The Armed Get Honest

The once-elusive post-hardcore collective from Detroit open up about how honesty, fearlessness and “being willing to look like a jackass” drive their latest, unexpected pivot on the arena-ready Perfect Saviors

Music Features The Armed
The Armed Get Honest

“I think we’re the most honest people out there!” Tony Wolski proclaims about The Armed, not even 10 minutes into our interview. To those with even a passing knowledge of the enigmatic post-hardcore group from Detroit—known for employing everything from elaborate secrecy, pseudonyms, fictional cult-like figureheads and outright deception to operate in anonymity from their first release in 2009 up until 2021’s ULTRAPOP—that sentiment might register as a surprise. Here is a band that have become notorious for their antics in confusing music press over the years, sending members masquerading as “Dan Greene” in one interview and having one of their many ripped instrumentalists get a massage in another, now touting a commitment to openness and telling the whole truth for their latest album Perfect Saviors.

Wolski, one of The Armed’s vocalists, sees it as the next logical step for the band, saying, “I think the great irony is that we would assess that we’ve been being incredibly honest with our art for a long time.” Just as quickly, he interjects, as if he knows saying that might provoke skepticism. “But that sounds silly!” he exclaims, beaming widely. “I get it, and I don’t not get that dissonance. But the art itself has always been intensely honest. It’s just that the expression of that art is complex and involves a lot of smokescreens.”

Wolski has a point. For as much as the press surrounding The Armed has been about the mystique of a band whose scope and sound felt truly limitless, the music itself has always felt immediate, formidable and—for lack of a better word—truthful. From the pummeling hardcore riffs of Untitled to the glitchy, electro-pop-metalcore of Only Love, it’s always been easy to tell that The Armed’s music itself has been no joking matter. Even if you’re completely oblivious to the press escapades that dominate the group’s narrative, one listen of the sheer passion that goes into The Armed makes it clear what drives fans to pour unsolicited dollars into a Times Square billboard or tattoo the band’s logo onto their bodies at house shows.

“Our music is not fully ironic,” Wolski continues. “We’re trying to deliver some pretty sincere messages. If you’re constantly undermining your own reliability as a narrator, people think that you’re pranking them.” It only made sense to change the tactics with which they spoke about their music accordingly. Telling me nothing but the truth now, Wolski proclaims: “The anonymity has been outmoded. It’s become a contrivance and it’s become a hindrance to us delivering anything with sincerity.”

If anything, the most surprising thing about my interview with The Armed is how normal it is. After reading dozens of wildly varying past features on the project and preparing for truly anything (amplified further when I’m sent a Zoom invite with the participants’ names hidden), what occurs is a fairly typical conversation between Wolski—who was last seen claiming to be “Adam Vallely” during ULTRAPOP’s rollout—and Kenny Szymanski, Wolski’s cousin who most frequently plays bass in the band. It follows the standard rigors of music publicity: talk of the new album, reflections on the project as a whole and not a single detour into prankster chaos. True to form, The Armed have caught me off-guard yet again, only because my expectations skipped over the most obvious—and honest—possibility.

In reality, I should have seen this coming after listening to Perfect Saviors. Largely sidelining the blast beats and distorted screams that defined their breakout, The Armed make their boldest sonic pivot yet: their own twisted take on arena-ready rock, or alternative chart staples, while still inverted in a way only The Armed can pull off. Early album cuts like “FKA World” and “Clone” pair driving riffs against Wolski growling refrains like “I want to sell you lies”; elsewhere, Fuubutsushi saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi enters the band with dance-ready stutters, or even soaring mid-tempo passages that lull the listener into an unexpected state of tranquility. For the first time in who knows how long, it’s fairly easy to make out the words Wolski sings without a lyric sheet. Dare I say: It’s even got hooks in the way only great pop-rock can burrow into your head.

The sound became “the natural conclusion,” Wolski says, of what The Armed had been exploring on Only Love and ULTRAPOP, their last two records that traversed imposing pop structures on black metal, and vice versa. Where Only Love was meant to sound mixed as if “ten thousand leagues under the fucking sea” and ULTRAPOP took on the effect of “a bee in your ear,” Perfect Saviors represents the equilibrium between the two. To realize that, they called upon storied engineer Alan Moulder, whose work on “radio-ready music that shouldn’t be radio-ready” like Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness made him appeal to The Armed’s aims. “It was that idea of, ‘What if we took these things that are still pretty challenging, but we gave it to a guy who was, against all odds, trying to make it as naturally palatable from a presentation standpoint as possible,’” Wolski elaborates. “We’ve been telling everyone we’re becoming an experimental pop band, and I think they thought that was a joke, but hopefully this album delivers on that.”

