"We want to take the biggest swing possible" - Adam Vallely
The Armed are on the verge of releasing their new album 'ULTRAPOP' this Friday (April 16) via Sargent House, and it is unlike anything you have ever heard before.
Aside from being a seismic and sensational soundscape of all of the most beautiful, brutal and belligerent parts of heavy music, it is also a gaze into how far you can push yourself in the name of your art. Acting as a culmination of almost a decade's worth of discovery and dedication from this truly unique collective of creatives, the 12 tracks that make up this outlandish and audacious record are set to serve as a benchmark for music, both heavy and not, for years to come.
We sat down with guitarist/vocalist Adam Vallely to try and unravel how exactly we got here and understand how what The Armed is has shifted over the course of the creation of 'ULTRAPOP'...
With ‘ULTRAPOP’ as the central idea and the aim, where did things start slotting into place? How did the initial vision build up to what you have created?
“There are a lot of threads that have been planted over many years leading up to this point. I got involved in the band very early on, but not at the very beginning, and the intent has remained pretty much the same. We’ve just got older and better at doing what we have always intended to do. Our concepts have remained the same, which is the idea of a long-form collaborative art project that inspires an incredibly intense response. We’ve just got better at getting the desired result we have been searching for from the very beginning.
“So the intent of the concept was there from very early on, and I think that sonically you can hear some of the ideas on here going as far back as an album like [2009 debut] 'These Are Lights’, but we’re just much better at actually executing them now. When we did [2015 album] ‘Untitled’ when I was much more involved in the band, there was a realisation that we needed the next step to be an astronomical shift if we wanted to keep on doing what we were doing. A big part of The Armed is tension, and by the time ‘Untitled’ came out, a lot of the tensions and techniques we were using had been around for a decade and a half, and people were used to them. We wanted to call ourselves out on our shit, you know? As soon as we realised that our sound was playing into some sub-genre convention, we needed to bail. That’s the antithesis of what we are trying to do. We didn’t get into this to be the most mathy mathcore band of all time. We got into this to be the most challenging, crazy and most intense band. That’s what this new stuff is doing.”
It’s very much been a slow-release and realisation rather than an immediate and violent switch…
“Yeah, so the seeds for the actual sonics that you hear on ‘ULTRAPOP’ were sewn around ‘Untitled’. And then ‘Only Love’ is the experiment that then made ‘ULTRAPOP’. We came up in the noise scene, and we are all a bunch of art school kids, and hardcore was a big part of that, but it also represented a tiny part of what we were listening to. So it seemed strange to be purposely shutting down input. That’s not what an artist does. You take what’s out there, and you react to it accordingly. It seems strange that there is the spirit of ignorance to certain inputs in hardcore to then be able to follow this dogma. So ‘Only Love’ became this thing where the gloves were just off. That’s the cool thing about getting older. You stop giving a shit about what anyone thinks. This isn’t a band that makes money or a large commercial success thing. We’re not going to feel held to anyone. ‘Only Love’ took the vocabulary of pop music and then applied it to The Armed’s structure. We had solidified pretty cool ways to make music by this point and a pretty cool language of our own, so we took some elements of the stuff we grew up liking and threw it in the mix. We made it dense and difficult. We wanted it to be this big wall right out of the gate, and I think that the experiment worked. We also knew that it wasn’t far enough, but we had to earn that step.
“With ‘ULTRAPOP’ what you’re seeing is a minimal distinction to that, but I think it’s very crucial. It sounds like a relative to ‘Only Love’, but I don’t think it’s just an extension of it. I think it is the inverse. On ‘Only Love’, we took The Armed framework and put pop elements on top of it. ‘On ‘ULTRAPOP’ we tried very intentionally to start with a pop framework. So we would work on a melodic hook and make sure it was right and then make it crazy. We started with the pop infrastructure and then imposed the vocabulary of The Armed. We did the opposite. It proved to be very successful in what we were trying to do.”
So was there a moment whilst you were putting the record together where it felt like things clicked? Was there a specific point when it felt closer to that initial aim?
“Almost from the very beginning, there was this real sense of, I wish I could come up with a better way to say it but, magic about how things came together. Every song was founded in intent conceptually first and then sonically, and then it all just came together at once. There was a real effort to not just write songs for this, you know? We had a particular intent of how this needed to be, and it needed to start with a declaration of war. That’s what the song ‘ULTRAPOP’ does, abandon all hope for anything else. ‘Only Love’ started with more of a bridge with ‘Witness’. ‘ULTRAPOP’ is us saying that we’re not sorry for what we are doing on this album.
“I don’t know if there was a specific moment rather than constant moments littered throughout where things felt like they were clicking. I think that the record lives up to what our intention was very well, and we could feel it every step of the way. There would be moments where we would also get stuck as well, though. Take the last song, ‘THE MUSIC BECOMES THE SKULL’, that dates back to something we were trying to figure out with ‘Only Love’. We’re writing none stop all the time, so there is always stuff floating out there, and when it’s right, we will bring it in. We wanted this album to be that sugar rush commodity throughout. Then we wanted it to take a dark turn at the end to keep people on their toes. We liked how the song was coming, but we didn’t know how to make it land. We had versions of it that were cool but didn’t have the candour that Dan [Greene, Guitarist/Vocalist], who had worked on it initially, wanted. There was a time when we talked about it, and Dan just said something like, ‘Things aren’t right, we need Mark Lanegan to sing on this song’. With zero exaggeration, in 24 hours, Mark Lanegan had delivered us stems for the song. There’s shit like that where because we are a big and open collaboration, it opens the world where people who may work or sound cool are only a couple of phone calls away. That’s what it’s like having 30 people involved. That’s the sort of magic I mean, and that happened throughout. This took a lot of work, but that’s because we don’t even want to be complacent. We want to go deeper and deeper into it.”
