Behind the album art with cult enigmas The Armed

Behind the album art with cult enigmas The Armed

Frontman Tony Wolski lifts the veil on The Armed’s weird world and the artwork for new album ‘Perfect Saviors’.

Enigmas don’t come along very often in hardcore punk. Most bands are all about namechecking their hometown in lyrics or speaking earnestly about the scene in interviews – authenticity and realness are seen as important credentials in punk and all the subgenres therein. That’s why The Armed, a band of anonymous tricksters who send actors to do their interviews and have built an esoteric lore around themselves, are a rare beast.

Formed in 2009, The Armed’s music is unique and evolving – experimental and frenetic hardcore with unexpected moments of pop melody, indie rock and even electro. In their slick videos and artwork, they dance between absurdity, beauty, comedy and conceptuality. They’ve featured Tommy Wiseau from The Room in their music videos and claim that they’re masterminded by an elusive character called ‘Dan Greene.’ They stole Frank Turner’s unreleased demos and worked them into their song ‘Ft. Frank Turner,’ which featured a photo of Frank Carter on the single cover. In fact, it’s hard to tell if they’re an inside joke, a performance art troupe or a mixture of both.

Photo by Nate Sturley

Following their critically acclaimed Ultrapop album in 2021, they released a kaleidoscopic fifth album, Perfect Saviors, last month and dropped their tightly guarded anonymity. After supporting Queens of the Stone Age in the US, The Armed revealed their identities: six punks from Detroit. In their first interviews, they’ve begun speaking honestly about the band, their motivations and the latest album. Perfect Saviors is just as demanding as the previous but is their most accessible music to date: an alt-rock album with moments of pure noise, technical prowess and dreamy transcendence.

As we have come to expect from The Armed, the artwork of Perfect Saviors is a sight to behold. An artificial intelligence-generated image of a mutant trio might not be to everybody’s taste but from what I can gather, that was the intention. Huck sat down with frontman Tony Wolski, a creative director in his day job, to talk about art, comedy and the weird world of The Armed.

I’m sure we could talk about music all day but today I want to talk to you about art. In The Armed, are you inspired by art or specific art movements, as well as music?

Yeah, big time. We’ve always considered the project as a whole to be one big multimedia experiment, so, for us, there’s really no line. The music is paramount, but so is the associated video representation and so is the artwork that comes out with it, you know? Years ago some people thought we didn’t take the music seriously enough because of the time we would put into all the other stuff. But we take the music incredibly seriously. We call it a band because it’s easy, but to us, the physical album itself, the presentation of it, the whole lore and the associated websites and the music videos, all of that is one thing. We’re crafting an experience, you know what I mean?

In a traditional sense, our overall experiential concept pulls from Bowie or something like that. Every aspect of the presentation was important to him. He’s another very collaborative artist who worked with new people constantly. Then, if we’re talking about the actual art itself, Sherrie Levine is a huge, huge influence. You know, that feminist appropriation art. I know aesthetically there are maybe not a lot of touch-points in the art that we’re doing now, but I think conceptually there’s a lot of alignment there.

Stéphane Breitwieser is not an artist, but he’s a famous thief. I think that there is a lot of intersection between contemporary art and the concept of ownership and appropriation in general. I think someone who was so infatuated with art that he was physically taking it from a museum, I think that’s almost artistic in itself. The moves he had to do to steal these things and to accumulate millions of dollars’ worth of art from a Belgian museum I think that’s a performance in and of itself, too.

There’s a playfulness within the art, music and lore of The Armed. It reminds me of The Church of the SubGenius – your Dan Greene character being like J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. You said in another interview that, “in most great art there is a sense of whimsy and magic and humour.” That echoes what Ivan Stang would say; that just because what they’re doing is funny doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Yeah. The KLF are also a massive touchpoint for us, too. We actually straight up reference the million quid burning in the lyrics to ‘Public Grieving.’ The KLF, SubGenius and Bowie created really wonderful, culturally defining, culturally transformative art in all these different ways, through different levels of subversion and they did so with a twinkle in their eyes.

