“Rest Area Relief” puts a raw edge on the longtime Madison band’s witty power-pop.
Photo: From left to right, The German Art Students are Kirk Wall, Randy Ballwahn, Annelies Howell, and Andy Larson. Photo by James Pedersen.
The German Art Students have spent 23 years having a sense of humor about dozens of things: figure skating, old-timey bicycles, astronomy, vampires, typography, and so on. The Madison band takes a lot of care to craft bright and barbed power-pop songs, but doesn’t wrote unreservedly serious ones. The rare exceptions catch listeners off-guard, especially 2011’s “The Power And The Trust,” a sad reflection on the empty inner life of a crummy politician.
The four members—drummer Randy Ballwahn, guitarist/vocalist Annelies Howell, bassist/vocalist Andy Larson, and guitarist/vocalist Kirk Wall—have also developed a sense of humor about simply being in a band, and that’s what powers most of their newly released EP, Rest Area Relief. Three of the EP’s four songs grew out of a short tour The German Art Students took in 2017 through Iowa and then Kansas. Some shows were successful, some were a bust, some bills were with random bands that made sense, some with random bands that didn’t. One motel stay went very badly, but otherwise the four longtime friends and bandmates came home with good memories.
The ups and downs might have been a little harder on younger musicians without their experience, or on a more career-minded band. “We have the perspective that when we do these things we’re not really in it to make money, we just kind of think, ‘Oh, yeah, this will be a fun thing to do. We’ll go play these cities that we haven’t played in forever,’ and we just have fun doing the playing and hanging out and the adventure of it,” Ballwahn says. Despite that easygoing and wise attitude, the EP has a sharp bite to it. That’s thanks in part to the engineering and mixing work of Bobby Hussy, who recorded the sessions at his Madison studio and was well-equipped to capture the raw immediacy of their live sets.
Even though GAS has never been a hard-touring outfit, they capture the fatigue and disappointment musicians can experience on the road with the EP’s closing track, “Bands Playing For Other Bands.” There’s all kinds of ways a song about how no one showed up to your gig could go wrong and leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. This one steers clear of bitterness and self-pity, using the band’s humor and perspective to paint a picture of inverted glory: “The crowd fills with no one / Beer tickets for four / More people on the guest list / Than paid at the door,” Larson and Howell shout over the sweeping power chords of the chorus.
Howell sings the verses over mournfully ringing guitars, maybe taking a cue from Bob Seger’s great tour-weary anthem “Turn The Page.” But the imagery here plays up the absurdity and smallness of the situation: “Bass cabinet measures 100 watts / Guitarist is cracking, poppin’ dirty pots / The amplifiers are real big and loud / But they’re bigger than us, so we’re not that proud / Facebook ‘interesteds’ forsaking me / Analytics, demographics don’t mean a thing / How can we tempt some middle-aged fans? / We’ll play for next to no one ’cause we’re bands playing for other bands.”
Of course, Howell admits there was a time when all the frustrations of playing live were tougher to cope with. “These guys could tell you at least a half-dozen stories of me bawling in the basement of The Klinic, bawling at O’Cayz, bawling at I don’t even remember what bar, because we’re supposed to play third and it’s 1:30 in the morning and Andy and I had to teach the next day,” Howell says. “But we love playing and as we’ve progressed, it’s like, that’s just part of it. You just have to take your lumps. You don’t know what every show’s going to be and that’s part of what makes it fun. Sometimes it’s amazing, sometimes you’re waiting for the next band to maybe not extend their set super-long.”
“Broke Motel” practically delights in the degradations of touring life, with a true story of the night the band spent in Lawrence, Kansas. In short, a pipe exploded in the middle of the night, flooding the two rooms the bandmates were splitting.
“I’ll never be able to erase from my mind Kirk running over to a sink that was erupting in brown filth in a little motel in Lawrence, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re so sorry, we’ll move you to the bridal suite,’ and then it was hotter than hell,” Larson says. The song turns this nightmare into an almost gleefully swinging chorus: “Where is the bridal suite in this broke motel ? / Brown water on my feet and I’m! In! Hell!”
The magic of early GAS songs like “Civil War Reenactor” and “Bjorn Borg” isn’t necessarily that they try to say anything new or profound about those subjects, even though there’s a sly perspective at work. It’s that we think about such things all the time—iIf you didn’t think specifically about greycoats or a former tennis champion today, then surely some other peripheral oddity crossed your mind at some point—and it’s good to know that we share that in common with other people, especially if they can process our mental marginalia into witty and catchy songs.
Rest Area Relief‘s opening track, “In Search Of,” captures the allure of strange or just plain silly ideas. Taking its title from the late-70s TV show that Leonard Nimoy hosted, the song riffs on theories from ancient alien astronauts to yetis to ESP to ghosts, all leading back to a chorus of “I wanna believe what’s on my TV screen.” Howell provides a whirring guitar hook that uses a cheap vibrato pedal to emulate an eerie yet chintzy theremin, hearkening back to a time when fringe obsessions didn’t feel quite so menacing. Conspiracy theories and the like have always had an unseemly side, promoting racism and extreme ideologies, but today we’re awash in them like never before, and they metastasize into destructive real-world action at alarming speed. “One of the things I say to kids sometimes is that before Facebook and before all the weird shit on the internet, I remember reading the National Inquirer and the different sections of the newspaper and the obituaries, and then there were these shows, like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and In Search Of,” Howell says. “People have a thirst for that and a curiosity, and it demonstrates in different ways.”
Most of the lyrics on the EP came from all four members just riffing on their experiences and fixations together. There’s no one dominant songwriter in the band, and when one member comes in with an idea, they all flesh it out with a process that sounds a bit like that of a comedy writers’ room. “We’re all writing it together, and Annelies and Kirk and I and Randy, we’re throwing words on a page and shouting at each other and talking over each other,” is how Larson describes it.
Their collective gift for band-specific in-jokes is at its peak on “Percussion We Don’t Use.” Larson came in with a bass part and a few stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Wall, Howell, and Ballwahn helped Larson flesh it out into a furious rant about excess gear, starting with “You got a rainstick and an egg shaker / You got roto-toms and a noise-maker.” At first I thought the song might reflect the rest of the band ganging up on Ballwahn, but the drummer denies this: “I’m the kind of drummer that likes a really basic kit. I’m not into that other stuff. I played in an orchestra in high school and everything, and I played all that stuff, but I’m in a punk-rock, power-pop band now.”
In any case, “Percussion We Don’t Use” might be the most purely angry song The German Art Students have ever recorded. Larson tried to approach his lead vocal performance with the vehemence of an ’80s punk-rocker denouncing Reagan. The fury is convincing, even though he’s transferring it onto inanimate objects: “What’s with that big gong that you don’t hit / Why’d you waste all that money on that shit?”
The band had to cancel the release show for Rest Area Relief due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll be using money from sales on Bandcamp to support the staff of some currently shuttered local venues, including the Harmony Bar and Mickey’s Tavern. While the band members are holed up, they’ll be recording separate parts for a planned entry in the next NPR Tiny Desk contest, which may depict tiny band members performing atop a hand-drawn desk.