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Finally, Tony Wolski is an open book.
Fans of The Armed — the Detroit hardcore collective he fronts — have spent years envisioning Wolski (who used to go by the pseudonym Adam Vallely) and the band as solemn fitness monks, lifting weights at some compound and emerging only to scream into a mic; or nihilistic pranksters, sending journalists on wild goose chases while lying to their faces; or even possibly actors, hired as puppets by some shady corporation keen to profit off the punk subculture.
Nope. For his part, the 37-year-old Wolski is just your average suburban dad: warm, chatty, quick to crack a grin or laugh, thoughtful and thorough in conversation. He's wearing a fluorescent green beanie, a brightly beaded necklace and a T-shirt bearing the logo of Hungry Ducks Farm (a petting zoo in Charlevoix, Michigan) as he Zooms from his house in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. The Armed are preparing to release their fifth album Perfect Saviors — and for the first time they're ready to tell you anything you want to know.
For much of their career, the Armed were a totally anonymous collective. Once attention ramped up enough that fans and journalists started digging into their identities, they revealed their faces and some names, but still made themselves as hard as possible to pin down. Press photos featured a revolving cast, not all of whom seemed to be in the band. Interviews were chaotic, marked with obfuscations and bizarre interactions and claims.
The whole thing seemed to be a performance-art project as much as a band, though the music itself has always ruled — their take on hardcore bearing a new, more ambitious shape with each album, from 2009 debut These Are Lights and 2015's Untitled to 2018's Only Love and 2021's excellent ULTRAPOP.
This year's Perfect Saviors presents the Armed exploring their biggest, poppiest, most arena-ready sounds yet. The shadowy collective has already become one of the scene's buzziest bands, and now — thanks in part to some high-profile cosigns by Queens of the Stone Age and fellow Detroit icon Iggy Pop — the Armed are about to infiltrate the mainstream.
Yet for all their eccentricity, their budding success isn't surprising. There's deep deliberateness to everything the Armed do and everything the Armed are — every move a next move, a purpose in mind. Their decision now to finally employ total honesty is no different.
"The anonymity was functional for what we were trying to do, which was to make this big, ego-free collaboration. But the inadvertent consequence of that was that the anonymity became a focal point that we weren't anticipating," Wolski explains at the beginning of our hour-long chat.
"At this point, I don't think it's taking away any magic to show, actually, it's just a billion people, that's what it is. In a way, the anonymity is practically happening because there's just so many people."
He has a point, because while it's no longer a secret who does what in the Armed, it's still a daunting task to attempt to lay it out. The core lineup you'll see in the current press photos is Wolski (vocals), Kenny Szymanski (bass), Urian Hackney (drums), Cara Drolshagen (vocals), Randall Lee (guitar/vocals) and Patrick Shiroishi (sax/keys).
There's also Dan Greene, who's been a key songwriter from the beginning, but doesn't play live or appear in any photos (a character called Dan Greene appears in some music videos, but he's played by an associate of the band, Trevor Naud).
On top of that, Queens of the Stone Age's Troy Van Leeuwen co-produced and played on Perfect Saviors and has sometimes performed live with the band. There are also contributions from over a dozen more musicians, including boygenius' Julien Baker, Converge's Jacob Bannon and former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. These people aren't just collaborators; if you've ever been a part of the Armed, you are the Armed.
"We're of a generation that grew up very much online, the first generation to have all this information constantly available to us," Wolski says. "And you just see people talking stupid shit all the time, like 'I don't like this drummer's drumming on this.' So, for us, the agreement from the beginning has always been, 'The Armed is the Armed.' We're not putting out a members list. We're still not defining the Armed as anything other than the Armed. It takes a village to make what we're putting out and the focus should always be on the village."
A side effect of that anonymity meant that the band could play up to their hype as performers —and the rabid fan devotion those performances attracted — without inviting any kind of parasocial weirdness.
"I think a lot of the main folks in [the band] are relatively shy or private people, and it was really useful to get in the headspace of something that was so mission-oriented, where you can pretend like it's not even you," Wolski says. "It's almost like — did you ever watch Twin Peaks? It's like we were all tulpas of ourselves or something, like we were these alternate-reality versions of ourselves."
