Q&A: Guerilla Toss’ Kassie Carlson On Technology Anxiety, “Must”-urbation, And Her Band’s New Album GT Ultra
Guerilla Toss have come a long way from their beginnings as an inscrutable art-punk band known for their riotous live shows and scuzzy recordings. Their earliest work was often standoffish and willfully difficult — it captured the disorienting effect of watching them perform in person, but lost some of their infectious energy in translation. Over the last couple years, however — most noticeably starting with 2015’s Flood Dosed EP and last year’s Eraser Stargazer full-length, two releases that coincided with their DFA Records signing — they’ve transitioned from a group that keeps themselves at a distance to one that welcomes you into their ambitious vision with open arms.
Their new album, GT Ultra (which is out now physically and will be released digitally at the end of the month), is their most immediate and accessible work yet, but it doesn’t abandon the band’s avant-garde roots. By becoming more lucid over the years, they’ve started making music that’s somehow even more beguiling than their past material. GT Ultra is an album that marries visceral pop hooks with psychedelic ooze and a palpable sense of doomsday anxiety. Part of the record’s clarity can be attributed to how Kassie Carlson’s vocals and lyrics have gradually come to the forefront; coupled with a jump in fidelity from their early recordings, she provides an anchor that lets Guerilla Toss’ unyielding compositions really set in and take hold. Their newfound directness helps drive home what the band aims to explore with this album.
GT Ultra gets its name from the government-sponsored Project MKUltra in which the CIA used drugs and forms of psychological torture to examine and test subjects’ mental states. The album cover comes from Mark McCloud’s acid blotter art collection at the San Francisco-based Institute Of Illegal Images. By acknowledging these two influences upfront, the band looks at both sides of unlocking a higher state of consciousness. Guerilla Toss’ music has always been interested in capturing the effects of drugs on one’s psyche, but the songs here offer a devilishly sinister take, examining both the detrimental manipulation that losing control can have on your mind while also exploring what that loss of control can unlock within yourself.
But removed from the specificity of drugs, GT Ultra is largely an album about feeling like you’re not able to be yourself, whether you’re tripping or not. That sense of alienation fuels these songs, and GT Ultra examines how technology and the deteriorating environment and the impending apocalypse are all exacerbating how we further disassociate from ourselves. But it’s also about finding ways to hold on during periods of intense upheaval, and learning how to take control of your own narrative. On “Crystal Run,” the band offers up something of a spiritual mantra to navigating your own fate: “Change the frequency/ Move freely/ Shift the tone of it/ Breathe easy.”
Carlson’s lyrics are like nesting dolls of concepts and allusions — in a couple of emails she sent me before and after our interview, she lays out the some of the inspirations for the album’s songs. Lead single “The String Game” takes its cues from Greek Stoicism and the children’s game Jacob’s Ladder in which one uses a piece of yarn to create a ladder in your fingers. It references a fly colony that Carlson saw multiplying in an attic in upstate New York and a homeless woman that she frequently passed and spoke to on the street who talked about heaven and hell and the looming Judgement Day. That’s only scratching the surface of the song’s divergent components, but Carlson translates this mass of ideas into something minimal and piercing, and you can sense the rest of it bubbling just below the surface: “This woman I know, she’s ripping paper/ Pointing at her mumbling ‘nirvana,'” she sings in a trance-like drone. “She figured it out in bits and pieces/ Fragments of good outweigh the rocky.”
“Betty Dreams Of Green Men,” the album’s second single (which we’re premiering below), was originally inspired by the story of Betty and Barney Hill, a couple who claimed to be abducted by aliens in 1961. Carlson listened to tapes of them recounting their story while under hypnosis and got really immersed in looking at underground societies of people that believe they have been abducted. But the song branches out from there, and ends up being about what habits or memories we embrace in order to get us through the day. And whether that’s believing that the aliens who abducted you are eventually coming back or drugs or meditation or the “satin little rabbit” that’s referenced in the song’s lyrics, they’re all coping mechanisms for dealing with life’s many uncertainties.
Listen to “Betty Dreams Of Green Men” and read my conversation with Carlson about technology anxiety, “must”-urbation, and Guerilla Toss’ new album below.
STEREOGUM: How has the band’s creative process changed over the last two years, especially with your last couple of albums?
KASSIE CARLSON: Well, Peter’s kind of the brains behind the whole thing. It’s kind of like his brainchild. So he comes in with ideas, and then we jam for forever and rehearse everything front-to-back and in all these different ways. We spend hours and hours on one little part of the song. This album was actually recorded about nine months ago.
