We’ve tried to do this interview for so long, I fell into a little deception that this band is known for. As nearly every journalist that tried to talk with The Armed during their ULTRAPOP promo cycle, I was set to talk with some Adam Vallely. Take a look on Instagram, and you’ll find a very nice guy who’s definitely a fan, is pretty aware or even a part of the joke but he’s not a part of the band. And yet for some time I thought I’m going to talk with him and felt pretty ok with that. You know, we’re talking about a band that supposedly pays actors for taking part in their promo shots and plays unannounced concerts on open-mic evenings. Talking with some nice but random guy about them wouldn’t be that weird. But then The Quietus released their interview with Adam and I knew almost everything. Except – of course – who am I going to talk with actually. Turned out „Adam” is one of their vocalists – the muscular guy acting as a frontman in their „ALL FUTURES” video. It was hard not to ask him about his diet and weightlifting (believe me, seems like every other journo did it) but I had too much pleasure listening to him talking with real passion about music, art, expectations, working in a 25-person multimedia project, Cyberpunk and… Zakopane. Sorry, not sorry.
[MOŻESZ TO TAKŻE PRZECZYTAĆ PO POLSKU]
How are you still getting away with playing with people like that? I didn’t know who am I going to talk with until you showed up.
(laughs) From the start of it, it was supposed to be anonymous but we didn’t want to do anything that was like… We didn’t want to wear masks or do something that was maybe a little bit sillier for what we were doing. So we just kind of tried to start obfuscating identity. And really people did it for us a lot by just misunderstanding things. They would see our photos being different because it is a big collaboration. There’s a lot of people involved and they would see that all of a sudden there was different people in a photo so they would assume that they were actors.
Everyone thought Cara [Drolshagen – vocalist] was an actor and she had been in the band for three years at that point or whatever it was by the time she started showing up in pictures. So I think a lot of the work of obfuscating our identity has been done by other people, not us. So that’s been kind of useful to us. And honestly, you can do a bit of research and get to some of the truth, but we’re just trying to minimize it. We’re trying to minimize the role of the individual within the band. We’re just trying to make it matter a little bit less. That maybe it’s not a mystery to be solved. Maybe it’s just something that we’re saying doesn’t really matter in the context of The Armed.
Photo – Aaron Jones
Is this line-up – let’s say from the video for „ALL FUTURES” – is the line-up that we can expect during live shows when the tours will come back?
Yes, that’s a lineup of the band playing the song live. It’s the most real we’ve been so far. Whether it’s the lineup that ends up playing shows, it’ll probably be pretty close. The difficulty for us is we think of it more as a project and almost everyone is multi-instrumentalist. So on the recording, you know, there’s 13 different people playing guitars over the course of the record, you know, and live we can’t make those switches so much because we’re not making enough money to tour with twenty five people or whatever in order to do that. So live, we always end up making a lineup of who is available and who’s able to play largely connected to one instrument the whole time. So that said, the lineup that you’re seeing in the „ALL FUTURES” video will probably be pretty similar to what ends up touring ULTRAPOP. Probably very, very close at the very least, if not the same.
That’s very cool because that video is great. The show you gave there is mind-blowing.
Oh, thanks a lot, man.
But there’s still a scent of mistery coming from the band with all the name-changes and stuff. I did some research and I know you’re not Adam in real life. So isn’t that tempting to finally reveal everything? I think you’re getting more and more popular right now and this can be your breakthrough album, so therehere may be some perks of being your real self. Isn’t that tempting for you?
At this point, not really, honestly. I mean, is Nikki Sixx’s real name Nikki Sixx? I think within the band there is a construct and we leave it disconnected from our outside egos so that we’re able to participate in the way that we do. From the beginning, there is this whole idea of making it kind of modular in this big, open, collaborative thing. And the reason that it’s important it stays like that is because no one has any ego about what makes it onto the album. You know what I mean? Everyone is really only thinking about that end product, so there’s plenty of times where people submit riffs or take a swing and then they don’t make it on. And on a personal level, sometimes you’re like: „ah, shit”. You know what I mean? Like, I wish I could have nailed it. But if someone does something better…
I mean, what’s really cool about The Armed is that there’s not a lot of drama behind the scenes and how it comes together. Everyone just wants the best possible end product. That is the goal. To make something that’s the best possible end product. For example, if Kenny plays bass on all of the songs and Kenny is the bassist and and then you have people talking: „Well, they were only good when Kenny was playing bass” and stuff like that. We just want to get rid of all of that. The Armed is a thing that’s happening. Divorce yourself from what you’re attaching outside of it, to other identities, to other people. Because I think it colors it for us and for them. And yeah, sometimes you might want to take more ownership of it, but I think we’re all very comfortable with the role that we’re doing and the way that it ends up turning out, because I think it makes the art a lot more potent and a lot more pure this way. And it’s just fun (laughs).
