Guerilla Toss Talk No More Nudity & Fewer Drugs

Jake Saunders

Guerilla Toss. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk.

Guerilla Toss. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk.

It’s January 30, 2014 and I’m in the front row of a packed Silent Barn show celebrating the release of Guerilla TossNNA Tapes full-length Gay Disco.  A few seconds into their set Kassie Carlson, one of the most intense vocalists I know, locks eyes with me and grabs my face and moves me around as I merrily thrash with my fellow g-toss ragers.  For the first time in my life I’m physically and actively engaged in a rock show, and I’ll never forget the feeling: the experience of being jarred into action, forced into accepting my own pent-up frustration being invited to celebrate it and release it all at the same time.  It was the spirit of Guerilla Toss.

I didn’t expect that I’d get to know some of  these people, book them for shows, and interview or them. And yet here I am years later, exchanging emails with Peter Negroponte, leader and drummer of the band. What I loved about that band in 2014 is not what I love about them now. As long time fans of Toss know, the band is much different now. They’ve ditched the nudity, the three-song sets, the mindless and sometimes violent thrashing. Guerilla Toss brought this hurricane of inescapable absurdity and frantic release; there was always a feeling of, “I need to get this out of me, whatever it is, right fuckin’ now.” On the last three releases, they’ve synthesized the pop even further into a truly danceable and quite accessible experience, one that retains the absurdity and the anxiety that Toss fans have always really appreciated. The reason I love Guerilla Toss now is because not only can I continue to move to their music, but it’s entered a space that ultimately does not push out those who might be afraid to mix with the obscure, the scary, the sometimes absurdly violent environments that the old Guerilla Toss would bring with them everywhere they go. And yet they haven’t fully ditched that angle either. Guerilla Toss, the way I see it anyways, is a chance for experimental, fans-of-the-fringe, noise heads to fuck with mainstream indie-pop, and for mainstream indie-pop heads to fuck with the noise. I think a lot of long time Toss fans are curious about the evolution of the band, where they were coming from and where they are now.  So that’s exactly what Negroponte and I discussed ahead of their upcoming live record, due next week via Feeding Tube Records and DFA.

How is Guerilla Toss a different band now that you reside in New York? How was the environment of Boston different than the one you’re in now?

First off, let me say how lucky we are to have made so many great friends and connections in NYC while we were living in Boston. It made the transition very easy. We were able to move down here last summer and already have some sort of established following. Booking gigs and finding bands to play with was no problem. Last June we played four shows within something like a 12-day span. They were all great and mostly sold out. It felt very special and was a warm welcoming. Boston was a great place for us to start because it’s small. We got to play some pretty sweet shows early on, opening for bigger national touring acts thanks to the local show promotors and friends who run The Boston Hassle. Boston had some really special  DIY show spots that were welcoming right off the bat as well. Kassie and I both lived at Gay Gardens where I ended up booking a lot of shows and meeting a lot of great people and bands.  There was one summer where we played there every weekend! It was awesome. I don’t think we would have been able to do that in NYC. Now in terms of how we are a different band musically and aesthetically…I’m not sure it has had much of a direct effect. The songs we are writing now are very different than our old songs. But it’s inevitable that we would eventually end up where we are right now. Theres only so much you can do with timbre and skronk so we started using more traditional harmony and tonality. We sort of came in through the back door but it was the next logical step. The musical difference is a result of our personal tastes changing over the last five years. Had we stayed in Boston, the music would still be where it’s at today, no doubt.

You guy go through a lot of lineup changes.  What’s it take to be a member of Guerilla Toss?

Well I guess the long answer is that being in GT is a full time job that pays way bellow minimum wage and it’s a huge commitment. We practice more than most bands. We practice a lot. Sometimes 20 hours a week. Sometimes more. On top of that we play around 80-100 shows a year. So that schedule combined with everyones day jobs and non-music hustling gigs doesn’t leave much time for anything else. My friend Andy Brown always says that a band is like a gang: you can only be in one! In the flesh GT is me, Kassie, and Arian. It’s been the core since what most would consider the start of the band. The first big line up change happened two years ago. The band had reached a level where we were getting a lot of cool offers and there was a lot on the table. It was a pivotal point for us. So it was sort of like, “OK, who’s in it to win it? Lets play all the good offers we get. Lets tour forever. Lets put out multiple records a year. Lets be a gang!” Me, Arian and Kassie were down. The others weren’t. So it goes. Since then there have been a few other dudes in and out the door. Mostly due to commitment issues. There were some drug and alcohol problems that effected a recent line up of the band. I don’t want to go into specifics but that one sort of hit the hardest on an emotional level. Back to your question: to be a member of GT you basically have to sell us your soul! I’ve actually said that to people who were auditioning or whatever. Sam, our current synth shredder has been with for us for over a year now and he absolutely crushes it. And now with Greg in the mix on bass I feel like we sound tighter than ever. The overall musicality is next level. Come see for yourself! So that’s the long answer. The short answer is that I’m a pain in the ass to work with! Next question please.

Speaking of drugs and alcohol, what other roles have they played in the influence and development of the band?

