There are bands that are challenging to get into, and then there is the Armed.
The Detroit-based punk outfit has operated largely pseudonymously for roughly 14 years, preferring renegade one-off shows at gas stations or rec centers to tours. Its self-produced, highly weird music videos have a “Jackass”-meets-David Lynch aesthetic, with surprisingly advanced production values for an obscure Midwestern hardcore group. Its rare interviews read more as absurdist gonzo journalism than traditional profiles: The Armed has shown up with blunt-smoking bodybuilders or driving a $200,000 Porsche, handed out false or even stolen identities, and provided Hegelian philosophical tangents in response to basic questions like, “Who, exactly, is in the Armed?”
For the better part of the group’s history, keeping the answer to that question as obscure as possible has been part of the point. The Armed considers itself more of a collective or an art project than a band, with dozens of rotating members. The goal was to tamp down their egos and refocus the audience’s attention on the music, which has been about as challenging to understand as their identities: blast beats, screeching guitars, screaming vocalists and layer upon layer of dense, maximalist and oftentimes dissonant noise rock.
Now, the Armed has a grand opportunity to capitalize on its years of toiling in relative obscurity. Modern, guitar-heavy rock is going through something of a renaissance, with young people looking to packed clubs and circle pits to find the type of release that no Zoom call could provide. Harder acts like Scowl, Gel and Zulu are thriving, and Turnstile, the Baltimore-based hardcore group, has found a way to bridge hardcore to the mainstream.
So members of the Armed are doing what might be their most punk-rock move yet: revealing themselves and taking a hard-right turn away from their signature sound. The result is a larger-than-life, anthemic stadium rock album due Friday called “Perfect Saviors,” a near-complete break from their past that will likely alienate some of their biggest fans. But for those who know them well, it is a classic Armed move.
“A lot of what we’re doing was a function of everyone in the hardcore scene hating us,” Randall Lee, 39, one of the four core members of the band, said in a recent interview. (The others are Kenny Szymanski, 34; Dan Greene, 35; and Tony Wolski, 38.) “We weren’t touring, and we got a lot of [expletive] for it from the gate-keeping crowd, so we made our own scene.”
For years, many thought the group was secretly run by Kurt Ballou, a revered record producer and guitarist from the hardcore band Converge. Others believed it was backed by the skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.
Much of the group’s lore centered around a persona called Dan Greene — based on the actual band member Dan Greene, who is preternaturally shy and preferred to stay out of the limelight. Greene was portrayed publicly by Trevor Naud, a longtime friend and collaborator, while the real Greene worked largely in the background, providing elements of potential song ideas to other band members who would build on them to produce full-length tracks. Greene works a day job stocking shelves at Meijer, a Midwestern grocery chain, though he also hid in plain sight: He was photographed and placed on the cover of one of the band’s early albums, “Untitled.”
Some of the other members of the band began calling themselves “Dan Greene” in press interviews; fans started calling themselves “Daniels.”
“It’s an exquisite corpse of a band,” Naud said, referencing the Surrealist parlor game of making artistic works out of disparate, oftentimes contradictory pieces.
If the music turned on new listeners, the saga of Dan Greene and the music videos hooked them in. Naud became something of an avatar for the entire group, often playing a disaffected man trying to break out of corporate life, or running into crowded bars with a hacked-together karaoke system strapped to his back and screaming his lungs out. The Armed pulled in the voice actor David Hayter, who played Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video game series, in one of its most Lynchian visual pieces, for the single “An Iteration.”
“Everything is art-forward with them,” said Troy Van Leeuwen, a multi-instrumentalist for Queens of the Stone Age who acted as “guitar czar” on the Armed’s two most recent albums. (Ben Chisholm, a producer and frequent Armed collaborator, passed him some early demos.) “They were mysterious, super impressive and what they were doing would just suck you in.”