Is it hard to coordinate the recording process? For example, there are many people singing on that album. When do you make the decision who is singing or playing guitar on a specific song or something like that?
Typically, we have a shared server that we upload a lot of stuff to, and so we’ll throw around riffs and ideas and we’ll bounce. Someone will take it and work on it… We’re all pretty well familiar with each other’s skill sets. I can sing in a certain way that Jonni Randall can’t sing and he can sing in a certain way that I can’t sing, and then obviously Cara sounds a lot different than both of us. Dan Greene even sings on some parts of the album. And we all know specifically what we’re hitting.
Logistically, it can be a nightmare when there are so many people involved. Just because of the nature of it. It’s not getting five people in a room and play. It’s getting twenty five people to decide something. But Dan Greene kind of acts as the air traffic controller for all of that. We do still need some centralized leadership role, where he’s making those decisions and deciding on who would service what part the best, I think. So Dan kind of just takes care of that. It’s very difficult and sometimes it takes very long. But it also opens up these wonderful possibilities, like when you have so many people involved, your sphere of collaborators is also much bigger. We don’t think just within ourselves. There’s that last track on ULTRAPOP – „THE MUSIC BECOMES A SKULL”. Mark Lanegan is singing there.
We have been working on that demo for a long time. And it just wasn’t… It was good, but it wasn’t hitting. And Dan was saying: „We need Mark Lanegan singing basically” (laughs). Because what we were trying to do with the voice was not something that myself or Jonni or even Dan, who has the lowest voice of all of us, could do. We wanted someone who sounded more comfortable, a little bit more weathered, you know what I mean? More brooding. When we did that, it sounded fake. It sounded artificial. We were talking about that with Ben (Chisholm – producer of „ULTRAPOP”) and within twenty four hours of that conversation we had stems from Mark Lanegan. And that only comes from having such an open amount of collaborators that we have a social net that can get to people quicker, you know what I mean?
So like as inconvenient as it is sometimes to sort out, and it does take us a long time, I think, A, the results are better than if we were doing this a different way, or at least they’re unique to us. And B, sometimes you get little cool things like that where something just clicks and comes together because someone knows someone knows someone. And we make two different phone calls and all of a sudden we have this dream guy that we wanted on the record within a day. So it’s a good and a bad like anything.
Photo – Trevor Naud
Yeah, that’s interesting. I knew that Mark is involved, but I didn’t know on which song. To be honest i thought he’s involved in at least four songs there. There’s also Troy Van Leeuwen playing on ULTRAPOP, right?
Yeah, he plays guitar on „ALL FUTURES” and „REAL FOLK BLUES”.
So how is it like to work with such big names on such project?
Yeah, I mean, amazing, right? It’s very cool. I mean, you know, Mark Lanegan is a singer that I’ve been aware of as long as I have memories (laughs). From a very, very young age. I’ve been aware of his impact on music, you know what I mean? My older brothers were listening to a lot of Screaming Trees. So it’s pretty wild to end up on a record and sing against him. That last track is me and Mark Lanegan singing, which is just crazy.
And then same thing with Troy. I mean, Troy is, you know, a guitar hero of ours. Queens of the Stone Age is one of the coolest bands that’s around, in my opinion. I think in a lot of the guys in the band. So it’s been amazing to work with them. And I think just kind of cool, too. I mean, both guys are very cool. And, you know, they were very collaborative. It wasn’t too different from working with anyone else. I mean, in the way that it actually happened. So they’re just a lot more famous than other people (laughs). But no, it was very cool. It’s very cool to hear them playing parts and working on and changing things that you might have had a role in playing. It’s pretty neat. Yeah.
And there’s also Kurt Ballou who’s involved with The Armed for a long time. But what’s interesting for me is that he is named executive producer on ULTRAPOP.
He’s been the executive producer of pretty much all our records.
Yeah, what does it mean, though in the music world? What’s his duty?
I think executive producer can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Sometimes it’s a contractual obligation. Sometimes it’s something else. I think for Kurt, it’s a little bit of everything. I don’t want to talk too much out of turn. Dan Greene can probably illuminate it more, but Kurt definitely has a role in shaping the end product, maybe not as much as like a day to day way that Ben did, but he definitely, definitely earned the executive producer role, I’ll say that.
