Getting to Know The Armed, the Most Unknowable Band in Hardcore
A week on the road, at the track, and in the compound of the enigmatic Detroit collective.
photos by Max Frank, Matt Infante, and The Armed
“I can’t play a show without a Chub,” says The Armed’s Dan Greene.
We’re hauling ass south on the Chicago Skyway, minutes from the Indiana border. Greene is driving a van – a good Detroit van, a Ford. He slithers a weather-worn hand through his tousled, receding brown mane. With the other hand, he sips on a hookah rested gently between the two front seats. He’s due onstage in an hour, in a laundry room-turned-punk-house on the opposite end of town. But he refuses to play the show without grabbing some Chubs from Calumet Fisheries.
Since 1928, the Chub has been a staple of the South Chicago fish diet. Its flesh is smooth. Its skin is shiny. It tastes like a whitefish-flavoured tapestry. And it has a funny name: Chub.
“Hey, what do you think about this slogan for your article: You Can Always Be One Of Us?”
I shift in my seat, unsure whether Greene realises the ironic dig at hardcore darlings Nails.
“Wait, sorry. One sec. I love this riff.” Greene cranks the stereo. It’s LULU by Metallica and Lou Reed, an album people generally agree is one of the worst recordings ever made.
“Pumpkin blood! Pumpkin blood!” Greene sings along with Lou Reed, getting the lyrics wrong. He does not laugh, smile, or indicate an iota of irony.
I’d met Greene and a fellow The Armed member Cara Drolshagen at a Lightning Bolt show in Texas a few years back. Even then, the first night of our “friendship” had consisted of conversations like this – the kind where you’re not sure whether your new acquaintance is making fun of you, or is just daft.
I say “member” loosely because The Armed is a band that goes to insane and often inane lengths to misdirect, deceive, and toy with their audience. They’re an anonymous collective whose true members, if there are any, steer clear of the spotlight. Outside of Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou (who records and engineers their albums), and a few select collaborators, nobody knows who is involved in the band.
This includes my driver, “Dan Greene,” who, according to the rumor mill, might not be a real person, might be many people, or might be someone simply lying about their identity.
“Anyway… it makes sense to me as a slogan. We really just have one message, and we’re gonna be as loud about it as possible. No solutions: only love. We love you. You can always be one of us. You with me?”
“I love you, Max. I love everyone.”
I gulp, unsure if Dan knows he just referenced a Kanye West tweet.
We pull onto the bridge and park outside Calumet.
Earlier this year I received a call from an agent at a major American publicity company. The agent, who represents a number of Coachella headliner-level artists, asked whether I’d be interested in profiling one of his clients, The Armed, as they prepared their third album, the pop-hardcore space-opera ONLY LOVE.
Through some strange connections and projects that had achieved varying degrees of nascence, I’d come to develop a friendly working relationship with this publicist. He knew about my love for The Armed – an excessively unmarketable band, who, with minimal resources and no label support, had duped Rolling Stone into publishing a press photo with two band members who were actually hired actors, and would soon hoist a music video on Adult Swim starring cult disaster artist Tommy Wiseau of The Room fame.
The Armed had accomplished all of this behind a veil of anonymity: sending out possibly-faked press photos, scheduling interviews with major media outlets with people who aren’t in the band, self-producing David Fincher-quality surrealist videos, and releasing unplayable vinyl albums made entirely out of leaves. They’ve barely played shows – their last “tour” consisted of random, anonymous sets at open mic nights and trailer parks in the Midwest. They were more like a media cult than a band.
Most people would raise their eyebrows upon finding out that a Kurt Ballou-produced anonymous hardcore band was represented by the same people who handles the affairs of artists like Lil Yachty, Skrillex, and Daft Punk. But for me, this wasn’t the first red flag.
That came in January 2016, during a nightly gorging of The Late Show With James Corden and a commercial for Ford Motors came on. Two well-groomed normie teenagers drive around on a first date. The boy asks the girl what kind of music she likes. She rattles off a bunch of bands: “Do you know The Dropdeads? Protomartyr?” The boy flinches, unsure what to make of his date’s taste in underground punk.
The girl pauses, and with complete sincerity, finishes, “uh, The Armed?”
The couple settles on a hard rock riff by a fake band, “Proverbial Misfire,” they headbang, and the commercial is over in 15 seconds. The Armed, an underground chaotic mathcore band, were just name-checked in a Ford ad on CBS.
When I asked Kurt Ballou about this, and who was behind The Armed more broadly, he was in the midst of a session at his God City studio in Salem, Massachusetts, and dashed off a cryptic response. “The Armed could be anybody, or The Armed could be nobody.”
The Armed were a proper mystery for the disinformation age: an unknowable punk intrigue birthed into a flattened subcultural landscape, somehow operating within the highest levels of American media culture.
