He’s 23, cutting a full-length electronic album on the Syndicate label which will be released in June, has amassed a small yet fervent fan base for his minimalist electronic collection of sounds and is about to perform between XXYYXX’s and Mount Kimbie’s sets.
That should be a goddamn rush but in the lead up to his gig, Gema Putra is calm, quiet and unperturbed. And if he is nervous, then he’s hiding it really well behind the hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses on a sunny, Saturday morning.
“I wonder if they have any ice cream at the artists’ tent,” Gema wonders over a quick lunch of packed chicken rice in his parent’s condominium flat.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Ice cream in this unforgiving heat.
It’s T-minus five hours to his performance at Singapore’s Laneway Festival. It’s the first time the four-year-old Singapore leg of this Australian festival is featuring a lineup of local artists offering varying styles, from the indie space rock set list of The Observatory to the soulful future jazz sound of Vandetta. Gema is one of the three acts, and the only solo artist who’s still admittedly green when it comes to live performances. And one of the few artists aside from James Blake who’s playing a purely electronic set.
“It’s my interpretation of sounds. Love songs. It doesn’t really fall into a particular genre.”
As Gema and his sessionist drummer, 23-year-old Nickie Biondi, set up their Korg s50, Roland SPD SX, and TC-Helicon voice live, he explains his slow-burning and sometimes dark sound to the uninitiated listener.
“It’s my interpretation of sounds. Love songs. It doesn’t really fall into a particular genre. It’s hard to pinpoint it. It was all built on emotion,” says Gema, who hails from a family of musicians.
Influenced by his mother and father, a singer and a guitarist respectively, Gema took up the guitar first, looking to the brazen and eccentric rockers he looked up to.
“That’s the most common instrument to start with. You know, the cool instrument, with the hair and the glam rock stuff,” says Gema who later took to the keyboard to experiment with sounds and samples.
Everything he knows today is self-taught, and as a teen, he would practise Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, though he would always find himself focusing on certain parts of a song rather than mastering it as a whole. Which likely explains how a man like him, from a family rich with experience in live music, took to digital music like a fish to water.
“I like piecing things together,” he says of his pastiche of rich atmospherics, lamenting vocals and broken drum beats from his upcoming LP, the title which is yet to be decided, largely dedicated to his late brother.
Gema dawdles around the flat looking for things and when he talks to you, he’s spaced out, even if he has a major gig at an international event in a couple of hours.
“That’s how I’ve been feeling before gigs. I just want to blank myself out before the gig. See how I feel during. That’s better. Then I won’t have any pre-conceived feelings. It takes out the ego. Whatever the interaction is between the audience. That’s it.”
At the grounds, Gema is still blank, cutting a forlorn figure amid the crowd at Laneway’s third and newest stage, the Cloud Stage, where Gema’s label mate Vanessa Fernandez, who goes by the stage name of Vandetta, and her band play to a sizeable crowd digging their nu-jazz sounds in the afternoon sun. With his sunglasses on, Gema’s mind was elsewhere.
With enough of the heat, crowd and a nine-track playlist over a 45-minute set time on his mind, Gema and his entourage leave to relax backstage. On the way to the hideout and sanctity of the artists’ holding area, Gema intermittently bumps into a fan or two, wishing him luck for the set. He smiles on that rare occasion, politely, but it beams with sincerity.
Though the humility gives way to slight disappointment backstage – there is no ice cream.
“That’s okay,” he says, happy to be occupied with nothing and left to his own thoughts. Why isn’t he angry? We are, indeed. Why is there no ice cream? We want to get angry but Gema sits alone on a chair beneath a marquee on his own, like a quiet bonsai plant. Zen despite the fact that the ice cream does not exist. But did it ever?
In between waiting around on his own and greeting acquaintances, Gema meets the duo and sessionists from Mount Kimbie. We wondered if Gema would open up and be excited meeting these two established artists, but there was not much talking. Just quiet. Silence. Palpable wouldn’t be an adjective to describe what little excitement may have been going on backstage with the ponderous Gema, nor was there any to be felt on the van ride up the hill from the main stage to the Cloud Stage.
The air-conditioning whirred and Gema looked out. In silence.
Perhaps talking about roadies, overweight security personnel, drunk Australians, hipsters on a fashion parade and people who had no idea why there were there might have been more exciting.
But then you come to appreciate the nondescript nature of Gema’s silence, and when you juxtapose it with the peaceful journey of his new album, the sombre tones, the relaxed chords, the cry of his vocals and the measured beats, it all makes sense: we should just be zen, make electronic music and draw lines in the sand with a rake.
We should be like Gema and never get angry.
Even if you look out into the unhealthily and hazardously packed crowd bouncing to XXYYXX’s beats and noise. Even if while setting up that crowd no longer exists but is instead replaced by an empty square of empty plastic beer cups, fliers and bits of falafel. Even if just before you start the emptiness is replaced by a crowd of around 30, some fans and some people wondering around. And even if your last track messes up as the arpeggiator and your live drummer can’t sync and you stop the song halfway and fuck up again on the second attempt only to end your set early.
“You know with computers and all that and computer errors,” laments Gema after the show.
Is he pissed off? Absolutely not. We are, because when he played that last track in his flat just hours earlier, it sounded perfect, sublime, anthemic, wonderful. And knowing that the crowd of people – some of whom whispered that while the music was so good, there was a lack of stage presence – couldn’t be blown away by that last track the way we were pissed us off.
“I think that helps. I’m okay with the criticism. It’s good to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. I’m glad that people critique and that they care enough. We’re all growing,” says Gema in reply to the criticisms, smiling. Sincerely and not pissed off.