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The Armed have a message of love perfectly suited for the disinformation age

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The Armed say they are a collective, rather than a band. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • The Armed say they are a collective, rather than a band.

I’m sitting in the arcade above Detroit’s Checker Bar, and there’s someone sitting up at the bar I think I’m supposed to talk with. He's in sunglasses and a gray hoodie with his hood up, sipping a cocktail and looking at his phone. He hasn't looked around once. Not in the way people do when they're meeting a stranger and the meeting time is approaching.

I'm looking for Dan Greene, of self-described punk rock band the Armed, and I've shown up pretty much on time. I make a loop around the place to check out the vintage arcade machines and a few happy-hour gamers. As I approach the bar to order a beer, gray hoodie guy doesn't even look up.

I take a seat at a table across the room, when I start noticing the overhead music's taunts. First, Rancid's Tim Armstrong has a warning: "as wicked as it may seem, as wicked as anything could be." Then, Iggy Pop's crooning: "I am a passenger, and I ride and ride..." The universe is heavy handed. I'm in an arcade, getting played. It's wicked. And I'm along for the ride.

I'm not really sure who I'm meeting. I've seen Dan Greene in one of the Armed's YouTube videos. And I've seen most of the guys I know to be in the Armed play in one of their other projects, one that didn't have any members who look like this guy. None were named "Dan." Oh, and for this interview, there will be one more Dan than I was first told about. I learned this when the band's PR guy emails me late in the evening the week before to ask if I could possibly move up the interview.

"The Dans fucked up," he wrote.

As I'm about to approach, hoodie guy's acquaintance shows up in a pair of gym shorts, a St. Vincent sweatshirt, Spider-Man hat, and sunglasses. He seems excited, and his friend at the bar is now too. And this new guy is looking around. A lot. I get a text. "Hey, it's Dan from the Armed. I just got to the arcade."

Last week, the Armed released their third full length album, Only Love, on their own label, No Rest Till Ruin (and Throatruiner in Europe). It's a brilliant, disorienting mix of what you could call metallic hardcore, electro-punk, and psychedelic art rock that builds on and blows up the band's nearly 10 years of perfecting, concentrating, and blasting through the other side of extreme, aggressive music in a way that feels like a natural next move and an unlikely side step at the same time.

Last Friday, the band celebrated its release with a secret house show in Chicago. On Saturday, they'll play a local release show at the recently relaunched Sanctuary, an all-ages, DIY venue specializing in punk, metal, and all its subgenres, in Hamtramck. Later this month, they'll open a handful of Midwest dates for prog-metal supergroup Mutoid Man.

The band fully expects to turn off some longtime followers with the new sounds, but early press and fan response has been positive, with online outlets Noisey, NPR, Stereogum, and more spreading the word.

The music is compelling on its own, but the Armed also produces great visuals to go along with it, which has helped it find a small-but-dedicated audience globally, even while rarely playing outside Detroit.

Lead single "Witness" plays like the band's own take on weirdo dance punk Dan Deacon, experimental black metal act Liturgy, and party rock phenomenon Andrew W.K., and its accompanying video shows a surreal and lonely sci-fi world that could have been built by director Darren Aronofsky.

For the video for second single "Role Models," the band enlisted Tommy Wiseau of cult film The Room to wear a ghillie suit — a tactical military outfit that makes a person look like Swamp Thing — and sit alone with a reel-to-reel tape machine to listen to the song and gesture enthusiastically with his arms. Adult Swim premiered the video in March, and it already has nearly 32,000 views.

There's also some myth-making at work. The band doesn't list individual credits for its albums, and under "Band Members" on its Facebook page there's just a special character approximation of its logo: ⋈. And for a while now, press photos have mostly featured guests — studio collaborators, perhaps — who don't necessarily look like the live band local fans might expect (NPR actually called attention to this when it premiered third single "Luxury Themes" at the end of March).

***

Back at the arcade bar, the Dans — Greene ("with an 'e'") and Stolarski — talk about how they wanted to work with new musical references after wearing out the hyper-aggressive sounds the band had developed to date. Stolarski is excited as he talks, and he sometimes punctuates his thoughts with a loud laugh. Greene is more reserved, adding stray analysis, but mostly smiling to himself as he listens. (He later half-jokes: "I'm just here to say pretentious things.")

