The Armed are a head-spinning proposition. The anonymous Detroit hardcore collective have spent the past 14 years hiding behind a carefully curated air of mystery and an anarchic sense of irony that has, in tandem with records that fuse grinding chaos with moments of euphoric melody, made them one of the most consistently thrilling propositions in heavy music. It’s been suggested that everyone from Kurt Ballou, guitarist with the influential hardcore band Converge, to party-rocker Andrew WK to pro-skater Tony Hawk has been steering the ship.
But today, they’re coming clean, something vocalist Tony Wolski seems remarkably chipper about. In the past, he and his bandmates have delighted in toying with journalists, frequently utilising fake names and even sending actors to interviews in their places, making his boyish smile a tad unnerving. “Sorry to disappoint,” he says with a laugh, and it seems that his desire to offer the truth behind the most confusing, exciting punk band on Earth is at least somewhat genuine. “The real story is more confusing than any lie,” he contends.
The group’s new record, Perfect Saviors, has the potential to introduce their unruly creative spirit to a far wider audience. A luminous, pop-facing collection, it trades much of the Armed’s abrasiveness in favour of sleek presentation (helped by a sparkling mix from superproducer Alan Moulder, who has worked with U2 and Nine Inch Nails). For the first time, too, the group have offered what appears to be an authentic personnel list alongside the music, studded with eye-catching guest spots including Julien Baker, who features on lead single Sport of Form, and Iggy Pop, who stars as God in the accompanying video.
The LP is a sharp look at critical thinking and internet-led brain rot, where Wolski attempts to step back from the overload of information thrown at us day to day in favour of developing more meaningful interpersonal relationships. To the band, delivering this message from behind another splurge of theatrical misdirection would have been like pouring fuel on the fire. “Too much information has made us dumb,” he says. “We have too many ways to connect with people and now we just don’t connect at all. This interview is one of the most intimate things I’ll do all day. That’s crazy.”
Before those connections can be made, though, Wolski needs to cut through the web of conspiracy theories and pranks that orbit the band. Wolski is a 37-year-old advertising creative for McDonald’s, Jeep, Chevrolet and Ford who also has music video directing credits for artists including Tegan and Sara and Protomartyr. He has decided to drop the act now, he says, because “it started becoming shtick”.
When the Armed emerged in 2009 with their debut These Are Lights, they were what Wolski terms “functionally anonymous”. Forming from the bones of an otherwise forgotten band called Slicer Dicer, their membership quickly ran to dozens, with members assigned tasks from music and artwork to videos and web presence. “If we’re using bad tech jargon, we’re slasher culture,” Wolski says – meaning that contributors were expected to bring a variety of skills to the table.
Quickly, it became apparent that the Armed might be best understood not just as a rock band, but as an immersive, multimedia art happening. Their febrile music was bolstered at each turn by slick visuals – the video for their 2018 single Role Models starred Tommy Wiseau, director of the famously awful yet beloved cult movie The Room – and disorienting live shows featuring musicians who may or may not have played on their records. Frequently, a figure called Dan Greene would pop up in interviews or at gigs, being situated as a sort of cult leader at the head of the Armed’s organisation. “There’s a real person whose birth certificate says Dan Greene, who writes music in our band,” Wolski says. “But another person portrays Dan Greene as a character in the Armed multiverse.”
By refusing to list the names of members on their records, and with different line-ups frequently taking the stage, the Armed opened up a black hole into which fans and journalists could pour speculation about their precise make up. They gladly leaned into this dynamic, trolling us with stunts like releasing a single called Ft Frank Turner, which utilised uncleared vocal takes apparently stolen from the British folk-rocker (when pressed on it, a spokesperson told the music website Stereogum that “we’ve been big fans of Gallows for a long time”, snarkily confusing Turner with the UK hardcore band’s former vocalist Frank Carter).
Then there was the interview prior to the release of 2021’s Ultrapop in which Wolski concocted a new moniker and spoke to a writer while the band’s improbably jacked keyboard player – with the pseudonym Clark Huge – got a massage in an adjacent Zoom window. “We started rolling with it because a lot of the artistic concepts that we were playing with had to do with confusion and misinformation,” Wolski says.
