When flames engulfed the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland on Dec. 2, 2016, claiming the lives of 36 partygoers, Aja Archuleta was the one working the door. Archuleta, an electronic musician who goes by the stage name Piano Rain, was scheduled to perform later that night.
As she saw the fire spread quickly through the building, she fled.
Over coffee in Oakland almost a year after the disaster, Archuleta reminisces about the numerous friends and collaborators she lost that night in the fire. Beneath her smile, her expression is tense from holding back tears. They eventually fall as she remembers Ara Jo, the outgoing art curator who introduced her to Oakland’s underground scene; Joey Casio, the techno producer who taught her to use MIDI when she got her first drum machine; and Cash Askew, the luminous synthpop musician and fellow transwoman with whom shared a sisterly bond.
“Music is how I met people when I first moved here; it’s the only way I meet people,” says Archuleta, originally from Denver, Colorado. “This is the family that I have. I booked a million shows with Micah [Danemayer]; I played once with Chelsea [Faith Dolan, a.k.a. Cherushii]; I got to play with Barrett [Clark, of Katabatik] in the forest; and I met Benjamin [Runnels] through Denalda [Renae] -- he was part of [her band] Introflirt, also. Johnny Igaz and I met the night of the party because we were booked to play together. Jsun [McCarty] is an old noise friend.”
As Archuleta worked through her grief in the months following the tragedy, she began the ambitious project of archiving the music of her lost loved ones. “I felt a deep calling to get my hands on as much music from everyone I knew,” she says. “Ara had just started making music and had recorded a song the week before. And some people, like Barrett, had years of songs and records from when he was a teenager. I felt like I needed to collect as much of that as I could.”
The people who died in Ghost Ship were part of a tight-knit creative community that took pride in its outsider status. Many of them lived in off-the-grid warehouses; they made zines and cassettes and performed in clandestine venues for a small circle of peers. Just as many were hitting creative strides, their unfinished music and art projects came to a sudden, unexpected halt.
Archuleta is part of a network of loosely affiliated artists, bandmates, collaborators, mentors, and mentees working independently to archive and preserve the artistic legacies of their deceased friends. Taken together, their efforts to issue the Ghost Ship victims’ unreleased music not only serve to archive a forward-thinking, experimental scene now facing evictions and crackdowns — they also paint a picture of collective healing in the aftermath of the fire.
Archiving the Scene
Archuleta began collecting song files from the deceased with the help of friends and family in the weeks after the fire. She also dug up recordings of live performances, and revisited Voice Memos from her practice sessions with Cash Askew for their new band, Crescendo, and her collaborations with Joey Casio.
The result is a 23-track mixtape called U.F.O., or United Freaks Organization, a project that captures the variety of music made by the artists lost in Ghost Ship: hard techno, electronic pop, house, noise, ambient. Nonprofit radio station Dublab posted the mix on their site last February, and with the help of the label Janus Sequence, she released it on cassette under her own imprint, Midnight Society. In the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the tragedy, she’s been working to get the project up on Bandcamp.
Ara Jo -- who played key roles in the community art space Rock Paper Scissors and Oakland’s famed First Friday art walk -- is represented on the compilation with a hyperactive electro-punk song from her band HGS. “She was always the connector,” Archuleta says, adding that Jo, a bubbly, lively personality, seemed to know every interesting person and party in town. “All the rad DIY spaces, Ara knew and was already deep in. As a guide, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.”
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Archuleta shared a similarly effortless connection with Cash Askew, whose shoegaze-y synthpop project Them Are Us Too was beloved in the local music scene, especially in LGBTQ circles. Prior to Askew’s death, the band was starting to get mainstream recognition; tastemaking outlets like Pitchfork and VICE had written about their work. (Along with music from Crescendo and Them Are Us Too, U.F.O. features tracks from Askew’s solo project, Prist.)
“I don’t remember how we met, but the second we did, there was a sisterhood bond,” says Archuleta, tears silently rolling down her cheeks. “It was a quick and deep and intimate connection, on a friendship level and on a psychic, music level.”
“She instantly struck me as an earth angel. I heard Them Are Us Too and I saw how she inspired a younger group of queer and trans people to be themselves and feel emotional.”
And then there's Joey Casio, who Archuleta saw as a mentor and close friend. One of the more experienced artists in the scene, Casio established himself in the electronic music underground in Portland and Olympia prior to moving to Oakland. Archuleta says that he was always generous with sharing skills and helping fellow musicians. “Even when we were just hanging out, he would always be teaching me something. It was always such a natural relationship. I think that’s why I cherish every moment with Joey. Even the little moments taught me huge lessons.”
