The Cover Story

The Armed: “This was always supposed to be magical and bizarre, but never just f*cking pretend”

After years as the slipperiest enigma in alternative music, The Armed are finally setting the story straight. Well, kinda. Strapping ourselves to the anarchic collective as they kick off celebrations for fifth LP Perfect Saviors, K! finds there’s still no easy way out once you’ve fallen into their intoxicating tangle of politics and philosophy, muscle and mayhem…

The Armed: “This was always supposed to be magical and bizarre, but never just f*cking pretend”
Sam Law
Jake Mulka

It's the first Wednesday in August and a queue is forming across the lawn of a stately detached residence on East Boston Boulevard in northwestern Detroit. The line is long, narrow and tidy, populated by disparate individuals: some muscular and tanned, others looking like they’ve stepped away from the glow of computer screens for the first time in weeks. All are smiling with religious fervour, united by a shared knowledge of the chaos that’ll shatter this suburban stillness a few hours after sunset – and everyone has uniform red and white ‘Hi, my name is…’ stickers plastered to their chests.

“Hey there,” waves a small, shy-looking man, creaking open the screen door. “Welcome. I’m Dan!”

“I’m Dan, too,” grins the first guy across the threshold, pointing to the badge on his bulging pec.

“Uh…” the well-dressed lady behind pauses as things begin to get weird. “And I’m... Daniel.”

“I don’t really know where I’m supposed to go,” winces an awkward-looking third guest.

Our host just nudges his spectacles, twitches his beard slightly and shrugs. “Neither do I…”

This is how The Armed throw a party. Three weeks before they unleash fifth album Perfect Saviors, and less than 24 hours before they play the 7,300-cap Michigan Lottery Ampitheatre to open the first night of Queens Of The Stone Age’s 2023 U.S. tour, the notoriously mercurial collective have convened to blast off several months' worth of cobwebs in someone’s living room.

The man at the door is Dan Greene – the real Dan Greene – who writes songs for and plays in The Armed, and who appeared on the cover of 2015’s untitled debut (not the fictional figurehead embodied by “genius” artist and actor Trevor Naud in music videos, whose messages are drawn from across the group's sprawling membership and whose teachings formed pseudo-religious tome The Book Of Daniel).

We’re told that the QOTSA guys are amongst the army of “friends and family” who’ve been invited, but we never spot them in the crowd. Their unspeakably cool guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen is in The Armed in a semi-conventional way, making music and helping network for the group. In a broader, cultish sense, though, everyone who’s gotten off their couch to turn up tonight is in The Armed. And, if you’ve read this far, now you’re in The Armed, too.

Confused yet? Good.

Because we’re not even really here. Having been invited onto the cover of Kerrang! for the first time, the minds behind The Armed did not rush to the obvious places – how to sound smart, or look cool – but rather to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their alien nemesis Krang. In a nod to the intergalactic warlord, who sat torso-high in a humanoid exoskeleton, we are viewing the evening’s events through an iPad (sometimes) attached to Dan Greene’s midriff. Big brains could draw links between this situation and Perfect Saviors’ thematic ruminations on identity, and the warped worldview that results from life lived through our devices, but we suspect the primary motivation, as with so much from this band, is the pursuit of old-fashioned shits and giggles.

“We’re very scared of being bored,” grins Randall Lee, a towering core player in The Armed who speaks warmly and looks like a cross between Keith Buckley and Jesus Christ. “It’s our biggest fear.”

Fear is not a characteristic that springs to mind when longtime fans think of The Armed. Eccentricity. Mischievousness. Ultimate enlightenment. These are the facets that have made them (in)famous among the hardcore intelligentsia. When hair-raising debut These Are Lights – not currently on Spotify, but available via YouTube with some digging – dropped as a free release online in 2009, it bristled with promise that its creators could carry the baton lit by legendary extremists Botch and The Dillinger Escape Plan, but barely hinted at the weirdness to come.

As business picked up, each appearance felt geared to generate more questions than answers. Members’ identities were almost never divulged. Live performances would take place with ludicrously OTT production at open mic nights and hit-or-miss house-parties. For various appearances, paid actors were almost certainly used to stand in for the band. Always thickening the plot, more and more random elements were added to the puzzle: leafy swampman outfits; priceless sports cars; The Room filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, who starred in the music video for 2018’s Role Models. 2016 live video Unanticipated was available only as a spray-painted VHS/custom VCR combo. 2019 single Ft. Frank Turner was accompanied by artwork featuring Rattlesnakes frontman Frank Carter. Neither man was actually involved.

