At a time when most musicians in the Pacific Northwest were drenching themselves in angst, dread, and power chords, Joey Casio was dancing in the basement to the beat of his own electronic music.
And he was doing it with a huge smile on his face.
“When everybody else had these really big amplifiers and all these [guitar] pedals on stage, you’d walk down into a basement in a house show and see Joey behind a table with a bunch of wires on it,” says Portland musician and longtime friend Charlie Salas-Humara. “He was just a really nice, silly guy who was doing things musically nobody else was even thinking about at the time.”
Musician and visual artist Claudia Meza was friends with Casio for 15 years when they both lived in Olympia, Wash., and agrees his music was ahead of its time.
“Before punk kids thought electronic and techno was cool, Joey was doing it,” Meza says. “When I moved to Olympia in 2001, Joey was playing an electro version of this awesome Richard Hell song [Blank Generation]. And one day I asked him, ‘Where did that song come from?’ and he’s like ‘It’s from Richard Hell, the original bassist in the band Television.’ I had listened to Television for years, and I was like ‘What?’ I never even heard of him. But Joey had, and was playing it for everybody.”
Joseph Matlock -- a.k.a. Joey Casio -- moved from Hazel Dell, Wash. to Olympia around 2000 after high school. By 2001, he had become a prominent part of the city’s vibrant music scene. He released four singles on the prominent indie label K Records, and went on tour with the label’s founder, Calvin Johnson.
“Nobody didn’t like Joey,” Johnson says. “He was smart, funny, good looking and a talented music maker and performer.”
Johnson says Casio put himself into the middle of the Olympia scene by moving into the city’s “Red House,” a famous music squat featuring cutting edge music shows.
“Joey often lived in places like that,” Johnson says. “In 2011, he lived in an old church. He was drawn to these collectives. He was a lifer -- he believed in the art and the music, and the fact is he is an obscure but brilliant artist who needs to be remembered and rediscovered.”
Casio was known for his generous spirit despite his own personal, life-long poverty. He often organized benefit shows for the Olympia homeless community that featured diverse lineups. Deeply committed to art and the community, Casio “had one nice outfit, and he would wear it better than anyone else could,” Meza says. “He was the kind of guy who if you were walking down the street and ran into him while he was eating a sandwich, he would offer you a piece, even if it was the only thing he was going to eat all day.”
Casio was also a longtime boyfriend of feminist icon and Bikini Kill co-founder, Tobi Vail. The relationship was happy and loving, according to the former couple’s friends. Salas-Humara was married to Vail’s sister Maggie, and spent time with the pair.
“At the family get-togethers, they were a lot of fun to be around,” Salas-Humara says. “He was a really goofy, sweet guy with this really contagious laugh.”
Even after Casio and Vail split, they remained close. “Trust me, if Joey was a shithead, Tobi would have said so,” Meza says. “Everyone I know who dated him -- including Tobi -- loved him even after they broke up.”
In fact, Vail would continue to champion her former boyfriend’s music even after he moved from the Pacific Northwest to Oakland around 2012.
“Their recording is skillfully well-produced and their minimal compositions are fully realized, while the live show borders on performance art,” Vail wrote about Casio’s band Uncanny Valley in 2013. “When I saw them live they looked like Victorian ghosts, obliterating the line between performer and audience.”
Just as he did in Olympia and Portland, Casio would establish himself as a celebrated, integral part of the Oakland art scene in the four years he lived in the city.
Yet his experience in the Bay Area was markedly different in that the art scene had finally caught up to his musical vision. The label which threw the party at the Ghost Ship, 100% Silk, had carved out a deep niche featuring musicians who followed in Casio’s footsteps.
“He found his tribe in Oakland,” Meza says. “And he deserved it. He’s magical. He was a magical alien.”
For more of our tributes to the victims of the Oakland warehouse fire, please visit our remembrances page here.
For a printable poster of the illustration above, see here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.