The shaman, the oracle, and the engineer

Sleep Genius bands are pushing boundaries — and proving the Bay Area underground is alive and well

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Shannon Madden
PHOTO BY ANDRE TORREZ

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Two bra-clad figures peek through a shroud of fog onstage that's every bit as thick as the shrieking white noise at Oakland's Night Light. The sound is a perfect accompaniment for the sadomasochistic display before the audience. One woman's lips press against another's flesh, but if you lower your glance, you'll notice among the chaos that one is slicing a blade across the other's stomach like a ritualistic-looking sacrifice. Blood is drawn, even though they seem to be intimately embraced.

This was how Replicant, the live music/performance/visual art series with a penchant for the weird, chose to kick off the new year at their January showcase; Bad News, an industrial duo consisting of Sarah Bernat and Alex Lukas from Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, headlined. On this night, they had also invited experimental conspirators Greer McGettrick (formerly of The Mallard) and Shannon Madden (Chasms) to join them during the performance. Madden said just a day before this gig that her relationship with Bernat had ended.

So was this arousal, anguish, or both? The audience, mostly in frozen silence by this point, was left to their own devices and had to interpret the definitive sensory overload for themselves. "We were bouncing a lot of ideas off each other, like 'What can you do besides karaoke to your own music; make it transformative?'" said Madden, referring to conversations with Bernat, during a recent interview.

Bernat writes lyrics and plays guitar in her band and is usually tethered by her instrument, but she seemed possessed enough to become unleashed during this set. Somehow she maintained a straight-faced gaze throughout the cutting, even if she trembled a bit.

"It was totally emotional. We both knew that the only way to say goodbye was to do it on stage. I think there's a reason why Chasms and Bad News are connected and I think it has something to do with suffering."

pMadden said this was her last real interaction with her ex, but the two bands (who are on the same labels) will share a bill May 10 at Thee Parkside when Sleep Genius, the independent record label "born of the San Francisco fog" throws a showcase of its acts: Five mostly-local bands will give their own intimate and brooding examples of how new music is emerging from the underground — and what they're doing to manifest a new direction.

There was nothing subtle about the bodies on stage that night in Oakland, nor the heavily-processed sound that came with it. Along with her collaborator, Jess Labrador, Chasms has a new LP, Subtle Bodies, due this June. Their live show is taking on a slightly different direction, sounding more blown-out and less concerned with pop-song sensibility time constraints. They've upped the ante on noise elements and are beefing up on drone.

"I'm using Alex [Lukas]'s gear. There's a reason," Madden said. "Alex is my shaman, oracle, and engineer." She explained that the pedals she's been using are not meant for her bass guitar. "It's the first time Jess has ever kept a live take of mine and not edited it." Labrador is the songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and sometime drum programmer in this dark duo. "I could never do any of that without experiencing Alex or Sarah."

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