On Ultrapop, this meant taking a deep dive into the way information is packaged and consumed. The record was issued with a sleeve depicting a man staring blankly into the distance against an orange backdrop, calling to mind the interchangeable imagery that streaming playlists employ to flatten music into easily digestible parcels called “chill” or “vibes”. “A lot of people were like, ‘The art sucks,’” Wolski says. “It looks like it’s a Spotify playlist.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, keep digging.’”
A small number of physical copies were sold with a hardback religious tome called The Book of the Book of Daniel, which collected scripture related to the Greene character and a sham church that the Armed assembled around him through a shonky web presence and use of a Discord server. This gambit was, Wolski says, a commentary on “the fact that people tend to want to believe in something.
“The crux of a fair amount of society’s problems is adults growing up with a certain naivety, so they misinterpret normal things as conspiracy. A lot of that record was influenced by monsters like Steve Bannon, taking shit out of their playbook but saying, ‘What if instead of destroying the planet for power, we made an art project?’”
The concept of belief is particularly interesting when it comes to the Armed – those who have devoted time and money trying to puzzle out their true motivations might well want to believe there is more to it than an ad guy pulling their leg. When it’s put to Wolski that the Armed, for all their incendiary music, are more brand than band, he counters that they are exposing the hypocrisy behind the concept of selling out while offering a realistic view of what DIY culture is in 2023. “With Black Flag, the Xerox aesthetic came from the fact that they were using Xerox,” he says. “It was what was affordable. Now, technology has been democratised. We are more DIY than literally anyone that I know. The idea that people would just hand over visual concepts is foreign to me, and everything we do has to be in house. This project takes a village.”
Even so, the glossy presentation of their many ideas doesn’t come cheap, he says. “We don’t make any money, ever. But we’re not unique in this way. I’m not about to go on some kind of spree of outing people, but so many punk and hardcore people do commercial work. They just present as though they don’t.”
Wolski estimates that there were 40 people involved in the making of Perfect Saviors and that there might have been more than 100 contributors across the Armed’s total history. “Everyone does what needs to get done in a way that suits their abilities,” he says. The star-wattage might have been amped up considerably on the new record, but this principle remains intact. “The Armed is essentially a socialist art utopia,” Wolski declares. “It is about the power and scope that you can accomplish through collaboration and sheer willpower.”
Musically, Perfect Saviors amplifies the cleaner elements of Ultrapop, presenting a vision of pop that is scratchy, chaotic and vital. “Let me hear those lies,” Wolski sings at one point, his voice held aloft by a heavily manipulated sax groove and soaring harmonies. Coming from the Armed its obvious danceability could feel offputting, but Wolski sounds as though he’s having the time of his life. He’s moved on from believing that being difficult is the only way to make art that matters. “I think confidence is a superpower of age, man,” he says. “I love Scott Walker, but do you know what else takes fucking balls? Being Anthony Kiedis.”
Wolski co-produced the record with Ultrapop veterans Ben Chisholm and Troy Van Leeuwen, the Queens of the Stone Age guitarist who describes his role as “some detail work and rock’n’Rolodex”. He brought in Iggy, as well as Stephen Perkins and Eric Avery, the founding rhythm section of Jane’s Addiction, to add cowbells and growling bass. “It was nice to hear their voices shine inside this chaotic bubble,” Van Leeuwen says.
Van Leeuwen also connected the band with Moulder, who duly delivered an approachable sheen to the album’s synth squelches and barbed-wire pop songs in the vein of the Jesus and Mary Chain. “Moulder can help people create worlds that belong to them,” Wolski says. “We wanted to make music that sounded like the Armed. Listen to [Moulder-produced Smashing Pumpkins album] Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. That is a bizarre record, but it’s also radio-friendly. He can thread that needle of making something that’s so unique, and so interesting, but also palatable to a normal-ass person.”
Perfect Saviors is about communication and cutting through the constant, debilitating noise of modern life. The Armed may have outed themselves, but their mischievous spark remains. “In most great art there is a sense of whimsy and magic and humour,” Wolski says. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to be a joke.”
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