"I sort of see this record as a maximalist project," Greene offers early on. "We're both big movie fans, and, this may be a poor analogy, but I think almost in the sense of a Marvel film, where you want to encapsulate cinema references from all the eras, like, making it something that's presentable to a modern audience, that's entertaining but also filled with incredible art."

"I'm not saying this is on par with that," Greene admits. "But I think we wanted to take all of our influences and make something that was an expression of all of our instincts musically. And then making it also, in a sense, a pop-oriented record that maybe we haven't ventured into in the past." (See?)

Stolarski says the idea in the beginning was to try and make a "sellout record" no label execs actually asked for. "It was just, 'What can we do to make the best possible version of that?'" he says. "Not, 'All of a sudden we're going to play something different.' We're going to use the same language we've developed, but tell a different story."

They also talk at length about their love for "bad albums by great artists and great albums by bad artists," naming Metallica and Lou Reed's universally-panned collaboration Lulu and David Bowie's Earthling as examples.

"I think we're tapping into a lot of this stuff that a lot of people hate," Stolarksi says.

And they spent a lot of time doing it. After putting together some rough demos, a few band members made the trip out to GodCity Studios in Salem, Mass., to record initial tracks with Kurt Ballou, guitarist of Converge and engineer to many metal and hardcore bands.

They then brought those tracks home to finish recording before chopping everything up, resampling some of it and making "noticeable and strange edits" before shipping it all back to Ballou for mixing. The band had worked on self-recording in the past as a way to save money, but this was different.

"It was all part of really taking the time to capture the oddest, most unexpected, most layered version of ourselves that we could find," Stolarski later adds by email. "We wanted this record to be super duper intense sonically, but not necessarily how you'd expect from a metal record."

It shows. Instruments and voices drop out in big moments. Frantic starts give way to electronic hums. Clean singing appears almost throughout. Some of the music sounds nearly danceable. And when it's time for the payoff in moody closer "On Jupiter," there's a violent strobing effect, like someone's run the entire mix through a skipping CD. The record is noisy, messy, and even joyful. But it's all framed and informed by hardcore.

"It's not about hearing every lick all pristine and executed perfectly," Stolarski says. "It's about how all these horrendous sounds congeal into this big, overwhelming mono-sound and the joy or intensity that can inspire. We were determined to carve out something hopefully a bit unique in a genre that has a pretty narrow band of 'acceptable' production."

The Armed play Small's Bar in Hamtramck in 2016. - CHUCK MARSHAL/LIFEINMICHIGAN.COM
  • Chuck Marshal/LifeInMichigan.com
  • The Armed play Small's Bar in Hamtramck in 2016.

The one credit that does appear on Only Love goes to drummer Ben Koller, also of Converge, as well as All Pigs Must Die, Mutoid Man, and other projects. It's not the first time the band has worked with a high profile drummer — previous records have featured Chris Pennie, former drummer for Dillinger Escape Plan and Coheed and Cambria, and Nick Yacyshyn, of Sumac and Baptists.

According to Stolarski, the band had to trick Koller into drumming on the album. The story goes like this: First they told Koller that Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo was going to be involved in the project to get him to sign on. Then, when he didn't have time to do all the songs, they rewrote a bunch of parts to sound like another of Koller's bands that was about to record, only to get his drum takes, unwittingly, and then re-record over them.

"It sounds incredibly elaborate, because it was, and we did it, and it worked, and he's on the album," Stolarski says. "It's silly. ... This band is essentially just a fun joke project to us." Both Dans laugh.

Koller says by email that he was familiar with the Armed from stories his bandmate Ballou had told him over the years. He was a fan of a few of the songs and their "incredible videos," and he says the session sounded like a fun challenge and warm-up before tracking drums for Converge's next album, The Dusk In Us. What was originally going to be a guest appearance turned into Koller playing on most of the record.

"What really, really cinched the deal for me were some of the other collaborators they told me about who were going to play on the album," Koller says. "Hilariously, literally none of the people they told me about were involved in any way at all, as I found out when I arrived for the session. To be honest, I found that kind of awesome enough in its own right, that they would troll that hard and that deeply, so I just went with it."

Or so he says.