They took that idea to the extreme on the album cycle for ULTRAPOP, where they all adopted a grueling bodybuilding routine and became absolutely jacked — an attempt to become larger-than-life — to mirror the album's commentary on massive-scale pop culture.
This is all very highbrow and conceptual for the world of hardcore punk, traditionally defined by simplicity and raw emotion. But then again, Wolski posits, all hardcore could be considered a kind of performance art. "I think in punk there's some weird [assumption] that you're just presenting you, as though hardcore shows happen in nature. I understand the feeling of wanting things to feel off the rails and out of control and in the moment. But this idea that, like, you're 'you' no matter what — I think it's a kind of naive way to look at art."
By day, Wolski is a filmmaker who works largely commercially in the advertising industry. (A few years ago, he was partially responsible for the Ford Dragon Ball Z commercials that went viral.) He was born and raised in Detroit, part of a huge Polish family; his older brothers introduced him to hip-hop and alternative music as a little kid. Through grade school, he was in jazz band, but he eventually gravitated toward the gnarly heavy music coming out of his hometown.
"You're exposed to really gritty stuff, really quickly," he says of growing up in the Motor City. "There wasn't some cool hardcore scene or anything like that, it was weirdo shit like Wolf Eyes." As he got older, Wolski and his cousin Kenny Szymanski (who currently plays bass in the Armed) would trade CDs and MP3s back and forth — "always really exciting, rambunctious, fucked-up music."
As a teenager, Wolski started playing music with a friend, Aaron Jones (who now handles most of the band's music videos), and in 2003, the two-piece started playing shows as the Armed.
"We'd play a CD behind us and he'd play guitar and I'd scream," Wolski explains. "That teenage iteration had very little to do with what would become the Armed in the modern sense … It was really terrible, but the idea of trying to create the most intense shit we possibly could was there."
The next jump in the Armed's evolution happened in 2008 when Wolski and Szymanski started writing the music that would become their full-length debut, the following year's These Are Lights.
"Kenny and I were starting to write some music together and we took the name again," says Wolski. "That was the real first iteration of this current thing called the Armed, and we've been just hammering away at it since then."
Beginning as a six-piece band, they soon expanded to become an unruly collection of members. They released music for free via their website at a time when that was still novel, and they would often record at Guitar Center with gear they didn't own. The mysterious Dan Greene ("the real person who participates in the writing of the music") has been with the band "since the beginning, initially doing lights and eventually writing music for the band," Wolski reveals.
"He played guitar onstage for all of the  Only Love-era shows, in the "All Futures" music video [from ULTRAPOP], but since then has participated mostly as a songwriter." Greene's penned the instrumentation for many of their songs, including the Perfect Saviors single "Sport of Form."
Of their current lineup, Wolski reports ("to the best of my recollection!") that Randall Lee joined shortly after they released their 2011 EP, Young & Beautiful, Cara Drolshagen made her first on-record performance on 2015's Untitled ("Enemies Closer") and Patrick Shiroishi has been a "looser player/collaborator" for the past couple years. (The keyboardist appears on Perfect Saviors and will make his live debut on the band's upcoming tour).
Before landing on Urian Hackney, the Armed had relied on a series of hotshot drummers. Converge's Ben Koller played on 2021's ULTRAPOP ("A LIFE SO WONDERFUL" and "BIG SHELL"), most of Only Love and a couple one-offs: "Night City Aliens" and "FT. FRANK TURNER" (the latter arriving with a video of skateboarders in furry monster suits, which Tony Hawk shared along with an insinuation that he might be one of the masked skaters).
Former Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Chris Pennie played on 2010's Common Enemies EP ("Second Hand"), 2011's Young & Beautiful ("Mujahoudini") and all of 2012's Spreading Joy, while Baptists' Nick Yacyshyn handled the kit on Untitled. Wolski met their current drummer, Hackney, through Kurt Ballou.
Speaking of which, Armed diehards have long speculated that the Converge guitarist-producer has had a major songwriting role in the band, with some conspiracists even wagering that he's the actual Dan Greene Svengali figure pulling the strings. Wolski confirms that Ballou has worked with the Armed in some capacity as mixer, recorder or producer on many of their previous albums and EPs, including Perfect Saviors (for which he recorded Jacob Bannon's parts).
