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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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The German Art Students mark 12 years of rocking out
The survivors
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For the band, carrying on as a trio was invigorating.
For the band, carrying on as a trio was invigorating.
Credit:Paul Stroede

You could say the German Art Students are now in grad school. Twelve years into their study of punk, pop and cracked cultural philosophy, the Madison band have slimmed down to a trio, thanks to the 2010 departure of bassist Andy Larson, and released a new EP, The Power and the Trust. The disc will be performed at a Mickey's Tavern release party Dec. 10.

I recently gave the Art Students - guitarist/bassist/vocalist Kirk Wall, guitarist/bassist/vocalist Annelies Howell and drummer/vocalist Randy Ballwahn - a blue book exam. Here's how that went.

If you had an eccentric aunt, one who appreciates music but had never heard the German Art Students, how would you describe the sound to her?

Kirk: I would say: Auntie Shirley, we sound like a girl group that crashed into a surf band that someone plugged into an overdrive pedal, but then accidentally unplugged it.

How do you want your audience to feel when they hear your music?

Annelies: The same way I do when I play it: happy, energized, rockin', goofy, irreverent and bouncy.

How are the feel and flow of the band different as a trio from when it was a quartet?

Randy: We joke that now there's more "space" for us to work with. The silence is as important as the notes, and all that. We lost a huge part of the personality of the band when Andy left, and it's impossible to replace that. But when the three of us decided to carry on, it was actually quite invigorating. We got a fresh perspective on many of the older songs because they needed to be rearranged for new instrumentation and vocal coverage. We got excited to write new things specifically for the trio. It's really been a positive experience.

That said, if Andy decided he wanted to play again, we'd take him back in a second.

Explain why the German Arts Students are unique.

Randy: We still have so much fun playing together. In the basement every week, in a club with five people or 200 people, we always have fun. There's no dominant personality in the band that needs all the attention. There's a lot of collaboration. We write fun songs together and play loud pop music because we enjoy it and we enjoy each other. I've talked to a lot of musicians over the years, and there aren't a lot of bands out there that have that.

Twelve years is a long time. Why is the band still a good place to be?

Annelies: I love these guys. They have taught me everything I know about being a rock 'n' roll performer. As a college student, I taught myself guitar chords using Mel Bay books. When I met Kirk and Andy, I was playing open mikes all over town. I felt like I had something to say, but I hadn't really found my voice yet. When I joined GAS, I was given an amazing opportunity to collaborate with some fantastic musicians. I was given an opportunity to write lyrics and music, and to grow as a performer.

Randy, you were music director at WORT. How has the Madison music scene changed over the past dozen years?

Randy: I've been keeping tabs on the local music scene since the mid-'80s, and the more it changes, the more it stays the same. There are always good young bands that break up in a year or two when they don't make it big. There are always good musicians and bands that move elsewhere because the grass is greener. There is always a core of locally appreciated veterans that have been playing around town for years because they love playing and they love Madison. And every once in a while there's a nice success story - Killdozer, Garbage, Bon Iver, Zola Jesus.

Every couple of years there's a story in Isthmus about how maybe this is the crop of musicians that will put Madison or Wisconsin in the national consciousness. And then it doesn't happen. It's a lot like having a Triple A baseball team - watch the phenoms move up, watch the veterans on the way down, and cheer for those who never quite make it to the show. I think we should stop worrying about the Madison scene making it big and enjoy what we have.

What do you look for in a live music act, Annelies?

Annelies: I look for great vocal harmonies, energy and songwriting. I love to rock, but I listen to a lot of folk and alt-country, too. I grew up listening to groups with lots of vocal harmony, including the Beach Boys, the Ronettes, the Mamas & the Papas, and the Beatles. My current favorites to see live include Venus in Furs, Neko Case, the New Pornographers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Robbie Fulks and Old 97's.

If someone held a gun on you, Randy, and made you pick one person from the field of Republican presidential primary candidates, who would it be?

Randy: Pull the trigger!

What if there was no gun?

Randy: I'm more concerned with local politics at the moment. I dislike the bickering and absolutism that come with party politics. I value reasoned thought and believe that, in government, compromise is the only real way to progress.

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