It’s springtime in Los Angeles and the Armed is about to take the stage. The elusive Detroit collective doesn’t perform very often and, since forming 14 years ago, has never played in this major city. People have traveled great distances to witness this rare appearance, and the anticipation in the room is starting to grow intense. A man approaches me in the crowd and slaps a red sticker on my chest that reads HELLO MY NAME IS DAN. Granted, this is my name, but all the stickers say this. I look around and everyone is wearing one. A sea of Dans. “Dan” is Dan Greene, the shadowy mastermind behind the Armed. Our mysterious leader. The man pats the sticker onto my chest muscles, which are lean and tight. I have been following a strict daily workout routine for the last ten months in preparation for this show, as the band has instructed. The man looks at me and smiles. “Refract, brother.”
Refract. This has become the official mantra for the band, an all-purpose affirmation we say to each other as members of the Armed faithful, although no one seems exactly sure what it means. On the way out later, I ask a man wearing an Armed shirt what the word means to him. “Refract?” he repeats skeptically, as though I have just asked him the world’s most obvious question. “It just means to… refract.” And he’s not wrong. That’s what it means to me, too.
I never imagined I’d be part of a cult. No one ever does, I suppose. I could waste time feigning denial about it but let’s face facts: I use a secret codeword to communicate with a roomful of strangers. We give each other a nod of quiet solidarity whenever we pass each other in the real world. I have altered my diet and added 10 pounds of muscle to my body because a man I’ve never met and who may not actually exist named Dan Greene told me to. I wear a logo, a boxed-in X, on every item of clothing I own. Many disciples have it tattooed on their limbs. That all sounds like the makings of a cult to me. The Armed is the closest thing I have to religion.
The members of the Armed finally walk on stage while an ominous rumble plays over the speakers. It’s hard to tell through the overpowering lighting setup they have, which envelops all of them in a blinding, heavenly fog, but there are, by my count, at least nine of them. Half of them were not in the band when I last saw them four years ago in New York. Many of them are monstrously ripped. One of them is a professional bodybuilder. Every time a strobe shines on flesh, it reveals a flash of glistening, shredded muscle. Physical fitness was a key part of the visual aesthetics behind the Armed's fourth album, ULTRAPOP, for reasons that were never fully explained.
They begin playing and it’s an assault. I don’t know how else to describe it. Just a sonic and visual show of force that feels like a bomb is continuously going off in the venue. The burly, mostly sleeveless men that comprise the Armed stomp around the stage like professional wrestlers and comic book superheroes. The main singer, wearing a rhinestone mask over his face, grabs the guy next to me by the scalp and pulls him to the microphone to shout the song’s refrain: All futures, destruction. Another singer — a 6’ 6” Viking — stretches his limbs in slow, peaceful tai chi poses, a paragon of grace amidst the chaos around him. He bends deeply at the waist as his arm extends out to lock fingers with a hand reaching up for salvation. A third singer emerges from the light. She is blonde and petite, probably not much more than five feet tall, and is unquestionably the most intimidating of all of them. She has her hair up in two buns and is wearing a custom two-piece jumpsuit with pointed shoulder pads, making her look like the final boss in some futuristic martial arts video game. She shrieks into her microphone and cannonballs fearlessly into the front row of awaiting Armed devotees twice her size.
In all the years I’ve been attending live shows, I’ve never seen audience reactions quite like this one, at least not at the same time. There are people crowdsurfing and fingerpointing as they scream along — par for the course for a hardcore show — but there are also people who look like they’re having emotional out-of-body experiences, moved to tears by the enormity of it all. The spectrum of catharsis is covered, like I’m watching Earth Crisis, U2, Radiohead, Taylor Swift, and an Evangelical megachurch sermon all at once.
