In 2016, the Oakland music venue and DIY space, Ghostship was devastated by a fire that left 36 dead, among them, members of California’s thriving music scene. As the tight-knit community came together in the wake of the tragedy, a new sound emerged inspired by their communal loss, one that is at once outspoken, raw – and sometimes droll.
“Since [my former bandmate] Cash had somewhat of a following, I always felt like my grief and her death were being consumed, which was gross to me,” says Ashlyn Kennedy, who performs as solo act, SRSQ (pronounced seer-skew). “I don’t think people do it intentionally, but it was weird – so to have control over the way (that grief) is being received by others, to be able to make it a beautiful thing... I think I’m OK with that.”
Most of these kids want to be evil, but being good is harder than being bad,” says Hirakish Ranasaki of his goth-tinged guitar and synth music. The New Orleans native – who goes, simply, by Hirakish – began his journey to the good side a few years ago, when he was cast as a runway model for Hood By Air after moving to New York. He was street-cast again in the crowd at Afropunk, landing himself a role as an acid-eating LSD dealer in the Safdie Brothers’ hit psycho-comedy Good Time. Relocating to Los Angeles eight months ago, Hirakish released a trippy alt-R&B track, “B*A*P*S 1998”, and the grungy Black Velvet EP, and has been working with Yves Tumor, collaborating on a live show at LA’s Hollywood Forever as well as an upcoming music video.
Though Hirakish’s songs often feature strangled axes and dark stream-of-consciousness lyrics, in person, he’s more interested in rhapsodising about someone known more for purple palettes than morbidity. “Prince was into veganism before everyone. Healthy foods, sexuality – before anyone else in the industry,” the musician claims. “(He was) the best artist that ever existed. Bach and Hendrix – Prince was like that, but for now.” In a world where evil is having one hell of a purple patch, it’s positivity that powers Hirakish.
Hirakish’s new music video, “Beautiful” is out now
“We live in a patriarchy and we’re gonna get molested; that’s just how it is,” says Actually Huizenga of the thinking behind her band’s name and new album, Asking for It, released later this year. But there’s serious intent behind the unsettling irony of the title. “It’s (about) bringing satire to something that’s actually happening. It’s not funny, it’s just looking at something in a different way,” says Huizenga, pictured here alongside live collaborator Joseph Garrison, nodding to the sardonic humour of her work. (She also recently directed a Jon Moritsugu-esque DIY feature film called The Art of Eating.)
The video for “Hell Was Full”, a song from the new record, features Huizenga writhing around a banquet feast of blood and hearts, all the while chanting the song’s bridge, “Choke, choke, choke.” The techno-pop backing track plays against the visuals and lyrics to create, much like all of her art, a wholly disconcerting experience – in the best way possible. “I use my art to get deeper into the water, to take chances,” says Huizenga. “I can’t think of any other way to push the boundaries of the small time you have to be alive – (for me it’s about) using art for life, taking chances, and getting to that weird space.”
Chrystia Cabral is a student at Berkeley University and a primary school teacher. She’s also an artist signed to Sacred Bones whose second full-length, Mazy Fly, is full of dark, witchy, alt-R&B that offers a missing link between Siouxsie and Solange. Recorded under the name Spellling (note the three Ls), it’s a record filled with paradoxes about how humans are dealing with our current moment – songs about utopias, but also about the “Haunted Water” of the middle passage slave route in the Atlantic.
“Being a Berkeley student, there’s so much hope and optimism invested in technology – the prospect of building a new home on Mars versus the terrible violence we’re facing here,” says Cabral. “Those contradictions have been swirling everywhere. I feel like I am naturally an optimistic person, but at the same time, shit’s so heavy. I was grappling with all of those feelings making the record.”
Mazy Fly, released in February, takes its name from a daydream about her dog floating through the air. “(It’s not literally) a ‘fly’, but something that has wings,” she explains. “That’s what I would imagine (on the album): this electric-winged thing, moving through all the songs. I would see it coming out of the wires or coming into the speakers.”
The way Kennedy Ashlyn’s voice trembles, ascends and intensifies is not of this Earth. Full and eerie, it provides the Dallas, Texas-based singer’s solo project SRSQ, with its signature sound. “Unintentionally, I write stuff that always pushes my limits, so I have to practise a lot,” Ashlyn explains. “I always think I’ve hit the peak of what I can do, then end up pushing the boundaries more and more.”
Her melancholia comes from a specific place: before SRSQ, Ashlyn was half of Them Are Us Too with musician Cash Askew, who tragically passed away in the Ghostship fire in Oakland, California, in 2016. Despite being based in Dallas, Ashlyn is a key figure in the west coast’s tight-knit goth community, bound together not only by a sound but by loss. On SRSQ’s Bandcamp, Ashlyn labels Unreality, her recently released debut LP, “griefwave” – a nod to the way people process the grief of others.
“Since Cash had somewhat of a following, I always felt like my grief and her death were being consumed, which was gross to me,” says Ashlyn. “I don’t think people do it intentionally, but it was weird – so to have control over the way (that grief) is being received by others, to be able to make it a beautiful thing... I think I’m OK with that.”
Deb Demure wants to destroy your preconceptions about Drab Majesty. Since they formed, the group, made up of singer and guitarist Demure (real name Andrew Clinco) and keyboard player and vocalist Mona D (AKA Alex Nicolau), have been pigeonholed as the darkwave sovereigns of LA – and, with their cultish costumes and neoclassical onstage props, it’s a difficult reputation to deny.