Beyond just seeking a sonic endpoint for this trilogy of records, Wolski emphasizes that it felt like the right time to drop the group’s penchant for bewilderment. “Over the last few records, we started talking about information control, misinformation, information warfare and the idea of laying into these things became really fun for us. We started playing into the obfuscation a lot more. However, then this whole thing arose where a lot of the press were almost investigative articles.” He starts heartily laughing at the absurdity of it all as he says, “What started very benignly from very young people trying to be like, ‘Let’s keep it anonymous’—to keep the focus off identity—was turning into nothing but a focus on identity. The Armed became this mystery box to solve.”

In our call, the dynamic between Wolski and Szymanski is striking. Wolski is the more jovial and chatty of the two, often going on answers that span several minutes and cracking jokes to himself before flashing his smile and cackling. Szymanski is far quieter, only speaking a handful of times in relatively brief responses, his laugh arriving like a quiet, wry chuckle that only barely registers through his webcam. Wolski is calling in from a room that appears to be a home performance space, with an electric guitar, amp and mic behind him alongside Fender cardboard boxes and a poster of his directorial project ULTRAPOP: Live at the Masonic; Szymanski, by contrast, is calling from a featureless apartment, with only a door, refrigerator, and fusebox breaking up the cream-colored walls.

The Armed’s story goes as follows, according to Wolski: the two began playing together in Wolski’s parents’ basement at the band’s conception, before calling upon friends they knew to fill in the other parts they couldn’t take on. They put out their first record, These Are Lights, in 2009 before they had even played a show or had a concrete lineup. “The anonymity thing was a function of the stuff we were trying to avoid: people being like, ‘I liked this band better when this person was playing drums,’” Wolski explains. “Which is totally fine. We were just trying to dictate the rules of engagement with this art: It just exists and it’s The Armed, and that’s it. You can take it or leave it. That was easy to do when you’re two kids in your parents’ basement and making something and putting it out. And then, over time, people started misunderstanding certain things.” For instance, the different configurations of band members that were photographed for album rollouts or in certain press features, leading some to accuse The Armed of hiring “actors” to portray themselves. “What really was happening was we didn’t want to put 14 people in one band photo,” Wolski adds. “Simple as that.”

The striking videos and art from the band come from a similarly easy answer: Szymanski and Wolski are both designers in their day jobs, and each brought those passions over to their work for The Armed. “As creative people,” Szymanski elaborates, “we’re always viewing this as what to do next. How do we keep moving something forward, and what do we owe to ourselves to have this art be as genuine [as possible]? A lot of people take that change and recalibration as hamfisted, if they [misconstrue] that there’s no intention to it or if they don’t have the right starting point.”

We spend some time talking about what honesty means to Wolski and Szymanski, something the former mentions they hadn’t had a chance to be asked so pointedly before. “I think honesty is really misconstrued in art, specifically in subgenres,” Wolski muses. “A lot of niches start as a place for people to find something that feels unique to them, but then they become ingrained in that path because it’s ‘where they belong.’ This idea that hardcore is a naturally occurring thing like a tornado—that’s silly. These are still people getting together, in a place, and contriving a performance. All art is performative. I think it’s weird when we draw the lines at these really specific parts and say, ‘That’s bullshit.’ It’s only bullshit if you’re doing something you don’t believe in.”

“Everybody who’s been a part of The Armed has been really proud of what we have out there,” Szymanski adds.

“Not ashamed of it, that’s for sure,” Wolski tosses off with a laugh.

“It was just the time to put that out there,” Szymanski continues, “but it feels very natural. It doesn’t feel like this big confession. It’s just part of this line we’re following.”

“The only good thing about getting older is you stop giving a shit what anyone thinks,” says Wolski. “You stop needing to hide behind layers of potential irony, double irony, post-irony, where you’re protecting yourself with all this in case someone doesn’t like it. I don’t give a shit anyway.” He laughs to himself again.

All these reflections on honesty especially feed into the track “Liar 2,” an entry whose title calls back to a still-performed 2010 cut while subsequently sounding like its polar opposite—hovering around a distorted new wave vocal chant and groovy hi-hat shuffle, in place of the brutal hardcore onslaught of “Liar.” After feigning ignorance when asked about the track (“What are you talking about? They’re just brother/sister songs!”), Wolski cuts the bullshit with his frankest answer of the day: “I’m just going to be totally honest because that’s the theme of this: A little bit of that is our inherent love of trolling.” Of course, the common thread that made the band want to reference their past was the act of lying, and its function in attempting to be honest. “That song is talking about truth and honesty in the way that there might be a point of desperation in which lies become beneficial,” Wolski says. “At that certain point, it’s just like, ‘Let me just hear something to get me through.’

“Meanwhile,” he adds, unable to control a ballooning laugh, “it’s the happiest fucking song you’ve ever heard in your life!”