***

After stepping away from the table a few minutes, Dan Greene comes back, and he's got blood on his face. It's dripping a little down from his nose over his mustache toward his mouth.

I can't decide how to bring this up, and I'm wondering if it's actually been staged. Finally Stolarski points it out, and Greene seems surprised and a little embarrassed. "I've been sick," he says. "The loveliness of winter."

"I thought you were just trying to rock it Andrew W.K. style," Stolarski says, referencing the iconic cover of W.K.'s 2001 record, I Get Wet with the singer's smashed face on it. Greene runs with it and jokes he's stashed a vial of blood in the bathroom for this purpose before offering a self-deprecating, "Do I disgust you?"

W.K. is one of two musicians that keep coming up as I talk to and think about the Armed. The other is David Bowie. Bowie made a career out of continuous reinvention — he's already come up as an influence in this conversation — and his Aladdin Sane character also gets a heavy nod in the cover art of the Armed's 2015 record, Untitled. Some of the lyrics on Only Love reference another of Bowie's lesser-known fictional characters, and the Dans also claim YouTube temporarily flagged one of their videos for containing snippets of Bowie's music in a scene that was completely silent.

For W.K., there's a YouTube clip of the Armed closing a set with a cover of his "Party Hard," and Stolarski points to a passage of W.K. saying he wanted his debut album to "sound like it was all one instrument that was the most violent, brutal thing ever," as similar to the band's goal with Only Love.

After the success of I Get Wet, cynics started to wonder if W.K.'s "party hard" schtick was actually some kind of corporate scheme. When it became more fun to let people believe he might be some kind of imposter than to tell the boring truth, that's what he did.

***

The Armed started in 2009 with a group of six main players and a handful of outside collaborators. The core "live band" has more or less stayed intact over the years, but Stolarski says the group has always functioned more like a project or a collective, with people coming and going in and out. Most live in or are from the Detroit area, but some are out of state.

It's not difficult to put together who most of those main players have been over the years with a few Google searches, but the band is also fine with — and encourages — misdirection on this point. Stolarski says it's less about being secretive than putting the focus on the music instead of individual personalities.

"Over time, it seems like people made a bigger deal of it than what it actually was, and then sometimes we played into that," he says.

Part of "playing into that" has included misrepresenting the band in press photos, something Stolarski says isn't actually as new as people think.

"The ironic thing is there are more real people in the photos of the band you see now than there were when it started," he says. "In the beginning everyone just assumed those were the people in the band, so there's this hilarious thing that people think that it changed, but it's been the exact thing we've been doing from day one. It's just, as we shifted it over time, people caught on and drew their own conclusions, and we've let that just live out there as canon."

When asked for an interview, the publicist of Detroit harcore band the Armed sent “the Dans” — and this “press photo.” - DYLAN REMINDER
  • Dylan Reminder
  • When asked for an interview, the publicist of Detroit harcore band the Armed sent “the Dans” — and this “press photo.”

Over the course of the interview, he names vocalist Randall Kupfer ("the big, big, guy"); and instrumentalists Kenny Szymanski and Cara Drolshagen, two of whom it's easier to confirm have played and recorded with the Armed before.

Since forming, the Armed released a full-length and a handful of EPs, singles, and split releases leading up to 2015's Untitled, which started getting more national press and attention.

Their records and other merch have sold well enough that the band started its own label, mostly for tax purposes. No Rest Until Ruin has also released albums by related projects Nice Hooves and Old Gods. For the last few years, the label has hosted No Rest Fest, a curated night of extreme, weird, and loud Detroit-area bands doing 10-minute sets. (Stolarski says they stole the idea directly from drummer Alex Leonard from fellow Detroit act Protomartyr).

After Untitled's release, the story goes that the band did two weeks of unannounced shows at odd venues around the U.S. — open mic nights, gas station parking lots — to bewildered, unexpecting spectators. A live album, Unanticipated, documents two of the more formal dates in Detroit and Chicago. The rest you have to imagine.

The Dans also say the band almost broke up after this period as people lost interest, but was then re-energized after shooting a video audition pitching Greene as the next frontman for Stone Temple Pilots. The '90s rock band was asking fans to submit tryouts in 2016, and the Armed's entry starts out looking like an earnest attempt before quickly veering into a bad acid-trip of Greene shirtless and dramatically muttering song lyrics cut with absurdities about starships and taking candy from babies. (If you haven't seen it yet, stop reading this and go look it up.)