But a song off the new record, “Ellipses”, written while Demure was living in Athens, Greece, announces an upbeat shift. The song is about technology, and specifically the ellipses that pop up when someone on the other end is replying to you in a text conversation. “It’s a much happier record,” says Demure. “It’s not darkwave per se. It’s important to note that, while we appreciate the aesthetics of goth and darkwave music, they by no means encompass our own aesthetic.”
That’s not to say Drab Majesty won’t still dabble in dark otherworldliness – Demure mentions his contact with a UFO while on LSD in a California mountain town, and the band’s love of sensory deprivation tanks – but it does herald a new phase for the group. “The Demonstration (Drab Majesty’s 2017 sophomore LP) was more ethereal and sci-fi,” says Demure. “This one is much more located on Earth.”
Foie Gras’ latest single, “Red Moon,” may be a doom-y dirge-y battle hymn that is not for the lighthearted, but she much more upbeat in person. She’s describing her next opportunity: a gallerist has offered her a space to play and put on an art show, and he wants to know what she’s going to exhibit. “Wall-to-wall dicks,'” Foie Gras, also known as Iphigenia Rose Lee, says with the poker face of a comedian. “I think it would be really wonderful if I could play a show and have my art and it's just all dicks. Why not?”
Humour is inherent to Lee’s project. “I started my band as a joke—it's called Foie Gras,” she says drolly. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could sell music based on the album art alone, and I was surprised when it succeeded to the little extent that it has.”
Back then, Lee was making hissing, mournful lo-fi tracks. But since relocating from Seattle to Los Angeles, she has expanded her sound to craft a new album of legit rockers — such as the clattering “Red Moon”. “I didn't have the resources before to really express myself and now I do,” Lee says of her new sound. “I like what Frank Zappa did, and Thee Oh Sees do, (people who) are not confined to a genre.”
“I've been goth since I was fifteen,” says the hauntingly pallid and regal looking Derek Page about attending Southern California’s long-running goth celebration, Release the Bats. Page has been slowly developing The Victoriana — the New Romantic band he fronts from Riverside, LA — since 2012, finally dropping a debut album Fleetingly, but Completely, late last year.
“I feel like the title really represents it, because there's all the passion but then it slowly dissipates,” he says about the album’s energy. “There's that notion of the ephemeral, things that pass — everything passes — that's kind of morbid and depressing. Those things that passed were done with full vigor, but nonetheless they do decay. But there's something beautiful about that passing.”
Through Fleetingly, but Completely, Page has found himself part of the community of goth-minded groups in the Greater Los Angeles, meeting Tamaryn for the first time at a SRSQ show. “We have a little goth club,” he says with an impish smile, before explaining his sound further. “It's a more pop-oriented album... I wanted it to feel very SoCal, but also have the gothic aspects. Goths in the summer!”
A ghostly dub reggae beat clatters while the silhouettes of Jess Labrador and Shannon Sky Madden float around a neon galaxy full of symbolic doorways in the clip for “Every Heaven in Between,” the melancholic, Cocteau Twins-ian debut single from Chasms’ second album, The Mirage. The song, and the album, represent a therapeutic processing for the duo, who both lost friends and loved ones in the 2016 fire at the Oakland D.I.Y. venue, Ghostship.
After the fire, the band relocated from the San Francisco area to Los Angeles, where they’ve found a supportive — and likeminded — community. “Here, it's like: 'Have a job, but you're in a band? Fuck yeah! When are you playing next? Let me come see,' or, 'Do you need me to make this poster for you?' There seems to be more of a language for creativity in music here, and I think the energy has helped to propel us to get to where The Mirage is.” Labrador, Chasms’ guitarist, agrees. “You do feel really supported,” she says of the LA scene. “In creating this record that's a product of grief, it's brought together so many people.”
“I do think that the 80s is the golden era of western music,” says Tamaryn, Los Angeles’ maven of pitch-black synth-pop. Even so, the singer’s sights are set on the future, updating familiar sounds with a red-blooded rawness that is at once contemporary and personal. “I don’t consider myself a throwback act, but I also don’t believe that time is linear... I just want to make really powerful, beautiful songs.”
Dreaming the Dark, released in March, is the latest in a series of eerily enchanting records from the New Zealand native songwriter, born Tamaryn Brown. Now, she is busy combining the album’s soft 80s palette with a similar visual language, by making a video for each track. Her latest, for the song “Angels of Sweat”, features characters inspired by tarot cards, as Tamaryn sings: “Embrace your desire / Lived so many lives / It’s already night / Feel as hard as I bite.”
Tamaryn isn’t alone in harnessing pop music’s dark side. “There’s a community in the sounds and genres that we’re pulling from,” she says of the cluster of Cali musicians she selected for this portfolio, who loiter at the funereal fringes of pop and play at goth-friendly venues like The Lash and Non Plus Ultra. “(People are) putting their own futuristic twist on everything. I just feel really inspired by that.”
Hair Sean Bennett, make-up Kali Kennedy at Forward Artists using Pat McGrath Labs, photography assistants Jeremy Bali, Corinne Schiavone, styling assistants Stella Evans, Alexander Picon, Grace Portillo, Amanda Perkins, hair assistant Heather Weppler, make-up assistant Yukari Obayashi, special thanks Danny Lohner, Hannah Vandermolen