Art rock quintet Guerilla Toss is not large, relatively speaking, but it contains multitudes. During its nine-year run, Guerilla Toss has drastically shapeshifted its sound and constantly reimagined its ethos. The group formed in 2010 as the experimental jazz project of Peter Negroponte, a student at the New England Conservatory. Lead singer Kassie Carlson joined in 2012, bringing her screechy punk vocals to the group’s skronky instrumentals. In 2015, Guerilla Toss moved from Boston to New York and signed with DFA Records, the label co-founded by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. Their three subsequent albums, starting with 2016’s Eraser Stargazer, have increased exponentially in production value and accessibility, enveloping disco, funk, and psych-rock into the band’s noisy oeuvre. GT Ultra (2017) was a catchy, Day-glo thrill ride, and Twisted Crystal, released this past September, is a sci-fi dance odyssey, pushing the boundaries of pop music into deep space. The record is filled with a sense of impending doom; but rather than nihilism, Guerilla Toss greets the apocalypse and the post-human world that comes next with a ready hedonism. I spoke with Carlson about the band’s evolution, the new record, and her fascination with rabbits.
Are you up in New York right now?
Yeah, upstate New York. The Catskills.
Are you living up there now?
Pretty much. I’m down in the city a lot, but it’s so much cheaper here, and that makes it easier to make music all the time, whereas in the city… I don’t know. I’ve just never had money ever, in my whole life. So when I’m living in New York City, I have to work like three jobs, and then I can’t tour or play music. New York is so expensive.
Let’s talk about the evolution of Guerilla Toss. Your sound has changed so much since you guys started playing. I read a Stereogum interview where you said you feel like it’s been a linear progression. To me, it feels more like an exponential expansion, starting with Eraser Stargazer. Was there a specific moment when the band consciously decided to change and weave in all these influences?
I don’t think so. I mean, I think Twisted Crystal has more of a ‘70s and ‘80s Krautrock influence, but that’s because that’s what we were listening to at the time. When I met Guerilla Toss, they were already a band. There was a saxophone player. There was no vocalist. They were all at New England Conservatory, studying jazz. I was a classical violin player, and I grew up singing gospel music with my family. But my brother was in a metal band, so I really looked up to that. When we started out, the stuff we were listening to was James Chance and the Contortions, Sonic Youth. I was into punk music and heavy sludge music, and they were into skronk jazz, so it was a meeting of that. And then Lizzy Mercier Descloux, who’s always been a huge influence. Her song “Fire” was a big reference for my vocal style. I was in punk bands, and I derive great power from yelling and shouting. Growing up on Cape Cod, there weren’t many ladies doing that, and I always looked up to my brother, who was doing that. I was going through some shit, and it brought me great peace to yell and shout. But you want to try out different things. It’s like a painter who tries out sculpture. You’re expressing similar things, but you want to try out a different medium. And for me, that was singing instead of just shouting all the time. It’s taxing mentally to tour like that all the time, and there’s other shit I want to say. That doesn’t mean I’m not still upset about the things that happened that made me want to shout. I just wanted to try something different.
Was part of the move toward the newer sound in order to make the music more danceable and less moshy?
Yeah, people were getting hurt. It sounds silly, but it sucks when people who don’t want to get punched are getting punched in the face. That’s not cool. I mean, if they want to get punched in the face, that’s OK. But people were knocking over our shit and breaking shit—macho energy, you know? We were trying to move away from that.
How has your relationship with your fans changed as you’ve moved further away from that punk sound?
I don’t know. I’m not the greatest social person. I wish I was better at it. But I think I feel better now than I did. I used to be really freaked out by people and being in big crowds, but I’m starting to figure out how to do that better and communicate and hang out.
Have you noticed the fandom change at all? Is the typical Guerilla Toss fan today different from the typical fan when you started out?
I don’t think so. I think the truest fans are the weirdest, coolest, most unique people, the outsiders. And that’s the way we want it to be—the freaks, just like us. The weird, existential, scientific, supernatural people that have no place.
The new music definitely sounds scientific and supernatural, but it’s also a lot more accessible than the old stuff. Have you noticed more mainstream folks being drawn to it, or any punk purists getting upset by the change?
People getting upset by it? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really read any reviews or anything. I think that’s silly. But I think people like to hear lyrics and feel like someone is saying something they can relate to. That was part of us getting better recordings—not only making sure people could hear the words, but also making sure they could hear the different timbres of the instruments. It’s really intricate music. In the beginning, people thought it was a purely improvisational band; but in reality, things are very mapped out and distinct. To write a Guerilla Toss song takes hours upon hours upon days upon days. So making a shitty recording is cool, in a way, but we were like, “Alright, let’s try to really make this sound good.” But that also has a lot to do with DFA. You mentioned Eraser Stargazer, which was the first thing we released on DFA. They helped us get into a good studio, but they didn’t have much creative control over it. They just fronted the money.
“It sucks when people who don’t want to get punched are getting punched in the face. That’s not cool. I mean, if they want to get punched in the face, that’s OK. But people were knocking over our shit and breaking shit—macho energy, you know? We were trying to move away from that.”