Musically, the Armed have shape-shifted with every release since 2009's These Are Lights, and while they've increasingly been experimenting with pop ideas, Perfect Saviors is easily their biggest departure from traditionally heavy music. There aren't really songs on here that sound like the Dillinger Escape Plan or Converge. There are ones that you could compare to David Bowie ("Modern Vanity"), the Strokes ("Clone") or the Happy Mondays ("Burned Mind").
The groovy, funky "Liar 2" is impossibly poppy, and a definite contender for one of the year's best songs. Lead single "Sport of Form" is one of the most left-field cuts, splicing between abrasive noise and sweetly crooned vocals — featuring an assist from indie-rock laureate Julien Baker, and a music video cameo where Iggy Pop plays God himself.
"We found out Iggy had played some of our music on his BBC radio show and were so thrilled and blown away. We pretty quickly wrote to him about doing something forthenew record," Wolski says.
"He was quick to get back that he couldn't play on it, but he'd love to be in a video.The entire experience was super surreal, but he was nothing but incredibly generous with his time and creativity, and he seemed legitimately interested in what we were doing. It was mind-blowing. Growing up in Detroit, there is no one beyond Iggy."
Perfect Saviors may be the band's most approachable record yet, but make no mistake, the Armed haven't gone radio rock. All of these sounds are filtered through layers and layers of unsettling, jittery noise. It's as maximalist and extreme as the Armed have ever been; it's just that this time, their sense of accessibility and immediacy is what's cranked to the maximum.
"The thing we try to do desperately is to remain novel in our approach," says Wolski. "Everyone in the band has, to some extent, a visual arts background, and I think we kind of approach everything in the tradition of other fine arts — you gotta create your niche, you gotta have your overarching messages, but you gotta find ways to do new and exciting things."
He adds, "There is a layer of disconnect that we wanted to eliminate from this record. Like, I think the tenth time you listen to this album, you'll like it more than you liked it the first time. But for the first time, we've made an album that you can like the first time, too."
With these songs coming together, the Armed were faced with the task of doing justice to their big ideas without anything close to a major-label budget. "It's not like we have a million dollars to make it," Wolski says. "So it was like, what can we do to still get that million-dollar record [sound] out of this?"
They recorded in various studios across the country, wherever they could call in favors and make it work, couch-surfing wherever they went. Troy Van Leeuwen was on tour with Jane's Addiction, filling in for Dave Navarro, while recording was in progress. On his off days, he'd catch a red-eye to meet the Armed in the studio, then fly back out to rejoin the tour.
"The cool thing about growing up in Detroit is very quickly you learn that there's not this huge support network for you creatively — it's like, we got us," Wolski says. "That teaches you the lesson of what DIY actually is. It's not an aesthetic, it's a fucking attitude and a relentlessness. That's how we have always done all this shit."
This summer, the Armed will be taking Perfect Saviors out to their biggest venues yet in support of Queens of the Stone Age's The End Is Nero amphitheater tour. It's the perfect opportunity to do exactly what the Armed are always striving for — to make people stop and think.
"We're such a fucking freak show [live]," Wolski says with a grin. "I think when you go to see Queens of the Stone Age play at the McDonalds Rock Financial Amphitheatre of whatever the fuck, you don't anticipate that. There's going to be a bunch of drunk people trying to find their seats, and we're going to try to make as big an impact on them as possible, by any means possible."
He adds, "When I was in middle school I saw At the Drive-In open for Rage Against the Machine. I fucking hated them. In two weeks, they were my favorite band in the whole fucking world. That's what art is to me."
Now that the Armed have shed some of the mysteries that have shrouded them for so long, what becomes clear is the purity at the heart of the project. The Armed care deeply about their art — not out of self-seriousness, but because it's what they have to give.
A few days after our conversation, Wolski follows up with an email to offer up the mantra that the Armed have operated with since the start: "Give everyone as much as you can. Make it the best thing you can possibly put together. Be the best thing."