Among the 36 victims of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland in December was a musician and producer named Joseph Matlock, who went by the name Joey Casio and made stripped-down electronic music over which he chanted with the intensity of a stage-diving punk singer. Like many who died at the Ghost Ship on Dec. 2, he was part of a close-knit West Coast community of underground musicians and artists whose creative endeavors are too eccentric or brazen for the mainstream.
For one of Casio's closest friends, news of his death was especially devastating. Just two months before the Ghost Ship tragedy, electronic musician Lauren Bousfield was herself severely injured in a fire at her Los Angeles apartment building.
"Everything I owned was destroyed, as well as a large portion of the apartment complex," she says, speaking via Google Chat. (Bousfield prefers to do interviews in writing; for the sake of clarity, some additional punctuation has been added to her quotes.) "I spent about two months in the hospital and badly burned my hands and arms. I'm still relearning how to use my hands and i'll probably never get back to the point of full mobility."
Just when she was finally getting out of the hospital, Ghost Ship happened. "I'm getting inured to tragedy at this point," she says, "which sounds cynical. I don't mean it in that way, more that just I expect the worst and am kind of emotionally prepared to deal with it now." She notes that in a way, Ghost Ship continues to reverberate in a series of smaller tragedies, "as it's being used as a cudgel to shut down warehouse spaces all over America."
On May 30, Bousfield released her first new music since the twin fires that swept through her life. With eight tracks running just over 19 minutes, Fire Songs is both mournful and manic, as Bousfield channels the pain and trauma of her self-described "fire PTSD" into skittering programmed beats, rattling piano chords, ghostly violin and shape-shifting synths. There are no vocals, at least none that are intelligible, but the EP's themes are impossible to miss, even without track titles like "November Floating First Being Able to Use My Fingers" and "Little Half Dead Fire Exits Hi."
Though perhaps tinged with more anger and sadness, Fire Songs is consistent with all the music Bousfield has released under her own name since 2012, after retiring her previous project, Nero's Day at Disneyland. Nero's Day whiplashed wildly between styles, veering from breakcore to gabber to carnivalesque synth-punk. Bousfield's solo compositions are no less restless but there's a more nuanced, emotive quality to them, as she layers distorted vocals, shifting tempos and unlikely sonic combinations (particularly the acoustic instruments of chamber music with the stuttering beats of glitch and IDM) to surprise and disorient her listeners. It's fidgety music that almost aggressively resists any attempt to categorize it; aside from "electronic," the only genre tag Bousfield assigns to her music on Bandcamp is "___."
Bousfield says it was important to her to get back to making music, but when asked if she experienced any catharsis in making Fire Songs, she's less emphatic. "So, so much of my music is about trauma, so it's kind of hard to tell." Even the seemingly more whimsical material she created as Nero's Day at Disneyland, she says, "was me kind of putting it off with humor. Most of the stuff put out under my own name is being a lot closer to it."
Though making the music on Fire Songs was physically challenging, it also helped with her recuperation. "I was literally using it as a physical therapy kind of thing," she says. "When they were giving me timelines about my rehabilitation, I was like, 'So OK, when will I at least be able to use a mouse?'"
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On Saturday, she'll perform at Coaxial in downtown L.A. as part of a benefit show for the Coaxial Arts Foundation, a nonprofit media arts organization that provides rehearsal, gallery and performance space for experimental artists in a variety of disciplines. Even though she still hasn't recovered full use of her hands, she says of live performances, "I just kind of power through them. ... I really don't want [my injuries] to be a hindrance to how I play live."
Among the songs you might hear at Coaxial is Fire Songs' first track, "No Clocks No Mirrors," which she dedicated to Joey Casio. "Joey had a song called 'No Clocks, No Mirrors,' which is just such a beautiful way of putting kind of together what he was about as a person," she says. She also explains that the term "No Clocks" is a play on the transgender term "clocking," which is slang for when a trans person gets identified as trans. It's a play on words that Bousfield, who is transgender, knows Casio would have appreciated.
"He was a really amazing musician and close friend," she says simply. With Fire Songs, Bousfield has created a powerful tribute not only to him but also to the entire community that lost friends and loved ones in the Ghost Ship.
Lauren Bousfield performs at Coaxial on Saturday, June 24 with Pedestrian Deposit, Liebstod, Kid 606 and others. More info.