In your press promo, you’ve written that ULTRAPOP is „an open rebellion against the culture of expectation in heavy music. It is a joyous, genderless, post-nihilist, anti-punk, razor-focused take on creating the most intense listener experience possible”. Did you feel any expectations on you after ONLY LOVE?
Yeah, I mean, as more people start paying attention, you start feeling some of that. When ONLY LOVE even came out, we got some really angry DMs and emails about that thing, about how it’s mixed improperly and there’s all these annoying female vocals all over the place. And honestly, it sort of fuels us, I think, in a way to keep doing what we think is right. I think what’s really cool is when you’re in a band, when you’re doing an art project for a long time and you age within that, you start giving less and less of a fuck about things that you cared about when you started.
So when you started, it’s all about maybe impressing your peers within your city. You’re playing in a noise band. You want the other cool noise bands to think you’re cool, too. And I think as we’ve gotten older and as we’ve established this route that really is never going to make us wealthy, no matter what we do… Like, we hope people like it, but we’ve arranged this in a way that we’re going to just keep turning this into more and more art. And I think because of that, we don’t really feel beholden to people. So, yes, we feel expectations and we want to honor our own vision. And we hope that that vision aligns with some of the fans expectations as well. But if you’re expecting a certain amount of breakdowns or a certain amount of whatever, we’re not going to think about that at all. We don’t care at all.
But we do hope that you expect a certain quality from us and a certain level of surprise and that’s always what we’re trying to deliver. Something that’s incredibly intense and big and new and feels like a lot of work went into it. And that’s the expectation that we will hold ourselves to but everything else in terms of esthetic form, what you actually sonically might expect – we don’t give a shit.
Photo – Trevor Naud
Is managing these expectations something that may be a problem in the music industry or like maybe something that people involved in bands are not doing properly?
Well, I think if you try to subscribe to those types of expectations, you end up underperforming. Because I think so much of art is based on novelty. It’s based on new discoveries of the audience and that feeling to unearth some type of new thing that you’ve never heard or encountered or seen before. And I think when people focus too much on the expectations of what people think should come from them next, they don’t experiment enough with tensions. They’re not worried about creating tensions. They’re worried about subscribing to techniques they’ve already done that then become tropes.
You know, and when you’re in the realm of tropes, then you’re just making like a paint by numbers. You become a cartoon of yourself. And that’s something we never want to do – become a caricature. I mean, we play with with that. Within our art, we confront that, but we never want to do that thing where you’re just slowly becoming a cartoon of yourself, which is, I think, what happens when you’re only focused on what people expect from you next.
So, on ULTRAPOP you’re mixing heavy music with, well.. pop. How did you work on that? Was it in the way that you’re composing a „heavy” song and then try to add some pop layers on it, or the other way?
That’s a really interesting question. And I think that’s actually very key to the difference between ULTRAPOP and ONLY LOVE. With ONLY LOVE, we wrote music pretty much exactly like how we had always written music. And we just went about it that certain way, starting with certain riffs and whatnot, and it was almost the framework of The Armed with pop decorations and accouterment put on top of it.
For ULTRAPOP it’s sort of the inverse and this kind of sounds like an art school bullshit explanation, but it’s not. It’s sort of the inverse in that we started with pop foundations and then put The Armed stuff over that. I mean the vocabulary of The Armed we spoke in over a framework that we already built in the realm of pop. And I think that’s an important difference. We focused more on writing this material probably in a way that’s actually more traditional to most people, which is really developing the framework of the song with maybe a drumbeat and a working bass line and then developing melody and focusing on where the hooks would be and starting all in that world first before we started getting too tricky with it. It doesn’t mean that we just sat there with an acoustic guitar and figured everything out, but if you were to break these songs down into a more just acoustic guitar type thing, it would be a lot easier to do with this songs because they’re built on a more traditional framework. But that was unique for us.
I think that is a major growth for us, because I think we’re also doing really interesting, new and novel ways of executing those frameworks that we’re establishing. So, yeah, what you asked – we’ve done both, historically, but for this one, I think we started focusing a lot more on some of the more traditional aspects in terms of structure, melody, where’s the hook, really developing a chorus before we go: „OK, now we’re going to have this four hundred BPM arpeggio that’s just started like crazy, just blasting over it in that chord structure and whatnot”.
Tomorrow [as we spoke in March] you will premiere a new single – „AN ITERATION”. This is a perfect example of a good pop song, I guess. And of course, there’s a really cool video coming with it, so I have to ask you about the visual aspect of ULTRAPOP. What’s the idea behind it?