Incredible 2021 breakthrough ULTRAPOP seemed to be opening a door, injecting newfangled accessibility, listing an array of big-name contributors (from the late, great Mark Lanegan to Rolo Tomassi’s Eva Spence) and offering press shots showing a core eight-member line-up with names to match the faces. Except they didn’t, really. Randall Lee, for instance, was going by Johnny Randall – a larger-than-life alias apparently adopted to match the musclebound body transformation he and several other members had undertaken. Their de facto frontman, meanwhile, was sharing his name with far-less-ripped UK blogger and podcaster Adam Vallely, who happened to admin an Armed Facebook page. “Plenty of musicians have aliases,” band Adam deflected at the time. “It doesn’t matter. I don't think Nikki Sixx’s real name is Nikki Sixx, either.”

As Randall drags us from the excited bustle of the party into a dim room with multicoloured Christmas lights flashing on the ceiling, however, we are introduced to the same handsome leader by his “real” name: Tony Wolski. The time has come, the pair explain, to cut the misdirection, set aside the subterfuge and draw fans’ focus from secrets lurking in the shadows back to the vibrant chaos at the heart of it all. Tonight’s digitally off-kilter audience will be integral to their coming out.

“Ask whatever you like...” Tony teases, “And, to the best of your knowledge, we’ll tell the truth.”

So, where to begin? As the jagged rattle of soundcheck fades into the background this evening, and conversation begins to flow – Tony offering lengthy, remarkably structured observations while Randall nods with a broad smile and occasionally interjects – we suppress an almost reflexive ‘WTF?!’ to cut to The Armed’s foundational duality: the intellectual purpose of the project versus the visceral experience of being part of it. Why was now the time to set the story straight?

“Originally, anonymity was a way to keep this big, collaborative project ego-free so that whichever member was best suited to do something would just be the one to do it,” Tony unpacks. “Then on the last couple of albums, it began to tie in with themes of information control, misinformation and the obfuscation of reality. But, with all of the information out there, it becomes a contrivance. The thing that was supposed to make it not a focus on identity made it a focus only on individual identity. People would ask, ‘What silly thing are The Armed are going to do next?!’ And fans were doing a better job of it than we were: constantly posting half-truths or outright lies about [interactions with the band] in a way where we didn’t know whether they were being clever or lying to themselves. Keeping up with it all became this Sisyphean fucking task where things weren’t real. The Armed was always supposed to be magical and bizarre, but never just fucking pretend.”

“It can become shtick,” Randall agrees. “Our thing has never been shtick.”

“I don’t think we could tell you exactly who played on every song at this point”

Hear Tony on The Armed’s changing approach to anonymity

With the number of collaborators having swollen from around 25 to “like, 100”, Tony explains that the deceit of old has been replaced by “anonymity by scale” with so many players involved that even he and Randall probably couldn’t tell you who exactly who’s featured on each of Perfect Saviors’ 12 tracks. With the crazily high standard of those contributors – the official roster this time features everyone from ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer to Boygenius singer-songwriter Julien Baker – the “ego-death” comes naturally at this point.

“Also, it’ll stop every fucking article written about The Armed being an investigative thing about how Tony Hawk is the mastermind behind it all,” grins Tony wryly, in context of this conversation.

So, that’s confirmation that Tony Hawk definitely isn’t the mastermind behind The Armed?

“No…” Randall playfully feigns indignance. “No!”

Another stubbornly lingering rumour has been that The Armed are an avant-garde experiment by some big-budget ad agency. As it transpires, there’s some fire to that smoke, but rather than cynical Mad Men, Tony, Randall (who works professionally under the surname Kupfer) and many other members of The Armed run the production company Worldfare, whose website describes it as ‘A collective of artists shaping the voice inside and outside of advertising…’ and whose corporate clients include McDonald's, Chevrolet and Gibson. Emma Ruth Rundle is also listed on their short roster of directors. Our men are at pains to stress that the company was borne out of The Armed rather than vice-versa, however: the need to produce gig flyers sparking interest in design; DIY music videos building expertise in cinematography, editing and visual direction.

