Written by: Michael Mitchell
Peter Kris may live next door to you.
Or to a friend of yours.
His name may actually be Frank Clearwater.
Only his inner circle knows for sure.
You see, he and sometime bandmate Norm Heston believe in a concept put forward by Bavarian composer and music theorist, N. Senada called the “Theory of Obscurity.” To borrow from Wikipedia, the theory, “states that an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration.” I think there was another band from the San Francisco area that followed this as well, but that’s a story for another time. This allows them to operate outside of any limelight, music tabloid paparazzi, or crazed fans. They makes music for pleasure, not for record company profits. They also make music with purpose as you will see.
The band he is best known for, German Army (or GeAr), have been releasing music since 2011 and have already amassed a catalog of over 70 releases in one format or another, including a VHS of music videos (and one song, ‘Smoke Voiced’ exclusive to that release). That doesn’t include the output from other bands that he has been involved with who are either still active or have been in the past (Q///Q, Final Cop, Submissions, Germ Class, Concrete Colored Paint to name but a few) and PK solo albums. Their music has been compared to industrial greats Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle but after listening to even one album you can tell that those comparisons are fleeting. They make music that is wholly unique. That is one of the reasons that you will find most of their output is on cassette. Small cassette labels are more willing to give an artist/band like theirs the chance to make such avant-garde music.
Every solo/band release reveals its own identity musically. It’s not the same music over and over released under a different moniker. It’s always fresh, always challenging and always evolving. True, I don’t think you will hear their music played on your local major market radio station unless they have a penchant for distorted rhythm and slowed/echoing vocals but thanks to the internet and podcasting it is possible for you to go out and explore their vast terrain. You will no doubt find either an immediate connection or one that will grow as you roll through the various guises. There is literally something for everyone.
I was fortunate enough to get in contact with PK recently and pick his brain a little. With three new releases over a three month span (which actually became four releases in three months but that’s just the kind of pace he works at), I figured it would be a good chance to talk about these works. You will come to realize there is a man on a serious mission and his muse comes from a place so much deeper than the generic, surface level music that is out there these days…
Stereo Embers Magazine: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions for Stereo Embers Magazine. I know this isn’t a usual ‘modus operandi’ for you, but it is very appreciated.
Peter Kris: Not a problem. I don’t mind answering questions, I usually just don’t have the time I desire to answer them properly. Work is endless, so when I get a chance, I run away from the area or record.
SEM: Where did the band name German Army come from?
PK: My friend Sam thought of it. I figured it was perfect because one can’t help but notice that at the time there seemed to be a rise in intolerance across the globe. I thought it would be a good name to take and use to actually document language and cultural extinction. Further, I wanted to critique all nationalism and focus on the actions of U.S. imperialism. You could just not bother to pay attention to the name or the message, but if you do, it is very clearly one of anti-imperialism, pro-ecology and for the cultural preservation of those disappeared or who presently have a vanishing language, culture, flora and fauna. The two driving figures of influence behind the band and its formation are the works of Paulo Freire and Sydney Possuelo. These two individuals changed my world view and moved me in a different direction in both art and education. I continue to follow the work of FUNAI and its attempt to protect the indigenous groups of Brazil.
SEM: You have had three new albums in the space of three months. In a brief exchange we had, you mentioned that you work 60 hours a week, plus camping and hiking, plus music. How do you do it all?
PK: I don’t have children, don’t go to church, and don’t watch sports, so that frees up a chunk of time. Beyond that, I am not really sure how I do it. I guess I feel the need to sit down and make music every week and it simply happens.
SEM: How do you describe your music and what is the most inaccurate description of your music that you’ve ever heard/read?
PK: I have no idea. I guess maybe a rhythmic sound collage that attempts to document what I find interesting in the world? Inaccurate…I also really don’t know. I believe whatever people hear and interpret or label is their own experience, so I guess everyone’s description is ok so far.
SEM: Before we talk in specifics about the new releases, what makes an album a German Army album, what makes it a Peter Kris album, a Final Cop, a Q///Q, etc.?
PK: GeAr is all over the map. Peter Kris forces me to play the guitar. Final Cop is an attempt to pay homage to the 90’s industrial punks I grew up listening to. Q///Q is a failed attempt to create sexy music and pretend to be from Brazil. Then there are others… Burnt Probe is a hard techno banger with a buddy from the SGV. Concrete Colored Paint is a documentation project that covers my trips along the borderlands mostly. Germ Class is a collaboration with Los Angeles friends to create some dark, accessible pop. There are more projects lined up that I am simply not sure about at this point.
SEM: Are you a fan of The Residents or familiar with the “Theory of Obscurity”? I know you like to remain faceless/anonymous or however you would phrase it, so I was wondering if they were an influence on how you’ve modeled GeAr’s presence (or lack thereof as it were)?
