Gypsum talk about their self-titled debut album

Photo by Wes O'Connor

The self-titled debut album from Los Angeles-based post-punk trio Gypsum has been a long time coming, but it’s well worth the wait. The group has its roots in jam sessions and continues to write that way, something which manifests itself in the recordings through unusual song structures and unexpected twists. Gypsum’s highly rhythmic music brings powerful vocals together with different guitar styles and effects, often bringing an ethereal edge to the intricate arrangements. The group is comprised of Sapphire Jewell (guitar/vocals), Anna Arboles (guitar/vocals), and Jessy Reed (drummer). Over a Zoom interview, Sapphire and Jessy discussed the band and the making of their debut album.

How did Gypsum initially come together?

Jessy: We met in college and just kind of started out as a very casual jam session amongst musicians, just a creative space. Then as time went on, it became a little more of a real band: people bringing in rifts or songs or wanting to directly move towards finishing music.

How has your sound evolved from the beginning to what we hear on the album?

Sapphire: I’ve been in other bands, and I’d say that Gypsum is one of the best at jamming. You can play with other people, and honestly, a lot of the time, it just comes out sounding like dad rock. It’s just generic rock. It’s uninteresting. But this band, for some reason, we work well together, and we listen to each other. For a while, songs would be written by me, or Anna would bring in a riff and we would build the song out of it. We’d bring in a verse and chorus parts and then maybe sometimes a bridge. Maybe we’d write the bridge together. But after a while, personally, I was tired of playing my same riff that I’d already spent 10 hours refining and then looping it while they wrote their parts.

I was kind of jealous that they were having fun writing their parts. So I was like, maybe we should stop bringing in ideas, and we should write together purely from scratch? I know that “Lungs” was written like that, and it’s my favorite song of ours. It’s one of the best ones. So I think that over time, we kind of started to get off of following just someone’s riff and just making it organically together, which I think is actually really uncommon for a lot of bands.

Could you talk a little bit about your musical backgrounds before you got together as Gypsum? What had you been doing in the past, and what might you have brought into this project from that?

Jessy: I started playing music at an early age: piano. Then by the time I got to 5th grade, I wanted to play drums. That became my first love as an instrument, and it kept on from that. I also did some classical percussion stuff but was always into playing music with people in various settings and had a love for that. I think it’s a similar story for the other members, too.

Sapphire: Yeah, I started in my early teens, maybe around 12, 14, something in there. I started guitar. I would noodle, and I didn’t really like learning songs that much. I’ve never liked learning covers. I’ve always just liked writing my own parts. I just thought it was more fun. Then I think it was junior year in high school when a guitar teacher asked what I was going to do for college, and I was like, “I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet.” So he was like, “Well, you know, you could study guitar,” and I was like, “What?” He prepped me, and he got me into a great college. I studied guitar, and that’s where Gypsum met. All of us were learning music to kind of an extreme extent, which I think is awesome. It’s also just helped our own music. I mean, I don’t know if I would’ve played a math rock song like “Kaleidoscope” had it not been for college, music school, Gypsum, and everyone else’s push for stuff like that. So I think that all kind of influenced the music that we make.

Your first single, “Follow Me,” came out in 2016, and your album has just come out now. Could you talk about the time frame of the album?

Jessy: Yeah, so that first version [of ‘Follow Me’] we recorded, it was a very early recording experience for all of us, and we did a new version on the album. All of the songs were a long time coming. The stars aligned for us timing-wise. It [recording] was during the pandemic. It was a long time, maybe even like a couple of years before we even decided, okay, we finally have a time window to work on this. Let’s get down to it.

Sapphire: We were going to record over the summer of 2020. That was the thick of it, and everyone was still so paranoid, so we just postponed recording until November. We were really careful, and everyone was getting tests frequently, and we made it work. But it slowed everything down. Then it took us a really long time to get through making rough mixes that we liked and then getting through mixes because we’re also particular on the production side since we self-produced it. We just wanted to make sure it sounded like we wanted it to. So Anna, who’s really great at mixing and does sound too, did rough mixes after we tracked. Then mixing was a whole long process with lots of notes, and the mastering took a little while, too.

