The saga of the German Art Students

Thanks to Andy Moore for capturing the spirit of GAS in this Isthmus feature from September 2017: “The damn thing was, hard as they tried to write crummy, anti-rock songs, they were entertaining the hell out of themselves.” The big show is tomorrow where we continue our “tribal band friendship.” See you there. #GAS20Years.

The Madison rockers celebrate a 20th anniversary at the High Noon

Photo Credit: James Peterson

They dropped the berets, but the band still melds subversion and slapstick.

Right about the time Annelies Howell, swaying with rapture, fell off a stool at a Memorial Union open mic singing Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” Kirk Wall and Andy Larson were across the isthmus, huddled in a basement, writing the obituary to their music careers by creating songs so weird, so quirky, that no one would want to listen to them. “It was either that or I was gonna sell my guitar,” says Wall.

While they didn’t know it yet, the artists were headed in opposite directions on a path that would bring them all together. It’s the same kind of twisted, farcical fate that would soon define their work.

Howell’s stool mishap, in the mid-’90s, was an epiphany. That night she chose to abandon her set list of Paul Simon and James Taylor numbers to take a stab at the Joplin classic. “I got so into it I fell off the stool and the crowd frickin’ loved it. They loved it to death. And I was like, oh, maybe this is what I should be doing,” says Howell.

Meanwhile, over in the basement, Wall and Larson were giving birth to songs like “Marilyn Manson You Don’t Scare Me.” The damn thing was, hard as they tried to write crummy, anti-rock songs, they were entertaining the hell out of themselves creating music that Andy Kaufman might have made if he wasn’t so into lip synching. “What if this turns into a band?” they thought.

It did.

German Art Students (GAS) turns 20 this month and will celebrate the occasion with a show at the High Noon Saloon Sept. 8. They have a lot to show for it, not the least of which is a tribal band friendship that’s hard to rival. But it wasn’t always easy. The touring and writing and recording and touring — all while launching careers, families and taking care of sick parents? That was pretty hard. So was the six-year departure of founding member Larson, who said leaving the band was one of the hardest things he had ever done. But the grind took a toll on him emotionally and physically. He returned fully charged, to open arms, in the spring of 2016.

But let’s go back to the founding. Wall and Larson already had a band going when Larson approached Howell at Verona High School, where they both taught.

“She had a folk background,” remembers Wall. “And there’s always this thing about two-guy guitar players in bands. They’re aggressive. So what she brought to the band was a kind of finesse and this … texture.”

Howell also had to unlearn some things in order to meet her objective of becoming a rocker. “I had a little bit of training — not a ton — and I’d say, ‘I don’t know if you can put a B major in there.’” Of course they could. And to get to where Wall and Larson were headed, Howell had to learn a few things. “I’d never played barre chords before,” she says. “I learned how to solo.”

Soon after, in what sounds like a verse in a GAS song, the band’s drummer split for Arizona to become a priest. So one could say it was divine intervention that Randy Ballwahn, then music director at WORT-FM, happened to be at O’Cayz Corral the first time Howell performed with the band. “I saw them and I loved it and so after the show I said, ‘Andy, I gotta be in this band,’” says Ballwahn.

Although they stopped appearing in all black with berets pretending to be German after a couple of years, GAS still manage to be subversive and slapstick at the same time, providing post-punk, Mad magazine-esque music to the world. Rolling Stone called it “nimble-witted new-age pop.”

Try to not smile and dance at their birthday party when they unpack “Robots in Raincoats,” “Disgruntled Figure Skating Judge” and their meta-hit, “Civil War Re-enactor,” one of the chestnuts on their first album, What Did you Expect, Heartland Rock? The album is in a special re-release to celebrate the 20th anniversary. Also at the birthday party: Look for Howell’s pirouette on Ballwahn’s bass drum. Onstage and in the groove, with high kicks and back bends, Howell moves with abandon.

The band says it’s ready to make another record. “If I did not play music with these three people, I can’t imagine,” says Larson. “Life would be gray. There would be no color.”

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