Arian Shafiee trips the heavy fantastic with his 1979 Kramer DMZ 2000. That model was built from 1978 to 1981, and was part of the second wave of Kramer guitars with aluminum necks.
Musical magic tricks that don’t rely solely on flashy production have become increasingly rare. But with the eight sonically surprising art-rock triumphs comprising their latest album, Eraser Stargazer, Guerilla Toss has emerged as something of a musical Ricky Jay. With a style that defies easy comparisons, the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Boston group displays an ability to create dance-worthy, approachable, and abundantly fun songs out of the complex elements that make experimental music challenging. And they make it seem as easy as cutting an orange in half with a flung ace of spades.
Eraser Stargazer, the band’s fourth full-length, is an adventurous, exuberant work that plays like a cartoon soundtrack. Atonality and harmonic quirks effortlessly meld with heady, jazz-informed rhythmic complications and off-kilter funk, but the result is far from the overwrought compositions that mix of ingredients might imply. Think instead of a deliriously joyful Carl Stalling composition—on acid.
The members of Guerilla Toss are a well-educated bunch whose core met at Boston’s New England Conservatory and work hard for their music’s seamlessness. Add in a slew of albums released on notable labels from throughout the experimental and outsider musical spectrum (including 2013’s Guerilla Toss on famed New York City avant-garde lynchpin John Zorn’s Tzadik Records), roots in the punk community, and a frantic, audience-enflaming live show that’s grown its own legend … and Guerilla Toss represents the vanguard of art-rock in 2016.
Arian Shafiee is charged with handling guitar duties for the group. He’s both a lifelong student of the instrument in the traditional sense and an anti-hero of the 6-string in Guerilla Toss. Shafiee is a product of unexpected and disparate influences that range from classic rock to technically challenging Norwegian black metal. To say his approach is unconventional would be a massive understatement. For example, Shafiee claims he didn’t bother tuning his guitars when playing with Guerilla Toss until around 2015—five years into his tenure.
Following the release of a new companion album to Eraser Stargazer called Live in Nashville, we recently spoke with Shafiee about his journey as a player, how he pens parts that rise above and support Guerilla Toss’ formidable din, his unconventional approach to creating atonal rhythms, playing chords like a drummer, and his perspective on music education.
What was your path into the guitar? Where do you come from as a player?
I grew up in San Francisco and found my mom’s electric guitar hanging in the basement when I was kid——it was some off-brand—and I just had a magnetic attraction to it and played it all the time. From there, I got into Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and eventually found myself doing a live performance of Van Halen’s “Eruption” at the 7th grade talent show through a bass cabinet I found in a friend’s closet.
A few years of the typical classic rock shredding many young guitarists are attracted to eventually led me to outside players like Zappa and Sonic Youth—people that broke the rules a lot—and that’s when I started trying out weird, extended technique type stuff. Now I’m back into classic rock, so it’s all a big cycle.
I had friends that wanted to play jazz, which was kind of square to me then, and friends that wanted to play in garage-rock bands, but they were all guitar players, so I defaulted to playing drums. So, as far as guitar went in my formative years, I would play weird, prepared guitar and experimental shit by myself, and I did that for years without really telling anybody.
Eraser Stargazer, the band’s fourth full-length, is an adventurous, exuberant work that plays like a sonic cartoon. Think of a deliriously joyful Carl Stalling soundtrack—composed on acid.
Could you tell me who influenced you?
I listen to and love a lot of black metal, which informed my technique, because I was always trying to do a lot of the techy stuff that’s a part of that sound. That said, I feel like I’ve had the same technique or amount of chops since I was 17, and haven’t grown much since then.
I got hip to bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem pretty early on, but was simultaneously listening to terrible pseudo goth/extreme metal—think Ozzfest circa 2003. Yikes! So, it all informed my technique and playing. Mostly the tremolo picking and stamina that requires, arpeggiating angular flourishes of notes, and lots of down-tuning. Later on I got more into bands like Enslaved, Emperor, Mütiilation … anything out of the Les Légions Noires-era is truly amazing—all of the French outsider black metal, which all seems to be presented with terrible audio quality, but is full of beautiful harmonies.
I pull from all different styles of music when I play in Guerilla Toss. As time goes on, things have gotten funkier, and I’m using more traditional funk chords, like E funk chords, occasionally. But most of the stuff I do is gestural. I didn’t start actually tuning my guitar in this band until about a year ago.
So you’d just roll with the tuning how it was?
When you hear super weird, skronky chords in our music, that’s me playing exclusively with rhythmic elements instead of forcing more harmony into the mix. Guerilla Toss has a really wide sonic range; there’s a ton of crazy low end and high end coming from the synths and keyboards. And we run our drums and keys through a sub we carry with us on tour, so there’s just so much going on that sometimes a guitar melody isn’t the best thing to speak over all of the sound. Sometimes the only thing that speaks over all of it is harsh, basic anti-chords in a really high register just being bashed out.
I hear a lot of that chordal density and tremolo picking stuff in Guerilla Toss’ music, but would never expect black metal to come into the picture!
That’s just the way I play. There are definitely a lot of ideas that come through during the writing process that I can’t always express, because I can’t really play that chord or that idea, but I can find a way to do it with an alternate form or gesture. Also, a lot of ’70s New York no wave stuff stuck with me and had a big influence on my playing. All of the really wide chords you hear in Guerilla Toss’ music ... if it sounds super harmonically complex, it’s because I came up with weird shapes on a visual level and just stuck with them until they worked somewhere. Guerilla Toss has a very wide palette: Two keyboards—often blasting sub-bass tones, drums that use triggered sounds, auto-wah bass guitar. Playing simply with gesture and register is a way to make musical figures speak loudly over the tons of layers and texture this band plays with. I often like to think of drums when playing sharp angular patterns, reducing a line or contour to just “high,” “middle,” and “low” registers, and I push the focus more towards the rhythmic aspect of the part. I down-tune to dropped C most of the time, which gives the rest of the strings a little extra slack, making it easier to latch onto random shapes.
Guerilla Toss brings the noise on its Brooklyn home turf at the now-shuttered club Palisades. Check out the edgy, staccato riffs Arian Shafiee picks out of his Fender Stratocaster when the Easter Bunny arrives. As the performance comes to its skronk-guitar conclusion, it’s clear this is not your average noise band.