How was the move to New York from Boston? Has that been a good experience?
It was good. By the time we moved, so many of our friends had moved away, and there was a huge thing where all the DIY spaces [in Boston] got shut down at the same time. Everybody got really dark and was just like, “Fuck Boston.” Boston is a pretty transient city as-is because it’s a college town. We were coming to New York a lot anyway because some family of ours lives there. And we were playing shows, and DFA is in New York, so we were like, “OK, let’s try this now.” It was time to move. I’d been living [in Boston] for so long.
How was growing up on Cape Cod?
I mean, it’s a pretty place. It’s just kind of weird in the winter, when everything closes and there’s nothing to do. There’s a lot of drugs there.
Who are some New York bands you’ve gotten close to since you moved?
Sorry, hang on a sec. [Muffled panting and petting] Sorry, I had to say hi to my dog.
No worries. What’s your dog’s name?
Watley. He’s a chow chow.
Wow, very cute.
Yeah. He comes on tour with us.
That must be hard for a dog.
He likes it. He’s so lazy. We have a big bed in the back of the van, and he lays up there and sleeps and looks over everything.
Cool. So I was asking (before Watley interrupted) if there are any New York bands you’ve gotten close with or gotten into since you moved.
Yeah, we’ve gotten close with PC Worship. They’re just kind of weird, downer rock.
Nice. Anyone else?
Let’s think. This band The Dream, who are also kind of downer rock. And then Cloud Becomes Your Hand. Their bassist, Stephe Cooper, is now the bassist in our band.
Let’s talk about Twisted Crystal. There are some really apocalyptic themes on this record. Do you think the world is ending?
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s a crazy time to be alive. I guess I was a really existential kid. Really, really existential. Like too existential. And I still am. But children today are actually dealing with the fact that the world could end. I guess every generation has felt that, in a way, but this is actually it. The ocean is dying. We gotta figure that out or we’re not going to be OK. Not only people who eat seafood; that’s not what it is. It’s not like, “Oh, I won’t be able to have my lobster bisque.” The ecosystem of the Earth will be out of whack. But I also had a brush with death myself. I had open heart surgery last year.
Oh, wow. Glad you’re OK. Why did you need surgery?
It was just a thing I had wrong with one of the chambers in my heart, one of the valves.
Did you record the album before or after that experience?
After. I was writing it before, but it extended into that. It was a really scary time for me. I was in the hospital for like a month and a half. It was a crazy experience because I’m a pretty healthy person. I don’t really get sick.
So you think that informed some of the lyrics?
Yeah, definitely, you know, feeling like you’re dying.
There’s a lot of post-human stuff too—humans merging with technology and whatnot. Are you a big sci-fi reader?
Yeah. I read a lot, and reading science stuff is godly to me. I think it’s so cool. I like reading books on cognition, both animal and human. Plant cognition is a thing—[Peter Wohlleben’s] The Hidden Life of Trees. I have a dog, so I think about it. And I feel like artificial intelligence is gonna be a huge thing in our lifetime. It already is.
You sing about rabbits a lot. What’s the deal with that?
[Laughs] Yeah. I don’t know. It just happened. “Realistic Rabbit” was something that came in a dream. I was petting a rabbit, and then it turned into a butterfly. And then I was reading about how a caterpillar forms a chrysalis, and then it dissolves completely into a liquid gel, and then it becomes a butterfly. But yeah, I had a lot of rabbits growing up, and they’re cool. I had like ten rabbits because my rabbits had babies.
They tend to do that.
[Laughs] Yeah. I didn’t know that. I was too young.
Let’s talk about the recording process a little. It was different on Twisted Crystal from how it’s been in the past, right?
Yeah, we did it in a really cool studio called Outlier Inn Recording. It’s up here [in the Catskills]. It’s my friend Josh [Druckman]’s studio. He has all these goats. He markets it as a rest and relaxation studio, so it’s in the woods, there’s all these alpacas and goats and a really cool dog, and the studio’s cool because it has mostly analog gear. There’s a bunch of tape machines. This album obviously isn’t analog; we digitally mixed it and then put it onto tape. But he has tons of equipment. He has the mixing board from Electric Lady [Studios in New York]. He has an Eventide, which is on a lot of those ‘70s and ‘80s David Bowie tracks—putting the snare through the Eventide so there’s this crazy, alien delay. We used that a lot.
I definitely noticed you playing with delay a lot on this record.
Yeah, some of the vocals have a Morley delay box. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but basically, there’s a metal drum that spins, and it has some sort of radioactive chemical in it that makes this ghostly, beautiful delay sound. There was a bunch of equipment like that. We used a lot of digital plug-ins too, but it was cool to experiment with both.
It sounds like the perfect studio for this record. Did you have it in mind when you were writing?
No, we met [Josh] later. But it’s something we’d like to do again. Big Thief recorded there. Early Snail Mail was recorded there. A lot of big names have recorded there.
Is there anything else you want to plug or discuss?
I guess just that we’re really excited to come to New Orleans, and if anyone wants to show us a good place to eat, hit us up.
Guerilla Toss plays Santos on Saturday, April 20. For more info, visit guerillatoss.com.