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A Quietus Interview

Maximum Intensity: An Interview With The Armed
Patrick Clarke , March 22nd, 2021 08:15

Patrick Clarke speaks to a member of notorious Detroit hardcore collective The Armed to discuss the band's cult-like following, how they underwent gruelling bodybuilding diet plans for the sake of art, and how they hope to re-draw the boundaries of hardcore music with new album ULTRAPOP

Photo by Nate Sturley

The Armed are a band who come with a certain air of intrigue. In the past they’ve sent people who almost certainly aren’t in the project at all to speak to the press on their behalf, and taken journalists through surreal, staged experiences masquerading as interviews. For their track ‘Ft. Frank Turner’ they used artwork featuring former Gallows frontman Frank Carter (the song featured unauthorised archive tracks of the former). It’s usually unclear who makes up the band at all, who exactly their apparent leader Dan Greene really is, and what the role of Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou – often painted as the band’s true string-puller but publicly credited as a vague ‘Executive Producer’ – entails.

All of this has garnered a particularly rabid fandom online. Earlier this year the site Metal Injection posted a listicle of the most popular conspiracy theories about the group, for example that they’re a corporate ad agency, or that they’re secretly financed by professional skateboarder Tony Hawk. Followers have pooled together enough money to purchase a Times Square billboard to advertise The Armed's music – without the knowledge of the band themselves.

For their new record ULTRAPOP, however, The Armed say they’re doing away with anonymity entirely and finally opening up. The live video for lead single ‘All Futures’ features eight musicians performing live, who we are told are The Armed. The video is “explicitly revealing this album's band member line up for the first time,” a press release reads, along with their names.

For tQ’s interview, we’re told we’ll be speaking with Adam Vallely, one of those credited in the press release. An online search before the meeting leads us to a Twitter profile for a man of the same name, a shaven-headed music blogger from London with a particular interest in heavy music, with The Armed’s logo in his Twitter bio, an advert for ULTRAPOP as his cover photo, and a number of tweets about The Armed. Yet the person at the other end of the Zoom call is someone else entirely, a smiley American with long hair. All is still not quite as it seems.

I was half expecting someone else, I tell the American. He gives a wide and friendly grin. “At this point it’s hard to know what’s going on, even for us!” he says before a big laugh. Is Adam Vallely his real name? “It is my name in The Armed right now,” he says with slightly unsettling cheeriness. As for the blogger, “We’re trying to involve people that aren’t specifically in the band too, in a new and interesting way. The idea of pseudonyms or misleading names has not always been foreign to us.”

The other Vallely, a big The Armed fan who’s had amp companies contact him to try and set up endorsements since they started using his name, tells tQ he was never in on it: “I was incredibly confused by all of this,” he says. “Honestly, I don't really know specifically how I feel about it, but I've been wildly confused by most of the things The Armed do so it seems consistent with my fan experience so far.”

All of this is to say that a large pinch of salt is still required when dealing with The Armed. To at least some extent, there’s still some subterfuge going on. Yet in our interview the musician is incredibly articulate and attentive; something about him feels genuine. He’s passionate as he explains that for all the mystery there’s always been a real drive at the heart of The Armed, one that feels better realised than ever on ULTRAPOP, a record that strains with every fibre to drag hardcore music into territory the scene has never come close to breaching before. ULTRAPOP, Vallely (as we’ll call him) explains, is envisaged as an entirely new genre; by embracing the boldest and most vibrant aspects of experimental pop and hip hop into their sound, they hope to scale entirely new heights of intensity.

There’s a point to all the smoke and mirrors too, he explains. There are, in reality, a few dozen people who contribute to their records which they have to whittle down to eight or so for gigs on the basis of practicality. By hiding their individual identities, they hope to keep the message on the band’s wider aims.

With the video for ‘All Futures’, it was proclaimed that this is who the band ‘really’ is. Do you see why that’s hard to trust?

Adam Vallely, The Armed: Absolutely! It seems like the more truth we reveal, the more people think that some of that is lies as well. At this point we’re basically stuck in it. But I will say that that video is the most truthful thing that we’ve put out, in that it is a group of people playing the song. We’ve always had different versions of the band, so the people who perform live don’t always 100% match how it worked in the studio. Almost everyone is multi-instrumentalist in our band, but when we play live, we can’t be swapping around or travelling with 25 people.

So rather than it being ‘here are the eight people who are The Armed’, it’s here are some eight people who are The Armed?

AV: That’s exactly what we were trying to do. We’re always trying to subvert people’s expectations of ourselves. For a band that, when you see us live, with all the fog and the strobes, it seemed like the most unexpected thing we could do is recreate a sixties Tonight Show look and just put eight of us out there playing the song.

