The fire that tore through the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California, in December 2016 destroyed a lot more than a building. Thirty-six people from around the Bay Area died that night, and with them the dreams of an entire subculture of musicians and artists living on the edge of society in similar collectives and squats in nearly every major American city.
In Denver, the increased attention following the Ghost Ship blaze on DIY spaces had an immediate impact on the bands and artists that called them home. The two biggest — Rhinoceropolis and Glob — saw their doors padlocked, effectively evicting the people who were living there. One of those bands was the industrial duo Echo Beds, whose members are quick to clarify the impact the turmoil had on them.
“Our place in that whole situation after the Ghost Ship fire, we’re just a footnote,” says Thomas Nelsen, the band’s percussionist and sound designer. “Our friends were left to their own devices trying to figure it out.”
“We had friends who died in the Ghost Ship,” notes vocalist/guitarist Keith Curts, “and two weeks later, we had friends who were homeless. It’s more about the people close to us and less about us. It was felt by all of the underground...and everybody was affected by all these closures, just all over. All of these places got shut down.”
While it’s true that the pair lost less than some, the closing of Glob put a serious kink in their creative flow.
“We didn’t have the oil drum, obviously,” says Curts of the giant metal barrel the band used as a percussion instrument in live shows. “There was a tag put on the door, and no one was allowed in, and all of our stuff was in there. The amps were in there, the electronic drums were in there, the sampler was in there — everything. And we’d have to make appointments to get in there to grab stuff.”
The loss of the band’s practice space and equipment was bad enough, but the stakes had recently become higher for Echo Beds. For the first time, they had attracted the interest of a label that could help them get their music out to more people around the country.
“I’d been aware of the band peripherally for some time because they had played shows with other bands on the label,” says Jonathan Tuite, owner of The Flenser, a label known more for its support of metal bands than electronic acts. “When I actually listened to the band’s record, I was impressed with how cohesive yet dirty it sounded.”
Curts and Nelsen didn’t set out to create an industrial band. Their goal when they started playing together in 2010 was more cinematic.
“We honestly started off as a soundscapey, ambient kind of band,” says Nelsen. “Everything was really abstract, kind of derived from experimental music and a love of horror movies. We were kind of trying to make the soundtrack to The Exorcist in our heads.”
What they were really doing was laying the groundwork for the eerie, grinding sounds that would become Echo Beds’ first record, New Icons of a Vile Faith. In retrospect, says Nelsen, the transition to a more industrial sound makes sense.
“I remember my friend’s brother giving me a Ministry tape when I was in sixth grade,” he says. “I think it was A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and it scared the hell out of me. But it really appealed to me. Other than digging through my dad’s Led Zeppelin records, it’s the first music that was really my own.”
The industrial moniker, Curts says, was actually foisted upon the band at its first show.
“I’m not sure how it happened, but we played our first show with the Body, Pedestrian Deposit and Speedwolf at Rhinoceropolis, which was like an eight-minute set,” he says. “We each had a microphone and, like, two pedals or something, and I remember I was just grinding this microphone into the ground and looping it as a beat, and [Thomas] was doing weird vocal stuff. It was after that show that someone in the back of the room yelled, ‘Denver’s only industrial band!’”
That’s not to say that the two weren’t interested in the genre. In fact, they ran in the same circles and visited the same underground dance parties and clubs when they were young, years before they met, indulging in the relatively vast sea of electronic music of the early 1990s.
“Tom and I realized later, once we had started this whole thing, we went to the same underground club, called Ground Zero, in the ’90s,” says Curts. “I’m sure we were there at the same time, passed right by each other. But they would play a lot of that underground industrial music at the time.”
Ground Zero, which was on the basement floor of a building on University Hill in Boulder, played host to some of the biggest industrial bands of the day, like Pigface, Revolting Cocks, Skinny Puppy and KMFDM, but also showcased more traditional acts, like Beck and locals the Warlock Pinchers.
“It was a cool place,” says Curts. “When that place was packed, there was like, what, maybe 100 people? But that’s where you’d hear bands like Front 242. It was always kind of the same music, but it sort of grew on you, and you’re turned on to stuff. I definitely identified with all that music and aesthetic and aggression.”
After the Ghost Ship fire and the resultant crackdown on similar spaces, Echo Beds had to face some serious facts: Its practice space was gone, and much of the band’s equipment was inaccessible. It was clear things were probably never going to be the same again.
“Keith and I had to find a new way to write,” says Nelsen. “We had been working on ideas, false starts of this record, so we had some of that stuff in the computer. From there we ended up sampling a lot of stuff, sampling our own records. We had sampled the seven-inches we had and the LP and created beats with that stuff. It was necessity being the mother of invention.”
The new process worked well, he says, but was slow going without the old equipment and a place to spread out and be loud.
“We would just sit in the living room and work on stuff,” says Curts. “It’s this learning curve, because [with live drums] it’s so easy to come up with a beat. ‘Okay, cool, I’ve got this thing,’ and you’re playing with your limbs as opposed to, ‘Oh, fuck, how do I do this on this computer?’”
“It’s just stupid little things,” says Nelsen. “Like, ‘Hey, we need that swing beat in there,’ and I have no idea how to make a swing in the computer.”
To add to the stress, the band decided at the beginning of writing to take the DIY ethic to heart.
“One of the things Tom and I were really adamant about was creating the sounds,” says Curts. “When we decided to take it seriously, which I think was probably the end of 2010, after we played Denver Noise Fest, we were like, ‘Okay, we should probably start paying more attention to this and start working harder at it. So it was a concerted effort to create all the sounds and pretty much do everything the hardest way possible.”
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The frustration and ultimate relief created by working that way is palpable on the finished product — the new Echo Beds album Buried Language. Nelsen says it all goes back to the anxiety of watching friends struggle to pick up the pieces left by the Ghost Ship fire.
“A lot of the writing probably brought forth a lot of desperation from those events,” he says. “It wasn’t hardship on our part; it was a vitriol for the whole system that Keith and I care so much about.”
“I’m thankful that it landed the way it did,” adds Curts about the album. “I think that’s really important with what we do, constantly evolving. You’ve always got to keep pushing. I don’t think I have a comfort zone anymore. I think I’ve pushed myself out of it too many times.”
Buried Language is available now at echobeds.bandcamp.com. Echo Beds hits the road in December with Cult Leader.