There are no casual fans here. Everyone in attendance is experiencing the same intense level of soul purification together — except for one face that stands out to me. I spot Sarah Tudzin, whose band Illuminati Hotties opened the show, standing off to the side and watching in awe at the spectacle in front of her. It was an unusual choice for the Armed to invite her to play this evening. Her band’s style of bubblegum indie pop is not exactly a natural precursor for a crushingly heavy headliner. She was, as she admitted to me beforehand, not even very familiar with their music before being added to the bill. But all that is on the verge of changing at this moment. I can see it in her eyes. She is receiving her conversion and is about to join us on this spiritual journey. This is the effect the Armed has on people. It’s infectious. It’s consuming. Once a person has had their interest piqued, it’s only a matter of time before they become a permanent member of the cult, too. It’s a creeping curiosity that quickly becomes your entire reality.
Sarah suddenly bolts across the stage through the pulsating lights. She closes her eyes, grits her teeth, and hurls herself headfirst into the crowd, where her body is welcomed by the hands of a thousand Dans. The arms raise up and embrace her. She belongs to us now. Sarah has refracted.
It’s summer in Detroit and I’m doing push-ups at the airport. Someone from the Armed is on their way to pick me up and I need to look my swolest. A powder blue Bronco pulls up and I climb aboard. The driver hands me a protein brownie and a Redcon1 energy drink. “Let’s go meet Dan Greene,” he says.
My driver is Tony Wolski, who has become the unofficial face of the band over the last few years, insofar as a collective of dozens of musical contributors can have a singular face. And it’s a handsome face to put forth — high cheekbones, razor-sharp jawline, and a mustached smile that frequently emits a loud, infectious laugh. There’s a 30-pound backpack full of pre-packaged meals and freezer packs in his car at almost all times, and he regularly stops what he’s doing to tear through a container of grilled chicken and potatoes. He is dressed head to toe in workout gear. “Oh,” he adds, “and I figured we could hit the gym on the way there.”
Within 20 minutes of arriving in Detroit I am doing incline dumbbell presses with Wolski at a local rec center. We are working off a custom workout plan with the Armed’s logo printed in the corner. After some casual gym talk about one-rep maxes (a silly benchmark, we agree) and past lifting injuries (shoulder strains, for both of us), I have a question: “When you say we’re going to meet Dan Greene, which one do you mean?”
This is where things start to get confusing. There are two Dan Greenes. One is an avatar created by the band, a decoy character who appears in music videos and press photos. His glowering face is what most fans think of when they picture the head of the Armed. The other is an actual guy named Dan Greene, one of the group’s principal songwriters. Legend has it that he is a musical savant who has secretly been pulling the strings of this elaborate operation all along. This Dan Greene has never given a proper interview.
Wolski pauses between sets and thinks carefully about how to word his answer. “In the past, Dan Greene has been whatever we need him to be,” he finally says, “but the person you’re going to talk to today is really named Dan Greene. You can check his driver’s license.”
“We want to be really honest with everyone this time around, because the obfuscation element has run its course,” he continues. This is surprising to hear for a number of reasons, not least of all being that the last time I interviewed Wolski two years ago, he went by the name Adam Vallely. “We were never supposed to be a prank band. At this point, it’s just as confusing to tell people the literal, absolute truth.”
The enigmatic collective has developed a reputation for being vague with the details of their complex enterprise over the years, sometimes deliberately and sometimes as the unintentional byproduct of having an obsessive fanbase. Elaborate origin stories, misdirections, aliases, camouflage costumes, drastic body transformations, and coded messages from a man behind the curtain have fueled the myth of the Armed. But all of that is over now, he says. With their new album, Perfect Saviors, the Armed is finally ready to play it straight. No more pseudonyms, no more hoaxes, no more anonymous members. Everything is out in the open for all to see. Of course, coming from them, that should be taken with a grain of salt. But Wolski swears he really, really means it.
