Band To Watch: GIFT

Dana Trippe

Band To Watch: GIFT

Dana Trippe

To echo one of the most contentiously discussed articles on this website, GIFT are a band. But that wasn’t as apparent on the New York outfit’s 2022 record, Momentary Presence, a solid debut that more or less functioned as a solo project for vocalist-guitarist TJ Freda. Not that Freda necessarily wanted to isolate himself to make that album, but it was more so born out of, to put it euphemistically, extenuating circumstances.

GIFT were a band before the pandemic, but they were forced to go on an unexpected hiatus because of it. The NYC crew played a handful of shows before venues across the globe temporarily (or permanently) had to close their doors. Momentary Presence, Freda half-jokes, was recorded in “a hallway with a laptop.” Now, he has a new place with a dedicated studio for his fellow bandmates — drummer Gabe Camarano, bassist Kallan Campbell, and multi-instrumentalists Jessica Gurewitz and Justin Hrabovsky — to work on material together.

The result of that recent move is Illuminator, GIFT’s second album and first for venerated indie label Captured Tracks, announced today with the release of new single “Going In Circles.” If the record’s spacious arrangements, spellbinding textures, and live-band feel aren’t sufficiently tidy signifiers for the quintet’s more egalitarian approach to music-making, then perhaps the fact that all five members crowd around the laptop camera for this Zoom interview is. Throughout my hour-long chat with the band, various heads pop in and out of frame to deliver answers or quick comments.

“I’m proud of all the growth of everyone as individuals and as a unit to spin a cool thing,” Campbell says. “To witness through the years how things develop and where they will continue to go will be awesome, not only musically but just as individuals.”

Hrabovsky, the quietest of the bunch, sits behind the couch and raises his hand anytime one of the others mentions him in passing. Every now and then, he contributes to the discussion. Much like the communal nature of the band itself, Hrabovsky points to the scattered details and small moments that add up to Illuminator’s composite whole. “I’m really happy with how everything sounds and everyone’s contributions to it,” he explains. “There was a lot of intent on making sure that every part was there to be intentional and to supplement the other parts and that nothing was superfluous. And there was a lot of effort in trying to make a lot of moments within the songs themselves, whether that’s in songwriting or production, everything’s very pointed.”

For instance, take the arpeggiated synths that pop up toward the end of shoegaze banger “Glow,” right before a filtered psych-rock guitar solo comes crashing back into the mix. Or take the subtle, stuttering tones that steady themselves into a soft drone by the time the main guitar hook of “It’s All Too Fast” enters the fold. There’s also the enveloping reverse reverb that swells as Freda’s vocals fade in on “Destination Illumination.” Illuminator is rife with occurrences like these, which come and go as quickly as you register them. It all adds up to a constantly evolving soundscape that makes Illuminator such a consistently engaging listening experience. Like the best shoegaze records, it’s pure headphone candy.

Still, everyone in GIFT is hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace that “shoegaze” label. The Bandcamp tags for opening track and lead single “Wish Me Away” include descriptors like “garage rock” and “neo-psychedelia”; “shoegaze” is nowhere to be found. Given the recent cultural renaissance of shoegaze, which has been so astutely documented by Eli Enis for this site, I ask them how they see themselves within that resurgence. It’s almost like they knew that question was coming; several band members crack a knowing smile like they had placed bets on it. For Hrabovsky, the term has become a hollowed-out shell used to describe a wide swath of music.

Stereogum is an independent, reader-supported publication. Become a VIP Member to view this site without ads and get exclusive content.

“You know how people used to be like, ‘What does indie rock sound like? Oh, it’s a band that sounds like Pavement,'” he says with a laugh. “Also, slowcore gets lumped in with that now, and dream pop [too]. It’s such an umbrella term that almost doesn’t mean anything anymore.” Freda echoes that sentiment, applying it to GIFT’s music: “I feel like when we did Momentary Presence, we were not trying to write a shoegaze record. And then everyone’s like, ‘You wrote an awesome shoegaze record!’ On this one, we made a conscious effort to make the record less cloudy in terms of production and reverby vocals. There are obviously some shoegaze elements in it because we do love that stuff.” Regardless, GIFT consider themselves outside of that shoegaze revival.

Also, not that many people are likely thinking this, but GIFT are not an emo band. It requires substantially less clarification on their part, but they share an inside joke, Gurewitz says, about how “everything is emo.” I’m sure Hayley Williams would endorse that statement. “I thought it was funny to say even if something was just slightly emotional.” Even if GIFT is not a textbook emo band like the Hotelier or Algernon Cadwallader, the lyrics on Illuminator mirror that genre’s penchant for mountainous levels of melancholy. Whereas Momentary Presence fixated itself on “mindfulness and being in the present,” Freda says, their new record is about “looking into the future and being unnerved by what it may or may not hold.”

“Wish Me Away” sets the tone perfectly from the get-go. “Will they remember me/ Just in time to bury me,” Freda sings in his subdued, gauzy timbre, meditating on the transience of life, memory, and the fear that arises from that ephemerality. Gurewitz’s emo quips may be facetious, but even a cursory glance at the lyric sheet suggests a partial truth to her jokes. “When TJ showed us the lyrics for ‘Water in Your Lungs,’ I was blown away,” she says of the record’s penultimate song. “I was like, ‘TJ, this rips, but in an emotionally vulnerable way.'”

Rather than citing bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, or, dare I say, Sunny Day Real Estate, they name-check influences like Spiritualized, Screamadelica, and Madonna’s trip-hop-adjacent dalliance Ray Of Light as major touchstones for Illuminator. ‘90s Britpop has also been in constant rotation for them. “Justin is probably the biggest Oasis fan I know,” Freda says. As for the William Orbit-produced Ray Of Light, that record helped them lean into writing catchy choruses with discernible hooks. That was one of their main goals with their own album, and you can tell. While we’re speaking, the refrain of “Wish Me Away” is playing in my head ad infinitum (complimentary). Freda says that song is close to his heart in particular because it contains what he deems “the first GIFT chorus.”

Most of all, though, Illuminator [ahem] illuminates what GIFT are all about as a band and as close friends. “It’s the perfect title for it because there’s so much we’re bringing to light on this record,” Freda says, “like reckoning with feelings and bringing to light this new sound that we’re trying to do.” Guretwitz adds another important distinction: “Also, we’re just trying to get the Illuminator SEO.” GIFT isn’t exactly the most SEO-friendly name for a band, which isn’t lost on them in the slightest. Whenever Gurewitz used to search the name, a bunch of local GIFT stores would populate the results page. Freda is quick to assure her that has recently changed. When you type “GIFT band” into Google, they show up immediately, taking up the first handful of results. The SERP scales are likely to tip even more into their favor with the imminent release of Illuminator. But whenever you search their name, make sure to add “band” afterward, just to be safe. GIFT are a band, after all.

01 “Wish Me Away”
02 “Light Runner”
03 “To The Stars And Back”
04 “Going In Circles”
05 “It’s All Too Fast”
06 “Falling Down”
07 “Destination Illumination”
08 “Later”
09 “Glow”
10 “Water In My Lungs”
11 “Milestones”

Illuminator is out 8/23 via Captured Tracks.

more from Band To Watch