Wolski feels a need to reassure listeners that the band “isn’t shitting on ‘Liar’” with this move, but that the shift in sound is representative of how much has changed surrounding the band since the project’s inception. “Those chugging tri-tones and playing in asymmetrical meter—that freaked us out, because we hadn’t heard things like that,” he recalls. “And then, over time, you hear more things and then those things are on the radio, and I don’t think that’s particularly challenging. Now you just want gym music.” He also mentions that the band had been working on “Liar 2” for “a long, long time, for many years before it felt right to do.” The Armed, as he describes, “never stops writing,” working on tracks in “pre-gestation” versions for years until they have collections of songs that fit together. “We identify trends with the music—what we’re writing—over time and try to make albums that make sense.”

One of the other themes that began emerging was a pervasive religious vernacular, something Wolski attributes to “a new religiosity to the world.” It’s somewhat familiar territory for The Armed, who made an entire fictional Bible called The Book of Daniel as an analogue for cult mentality’s compulsion to dig for conspiracies, “no matter what the evidence is”—even when the “conspiracies” people claim to discover are just the standard evils of capitalism at work. On Perfect Saviors, the fixation is on religious binaries instead, and how the absolutist concepts of “good” and “evil” define everything from superhero movies to “capitalism rebranded,” as Wolski phrases it, where profit-seeking startups and “conscious consumerism” are rationalized in a claim that they’re “saving the world.”

When we reach a conversation about “Everything’s Glitter,” the anthemic, larger-than-life single partially inspired by the media circus surrounding David Bowie’s first public appearance in America, the concept of art being performative by nature comes back to the forefront. “[Bowie] wasn’t playing a show,” Wolski explains, “but he was performing the entire time.” He stresses that the most fearless art is the kind that takes “an unfathomable confidence” that often comes with age and experience, even as he offers a disclaimer: “Because it’s new, it’s going to offend some people’s initial sensibilities.”

Without pause, Wolski switches to talking about Tommy Wiseau—director of The Room and unlikely star of The Armed’s music video for “Role Models”—and the misconception of a gulf between “successful” and “unsuccessful” art. “If you break it down,” Wolski says, “a Bowie and a Wiseau are a lot closer [than people realize]. The idea of being willing to look like a jackass to do something important is something we’ve all been less fearful of over time.” It’s a connection only The Armed, in all their mesmerizing idiosyncrasies, are able to draw. But it tracks with Wolski’s ability to tie it to the group’s own ethos: “The way this thing is structured is a labor of love. The Armed is not making anyone rich anytime soon. It’s more of a mental illness than a business at this point.”

I sense that Bowie’s own radical reinventions fit right in with The Armed’s penchant for invoking the word “iteration”—on ULTRAPOP single “AN ITERATION,” and in the line “Iteration, or one of a kind?” on Perfect Saviors’ lead single “Sport of Form”—so I ask what the significance of that word means to the group. Wolski leaps right into an answer: “As an artist, you’re constantly iterating yourself. It’s about constantly reinventing yourself in a fearless manner that is authentic and true to what you’re doing, to become the best version of what you want to be. That sounds a little motivational speaker-y, but that’s really what it’s about.”

He points to the track titles on “Sport of Form” and album opener “Sport of Measure”—terms pulled from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding to refer to sports left to interpretation vs. sports decided by points systems, respectively—as conceptual giveaways for this concept. Rather than a pure line of progress, like sport of measure would suggest, Wolski stresses that progress involves periods of “failure” more befitting of sport of form, full of ebbs and flows that better reflect the human nature of progress. “If you’re really willing to grow and to do interesting and cool things,” he tells me, “there’s going to be what most people perceive as ‘failure’ along the way. Otherwise, you’re not doing something that’s worth doing.”

He provides the example of friends in film moving out to LA in attempts to better break into the industry, before moving back three years later. “People will be like, ‘That fucking guy, he couldn’t cut it.’ That’s the least healthy, most fucked up way to think, because that person did something you didn’t and they learned a lot more. Everyone has a unique path, and that path is going to involve being iterative. The only real ‘failure’ that exists is when you stop—up until that point, you’re constantly being iterative.”

There’s yet another iteration at play on Perfect Saviors: the scope of players The Armed has amassed, and how they got performers onto the record. Gone are the past stories of deception (often orchestrated by former producer Kurt Ballou) where musicians from other bands would unknowingly contribute parts for The Armed’s records, told they were recording for another band. Now, Szymanski says, “People would want to collaborate with us.”

Wolski says just the same, mentioning that many of the “million players” on it already knew of the band and wanted to get involved when the group reached out. “None of it is improvised starfuckery,” he continues. “You propose things to people who are in the music business, and you go, ‘I’m just going to be honest with you. It really can’t make any of us money.’ They see this thing that’s fucking crazy and maybe it feels pure to them. It feels like when you’re a kid and you’re calling your friend down the street to play with your Star Wars toys and make up stories and do dumb shit.”

