“In the shoegaze realm you can write the same song over and over. I think every really great straightforward shoegaze song has already been written. We don't need anymore of those. What is interesting to me is to take those concepts and apply them in new ways.”
Chasms create evocative and haunting soundscapes. Bassist Shannon Madden and vocalist, guitarist, and producer Jess Labrador started Chasms in San Francisco in 2011. Now based in Los Angeles, they’ve released a new album called The Mirage. In this interview, Jess talks about the duo’s creative approaches and the evolution of their sound from shoegaze to dub.
What is the song composing process like for Chasms? Do the seeds of a song ever begin as a certain specific tone or mood that you try to capture and build on by adding sonic textures? Or is it more a journey of discovering the overall vibe of a piece as you go along?
Most songs begin with drums I've programmed and then melody and mood evolves from there. Sometimes I'll show the skeleton of a song to Shannon and we'll jam on it or workshop it, and that usually results in stripping things away. Once we've finalized the parts, I'll obsessively arrange everything, often making lots of changes over time to get the feeling just right. Sometimes we'll have a specific tone we're going for, other times it's like, where can we take this drum sequence?
Do you and Shannon most often collaborate creatively together at the same time, or do your differing schedules or locations make it more of a separate process for the two of you? What sort of different ideas do you each bring to the table?
I do work alone often – my skill set is more technical and I handle all of the production. But when Shannon and I collaborate it happens when we're in the same room together. We both love dance and electronic music, and Shannon has extensive knowledge of it. Our tastes sort of fill in the blanks of each other's, so she brings interesting ideas to the table when we're workshopping a part. Sometimes she'll reference a song I've never heard of and that will help me articulate and execute an idea.
Who primarily writes the lyrics for the songs? When composing, do you feel that the music is built more around the lyrical content, or are the words shaped to mesh with the music (or would you say that it's generally a combination)?
I write all the lyrics. For this record, Shannon gave me a list of words and phrases and which I used as a starting point for some of the lyrics, especially for the songs that deal with grief, an emotion we were both experiencing simultaneously in our own ways at the time.
The lyrics always come last. I'll usually have an idea for subject matter as a song is coming together but it's not until the end that I try to make the words and melody mesh with the music. In the final stages of a song, sometimes I'll make slight tweaks to the music to accommodate the vocals.
Much of your lyrical content seems very precise and distilled emotionally. Any particular poets or lyricists who stand out as influences?
In the early writing stages of the record, I was listening to a lot of Everything But The Girl's Walking Wounded, which definitely influenced the lyrics for "Deep Love Deep Pain." Tracey Thorn's lyrics are so candid, often very literal, and rather conversational. No big fancy metaphors yet the emotion is very palpable, very human and raw.
With "Deep Love Deep Pain," I was trying to translate internal emotions I had at the time that felt so complicated to me, but in reality I would come to find they could be summed up easily in a few sentences. So I took a step back and thought, if this had been a song on Walking Wounded, what would it have said? Thinking about that straightforward sort of style helped me to take the pressure off myself to attempt anything intensely poetic and instead just simplify the words.
How do you think what Chasms explores thematically has evolved from your first album, On the Legs of Love Purified, to your newest album, The Mirage?
On the Legs… was written over the course of several years while we were still in our twenties. Since it came out we both entered our thirties and the material to me mirrors that. It definitely feels more focused and mature. Now being older and having had more life experience, perhaps there is less wonder and more of an acceptance of what it means to be human.
In the earlier material, I'd written lyrics that explored the theme of death as a reaction to processing loss I had experienced at the time. Then, it was still a fairly new concept to me. Getting older, death becomes more and more an inevitable part of life. So to have experienced it so intensely in more recent time, my relationship with it has evolved and so has the lyrical content surrounding it. The same can be said for the theme of love and loss.
Your earlier work is rooted in lush layered dream pop/shoegaze sounds, while there is more of a drum and bass-emphasized dub sound on The Mirage. What influenced this move towards a slightly more minimalist, starker approach on the new album?
In the shoegaze realm you can write the same song over and over. I think every really great straightforward shoegaze song has already been written. We don't need anymore of those. What is interesting to me is to take those concepts and apply them in new ways. I felt like maybe Chasms had written every more sort of shoegaze-leaning song we could. I didn't want us to repeat ourselves. Dance music has been a big part of both of our lives for some time now, and my tastes have become more and more electronic over the years. We've always thought, how can we make this more techno, more electronic, but keep the guitars? That's always the challenge.
After On the Legs… was done, Shannon showed me King Tubby and I remember thinking, man, I want to do something with those concepts. I was a Basic Channel fan by then but didn't understand that Basic Channel wasn't just techno, it was DUB techno, and so I had to backtrack, do my homework a bit, and dive into the classics.
There's something about dub that clicked and served as a jumping off point. It became the bridge where all these ideas we've always had floating around could finally meet each other. We could keep the guitars, we could experiment with rhythm, and effects, we could keep things electronic yet still emotive. And often we found the best way to do that was with restraint and repetition – which is really the backbone of both my favorite dub and favorite techno tracks. Less is more.
How was the production experience for you with this new album as compared to your earlier recording experiences? Did you have a little more time and security to fine tune things and explore different directions this time around?
This was the first time we really worked with a team and collaborated with others. When we made On the Legs… we weren't signed to a label yet so there was no set plan or deadline for release. It was created in a bit of a vacuum. I recorded that one myself just because I didn't know what else to do. We couldn’t afford to go into a studio and at that point in time I didn't know where to begin even if we wanted to go that route as I'd never been in a proper studio before.
