Interview: Guerilla Toss on musical intensity, abstract composition, and wondering if anyone is getting the point
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday is honorary Guerilla Toss day around Boston. Tonight, their tour kick-off with Blanche Blanche Blanche happens at Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge, (they’re joined by Lynn’s very own Fat Creeps), all while the quartet’s new album Gay Disco, released December 10 on NNA Tapes, streams in its entirety at Pitchfork.
Good luck with that, kids. This one is no Andrew Bird record.
Even as Guerilla Toss try to offer something up a little more pop-oriented and recognizable, Gay Disco is some pretty abrasive shit. You’ll want to listen to a little before digging into this piece, because the interview below digs deeply into the compositional structure and philosophy of the Guerilla Toss sound.
My intrigue with the band started one fateful day when I read this in press release.
Their newest record Gay Disco is a concept album based around new wave and no wave dance music, extreme dementia, drug problems, and absurdist humor. However, in the midst of the chaos, it is clear that the compositions are well crafted and spout from the minds of educated individuals while avoiding the common esoteric pitfalls that could be associated with their sound. Kassie Carlson shrieks, rants, and raves like a cat in heat; guitarist Arian Shaifee shreds like Albert Ayler shooting his first speedball after rising out of the east river as a zombie, Simon Hanes plays bass like Bill Laswell if people still cared; Ian Kovac’s synth lines are primitive, perfect, and wise; and Peter Negroponte’s mutant drum set grooves like James Brown being rushed to the hospital on an ayahuasca overdose.
And that’s when I threw down the gauntlet, securing some time with Guerilla Toss’ Simon Hanes and Peter Negroponte to discuss all sorts of things related to Gay Disco and beyond. It took a while to break through.
Jonathan Donaldson: I think it’s pretty clear based on the way that the music sounds or at least the way that your publicist is trying to spin the album that this is so intellectual that it’s might as well be primitive. It’s trying to push every dichotomy and hyperbole to the max in a way that’s kind of laughable.
Simon Hanes: Yeah!
I think that’s great on the one hand because I read the press release and thought “This is hilarious!” The person who wrote it might as well have said that you guys shit Yoko Ono everyday for breakfast. To a certain point though, most people don’t enjoy music on a perverse intellectual plane. They have to enjoy it on a sensory level.
Hanes: Yes, absolutely.
Do you think that Guerilla Toss is primarily just a band that functions on the sensory level, but caters toward people who have pushed their listening pleasure far towards one end of the spectrum?
Hanes: The press release makes us sound like post-academics. What do you think the publicist is trying to portray us as?
I think that the publicist is trying to do what all publicists try to do which is to find everything that is unique and noteworthy about a subject and to sum it up in a way that is really snappy. But I think if you are talking about a band and you say that this is house band for MTV Spring Break, if you have more typical accolades, then… well, it’s really hard for me to go down the road with this analogy with Guerilla Toss though because you guys seem self-consciously obscure to an extent.
Hanes: Yes, totally.
I just don’t think that the same reader whose synapses would pop reading flashy facts would get a music-stiffy from reading blurbs from John Zorn and Byron Colley. It’s just sort of funny because you guys are sort of playing the same game.
Hanes: Yeah, I know.
My question more is to get at how you guys function as a band. Maybe the best way to approach this is to understand how the music brings you pleasure and where you think those pleasure sensors are.
Hanes: This is something that I’ve given a lot of thought to. Throughout the time that we’ve been a band there has been this weird issue or question that has come up every once in a while, which is why exactly are we doing this and why are we playing together. Why does it seem to be really successful even though it doesn’t have any of the tenets of enjoyable music in theory (even though secretly it does). Let’s say for example [Boston] Hassle Fest. We did well in terms of the amount of people and the amount of angry dancing that happened. It was like we were second to Lightning Bolt. That’s a big compliment. The question to me is why the fuck is that the way it works? There are people who clearly have no academic understanding of [Guerilla Toss] — not because they are stupid, but because they weren’t raised the same way we were. Does that answer the question?
