Marijuana Deathsquads raid the West Coast
It's 1 a.m. at a little house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, and if you're expecting a party, don't—it's a work night. The kitchen island has been converted into a recording studio with a laptop, a microphone, some notebooks, a bottle of bourbon, and a seemingly endless supply of medicinal marijuana. As a beat hums out of the laptop speakers, Marijuana Deathsquads' Ryan Olson is intensely focused on tweaking sounds while Mike Mictlan of the Doomtree crew and Sean "Har Mar Superstar" Tillmann trade off experimenting with vocal lines and hastily jotting down notes. There's a feverish bubble around the proceedings; as Freddy Votel dozes under a pile of blankets on the couch and Ben Ivascu grabs a beer from the refrigerator, the trio pause for a quick hello and then get right back to work.
Wandering a few doors down the street, Ivascu and Skoal Kodiak's Markus Lunkenheimer and Brady Lenzen catch last call at Satellite (formerly Spaceland), a modest looking little venue that serves as a hub for L.A.'s indie scene. The bartender waits about three minutes before informing everyone that drinks need to be finished. Out front, the marquee declares: "FRIDAY: HAR MAR SUPERSTAR AND MARIJUANA DEATHSQUADS." There's not enough room to include P.O.S., Mictlan, and Skoal Kodiak, who are also on the next night's bill, but the shots have been fired, and the message is loud and clear.
Los Angeles: Consider this a Minnesota invasion.
For the entire month of February, Marijuana Deathsquads—Olson, Stef "P.O.S." Alexander, Isaac Gale, Ivascu, and Votel—left the harsh winter of Minnesota to hole up in Los Angeles for a weekly residency, joining forces with Har Mar Superstar at Satellite. Every Friday, the 300-person venue became a packed house of L.A. hipsters overwhelmed by the melding of tight grooves and sheer noisy unpredictability, each week growing and roping in new converts.
"We don't really see who's there until we're done, but when we're finished, it's been pretty packed, and they've been sweaty," Alexander says on the day of the third show. "It's new people every week...tighter than ever, and really easy to just fucking go for it."
Not bad for a bunch of guys who still don't have a full-length record out—although that's about to change.
It's been an explosive rise for a group that started as a way to avoid getting bored when their hardcore band Building Better Bombs was on hiatus. Over the past year, while P.O.S. played multiple festivals and the Olson-masterminded Gayngs exploded locally and nationally, Marijuana Deathsquads' party squad morphed from hardcore-inspired noise into a Picked to Click act who brought together an eclectic rotating cast of local musicians and out-of-town guests, creating ear-bending improv/dance grooves that defied listener expectations and spit in the face of easy categorization. Drummers Ivascu and Votel, who can claim membership in over 10 local bands between the two of them, form the organic rhythmic core; Gale, Alexander, and Olson act as the main noisemakers, sample-tweakers, and vocalists; and from there, you never know who's going to show up.
As the buzz grew, so did the crowds, and after MDS's first gig with a guarantee, they were looking for a way to use the money to their advantage. Enter Har Mar Superstar, visiting Minneapolis from his adopted Los Angeles. "Once I got the Gayngs record and saw them live at First Avenue, it was all over," says Tillmann. "I was hooked, part of the crew, and down for whatever." This led to three L.A. shows in the fall, with Tillmann collaborating. "I think people were ready for some meandering noise bullshit when they saw us set up, but the sets turned out to be super melodic dance parties where people were screaming for encores," he says. "It was infectious. Everyone wanted to know more about MDS and guest in the band."
"Sean suggested we come back out and do this," says Ryan. "He set up the Har Mar Superstar residency and asked us to come out. I still can't believe we pulled that off; we had no idea how we were going to get there, where to stay, who could go. It was all so up in the air as we left town, and things just came together. I'm really proud of everyone to have just trusted that we should do this and sacrificed everything that they did to make this happen. Amazing things went down because of this, and now we have so much more to look forward to."
So, at the beginning of February, MDS made their way to L.A. and, upon arrival, lucked into a living situation right down the street from Satellite. "I was out here staying with friends," says Alexander. "Dudes showed up in a van, and it was a mad scramble to find a place for everyone to live. It was like, 'We gotta find a house?'"
"I was like, 'Sorry guys, I can't have five dudes on my floor, I gotta live,'" Tillman adds.