There’s something quite entrancing about it all. Making the audience question whether The Armed is comedy, or really serious. Is it performance art, or is it an inside joke or all of the above?

You hit on something; that pretentiousness aspect which is what triggers a lot of people’s defence mechanisms, especially in hardcore and in punk. You’re supposed to know like, this is what you do at a show and these are the specific cool identifiers, but that’s not in the spirit of punk. Black Flag wasn’t covering Elvis, know what I mean? This idea that we’re supposed to be fetishising something from 40 years ago with such accuracy and trying to recreate things just doesn’t seem in the spirit to me. It makes people defensive, it makes people think we’re pretentious, but in our band a lot of us come from a visual art background.

Some of us went to school for it and the funny thing is you kind of learn that a lot of people who you might think are pretentious are just nerds like you! I think sometimes it’s people’s own defence, like if they don’t immediately pick up what the intent is, then people are like, “Fuck that! They think they’re smarter than me!” The Armed definitely don’t think we’re smarter than anybody [laughs]. I promise. We’re just trying to have a good time!

It seems like you’re seeing punk through a modernist lens. Seeing punk as something that separates itself from the past. Modernist artists weren’t aping classic art from previous centuries or aspiring to be like that, they were starting afresh, subverting or challenging. I feel like that’s what you’re doing, rather than leaning on the past.

The thing is, this is not a disowning of any of that stuff in the past, it’s an acknowledgement and a growth from it. With bands like Minor Threat, you had Revolution Summer happening in DC years after the advent of those bands. Black Flag kept reinventing itself. Those bands were not content to just sit there in whatever the current exchange rate of vintage trendiness was to something they’re paying homage to. They were trying to break new ground and to them punk was modernist. We’re trying to embrace that concept of modernism.

“Black Flag wasn't covering Elvis, know what I mean?”

Tony Wolski - The Armed

What’s the story behind the album art?

The concept of Perfect Saviors is about the increasing dogmatic simplification of morals and ethics that is emerging. I’m a millennial and I think our generation really fell hard for the capitalism rebrand: “I’m not just a guy trying to make my own business, I’m actually saving the world, and let me tell you why.” We’ve started making an equivalency between activism and starting a shoe company or a for-profit company. It’s not that doing that is inherently bad, we’ve all got full-time jobs outside the band, but trying to hide that behind the veneer of everything being altruistic is just dishonest. I feel like the millennial generation really drank our own Kool-Aid and everything now has to have this purpose, which is making everything so much better. It has resulted in this thing where people think if you eat a specific brand of quinoa you’re a piece of shit.

The isolation from the pandemic further drove this unrest everywhere. You saw this exciting stuff start happening, like in 2020 people got upset about some really insane injustices here in the States. There were protests and there was momentum. Then you eventually see that devolve and turn into general malaise. At the same time, there’s this ethical binary now where everything is either good or bad. There’s an increasing black-and-white thought and the concept that you’re either going to be perfect or you’re going to be the devil. So that’s the idea of the Perfect Saviors.

Where does the artificial intelligence come into it?

Technology has foisted its own version of what we are onto ourselves. Like, even if you and I like 90% of the same music, have the same political beliefs, you’re still going to get a different version of that than I am. We’re not all sitting around watching the moon landing anymore, we’re not all watching the Super Bowl anymore, it’s all very different for every person. But we as humans, I feel, haven’t caught up with that yet. We still think everyone is kind of experiencing the same thing, even though it’s different for everyone.

So, with Perfect Saviors we wanted to take the concept of this algorithmic delivery system of a one-to-one cultural pastiche that is you. We wanted to apply that to a visualisation, and what better tool to do it than AI. It’s an amoral, bordering-on-unethical robot machine that created these superhero rock star pastiche mashups.

How has it been received?

We’ve seen a lot of blowback from that because a lot of people are disgusted that we would use AI. That kind of baffles me. I mean, I don’t think that art is intrinsically ethical. I think it raises ethical questions for you, the viewer, and sometimes it makes you uncomfortable. And that’s what we’re doing. We’ve stolen people’s videos before, we’ve recreated other people’s artwork… to me, this is the natural extension of that.