Can you take me through a timeline of ULTRAPOP?

AV: Some of the songs go back to [2018 LP] Only Love. I guess they either just did not fit, or we didn’t feel like we had earned that much growth yet in terms of our sound. So, they go into stasis until they seem relevant again. There are tracks where their genesis is five or six years old at this point.

It must take a lot of maturity to recognise when you’re ‘not ready’ for your own song…

AV: We’re trying to truly be experimental and try to craft some sort of new experience for people. I don’t know if Dan would agree with this assessment, but I’d rather be the band that doesn’t get all the way there but pushes the next person to be super great with something you were able to put forward. I think that’s missing a lot from heavy music in general. You have to subscribe to these structures and specific methods. This obsession with niche subgenre, this fetishization of process, it completely stagnates the art form. There’s a serious need for someone to move the needle in this corner of the music world, and I’d rather be the band that tries to do that and fails, than someone who’s just trying to toe the line.

Is it heavy music in particular that’s stagnating, or is that your focus because it’s the genre your backgrounds are in?

AV: I think it’s both. I’m not saying every Soundcloud rapper is a beautiful visionary artist, but there are people who are doing interesting, risky things there. I think that novelty is an important part of quality art. You need to put forward some sort of new thought, and I think that’s where our focus is. In all guitar-based music, especially the heavier you get, you get into this fetishization of sub-genre and subculture. Grindcore started in the late eighties, so why are there 500,000 bands still doing the same thing 30 years later over and over again?

So how are The Armed ‘moving the needle’? Embracing some of the spirit of experimental pop and hip hop?

AV: At its core, yeah. I think what we’re saying is, ‘What if you’re not as edgy as you think you are?’ You can go to a Walmart and get a shirt just covered head to toe in skulls and knives. I think that idea of what is subversive is kind of hilarious now when everyone has a phone that can pull up the entire history of art, all at once, instantaneously. What isn’t pop at that moment? Is it less authentic of us to reference what SOPHIE was doing, or what the new St. Vincent record sounds like? I think that’s what we’re trying to do, embrace everything and elevate everything at once. We’re trying to subvert the idea that extreme music can only be harsh in a way that is traditionally masculine yelling, with specific types of scales and tritone chords. We’re saying you can still reach those levels of intensity, but you can get there via a very different route.

Photo by Trevor Naud

Have you ever considered abandoning hardcore entirely and working in those more forward-thinking genres?

AV: Yes, and I think that goes back to what we were talking about in terms of only progressing when the time is right and you’ve earned it. It’s not that we want to abandon the intensity. That will always be there. The goal is always to produce a maximalist experience that is incredibly intense. That’s the whole reason we got into this. But what we’re not, is a bunch of beer swilling, leather jacket wearing tough guys who talk about which Terrorizer album is the best. We’re setting these hilariously larger than life goals for ourselves, to create a new genre of Ultrapop, and eventually create something that is more Ultrapop than hardcore.

I do sense a lot of appreciation for hardcore music in your work, that you’re trying to progress it because you love it…

AV: Dan Greene has these Google Documents he shares with everyone. Let me pull it up… The top thing for Ultrapop is that ‘we’re going to save rock music by killing it’. Again, these things sound Kanye West levels of delusional, but I think that is the level of delusion you need when you’re trying to do something that grandiose. We’re not necessarily speaking out against the people in those communities, we’re speaking out against the stagnation, what we see as these genres or these art forms turning into caricatures of themselves.

What is it about intensity that’s so important?

AV: The one thing that the many people that participate in this project have in common, is that we’re all super intense people. We all want this to be a big, big experience, and I think that that automatically will turn off a lot of people, no matter what the aesthetics are. That’s been the goal of the band since the beginning.

To return to the timeline of the album, did the hardships of the last year affect the organisation of this big, sprawling collective?

AV: Yes and no. The album had already been largely recorded by the time [the pandemic] started. What did change is that doing the videos became difficult. It also gave us longer to all diet and work out a ton. That was part of the Ultrapop aesthetic, to all get into incredibly good shape for a tour. Then that turned into Dan getting us with a nutritionist for like four months, and that turned into 12 and 16 month plans now. We’ve all been dieting and working out literally nonstop because we want to present this as superhumanly as possible to the public.

In the video for ‘All Futures’ the keyboard player looks like a full-on Schwarzenegger body builder…

AV: That’s Clark. He is a real body builder!

That’s a pretty intense amount of commitment to the band though, to physically alter your bodies.

