he was once very good at. “It’s a come over to my side love song,” he said. “It’s about recognizing that ability to bring out the worst in people and then make that the basis of the relationship.”

On the album’s seven-plus-minute closing track “Polly,” Barnes pays his respects to an aunt who passed away ten years ago, wailing repeatedly the phrase “I need you now that you’re gone” over a cinematic score of piano and strings.

“When she passed, I wasn’t in a place where I was sort of properly grieving, and I was in a pretty selfish place,” he explained. “I felt like that was a relationship that I needed to address, and I needed to apologize sort of for the way I acted.”

Barnes said time has been the driving force behind many of his more personal songs. Taking a step back has given him a chance to be real and honest with not only the listener, but himself. “When I’m close to things I’m really sort of spastic and sort of like over emotional,” he explained. “And I think in hindsight, I’m able to look back and see how I’ve grown as a person through that experience.”

Because Barnes uses the darker moments of his life as inspiration for his music, he’s accustomed to being asked whether he manipulates these moments for musical gain. “Sort of,” he said when we posed the question. “That stuff is never going to go away. These experiences shape who you are. You don’t want to go back and dwell on that, and you can’t, because you’re not that person anymore.”

But as Barnes will tell you, not every song on the album is a downer, including the instrumental cut “QY2,” which was inspired by the Gregg Araki film Nowhere. The song was intended to set the mood for one particular romantic scene in the film, though Barnes did admit it wound up sounding a lot more depressing than he’d originally intended.

At the end of the day though, would it really be such a bad thing if Gem Club’s latest album was categorized as melancholy?

“It’s funny, I feel like I took a long time trying to argue against it,” Barnes said of his gloomy reputation. “I think like contextually, when you compare it to what’s on the radio or compare it to a lot of other music, sure, it’s melancholy. I think that some people shy away from it, other people gravitate towards it. I think I’m happy with being called melancholy. Like, it’s fine, I’ll own it.”

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