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Arts & Entertainment

After Oakland’s Ghost Ship Fire, Them Are Us Too Lives On In New EP Amends

Surviving member Kennedy Ashlyn, who's based in Denton, performs in a video she and Cash Askew envisioned before her death in 2016.
By Lyndsay Knecht |
STILL: Visage Irregular / Leigh Violet

The last song we heard from Kennedy Ashlyn and Cash Askew is made new on the glimmering invocation for Amends, an EP Them Are Us Too released Friday on Dais Records. The duo wrote “Angelene” in Santa Cruz where they went to college and sent files back and forth between Oakland and Denton, where Ashlyn moved and lives now, to refine it. The track appeared on a compilation by the Bay Area-based Scream Queens Magazine that bears the date of December 2, 2016— the day of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people, including Askew, who was 22 years old. Ashlyn spoke to the Washington Post about who Askew was to her and their chosen family in Oakland as she grieved within their close-knit community of artists.

The euphoric, atmospheric pop they’d started making together as TAUT in 2013 was approaching an elegant balance. Ashlyn (SRSQ) collected demos they’d been working on. Going back and forth to the Bay Area, she filled out the recordings with the help of friend and producer Joshua Eustis. The musician, known for his work with Telefon Tel Aviv, had, like Ashlyn, also lost a collaborator; Charles Cooper, with whom he’d founded the band, died tragically in 2009. Matia Simovich of Inhalt in San Francisco recorded additional vocals by Ashlyn and guitars by Cash’s stepdad, Sunny Haire, and Eustis mixed the record, blending some of Askew’s performances on guitar from the original demos.

The same omniscient ache that hovers over Disintegration-era Cure moves through the doomy, shimmering waltz of “Grey Water” and the onslaught of woeful beats on “Floor.”

“My favorite part about ‘Floor’ is the drums, which Cash made from sounds that we had recorded at the local recycling center,” Ashlyn says. “She has said that the drums on ‘Floor’ are her favorite thing she’s ever made, and ‘Floor’ was the first song she made the drums for from scratch.”

Leigh Violet is a musician and artist who’s made videos for the likes of Dallas’ Lily Taylor under the name Visage Irregular. Violet directed, filmed, and edited the video for “Floor,” which TAUT released Friday along with the EP.

“Kennedy and Cash have had a minutely honed in and highly intentional sense of direction around how everything in their creative world is presented and it’s been my primary concern to make sure I’m maintaining with my own eye the sensibilities already envisioned,” Violet, who’s also Ashlyn’s girlfriend, says. “This video had been in the thought planning stages between the two of them for a few years, so by the time I entered the picture, the fully articulated idea needed only be designed and captured. I followed Kennedy’s lead conceptually and in return she trusted me to intuitively bring to the lens what she could already see clearly in her mind. Much of what you see was preconceived, but I did take a certain amount of license with how I presented things. The ‘jaws of death’ shadowed on the floor in the top-down shot being one of my favorite impromptu setups.”

The context for the release is essentially layered. Ashlyn and Askew’s intended meaning— “‘Floor’ is about frustration and failure, about demons getting the best of you, about mental health controlling your life, about trying to assess your shortcomings,” Ashlyn says— and the emotional spaces entered during the occasion of this posthumous release are both felt in the video. Intense performances by the vocalist in an empty warehouse reflect countless times Ashlyn’s played “Floor” live over the years.

“My approach, rather than telling a narrative story, is more to bring the viewer a glimpse of an alternate reality, a space ‘between dimensions’ with its own illusory imagery and mode of existence that we catch a glimpse of but never fully grasp,” Violet says. “Music videos have always been something of an obsession of mine for the way they innately lend themselves to this approach … The warehouse here was intended as a blank canvas but unlike a studio it has a marked history that can’t help but tell it’s own story. We wholeheartedly welcomed this. It presented opportunities to go deeper into whatever intuitive dimension we were delving into. It’s a part of that world now.”

In videos and visuals for Them Are Us Too, Ashlyn’s hands are often imaged holding lilies. Here she holds a knife. Still, one gets the sense that the warehouse space in which Ashlyn dances on “Floor” is more sacred than dangerous, even as a hooded figure enters the scene.

“[They’re] meant to represent these looming, often hidden, things that haunt us and basically prohibit us from living our lives well,” Ashlyn says. “As the bridge rings out on “There is no cure in someone else/ My only keeper is myself”, the video reaches almost an anti-climax where it seems like I might be going to attack this other person.”

“To me there is also a more broad significance felt but not understood in this figure’s presence, ever-present and looming yet never fully there,” Violet says. “It’s one of the elements that felt open-ended for me conceptually while shooting. It just felt right and made innate sense for this figure to exist, a kind of shadow lurking beneath Kennedy’s transformation.”

The collaboration between Ashlyn and Violet, set parallel to the musical partnership of Them Are Us Too, creates a palpably intimate aura on the song and the video.

“We’ve always wanted our relationship to be super collaborative, but can’t always carve out the space and time to make that happen,” Ashlyn says. “Leigh is incredibly intuitive aesthetically and has a work ethic unlike anyone else I know. I trust her eye completely, so even if an idea gets lost in translation, or if I can’t be there to annoyingly micromanage a piece of the project, I know whatever she does is going to be exquisite.”

“One of the most grounding things in any collaboration is an established sense of trust,” Violet says. “To trust in each other’s ideas and abilities and know that you’re working toward the same end goal, and in this case, remaining vigilantly dedicated to the same level of perfectionism. I trust in her vision and she trusts in my intuitive approach to shooting. I couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling project to have been a part of or a more impressively intentional person to have joined forces with.”

This second and final release resolves disparate and intense sonic elements Them Are Us Too experimented with. Why won’t you speak to me now? are the first words Ashlyn sings on Amends, her voice crystalizing in wait on “Angelene.” The finished work is a protective darkness— the all-encompassing kind that purifies and illuminates, as the Dionysian theory goes, because this darkness is the effect of blindness from so much light.

Them Are Us Too’s mission statement is important to consider when taking in Amends. Ashlyn and Askew crafted it together.

“We make noise to exist. We deliberately create an immersive phenomenon that both celebrates and mocks the crushing futility of being alive by focusing all of our energy into a pursuit to which reasons, objectives and linear progressions are irrelevant. We revel in the creation of something that serves no point outside of its own existence.

This is what we want “existing” to be, rather than the arbitrary narrative of ‘life.'”

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