“Whether it’s 40 people or a huge crowd at a festival, I believe we owe these people a superhuman experience”
But why the sudden, radical honesty? Well, it might have something to do with the way Perfect Saviors sounds. The album rounds off a trilogy of sorts for the Armed, the completion of a drastic, five-year sonic evolution. First, 2018’s critically acclaimed Only Love featured songs that adhered to pop music structures but played through deeply intense hardcore and metal sonics. Three years later, they inverted the formula with ULTRAPOP, employing extreme pop sonics to produce crushingly heavy songs. Savvy punk and hardcore connoisseurs picked up on the uniqueness of those two albums, but for newcomers, it’s been difficult to find a natural entry point with the Armed’s catalog. The band doesn’t exactly write welcoming singles. Their equally dense backstory doesn’t do them any favors either. Their music is so deeply layered and textured that I would not be surprised in the slightest to learn that there are subliminal messages tucked away in there. If anything, I’d be disappointed to hear otherwise. To find your way into the Armed at this point is like starting Twin Peaks in its third season.
I honestly don’t know how an average, normal-brained person would receive the Armed’s music. In an attempt to find out, I played ULTRAPOP for the most level-headed person I know, my mom. “What do I make of it?” she repeated when I scanned her expressionless face for a reaction after the second song. “I don’t get it, that’s what I make of it.”
But now, with Perfect Saviors, the Armed has come out of the trilogy clean on the other side with their most accessible work to date, a gigantic-sounding arena rock record. Many of the band’s signature elements remain — still maximalist in its approach, still reliant on unconventional and unexpected timing changes, still meticulous attention paid to every minute detail — but they’ve largely (though not entirely) done away with the violent screaming and blistering blast beats that might’ve turned off casual listeners. There are intense, triumphant choruses that are — dare I say it — catchy enough to sing along to.
Put more bluntly, the Armed has accidentally created something palatable with Perfect Saviors, and it might be the breakout album that introduces them to a mainstream audience. Maybe the Armed is finally ready for radio play and late-night talk show appearances and cover stories in fancy magazines like this one you’re reading right now.
That unexpected shift may turn off their hyper-devoted core fanbase, and might seem like a deliberate and possibly shameless ploy for a wider appeal, but it’s not. This is just how the Armed operates — compulsively driven to create things that have never been done before, either by themselves or anyone else. It is countercultural, almost to a fault. After all, hardcore is currently enjoying a rare moment in the spotlight, with the crossover success of bands like Turnstile, GEL, Scowl, and ZULU. So of course the Armed has chosen this exact time to turn away from the genre. Of course.
Wolski re-racks the dumbbells after his final set and turns to me. “Ready to go?”
Wolski and I pull into the sprawling parking lot of Meijer, a Midwestern superstore chain. This is, I’m told, where Dan Greene works.
A man is waiting for us by the registers and any illusions I might’ve been harboring go out the window as soon as I shake his hand. He is not a slick Svengali or mythical figure come to life. Dan Greene is… just some guy. All cult leaders are essentially just some guy, but Dan Greene is the most some guy-looking some guy I’ve ever encountered. Diminutive, painfully shy, a man of few words. He is in his mid-30s and wears glasses, a Fender hat, and a black Meijer fleece jacket. Ironically, he is the only employee who isn’t wearing a name tag.
We sit down at a table in the corner of the store that is empty save for a disheveled man catching a nap near the window. Wolski pulls out a Rummikub set and lays the game down in front of us. This is apparently a weekly lunch-break tradition for them. The two met years ago at a local venue called the Magic Stick where Greene operated the light show for Wolski’s pre-Armed punk band, Slicer Dicer. Greene started sending Wolski songs he’d written, which were eventually incorporated into Armed albums, and they became friends and collaborators. Greene even played guitar for the Armed at a few shows years ago. “Dan would lie on top of the equipment in the back of the van, like another piece of gear,” Wolski tells me later. They’re a funny pair — the two sides of the Armed engaged in friendly competition. The brains versus the brawn, the backbone of the band versus the face of it.
“We wanted to make the biggest record we could, a multi-million-dollar record but without the money.”