For us, and I have to be careful about how I say this, because sometimes people misunderstand, it’s not that we focus less on the music because we put in unbelievable amount of work into the music, but we focus as much on every other part of it. You know what I mean? To us, this is considered a band only because that’s how the world exists. If you’re putting out an album, then there’s a band attached to it. But realistically, The Armed is a multimedia art project and we’re very, very attentive from the start on how we want to communicate to people.
The songs and the associated visuals – be the album artwork or the single artwork or anything like that and the videos themselves. So I think the differentiator for us is a lot of the people within the collaboration have a film background. We’re a bunch of art school nerds. Some of us honestly are visual artists first, musicians second. And I think that kind of comes through in what we’re able to produce. And I think that what’s just there is an overwhelming amount of attention paid on everything, and we’re also trying to tell sort of like long, long form narratives over the course of things that are still confusing and bizarre and interesting. We reuse the character of Dan Greene a lot in these videos so that there’s some form of ongoing narrative or some arc almost that you can follow.
There’s a lot of interesting music videos always. And I feel like now music videos are getting even more interesting than they’ve been. But a lot of videos are boring structure of performance, etc. And we’ve always been subverting people’s expectations by utilizing that, so „ALL FUTURES” is a great example where I think people may have expected something different and we decided to have a well lit stage and band members, you can see just literally play the song and have it be a live recording of that song. And that’s what that is. Sometimes we play into tropes when it subverts our own audience’s expectations. But a lot of other times we’re trying to tell a larger form narrative or do whatever. I mean, all I can say, it’s not like there’s any specific guiding light. All I can say is that a lot of thought goes into them and sometimes preparation for years in terms of like planting something in one video that we then plan on paying off years and years later. And you can see that in „AN ITERATION”.
You’ve also made a song for CYBERPUNK 2077. Was it a song from ULTRAPOP sessions? How different was to work on it than on the rest of the songs?
Yeah, we’re a band that likes working within the traditional album structure, because I think it gives you a certain amount of flexibility to do a variety of things and let certain songs have a different flavor than others. But then as a whole, it’s one big stew, you know. And so it’s like it allows you to experiment more. Whereas if you released one of those songs that’s maybe a little bit stranger and people just heard that song, they’d be like, what the fuck is this? It makes less sense. So the album structure works a lot for us because we’re able to put a lot of different ideas and let them mature and breathe on their own and let the color of all the other ones kind of still shape what the listener thinks of the whole overall project. When you’re writing a specific song to just be a stand alone, it’s kind of hard. You don’t want to shoot right up the middle. I mean, it’s like you got to find where you can still make this thing unique.
So for Cyberpunk… We had some songs that were just kind of bangers that just kind of stood on their own. And I think „Night City Aliens” was one of those where you don’t need ten other songs to appreciate the song. At its heart it’s just a punk song. It’ll feel good when you’re driving a space car through some shit or whatever, going on some adventure. So it just felt like a fun adventure game. We wanted to make something that serviced what it was going to end up on. We weren’t using this platform to make some statement or to make something totally unexpected for us, no. We just wanted to make a good ass video game song.
A lot of us grew up playing video games and stuff like Grand Theft Auto all the time. It’s fun having that radio stations that you can choose from. And this song felt right for doing that, for driving and stuff. So that’s basically how it came together. It was just recorded outside of an album cycle. I think we may have recorded that one partially in Europe, or at least we mixed it while we were in Europe. I know that we were doing our little festival tour a couple of years ago when we were finishing all that up. So we kind of made it like on the go. But I love that song. I think it’s a really fun one. And I can’t wait to find out… I mean, we recorded that and then COVID happened. We haven’t been able to play that one live. I think that one’s going to be a real fun rager live, you know.
You should definitely play that on some big festivals.
If they’ll have us, we’d be happy to be there. Yeah definitely.
You have to come to Poland for that. Especially you, as something tells me you have some connection with our country.
Yeah (laughs). My family’s from a Zakopane. I heard Zakopane is a little different nowadays, though, it’s become kind of like the Russian drinking hole, right?
Yeah, it’s annoying right now, but it used to be a very, very nice place. You should visit it anyway. One final question – where do you see The Armed in – let’s say – five years?
I think probably doing the same thing (laughs). I hope more people are paying attention and if they’re not, I think we’ll just be doing the same thing. I think we’ve really hit a stride in terms of everyone in the band is incredibly passionate about what what we’re trying to do, which is trying to move the needle for the art form. Heavy music stagnates when no one’s pushing it and we want to push it as far as it can go and break it and screw it up. But I think we’ll just keep on doing that. I mean, we have a goal in mind, and I don’t think we feel like we’re anywhere close to the end yet.
Main photo – Nate Sturley
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