AV: If Bowie can become a competent mime or FKA Twigs literally knows how to sword fight… a lot of it was put up or shut up. If we’re truly trying to do the most ‘intense’ thing possible, we have to take it into every aspect of our daily lives. Almost everyone in the band has been working with a nutritionist and has done some radical things to their bodies, which also fits in with our modes of obfuscating our identities. By the time we’re playing shows, people are going to look drastically different to than they looked last time you last saw them in that pub in Dublin. In that way Covid worked out for us, it gave us the freedom to explore something we wouldn’t have been able to get into without it. It’s been a radical change, I don’t think anyone in the band hasn’t measured their food for every single meal, five times a day, for the last year.

Has that not been difficult though?

AV: Everyone has a different take on it. Personally, I’ve struggled with colitis my entire adult life and I’m no longer struggling with that on a bodybuilding meal plan. All of us are seeing incredible positives outside of the band, but it is a radical lifestyle shift to work in two hours of training a day, many hours of meal prep, and constantly disappointing your significant others by never being able to order pizza.

Is there anything you wouldn’t do for The Armed? How far would you go?

AV: I think that’s the exciting part of it! That’s what we’re enjoying and finding out. I hope it goes further!

Can you see why people often compare The Armed to a cult?

AV: Definitely! The Venn diagram is pretty close, it’s almost a circle at this point. We’re never gonna be the biggest band, but I think the fans we do accrue have the amount of love for us as of a thousand normal fans. I think that’s what really cool, is connecting with people on that intense of a level.

Was gathering such an intense fanbase an aim, or is it a side-effect of The Armed’s obfuscation of identity leaving so many puzzles to be solved?

AV: It’s not like from the start we said, ‘let’s not be super popular, but 50% of our fans should have our logo tattooed on them.’ But I do think it comes quite naturally. It wasn’t inherently intentional when it started but now it’s definitely something we want to continue. We want everyone to be either obsessed with us, or just sort of hate it.

Do you think this fandom is specific to your generation? I can’t imagine The Armed having the same sort of success before Discord groups...

AV: People use the term ‘internet band’ as a derogatory sort of thing but we’ve embraced what it means to us. Because there are so few of us freaks out here that this appeals to, we need to curate all of them from around the globe in order to be effective! You see that sort of thing in society now, where our cults don’t necessarily have to formulate around a snake oil salesman, it can be people who are obsessed with a product, like Apple or Crossfit.

And music fandom too. Some music writers get death threats from stans if they don’t give a good enough review to whichever artist.

AV: As that kind of thing has emerged, Dan has gone to great efforts to make sure that the overall message of love and positivity and inclusivity stays on top of everything else, because there is also toxic fandom. That’s something we’ve gone out of our way to weed out by sometimes being confrontational with the aesthetics of things, and hopefully we’ll continue to do so. But it is weird when someone buys a Times Square billboard for you that you didn’t organise. That’s not a lie, people gathered money on a PayPal and bought a billboard.

Earlier you alluded to the fact The Armed’s anonymity sometimes works against you, what did you mean?

AV: I’m aware of how some of these things sound big and delusional, but like I said, if you’re trying to achieve big goals you have to be like that sometimes. The goal of the band from the start was to make it so intense that it felt like a movement of some sort, or a force of nature to be reckoned with more than any individual people. The problem is that you don’t wanna do a ‘masks and numbers’ thing, like Slipknot. I think over time it grew into a thing where we didn’t want it to be silly, that we were trying to say ‘this isn’t people’ or ‘we’re a cartoon’ like Gorillaz. We didn’t want to have that as a schtick. Cara, the female vocalist on the last album who also plays bass and plays synthesizers, when she appeared in pictures people thought she was a joke, and she’d been playing in the band for a couple of years at that point. Dan does a great job at keeping the narrative on track, but that is one thing that’s gotten away from him sometimes. People gave more of a shit about that, became this mystery. Which is cool, it just was something that took away from that fact that it’s more about the movement.

So how many people are a part of that movement?

AV: It’s not something where we have a handshake and say, ‘you’re in The Armed’. It evolves naturally. The only reason we credit guests at all is when we don’t want to discredit their contribution. But I would say in terms of audio contributions, 25 to 30 people at any one time. Then that often boils down to the songs that we play being about six to nine people that are available and have a competent musicianship enough to play an instrument for an entire set. We’re not U2, we can’t be swapping around.

If The Armed were given a U2 Budget what would they do?

AV: Spend all of it and more. The Armed is a net zero proposition. Everyone involved is doing it because they believe in doing something big. No one ever wants to be making an album because we need to make money. I think we would try hard to make the greatest, most intense, and probably the most literally blinding show anyone has ever seen. We know how to make a small amount of money look like a lot more, so if we had a lot of money we would make it look like a lot, lot, lot more.

The Armed's new album ULTRAPOP is released on April 16 via Sargent House