We each select our tiles and start scanning for runs and pairs. I casually poke for information about Greene’s current role within the collective but learn pretty quickly that asking him questions about the Armed won’t get me anywhere. For starters, he speaks so softly that his voice hardly even picks up on my recorder. Imagine that — the voice of the guy who wrote some of the most brutal music ever recorded barely rises above a whisper. But also, he just doesn’t seem to have a lot of answers. He spends a solid minute considering his responses, which sometimes never even arrive. Either he is indifferent or ignorant. Or both.
It’s only when Wolski prods him does he have anything to contribute. “Show him some of your song ideas,” Wolski tells him. Greene pulls out his phone and scrolls through a near-endless library of musical sketches he has written and recorded at home using Reason 4, an older and somewhat outdated synth program. They are 8-bit video game-style MIDI files, some of which ended up getting fleshed out into the Armed’s most beloved songs, like “A Life So Wonderful” and “Masunaga Vapors.” Others are throwaway scraps — hundreds of them — that never went anywhere. He doesn’t seem to care either way.
Greene plays me a file called “jalapeno_popper_demo.” I recognize it instantly as the bare bones of “Sport of Form,” a standout single from Perfect Saviors.
“And how much did you work with the band to shape it into its final version?” I ask Greene.
Wolski answers for him. “Dan sent me that file, and the next time he heard it was a year later when I showed him a video for the song with Iggy Pop in it.” The band roped the 76-year-old rock icon into making a cameo in the accompanying music video, portraying God for a few seconds. I ask Greene what he thinks about a hometown legend starring in a video for a song he wrote, and he just sort of shrugs and takes a sip from a 16oz. black cherry Mountain Dew. “Your turn,” he tells me.
After an hour, Wolski wins the game and Greene’s lunch break is over. He’s due back in the warehouse to unload a truck. I watch him fade away through the produce section, the guy whose music has had a life-changing impact on me and thousands of Armed followers, disappearing among the celery and cauliflower.
We leave Meijer and Wolski drops me off at the Armed’s 5,000-square-foot compound, an imposing brick building downtown. Without getting too deep in the weeds of it, for the last seven years, the band and their friends have run a professional production company that creates ads, commercials, and visual content for some fairly high-profile clients and brands, which helps fund their extravagant operation. Sort of the way Project Mayhem sold bars of soap as a business front in Fight Club. This spacious, three-story building serves as the company’s headquarters and also houses the band’s practice space, located in the basement.
“Make yourself at home and we’ll pick you up at 8:45 for dinner,” Wolski tells me. “Grab a nap on the couch if you’re tired.” There are nine couches in the building. I collapse onto one in the living room and lie down for an hour. I watch a couple episodes of Jury Duty, an elaborate prank show about one man who doesn’t realize he’s living in a fake reality. I doze off but am soon awakened by the sound of the front door swinging open and feet stomping up the stairs. A man pokes his head into the room and furrows his brow at me.
“Who are you?” he asks sternly. It’s Dan Greene. Not the actual Dan Greene I was just playing Rummikub with, but the one who publicly portrays Dan Greene. His real name is Trevor Naud. There is a huge bandage on his cheek and bloody scratches all over his forehead and chin.
“I’m staying here this week,” I offer, hoping he’d been notified of my visit. “I’m writing an article? On the band?” He seems unsatisfied with my answer and stares me down for a few more seconds as a drop of blood runs down his neck. “What happened to your face?”
“I just got attacked by a seagull,” he grumbles. He abruptly leaves and I never see him again.
It’s dinnertime and we’ve ordered so much shawarma that we physically can’t fit another plate on the table. Seated next to Wolski at the booth of this Middle Eastern restaurant in Dearborn is Kenny Szymanski, Wolski’s tall, quiet cousin. He has a buzzcut and an intense stare. And next to me is Randall Lee, a smiley, gentle giant sipping from a large thermos of coffee at 9 p.m. Together, these three are the central driving force behind the Armed’s operation.
