By Mike Bax
The descriptor for Chasms that steered me to their Soundcloud a few weeks ago was “a duo crafting percussive dirges that are at once beautiful and menacing”. I can’t really spin-doctor anything better than that, so I’m not even going to try as it’s fully accurate. When I listen to On the Legs of Love Purified, the new Chasms record released next Friday October 14th (on Felte), I hear elements of upper echelon bands that made 4AD one of my favorite labels of the 1990s. Anyone that has spent any time with bands like Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins or Pale Saints will likely take to the soundscapes permeating On the Legs of Love Purified like a fish to water.
On The Legs of Love Purified is being hailed as Chasms debut album. If you go to their Bandcamp page, there is a 2014 independent release entitled Subtle Bodies which is more of an assembly of tracks originally released on Cassette EPs in 2012 and 2013 with a lengthy song entitled ‘Dissolution into Clear Light’ that was recorded in 2013 tagged on as the last song.
Chasms is a San Francisco collaboration between Jess Labrador and Shannon Madden. On the Legs of Love Purified is comprised of seven songs weaving their way through an assortment of low-tempo moods that vary from ambience, shoegaze, reverberating guitars and menacing drum beats. Both Jess and Shannon were kind enough to field a few questions about their band and the creation of this impressive debut album before they head out on the road to tour supporting Love Purified.
Mike: How did you two originally meet? Did you bond over music or was there something else that drew you together?
Jess: We met our first year of college in San Francisco. We went to a few shows together, the first I remember being LCD Soundsystem in 2005. Then in the next couple years I think I convinced her to come to a few noise shows. Shannon always supported my music making and booked my first solo live set at a house party. By the end of our studies, our interests were more in line and we actually had the exact same course schedule studying film and media studies. After school, we knew we wanted to do something creative together, at first we thought it’d be a screenplay. But then I sent her a demo of a song I’d made and she started showing up to my practice space regularly, so I had to too.
Mike: Can you describe your writing style? Does Jess write everything? Do you collaborate (jam together) or work independently?
Jess: I’m very much a bedroom tinkerer and like to record and arrange at home. When the project first started, I would write each part – drums, bass, guitar, vocals – by myself, but that has changed. ‘…Love Purified’ is a mix of my solo bedroom ideas and collaborations with Shannon that have come alive by playing together. As the project has progressed, we’ve been writing more and more together, especially since the sonic textures we’ve been exploring can only really be created live and not in a bedroom setting.
Mike: What is a live Chasms show like? Do you perform with additional musicians?
Jess: We seek to create mood, feeling and a compelling atmosphere. Since it’s just the two of us, we both have a lot of responsibility on stage. I’m an incredibly anxious person and I’m usually worrying about one or more of my tasks, which is to sing, play guitar and manage the drum machine/electronics. It takes a few shows into tour for me to relax a little and enjoy performing.
We’d love to perform with additional musicians to expand the sonic palette of our live show. Hopefully we can work that out in the future.
Shannon: I want to own up to being as equally rattled with anxiety as Jess, mine’s just a different color of intense unease. It wasn’t until after our first tour outside of California opening for Dirty Beaches that I stopped hoping that our shows would get canceled so that I didn’t have to play, not because I didn’t want to but because I was choking on my nerves and couldn’t handle it. The first time we opened for a bigger artist on a fluke booking I peed my pants during the first song. I was wearing black so no one could tell.
Now I’m much better at channeling that raw nervousness into literally playing as perfectly as I possibly can by being locked into the drum tracks and watching Jess’ fingers just to make sure we’re making the changes with fluency even though we have other, cues to follow.
Mike: Does your material present any unique challenges to recreate in a live environment?
Jess: If we can’t hear our drum machine then we’re pretty fucked. Our current live set is filled with textural noises and drones, and every room we play in responds differently. Sometimes it’s magic, and sometimes it’s quite the opposite. I guess there’s a bit of fun in the inconsistency. We’re very attuned to a venue’s sound capabilities and know that it can make or break our set, so over time we’ve really learned how to work with different environments and will alter our set accordingly if needed.
Shannon: I feel that the Chasms material itself can be challenging both tonally and visually in a world where the expectation from an audience member to entertainer is that we’re going to have a bunch of crazy lights and jump around stage and that there will be confetti and craziness. I have utmost respect for bands that are more physically freed from their instruments and bodies, however I feel very much so that the Chasms set is an exercise in technique and restraint, resulting in the maximization of the abilities of just two people – the duo.
If I had it my way every night, so to speak, everyone would take a seat and close their eyes to feel the heat of our lights from behind their eyes and really try and feel out the frequencies take up the space of the room. But right now, in the US especially I think, it can be tough to engage your audience and bring them to another place when they’re four beers deep at a bar show. That’s why DIY spaces like The Lab in San Francisco, Non Plus Ultra and regular show nights like Part Time Punks in LA are so important for a set like ours because the sole focus of the environment isn’t driven by alcohol.
That being said if we’re able to transport people in the audience who have never heard of us inside a dive bar, the feeling of connection is unparalleled. It means the record came to life for 30 minutes and it lived in this one shared moment with strangers. I think too, that ultimately we’re trying to transport each other because if we can do that, it means the door is open for others to explore the sound terrain. At the end of the day, it’s one of the main reasons I’m in Chasms.
Mike: Full disclosure here – I’m 49. I love that this style of music is continuing to flourish and evolve amongst young artists, and I’m genuinely interested in your path to On the Legs of Love Purified, an album that stands up to some of the albums I consider classics in this genre – Into the Labyrinth (Dead Can Dance), Heaven or Las Vegas (Cocteau Twins) or The Comforts of Madness (Pale Saints) – with that said: What steered you to your musical styles? Are you both into the bands that your material likely gets compared to?
