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Beast Nest’s ‘Sicko’ Holds Space for Grief In All Its Messy Forms

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Composed in the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire, Beast Nest's album 'Sicko' soundtracks the emotional ups and downs of healing from loss. The artist is using their work to open up important conversations around trauma, disability justice and mental health.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

An instrumental album about grief might make you imagine listening to calming tones in the dark. But Sharmi Basu’s new release as Beast Nest, Sicko (Ratskin Records), splashes the canvas—no, actually, the wall—with all the strange, contradictory emotional hues that accompany healing.

Basu composed Sicko in the years since losing close friends and collaborators in the 2016 Ghost Ship fire, which killed 36 Oakland partygoers. Billed as a “freak 4 freak, crazy 4 crazy wet blankie,” the album’s six electronic tracks embrace the messiness of grief.

As danceable beats guide the listener from abstract to accessible terrain, Sicko takes us on an emotional ride that opens with the ambient, droning tones of a meditation. Quickly, sci-fi blips and bloops interrupt the connection to what sounds like a dispatch from the spiritual realm. Electronic noise blacks out pretty melodies like a swipe of spray paint. But moments of joy and hope bubble up as whimsical, fuzzy sounds, conjuring the textures of Koosh balls and cotton candy.

The compositions flow like the ups and downs that Basu went through in the months and years that followed the tragedy. “There was so much cuckoo energy going on, like any time you entered a space the grief was so thick you could touch it,” says Basu, who has been intimately involved in the Bay Area’s music scene for years as a performer, educator and executive director of Ratskin Records. Their work (notably their “Decolonizing Sound” workshop) has appeared in major museums and universities, but they’ve stayed firmly rooted in the D.I.Y. underground scene.


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After Ghost Ship, Basu’s way of coping with so much loss was to throw themself into organizing mutual aid efforts and fundraisers for the fire survivors, victims’ loved ones and the displaced warehouse tenants. They attended funerals and vigils, and spoke out in the media about how the Bay Area’s unaffordable housing market forces artists to live and perform in unsafe conditions. And they showed up for peers by attending and playing as many shows as possible.

“I didn’t know how to be alone during that time,” Basu says.

Other people didn’t either, and powerful moments of togetherness came with inevitable tensions. Many people’s mental health suffered. “There were just so many different hard emotions that were bumping up against each other,” Basu says, calling the time “chaotic.”

They have a sense of humor about it all on Sicko, which contains song titles like “Ur Doing Great Sweaty” and “Kim, People are Dying,” both references to Kardashian memes (the socialite family’s reality show was Basu’s comfort viewing during the most isolating moments of the pandemic).

Amid the levity, other tracks reveal the enormity of the artist’s loss. One simply titled “Jsun” pays tribute to musician and illustrator Jsun McCarty. He and Basu dated for two years while Basu was getting their MFA in electronic music at Mills College. Jsun was also close friends, musical collaborators and roommates with Ratskin Records co-founder Mike Daddona, and Basu practically lived at their house during the relationship.

“He just supported me so intensely around that time, especially around my music stuff in a way I really hadn’t had anyone do before,” Basu says. On the track named in his honor, there’s a weighty sadness. A sparse melody becomes increasingly abstract until glitchy static takes over and eventually quiets down. It’s as if the track is a portal to what might lie beyond.

After Ghost Ship and the COVID-19 pandemic—and with the ever-increasing cost of living—Oakland’s experimental, underground arts scene is definitely still here. But the free-spirited sense of possibility has given way to tough realities. “It’s difficult to keep in touch with each other,” says Basu. “And I think it’s like, we still don’t know how to hold each other in collective grief as well as we would like to.”

A portrait of electronic musician Sharmi Basu with their dog Beni at the Oakland rose garden.
Sharmi Basu and their dog, Beni. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

In an effort to facilitate better communication, Basu’s vinyl release of Sicko comes with a workbook with 50 questions about conflict and repair. The offering came out of their ongoing Self Investigations project, which has included interactive video installations, performance art pieces and workshops. “It first came out of thinking a lot about accountability and the ways that accountability processes fail within arts communities, within radical organizing communities,” says Basu, who is a trained conflict mediator.

“We need to learn how to work through shit together if we’re going to actually be able to organize, resist and have joy,” the artist explains. In their artist statement for Sicko, they thank the people that stuck by them despite some “not cute behavior” and listened when Basu “call[ed] them out on the same.”

Up next, Basu has a residency at Temescal Art Center starting in May, where they’ll continue their Self Investigations project with an interactive installation that will cocoon visitors in a soothing environment and invite them to answer the self-reflection prompts from the workbook. (One light piece is activated by squeezing a teddy bear.)

And, related to the trauma-informed thinking around Sicko, the core Ratskin Records team of Basu, Daddona and Tieraney Carter are working on a virtual venue called Ratskin Records Holosuites, while deepening their understanding of accessibility and disability justice activism. (A preview of Holosuites was featured in a juried group show last fall at the San Francisco gallery Southern Exposure, where Basu works as an administrator by day.)

Virtual shows might have looked like they would fall out of favor when COVID vaccines first became available a year ago. But the unpredictability of the virus has proven that independent artists need to have multiple modes of performing and connecting with audiences.

“There’s so many different reasons people can’t go to shows, like accessibility physically if there’s stairs, if the door is too heavy, if the air is too cold—there’s all these things that we don’t think about. And then like, if your abusive ex is out at the show, or you work until 9pm or 10pm, or you have kids at home,” they explain.

It’s that desire to create more nourishing and accepting spaces that has made Basu’s work so impactful. And if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that alternative platforms can model how to best serve the physical and mental health needs of both audiences and artists.

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With Sicko, Basu doesn’t come to us fully healed, with some profound insight that makes meaning out of all this senseless tragedy. But in opening up their scars, they let their listeners know that they’re not alone.

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