Instead, a friend of Alexander's found them a house within spitting distance of Satellite, and Marijuana Deathsquads effectively took over Silver Lake, a part of town that even Hollywood insiders call "hipster central." The dual residency with Har Mar was set for every Friday of the month with different guests performing sets, including Eric Wareheim from Tim & Eric, Shannon and the Clams, Giant Drag, Big Dog on Top of Little Dog, Pope Anything, and, perhaps saving the strangest combination for the last show, Slapping Purses and Samantha Ronson. (No word if Lindsay Lohan showed up.) They'd booked a few other shows as well: two in Los Angeles (one at legendary strip club Crazy Girls, which "wasn't as crazy as I hoped," according to Ivascu), and two in the Bay Area—one in Oakland, the other in San Francisco, both featuring Skoal Kodiak and Slapping Purses.
This wasn't just about playing shows and hanging out, however—they were there to get things done. "We have been working our asses off constantly since we've been here," Olson says during our interview in L.A., tweaking beats on his laptop as we talk. "We overbooked our time here hard."
For the month, their little house turned into a creative epicenter producing and influencing some of the most highly anticipated albums of the coming year. Alexander arrived in L.A. a few weeks before the rest of MDS to record the next P.O.S. record with acclaimed engineer and fellow Hopkins native Andrew Dawson, who recorded Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ivascu played some drum tracks on the album. P.O.S.'s Doomtree collaborator Mike Mictlan recorded his album as well. Between the studio set up in the house and the studio where P.O.S. was making his record, Olson worked on multiple projects: Leron (the next Gayngs project, with Alexander and Tillmann), Satana, and Jason Power's Slapping Purses record, in addition to helping Tillmann overdub some audio for a movie he is in with Macaulay Culkin. Gale was out much of the time working on video projects. And, on top of everything else, there was work to be done on the debut Marijuana Deathsquads album.
While Olson seems most at home working alone, everybody seemed to be influencing each other to some degree. Tillmann puts it this way: "We all have our hands in each other's pies, which is a great thing. It's like having six world-class chefs within arm's reach to take a taste and give you advice on what you're working on. It's an invaluable experience. Everyone boosts each other's creativity and output exponentially."
The collaborative nature of Deathsquads, then, is a spark that influences everything the various members are working on, but remains its own special beast. Before their show, Alexander explains, "I will say, being in [MDS] is probably the most fun playing music could possibly be. What we're doing is playing as hard and as loud or quiet or whatever as we want."
"You can have all the fun features of improv without dealing with the boring aspects of improv," Olson says, laughing.
"Coming from playing in standard bands and touring rap so hard," continues Alexander, "getting a chance to just focus on playing with the sounds and letting go and not worrying about everybody who's there...Deathsquads is really a lot more about 'I hope you brought earplugs, or I hope you understand that you can wait outside, because we're going to play really, really loud and it's not going to stop until it's right.'"
That night, Alexander proves the veracity of that statement: With Skoal Kodiak opening and P.O.S. and Mictlan closing the night, this third Friday was guaranteed to be an amazing all-Twin Cities show, but MDS cranked things up an extra notch by adding David Yow (Jesus Lizard) and Kevin Rumantis (Cows) to their lineup for the evening. "I got to play with two dudes who were in bands that were inspirational to me," Ivascu says afterward. "So fucking weird and so fucking great!"
Now that they've left L.A., the shows, the studios, the crazy ways of blowing off steam like #AcidBieber3D (several members of the band dropped liquid-acid dosed SweetTarts and made it all the way through the Justin Beiber movie, live-tweeting the entire time), what's next? According to Olson, more work. In addition to the Gayngs spring tour that starts mere days after MDS gets back, "I will be spending every moment I have finishing up these records as soon as I get home," he emails me from the van. "Minneapolis is all about working on shit. This Deathsquads LP will be the first thing complete, then Slapping Purses, then a bunch more stuff... I dunno, this won't stop for a minute."
So, is there any chance we're going to lose MDS to L.A. permanently? Not likely, says Olson. "Every show was incredible, we got to play with people that we are big fans of, and seeing how they reacted to performing with Marijuana Deathsquads was some of the best experiences in my life. California has so many amazing things to offer, but Minneapolis is kicking its ass on the music scene."
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