They’d also made two masterpieces in a row. 2015’s Untitled was a malevolent primal scream – a polarising piece of modern-day hardcore pulp, propelled by a performance from the best drummer in the world, Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists. Their new album, ONLY LOVE, however, is something different, like a punk album made by people who had never heard of Converge or Dillinger Escape Plan. It evoked nostalgia through absurdity, the way Hot Rats or Garden of Delete did.
It's Andrew W.K. put through the washing machine, taking cues from bad albums by great artists and twisting Grimes-esque post-pop sensibilities into chaotic, malevolent new forms. And, once again, the band had enlisted the talents of a master drummer, Ben Koller, who they’d tricked into doing the session by telling him Metallica’s Rob Trujillo was booked to track bass parts.
“Trujillo was the big one,” Koller tells me over email. “But they also promised a dozen or so ‘surprise guests.’ The only thing of the sort was when Tommy Wiseau called Dan Greene for a video chat on Skype. [Wiseau] made Dan put the laptop next to me so he could watch me track ‘Luxury Themes’ for ‘research.’”
Live, The Armed is a bit like Slipknot. There are ten or so people packed “onstage” in the Chicago laundry room-turned-punk-house, completely buried in annoyingly thick clouds of BOG FOG smoke machine juice (they later tell me they use the same gear as Nine Inch Nails). Their Troy Polamalu-sized singer, Randall, barrels to the back of the room before the opening math-bash of “Future Drugs” has even kicked in. Cara, their more petite singer and sometimes-bassist, takes selfies with audience members with an agonisingly bright iPhone lamp attachment. Dan Greene wears a full-body ghillie costume – a suit made entirely out of leaves.
Within minutes of decimating the laundry room, we’re back in the van, bound for The Armed’s nexus point: Detroit.
There are two guys named Dan in The Armed, allegedly. The other Dan, Dan Stolarski, who may or may not actually be Dan Stolarski, sits in the back playing Street Fighter 2 on his Nintendo Switch. He’s at least 50, balding, and tells me he works at Walmart, despite a quick Instagram search showing a “Dan Stolarski” looking more like a 20-something punk. Kenny, a Thor-haired man who wasn’t onstage with the band that night, drives. Kenny had appeared in promotional photos on NPR and Noisey, and allegedly, maybe, programmed synthesisers on ONLY LOVE.
Kenny looks 30, but tells me, quite calmly, that he’s 19. He switches the stereo from old Howard Stern Show episodes of Richard and Sal prank phone calls back to LULU.
“You get into this weird trance state when you look at a bank of modules with no patch cable,” Kenny tells me. “I just sit and look at it, the empty holes. Just visualising what the sounds look like. The colors and shapes. The numbers. And only when it speaks to me do I start patching.”
I mention that one of the most endearing qualities of ONLY LOVE is how, wherever there could have been a guitar line, the band replaced it with a synth.
“That’s the thing about synthesis,” he continues, completely ignoring what I just said. “It’s the combining of disparate ideas to form a new theory. In our case, building toward subversion. It’s subversive synthesis.”
Dan Stolarksi, who’s still playing on his Nintendo Switch, yells from the back. “You guys are a couple of clowns – like two clowns!”
I turn around. Next to the guy who might be Dan Stolarski, The Armed’s guitarist is still wearing his swamp-leaf ghillie suit. He wore it the entire four-and-a-half-hour drive home, sitting in silence. No one laughs, jokes, or even acknowledges this.
“Punk fucking rock,” says Kenny. He turns up the volume on LULU.
Am I being put on?
The Armed asked me to exercise discretion about the enormous tri-level home out of which they operate, rehearse, and record, located minutes from downtown Detroit.
I stayed the week in a room filled with enough oddities to qualify as a Renaissance-era Cabinet of Curiosity. Directly above my bed were two large black-and-white oil paintings of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. That’s all I’ve been allowed to report.
While the rest of the band slept, I explored the building. Downstairs, in the rehearsal room, a Matthew McConaughey-looking amp tech in his mid-50s works on one of the band’s Ampeg heads. He introduces himself and hands me a business card: Dan. No shit. Another Dan.
We chat, and I learn that he’s been a longtime friend of the band, an ex-HVAC maintenance guy. I try, as subtly as possible, to glean new information. Is anything that’s been theorised about The Armed true?
Dan the Amp Guy takes a huge pull off a big red vape pen and buries the room in a cotton-candy cloud. “Truth is harder than ever to decipher,” he says. “It’s like how, in all those old war movies, they’d talk about ‘the fog of war,’ you know? Too much stimuli, or fear. Your brain trying to keep up with changing scenarios. It fills in the blanks with incorrect information.” He takes a long pause. “That’s The Armed.”