So the whole process of post-production also added a lot of time. But as far as writing songs go, these are some of our first songs from when we started this band. We’d talked about recording in the past, and we had recorded a couple of times in the past but just never were totally sure it was exactly how we wanted it to sound. I feel like this time around, we’re better musicians, and we’re better with recording equipment. We know what we want. We also have better taste. It’s just the right time, finally.

Are there any particular tracks that you feel may have changed as part of the process of making the album?

Sapphire: Oh, I’d say “Margaret” is biggest one, and it might be my favorite track on the album. It was one of the most recent ones that we’ve written. Anna brought in some simple guitar riffs that were really pretty and wrote these lyrics that were incredible, but the production wasn’t all there. It really came together in the studio because Anna had this vision of reversing all of the sound and audio, then sending it through an Echoplex, which is a vintage delay, tape delay, altering the sounds, sliding the meters, and whatever. It just turned into some crazy post-production stuff that added these layers that just make that song so cool. I feel like it would still be magical without all of it, but that stuff just filled it out in such a way that we could not have imagined before tracking everything.

Jessy: Some of them, we would be like, ‘we should do a double vocal there’ and go back and add that. Then there were certain songs like “Lungs.” I remember we were like, ‘we should have some low scream under it,’ and then it didn’t quite pan out. But then Anna in post was able to manipulate it in a way that achieved a similar effect that you hear on certain parts. That was really cool. Things that we didn’t necessarily have before going in to record.

Producing the album yourselves, was it always obvious when something was finished? Did you ever feel any danger of continuing to tweak things?

Sapphire: We can be pretty nitpicky, and honestly, we can give notes for the rest of our lives. We can always keep going, but at a certain point, honestly, we stop purely for the sanity of others. Like our poor mixer, Gavin, went through the wringer with notes, and finally, we had to be like, “Okay, this is the last round. Whatever happens now, this is it.” And, and then it was done. But we’re always pushing to make things better.

Jessy: Yeah. We do well with deadlines, setting deadlines for ourselves.

Do you feel that you had a general sense of what you wanted to accomplish with the album from the beginning? Or was there a point in the process when you realized you’d established the direction?

Jessy: Going into it, we spent a lot of time ahead of recording demoing things out and nitpicking, even in the early stages, “What should we change here? What should we do here?” So I feel like we did have a really good vision of what we wanted it to sound like by the time we went in there. I think that’s why we successfully recorded it in the amount of time that we did. And we did allow some time to fiddle with synths that never made it into the final cut or to fiddle with whatever. But I think generally, we accomplished what we set out to do.

In normal circumstances, do you play out fairly regularly?

Sapphire: It’s pretty rare. We all have other lives and other things going on. So it’s really hard for us to get together. And I think we’re a great live band, but it’s just not something that we do that often.

Jessy: It’s a special treat. Looking back on the last show that we played before the pandemic … Even though they weren’t so frequent, they were always fun. It’s a good time.

What made you choose the name Gypsum?

Sapphire: We went to a museum in LA, and they had a huge rock exhibit. It was just like all the freaking rocks you can imagine. And I think we’d just had the talk about being a band that night at our jam session rehearsal. And then we went to this performance thing in the museum; a band was playing or something. And we were like, “Ooh, let’s go to the rock exhibit.” We walked around and read off all the names, random stuff, just trying to pick a name. And we landed on Gypsum. So that’s how it came about. Of all the rock names, that was the one that honestly didn’t sound too over the top.

Are you all involved in other musical projects as well at this point?

Sapphire: I play in a couple of other bands. I play in a band called Cuffed Up. I play as like a hired gun guitarist for Illuminati Hotties.

Jessy: I play for a few bands around town and whoever will hire me to record or play. I know Anna does live sound as a sound engineer for a job, and I work in film and TV music during the day.

Do those other projects have an impact on your work with Gypsum? Either a direct influence, or perhaps in terms of things you’re not able to do with them which you use Gypsum as a vehicle for?

Sapphire: I think that Gypsum is our jam outlet. I don’t think any of my other bands can play like that. So that’s like what the Gypsum space offers me. Some other bands might offer me something else for me.

Do the jam elements come into play at live shows?

Sapphire: You might expect us to jam on stage, but we don’t really do that. We really play the songs down as they are, because they already are a little bit jam-y sounding. A lot of our songs don’t follow a traditional song structure, so I think that comes out in just the songs themselves.

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