On the Move with German Army

Posted by on February 17, 2014

There are countless groups and solo projects operating within the cassette underground that are highly prolific. For many, given the low costs involved and the diaristic nature of the releases, being prolific is damn near synonymous with being a part of the culture itself. This, as most would agree, leads to plenty of marginal titles with less than half-baked ideas. On the positive side of this, of course, is that fans (and likely collectors) can follow the latest wrinkles in their favorite artists’ output through these here today, gone tomorrow, audio snapshots.

IMG_3269Over the past few years, German Army has indeed established themselves as being prolific, scattering close to twenty releases over just as many labels in that time. What has set them apart, however, is the overall quality and consistency of their material and the general sonic path they have trodden down. Their atmospheric, at times noir-ish songcraft, bolstered by inventive mechanical beats and entrancing, echo-laden vocals harkens back to early industrial innovators like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. German Army are no mere copyists, though, their work displays an updated approach that is injected (or infected) with the general confusion and unease of our current times, distinguishing themselves from the glut of new age synth seekers within the cassette underground.

Also setting them apart from many of their contemporaries is their choice to remain anonymous in their work. In a time where it seems that everyone is friends with, followed by, or a part of someone else’s circle, German Army have refrained from playing along with much of this activity, allowing their music to essentially speak for itself. We know that they are a duo that operate in and around the Los Angeles area and are involved in a few other projects (Submissions and Merx being among them), but beyond that there have been no group photos, no biographical details, and, of course, no names mentioned. And this doesn’t come off as some clandestine effort either: they have a Facebook page, a Tumblr site, and are, as we learned, generally willing to respond to questions when approached.

The second half of last year saw the release of three essential German Army LPs. Their self-titled album on Skrot Up and Endless Phonics on Monofonus Press could be considered, in a sense, best-of albums from their extensive cassette output. As one of the members, either “G” or “W” as they will periodically refer to themselves as in their written correspondence, explains, “I sent off a year’s worth of recording [each] and the labels put it together. I wanted to give them freedom to assemble what they thought should be their LP release. Skrot Up is 2011 and Monofonus is 2012.” As such, both albums feature a collection of standout tracks and, given the upgrade to vinyl, a sound that hits a bit harder and displays more layers and nuance. For example, “Literacy in Opium” and the title track from Endless Phonics, both previously heard on their excellent Youtan Poluo tape on Chondritic Sound (worthy of an LP reissue in its own right), have a noticeably cleaned-up sound while retaining that hallucinatory, downcast warble-pop feel that has become a German Army calling card. Aside from merely moving from the cassette to LP format, other factors have entered into German Army’s approach. They have acknowledged that they have been “echoing the production and musical assemblage of a certain English Industrial band that was around in the ’70s,” which they openly cite as being Throbbing Gristle, yet they are quick to clarify the meaning behind this. “The production and musical assemblage refers to Chris Carter recording all the Throbbing Gristle rehearsals to cassette tape (‘75 to ’81 era). As Throbbing Gristle did back then, we started off using an analog multi-track and recorded everything live in one or two takes. We would sketch out an idea, hit record and lay down our parts. We seldom touched the first take — unless there was a really bad technical issue with the machine or levels.” They (in this case, “G”) go on to state that, “Eventually the tape became too cumbersome. We would record for four or five hours over one or two days with machines that should have been put to bed about a decade ago. So we moved into the digital front, but we really only use it as a multi-track. You will never hear us talking about compression or EQ. In fact, any sensible engineer would probably want to strangle me, and that’s fine.”

Perhaps also driving some subtle shifts within the German Army ranks is, as their song and album titles suggest, an appreciation for and a push towards more exotic and worldly sounds. As “W” further explains, again regarding influences, “I must be honest and say that [Throbbing Gristle] is not at all the biggest influence musically. Nocturnal Emissions is my biggest influence in that [the band] strays all over the map and it seems overwhelmed with the vast amount of sounds in the world. This is the one band that I admire most of all. It just seems that folks these days need the Throbbing Gristle reference. Too bad because I believe bands like Nocturnal Emissions are more interesting.”

IMG_3263With Last Language, German Army’s first fully-realized LP release put out by A Giant Fern at the tail end of last year, the duo strike an interesting balance between their customarily propulsive industrial din and, on tracks like “Rebuild the Story” and “Gloomed,” a forlorn sort of late-night exotica. Language, or communication in general, seems to be a recurring theme within German Army’s body of work, dating back to some of their earliest releases like Body Linguist. Despite this, layers of effects heavily obscure most of their own lyrical content. When asked about the role of language within their songs, “W” explains that, “I think there is a feel created by the mere sound of language that is usually the most important aspect. For instance, at the beginning when hunter/gatherers were discovering their communication, I believe it was primarily expressed through the feeling placed on their sounds. Urgency, sadness, and love could simply be expressed through sound not words.” He goes on to say that, “Although I do spend a lot of time on lyrics, in the end I believe it doesn’t matter too much and that one could take away whatever meaning they decide from the song through tones and simply hearing a word here or there. Further, the lyrics are destroyed with both effects and heavy intoxication taking meaning back more to a gut-brain-stem feel much like how I assume the beginnings of language must have felt.”

On Last Language, however, there was a clear attempt to communicate something, at least thematically, a bit more directly. “Often Industrial music takes a nihilistic approach to ‘human progress’ on the natural environment as in how technology has destroyed nature. I simply wanted to focus on the continued analysis of the same theme but through the destruction of language and culture. Unique aspects of the human race are vanishing faster than we can document them. My hope is that there will not be a last language left, but that each can hold onto what makes them unique.”

Even with these three LPs under their belts in such a short period of time, German Army doesn’t appear to have any plans of slowing down. In fact, there are already four new cassette releases on the Lighten Up Sounds, Lava Church, Yerevan, and Field Hymns labels on deck. One thing you can expect, though, is that German Army will not go out of their way to present their work or some dramatized version of it in a live setting. “W” states that, “I just don’t like the obsession these days with the visual look and act of a band. I personally just would like to listen to music and don’t need to see how a band looks to love what they do . . . We love sounds and visuals much more than looking at the people who make them. Simple. A sound and a visual can take us places that a human form cannot.”

He further elaborates more revealingly that, “Can’t really get into acting crazy either. We are a bit older now. Growing up in San Bernardino was crazy enough and I feel lucky to even be a functioning adult at this stage. I am not an artist. I didn’t go to art school. I don’t have a cool look; I am a dude who came from a horrible drug-infested area. In other words, acting normal is nice. Growing up was enough entertainment for me. I want to live to be an old man now, where before I simply wanted to get as high as possible on as many different sources I could trip on. We got out of Riverside/San Bernardino and now I want to have a chill life — no stage craziness needed. Just need to keep making music and live.”