Working an arts event at SF MoMA on a Friday night last December, Shannon Sky Madden, the bassist of experimental rock outfit Chasms, couldn’t wait to leave so she could hang out with her brother Griffin in Oakland. Exchanging voice memo messages throughout the night, the siblings who DJ’d together, were working on a new Tears For Fears song they’d drop in the middle of a heavy house set. Suddenly, Griffin stopped responding. His older sister immediately knew something was terribly wrong.
Griffin, who lived in Berkeley, went to check out a warehouse show at the Ghost Ship down in Fruitvale. What took place that night continues to haunt the Bay Area arts community.
In a cruel twist, Madden was stuck at work on account of the fire marshal. At around 9:30 p.m., messages started to light up her phone if she was safe. On a whim, she hopped in a cab to the East Bay. Whether it be sibling inclination or something else, she just had a bad feeling. A few blocks away from the destination, her worst suspicions were confirmed.
“Whenever he [Griffin] went out, we talked about how he should bring somebody and how he can’t go by himself, and I’ve always been worried about him since he was a baby,” Madden says as she and bandmate Jess Labrador sip coffee in Los Angeles’ Larchmont neighborhood. “I could see several blocks down the road that the flames were mythological, biblical.”
Labrador, also knew a handful of people who died in the fire, actually had plans to go to the Ghost Ship that fateful night. Between the two, Chasms knew about 10 of the 36 victims.
“My ex was home from tour briefly, so I decided to stay in with him,” she says. “We went to bed early before the fire happened. It was really odd, since we stay up usually pretty late.”
Dealing with Madden’s brother’s death and their friends is something Chasms still struggle with. But, in its aftermath, they’re doing their best to move forward.
Instead of canceling their shows in Riverside and San Diego the week after the fire, the duo decided that the best way to honor the victims’ memory was to perform. And that’s what they did.
“We had to make a choice: Keep going or not,” Labrador says. “We chose to keep going.”
A few days before the tour commenced, Madden packed up her brother’s belongings. Carefully placed throughout his room were her band’s previous releases on display. Having his support was another motivating factor in touring so soon after the fire.
“It probably saved my life,” Madden says. “Being around others and being able to play in a shared space with people, I felt like I needed to show other people going through it that I was strong enough to keep going and that I wanted to give them strength.”
“I remember Sky telling me ‘What are we going to do, stay here and be sad?’” Labrador remembers. “It seemed to be a coping mechanism.”
The Ghost Ship fire — along with Labrador’s collapsing marriage — was incentive for the duo to leave the Bay Area. Madden and Labrador were working two-to-three jobs and with the band, were barely able to survive financially. They moved to Los Angeles earlier this year.
“The timing was kind of funny,” Madden admits as she takes another sip of coffee. “But the truth is we planned, saved and been thinking about it for a long time. Felte [their label] is based there and we have a lot of friends there. It was a micro/macro view of looking at the big picture and also what was small and relative to us.”
“It didn’t seem sustainable to live in San Francisco anymore,” Labrador adds.
In the months after the fire, in an ironic twist in lieu of the devastation of their personal lives, Chasms experienced their greatest career successes. In January, they opened for Deafheaven and Health in L.A., played at punk icons Wire’s Drill: LA festival over the summer and continued to tour rigorously behind their debut album, On The Legs Of Love Purified.
Even as their profile grew, the duo remain haunted by the Bay Area.
“I don’t want to be dramatic, but I felt broken and I felt broken before the fire,” Madden says.
Madden’s bass has the names of her brother, along with friends Cash Askew, Joey Casio, and Cherushii among many scrawled across its body.
Madden, who turned her phone off after the fire, still has 66 unread text messages from the time of the fire and has no intention on ever looking at them.
This Sunday at Swedish-American Hall, a year and a day after the Ghost Ship fire, Chasms will play their first San Francisco show since leaving on a bill with several other Felte bands. The date of the show, they say, is purely coincidental. Yet, they are well-aware of the significance of being in the Bay Area on the anniversary of the fire and will head to Oakland after the show to pay tribute to those who lost their lives.
Once this string of dates concludes, Chasms are returning to the studio to record their sophomore album. Tentative plans have them returning to the Bay Area record their new album once again with Lauren Grubb. Mum and somewhat coy on the album’s direction, the duo are excited about the prospect getting back in the studio, even if means reliving difficult times.
“It’s really hard for us to be in the Bay Area for all kinds of reasons,” Labrador says. “But we love our engineer and she lives up there. We’ve been writing a lot and it sounds cliche, but the writing has been helpful in processing everything. That energy of what we’ve been through needs to go somewhere.”
Though they’re gone, Chasms will never be able to mentally escape the Bay Area. They’re looking forward to making the album and channeling the energy of the last year in a constructive fashion.
“Before the fire, we were so down in this dark place in our lives,” Labrador says. “Then when the fire happened, it made it clear that this is all we have left at this point. When it came down to it, what else were we going to do?”
“You can’t let fear or risk stop you,” Madden says. “We have the same attitude now as we did before the fires: We’re going to continue to play until we’re dead.”
Chasms, Odonis Odonis, Houses Of Heaven, Sunday, Dec. 3, 8 p.m., at the Swedish American Hall, $12-$14, tickets.