“I don’t wanna blow anyone’s mind here,” Tony laughs, “but when you’re in the business of making music that sounds like [ours], a lot of people still have day jobs. What’s special about us is that we’ve organised our business to coincide with the band so that it all becomes this ridiculous machine. The way we do it is more like how kids imagine bands to be: ‘Oh, Slipknot all live in a big house together…’ It is kinda freaky that we actually do all have a big house on the river where we work together, then we go down to the basement where we’ve got our musical Bat Cave.”

“It all comes back to being dumb and not knowing when to stop”

Hear Randall on The Armed’s work ethic and resourcefulness

“It can seem like this bigger thing when people wonder how we’ve got the resources to do some of the things that we have,” Randall continues. “But it’s really just about working as hard as possible and figuring things out ourselves. It all comes back to being dumb and not knowing when to stop.”

“Like how some members of Rammstein became licensed pyrotechnicians,” offers Tony.

Perhaps the audio-visual ingenuity of GWAR would be a better comparison, we bat back, just with much better diet and exercise, and less of a tendency to disembowel one another...

Randall flashes a wicked smile: “We just need to figure out how to rig up a fake blood machine.”

Rather than turning their hands to gore-strewn schlock rock, Perfect Saviors sees The Armed experimenting with a grungy, serrated brand of indie which, on tracks like FKA World and Clone, feels weirdly reminiscent of the 2000s garage revival. In a passing conversation, Dan Greene names The Strokes (along with Meshuggah) as among his favourite bands. There’s a knowing laugh from Dan’s bandmates when we admit that we had to double check that the roster of contributors listed Julien Baker and not the New York City legends’ notorious frontman Julian Casablancas.

“The garage-rock sound was never a conscious thing, but we’re people in their later 30s who grew up in Detroit and that was a magic moment here,” admits Tony, alluding to millennial idols The White Stripes and The Von Blondies, and the immortal MC5. “All that shit is ingrained in us.”

Of course, the range of sounds on Perfect Saviors cannot be so straightforwardly pigeonholed. On paper, it's the culmination of a trilogy begun by 2018’s Only Love, finding the sweet spot between that album’s hooky, stripped-back hardcore stylings and ULTRAPOP’s lurid “bee between the ears” irresistibility. Esteemed engineer Alan Moulder was even enlisted to add the same unlikely radio-friendliness he did to Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. From the industrial stomp of Modern Vanity and mangled math-rocker Burned Mind to the fuzzy euphoria of Liar 2 and ethereal, sax-infused ballad In Heaven, it's a record that needs to be heard to be even partially understood.

One thing that is straightforward is that, even by 2023’s flexible standards, it would be a serious stretch to call this ‘a hardcore record’. So, at a time when their old genre is more popular than ever, was changing things up this drastically just the subversive next step?

“We’re fucking masochists,” Tony rolls his shoulders. “We saw this revolution start in 2021. All of a sudden hardcore bands are on late-night TV. There isn’t just one hardcore act at Coachella; there are five. And we love almost all those bands, like GEL, ZULU and Scowl. But The Armed is always about being the weirdo alternative. We did write heavy songs during these sessions, but they just didn’t fit the slinky, trashy sexiness of the album. Punk might mean sounding a certain way to certain people but, to us, it’s where when everyone is saying that you should do one thing, you want to do the opposite. Right when hardcore is having its moment, after a decade-and-a-half of us making music that sounds like that, we put out our first record that really isn’t hardcore. Is there anything more hilariously ‘The Armed’ than that?”

Do not be mistaken: unleashed in the live arena, Perfect Saviors’ songs still hit hard. Deafeningly so. Hard enough to split lips, bloody noses and more or less destroy the house that we’ve been (virtually) hanging out in this evening. As the clock strikes 10 and East Boston Blvd’s assemblage of The Armed shove through the crowd to the corner of the lounge in which they’ll perform, there is a sense of burning-fuse anticipation. And then all hell breaks loose. With co-vocalist Cara Drolshagen – a ferocious blonde woman sporting bright red knee-high boots, who puts her most hulking bandmates to shame – flinging herself over the audience and being hurled into the ceiling, while drummer Urian Hackney knocks loose the light fittings with his thunderous beats, Everything’s Glitter, Modern Vanity and Clone cause some serious damage on live debut.

