Last year Madison's German Art Students celebrated 15 years together, but if you ask them about their latest LP, Time Machine, you might mistake them for a band just starting out. They're that enthusiastic.
Plus, Time Machine represents something new to get excited about: It's their first full-length album as a trio. The band will release it at the High Noon Saloon on Friday, March 14.
German Art Students were a quartet for most of their time together, but in 2010 original bassist Andy Larson left the band to pursue other projects. The remaining members had to decide whether to continue playing together. They ultimately chose to recalibrate. Time Machine builds on The Power and the Trust, the band's 2011 EP. It shows them becoming a three-piece without missing a beat.
"With this full-length album, I feel like we're really energized again," says drummer Randy Ballwahn. "Even though we're not a new band, it kind of feels that way when we're playing."
Ballwahn is joined by Annelies Howell and Kirk Wall, who can both play guitar and bass. They trade these duties throughout Time Machine. All three musicians also sing and write songs.
"There's no one person who has to write the songs or be up in front all the time," Ballwahn says. "It's obvious that Annelies is a real singer. Kirk and I sing good enough for rock 'n' roll, [and] that can bring a certain charm as well."
True to its name, Time Machine features 10 tracks, some old and some new. Members of the band are fans of Buzzcocks and Big Star, so it makes sense that the album is a humorous, energetic mix of punk and power-pop. Some songs take stock of the past, and some imagine the future in zany ways.
The bandmates revel in opportunities to express their witty weirdness. Fans of WSUM know Ballwahn as the host of a Friday-morning show called Freak Scene, and at least one member of the band cites They Must Be Giants as an influence. But the German Art Students have earned serious praise, too, such as a 2003 Rolling Stone article that called their music "nimble-witted new-wave pop."
To record Time Machine, the German Art Students turned to Audio for the Arts' Mike Zirkel, whom they'd previously worked with at Smart Studios.
"He knows more or less what we want, even if we don't know we want it," Ballwahn says. "He'll bring things to our sound we didn't know we could do.... Mike deserves as much credit for this album as any of us that played on it."
Each member of the band has become a parent over the last few years, so the album has some material they probably wouldn't have written a decade ago, like "It Hurts," a song about Howell's son.
The band's sense of humor also plays a big role on Time Machine. For instance, "Go-Go's Invasion" is about Ballwahn noticing that Jane Wiedlin, a member of the iconic all-female rock band, was living in Madison and later finding out that the group's manager was working at the community-run TV station WYOU. Though the song's story is based in reality, it quickly took a silly turn.
"I just imagined that the Go-Go's were moving to Madison one by one," Ballwahn says.