Words by David C. Obenour
It seems nothing short of miraculous that an album so uplifting, so radiating, could have come from out of the darkness and despair of the last year. But looking back on the ten year trajectory of relentless artpop trio, Guerilla Toss it begins to make more sense.
Years at it, the sound on Famously Alive – their first for Sub Pop – is still exciting and by now they’ve perfected how to capture and convey it. Blending as many genres as energies, the songs blast out of speakers with unrelenting intent and positivity. Time in isolation and upheaval only further resolved the band to create the album that they needed to make and that we needed to hear.
Off Shelf: Even with your many accolades over the past decade of performing together, signing to Sub Pop brings along new fans. Looking back through your catalog, are there any albums you’d point new listeners to?
Kassie Carlson: Well, it’s funny you should ask…. I feel like all GTOSS albums are completely different! If you were to look at one of our earliest albums, it’s skronky, loud, noisy, and abrasive, whereas the more recent ones are a little more accessible. As a group of people with a super wide musical taste, there’s always something different coming out of our brains… and then there’s the live show! So, if you haven’t seen us live, definitely check it out. We try to make it a whole experience.
Once you become a “Tosser”, you’re thrust into a cultish environment for habitual creation. In other words, we make a lot of records. If you wanted to listen to something other than Famously Alive, I would say go in the following order:
- GT ULTRA
- Twisted Crystal
- Eraser Stargazer
- What Would the Odd Do
We also have a lot of random cassette tapes and side projects that are pretty neat!
OS: You describe Famously Alive as about being happy, alive, strong, and inspired. How were you able to find that inspiration as you wrote and recorded many of these tracks amidst everything happening in the world with the pandemic and social and political upheaval of the past years?
KC: When the pandemic hit, I felt paralyzed with fear and pain. Social and political upheaval on top of that almost took me out. I think a lot of musicians and artists felt that way. The world seemed like it was on fire and hearing Trump speak everyday was extremely triggering for anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship. We couldn’t tour anymore, and no one knew when this chaos would ever end! It was difficult to plan, see friends, do… anything. The Sub Pop record deal gave us purpose in a very dark time. Even though there was no end in sight for the pandemic, it felt like someone really special wanted us to continue making art. My anxiety was at capacity, but they still encouraged us to do those zoom meetings with them, where I dressed “business on the top” as I like to call it.
When it all boils down, however, I’ve been in that dark place before. As a recovering addict, I’ve dissolved myself over and over, only to somehow come out learning a whole lot about myself. The pandemic felt like a time when the universe was telling me to slow down. I needed to think about why I was making music, what was the purpose for doing so, and most importantly how to be happy and make it through. As a result, this is what came out, and I’m sticking to it.
OS: Outside of the external, the pandemic leads to isolation and rumination on one’s self. Can you talk about your own process of this? How did those emotions change over the months of lockdown?
KC: I had a phone call with my Grandmother in April 2020 and she spoke about what it was like growing up during Polio and Tuberculosis. I think we forget that seeing friends get sick and pass away was really a big thing with that particular generation. Listen, this messed-up experience binds us, but also gives us other people to talk to and relate to. Our dystopian, simulation-esque landscape is so relentless sometimes, that the only thing left to do is try to laugh.
OS: You mentioned it earlier, and another reported on aspect of the pandemic was the particular dangers it presented for those in recovery. Having had your own experiences, was this anything that resonated personally or with your connection to the community?
KC: A big thing people learn in recovery is that there are other people in the world that feel similar to how you feel. You are not alone. Addiction, as a disease, is an incredibly isolating sickness. Generally, in active addiction, you don’t want a soul to know that a substance is controlling almost every thought and action. So we hide, and that’s pretty much the worst thing to do.
It sounds weird, but I feel like going through that process many years ago made me uniquely prepared for the pandemic, and made me feel more connected to humans afterward. We have gone through something very traumatic as a community. I feel uniquely knowledgeable about how isolation is not a good thing for anyone and if you are feeling stuck, you must reach out to someone. There is always someone out there who can help. I felt like I was talking up people at the grocery store and post office because I was so starved for human interaction. Did anyone else do that?
OS: The pandemic also stopped all live performances. Did getting out of this routine create any space for re-evaluating your live shows? Either as performers or what you hope for in cultivating and providing for your audiences?
KC: Oh gosh, I still have stress dreams to this day about working the merch table during a pandemic. I miss the performative element of playing live shows. I started doing a weekly radio show in the Catskills that kind of filled that void. I hope everyone wears masks at our shows, but the rules are constantly changing, and I am not sure what’s next!
OS: You combine a number of sounds and influences throughout the album, and I wondered what you would identify as the throughlines of songs on Famously Alive?
KC: We actually did a Sub Pop Takeover Playlist that outlines what we have been listening to lately. You can find that here.
OS: The album positively brims with energy, never an easy task for capturing in a studio record. Was there anything you focused on with the production that you could contribute to capturing that?
KC: The album was recorded at Transmitter Parks Studios by Abe Seiferth. Peter, Arian, and I really bonded with him during our Sub Pop Singles Club release so we decided to work with him again. Plus the mix sounded really good! Abe has endless fun knowledge and we laughed in the studio a lot. Abe has a big hearty, soulful laugh. Also, my dog, a Chow Chow named Watley, was in the studio the whole time. He slept in the vocal booth with me during every take. Why did we write such a positive hyper punk-pop album? Because we needed it… and frankly… you needed it too! Sometimes it just happens like that. We were all just trying to get through it.
OS: The song Famously Alive takes its lyrics from a poem by Jonny Tatelman – playing out the process of internalizing and interpreting someone else’s art, in the same way, that your art will then be internalized and interpreted by the listener. Does that resonate at all with you or give you a different perspective on how meaning or emphasis can evolve from creator to consumer?
KC: Oh, of course! Jonny is a great friend who lives out in LA and helped me through some of the dark days of my recovery. We have a kindred outlook on life and have had similar struggles with substances, as does Peter. ‘Similar’ of course, but not the same. I guess that’s what friendships are, camaraderie and comfortability. We share stories and bounce ideas off each other that later turn into something new. It’s like a community spider web or something… but way less scary. Unfortunately, collective trauma often paves the way for a lot of great art. When we experience similar hardships, we feel more comfortable truly expressing ourselves, and the receivers of that art are more comfortable getting that information.
OS: A decade together is a major milestone for a band – has that time in and of itself given you any impetus to look back at who you were and what you’ve become? What do you think has evolved and what has remained constant?
KC: I wish I could have told myself 10 years ago that my weirdness is not something to be ashamed of. The fear of failure, shyness, not meeting the expectations of others… all of that doesn’t matter. It’s kind of the “golden age of being you” right now and that’s rad.
That being said, I am so happy that Peter, Arian, and I have stayed together all this time. They really are my best friends. We have been through so much together and I am sure we will go through so much more. This album is a masterpiece and I couldn’t have done it without them.
One thing that has remained constant through the years is the epic love from our fans! Before joining GTOSS, I didn’t really think that was possible. I am humbled by their appreciation and can’t wait to get out on the road to see them all again.
OS: Milestones can also be an opportunity to look ahead. What excites you still about the future of Guerilla Toss?
KC: I’m excited to have the power of Sub Pop behind our band. I think they’re a really great, caring label that cherishes their artists and listeners. I truly feel like they are in it because they genuinely like music. That’s very refreshing coming from a label and corporation in general. I am also excited to go on tour. Our tour starts early April and it’s been forever since we hit the road. I have so much voice trapped inside me it’s insane.