PK: I am a big fan of Duck Stab and The Commercial Album along with the story of The Residents in general. Yes, I own Theory of Obscurity! I want German Army and all projects to be recognized and wouldn’t mind if they gained popularity. At the same time, I have no desire for anyone to find out who I am. I don’t want my face or identity anywhere in project recognition. I grew up in L.A. and have been in music for almost 20 years. This place has enough name dropping and face recognition already. This is also why we won’t play live. Los Angeles always has too much hype and people pushing their art down your throat at every event. I just want to make music about obscure culture in my room and have labels that I respect put it out.
SEM: Have you ever performed live in any of your multiple guises?
PK: Yes… but I did not enjoy it and quickly stopped. There were some bands in the past that I was in where we performed live and I enjoyed it but I would rather not mention them. It all stopped about 6 years ago.
SEM: Do you like the comparisons to Throbbing Gristle that have been levied on your work?
PK: NH would. I didn’t grow up listening to them. I grew up listening to Nocturnal Emissions, Cabaret Voltaire, and the Orb. In the early and mid 90s I would skate to Tower Records in West Covina. There was a rock magazine called ‘Seconds’ and another more experimental one called ‘Unsound’ that led me to some outsider music for a Junior High kid. I weirdly enough didn’t start caring about TG until after college. The other band that was a part of my life as long as I can remember was The Boredoms and all of their related projects. I also collected everything I could on the Japan Overseas and Fire Inc. labels. Lastly, there were just tons of Jungle and ‘Drum and Bass’ mix tapes swirling around that we tried to collect. I should also mention that during my college years in Riverside and Pomona there was an amazing local music scene. Riverside had Los Cincos and related projects while the Pomona area was home to Vermiform Records and local bands such as Man Is The Bastard and Amps For Christ. Pomona/Claremont remains a close knit community and all of us still spend time together. Luckily, we also grew up with 88.3 in Riverside and 88.7 in Claremont. Both of them are solid college radio stations.
SEM: The first of the three releases I want to discuss is “Vieques” on the Madriguera label in Puerto Rico. According to the blurb on Bandcamp, the label had the cassette ready for production and wanted some notes from you to accompany the album. That day you heard about the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria and you were stunned that there was no outrage over the death and destruction. Only “comfortable neglect” as you succinctly put it. Did you change anything about the album as a result? Change of song titles, replace any tracks with new tracks? Was the title going to be “Vieques” before the hurricane?
PK: The album title was set before the madness ever happened. I have always tried to document U.S. policy around the world with a focus on Latin America so it was only a matter of time before Puerto Rico came up. I didn’t change a thing… just wrote a blurb for once. The actually numbers are now different, but I believe around 3,000 dead is still much higher than the original quote of 64.
SEM: Have you gotten into any further activism for Puerto Rico or do you have any resources or groups that people can look into if they want to help further?
PK: I teach the history of U.S. foreign policy from time to time, so I guess that would be a form of activism. Honestly, it would be a good start if people here in the States simply pushed to increase Puerto Rico’s powers in our government. I will also be visiting there and trying to spend money where it helps. Folks can always feel free to e-mail me and I can provide various books, movies, and articles. I also am happy to check out recommendations they may have.
SEM: The August release was “Mangas Coloradas” on the Japanese label, Muzan Editions.
Mangas Coloradas was an Apache chief. His name is the Spanish version of his Apache nickname “Red Sleeves”. What was the motivation for calling the album this?
PK: Once again, as someone who teaches U.S. foreign policy, I often cover various American Indian resistance movements. Hopefully it will lead a listener to learn about various key figures of U.S. history that are not part of the traditional narrative.
SEM: Many song titles on the album are for regions, languages or peoples. ‘Vakhan’ (or “the Wakhan”) is a rugged, mountainous area of Afghanistan, ‘Mzab’ (or M’zab) is a region of Algeria, ‘Kikongo’, ‘Nganguela’ (also known as Luchazi), ‘Umbundu’, ‘Nhaneca’, ‘Chokwe’ are Bantu languages in Angola, ‘Kwanhama’ (or Cuanhama) is a municipality in Angola and ‘Kabyle’ are an ethnic group in Algeria. I’m trying to find a thread back to the Apache chief the album is named after. Help?
PK: You got me here. Things do not always match up. Many times I go back to the original movement of German Army and that was to document as many cultures and languages as possible. When the band formed, I was a bit obsessed with the extinction of language along with various flora and fauna. The project took a turn within a year to really try to document anti-colonial movements and U.S. foreign policy around the world.