Jess: Wow, thank you. I do like those bands, but I think what really shapes the project’s sound is the kaleidoscope of other musical interests we both have layered on top of that early 4AD foundation. Shannon and I both love dance music and have always bonded over that. In college, I was a DJ at the community radio station KUSF and I also had a roommate who worked at Aquarius Records, so between those two resources I was exposed to so, so much during those years. Think Charanjit Singh to Darkthrone to Erkin Koray to Skullflower, plus tons of really out-there ambient/experimental stuff from all around the world.
Mike: When you are out socializing, and it comes up that you are in a band, and you get asked what your band is all about and what your sound is like… what do you find yourself saying to them?
Shannon: Dark and dreamy, baby.
Mike: It sounds like there is a story to the recording process around On the Legs of Love Purified. Can you talk a bit about the dubious studio space you utilized, your hand injury, and the challenges you both had in creating this album?
Jess: Ha, it’s nice now to be able to look back at that time and not be currently experiencing it. At the time, we had no label and really weren’t sure about its release so were just running on faith. We were also totally broke and couldn’t afford to record in a studio with an engineer, so I decided to just record it myself in our practice space. The building was poorly soundproofed, so I’d show up early in the morning to record before other bands in the building arrived. The landlord only allowed one band in our room, but the master tenant secretly packed seven bands in there so we could all pay cheap rent. We were constantly paranoid of being found out, afraid of who was knocking at the door, always keeping a low profile and trying to not talk to anyone in the building. I did all the vocals in my bedroom closet as it was quieter and felt like a safer space, though I’d have to find time when my roommates weren’t home. I also had limited equipment to work with, including an old laptop with glitchy software. At a point, I wasn’t really sure if we’d even come out from the other side with a finished album since this was being done between working our jobs and struggling financially. Morale was pretty low until we heard some of the first mixes from our friend Lauren Grubb, who mixed the record.
I have a repetitive stress injury, which translates into debilitating nerve damage in my hands and wrists. During the time we recorded, I had yet to see a physical therapist and didn’t know the extent of damage or how to alleviate the pain. I had difficulty playing guitar parts I had written long before the damage had gotten so bad. During one of the final recording sessions, my hands kind of gave out and my fingers wouldn’t respond how I wanted them to on the fret board. The takes from that session were not 100% exactly the way I wanted them to be, but I decided to use them instead of waiting to heal and re-record. Recording, after all, is capturing a moment in time and this was the reality. I mean, you do everything with your hands– cook, write, type, work. I’m not great at resting so I still struggle with this condition.
Mike: What do you think Shannon brings out in you, musically? And what do you think you bring out in Shannon?
Jess: Shannon and I actually have very different musical tastes and backgrounds, so she really brings something different to the table. I think she hears things differently than me and has more of an open ear, which is great for experimenting or taking a song in an unusual direction.
Mike: Can you talk a bit about your release plans for On the Legs of Love Purified? The date of release, any shows you have set up to mark the album’s release, and some of the options you have for fans who want to buy this release from you (and where they can get it from)?
Jess: The album is out October 14 on Felte, who we’re really excited to be working with. We’ll be celebrating our release show at home in San Francisco with a bill featuring a bunch of friends and favorite artists at The Knockout on October 11 in the middle of a West Coast tour. We’ll also be doing a Mid-West/East Coast in November.
You can pick up the release from Felte: https://felte.bandcamp.com/.
Mike: What is your all-time favorite snack food?
Jess: Cheese puffs.
Shannon: Seaweed snacks, popcorn, dried mango slices, cheese puffs.
Mike: Can you name a favorite movie?
Shannon: Jess and I are really into Johnathan Glazer‘s Under the Skin. It’s the most recent film that we’ve connected over. I think we both see a lot of what’s in Under the Skin in our everyday lives in San Francisco– the starkness, the bleakness of society and humanity when it’s glossed over in something that it truly isn’t underneath– the duality of being present but also asleep emotionally inside of a technological state. I distinctly remember seeing it in a theatre downtown for a 7pm showing and then sinking into my chair in tears and then waiting for the 9:30pm showing to begin again.
Something that being in Chasms has taught you?
Shannon: 1: Manage all and any expectations (for anything and everyone); 2. Be humble (always); 3. Hard work is mandatory. And I think maybe most importantly, it’s so important but staying positive is linked to all those things and staying positive just might be the main thing. Art is hard.
Chasms Tour Dates:
10.07 Portland, OR @ Lovecraft
10.08 Seattle, WA @ Blue Moon
10.09 Eugene, WA @ Wandering Goat
10.10 Sacramento @ Press Club
10.11 San Francisco, CA @ The Knockout
10.13 La Puente, CA @ Bridgetown DIY
10.14 San Diego, CA @ The Whistle Stop
10.15 Long Beach, CA @ 4th St. Vine
10.16 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echoplex (Part Time Punks)
10.29 Berkeley, CA @ KALX (Live Session + Interview)
11.08 Indianapolis, IN @ State St. Pub
11.10 Detroit, MI @ UFO Factory
11.13 Montreal, QC @ Vitrola
11.14 Boston, MA @ Zuzu
11.15 Providence, RI @ Machines with Magnets
11.16 Brooklyn, NY @ Shea Stadium
11.18 Cleveland, OH @ Locker Room
11.19 Chicago, IL @ TBA
12.10 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo