Over the past decade, New York-based art-rock outfit Guerilla Toss has gained a reputation for more or less reinventing themselves with every release… And last month the band released Famously Alive, their fifth full-length and first on Sub Pop. The album, while embracing the noisier elements of their past, is actually a pop record of sorts. Stereogum said of the title track, “It’s pop in the sense that it bursts through your speakers like neon bubblegum filled with big open guitar chords and it’s weird in the sense that it’s got extreme metal vocals growling along to the anthemic sugar-rush chorus.” Late last month I got a chance to chat with Guerilla Toss frontperson Kassie Carlson, who tells me that it’s definitely no accident that Famously Alive sounds like a pop record, in addition to what can be expected on their current headlining tour, which kicked off early this month and includes a stop at Johnny Brenda’s this Thursday, April 28.
Izzy Cihak: You just released Famously Alive, your first album on Sub Pop. Have you had any favorite early reactions to the LP, whether from critics, fans, or even just friends?
Kassie Carlson: It’s been pretty amazing hearing the positive reactions we have gotten from friends, family, and fans. Even though we have been around in the DIY scene for quite some time, some of these listeners are hearing us for the *first time* and that’s very exciting to hear. I hope listeners look at our older material as well and find it equally exciting.
Izzy: The last time I talked to the band was in Fall of 2018, shortly after the release of Twisted Crystal, and we talked about how much the band seems to change and evolve with each release, both in terms of sound and just the way you function as a band. So, I’m curious what you consider to be the most significant differences between the band that recorded Twisted Crystal and the current band.
Kassie: Famously Alive is definitely our pop-iest sounding album yet. It is also the album that we have taken the LONGEST to write and record. We were extremely picky with each of the songs, and many ideas were thrown out the window. Getting invited to do an album for Sub Pop is truly an honor and we wanted it to be “perfect.” The pandemic gave us a unique time to really hunker down and hash shit out.
The sound for Famously Alive evolved from listening to a lot of Charli XCX and the curation of my local community radio show “Rare Pear Radio” for WJFF Radio Catskill. On the show, I play primarily female-identified artists from genres all over the map including punk, post-punk, art-rock, no-wave, weirdo folk, and electronic. All under-appreciated, rare, or semi-rare. It was kind of a self-imposed research project to discover how other female-identified people use their voice both physically and expressionistically. I feel like I learned a lot from this YouTube k-hole experience, and I hope to continue now that the record is out in the world.
As you probably heard, 80s pop sound with big drums, catchy vocal melodies, and synth-tastic sound design and sampling shines on these new tracks. Auto-Tune is also heavily used in the songs as well as pastoral giant harmonies. These were an artistic choice, not a ploy to cover stuff up. I can’t tell you how many dudes have messaged me saying they want to hear my “real” voice… as if some invisible hand is forcing me to put Auto-Tune on… *yawn*. It’s reminiscent of when a dude offers their unsolicited advice about liking a “no-makeup” look more than makeup. What can I say? I like pop music and Auto-Tune is a lot of fun.
Twisted Crystal was more of a heady krautrock nod with tinges of 80s pop, but I think after a deep listening of both, you can hear the resemblances of the two. For that album, we drew influences from bands like CAN, Neu!, Ashra, Harmonia, Michael Rother, Faust, Kraftwerk, and more. The tracks are more driving here, blending elements of psychedelic rock, electronic music, and avant-garde. The lyrics themselves are more psychedelic and distant as well.
Famously Alive felt extremely exposed for me. The lyrics are the clearest they’ve ever been, offering a tongue-in-cheek wink at happiness in one of the darkest times of our generation. The song “Wild Fantasy” was written after a long conversation with my grandmother about what it was like for her growing up with a schizophrenic mother. The song “Pyramid Humm” was written after an attempt to get a good friend to go to rehab, as he was in the midst of meth addiction and was experiencing hallucinations. All of the songs have a deep personal meaning connected to grief either personal or outside the self in the past two years.
Izzy: And what have you been listening to a lot of recently, whether you feel like it’s stuff that directly inspires you, or just stuff that you’ve been particularly enjoying?
Kassie: As I said before, Charli XCX was a huge influence as well as: Can, Yellow Magic Orchestra, The Bags, Midnight Sister, Beverly Glenn Copeland, Ian Sweet, Lala Lala, Kalbells, Cate le Bon, Maximum Joy, Margo Guryan, Strawberry Switchblade, Locate S1, Lithics, Suburban Lawns, Cocteau Twins… And so much more.
We actually did a Sub Pop Takeover playlist that’s close to 34 hours long on Spotify with all of the songs that have been in heavy rotation, but that’s not even an exhaustive list. 😉
Izzy: You recently released a really cool video for the title track of “Famously Alive,” directed by Jonny Kosmo. How did the concept for that video come about?
Kassie: The idea for the video was hatched between myself, Jonny Kosmo, Michael Chadwick, and Kevin Kearney. Jonny and I are long-time friends and have always wanted to do a green screen music video together. We bounced a lot of insane ideas off of each other and I was happy that we were ACTUALLY ABLE to execute most of them. Michael Chadwick, Jonny Kosmo, and Kevin Kearney are totally amazing geniuses and I was honored to work with them. Jonny makes some amazing music too.
You can find that here!
Izzy: Okay, so this is totally personal… I’m a college professor and I’ve been teaching a class about deception, and I’ve been compiling a playlist around that theme, so I’ve been asking artists if they have any suggestions. Do you have any favorite songs that relate to the theme of deception, both of your own and just stuff of which you’re a fan?
“Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside” by Bernadette Carroll
“I Don’t Believe You” by Bob Dylan
“Dear Lie” by TLC
“Are You Somebody” by Aaliyah
“You Oughta Know” Alanis Morissette
“Playboy of the Western World” by Connie Converse
“Can I Get the Real Stuff?” by Guerilla Toss
“Pyramid Humm” by Guerilla Toss
“Wild Fantasy” by Guerilla Toss
Izzy: You’re about to embark on a pretty big US tour. Are there any cities or venues you’re especially excited to revisit?
Kassie: I am really excited to go back to Chicago. It’s one of my favorite cities!! Also, Boston of course. That’s where we met so it’s kind of like a family reunion every time we play there. PHILLY is obviously really special as well! We have played a few really excellent shows there including a few with Mannequin Pussy, members of Palberta, and SO MUCH more. Philly always brings the party, and we are happy to be back at one of our all-time favorite venues, Johnny Brenda’s.
Izzy: What can be expected of the live show when you return to Johnny Brenda’s next month? The last time (I believe) you were there it was a crazy Halloween party with Olivia Neutron-John and Evil Sword, and some of the people from Empath DJing.
Kassie: Oh yes. That was such an excellent show!!
This time around we will be playing with Godcaster. They are truly a group of excellent freaks busting at the seams with exquisite talent.
We are very excited and can’t wait to get back to PHILLY!!!
Izzy: On a related note, your live show has always had a great reputation, even as it’s evolved over time. So, I’m curious what you think would be the perfect bill for Guerilla Toss to play on, whether possible or not? Are there any artists whose live vibes would be the perfect fit for Guerilla Toss, whether or not they’re still performing… or even alive?
Kassie: As far as people who are still performing… I would really love to play with Of Montreal, The Flaming Lips, King Gizzard, Arca, Miley Cyrus, Charli XCX, Cyndi Lauper, Blondie, Talking Heads, Phish….
People who have passed or aren’t playing anymore… So many! David Bowie for sure… Maximum Joy, Suburban Lawns, Sadistic Mika Band, The Bags, Fugazi, DEATH, KATE BUSH!
Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you, after this batch of dates wraps, or is it just going to be more and more touring?
Kassie: HOPEFULLY more and more touring if everything stays chill with the pandemic. I’m really excited to see all the friends and fans out there again.
*Get your tickets here.