Hanes: So, the answer for me personally is that the Guerilla Toss thing, as a group compositional practice, is an exercise in creating something that isn’t really supposed to make very much sense. It’s like a random collection of abstract ideas that somehow combines into a cohesive, sustainable piece of music—the words “piece of music” having huge quotes over them here. How do you make something that is actually valid? There are four of us. We all sort of know what kind of language we are trying to operate in. It’s just a loud, angry, morose, skronky, fucked-up narrative. How are we supposed to make something out of that? And the process has been pretty much the same for the past three years.
I’m happy that it ended up the way it did because I think it’s sort of in a way an exercise in abstract thinking, which I think is pretty important. But it’s not an easy method—the method of sitting together with four people and piecing together songs — especially if everybody has different aesthetic guidelines that go on in their heads that they want to be prominent in the song.
It’s a slow process and there are a lot of situations where things just turn out really trashed. But when you find things that start to connect, the way that you recognize it comes from a primal, intuitive standpoint. You intuitively know that something is going to work. It sounds good once you play it once. It’s like being a composer, but having five brains and having them each be willing to speculate on each little musical thing and saying if it’s stupid as fuck or not.
So I think you’ve just given a really articulate and insightful answer that has brought up a bunch of questions. And to be honest, whatever happened at Hassle Fest with you guys being compared to Lightning Bolt and all the angry dancing isn’t really that interesting to me.
Hanes: Well, the other side of it is the performance side of it, too.
Well let’s not go there yet.
Here I am telling someone from Guerilla Toss “no.” That’s power.
Hanes: Do it.
Do you think that intensity of your music makes it challenging to understand the organization of the sound? Or for you, is impossible to de-couple the intensity from the music?
Peter Negroponte: In the end, the music sounds the way it does unintentionally. To me, what makes it so intense is the live energy of both the band and the audience and the overall volume of all our shitty amps. Underneath the so-called intensity are songs with forms, parts, etc. So yeah, I guess I have to say that the intensity can in fact interfere with the organization of sounds -— but that’s all up to the gig itself. If the room sounds good, if our gear isn’t totally blowing out, if the audience is being wild or tame, etc.
I’m not sure if this is what you’re getting at, but yeah, to be honest, there have been some shows lately where I’ve been disappointed that the intensity and chaos has completely destroyed the musicality of the whole thing. But then again, I’m picky, I’m a perfectionist and I just gotta deal with it. I think the recordings that we’ve put out aren’t so intense though. The newest shit we’re doing sounds like “pop” music to me in that there are certain harmonic aspect that are taken from more mainstream music and fucked with a little.
So, how did you guys get blurbs from John Zorn and Byron Colley? What’s the story there? Those guys are pretty huge. Do you guys have an interest in Zorn’s collision theory of performance?
Negroponte: Zorn was kind enough to release our second full length album on his label TZADIK. It’s a pretty simple story — a buddy of his and long time collaborator, Anthony Coleman, with whom some of the Guerilla Toss members studied with in our college days, played Zorn a YouTube video of us jamming out at Death By Audio in New York City.
Zorn was into it a sent me an email asking to hear more. I sent him a digital version of our first record that we did for Feeding Tube and he was into it. So yeah, that quote that we use for press and whatnot was straight up pulled from en email that Zorn sent me [laughs].
As for Byron, he does all the little blurbs for Feeding Tube record releases and has a part in the store itself. He wrote up two releases we did for Feeding Tube on the website. As for collision theory performance, I have no idea what that is and I probably should know but I’m too busy sitting around on the couch watch Law and Order re-runs. Sounds cool though [laughs].
So you guys have put out a lot of stuff on a variety of small labels, therefore I’m going to assume that the label scene this is something that has been pretty easy for you to tap into, relatively speaking. Can you elaborate a little bit about how this has worked out for you?
Negroponte: The labels that we have worked with are our best buddies (I guess besides Zorn since he’s old and busy). Was it hard to tap into? I guess at first it was. I remember when we recorded our first demo tape I send it to maybe 50 underground “DIY” type tape labels and didn’t hear a peep until about a year later when Brad Rose from Digitalis wrote something nice about us on twitter or something.
