Guerilla Toss Is Brooklyn’s Best New Band (from Boston)

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Photos by Jane Bruce

Several above-ground subway lines converge outside Arian Shafiee’s Bushwick apartment, triggering a dragonous roar every three minutes or so. The hammock out back cannot be very peaceful. Shafiee’s a guitarist in Guerilla Toss, a wild, danceably dissonant band who just moved to Brooklyn en masse after six years in Boston, where they were routinely listed among the best of that city’s punk and noise underground. Shafiee found his apartment, a grimy, industrial artists’ share, through rock connections. Guys from PC Worship have lived there, and so did Mac DeMarco “before he was famous.” Kassie Carlson, the band’s  singer/screamer, says her own new place is “like a pantry,” but after a few months of couch-surfing, she’s psyched on it anyway. “I’ve lived in small places like that before. I’m just really excited to have my own zone. Set up my weird bones and rocks and shit,” she says. “I’ve been kind of living out of a backpack for a while.”

“You gotta have a zone, man,” adds Shafiee.

Back in Boston, the band’s natural zone was a transient, ever-changing DIY community centered around the blog Boston Hassle, and the loose net of bands, shows, and art happenings it highlights. “The biggest shock to me, coming to New York,” says Shafiee, “is that when someone says it’s a ‘DIY show’ in Boston, that means it’s going to happen in someone’s kitchen. In New York someone’s like, ‘Yeah, come to this DIY show,’ and it’s at Palisades and there’s a bouncer and a bar.” In addition to their first proper, contract-and-all record deal with New York label DFA, they cite the city’s bigger mass of untamed human energy as their primary motivation for relocation. (“Something crazy happens to me every day,” says Carlson.) If the tradeoff is a loud, small apartment, and a practice space in the leaky basement of a Bushwick pickle factory? They’ll take it.

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All of Guerilla Toss’s members speak of the maximum commitment level that’s been built in to their band. Their songs are deep, chaotic jams formed from hours and hours of repetitive practice sessions. Their current touring schedule is more or less non-stop, broken up by odd jobs, temp work, a stray guitar lesson here or there. Their shows are sweat-soaked, full-body workouts. When recruiting old friend and recently added keyboardist Sam Lisabeth, they fell just short of asking for a blood oath. “When Peter [Negroponte, drummer] asked me to do it, I was really sick, lying in bed, really sad, because it was my birthday and I couldn’t move,” says Lisabeth. “I got a text from Pete , and I hadn’t heard from him in a long time. He was like, ‘Do you want to sell your soul and be in Guerilla Toss?’” According to Carlson, that was only mild hyperbole.

“That’s kind of like a stipulation to being in the band,” says Carlson. “We were like, ‘Oh Sam, are you ready to give up your entire life to be in this dumb band?’ We just have to be honest, we want to work really hard and get somewhere. What for? I’m not sure. To see as many things as possible? To hear as much music as possible? To reach different types of people?”

Flood Dosed, their rad first EP for DFA, was an on-the-fly stopgap. The release of the full-length record they’d spent the winter recording in a remote cabin upstate was put back by vinyl-press delays. (Current thinking has it rescheduled for February 2016.) The EP’s three songs turn out to be a hell of a teaser for that shelved next record. While not abandoning the band’s affinity for No Wave car crash noise, it spreads that racket out into clear, hypnotic grooves. It’s more Pylon than Ponytail, and there’s even a bit of early, punked-out Stereolab in its final track “Polly’s Crystal”. Shafiee considers the lo-fi sound of Guerilla Toss’ earlier releases a “compositional tool” that they’ve now outgrown. “There’s no point in having something sound warbly and muddy just because it’s cool.”

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When asked about changes in their sound specific to the new record, Carlson grins. “I did some singing,” she says. Screaming, unhinged, has been Carlson’s default move in Guerilla Toss so far, but she has a history of singing that goes back to her family’s “four-part gospel quartet” in her youth. (“I have a tape of us singing weird God songs, you know? God songs that are, like, questionable.”) “As far as having the vocals more upfront, it makes sense too,” she says. “I spend so much time on lyrics. Why the fuck not? When people misquote them, it makes me so sad. Someone wrote on YouTube, ‘I love when you sing “Baby,”’ and I was like, ‘I would never say that!’ I got theories behind the words, it’s not just bullshit about getting hurt by love. It’s fucking deeper than that!” She says her lyrics for the upcoming record are about “just taking care of yourself.”

On Saturday, the band played new material for a hopping, fake-blood-covered crowd at the DFA Halloween show at Palisades. Their component parts more resembled the noisy punk bands Pill and PC Worship earlier in the bill but, in feeling, Guerilla Toss had more in common with the left-of-center dance acts, Malory and Container. “Dance-punk,” the hippest genre in underground music Class of 2003, has been applied to them, too. But although the term is appropriate on a flatly descriptive level, their ultra-dense, fully abrasive, improbably funky music doesn’t feel like a studied revival so much as a basic reassertion that live drums, broken guitar sounds, and high pitch screeches can still put a crowd in motion. Carlson says that capturing that energy on record hasn’t really been a struggle. “I don’t think a take is good if I’m not losing where I am. I’m closing my eyes and getting into the zone. It’s not a good recording if you don’t get in that zone, if I’m not focusing on the feeling of the vibration on my fingers while I’m singing. I can’t just do that and not have it be full throttle.”

“Music is like meditation in a way,” she says. “A lot of people don’t think of it that way, but that’s what it is to me. I keep my eyes closed, but every once in a while I’ll open one eye and get a sight of these guys rocking out. And it’s like, “OK!” If we’re all not meditating at the same time, the show’s going to be shitty.”

“Group meditation,” agrees Shafiee. “That’s the new wave.”

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