Chasms

When I caught up with Madden and Labrador from Chasms before their album release show at The Knockout last week, I asked them both what pronouns they used. They chuckled. “We’re definitely home again,” Madden said.

The San Francisco-based duo of Jess Labrador and Shannon Madden released their third EP, On The Legs Of Love Purified, on October 11 at The Knockout in San Francisco. Their live performance of the new album was bigger and bolder than the recording itself: a fog machine’s yellow smoke poured through the crowd, while Chasms’ drum machine boomed. Offset by soaring vocals, distorted guitar sounds, and grounded bass lines, Chasms’ eclectic rhythms consumed the place.

It’s evident, while watching Labrador and Madden onstage, that the pair care deeply about musical intentionality and relationships between sounds. Onstage, Labrador seems to float, centered within Chasms’ noise, while Madden’s performance on bass is extremely physical. The music is not immediately accessible, but their greatest strength is in the slow burn of their songs. Melodies unfold over the course of several minutes, peering through heavy sound distortions. On The Legs Of Love Purified builds on Chasms’ two previous releases, Bad Evolution and Subtle Bodies. All use essentially the same elements, but the tone of On The Legs Of Love Purified is tighter, more expertly strung. It’s been described as dark, droney, and silky — but what is most striking about the album is its complicated and subtle weave through rhythm. It sounds like a spell cast; each syllable laced with intent.

At a taqueria around the corner from The Knockout, we talked about basslines, Blink-182, and emotional resonance in sound engineering.

The Bay Bridged: What is your working relationship like?

Jess Labrador: It’s really evolved over time. When it first started it was mostly just songs that I would write, and then I’d bring them to [Shannon], and we’d play them. But these days, I’d say we work stuff out together in our practice space. We do lots of talking and conceptualizing.

Shannon Madden: I feel like Jess’s drum programming is really important, and I feel like in a lot of the songs the drum sequence comes first. For some of the newer material, we [jammed] on the drum sequences that Jess came up with. I’m not a formal musician at all, so a lot of things have to get tried out and thrown out before they can work, which is a relative term anyway. There’s some new material on the record, like “Beyond Flesh,” that’s a true pop song, or pop-industrial if you will. And Jess wrote the bassline for that, and now that we’re playing it live I try to really adhere to the original form, but lately I’ve been adding a note here or there. But others, like “Between the Eyes,” were made really differently. We actually had a cellist come in on that one, and Jess has guitar and vocals.

JL: A lot of our songs come about in completely different ways. “Between the Eyes” is the last song on the album, and I had a guitar loop, and I recorded Shannon doing feedback and noise, and then I chopped it up and arranged it. I brought [the cellist] in, and recorded her playing cello, and then I arranged her take. Some of the stuff [on this new album] has a big post-production element.

TBB: What work did you do on this album that you don’t think you could have or would have on the previous releases?

JL: I recorded this album, and I’ve recorded some of the other material too, so I think that my recording skills and production skills have improved greatly since those early recordings. I explored a lot of production techniques [on the new album]. And Shannon’s exploration into textures, drone, and feedback, and into crafting her own sound, came about on this record, whereas when it was just me writing songs and having her play them, that didn’t exist.

SM: When I started this project I didn’t have any skills or any confidence, I was just a listener. And then our first practice, over three, maybe four years ago...

JL: Five [laughs].

SM: Jess was like, 'Check out the bassline for Carousel by Blink-182' [...] and then we jammed on "Carousel," which is probably the first time that I had a bass and I was trying to compose something. I was really nervous, but once I figured out that I could play the basslines Jess could write, it opened a door for me to mess with texture, so that I’m not so concerned with doubt — I’m concerned with sound designs. Jess writes really good basslines and I was able to grow and learn from there.

JL: I think the Blink-182 thing, how that originally came about, was that when I was first learning how to play guitar there was a bass in my house too, so that was, like, the first bassline I learned, which is probably why I [told Shannon] to check it out because that was how I learned.

SM: I never knew that, dude!

TBB: One thing I was struck by in the singles you released from this album was the specific intention I felt behind your timing. Do you think about time and space when you are making music?

JL: That’s great, I’m glad you picked up on that. We think about that all the time. We always think about the idea of a breath, and letting things sit. We make really intentional decisions about letting there be space before or after something, to make the most powerful impact.

SM: Contrast, and negative and positive space.

JL: Yeah, balance is very important. I think that leaving that empty space is important to the [overall] balance.

TBB: When did you start talking with each other about balance?

JL: I think pretty early on. It’s something that I’ve always thought about in my songwriting, since I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. It’s just a concept that I’ve always thought about.

TBB: Do you know where you got [that concept] from?

JL: I think it actually might come more from my personality. I’m pretty disciplined, and I’m always trying to make balance. There are moments in our music that are extreme, where we’ll barrage you with sound, and then I always like to pull back on that, so that it feels even, and so that the impact is felt but not lost by overwhelming the listener.

SM: We listen to a lot of techno, and dance music, and electronic music, and I feel like its influenced some of our grasp on how to have peaks and drops. We [also] both DJ, and creating some kind of palatable contrast is sometimes hard to do. It requires restraint, like [Jess] was saying, and discipline.