Since The Mirage is our second album with Felte, I knew more what to expect in terms of what an album cycle looks like. We just have more resources and support now than we did for the last record. Also, having relocated to LA since has made things easier in that there are more resources for musicians here, as well as working engineers (though we did travel to Oakland to work with our engineer Lauren Grubb to record most of the music – she mixed On the Legs…). I knew I definitely didn't want to be on the engineering side of things again so that I could focus more on the actual songs. I wanted to leave that part to the real pros. I recorded vocals with our friend Claire Morison at Bedrock LA on a fancy old microphone. I really wanted to get the vocals properly recorded in a way you just can't in a DIY setting. Josh Eustis, who mixed the record, really elevated the overall sonic quality in my opinion. I'm really grateful to have worked with him.
We did take our time and, as impatient as I've felt in some moments of making this record, I'm so glad we did. We fell behind in our initial recording timeline but I knew the songs just weren't ready at that moment. I knew they could be better and I didn't want to regret anything, so I took a couple more months to fine tune things. I think up until this point we've rushed everything we've ever done. Now I understand how much longer recordings outlast the fleeting feeling of impatience.
Your song “Divine Illusion” is an homage to the 2016 Oakland Ghost Ship fire which so profoundly impacted you and Shannon, along with many others in the Bay Area DIY scene. It is striking and elegant in its cathartic searching for some kind of meaning to the losses experienced in this tragedy. The track was released recently as a single, and a re-worked version of it closes out The Mirage. This album version is slower and sparser than the single, and in many ways it sounds even more reflective and seeking than the single version. What were some of your creative reasons behind wanting to re-work this song for the album?
The early sketches of the music for what would become "Divine Illusion" had been floating around while we were waiting for On the Legs… to come out in late 2016, so it was born more in that era of the band. But it was completed in early 2017 after we moved to LA. It was the first song we finished after the fire. Once The Mirage was really coming together and we had a few songs done, we felt like it didn't sonically fit on the record but we also didn't want to scrap it. Even though it has more of the old sound, emotionally, it felt too relevant to completely leave off of the record. It's part of the same narrative as the rest of The Mirage. So we reworked it and slowed it down to create a version that would fit on the album, and also recorded the single version so we could have that out in the world as well – that's the version we currently play live.
Since mood and atmosphere is such a key component of your music, what are some of the challenges you face with your live shows, in the sense of fully embodying and presenting the sort of sound you want?
Because we use a lot of effects and electronics, our live sound can be tricky, especially in certain spaces. It's something we're constantly working to perfect. It's really difficult to perform and emote when things don't sound right, and a bad mix can really kill our set.
Over the years we've really worked to mitigate potential sound issues and that came through lots of trial and error. We try to be really technically self-contained on stage in an effort to avoid relying on anyone too much. We try to work with engineers we trust and play venues with good sound systems as often as possible. In some instances and in some venues it's really out of our control, especially on tour. We really suffer in a bar environment but sometimes it's unavoidable. I think our live set works best in unique spaces. For instance, we were able to play in a church for the first time last fall and it really lifted the set.
I'm always interested in a band's visual aesthetic and how it compliments the music. There are elements to the image on the cover of The Mirage which I think are a great visual representation of your sound: a seemingly solid geometric square enveloped by a wispy violet-saturated cloud, which to me reflects the precision of your sound, along with its accompanying floating and ethereal nature. It was created by the artist Effixx (Anthony Ciannamea). How did you come to work with him? There is also a similar look present in your recent music video for the song Every Heaven in Between. Was there any cross-collaboration with Effixx and the video's director Marisol Baliterra? Or are you and Shannon essentially conceptualizing and guiding the look of all your artwork and videos, and then working with different people to make it happen?
I met Anthony through Jeff Owens who runs our label Felte at a show the first week I moved to LA. I started following his art and his 79 Ancestors label online and loved the aesthetic. I was and still am so grateful he was down to work with us. In our early talks regarding the album art, it became clear that he really understood the album themes of grief and isolation through his own personal experience and he really knew how to translate that visually. Jeff and I worked closely with Anthony to shape the visuals over some months and it happened very naturally. Anthony really nailed it and what came out of it is beyond what I could have ever hoped for.
All the of the album art was finished by the time we started shooting the "Every Heaven In Between" video with Mar, so I showed her Anthony's art to use as inspiration. The video is a collaboration in the sense that it definitely has Mar's own aesthetic stamped on it – I think it's important to maintain the artist's vision – but we did work with intention to make it feel cohesive with the album's overall aesthetic.
Speaking of visuals, atmospheric music like yours often gets called "cinematic." Have either of you ever composed for film, or if not would you consider doing so? I read in an older interview that you both love the film Under the Skin by the director Jonathan Glazer. Are there any other particular filmmakers whose visual style you would love to compliment with your music?
I have not but would absolutely love to. It'd be a dream to score something for Wong Kar-Wai, Alex Garland, Derek Cianfrance, or Fatih Akin. I'd also love to do a live score to one of Ingmar Bergman's or Tarkovsky's films, which have a such a spacious quality that would be fun to play with.
Chasms is doing a brief west coast tour in March. Any plans to tour more widely in the coming months? Are there any particular events or shows coming up this year that you would like people to know about?
We'd like to tour as much as possible this year and are currently working on making that happen. We'll be going out to the Midwest and East Coast by this summer. It's been a while. We'd love to get to Europe. We're playing a release show in LA at Non Plus Ultra on March 2nd. That will be a special one.