But that was a while ago and it was a different formation of Guerilla Toss, before Kassie (Carlson) joined — it was a very different band back then and I don’t consider it to be the same at all, besides the name and some of the members I suppose. Anyway, working with these various labels in the last two or so years has been an absolute pleasure and I guess its nice to have someone take care of the dirty work [laughs]. And pay for it of course. Damn that’s cool.
Basically all the people who have been involved with releasing our stuff recently (Ted Lee from Feeding Tube, Ryan from Sophomore Lounge, Toby and Matt from NNA, Peter from Spooky Town/Great Valley) are rad folks, and I consider them extended members of the band. Feeling manically pleased about some Guerilla Toss shit recently, I sent Ted Lee a text message saying “TED YOU WERE THE FIRST ONE TO BELIEVE IN US! THANK YOU.” Kind of silly, but I mean it.
Talk to me about your music school background.
Hanes: Pete and I and the guitar player [Arian Shaifee] have the same musical background. We all went to New England Conservatory. And then Ian [Kovac] the keyboard player went to UVM years and years ago.
And so when you went to NEC, did you go to study composition or performance?
Hanes: Well we were all in the same department which was called the contemporary improvisation department. I personally went there to… they were the only ones that would accept me based on my pre-college background. And I went there with the intent to study avant-garde composition and improvisation.
From a composition or performance perspective? Or are those buckets outside of the construct that you’ve elaborated on.
Hanes: Mostly it was supposed to be from a compositional perspective, as a secular composer. Part of the reason why they let me in is because they needed stand-up bass players, which is something that I can do, though not very well. I mean, I do play a lot of bass. And Arian the guitar player is sort of in the same mode. Pete works more on the harsher improvisation side of things.
Why do you think that this was something that you were interested in as a youngster, so to speak?
Hanes: [Laughs] What do you mean?
Improvisation is usually something that is a destination for musicians that have moved through a lot of things. It’s not usually a starting point. I think it’s totally cool that young people would want to go to college and study avant-garde improvisation and things like that. But why were you drawn to that.
Hanes: I think mostly it was sort of the nature of the way I was raised before that. It was a symptom of being the son of musicians and having them being very supportive of me wanting to play guitar, and getting me a teacher who happened to be a Frank Zappa enthusiast. And then finding out what Frank Zappa was into — which I found that more interesting than Frank Zappa — and then going downhill from there.
I’m going to assume that what is happening in the recordings is not improvised though. My guess is that you guys have it more or less blocked out when you go into record.
Hanes: For the most part Peter, Arian, and me had developed a healthy trust in the process of improvisation by the time we were halfway through the school. When Guerilla Toss first started there was a saxophone player instead of a singer, and he was writing all of the music for us. So it was more coordinated. And then we when he left the band we got rid of that part of the process. Writing is now very collaborative.
One thing that I’ve asked you earlier that you haven’t really answered is why music that is this intense makes you happy. But maybe to really answer that you would have to get into the performative aspect, and I sort of cut you off there. I can understand what you guys are doing on the record. It’s like trying to take some of the moments that you can identify from all different kinds of music where bands kind of start to break down or fall apart or get off the script, but what most bands do is do that for a few bars and then come back down to playing “Smoke on the Water” or whatever.
Hanes: Yeah, yeah.
And you guys are sort of taking those moments, those transitional moments between very well established tropes, and exploiting them and stretching them out. I guess what I’m saying is that there are a lot of moments in the songs that you guys write that most bands could get away with for 10 or 15 seconds and people would say “whoa that was crazy!” But not for seven minutes. And so for stretching it out that long is where your music gets its biggest comparison to free jazz — mostly for its length and for the music’s ability to reveal itself over a long period of time. But where I’m coming from, I’m very resistant to the ideas of no-wave personally because I tend to think that harmonic structures have to imbed and reveal themselves. I definitely hear that in your music. Especially in the way that you and the guitar player operate together. It sounds like you guys are in a very similar harmonic framework. It’s not like you guys are just a bunch of monkeys tuning up.