STEREOGUM: Why is it coming out now if it was finished so long ago?
CARLSON: Well, we got really exhausted. We’ve been putting out music for five or six years, toured a lot… I wasn’t really taking care of myself at all and it was bad. A lot of things were happening… It’s been kind of a heavy time and we’ve been through a lot together. You get so close with your band members and they become kind of like your family. We spend hours and hours in a van together and go through all this shit together all the time, and it gets crazy. So, mentally, we needed a break. I was spending time in LA and trying to get healthy… Life is intense, especially when you’re touring. You’ve gotta be “on” all the time, and that’s hard.
STEREOGUM: It must be especially hard because your live shows are so intense. It takes a lot out of someone as a person and a performer.
CARLSON: I’m not really a social person in real life and I like spending a lot of time alone… That’s why I feel like this record is really, really deeply personal. There’s more storytelling than there’s ever been. I feel like so much time is spent creating these songs. Like, so much time… I can’t even… This band is completely all-consuming. We’re all really huge… Peter’s a massive personality. He’s just like, this massive person, and Arian is too, but in a different way. He’s more laid-back and introverted, but when you kind of get in there, you’re like, oh my god. And Sam and Greg… They’re just all these really wonderful people.
Peter just has this endless amount of energy to create and make and do things now, now, now, and I think that’s maybe one of the things that tired us out. There’s this sense of… this must happen now and if it doesn’t happen now, then that’s it. For better use of a word, it’s a kind of “must”-urbation. Like, I must do this now. Some people think that this band is mostly improv when it isn’t. Everything is really fucking meticulous, and a lot goes into it. They’re all brilliant musicians… And the layers of lyrics are representative of not only how complexly crazy we all are as people, but also as creative people… I feel like when we’re writing, I can’t even have a job. It’s crazy. That’s probably not healthy, but it is what it is.
STEREOGUM: Do you think that the way the band itself functions — that you work all of the time because if you don’t do it now, when are you going to do it? — translates over to the songs themselves? I feel like a lot of them on this album are addressing the idea of some impending doom or looking towards the end of the world. Is that a place you were writing from?
CARLSON: Yeah, totally, that can be seen on so many levels. On “Skull Pop,” there’s the lyric, “Will there really be a morning? Is there such thing as day? Will I wake up tomorrow and see it walk away?” I envision the earth as a being that’s literally laying under a carpet that’s made out of the ocean or the clouds or whatever… And it’s the end of the world because everything is fucked environmentally. But, on another level, it’s also me trying to talk myself down… Just trying to be okay with things being unresolved with the band and with relationships. You ever feel like things are just unresolved and you have to…?
STEREOGUM: You have to let go because not everything can have an answer. I think that’s interesting especially because your band has always been kind of druggy in a way, especially with this album in terms of the cover art and the title… It’s like, when you’re tripping, you can’t really be in control of what you’re feeling. Learning to let go of that part of you is important to existing in the world.
CARLSON: Yeah. The last lyric on the album is: “Wade way out by the heavy drone to fade, but never to pass away.” Just trying to go out in this meditative way and letting things go and just be. Because the only thing you have control over is yourself and what you do. And what other people do, it’s what they do.
STEREOGUM: When was the last time you guys performed together?
CARLSON: In September. I’m kind of scared for our record release show coming up… We played a show with Parquet Courts and then we haven’t done anything since. Peter and I still record together. We have a lot of songs that are just us. There’s so much material that’s unreleased… It’s so weird. There’s poppy, keyboard synth-pop stuff with just Peter and I that’s never really been released. I think it’s really sick and I hope that someday he’ll let us release it, but he’s kind of a perfectionist. Which is cool, I love that a lot.
STEREOGUM: I feel like your songs have always been polished, but especially over the last two years, they’ve become way more accessible. Is that intentional?
CARLSON: Well, I think something that’s really overlooked is that being in a band is a linear thing. Sometimes people get upset, like We like old G-Toss, but it’s like… The music is a direct representation of what each of us are going through in our life. To stay the same and never change, that would be bad. You know how people are always like, Oh, we liked their first album? People always say that to be cool. But yeah… it’s okay if people don’t like the new poppier stuff… I don’t care. I’m just making it for the band.
STEREOGUM: What was behind the decision to release it physically a month before putting it out digitally?