The video went viral, with more than 20,000 views and more than a few upset STP fans. It wasn't their first YouTube hit. Their previous videos for "Paradise Day" and "Polarizer" each have more than 40,000 views to date. The latter features a mashup of current pop stars edited to look like they're singing along to Kupfer's screams. Stolarski says the vocalist spent more than 200 hours editing existing music videos to put together the elaborate super-cut, which they figured would just get pulled down for copyright infringement.

The group's DIY approach to every aspect of the band is also pragmatic. Most of the members are artists working full-time in creative fields — graphic design, photography, cinematography, and film direction. Their skill set has also helped them create a following without the "get in the van" mentality that usually comes with being an unknown, Midwestern act.

"I guess the idea of the Black Flag model appeals to us less than just making as much art as we can," Stolarski says. "Shows are a blast, and I think we put on one of the best shows. But we really wanted to do other stuff. I view Dan's dumb Stone Temple Pilots video as being just as important as some of the other stuff we do."

***

The cover of Only Love features a photo of a leaf-covered human seated at the counter of a diner at night. It's one of several places this sort of imagery pops up around the album's promotional materials, and it goes back to a gag the band started doing live a couple of years ago, where someone would came out in a ghillie suit to run around the stage and into the crowd.

Like their new album, the idea was to get listeners out of their own expectations and norms for what a hardcore show should be.

"In doing so, you provide all these different types of people with an experience rooted in discovery and confusion that they can all share together on a similar level," Stolarski says. "You eliminate the hierarchy. Everyone's just confused. It's great."

Lyrically, Only Love is pretty impressionistic. Lyrics are written by committee, and no obvious, overarching theme is present, but there are a few interesting name drops, like Russian general Valery Gerasimov, in the song "Ultraglass."

"He wrote this big thing about how the future of warfare is misinformation, which is awesome, because we started with that title, and the whole idea was to flood the scene with the 'Polarizer' video and all this stuff, and use this kind of weird version of that," Stolarski says.

Of course, that was before President Donald Trump and his supporters began calling any story they didn't like "fake news" — and before concerns about intentional Russian-backed disinformation campaigns that could have affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election came to light.

"'Fake news' is what everyone talks about now," Stolarski says. "This fun thing we sort of used for art before is what's now ruining the whole world."

"On Jupiter" is about the Toynbee tiles — small, homemade looking plaque-type things inscribed with cryptic messages about restarting life in space, that have been installed anonymously in cities around the U.S. by an unconfirmed messenger. A documentary was made about the phenomenon in 2011.

"He's like this weird guy who's trying to save everyone with these tiles and spread his message that way, which I think is sort of what a lot of people use art for, to spread some sort of message in a way they don't feel comfortable doing otherwise," Stolarski says.

The word "love" appears eight times on the album, and none appear to be in the romantic sense. When I ask if there's a love song in the bunch, the Dans say all of them are a "sort of love song." They go on to explain that, while the Armed has positioned itself as an apolitical band for the most part, "a lot of things are bumming people out" these days.

"We're a solutions-oriented band," Stolarski says. "The only solution could be love. That's the only thing that would make it OK."

I'm sure he's putting me on, but the more I think about it — about all of this — the more I believe him, and the Armed.

Touring unannounced to play guerrilla gigs to no one. Recreating your album in a different style to trick a member of one of underground metal's biggest bands into drumming on it, or at least claiming as much. Using aliases and stand-ins to conduct an hour-long, in-person interview arranged by a professional PR person, only to leave the freelance writer guessing whether any of it was true.

See, Dan Stolarski is a real person. I've never met him, but he runs a small label, makes his own music, and DJs a regular avant garde music night in Detroit. And he's in the Armed's press photos. But at the arcade, I talked with someone else who claimed to be Dan Stolarski, who is also in the Armed.

Why else would anyone go to so much trouble? It could only be love.

The Armed's album release show for Only Love is Saturday, May 5, at The Sanctuary; 2932 Caniff St., Hamtramck; Doors at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $5.

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