Another thing that’s very different about this record is that The Armed now has a face of sorts. There is a band playing this music, which you debuted in the video for ‘ALL FUTURES’. Was it because of the scale of what you had achieved in putting this record together that you felt as though it was time to present yourselves in this way after years of mystery?
“Coming out with ‘ALL FUTURES’ right away and putting a band and a line-up out front was incredibly intentional. For a band that has played shows drowned in fog and strobes or put out cinematic narrative videos, the intent was very specific. To come out with a song that kind of digestible immediately, even though I think it’s complex and detailed when you get into it, but then do something as unexpected for us as playing in a well-lit room with many people you can immediately see.
“For the reasons why I don’t think it’s because we were proud of because we were hiding before. The Armed has always been founded on the concept of anonymity. It’s not like anonymity like Ghost or Slipknot. It’s anonymity in service of the whole. It was only to divorce ego from the process so that the only thing anyone cared about was an Armed project coming. There was a thing happening. This kind of thinking is more prevalent outside of the realms of music. In music, there has to be a band playing. A band has to put out an album. We didn’t get into this for that.
“So that issue along the way was that as we gained a bit more visibility, the anonymity became a mystery to solve. That was never the intent. We were trying to create this big thing that’s there to be solved. So with ‘ALL FUTURES’, we wanted to take the heat off the mystery, and we’re doing so in an open way. This is a version of the band, and here are the people in this version of the band. It probably looks similar, or very close, to what a touring version of this band could be. Here are some names as well, because when we don’t give names, people think that there’s a reason that we’re not giving names. I think it fits in with the concept of ‘ULTRAPOP’ too. It’s a shiny commodity. It’s supposed to be a superheroic realisation of what The Armed is. Many of us have gone through some pretty drastic physical transformations to be able to do this in this way. For the very first time, we are putting ourselves out there even though it is all in service to The Armed.”
So how has being a part of The Armed and pushing yourself physically and mentally for The Armed affected your life? I imagine you can speak for many of you in the project because you are all working towards the same goal…
“You need to be delusional to be able to make transformative art. When you’re a new band, or you’re very young, that can be embarrassing because you’re taking a big swing and don’t want to look like an idiot. I don’t give a shit anymore. None of us do. We want to take the biggest swing possible. We wanted to keep on calling ourselves out on our own shit across the board. Authenticity is such a metric for musicians, and especially for hardcore and punk bands. It’s always about how authentic someone is. As you get more connected to those scenes, it’s pretty funny to find that the things that motivate the people involved are not particularly authentic. They’re making albums because they have to. We never want to be doing that ever. We’re making an album only if we feel the need to. So if we were going to make an album that was confronting the metric of authenticity somewhat, it would be ironic if we weren’t authentic to our own goals. If ‘ULTRAPOP’ is supposed to be this fully realised magnification of everything, we need to become a magnification of ourselves. We need to be able to deliver this intensely and aggressively. We need to become an avatar for people’s vision of the band. You need to become an aspirational version of yourself. So pre-COVID, we came up with the idea of working with a nutrition consultant and essentially going through a three to four-month training boot camp. Clark [Huge, synths] is a legitimate bodybuilder, so he could get us in with some folks that could assist us. It seemed like an insane plan, but it makes a difference. I don’t think that people are mining the depths of what you can do and devoting themselves to their art as much as they could.”
“Because of that, it affects my life profoundly. I eat five times a day, drink two gallons of water, and train two hours every day. About 80% of what will end up being the touring band is on the same thing, and we’re on like week 58 of what should have just been 12. COVID presented the chance for us to go further and further and further. That’s what we are doing and continuing to go as far as we can go. That’s how we can present the shiniest version of ‘ULTRAPOP’ that we can.”
To some, ‘ULTRAPOP’ may feel like that ultimate realisation of The Armed, but it feels more like the jumping-off point more than the finish line. What does the future look like now with ‘ULTRAPOP’ a part of the Armed legacy?
“People think about the technique that is needed for aggressive and heavy music. There are the sonic elements and the visuals, but those techniques seem to ignore the axis of time more often than not. Art is contextually relevant when presented to you because everything you do as a human is contextual to the time it is delivered to you. It’s not that it makes it wrong. It just makes it almost like cosplay to me. When Black Flag started, they didn’t try and be Elvis and play the shows that Elvis did and wear the clothes Elvis wore. Yet 40 years later, there’s still this feeling rooted in hardcore that you have to get in the van as Black Flag did. None of this is bad, but maybe it’s not super vital to now. To be open to what is going on around you and what is relevant to your time conversations is what you should be trying to do when making your art.
“So, we never stop writing songs. We have a bunch of shit that is fucking awesome, but will it be right by the time we are saying, ‘Okay, it’s time to go again’. Who knows what will happen. You need to live to reflect, and art should reflect your experiences in some capacity. Experience has been a serious low right now, and it’s unique for us all to be in this state of isolation. So what is that going to be when we’re able to go out again? Being a part of being a vital artist is being able to understand what is right and wrong.
“The band is the way for us to be able to do this big exploration. Even though many people with many different lifestyles in The Armed, the one thing that links and motivates us to tend to be artists who changed from being just a base aesthetic and changed with the times. So they may have taken a big swing and missed, but then they may be giving something to the next person and inspiring them to swing and get it right. I would rather be that than the band that’s chasing the version of themselves they were when they were 22. That’s not for us.”