Big Ups Interview

More than a Minor Threat

By: Bill Dvorak

April 30, 2014

The ‘punk’ tag probably won’t even apply soon. Many of the new songs we’ve been working on are a lot slower.

Jam bands, improvisational music classes and Philip Glass’ five-hour opera “Einstein on the Beach” are just a few of the unexpected influences cited by Brooklyn punk outfit Big Ups. In fact, the band - known for chaotic live performances and a sound that recalls classic 80s hardcore and 90s post-hardcore - are not hesitant to admit that some of them used to listen to Phish or that they don’t really consider themselves a punk band. “The ‘punk’ tag probably won’t even apply soon,” frontman Joe Galarraga tells The Deli. “Many of the new songs we’ve been working on are a lot slower.”

Despite these admissions, Big Ups are at the forefront of a rising group of Brooklyn bands eschewing lo-fi pop, shoegaze or electro for something heavier and more direct. Like their peers and friends in Low Fat Getting High, Flagland and Vulture Shit, Big Ups’ earnest and aggressive songs stand out in a scene that leans toward irreverent pop music. Since releasing their debut LP, "Eighteen Hours of Static," on Dead Labour in January, Big Ups have become one of Brooklyn’s most-talked about acts, winning praise from critics, touring with buzzy indie acts like Speedy Ortiz and Pile, and even picking up an international following in the process (they embark on their second UK tour in May).

On "Eighteen Hours of Static," Big Ups seamlessly transition from the breakneck speed and socially aware bark of Dischord Records bands like Minor Threat and Government Issue to the dissonant, sludgy punk of later-era Black Flag or the groovy, intricate rhythmic exercises of Fugazi. Occasionally, Big Ups even channel the pummeling noise rock of Touch & Go bands like The Jesus Lizard and Shellac, or more recent groups like Pissed Jeans and Raspberry Bulbs. Throughout, Galarraga’s lyrics take on everything from consumer culture to organized religion and existential dread, and in the live setting, he’s the star of the show - writhing around and climbing on everything in sight like a young Iggy Pop or a less-macho Henry Rollins.

The members of Big Ups met while studying music tech at NYU, and Galarraga, guitarist Amar Lal and drummer Brendan Finn first played together as members of an instrumental surf band named Aaron and the Burrs. “It was stuff that sounded like the Ventures or the Majestics,” Galarraga recalls, “fun, innocuous music.” The courses at NYU taught them about recording techniques and experimental music, which they would later apply to Big Ups. “It was throwing out the window a lot of what we thought we knew about music,” Galarraga explains. “Those courses helped us develop our sound a bit - like the sort of non-musical, feedback stuff Amar does on guitar.”

When Aaron and the Burrs ended, Galarraga, Lal and Finn asked classmate Carlos Salguero, Jr. to play bass in their new band, Big Ups. While the initial material consisted of tongue-in-cheek pop-punk songs about high-fives and pizza ('Down 4 Pizza,' for example), it wasn’t long before the band decided to get serious. “It was a dead end,” Galarraga recalls about the early material. “We could have kept writing songs in that vein, but there was no point. We had been playing out a lot, seeing new bands, and realized we had sort of been pigeonholed.”

Big Ups shifted their approach to songwriting, opting for a more collaborative effort that found the band jamming until something interesting materialized. “‘Fresh Meat’ was the first weird song we wrote, and it just sort of happened by accident, just jamming on a part Carlos came up with,” Lal says. Galarraga’s lyrics soon adapted to the darker, more mature sound, taking on a somber worldview that had previously been absent. “The lyrics became a mix of the political and social, or anything worth talking about,” Galarraga observes. “Anything that was interesting enough and that I could complete within a two and a half minute song!”

While Galarraga and Lal grew up listening to punk, all four members of the band have also listened to jazz and even jam bands (“We were all in jam bands before this!” - Lal jokes), and it's the amalgamation of these influences and the band’s interest in experimental music that keeps their songs varied and replete with unexpected turns. It also helps that they all share an appreciation for a good hook. “I guess I’m naturally attracted to aggressive music, but aggressive music that’s accessible,” Galarraga says. When asked if the band would ever move in a jazz-influenced direction, Lal exclaims, “Anything is possible! Our next record could be 'Big Ups II: A Jazz Odyssey.'”

As a frontman, Galarraga was inspired by bands from his hometown scene of Baltimore. He first began to appreciate simple, melodic songs through indie-pop band SMARTS, and his manic stage presence was influenced by the post-punk antics of Double Dagger and the theatrical moves of Future Islands frontman Sam Herring. “I’m just drawn to front people who give it their all. I don’t want to be a singer just standing there, that’s not entertaining. I want to see someone as exciting as David Yow (of The Jesus Lizard). I really try to be an active front person.”

Currently, while Big Ups have new material in the works, they’re predominantly focused on touring behind their album, and are eagerly anticipating their next stint on the road. “We want to play anywhere where people are open-minded and ready to see something they’ve never seen before,” Galarraga says. “We would love to tour in bumfuck nowhere if it was a blast and we made enough for gas!”

When asked if they think they would fit in with the New York City punk scene and specifically among the hardcore bands that played the New York’s Alright festival in April, Galarraga acknowledges that “we’re not really part of the New York punk scene, but we would like to play that scene. There’s a few NYC hardcore bands that I really like. I recently bought a Warthog seven-inch. I pay attention to that scene, but Big Ups play the indie scene, and we’re fine with that.” Finn puts it simply, stating “we just want to play with any bands that play good music.”

Although Big Ups are aware that the handful of bands they play with represent a heavier side of the Brooklyn indie scene, like their aforementioned friends in Flagland (who they say they’ve played at least 40 shows with), the band members claim that this happened organically. “We just want to see and play with bands that are more exciting and energetic and don’t seem pretentious,” Galarraga says. “When I see a band that clearly has a connection, playing honest music, and I can sense it, that’s what I’m drawn to.”