Mission Creek Festival: Guerilla Toss w/ Younger, Dana T
Gabe’s — Thursday, April 4 at 9 p.m.
For a band that creates frenetic, rhythm-charged, psychedelic music, Guerilla Toss’s absurd origin story is perfectly on-brand. Back when Kassie Carlson first crossed paths with the group at a DIY basement venue named the Smokey Bear Cave, they initially had a saxophonist instead of a vocalist. Meanwhile, she was singing in a hardcore band that was sharing a bill that night with Guerilla Toss.
“When it came time for my band to perform, things got pretty hectic,” Carlson said of that 2012 show in Allston, Massachusetts. “At the start of the first song, the room exploded into this crazy mosh pit. Dozens of people were falling all over each other, interlaced, drenched in sweat and looking like a rat king that had just crawled out of a sewer.”
During their second song, an audience member who was desperately trying to regain their footing grabbed a pipe and accidentally unleashed even more chaos.
“Before I knew it, cold water was spewing everywhere out on the crowd, amps, me and everyone!” Carlson said. “I really thought everyone was going to be electrocuted. Lucky for us, no one actually died. The only thing that did die was my band.”
That night Carlson and the others discovered that their drummer was engaged to the guitarist’s girlfriend, a Spinal Tap-esque twist that caused the band to fall apart around the same time Guerilla Toss’s saxophone player called it quits.
“So, really, this series of unfortunate events led to an extraordinary mind meld,” Carlson continued. “We started rehearsing right away, and six weeks after that we went on a tour to SXSW. Right after that, we recorded our first album, Jeffrey Johnson. Pretty neat!”
Their most recent album, Twisted Crystal, opens with synapse-frying layers of guitar textures, synthesized noise and a body-thumping whoomph of a bassline that anchors “Magic Is Easy.” At 29 minutes, the album is lean and densely packed, a collage of sonic influences.
Guerilla Toss forms like a funky Voltron assembled from pieces of electronic dance music, hip hop breakbeats, jam band grooves, industrial dissonance, synth pop and jagged post-punk guitar freak-outs. Dynamic on record, the group really pushes the needle into the red during live shows that engage all the senses (complete with lights and projections inspired in part by drummer/producer Peter Negroponte’s love of the Grateful Dead).
“As a band, we are trying to create a memorable experience, not just a show,” Carlson said, describing how they adapt their shows to each specific venue and context. “We aren’t the kind of band that just plays all the hits every night. Each setlist is specifically catered to the vibe of the night and changes daily.”
Kassie was immersed in music from a young age growing up on Cape Cod in a devoutly religious household, attending church multiple times a week and saying grace in Wendy’s over her chicken nuggets. She sang in church and sometimes on local radio in a four-part harmony gospel quartet with her mother, grandmother and grandfather, performing such songs as “He Touched Me” and “On the Wings of a Dove.”
“Although some of the subject matter was a little questionable,” Carlson said, “I learned a lot about harmonies, cadences and listening in a group. I also studied violin at this time, performing in youth orchestras and learning how to read music by sight and by listening.”
“It isn’t that I wasn’t exposed to anything else as a child,” she added, “but more that I lived with the fear of God inside of me.”
Meanwhile, her half-brother was in a (secular) Boston-area hardcore thrash metal band named Only Living Witness during the 1990s, and while he never lived with Carlson, she always looked up to him as a source of personal and musical inspiration.
During high school, she was largely on the musical sidelines, going to punk shows every weekend and hanging out at band rehearsals while listening to her guy friends’ music.
“We’d laugh, party, go to shows, but it was always me strumming my guitar or pounding on my Casiotone alone in my room. Why? I don’t know. I’d like to think of this as an incubation period, rather than a loss.”
Nor does Carlson view her strict religious upbringing, which she has left behind, with regrets. Growing up with a faith that denied the existence of dinosaurs and other such things eventually sparked an over-excited fascination with all things science and made her realize that “being a woman doesn’t need to disqualify you for positions of power.”
And as the charismatic vocalist of Guerilla Toss, she most definitely wields her power onstage and in the studio.
Since recording Jeffrey Johnson in 2013, the group has built an ever-evolving and growing body of work. Twisted Crystal is Guerilla Toss’ biggest evolutionary leap yet, building on their critically acclaimed 2017 album GT Ultra, also released on DFA Records, as well as several other albums and EPs prior.
“We love DFA! They’ve done a lot for us,” Carlson said. She noted that the label has provided them with access to recording studios that had previously been out of their reach.
“We recorded Twisted Crystal at Outlier Inn Recording, a studio in upstate New York with the most incredible gear and vibe,” Carlson said. “The experience was super special because we got to use a lot of ’70s and ’80s analog gear that most of us had never seen or used before. Even the mixing board was from the original Electric Lady Studios.”
While much of their earlier music was collaboratively created by everyone in the band, Twisted Crystal is a bit different. Carlson and Negroponte started working on it as a side project, but after writing a batch of songs, the two decided to include the rest of the band (guitarist Arian Shafiee, keyboardist Sam Lisabeth and bassist Stephen Cooper) in the studio.
Recording and mixing a Guerilla Toss album is a painstaking procedure, Carlson said: overdubbing various kinds of percussion and synths as well as recording doubles and triples of vocals to create what she calls a “manic cheerleader” sound.
“It’s really truly an insane process,” she said. “Then we take the recordings and listen to them on speakers in the studio, then speakers in the house, then in the car, go back and tweak stuff, do it all over again, but in the end it’s totally worth it.”
“Recording an album is like a painting,” Carlson observed. “It never truly feels done, but you can get pretty close.”
Kembrew McLeod is the Eggman. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 261.