“The fact is, most bands don’t make much money, but the Armed technically generates a lot of money. It’s just that it doesn’t generate income,” Wolski says.
“On our taxes, it’s a loss. My tax returns are so bad that the IRS sends me FEMA aid,” Lee jokes. “Any conversation we’ve ever had with a lawyer or accountant, they’re like, ‘Wait, your business model is what?’”
I was told I could ask anything I wanted about the Armed and would get an honest answer. I wanted to know about the band’s finances, because on paper, none of it makes any practical sense. They play only a handful of shows each year in select cities, which requires flying out a small army of musicians from their dozens-deep stable of members, as well as transporting a ton of instruments and gear, plus renting fog machines and lighting rigs that are ten times as powerful as they reasonably need to be for the 1,000-person venues in which they typically perform. At only 20-something bucks a ticket, there’s no way that adds up in the black. So where does their money come from?
“From merch, from streaming, from syncs,” Wolski claims. “Our songs are in video games and anime and shit. Those pay really well. Compared to other bands, our booking fees are reasonable, it’s just that the show we’re providing is fucking preposterous.”
Nobody plays in the Armed to make money. Instead of splitting any profits, they simply reinvest and double down on the extravagance of their production. “The last thing we ever talk about is our take-home pay,” says Lee. “As long as our bank account is not overdrafted, we’re doing pretty well.”
“We’ve created a system where we can’t be pressured by anything. No one has anything over us. We don’t owe anyone anything”
The way they see it, once you wield a cult following, it is your sacred duty to provide your followers with an unforgettable event at all costs, an arena-level show on a club-sized budget. “We’re so grateful anyone comes to see us, especially these days, when there are a million other things people could be doing,” Wolski says. “So whether it’s 40 people or a huge crowd at a festival, I believe we owe these people a superhuman experience.” That excessive approach applies to the magnitude of their performance but also to the members themselves, who decided before the release of their last album, sort of on a lark, that it would be “awesome” if they drastically altered their physical appearance to seem larger than life. They started working with dieticians and personal trainers, and after a few months, they had radically reshaped their bodies. Wolski stuffed down nine pounds of potatoes every day to bulk up, while Lee shed over 100 pounds of fat from his 310-pound frame.
High-profile opportunities afforded to the Armed have been limited, but they’ve made the absolute most of what they’ve been offered, including much-talked-about appearances at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound and the virtual Adult Swim Festival. “Festivals are the perfect platform for the Armed, because we look like a giant circus of craziness. There’s a visual component that draws people in, and then they’re asking, ‘What the fuck am I watching?’” Wolski says. The band also played a daytime set at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, slotted between acts like Iceage and the Linda Lindas, and made very sure they would not be mistaken for anyone else on the lineup. It was not enough to pack the stage with giant, musclebound freaks and one shrieking blonde woman — whose real name is Cara Drolshagen — they had to have three of them, a small battalion of Cara clones relentlessly bombarding the audience in unison. All three wore Juggalo face paint for good measure.
It’s not just the Armed’s live shows that are absurdly cost-inefficient. Their albums are equally as ostentatious, and Perfect Saviors is no exception. The recording sessions took place over a year and a half across numerous studios throughout Michigan, California, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts, and the album was mixed by legendary producer Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Interpol). Wolski half-jokingly brags that Perfect Saviors would have cost over a million dollars to make if done in a traditional manner. “We wanted to make the biggest record we could, a multi-million-dollar record but without the money,” he laughs. “We have such a massive network of collaborators that we’ll just work longer and harder to compensate for what we can’t afford. The goal was to make something that would cost a ton of money to do the proper way, but to make it our fucked-up way and still end up with a good product.”
And indeed, the list of contributors on Perfect Saviors runs deep, boasting multiple members of Jane’s Addiction, boygenius’ Julien Baker, Matt Sweeney, and Josh Klinghoffer, among many others. It also features Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties, who was recruited shortly after opening for the Armed last year in Los Angeles. “One day you’re an opening act,” she tells me, “and by the weekend you’re carbo-loading for vocal day.”