U.F.O. features several of Casio’s hard techno tracks from his project Obsidian Blade, a beloved fixture at underground parties. “Obsidian Blade was such liberating dance music,” says Archuleta. “People would go wild and I think that’s what his goal was, to change the world through dance music. He inspired me to create more and inspired other people to pick up a drum machine and make some noise with it.”
Archuleta, Casio, and local artist Najee Renee were part of a band called Opulence, which merged techno house with ballroom and vogue music – with its origins in the New York LGBTQ night life scene – into a more “Oakland style,” as Archuleta put it.
Prior to his passing, Casio had been working on an album for the San Francisco label Left Hand Path, which also recently released a posthumous LP by house producer Johnny Igaz, a.k.a. Nackt, another artist who passed away in the Ghost Ship fire. Nihar Bhatt, the co-founder of Left Hand Path, has spent the past year attempting to recover Casio’s last Obsidian Blade tracks from a failed hard drive, scouring old Facebook chats and notebooks, and consulting the artist’s friends and family with the hope of releasing a posthumous Obsidian Blade album sometime next year.
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So many people have expressed interest in helping with the project, Bhatt explains, because of Casio’s unique, fearless spirit. “There are a lot of adjectives I can think of: psychic warrior, alien mind, cosmic freak,” says Bhatt of the late artist. “He wasn’t afraid to be out there, and people really respected that.”
Losing a Close Collaborator
Ratskin Records label heads Mike Daddona and Victor Vankmen unearthed tracks from artists who passed away in Ghost Ship for ROGUE PULSE / GRAVITY COLLAPSE, an enormous, 185-song compilation released both digitally and as a 10-disc box set last August through their label. They had commissioned tracks for the project in the weeks prior to Ghost Ship, Daddona says, but several of the artists perished in the tragedy before they had the chance to finish their songs.
“We started planning the comp about two weeks before Ghost Ship,” he says, “so I was already talking to Cash [Askew] about getting a track; I was talking to Johnny [Igaz] about getting a track; I had already asked Introflirt for tracks.”
Ratskin Records had originally planned to release the lengthy project to raise money for Black Lives Matter and St. James Infirmary. After the fire, Daddona and Vankmen decided to split the proceeds between those two organization and the Oakland Immediate Fire Relief Fund.
“We raised about five grand," he says. "It was a lot of work to put together, but it wasn’t that bad.”
The compilation isn’t the only major -- or deeply personal -- project that Daddona has taken on after the tragedy. His longtime friend and bandmate Jsun McCarty was one of the 36 Ghost Ship victims, leaving Daddona with a trove of unfinished material from their noise trio, Coral Remains.
In honor of the anniversary of McCarty's passing, with the help of friends, Daddona curated an exhibit of McCarty’s mixed-media artworks, which runs at ProArts Gallery Dec. 1–13. In recent months, Daddona and the third member of Coral Remains, Ryan King, have devoted themselves to editing incomplete Coral Remains tracks for a final release coming in 2018. The project has evolved into a double LP, a feature-length film with footage from Coral Remains’ live shows, and a book that includes McCarty’s art and lyrics.
McCarty and Daddona met at San Francisco Art Institute over ten years ago, when McCarty was a grad student in the fine art department who secretly lived in his campus art studio.
Daddona recalls how McCarty let him stay with him at the studio for days at a time after his living situation became unsafe. "It was always like 'Are you living here?' and we'd be like, 'No,'" Daddona says of their time there. "So then we'd have to go and hide the blankets. Because you couldn't be sleeping at night there, we'd just work on stuff all night."
In the years that followed, the two became nearly inseparable: They lived together in various houses in San Francisco and Oakland, where they threw countless house shows, art exhibits, and other events over the years. They also worked together at a beer shop, and were in two other bands together, noise duo Nerfbau and rock outfit Saberteeth.
“When I met him, he was pretty obsessive about making work, but he just got more and more into music,” recalls Daddona. “It became a way for him to escape reality, because he was really bored with contemporary existence. He’d just be playing in his room for days and not come out. I’d knock on his door and be like, ‘Dude, you gotta eat, you gotta go to work.’”
Daddona says that in the year leading up to his death, McCarty turned his focus back to visual art.
“As a visual artist, aesthetic-wise, he blows a lot of people out of the water because he just put in the time," Dadonna says. "The same way he did with music, he’d go in with these drawings and we wouldn’t see him for a week.”
As Coral Remains, McCarty, Daddona, and King made heavy, digitized chaos using old-school synths, drum machines, and home-made electronic instruments, including Styrofoam guitars. The band began under the name Styrofoam Sanchez, and they wore Styrofoam masks that resembled alien-like growths coming out of their bodies -- a vision of "a dystopian future where human DNA would be synthesized with trash," Daddona says.
