When Detroit hardcore band The Armed announced the ambitious concert film ULTRAPOP: Live at the Masonic, they exclaimed, “YOU’VE NEVER SEEN ALUMINUM STEINBERGERS DO THIS BEFORE.”
While we weren’t totally sure what “this” was, we did take note of the band’s set of matching Steinbergers on display in the movie. For guitar nerds like us, this appeared to be a strange choice. After all, this is a punk band known less for headstock-less 80s new wave aesthetics than for destroying gear, pranking the press, and possibly being a secret marketing campaign funded by Tony Hawk.
So Gear Gods’ editorial team reached out to the band for what we thought would be a brief explanation – even given the band’s trickster reputation. They’ve been straight (if strange) with us in the past when talking bass and synth rigs. And our question was simple: Why Steinberger?
We wound up in a rabbit hole far deeper than anyone could’ve imagined.
“For ULTRAPOP, we wanted to combine worlds,” says singer Cara Drolshagen over Zoom. “It was important for us to have baroque, virtuosic performances mired in cybernetic seas of distortion. The nexus of neoclassical and decadent shredding. A meeting point of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, and Metallica’s Seattle ’89.”
We were already lost, but did not interrupt. She continued, “So for our movie, we needed a guitar to reflect that visually, and Steinberger was the only choice. We took to calling it ‘the choice of a new shred generation.’ After all, it is truly long overdue that Steinberger’s legend continues.”
Though The Armed are fans of the original models, as a primarily punk-oriented group prone to onstage chaos, they felt the modern production line would be more appropriate for their live shows. “Ned’s original designs, with the reinforced composite structure and carbon fiber skin, were really forward-thinking… but ultimately too inaccessible to the working musician. It just wasn’t sustainable, building guitars like they’re jet engines,” Cara contends. “The modern production models, such as the Spirit line, retain the guitar’s elegant look while allowing bands like us, with dozens of members, to freely express ourselves without worrying about accidentally destroying something more expensive than my car.”
“Ultimately, it boils down to better ergonomics: better sound. Steinberger.”
OK… so we’re starting to get the picture, even if it’s starting to sound a bit like a Coca-Cola commercial. From here things get… stranger.
For The Armed’s mysterious ringleader Dan Greene, the headstockless aspect of Steinberger guitars became a critical component of ULTRAPOP’s execution. Throughout recording, he would direct members to make their performances and solos sound “more headstockless,” including drummer Urian Hackney, who of course, was not playing a guitar, and could not, therefore, remove the headstock from his lack of a guitar.
[Hackney could not be reached for comment; a go-between stated: “Dan ultimately settled for Urian making the fills ‘more hexagonal.’”]
“I can distinctly remember this one email from Dan Greene,” says guitarist Andy Pitcher of the ULTRAPOP sessions, “We’d gone back and forth about the “FAITH IN MEDICATION” solo, which is like 20 seconds of music, for months. Literally months. I had used dozens of different headstockless guitars for dozens of takes of the solo. Not once – and I really mean this – not once, did I ever send him a recording of the solo using a guitar that had a headstock.”
Andy shivers over Zoom. “There were even a couple takes where Dan insisted that he wanted it to sound like there wasn’t even a neck. So I tried a Gittler, which is a guitar that doesn’t have a headstock OR a neck. Dan seemed to like that for a bit, but then asked if there was a way to make it sound like there weren’t any frets, strings, picks, or amplifiers. We eventually resolved those concerns… but I’d rather not get into it, if that’s ok.”
We tell Andy he doesn’t have to continue unless he wants to. But he insists: “OK, so, something finally cracked around the 50th take. Again, I recorded with a headstockless guitar – think it was on a Teuffel Birdfish I’d rented for the sessions or my trusty German-made Milenko Katanic. Look them up. Neither has a headstock.”
[Ed note: we looked them up. Neither has a headstock.]
Andy continues, “I sent it over and just had to unwind, so I dropped onto the studio’s Le Corbusier chaise lounge for a quick snooze. Within seconds a Microsoft Outlook notification rings like a fire alarm. I rush to the computer, and it’s an email from Dan.”
“Just a single line: I CAN STILL HEAR THE GODDAMN HEADSTOCK.”
Naturally, a fully headstock-free performance became a necessity for the ULTRAPOP film.
We let Andy go for the day to talk to some other members, who cited various NDAs while gushing about Steinberger’s eclectic roster of past endorsees. “You think about the brand legacy, it’s super imposing,” says another guitarist, “Chris” from Metz, a peer band. “Rick Derringer with Cyndi Lauper, Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads, David Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, Ziggy Marley, Sting… and of course, Lou Reed.”
Chris from Metz (we were told to print his name as such) thinks for a moment, then adds, “maybe this will finally convince Lou Reed to do a collaborative album with The Armed. The long-rumored Lulu sequel, you know.” He again thinks for a moment. “Except with The Armed, and Steinbergers.”
[We could not bring ourselves to inform Chris from Metz that Lou passed in 2013, as he stated this with such hopefulness. We also weren’t sure if he was messing with us.]
Cara takes things a step further. “Dan Greene and I had many conversations about how headstockless guitars are often associated with the artistic peak, the moment when a so-called ‘virtuosic performance’ absconds the ethereal and engages the corporeal.” Before we have time to ask for clarification, she presses on, “For Steinbergers, think about David Bowie and Reeves Gabriels’ Earthling-era performances. Or [Allan] Holdsworth’s 1991 concert in Osaka. Like, dude, Tina Weymouth’s five-string Steinberger bass was literally on display at The Met.”
