German Art Students turn EP release party into a fundraiser for service workers

By Joshua Miller | Special to the Cap Times |Apr 17, 2020

Madison-based band the German Art Students had hoped to celebrate the release of their new EP “Rest Area Relief,” their first release in three years, with a show at Kiki’s House of Righteous Music. However, those and other plans to perform have screeched to halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we weren’t able to do that anymore, we had a band discussion about if we should still release the music or wait,” drummer Randy Ballwahn said. “There was some discussion about, Well, is it disrespectful for us to be ‘celebrating’ the release of the music when people are having hard times and we’re not sure what’s going to happen in the future?

“And then there was also discussion that, well, this is kind of the time when people need music, and they’re kind of searching for art and music and other things as kind of a distraction, or a way to help get them through hard times. And are we really doing anyone a service by withholding this music that we’ve put together?

“Because people seem to enjoy what we do, and why not put it out there? So that’s what we decided to do.”

So, “Rest Area Relief” is available to stream and purchase at the band’s website

The quartet — which also features singer/bass player Andy Larson, singer/guitarist Annelies Howell and guitarist Kirk Wall — is also using their music as a thank you to those that have supported them over the past 23 years. Online proceeds from the EP and the rest of the band’s catalog will go towards supporting service workers in Madison.

“We decided, yeah, let’s put this music out there, but let’s use it to do what we can to support people who aren’t able to work right now, which is a lot of the people that work in the venues that we would be playing, bartenders, sound people, and things like that,” said Ballwahn, who works a day job at UW Family Medicine & Community Health.

“It’s a very small part, not going to help anyone pay the rent probably, but at least we can do something with the music to help support the people that aren’t able to continue working at this time…And probably if and when we’re able to start playing shows again, we’ll probably donate that money to relief funds as well.”

For example, the band donated the first week of EP presales to the Harmony Bar, where they were scheduled to play on April 11.

“It wasn’t a ton of money, but I think they were appreciative of getting that,” Ballwahn said. “We’ve gotten to know a lot of the people that work at the bars and clubs around town over the years, so it’s an important to us that they’re able to at least make ends meet and try and survive when they’re not able to do what they normally do.”

Rest Area Relief’s inspiration is far from the recent social distancing way of living. The EPs title and songs such as “Broke Motel” and “Bands Playing For Other Bands” were inspired by a mini road trip the band took a couple years ago. The EP offers a lively and engaging mix of new wave, power pop, and punk rock.

“We did shows in Lawrence, Kansas, Iowa City and Des Moines,” Ballwahn said. “Some interesting and odd things happened for this long weekend when we were kind of on this mini tour. It’s just kind of about being on the road. So, when you’re on the road, rest areas are a little oasis.”

The collection continues the collaborative spirit of the band, with each member getting their chance to shine.

For example, “Percussion We Don’t Use” is an in-joke that Ballwahn likes to tell others as the band’s drummer. “I would just say, ‘I just don’t do cowbell,’” he said. “’I’m not going to put a cowbell on here, or China cymbal, or whatever it may be.’”

Meanwhile, “In Search Of” is a song inspired by the ‘70s Leonard Nimoy hosted show of the same name. Larson had always wanted to write a song about Nimoy. “The show was about odd things like the Bermuda Triangle and Bigfoot and kind of odd mysteries of the time,” Ballwahn said.

The band recorded the EP with the help of garage-rock legend Bobby Hussy at Hex Empire Studios. They had a lot of respect for Hussy after playing shows with The Hussy and some of his other projects.

“We’re mostly known for our live shows, and we kind of thought working with Bobby would kind of capture that a little bit. He’s kind of known for his garage rock attitude,” Ballwahn said. “I think it’s a little more raw than we have sounded on recordings before, but really, really good sounding. And I think it kind of captured a little bit of the live spirit of German Art Students.”

Ballwahn is thankful that the band is going strong after 23 years together.

“It’s kind of nice not to have to worry about whether we’re the exact same thing that we were 15 years ago, or 20 years ago, or five years ago,” he said. “I think we kind of roll with the punches, and we’re just evolving with whatever situations come up as they come up.”

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