BY: DANIEL KORN
When I called Peter Negroponte – the drummer of Guerilla Toss – at noon on a weekday, he groggily asked me if we could move the interview back an hour.
I should have fucking known this would happen. You don’t really expect one of the founding members of the most insane noise bands around to be an early riser.
Later, Negroponte ensures me that this isn’t a common occurrence, that he was only out on the town until 4 AM last night because he’s in his hometown of New York City visiting friends, but I’m not sure if I believe him. The clanging, grinding aural assault of Guerilla Toss doesn’t exactly bring to mind a band that’s satisfied with packing up their gear and going home early.
But maybe this is a poor assumption. The band may sound a bit like a cat puking up its vocal chords into a pit full of high Neanderthals banging on garbage cans, but there’s both a high level of musicianship and a dedication to well-crafted songs that becomes readily apparent after a couple listens.
You can probably chalk this up to the fact that most of them studied music in school. In fact, even the ones who don’t have more scholastic musical backgrounds still have some degree of formal training. For example, their singer Kassie Carlson – whose addition Peter sees as the true beginning of the band, and whose background is mostly in punk and hardcore – also plays classical violin. “I’ve never actually heard her play – she will not ever whip that out – but she’s secretly very talented,” says Negroponte.
For his part, Peter went to college in Vermont, where he “just sort of majored in partying and psychedelic drugs,” and then four years later moved to Boston – the home base of the band – where he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. “A very fine conservatory,” he adds, not without a hint of sardonicism. He did a couple semesters, dropped out, and eventually went back to wrap it up.
Negroponte has a complicated relationship with his music education as, I think, most formally-trained musicians do: “I’m not sure why I went back and finished. I definitely got some stuff from going to school for a few years, but I shouldn’t have gone back necessarily.” But he also realizes that his return was the inciting incident for the start of the band.
“For a long time I was like ‘fuck that place, why’d I go to school?’ But I don’t regret it anymore because if I hadn’t gone to school then I wouldn’t have gone to Boston and I wouldn’t be where I am now. So I’m happy.” Actually, a lot of Guerilla Toss is sort of an accident. There’s the happy coincidence of the band’s meeting in Boston, but aspects of their sound too, like Negroponte’s wonky pitch-shifted drum sound, attained by triggering his drums through an 80s MIDI brain called the Clavia Ddrum 2.
“The only reason I started fucking with that is because it was on the street in a pile of garbage, in a dumpster or something, so many years ago, when I was like 12 years old or something. I was in New York downtown somewhere, just wandering around, and it was on the street. So I picked it up and took it home, and 3 or 4 years ago I was just like ‘what the fuck is this thing?’ I had kept it for so many years and I hooked up and it was a cheapo-sounding little drum machine… I would have never gotten into triggers if I hadn’t found that thing in the garbage”.
At the same time, there’s been a serious intentionality to Guerilla Toss’s music, even from their first recording; the 2012 EP my real dad: live in nappa, made up of two 8-minute songs which contain the same pounding, demented sounds that they trade in today. They’ve also purposefully pushed their sound to more poppy directions on their two latest recordings – Gay Disco and the Smack the Brick EP – with songs that are of 4-minute length and follow more typical verse-chorus structures. Of course, the sounds therein are still overwhelmingly aggressive and noisy enough that they’re immediately off-putting to any listener of standard pop music. When I asked Negroponte about this, the conversation moved over to avant-garde music, the kind that you’d study in school:
“You’ve got jazz and avant-garde and all that stuff, and I love it, but a lot of it is totally inaccessible to people that don’t know it. People go around being like ‘jazz is dead’ or ‘I’m so skilled and write these crazy long form compositions that are so avant-garde and have microtones and shit, why doesn’t anyone like it?’ and like, nobody’s going to like it because they have no idea what the fuck it is, because they didn’t study all of that 20th century avant-garde music, so they’re going to think it sounds like shit.”
Guerilla Toss, then, are a band about balance, or at least about trying to gain something of the sort – between primality and sophistication, accident and purpose, pop and no-wave. They’re a junkie trying to kick the habit, a teenager on LSD whispering to herself to “maintain”, Daffy Duck rotating his beak back around after having it shot off his face. You can dance to Guerilla Toss, but it’s always going to end up as a mess of spastic arm movements and poorly-synchronized head bobs.
A few years ago, their then-guitarist Simon Hanes started talking about the band wanting to fund a porno rock opera – “like the movie version of Tommy, but a porno,” explains Negroponte – and this makes a lot of sense to me. There’s a very sexual aspect to Guerilla Toss. Hanes played shows naked from the waist down, his flaccid dick bouncing around to the music, occasionally poking its head out from the side of the guitar; meanwhile, Carlson is happy to throw her lithe body around in tight-fitting pants, crop tops, and sports bras. The music, with its gyrating synths, unintelligibly-shrieked lyrics and stilted grooves feels like a very particular kind of sex – not getting on up like a sex machine, but the sloppy inelegant chaos of a shitfaced hookup at your best friend’s grimy downtown apartment.
Unlike that hookup though, Guerilla Toss’s music lasts, so long as your ears can handle the cacophony. You could spend a lot of time dissecting every part of these songs – their bizarre guitar tones, the time signatures of the tunes, the somehow simultaneously on- and off-beat drum patterns, what the hell the singer is yelling about. As Negroponte puts it, “none of the coolest bands ever knew what the fuck they were doing.”