CARLSON: That decision was more on the label side… We were trying to push the release even further back and not release it yet, but everything was kind of already in motion. We weren’t sure if we were ready mentally to answer questions about it. But yeah… we just want this to really be a thoughtful thing. It’s really hard to navigate being a band in the digital age where the internet makes everything seem so quick and expendable. Having a physical copy before the digital just makes it feel like what we’re releasing is a tangible thing. There’s was no real intention, but there sort of was…
STEREOGUM: It’s hard out there for artists who aren’t immediately accessible. That’s unfortunately just how the pace of the internet works. And that’s a detriment to artists that need time to grow and aren’t always provided that time because of the constrictions of being online…
CARLSON: Yeah… I was listening to a podcast today talking about the amount of inventions that have happened in the last 70 years and how things have progressed faster than they ever have in the history of humans. Like, the invention of the lithium ion battery and being able to have laptops and cellphones. In my lifetime, cellphones became a thing, and now they’ve completely changed everything. Facebook is completely changing the human psyche. With that instant gratification, with the perception of who you are and what you present. I find a lot of people are deleting their Facebooks because they find out how much of an effect it has on them…
Facebook has this section of their company called the Trust Engineers who figure out how to talk to people better online. Like, if you try to report a post on Facebook, they’ll lead you through a series of questions like, Why do you not like this?, and it’s manipulative in this way that it makes you click through all these options and, in the end, you don’t even actually get to another human person. It resolves you in this way… It’s so weird how a company is just controlling everyone’s lives…
I was in a van with this band the other day, and one of the guys was telling me that he was with this little kid and he told him to look in a field because there were cows there and they were really far away and the little kid went like… [makes zooming in motion with hands]. That’s crazy.
STEREOGUM: I see three or four year olds playing with iPads all the time, and I can’t imagine that it’s healthy for their psyche. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have so much of your entertainment and life based around this screen that you don’t really understand isn’t real. When you’re young, you can’t really make those sort of distinctions.
CARLSON: There’s a lyric in “Skull Pop” that’s like, “My eyes were on the screen of my own interests.” I’m not really one for posing in pictures and stuff like that, but that’s totally a thing now. This me me me me me impulse… You can even see it in like kids being filmed on Facebook — like, your home movies are now for everyone to see.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I wonder if in twenty years we’ll have a lot different view on technology than we do now. Hopefully people will realize how detrimental the effects can be. I don’t know that the next generation will have this reverence for technology that we do. Or maybe they just won’t know any better. But I kind of hope they see the dark side of it.
CARLSON: I actually feel like there’s going to be a rise in transhumanism. Basically people getting like magnets put into their fingertips so they can better sense magnetism and things like that… People wanting to become more robot or cyborg. Like, they just feel like they should be that way. It’s already sort of happened with stuff like Google Glass or even the Apple Watch. It’s attached to your arm. Like, how often is your cellphone in your hand anyway? And now you don’t have to even hold it? In our lifetime, there’s definitely going to be technology that’s put into our bodies. Everything’s going so fast.
STEREOGUM: I feel like those ideas do come across in your music. The idea of melding with technology, the idea of being engrossed with this thing that doesn’t necessarily matter and feels very ephemeral.
CARLSON: It makes me feel like an alien or like I don’t really belong. Like, the lyrics to “Betty Dreams Of Green Men” … they’re very dear to me. It’s about feeling very alien and having something tucked inside your pocket like meditation or a velvet silk memento, like a tiny rabbit that you can hold onto. Something that’s all-encompassing and can take you to another place… Some peace, some place of realization or a respite from your thoughts or the things that are going on…
It’s been a hard couple of years. I don’t know if you’re affected by it at all, but the opiate epidemic that’s happening is really crazy. People dying from opiates has almost doubled. There are entire generations of kids that have died from opiates in my hometown. I’m from Cape Cod, and it’s really bad there. A lot of kids my age and people that I knew have died. And just trying to function in this crazy world that’s all immediate all the time..
STEREOGUM: There’s a new thing going on every day that you can be horrified by, and it’s very hard to tune it out because we’re constantly connected. And it’s important not to tune it out entirely because these things that are happening are important to how we’re going to function and move forward as a society, but it can also feel very overwhelming.
CARLSON: Yeah… And you can either have a way to deal with that kind of thing — like that little velvet thing you can hold onto… It can either be something good for you or something bad for you. Waiting for that feeling to feel good again… I’m a person that goes up and down a lot — like deep lows and deep highs — and just waiting for that break to feel like a human again that can go out and interact with people… It’s hard.