For any other band on earth, seeing descriptors like “focused” and “concise” in an album review might elicit sighs of relief. If one were to imagine such words used for former Bostonians/current Brooklynites Guerilla Toss, though… well, we’d just have to assume the reviewer had never seen Guerilla Toss live.
Wrapped in a heap of multi-colored cables, squealing synthesizers, and abrasive guitar work, Guerilla Toss came to represent a burgeoning avant rock scene in Boston during the mid-aughts. With Peter Negroponte’s scattershot drumming and singer Kassie Carlson’s chanted vocal work as its dual constants, Guerilla Toss became regionally known as one of the most unpredictable live acts to play a basement show. Being partially known for having a bassist that stripped naked during shows had its limits though, so Guerilla Toss began a noticeable reinvention in the last year by trading Boston for Brooklyn, signing to indie institution DFA Records, and releasing Eraser Stargazer, their most unabashedly groove-heavy, straightforward album thus far, in March.
Despite claims of a “more focused” album often being synonymous with a band toning their energy down, Stargazer’s technicolor album art perfectly depicts its contents: eight snaking, cerebral blasts of psychedelic funk by-way-of punk in the shadow of their new city. With praise from both the Boston Globe and hardcore icon Henry Rollins, Guerilla Toss 2.0 is proving wider acceptance doesn’t necessarily correspond with becoming a bore. I sat down with Kassie Carlson to discuss New York, Stargazer, being an amateur child witch, and the band’s Skull Pop Fest that starts tonight in Boston.
I’ve heard rumors that [DFA label co-founder/LCD Soundsystem frontman] James Murphy was the most visible dancer/fan during your set at the DFA Christmas party. Whether that’s true or not, has the move to New York City and signing with DFA been as surreal?
It has been really surreal moving to New York because the community has welcomed us with open arms. Often, people are super grumpy and negative about the city and the people here automatically get this stereotype of being cold, stuck-up, and too jaded to appreciate anything, but that’s not what I have experienced. Instead, the world just became so much bigger and intricately complex. There are a million places you can go, hideout, or grow from and being here has made me exponentially more open minded and hopeful. Not to say that any city is better than another; it’s just nice to try new things. Everyone should come here who desires to, even just to try it out. Life is too short not to.
Any specific moments of surreality other than the aforementioned Christmas party?
A crazy moment was realizing that Jonathan Galkin, a co-owner at DFA was Jake Decker, a character on the TV show “Hey Dude” from Nickelodeon. I loved that show! Alongside “All That” and “Clarissa Explains It All,” “Hey Dude” was something I used to watch all the time after school. Jake was sort of the troublemaker if I remember correctly.
How would you describe the dynamics of how Guerilla Toss works in Brooklyn versus in Boston? Especially now that Eraser Stargazer’s a couple month old, how was recording it different from the earlier material in Boston?
In a way, the experience was totally the opposite of a Brooklyn experience. Eraser Stargazer was written in the deep woods of upstate New York. We took many weeks off of “real life” to go up there and write and record a new record. GTOSS always sets aside a lot of time to practice and write music, but at that particular time, we were practicing 8-10 hours a day. Everything in the small little town at the bottom of the mountain out cabin was on closed at six. Cell phones didn’t even work out there, so I guess it was more focused because we had a lot of time on our hands to do only that. Rehearsing took up 90% of the time and the other 10% was filled either by eating ice cream, working on our epic sledding hill or watching movies together.
Sounds very isolated. What inspired you all at that level of desolation?
Our weekly trips a few towns over to the 24-hour Walmart was an interesting source of entertainment and inspiration. It was almost like a little taste of how the majority of the United States operates; on big box stores and unwavering branding.
I immediately noticed your spoken word is at the forefront on parts of Stargazer, specially with how “Grass Shack” deals with analyzing time/existence “in heightened sense” as you put it. Do you feel the lyrics/observations are heightened in a similar sense throughout the record?
I think lyrically, I have always leaned towards the heightened sense or deeply-textural-microscopic talk, but with Stargazer, it felt a little more focused. My two favorite songs on that record are “Doll Face on the Calico Highway” and “Grass Shack.” I felt really exposed when we first performed those songs and was sort of nervous about how they’d be received. It felt kind of bold doing this sort of spoken-word poetry, but in the end, that’s how the song spoke to me.
I feel like Guerilla Toss has always thrived in trying out risky sounds and the upcoming remix EP with [NY/OH experimental label] Orange Milk seems like a pretty logical step in my mind. I know Keith Rankin did your album art for Gay Disco and Stargazer, but how did the remixes come together with Keith/Giant Claw? Which is your favorite remix from the EP right now?
I remember listening to Orange Milk tapes and Keith Rankin when GTOSS was just getting started. I feel like Peter [Negroponte] and I had a friend-crush on him or whatever. You know when you think someone is so utterly cool inside and out and you can’t even fathom becoming close with them? It ended up being sort of a match made in heaven. His art is so distinct, I want him on all our albums now!
As for the remixes, my favorite song Keith did was “Color Picture.” That song always felt a little off or unfinished to me, but he made it sound like raw ’80s Madonna mixed with some ornate optical illusion. We actually re-learned Keith’s remixed version of “Color Picture”; it sounds really big, bulbous and beautiful now. I may secretly like it more than the original.
Describe the Nashville show you recorded a live album for. Was there any plans to record it before that night?
Nashville has always been a celestial spot for GTOSS to stop on a tour. A lot of really dear friends live there, as well as Infinity Cat, Jeff the Brotherhood and, of course, all those heavenly BBQ joints. Everyone was so hyped out that day because Freakin’ Weekend Fest was going on. There were tons of really amazing bands in town like Heavy Cream, Cannomen, SLAMMERS, Ex-Cult, White Reaper and everyone seemed very lush and loving.
The stars sort of just aligned that evening as far as recording went. I went and bought a USB drive from Rite Aid and plugged it into the board. Our friend Ernie from New Jersey made a sort of matrix and mixed it. The album is completely unedited; it’s pure, unadulterated GTOSS live and in the flesh. My favorite part was listening back and hear all the weird groans of excitement people were making in the crowd.
What are the markings of a great GTOSS show at this point in your eyes?
One really beautiful part of the Nashville show in particular was when someone was crowd surfing during a really slow, quiet jam. It was almost meditative watching people hold him up. It reminded me of this game “Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board” me and my friends used to play when we were little. We would pretend we were witches and had seances in an attempt to conjure or speak with ghosts. During “Light As A Feather,” we could lift one of our friends up with two fingers using our “mutual magical powers.” I guess I really haven’t ever stopped playing that “game.”That sort of haunted, aural energy is what I aim for creating at each and every show.
I’ve heard a word of inflatable pool toys and something akin to an MTV Spring Break party for the upcoming Skull Pop Fest… care to comment on what should be expected at the fest?
Yes, we’re trying to make this a very fun, Summer-y event. Feel free to bring whatever you want: boogie boards, bathing suits, towels, that inflatable orca you’ve kept in the back of your closet for years, your favorite goggles, flippers… whatever makes you comfortable really. No umbrellas, though.
Wait, why umbrellas?
It’s bad luck to open them indoors!
Oh yeah, that’s right.
…I’m just kidding, do whatever you want!
Skull Pop Fest will be at The Middle East Upstairs starting tonight and ending tomorrow, including performances from Pile, Palberta, Listening Woman, and more. Tickets can be found here and, for more information on Guerilla Toss, check out their Bandcamp page.