“It was cool because we were able to incorporate friends and make it a fun thing,” recalls King of the band’s chaotic live shows. “It was very participatory. The most memorable performances happened here in the Bay, when we could build a huge sculpture or have other people dressed up as Styrofoam characters. The audience just kind of really took it upon themselves to also be a part, which is what I feel like made it really special.”
In paying homage to McCarty with the final Coral Remains release, King and Daddona hope it will bring a sense of closure.
“Some of our projects ended abruptly -- obviously -- and without warning,” says King. “We had a lot of stuff we were working on and plans for the future. So I feel like we wanted to use this release as a way to bring it all together or wrap it up, as opposed to it being open-ended.”
“Working on it with Ryan has really been a blessing,” says Daddona. “I’ve tried to do a few things, but listening back by myself can be rough. Sometimes it’s fine, but an hour later after you’re done mixing, you break down.”
'A Believer in Joyful Possibilities'
Ben Winans and Chelsea Faith Dolan, a.k.a. Cherushii, founded their weekly party Run the Length of Your Wildness as a way to create more DJing opportunities for themselves and their peers. Thanks to Dolan's upbeat personality and inviting nature, Winans recalls, the Monday-night event quickly grew into a free-spirited space where DJs, producers, and partygoers could let loose in a no-pressure environment.
"It's Monday, no one's looking. You don't have to go crazy or be normal either," he says. "Our party used to be me and Chelsea and one or two other people in the room, and that was when it was probably at its funnest."
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Before the fire, Dolan had already garnered a national following for her ebullient, colorful house music. Like others, she left behind several unfinished projects that her loved ones have carried on in her absence. Taken as a whole, her several posthumous releases demonstrate her influence's vast reach.
“She was such a committed fan and believer in the sort of joyful possibilities of electronic music in a dance capacity,” says Britt Brown, co-owner of the L.A. label 100% Silk, which reissued Dolan’s 2015 cassette, Memory of Water, to raise money for fire relief efforts after the tragedy.
Several of Dolan’s friends and collaborators recently put together the compilation Run the Length of Your Wildness, which also features a track from Johnny Igaz, a.k.a. Nackt. The project, which L.A. label Hobo Camp released on vinyl, also includes Winans' track, “One for Cherushii,” alongside “All That’s Left” by David Last, Dolan’s boyfriend of a year and a half.
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Before her death, Last and Dolan set up a recording studio together, Last Faith Studio, which Last is now turning into a record label. He recently archived and mixed some of Dolan’s unreleased tracks, and is working with her family to release them sometime next year.
“It’s been tough; it’s bittersweet,” says Last of working on the project. “It feels like being with Chelsea, when I’m working on her materials.”
Dolan’s loved ones describe her as a generous spirit who enjoyed collaborating and mentoring younger artists. Winans, who makes music under the name Roche, grew close with Dolan through a producer’s meetup group where local electronic musicians would get together to workshop tracks. They founded Run the Length of Your Wildness shortly after.
“It became an experimental, non-judgmental space pretty quickly, kind of through a fluke,” says Winans. The party still takes place every Monday at Underground SF in the Lower Haight. “Chelsea was definitely really supportive of the unexperienced -- or anyone who needed or wanted help.”
“She was really focused on trying to create new kinds of music and wanted the Bay to be a place where new scenes could develop,” says Last.
It's in that collaborative spirit, Last explains, that he plans to continue with Last Faith Studio. “I thought the best way to continue that space -- and the space we were getting ready to inhabit together as a duo -- was to create something new, and do what she wanted to do, and push music forward, and encourage people who maybe were very talented but needed some cheerleading to achieve their vision, or maybe needed to collaborate with others as a way to find their own voice."
In addition to the Run the Length of Your Wildness compilation and the tracks Last plans to release next year, several other people in Dolan’s community have recently put out some of her unheard work: Friend and fellow musician Eric Bateman recently released Into the Stars, the album Dolan was working on with Easystreet, her disco-pop duo with Travis Hough, who also died in Ghost Ship.
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“I’m happy some of her unreleased music is being issued and heard, but I can’t help but feel a lot of it is bittersweet,” says Brown. “She was frustrated more people weren’t paying attention while she was alive.”
Last, however, says that in the year before her death, Dolan was heartened she was getting more recognition in the electronic music world. “She knew that she was on an upward trajectory,” he says. “It’s a shame this happened before she was going to take off and fly.”
“Now that it’s getting closer and closer [to the anniversary], there are still wounds personally and collectively that I believe will heal in time,” says Aja Archuleta, “but it will take making more art and making more connections and staying together. I feel like building bridges is what’s gonna heal.”