“We’re about to leave for the Queens… tour, and we’ve been told in no uncertain terms that we are there to ‘fuck shit up’,” Tony says. “We’re looking forward to delivering a little shock and awe. I’m sure a lot of people will dislike it, but when I was in eighth grade I saw At The Drive-In support Rage Against The Machine and I was viscerally disgusted. I hated it. Two weeks later, they were my favourite band.”

In fairness, The Armed don’t have much scope for casual fans. The approach to anonymity may have changed, but their radical ideas about ownership of art have not. Not only would it be wrong for any one of the collective to lay claim to their creations, they reckon, but perhaps it is wrong for anyone to lay claim to any art. Arguably, the observer is every bit as important as the creator. Art only really exists in the context of experience. Understanding this philosophy is crucial to being able to look past so many skewed facts to understand the project’s greater truth.

“Our intentions have always been extremely honest and sincere,” emphasises Tony. “People can be confused about everything else. But we don’t want them to be confused about that.”

This hits home. When a good friend of this writer and fellow devotee of The Armed passed away unexpectedly in March of last year, the last statement playfully posted on his Facebook was The Book Of Daniel’s Mission 61 mantra: ‘I need not find purpose, but will it. I do so on a foundation of impossible love.’ In their time of grief, his family and friends clung to those words, and on the day of the funeral, they were reprinted front and centre on the order of service.

Tony is taken aback by this story only for a moment, then goes on with vigour. “It’s so cool that person’s family has a context for those words that is totally separate to ours. And imagine if someone else found one of those cards 100 years in the future. They’ll view it in the context of whatever is happening in their life at that moment in time.” His face lifts as he lowers the tone. “This is where the camera crash-cuts to the leader of some far-right movement 200 years from now thumping his lectern as he chants our mantra to the masses – and we’re all like, 'Oh shit!’”

In the shorter term, the future looks bright for The Armed. While their socials still proudly declare them as ‘The World’s Greatest Band’ and they unironically regard Perfect Saviors as their attempt to “save rock & roll”, it’s important to understand that this record is about undermining binary concepts of success and failure. Lifting his slab-like copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s New Encyclopedia Of Modern Bodybuilding from a shelf right next to his desk, Tony explains the difference between Sport Of Measure (objective, goal-based competition like football or baseball) and Sport Of Form (subjectively judged pursuits like figure-skating or bodybuilding itself), and his band’s critique of society measuring life like the former rather than the latter.

“People have become so obsessed with achievements and accomplishments, and broadcasting them to the world, that they’ve become embarrassed by the idea of failure. That’s led to the dumbing down of moral and ethical issues where everything needs to be ‘perfect’. No-one just wants to start a shoe company anymore; they want to start a shoe company that’ll save the world. We look at each other like, ‘Oh, you bought that brand of quinoa? I didn’t realise you were a piece of shit!’

"Everyone wants to be the Perfect Saviors. We’ve forgotten that real success can be ugly. If you’re a bodybuilder at 155lbs and you want to get to 175lbs shredded, you’re gonna have to go up to 200lbs and come back down. If you’re a creative who wants to work in film, you might go to LA for a few years and decide that it isn’t the place for you, but still make the contacts you need. When Randall and I were working on our body transformations, we learned that you need to work to failure to invoke hypertrophy in your muscles to get bigger. That’s literally the scientific way to understand that failure is the trigger of everyone’s growth.”

Randall echoes the gym-bro affirmation. “When we say we’re ‘The Greatest Band In The World’, it’s something we’re working towards. Self-reflection and self-awareness are crucial to not becoming a perfect saviour. We can only be the best band because we truly want to be.”

On those terms, Perfect Saviors has already delivered. But while their tendrils keep carrying positive energy to new disciples around the world, The Armed won’t even consider easing off.

“We would rather try to take the biggest swing possible and look like clowns, while moving the needle for rock and hardcore, noise and aggressive music than give anything less,” Tony concludes. “If some kid listens to this and decides we’re fucking clowns, but that means it’s okay for them to be a clown too, it would fuckin’ rule. I would rather someone make a truly great album in 10 years because they listened to this than have it be recognised as the greatest album of all time.”

With that, tonight’s gathering is over: another house trashed; our battered iPad finally powered-down. For The Armed, however, there are bright lights on the horizon. The real party is just about to begin…

Perfect Saviors is released on August 25 via Sargent House

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