Wolski shovels another bite of fattoush into his mouth. “What we made with this record, I don’t think any band sounds particularly like this,” he says. “It’s aggressive rock that isn’t so overtly using identifiers like growling over blast beats. Maybe people will hear familiar elements, but how we’re arranging these sounds is hopefully the most unique way they’ve ever heard them.”
The guys have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about what they’ve built (most of the band’s social media bios list them as “Earth’s Greatest Band”), and maybe deservedly so. The Armed truly exists in its own universe, unbound by allegiance to any company, scene, or genre. They are incorruptible masters of their own reality. “We’ve created a system where we can’t be pressured by anything. No one has anything over us. We don’t owe anyone anything,” Wolski says. “I don’t want to shit-talk anyone, but there are a lot of bands you look up to, and you realize they’re just making records because they have to at this point. If we ever made a record because we had to, we would just stop. We have doomsday devices built into our operating agreement. This shit will destruct before that happens. There are things in place that will keep the Armed honest until the very end, perhaps to a fault. It would die before becoming something else.”
The waitress drops the bill on our table and Wolski pulls an inch-thick wallet out of his pocket. He hands Lee an American Express card and asks, “Should we charge this to the Armed?”
Lee takes the card and smiles. “Yeah, because then we’ll earn the points.”
Very few reputable acts making esoterically heavy rock music have been able to ride their cult followings to stadium-level success over the last few decades. It happens so infrequently that it seems like a glitch in the matrix when it does. I can probably count them on one hand: Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Deftones, Rammstein. One of them, Queens of the Stone Age, is about to take the stage at Sonic Temple, an outdoor rock festival in Columbus, Ohio. It’s their first show in five years.
Wolski and I have made the three-hour trek, during which he ate two meals from his backpack, to support Queens of the Stone Age’s inimitable guitarist, Troy Van Leeuwen, who is also in the Armed. In addition to contributing guitar tracks (within the band, he is referred to as “the guitar czar”), he co-produced Perfect Saviors. He’ll be spending more time with the Armed this summer, when the two bands tour the East Coast together.
“So how long until the Armed is headlining a festival like this?” I ask Van Leeuwen.
He laughs and throws back a pre-show tequila shot. “We’ll see how this tour goes.”
“By this time next year, everyone in the world will know about the Armed.”
Queens march single file onto the stage as the sun begins to sink into the horizon and are greeted by giant applause from a sea of fans. Wolski and I watch from the side of the stage, standing next to members of another Sonic Temple act, Converge, who are, incidentally, also in the Armed.
Wolski looks on with the excitement of a little kid as Queens rip through the hits, jumping in place and mouthing along to every word. Watching him bounce around just a few short yards from tens of thousands of sunburned festival creatures, it all comes into focus for me. I can picture it: this man is ready for this stage. All the workouts, all the meals, all the sacrifices — he has been training to unleash the Armed upon crowds this size every night. This is where he belongs.
I point to the crowd and shout in his ear over the noise, “You think by this time next year all these people will know about the Armed?”
“Nah,” Wolski grins. “By this time next year, everyone in the world will know about the Armed.”
I consider that for a moment — the possibility of everyone in the world being part of this cult that’s taken over my life. The prospect is both exciting and terrifying. What will Earth look like once all its inhabitants have joined the Armed? Cops and scientists and children and world leaders. Priests and pilots. Mennonites and mechanics. Dentists and dads. My mom. And your mom. And you, as well. That’s right, by the end of this paragraph, you will be in the Armed, too. You’ve been getting indoctrinated this whole time without even realizing it. That’s how it happens — a creeping curiosity that quickly becomes your entire reality. We will all be in the Armed soon. You have refracted.
Perfect Saviors is out August 25.
Stylist Assistant: Victoria Tatiana
Hair and Make-Up: Gabrielle Yanke