Hanes: Yeah, totally.
Donaldson: I guess where I am going with my thought is, that being said, do you guys spend more energy trying to avoid things that you want to avoid? Or do you spend more energy doing things that you want to do?
Hanes: Yeah, that’s funny. That’s very funny. That’s a very interesting question. My answer is sort of that slowly it’s gone from being the first one to the second one in a lot of ways over the progression of the band. I think what it is that one of the things about the music is that it’s supposed to deny regular signifiers.
As you said earlier, the guitar player and I do share a guitar harmonic concept. Whether it’s international or not, we both do tend to use a lot of half-steps. But there’s clearly almost never a key in anything, or it’s not usually not in a conventional time signature, and the melody is not really a real melody, or whatever the fuck.
I think initially when it started it was supposed to be a response to the general trend in music which is being way too obvious about all of these things. So you wake up in the morning, it’s 2013 — Arab on Radar exists, Naked City exists, James Chance and the Contortions were happening however many years ago, the Boredoms exist already — why on Earth are people spending their time on anything that seems to be not willing to accept that those things have happened and have proven themselves to be valid? Why are people still writing pop ballads? That question has proven itself moot to me because I know why people are still writing pop ballads and shit — because it’s satisfying to listen to and perform them. That’s why I do it when I do it. I listen to Burt Bacharach a lot. The point is that it was initially a reaction to that.
We then started being involved in the Boston music performance scene and we started to see so many things that were so far ahead of their time. We saw so many things that we’d never seen before. Like bands like Fat Worm of Error where everything seems to be wrong even though it sounds like the best thing in the world.
Super performance art kind of things where everything is metaphoric, total outsider, abstract, lo-fi type things, etc. We were also dealing with the fact that we thought we were really cool and we were really ahead of the game. It turns out that not only were we not ahead of the game, we found people who were years beyond us. Over the last few years it’s turned into “what do we want to play,” because now we can operate in the Guerilla Toss language a little better.
Finally, want to say a few words about the beautiful record cover and how that came about?
Negroponte: This dude named Keith Rankin did the album art. I’ve been fond of his work since I noticed it a year or two ago. he does a lot of the art work for this (mostly) cassette label that he helps run called ORANGE MILK RECORDS. A really rad label that does mostly synth, noise, ambient, synth pop stuff and sometimes the occasional outsider songwriter weirdo stuff… but yeah, anyway, I just decided to shoot him an email one day that said something like, “your art is rad, will you do the art for our record called Gay Disco, I’m in a band called Guerilla toss, here’s the record, blah blah blah…”
He said yes and that was that. I probably said something like “Just make it really psychedelic and crazy man!” He did a great job. The art is beautiful and he really put some time and thought into it, or at least it came across that way the one time I talked to him over the phone. [laughs] Anyway, yeah, Keith Rankin, he rules. His art is wonderful, and he performs under the name Giant Claw. Really awesome stuff. Check it out if you have a chance.
pRIMORDIAL sOUNDS PRESENTS GUERILLA TOSS + BLANCE BLANCHE BLANCHE + FAT CREEPS :: Wednesday, December 4 @ Middlesex Lounge, 315 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge :: 10pm, 21-plus, $3 :: facebook event page
GUERILLA TOSS TOUR DATES
December 4 – Cambridge, MA – Middlesex Lounge
December 5 – Buffalo, NY – Gypsy Parlor
December 6 – Cleveland, OH – Now Thats Class
December 7 – Chicago, IL – Club Rectum
December 9 – Nashville, TN – The Other Basement
December 10 – Atlanta, GA – The Mammal Gallery
December 11 – Athens, GA – The Secret Squirrel
December 12 – Richmond, VA – Gallery 5
December 13 – Washington, DC – Comet Ping Pong
December 15 – Brooklyn, NY – 285 Kent