We embraced it because it would be controversial too, you know what I mean? We went into it knowing that this would be something that isn’t supposed to be okay. Also, the funny part is that a lot of people have been using AI in other ways that they’ve had no idea about. There’s been AI integration into all kinds of VST [Virtual Studio Technology] plugins, into all kinds of visual tools, into Photoshop, into Illustrator, Live Trace. To say AI is just bad seems silly to me.

“The veneer of everything being altruistic is just dishonest. I feel like the millennial generation really drank our own Kool-Aid.”

Tony Wolski - The Armed

What did you even feed into the AI for it make the artwork?

That’s the thing. I think a lot of people who don’t use it assume that you type “make me a cool-looking album cover” into it and it makes one, but that’s not how it works. My cousin Kenny Szymanski plays bass in the band and he’s the designer. I work on the conceptual end of it and he puts together the visuals. We had months and months and months and months of prompts and getting images that we like and then collaging it all together to make something that’s cohesive and disgusting. There were a lot of pop culture references, which falls into legal grey areas [laughs], so I don’t even want to speak specifically about it, but the idea is that we wanted it to feel alien and familiar and grotesque. There’s this weird push-pull where it feels like pop culture at an arm’s distance, and a little wrong when you look at it for too long, you know what I mean?

It feels almost sickly to me.

Yeah! And that’s the intention. It’s supposed to make you feel a little gross because we’re talking about kind of gross and weird stuff.

Album artwork helps to shape how people consume the music. I often think of an album cover when I listen to the album, sometimes consciously or other times subconsciously. Even the colour palette in the art affects how I digest the music. With that in mind, the pairing of this album cover with the music makes for an interesting experience.

Yeah. A lot of the core people in The Armed are from around Detroit, Michigan, and we’re really close to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti where there is a really vibrant noise music scene. I think that has informed where we get a lot of our thoughts on how to do the push-and-pull because they’re masters of the high and low. It could be a song that’s just a sample of a lawnmower, but there will be an artistic treatise with it that blows your mind, all about what it’s referencing.

I think our brains are constantly trying to categorise. With The Armed we’re trying push that so hard that in the long-term it reprograms your brain and what it associates with certain sounds and noises.

In hip hop, there’s a whole slew of aesthetics that are accepted and there’s a whole slew of silliness and whimsy and seriousness that can be accepted. But for some reason, particularly in heavy music and in punk and hardcore, there seems to be these really specific swim lanes – heavy music should look and sound like this or that. At the most basic level, we’re just trying to fuck all that up. We’re trying to reprogram, to open people up to new ideas.

It’s a bit situationist. It’s disruptive, really.

Another massive influence!

Like, jolting people out of their reality tunnels can inspire everything from political thought, to creativity, to imagining a new world. I once read you describe The Armed as a “socialist art utopia.” You seem disaffected with the way things are now. What role does art play in building a utopia?

When I said The Armed is a socialist art utopia, I was talking about literally just The Armed. This is such a corny answer, but I think ultimately it all starts from there. Find what you can affect and treat people fairly within those realms. We’re all in a really cut-throat thing, but within the systems that you can control it’s just about being kind and fair to people and drawing the line. I think there’s a certain amount of greed that pervades every aspect of society and that fuels almost every ill. You don’t have to look at something in terms of political or economic models. There are just so many systems that greed fucks up. It is ultimately the driving evil in this world.

If we are able to establish systems that we can control to some degree or exert our own influence over, we just need to keep that idea of fairness at play in all of it. That’s the basis for an eventual utopia, you know what I mean? That could happen. I don’t know specifically the transformative way that art could get us to utopia, but I know that if a utopia can exist, it would need art because it wouldn’t be a utopia for me without it. Art is going to be important along the way no matter what.

Perfect Saviors is out now. Album art Creative Direction by Tony Wolski and Design by Ken Szymanski.

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