‘Being human itself is a sound’: Chasms finds community, spirit

Caragh McErlean/Senior Staff

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Life-altering opportunities (i.e. ditching post-grad plans in favor of starting a band) tend to appear when we’re not expecting or looking for them. “I was working on some demos and then I showed them to Sky (Madden) and she kept showing up in my practice space, and we kept going, so I was like I guess we’re a band now,” recalls Chasms’ Jess Labrador.

Though the musical group Chasms recently moved to Los Angeles, they once called San Francisco home. The bay, and specifically the city itself, was the environment within which this creative endeavour was formed. Jess Labrador and Shannon Madden have been collaborating since 2012. They describe their style as “industrial rhythms, swelling textures, precise minimalism and chaotic eruptions of noise sounds as equally informed by shoegaze as drone and doom metal.”

Madden remembers a far more intentional decision bringing her to Chasms. She recalls rehearsing the conversation in her head before approaching Labrador about committing to their collaboration, “I remember telling her ‘I would do that, I would wanna do that. I would put off grad school or any serious jobs to pursue being good enough to be in a band and stay in the band.’ ”

Six years later, they’ve left the Tenderloin and are headed on tour.

The pair’s most recent project is their first full-length album, On the Legs of Love Purified, released October of last year. The duo has had quite a journey from 2012 to their formal debut, as Labrador recovered from a hand injury while Chasms struggled to find creative spaces in San Francisco. These obstacles didn’t stop the musicians from creating a number of singles, including “Bad Evolution,” and several EPs, including When It Comes and Riser.

Labrador described the priorities that drive their creative process: “We’ve both been through so much in our lives recently. And we’re just trying to make whatever we want.”

Their debut album is an embodiment of the unique features of this band, namely the ethereal vocals and hypnotic guitar riffs. The track “Black Ice” is characterized by a methodical drum beat that remains a constant background as Labrador’s vocals flit over eerie, minor intervals. “Beyond Flesh” also demonstrates this otherworldliness, much of the song consists of Labrador vocalizing over shots of three individuals (two of whom are Labrador and Madden) draped over oceanside cliffs or illuminated by pastel lights.

The group’s unique sound is reflected in its specific performance constraints. Madden explains: “We can’t just set up and play anywhere. And that does not come from a proud place. That’s just objectively the situation.”

“This is not a lenient improvisational thing, it’s a little bit self-perfectionist,” Madden said. “There’s a lot of nuanced things that we’re trying to achieve both on and off the record.”

The move to LA was freeing for the duo in many ways. Where they felt pressure and tension in San Francisco, in Los Angeles they found community. Labrador described the importance of being in an environment more geared towards artists. “I think being here and in this environment, around like-minded people,” she shared. “In an environment more conducive to being in a band, that it’s just kind of opened things up for us a bit.”

Chasms is returning to San Francisco as part of its tour for the new album. They are performing at Swedish American Hall on Dec. 3, one year after the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. The significance of this date is personal for the group — Madden’s brother, Griffin Madden, was one of the individuals who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Madden shared the very real way in which her brother is always present, describing: “I used to play with a photo of him with me, before he died, which is strange, because once I remember we were on a tour and I had a photo of him and I put it on this piece of wood, it was kind of a frame. It was a picture of him. He was alone standing by some buildings in Paris.”

For Shannon, Griffin has always been a part of Chasms. “He and I were freakishly close, it was strange … given our age gap and given a lot of things. I’m biologically female, but we always refer to each other as twin brother. So Chasms has always been a strange spiritual place for him and for me.”

The pair is no stranger to death according to Labrador, who believes that all their releases “in some capacity, have always dealt with death.” She explains that it’s not the only theme of their music, but it’s an important one: “It just continues to be a way of sorting things out and expressing … almost sort of like some sort of spiritual outlet.”

Madden agrees: “I feel like, it’s a religious experience for me, in a way. And I don’t ever want to play now without a photo of (Griffin) on stage.” The transcendent sound of Chasms is no accident — for Labrador and Griffin “being human itself is a sound.”

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].