Before I can unpack any of that, Dan Stolarski stumbles in – drearily, dreamily. He grabs a carton of orange juice from the fridge and drinks straight out of it. I mention the comparisons the band has gotten to cults, about speculation amongst “hardcore scene influencers.” I’d heard that the band is actually a secret art project of Andrew W.K., or Kurt Ballou, or both. I ask Dan the Amp Guy if there was ever a point person, a puppet-master orchestrating it all from the shadows.
“These guys ain’t a cult,” Dan the Amp guy responds, laughing. “But as long as I’m getting paid, I keep my mouth shut.”
“Take it up with HR,” jokes Dan Stolarski from the kitchen.
“This’ll look great for your story.”
Randall and Cara are posing in a garage with a white Porsche GT3-RS. The stereo blares tunes by 70s avant garde Japanese saxophonist Kaoru Abe. A guy named Bob hangs back. Cara tells me, “Oh, he plays in The Armed sometimes.” Bob has, of course, never appeared publicly or been seen onstage with The Armed.
They hand me a camera and ask me to direct the shoot. The Armed sourced the $200,000 car specifically for this article, they say, to have “cool pics in a badass car.” When I ask Randall where he got it, he tells me, “This repo guy named Dan owed me a favour.”
We finish up and take off west on 8 Mile Road for the Northville Downs to do some weekday gambling at the last operating carriage racing facility in this part of the state. It’s a Tuesday and there aren’t any live races, but there are kiosks and cubicles throughout the facility where people can place bets on races happening around the country.
Fluorescent-soaked, stacked with outmoded computer modules, and littered with the kinds of people who gamble on horse races not actually happening at the track they’re visiting on a weekday afternoon, the Northville Downs are an ideal venue for me to finally find the answers I’m looking for.
“Bob” grabs a couple beers and we post up to place our bets. Judge Judy plays on old Panasonic TVs dangling above the kiosks.
I talk to Cara, the one member of The Armed who seems genuinely engaged in my inquisitive peppering. I ask her the one question that’s been nagging at me the entire week: “Why love?”
She takes a long minute to think. “Because it’s the only surefire solution. It’s stupid and childish. Impossibly simple.”
Bob chimes in. “And, like, involuntary and stuff.”
“I like having fun,” Cara continues. “I take fun very seriously. The Armed is an open platform. At any given time, any of the participants can come and go as they please and make whatever contribution they want. As long as they are having fun. Freedom, fun, and fairness. That’s what this band is about.”
I’m getting tired of the endlessly puerile lengths The Armed is going to to keep me at a distance. I want an endpoint. I press her. What is the point of this band – strange machinations and Zodiac-level diversions included – in an era where media culture tells us to embrace our childish aesthetics because everyone is a star?
Cara thinks. “Love isn’t a point, though; it’s in progress,” she says, so assuredly that it felt like a line she’d memorized from a script. “I don’t think, in real life, the values we set for ourselves are concrete entities… they morph in time. But in every moment, love steadies the ship.”
Cara pauses for what feels like many minutes, and then looks me in the eye, through my soul. She holds contact. As she does, I realise that I’ve been asking the wrong question. It shouldn’t be who is The Armed, but rather, why.
Cara breaks contact.
“Let’s go get some ice cream!”
A few weeks later, I’m back in New York, down in Chinatown in the basement of the Surrogate’s Court, digging through wills for a totally separate research project. I’d dashed off a draft of this article and put it away to stew over, hoping to distance myself from an experience that I was convinced had been completely staged. Spending time down here, in a Beaux-Arts building with the dead, helped some.
My email buzzes. It’s Kurt Ballou. I had sent him a couple of follow-up questions that I’d hoped could lead to a pull quote or two.
I roll out of the archive of wills into a marble-coated bathroom and plop down on the toilet, salivating to read Kurt’s email. Within four words, I nearly dropped my phone in the bowl.
“When I started the band I was thinking a lot about how the division between a band (or any known entity for that matter) and its audience has changed in the era of social media. The direct access can build close relationships within a community, but it can also create disproportionate senses of entitlement. My idea in creating this project was to disrupt that culture by forcing people to focus only on the content, not the creators, hoping it would usher in an era in creative culture where the work is more important than the workers.”
“When I started the band…” Did anything else matter in this rambling email?
After this psychotic week of cryptic trips with nearly a dozen people all alleging involvement with The Armed, Kurt Ballou from Converge – one of the most influential artists in modern heavy music – just casually tossed off in an email that the band was his project. Years of speculation amongst fans, conspiracy theorists, critics, and bemired journalists had never sniffed a lede this good about The Armed.
Did they just pull a Keyser Söze on me?
My thumb scrolls miles through the city dump of my email account for a phone number I’d spoken to Kurt on a few years back. A gush of questions lies in wait. Is Kurt Ballou the Lou Pearlman of hardcore? If this is true, who else is behind The Armed?
Cell service is bad, given I’m in a basement. I dash into the hall, leaping up the stairs three at a time.
I pull up the number and call.
A dial tone, an answer, then a long, silent pause.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.