It’s quite an argument, and incredibly specific. Cara continues: “Point is, afterwards, those artists experienced diminishing returns on technical ability. Headstockless guitars provided an easier route to new horizons of novelty and creativity, after which we moved into a period of stagnated neoprimitivism.”
“Really, what I’m trying to say about Steinbergers is… they’re foxy.”
Speaking of which, this past year, The Armed have become notorious for publishing their nutrition and workout plans in incredible detail, becoming so ridiculously ripped that bandleader Dan Greene now brags “we can actually physically destroy every other alien band once we’re done with all the Earth bands.” These chiseled physiques are presented in full, widescreen color display in ULTRAPOP: Live, such that a viewer might worry that the sheer weight of muscle could snap the modestly-sized Steinberger in two.
“Of course we felt a magnetism, during shot design and shot listing, to the visual contrast of such small guitars being played by men with such large musculature,” Cara laughs. “The plot of this movie may be about The Armed, but the story is about bodybuilding.”
Cara then pivots to Eddie Van Halen’s “extensive, yet undersung” use of Steinberger guitars in the mid-80s, when the late legend commissioned custom GL-2T 5150 and GL-2T OU812 models for use in his band’s ever-expanding sonic arsenal.
“Yeah, that GLT2 EVH had built for him, the first one, #3340 or whatever the serial was, that one really got us excited,” says Cara. “We actually sent our Steinbergers to EVH’s original builder Jeff Babicz, to have him trick them out for the ULTRAPOP movie.”
We pretended to know who Jeff Babicz was as she continued: “In a lot of ways, the EVH-Steinberger connection, the 5150 era, kinda birthed the modern incarnation of the ‘softshred’ subgenre: accessible virtuosity as an artistically viable pop medium.”
Eddie iconically played his GL-2T 5150 in Van Halen’s high-energy 1986 Live Without a Net concert video, which Cara calls “an obvious touchstone” for ULTRAPOP: Live at the Masonic. “Dan Greene joked that our film is kinda like Live Without a Net, but swap the cocaine for Redcon1 Total War.”
When finally reached by a phone number identified on a Geocities-esque religious website, the mysterious Dan Greene insisted ULTRAPOP: Live at the Masonic is neither a documentary, nor a livestream, nor a traditional concert movie. “It’s an entirely new genre of cinema. ULTRAFILM, if you will,” Greene says, in a husky tone. We weren’t sure whether he was joking or trying to elicit a response. After an uncomfortable silence, he did not laugh, but said aloud, “Ha ha.”
According to The Armed guitarist Dan Stolarski (there are many Dans in this band), Dan Green (without the “e” – a different Dan Green, we were told to specify) made camera operators watch all four hours of German director Fritz Lang’s epic Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), as well as every episode of season 20 of Survivor, which Greene described as “the absolute pinnacle of human drama.”
“None of the things Dan Green assigned really had much to do with our movie, if I’m being honest,” Dan Stolarski types over Instagram DM. “Or really, much to do with anything at all. One of them was like, a seven-hour experimental silent film that consisted entirely of extreme close-ups of leaves. Literally a seven-hour movie about leaves.”
When we asked what Stolarski meant by that, and what it had to do with Steinbergers, his typing dots buffered and unbuffered a few times, before he deleted the prior messages and clarified: “Actually, it’s probably for the best if I don’t say any more. Dan wouldn’t want me talking about the leaves.”
(Given Stolarski was practically begging us to dive deeper into the seven hour movie about leaves, we reached out to our friend Max Frank, who knows the Dans and movies pretty well. Says Max: “They’re talking about Nathaniel Dorsky’s The Arboretum Cycle, which is not a seven-hour movie about leaves. That’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie about leaves.”)
OK, so now we fully don’t know what the hell is going on. When we went back to Dan Greene, he denied knowing Max, denied ever having seen a movie with a leaf in it, denied ever having seen a movie at all, then recommended a movie: “Watch the Lizzie McGuire movie right after this call. It’s a great story, a moving picture, a real film, about identity and finding the strength to change from within, much like ULTRAPOP Live.”
He takes a deep breath. “Except in our movie, we have Steinbergers.”
Finally, we’re back on solid ground. But just for a moment. Greene then launched into a really, really long lecture about discovering an obscure John Cage score in the SUNY Stonybrook Music Reference Library written expressly for bassist Robert Black and to be performed on Steinberger. Though an intern started out transcribing Greene’s comments, they ultimately gave up around minute 7 of a 16-minute-or-so monologue. (When informed of this, Dan demanded we at least note that he “totally went super undercover” to get in to the library. “Like a ninja, or a cat. Like a ninja cat.”)
“You get a lot to like with a Steinberger,” Greene ultimately concluded, again giving minimal clear insight into why the band now plays them, “and what it represents… rebellious, adventurous, authentic, electric, eclectic.” He pauses for a moment. “I’m texting you a screen shot. Don’t hang up. Switch to speakerphone so I can hear your breathing. “
We review our iMessages and find the image below. At first, we’re not totally sure what to say. But Greene is. “Yeah. Drink it in. Drink it all in. Goes down real smooth, huh.”
It’s definitely… cool. Sure. Why not. Before we can ask who the player is, Greene interjects: “Seriously. What other guitar on the market would possibly permit you to wear a God-tier outfit like this?”
“What an absolute king,” proclaims Greene.
The Armed will play the first-ever virtual Adult Swim Festival alongside 21 Savage, Angel Olsen, Flying Lotus, and Alien Weaponry, running November 12 and 13. ULTRAPOP is available now via Sargent House.