Grand Army Reapers are a five-piece band who make music that weaves and careens like a cheap wobbly spinning top or an extremely revved-up hamster wheel or a tipsy Midwestern sailor on shore leave for the first time in Times Square and you just know there’s going to be trouble but which doesn’t collapse in on itself despite the mix of chaotic energy and woozy insouciance, or maybe exactly because of the mix of chaotic energy and woozy insouciance which produces a sort of centripetal force that keeps the whole contraption from jumping the track.
It’s a theory anyway. But one based on first-hand observation because a couple weeks ago I got a chance to see the Grand Army Reaper gang play live which inspired the overstimulated mixed metaphors above, although not right there in the moment because the band were too transporting with their blissed out unhinged energy to be verbalized upon first encounter, and plus there were drinks and conversations to be had after.
And here’s another thing. The band recently put out an EP called Alive, Alive (from King Killer) made up of six self-recorded songs laid down over a mere couple days in the band’s own practice space, recorded live in large part ("a semi-live, DIY studio album") with no more than a few takes allowed for any one song, thusly giving the listener a good taste of GAR’s visceral impact in the flesh (reader’s note: you should still see them live) opening with a downright groovy garage rockin’ Strokes-meets-Cramps-meets-Clash singalong (granted one about police brutality) called “Black Tape” and culminating 18 minutes later with a Stoogey sax-assisted howl into the abyss called “Bug Hunt” and yeah Kiss Alive or Alive II this ain’t, it’s more along the lines of Naked Lunch.
Other cited musical influences range from Oingo Boingo to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to classic surf rock and on GAR’s very own Bandcamp page Ben (sticks and skins), Chuck (strings), Erik (mouth stuff), Krish (strings), and MK (low end) describe their sound as “occult rock inspired by the energy and weirdness of early-70’s NY and warped cassettes found under the passenger seat of your sister’s 1984 Volvo 240 DL” and while I’ve never been in a 1984 Volvo 240 DL before (or had a sister, I think!) the Seventies New York comparison rings true seeing as how when the city was careening out of control and nearing a state of total societal breakdown its inhabitants somehow managed to invent punk, disco, and hip hop.
And this teetering-on-the-edge-between-chaos-and-control musical quality bleeds over into Grand Army Reapers’ lyrics as well on Alive, Alive overflowing as they are with extreme emotional states, fury at state-sponsored violence, and personal reckonings with addition, disease, and mental health issues, all while managing to be purging and affirming too (that’s the magic of music!) a realization I had thanks to generous track-by-track liner notes provided by GAR’s lead songwriter Erik Reaper who was kind enough to share some revealing insights into both the EP’s lyrics and music and he really laid it all out (respect, sir!) liner notes which can be read in full after the jump… (Jason Lee)
This is a protest song, written around the anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder. Cops are here to maintain the status quo and punch down on behalf of property owners. That’s it. “NYPD, murder with impunity. NYPD, a theater of security. NYPD, white ego, white fragility. NYPD, a menace to communities.”
Musically it’s very much inspired by The Clash. I wasn’t trying to overthink this one. It snowballed from a riff idea into a fully formed song within one afternoon. I usually torture myself for days to weeks, finalizing the structure and lyrics before committing to a demo that I send to my bandmates. With this song, there was an immediate momentum that I wanted to maintain throughout the process.
Distraction from Sadness
This was originally 3 different songs that I kinda forced together: an intro/refrain that was really hooky and angular like a Buzzcocks or Nick Lowe song, a morose chorus that’s basically Johnny Thunders’ “Society Makes Me Sad,” and an outro that veers hard into a Buddy Holly dreamscape. Lyrically, it’s about being paralyzed by self-doubt, so you make excuses and distract yourself with bullshit. There isn’t really a conclusion, it just ends with a complete detour, kind of like the concept behind the lyrics I guess.
I actually despise songs that are overtly topical, but I felt like torturing myself a little on this one. This is basically a Richard Hell song about long-hauler covid symptoms, insomnia, delirium, and shapeshifting into some kind of werewolf while exchanging coded messages with some outside entity in the personal ads section of the NY Post.
Joy Division (referenced at the mid-point of the intro) becomes The Damned covering “Jet Boy, Jet Girl”. This song is about a girl and a boy. Big whoop. While recording this song, I had just learned that my cousin had overdosed on fentanyl, that plays a weirder role in “Snowed Out,” but it definitely affected my mood and vocal delivery in a way that felt pretty terrible. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to keep recording that day, but I really wanted to push forward. We weren’t necessarily on a tight schedule with this album, but I had a set of rules in mind about maintaining a “live” feel, even if performance get a little weird.
I just couldn’t go on with vocals for this one. I had to call it a day after the first take. Lyrically it was too on-the-nose considering the news I got that morning. I called my aunt. I didn’t really have anything to say. She cried a lot. I haven’t seen my family in 3 years. I finished vocals the next day.
This is a song about substance abuse and functional junky-ism among us over-educated, over-worked, and underpaid. It’s also about poor management of mood disorders, oscillating between depression and grandiosity, with substance abuse and pseudo-spirituality thrown in.
I’m not sure why I went that route lyrically. I think there’s a sense of get-up and hustle to the verse that pulled me in that direction. The chorus feels like melodic despair.
I also struggle with mood swings and ADHD to the point that it affects my relationships, my work, and my sense of self. A lot of it is how I manage the content of my thoughts as well.
There’s a really ugly trend on the internets these days that romanticizes mental health and mood disorders. Maybe it’s not new, but I see content pop up on my feed that makes me cringe. This song is meant to be an indictment of that sort of content.
I should also clarify that I don’t mess around with opioids, and I don’t want this song to be taken as anything less than extremely critical of using drugs as self-medication for self-diagnosed problems, especially when it hurts the people around you and eventually yourself.
This is an east Texas bug-stomper of a song. CCR meets the dropship scene from Aliens. Lots of Captain Beefheart and Willy DeVille inspiration on this one. Not much else to say about it.