SEM: The latest album is “Terroir Place” put out by Genot Centre in the Czech Republic. I can’t seem to find a story behind this release. Is there one?
PK: The simple story is that I loved the label. I had also heard about an interview regarding the attempts of Red Bull’s CEO to start a right wing news establishment in Europe. As someone who can’t stand hate driving news outlets or the actual drink Red Bull, this made me quite happy and I reached out to them. It always bothers me that so many people I know play Red Bull events. I do my best to point out this issue to them but it seems exposure is quite the vice.
SEM: “Terroir Place” and “Mangas Coloradas” are in essence instrumental albums. Why did you steer away from any vocals for them?
PK: Muzan is really minimal as a vocal label. While in the mood, I simply continued with that theme for “Terroir”.
SEM: About 90% of your releases are cassette only in physical media. What is it about them and why not release albums in multiple physical formats?
PK: Great question. I will bring up releasing in multiple formats to all the labels… aaaand most likely will then be denied. Cassette is simply the format to experiment on. I wouldn’t expect any label to release all these records on vinyl. At this point there is simply too much material to even begin with.
SEM: Are most songs a one take/one mix kind of thing or do you do different takes?
PK: The songs usually take place over about 4 different sessions that can space themselves out over weeks and sometimes months. Rarely do NH and I do a full song in one recording. Many times the labels will give feedback on what I send and I am more than happy to accommodate. Extra ears and input help to refine the art.
SEM: I assume Norm Heston in the ‘NH’ that assisted with “Mangas” and some other past releases. Is he on every release and not always credited?
PK: Norm is my GeAr bandmate. Whenever possible NH works with me. I try to include him as much as possible. He also goes by GT.
SEM: What instruments does NH play in the band?
PK: He will sometimes do drum programming and keys. He also helps by repairing pedals and provides the more vintage equipment. He has collected drum machines and keyboards since high school. NH is essential to GeAr.
SEM: Whatever happened to GeAr’s other band members Chin Genie and Meatball Maker? Did they go on to other musical pursuits?
PK: These were some earlier friends I worked with. We mainly did 4 track recording during that time period. Unfortunately, they had a falling out with each other and it is easier to do music with neither of them. I am still close with both but you get the idea.
SEM: What is your recording setup like? Do you have a home setup or do you record in an actual studio?
PK: We do recordings all over. I do have a set up at home but we enjoy going to different locations. We’ll usually record in Riverside, Pomona, and Azusa here in California, but we also do sound recordings throughout the States and overseas.
SEM: You already have another album set to be released on Null Zone called “Kowloon Walled City”. Will this follow a theme on Hong Kong and China or similar to “Mangas Coloradas” it’s in name only and will encompass many themes?
PK: Definitely many themes. It’s hard to stay focused. As a child, I used to spin a globe and have my finger land on countries. I would then run over and look up all the information in the encyclopedia at my fathers work. This is basically what occurs with the tapes. It is a random collection of interesting tidbits that I hope people will look up. I am most happy when individuals such as yourself dig into titles and discover, what I hope, is something new.
SEM: What’s next in the pipeline for you?
PK: There are GeAr cassettes on the way from Artetera, Crash Symbols, Phormix and Fort Evil Fruit. New cassettes from Q///Q, Peter Kris and Final Cop. Quite a few Concrete Colored Paint cassettes. Burnt Probe will also have a full cassette release. There’s also collaborations with some friends forthcoming. I’ll also be taking walks in the San Gabriel Mountains, visiting the damage caused by the fires around California, checking in on those effected in Lake County, hiking In Azusa, working on local gardens here in the city, going to Puerto Rico, getting lost in Nevada, eating in my childhood home of East San Gabriel Valley, working the grind in a tough area and staying healthy every way possible.
SEM: Thanks again for your time answering our questions and I wish you continued success.
PK: My pleasure. Thank you.
End Note: Before this went to press, there is an additional new album by German Army that has been announced via their Facebook and Twitter. Pre-orders are already being taken on Bandcamp for “Wakhan Corridor” on Old Captain Records from the Ukraine. This is a CD release in a 4-panel digipak. limited to 300 copies. Pre-order it here and listen to 4 of the 11 tracks:
Order the recent cassette releases here:
Mangas Coloradas: https://muzaneditions.bandcamp.com/album/mangas-coloradas
Terroir Place: https://genot.bandcamp.com/album/terroir-place
Kowloon Walled City – https://nullzone.bandcamp.com/album/kowloon-walled-city (but hurry…as of now only 6 copies remain)
Keep up with German Army, Peter Kris and all related projects:
The labels discussed in this interview can be found here:
Genot Center: https://genot.bandcamp.com/music
Muzan Editions: https://muzaneditions.bandcamp.com/music