JL: We’re both such big electronic music fans, and we’ve both seen a lot of live PA sets from people of all levels, both really high skill sets and really beginner. To me, what sets apart someone with experience is that they are deliberate. So I always consider that. I also think that’s what’s so hard about being a purely electronic musician, is that you need to make really deliberate choices. It’s not just jamming on your electronics and pressing buttons. For it to be effective you need to make really smart moves.

SM: And we totally accept freeform things, but I think it’s more interesting when you’re really trying to challenge yourself, and we try to do that. Sometimes I just want to totally let go. But if I pull back, like Jess is saying, usually the result is different.

TBB: So why then not do purely electronic music?

JL: [Laughs] That’s a great question. I think that deep down, I have and always will be a guitar player. That was my first instrument, and I’ll always come back to that. I wouldn’t be surprised if either of us had solo or side projects in the future that were purely electronic, and I’ve certainly tinkered on my own with some non-Chasms material, but for me it’s just more fun to play guitar, and I like the possibilities that exist through amplification. In some ways, to tie back the theme of being deliberate, there is more room for inconsistencies, which is interesting to me.

SM: And challenging. I think you could maybe say the same thing about modular synth, but we don’t know as much about it. But what I do know about amplification is that if you bump or hit a bass or guitar, you can have a certain expectation of what is going to come out, but you don’t really know. You have to tame [the instrument], and you have to be up to being willing to control it. On the subject of electronic music and Chasms: the fact that we have a drum machine is something that I’ve always enjoyed, and I think that the drum programming that Jess puts in reminds me of New Order, where the bass is locked into the bass drum, and the snare.

JL: I think I also get some satisfaction, or feel the need to do something electronic on this project with the production and the drum machine programming.

TBB: Where do the lyrics fit into this?

JL: I write all the lyrics, typically last. As I go throughout my daily life, I’ll take notes if something comes to me. I would say that’s a really personal thing to me in this project. Shannon actually says that she’s chosen not to know what I’m saying.

SM: I have no idea what she’s saying.

JL: We printed lyrics in the LP insert, so maybe she’ll read them.

SM: Probably not [laughs].

TBB: What do you get out of not knowing what Jess is saying?

SM: I feel like I know, even though I don’t know. The feeling is there. It’s so embarrassing, but I will cry in the practice space, because I feel really emotionally engaged with the subject matter, and I definitely have my own interpretation. When we’re playing live, I will find myself singing, or mouthing the things I think she is saying. So much of this project is feeling and mood, and I just feel it.

JL: Knowing what I know about you, you don’t like being told how to feel. Maybe the lyrics give more of a definitive theme of the song?

SM: That could be true. We’re both also really respectful of each others space and boundaries, or we try to be, and I try to let Jess say what she needs to say on stage, and I just go with it. I don’t ever question it.

TBB: I’m interested, because it sounds like the music is so personal: What is the experience of performing like for you guys?

JL: I’d say it’s riddled with anxiety. To go back to what Shannon was saying about having to control amplification — there are so many things that can go wrong technically with our sets, so I’m constantly worrying about that, and I think I put that above any emotions that I personally have about performing. I’m just worried if it sounds good; if we can hear the drums; if everything is functioning properly. When it looks and sounds good, that’s when I feel like I gave my best performance. But it can be really hard to do. So adapting is something that I’m working on. Sometimes if it doesn’t sound good, or I can’t here my voice, within thirty seconds I’m like, I can’t wait to get this over with. But that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy performing, or that it’s not fun — I definitely enjoy connecting with people. I think that maybe I just don’t process how other people experience the music, it’s so surreal to me. Some of the responses we’ve gotten about seeing us live, I don’t believe.

SM: I’m right there with you.

JL: I’ll be so worried, and everyone is like what are you talking about? People will tell us they were so moved by the set, and I was just worrying about my guitar.

TBB: Do you bring that anxiety home with you?

JL: Yeah, for a second.

SM: We talk about it, because we always want to be better.

JL: I’ve gotten better recently at letting it go. I take it home for a second. But recently, as we are playing more and more shows, each one becomes one of many, so many.

TBB: What does getting better look like to you guys?

SM: Liberated from the anxiety, but also setting a standard for ourselves over time to play in places and for people who understand the value that we put into sound and sound design. We can’t always pick every time where we are going to play, but we’re also working on adapting and being able to be flexible and transport the space, even if it’s like a bowling alley or something.

JL: Yeah, we’ve gotten really good at adapting to whatever space we’re playing in, and just doing the best we can with it, and trying to control as much as we can. In the future, I’d love to have more resources to be able to execute the sound design that we have in mind.

TBB: Is there anything in press or interviews that you guys really disagree with or dislike?

JL: This has come up a lot [recently], but I don’t like being called a “female duo,” because when do you ever hear the term “male duo?”

SM: We’re making music together and we happen to be women. I think that sometimes, even when people don’t mean to, when you [focus on gender] you make it specific, and it tends to eroticize the project, when that’s not really a concern of ours. Everyone is going to have their own reason for connecting to the material or to us as people, but right now we’re trying to be part of something that transcends both restraints on gender and how that may or may not influence the project.

JL: I don’t see gender as a selling point. I don’t want it to be a selling point.

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