It wasn’t so surprising to read what the New York Times wrote about Marijuana Deathsquads two weeks ago, although there were some choice lines about Minneapolis’ freak-bomb electro-punk troupe. Such as: “The songs predicted apocalypse; the drums, in a strategic barrage, enacted it.”
No, the shocking part was that esteemed Times critic Jon Pareles even stooped to type out the words “Marijuana Deathsquads.” A wackily named, oddly assembled and bizarrely executed group of Twin Cities indie all-stars, the Deathsquads seem to have crossed a line this year.
The improvisational group — featuring members of Poliça, local rap star Stef “P.O.S.” Alexander and a night-to-night assemblage of guest collaborators — has evolved from a just-for-kicks project that its participants didn’t even tell their moms about to one with a national publicist, a real website and, lo and behold, a New York Times press clip.
It’s also now a band that tours. A core group of Deathsquads members returns this week from a monthlong U.S. trek opening for Poliça, culminating in two hometown shows with both acts Friday and Saturday at Mill City Nights (First Avenue was already booked).
“We’re sort of using this tour to figure out how to be a real band,” Deathsquads co-founder Isaac Gale said by phone last week from a Phoenix hotel room.
Talking on speaker phone alongside bandmates Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu — also the drumming duo from Poliça — Gale and the other Deathsquads seemed careful not to sound like they’re suddenly Bon Jovi hoping to conquer the world.
“ ‘Because it’s fun’ is still a big reason why we’re doing this,” Christopherson said.
He, Gale, Alexander and producer/gadgets-wiz Ryan Olson all were bandmates in the (relatively) more conventional noise-punk band Building Better Bombs. When Alexander toured for long stretches as P.O.S. in the late ’00s, though, the other guys “needed to figure out a way to still make music together,” Gale remembered.
So they improvised, literally. Tape loops, Mac laptops, electronic instruments, untold numbers of cords and different drummers became the crux of their new act, producing crescendoing waves of noise, freakish outbursts, hypnotic pulsations and rarely anything resembling a melody.
Three years later, Alexander is now the one at home while the other Deathsquads are on tour. “Stef is a key member of this band and can always come and go as he pleases,” Christopherson clarified, promising that Alexander — still awaiting a kidney transplant — would perform at the Minneapolis shows and some West Coast dates.
Same story with another regular, Jason Powers of Slapping Purses. Meanwhile, former To Kill a Petty Bourgeosie sonic arranger Mark McGee is in tow as part of the Deathsquads’ touring ensemble. Pals such as Spoon drummer Jim Eno, Har Mar Superstar and Poliça singer Channy Leaneagh have also joined in on tour.
Roles in the group shift and even shape-shift from gig to gig. At the core, Olson acts as conductor and button-presser, while Gale and sometimes Alexander howl, scream, chant, mumble, pray, whatever, through electronically manipulated microphones. The drummers work maniacally around the mayhem, sometimes playing in lockstep and sometimes seemingly on different planets.
“One of the key things is Ryan actually talks to Ben and I and any other drummers through the headphones we wear on our heads,” Christopherson explained, providing examples such as “play a cymbal wash” or the no-doubt-oft-heard “go [crazy].”
“We’re actually doing less improv than we ever have on this tour,” said Gale, who described the group’s musical evolution as “starting out more as droning, sprawling and loose, and we’ve since tightened up and grown a little more focused and purposeful.”
At least one track off the group’s latest album, “Oh My Sexy Lord,” is making it into the sets each night. The record was pieced together from hours of tape captured at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio near Eau Claire, Wis. Remembered Gale, “We basically went crazy for 10 days straight and waited to see what we had until it was over.”
Poliça owes a certain debt to MDS for its own unconventional sonic blueprint. Enjoying a new level of success following the release of its second album — “playing the new songs has been incredibly fulfilling,” Christopherson said — the headlining band’s increasingly mainstream crowd has nonetheless been somewhat freaked-the-heck-out by the wildness that is Marijuana Deathsquads.
“Not everyone likes what we’re doing,” Christopherson admitted, “but it does seem like everyone is listening. We’re at least getting their attention.”
There’s little doubt about that.