Only now, the roster of people in The Armed is so big that it’s circled back into a new form of anonymity. “I can hardly remember who played where,” Wolski jokes, in reference to Perfect Saviors’ credits listing every name involved—from indie singer/songwriter Julien Baker, to Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, to ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers member Josh Klinghoffer—without any clue as to which tracks they’re actually on. “Good luck figuring it out.”

Yet, there’s a renewed transparency in how Wolski talks about The Armed’s inclusivity by nature, especially. “The Armed is a collaboration,” as he bluntly puts it. “That’s what it has to be in order to work.” And that extends to anyone who participates in what The Armed does, regardless as to whether they’ve actually played on a record. I bring up a common refrain fans share online: simply, “I’m in The Armed”—at once, a winking acknowledgement of the group’s past anonymity, and affirmation of the unimpeachable empowerment and belonging that the project’s amorphous quality provides its listeners. “To me, it just means anyone participating,” Wolski says of what it means to be “in The Armed.” “I think the thing that’s hard for people to get is that there’s a band component, but we just think of it as this weird art project. That’s the thing with art: It’s symbiotic to some degree between the observer and the creator.” It’s a duality that fits right in with the other complex pieces of The Armed’s sound, vision and execution—always uncompromising in how its members exert full creative control, while offering an atypical “decentralization,” as Wolski puts it, that recognizes everyone giving the project attention and passion as equally important.

With all the honesty that’s come so far—about The Armed’s past and its present—I feel it’s even more of a necessity to ask about Dan Greene now. In promotion for this album, the group has—fittingly—come clean and dropped the misdirection about Greene, even setting up an interview with the man himself in Dan Ozzi’s cover story for The Fader. I have just one question about Greene for Wolski and Szymanski: “What made you want to pull back the curtain on that now?”

Wolski begins with a very unequivocal statement: “To be totally clear about that, Dan Greene is a real person.” Szymanski smirks and lets out a soft chuckle—for reasons unclear. Wolski continues by divulging Greene’s real history: He got his start touring with The Armed, doing lights for the band and attending almost every show. “He makes music with us. He’s the literal cover of Untitled,” Wolski goes on, answering a mystery behind the Bowie-homaging album art. (I’ve since corroborated this information with Dan Ozzi identifying the Dan Greene he met as the guy on Untitled’s cover on a recent podcast appearance, as well as Wolski recently divulging the same thing to The New York Times.) “And then there’s Dan Greene, the character, portrayed by Trevor Naud,” Wolski adds. “So it’s naturally confusing. A lot of this stuff is by design.”

He brings up that the inspiration came from the world of noise music and the “purposely misleading” lore of bands like Wolf Eyes. It’s this context that explains why Wolski doesn’t see these past attempts to “solve” who is behind The Armed—and if “Dan Greene” was just a stand-in for a hypothetical mastermind, whether that was hypothesized as an ad agency or Tony Hawk—as insults to what the group has been truly doing. “It’s almost flattering that people would think that what we’re doing has to have some fucking overlord. Really, it’s just a lot of people trying very hard. I think there’s a real interesting story in just seeing what The Armed really is: It’s just a bunch of fucking freaks doing something, and that’s it.”

The simplicity of The Armed’s reality extends to their own future desires for the band. Wolski repeatedly mentions he, Szymanski and fellow vocalist/guitarist Randall Lee have been kicking around the idea of making their next release a “palate cleanser,” something that hearkens to the “real serious immediacy” of These Are Lights. “Just some dumb fucking shit,” Wolski adds with a grin. “A total fucking free-for-all. This conceptual stuff has been so pointed for a fucking decade now.”

A funny thing happens over the span of my time with Tony Wolski and Kenny Szymanski: Whatever skepticism I entered the interview with—informed by preconceptions that earlier press had left on me—quickly washes away, and I lose myself in their forthright nature. There’s something so immensely unflinching and self-assured in the way they speak about their art, and their presentation of it. At one point, Wolski calls attention to a duality in the lyrics of “Everything’s Glitter”: “We’re not claiming to be the rock god. We might be the clown. The thing is just that we don’t care. That’s what true artistic discovery is about: that ultimate opening of yourself and that willingness to be really vulnerable to the process and finding out.”

He shares a similar sentiment about “Liar 2,” something that could double as a bluntly frank mission statement for Perfect Saviors, and The Armed as a whole: “It’s about unabashedly being your-fucking-self. Here it is. Deal with it.”

Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis with writing in Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily, Pitchfork and Little White Lies. She was previously as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She is always at the front of the pit. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.

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