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Despite sporadically filling Madison bars with fans of their high-energy punk-rock sound for 22 years, The German Art Students are not well-known outside of town. That became clear on a mini Midwest tour last year when they found themselves playing nearly empty venues in Iowa City and Des Moines, Iowa.
Despite advance publicity for the shows, few people turned out who weren’t members of the other bands on the bills. “There were often more people on the guest list than paid at the door,” bassist Andy Larson says.
So, true to form, the band wrote a self-deprecating song about it. “Bands Playing for Other Bands” will be one of four songs recorded this summer on an EP by The German Art Students. Another song to expect on the record is titled “Percussion We Don’t Use.”
The band did return triumphantly from that regional tour to open a packed June 2018 show at the Orpheum Theater by The B-52s — a band to which TGAS is often compared.
TGAS doesn’t mind being mentioned in the same breath as They Might Be Giants, Buzzcocks and The Ramones. Descriptions of TGAS being “new wave” date back to the early days when the band’s music still included keyboards.
The band also long ago abandoned the pretense that they were actually German art students.
“Kirk stopped wearing the turtleneck after like two shows,” says guitarist and vocalist Annelies Howell about lead guitarist Kirk Wall.
“It was really itchy,” Wall confirms.
Howell says a better representation of the band’s ethos is found in The Beatles’ 1964 film “A Hard Day’s Night.” In one scene, a member of the press asks drummer Ringo Starr, “Are you a mod or a rocker?” Ringo answers, “I’m a mocker.”
“So that’s us,” Howell says. “We’re definitely mockers.”
TGAS drummer Randy Ballwahn acknowledges “irony is another language we speak.” While the band’s songs tend to be silly on the surface, he says they can be understood on two levels.
For instance, “Robots in Raincoats.” In addition to being a funny image, the song is about the downsides of rushing new technology into production too soon. Another song, “Instant Coffee,” is a litany of compromises many of us make on a daily basis. Both songs are on the 2014 CD “Time Machine,” the band’s most recent release.
TGAS is an enduring pursuit made possible by the band members’ real jobs. Wall is a graphic designer for a sign shop and Ballwahn does regulatory compliance for the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. At Verona High School, Larson teaches history and Howell teaches math and physics.
Larson and Howell share their passion for music in their classrooms by teaching the history of rock and roll (Larson) and coaching student musicians in a project on the 1969 Woodstock music festival (Howell).
However, their primary creative outlet remains TGAS. The group ruled out alternative activities — such as bowling, model railroading or playing Dungeons & Dragons — long ago.
“I just tell people that guitar strings are cheaper," Wall says.
Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.