That’s a loaded question so let’s get serious for a minute. Drugs have played a large role in the band, and more so my own history and development because quite frankly I love drugs. I don’t really do them anymore, just the occasional psychedelic experience. I’m 99% stone sober all year ‘round. But drugs are always present, they’ve been there forever. Since I can remember. My mom had drug problems before I was born and I found out about it pretty early on. Kassie is in a similar boat. A lot of my close friends growing up got pretty fucked up early on and didn’t make it out. As you get older drug related deaths become less of a shock especially when you are hanging out with wacky artists and musicians all the time. Unfortunately you just have to be ready for it. I had some issues a few years back but those days are long gone and I’m happy I made it out alright. Most people aren’t as lucky as I am. Recording Gay Disco was the beginning of what was a pretty dark time for the me and the band. Things got serious. People really like that record, but it brings back some fucked up memories. It’s pretty silly and glittery on the surface but “OPERATE – PLUG IT IN AND TURN IT OFF,” [that’s] super dark shit. The message is pretty clear. We still play that song a lot, mostly because its a rager but it’s also a reminder to keep our shit together, at least for me. I don’t wanna go down that road again. So yeah, in many ways we make drug music; most people I know make drug music. It’s both inspired by and made for drug use. Pretty standard. Actually I take that back, it’s not “drug” music anymore. It’s psychedelic music! Psychedelics are my anti-drug. I believe in plant medicine. I’m all about “The Stoned Ape Theory” cause’ why not?

A note to people who don’t experiment anymore: I went hard when I was a teenager, countless time, and stopped experimenting around age 18 or 19. I never thought I would try it again because I got all that I could out of it. But man, getting back into it in the last few years with like a decade more of shit to think about is a total blast. Never say never! Psychedelics aren’t in the same building as coke, crack, heroin, pills, antidepressants, and adderral and all that messed up stuff. The difference is night and day but we all know that by now. It’s funny reading these long articles in the New York Times like “Shocking Study of Psilocybin On Hyper Anxiety Patients Shows Them Being More Accepting of Their Uncontrollable Fate,” or whatever. You don’t need to be a fucking doctor to figure out that out! Of course it’s good that the medicinal effects of these drugs are slowly hitting the mainstream after being neglected since the 60’s. But hey, getting serious again, if anyone out there is struggling, get in touch; our doors are always open. We’ve been there. There is hope. Don’t let people make you think you need to hide your shit or be ashamed. By no means am I trying to encourage people do try bad drugs. In fact, please don’t! But if you’ve already gone down that rabbit hole just know that there is no shame in using, however it is a shame if you die. There’s a damn good chance people are gonna miss you, so please, please be safe. Don’t use alone. Narcan has recently been made available in pharmacies, I think even for free at some places. The overdose rate has skyrocketed in the last decade. Don’t be a statistic.

[We] all sort of regret that association with the band, the nudity that is.

I feel like it’s almost un-Toss like for you to be this publicly serious. Do you think it’s important for the band to maintain an air of silliness?

No way man! Our air of silliness, what ever that means, has declined over the years. And there’s no such thing as “un-toss.” However we do like to have fun. We strive to provide the audience with an experience and sometimes it involves some aspects of absurdity. Is that what your are talking about? The last show we played at Palisades, the day before Easter Sunday , and we had our friend Kris dress up like an easter bunny and hand out eggs full of shitty weed to the audience. I guess that was pretty silly. But nah man, we are as serious as cocaine. Once we got rid of the broken guitars, somewhat tasteless song names, and the nudity–speaking of the nudity, Simon got naked like 10 times total. I guess people remember that kind of stuff. But please, listen to the lyrics. They are real. And the music itself is serious as well. It’s taken years of extreme practice to get to our level of musicianship and composition. Its no joke. Not to say that music that isn’t complex or virtuosic isn’t serious. But that’s a big aspect of what we chose to take seriously from the very beginning. The message is serious too. It’s just a little obscured. It’s not as openly political as some of the bands that we exist amongst, but its political in its own way. Just do a little research or read the lyrics. Get to know us a little bit. Come chat with us after we play a set. We can talk about music until the end of time and I encourage people at the shows to do that.

I guess what I’m really asking is why don’t you want to get naked at your shows anymore and why don’t you play broken guitars?  This is not to say one is better or worse, I love the new and old toss just the same, but me and a lot of my friends wonder why you switched your game and how it came about.

Well, I guess we grew up! The nudity was such a small part of our shows. I defended it back in the day but in retrospect it was a gimmick. People were offended by it and they had the right to be. If I remember correctly, it got us banned from Oberlin college. We drove all the way to Ohio to open for Merzbow and Simon stripped down in front of like 200 students and mid west noise bros at this cheesy on-campus venue. The audience was not having it. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. That’s not what we are about. That aesthetic is so played out too, yuck. It’s just sort of lame honestly. I feel the same about the moshing. It’s settled down a bit. The crowd gets rowdy but people aren’t getting pushed around against their will. At least it looks that way. That was the worst. We used to play these DIY spots in Boston and kids would just get fucking violent. I would count 1-2-3-4 and immediately they would go bananas. I appreciate the enthusiasm but it got out of hand way too often. We aren’t a hardcore band! I cut dozens of sets short because the vibes were so twisted. If you wanna get rowdy and push people around go play sports. We make dance music now and thus encourage a different type of movement. Sometimes these rooms we play are small so everyone ends up bumping into each other and sort of moving like a giant blob, as one unit. I’m into that; I call it the hippie mosh. Anyway, yeah, we’ve changed a lot. We’ve been a band for roughly five years now. Rarely do I actively listen to any of the music I was into back then. I was all about abrasive music, punk and noise. Lot’s of esoteric experimental and avant-garde stuff, too–music based more in concept, form, and arrangement, all the basic level weird shit required for starting an art rock band or whatever. These days I’m all about a catchy melody. I’ve come full circle I guess. This new record we are working on is full of hooks. I’m very excited about it. Oh and by the way we don’t use broken guitars anymore because they sound like shit!

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