Much of the skill put into polishing the Armed’s slick-looking videos stems from its adjacency to Worldfare, a production company created and run by multiple band members. Six partners, including Wolski — the charismatic frontman who is ostensibly the band’s leader, as much as the Armed can even have one — built Worldfare into a creative studio housed inside a 5,000-square-foot, three-story mansion near downtown Detroit. The compound has floors dedicated to filming, editing and entertaining, and a basement converted into a band practice and recording space. Worldfare has done advertising work with clients as big as Ford and McDonald’s, as well as video shoots for bands like Tegan and Sara, Metz and Converge.
The Armed’s fourth and biggest album yet arrived in 2021: “Ultrapop,” a cultural critique on how subversiveness itself has been subsumed into modern pop culture. “When you can buy a skull T-shirt at Walmart, how subversive is that?” Wolski asked. “When Black Flag tattoos have been commoditized and made into an aesthetic, what even is punk anymore?”
To make their point, band members spent time during Covid lockdowns trimming down and bulking up, altering their diets and bodies to align with the maximalist sound of the record. Lee, the longhaired, Viking-sized guitarist and vocalist, shed 100 pounds to maintain a six-pack. Along with Wolski and his cousin Szymanski, who plays bass in the group, Lee hired a professional nutritionist; Wolski now subscribes to a mail-away chicken service and eats at least five meals a day of lean protein. Buzz began circulating after the group showed off its new look at the Pitchfork Festival in 2022 backed by Cara Drolshagen — a longtime collaborator and the band’s screamer-in-chief — and two carbon copies of her, all made up in Juggalo face paint.
For “Perfect Saviors,” the band is unmasking even further. Wolski and others sat down with the Fader writer Dan Ozzi and introduced some of the group’s newer additions, like the saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi and the drummer Urian Hackney of Rough Francis.
“We wanted to be a reliable narrator for this album,” Wolski said. “We really believe in this. There’s no ‘wink’ in it.” He said he thought the band was becoming a “mystery to be solved,” distracting people from actually caring about the music.
Fans are still working their way through what it means to know the actual identities of the Armed — even if some of them don’t fully believe it. (A LexisNexis search for Wolski returned a phone number matching the cellphone he used when communicating for this profile.)
That lack of certainty, it turns out, collides with some of the central themes of “Perfect Saviors.” Wolski noted how confusing the world has grown in an age of continuous connection; how information overload has made people stupid; and how social media’s need for us to constantly perform turns everyone into celebrities. “Our world is confounding and terrifying because of all of this, but it is still beautiful,” he added.
The result is the group’s most polished — and likely most accessible — record to date. “Sport of Form,” the album’s lead single, features heavy synths and harmonies interspersed with gentle acoustic guitars and a guest spot from Julien Baker, of boygenius fame. (Iggy Pop stops by to play the role of “God” in the music video.) There are even piano solos and ballads.
“They have this subversive plan to absolutely steamroll their way through conventions,” noted Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Nine Inch Nails, M83), who played bass on a handful of the new tracks.
But Wolski and company still don’t want to fully escape their roots. Before setting out on tour supporting Queens of the Stone Age in early August, the Armed sent out a notice to its loyal devotees: The group was throwing one last renegade, unlicensed house show at a secret location in a Detroit suburb, free of charge.
More than a hundred fans packed into a century-old, three-story mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district 10 days later as the Armed played a blistering half-hour set inside a living room. The crowd was a mass of young, sweating bodies, moshing and crowd-surfing while trying to avoid kicking out the light fixtures on the ceiling.
Jezzy Maloney, a 24-year-old Detroit native, knew she had to attend the show after diving into the band’s catalog and embracing its buff makeover last year.
“Literally the day after I watched that video, I started going to the gym again,” she said of “All Futures.” At the house show, Maloney and five others got tattoos of the Armed’s logo — an angular play on an infinity symbol — in a parlor room adjacent to where the band was playing. They left at five o’clock in the morning the next day.
“There’s just nothing like them that I’ve ever encountered,” Maloney added. “It really has changed my life.”