By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — In 2015, it isn’t just acceptable to be a nerd; it’s one of the paths to real success. Two of the three most successful films of all time are hard sci-fi about blue cat-people and a superhero epic set in a labyrinthine extended universe, while the latest movie about bros being total dudebros, bro, has languished at the box office. The world has become so complex, knowledge so specialized that a degree from the University of Life with post-graduate work at the School of Hard Knocks isn’t going to get you far. Ostentatious, obnoxious displays of masculinity and conspicuous consumption will make anyone with a clue swipe left the minute you swagger in reeking of Axe. Modern life has but one commandment: don’t be a douchebag.
Most of the bands you’ll read about in these pages might seem like paragons of cool, but get them talking about the intestinal tangle of patch cords on a synthesizer or the right way to mic up a drum kit and you’ll realize that the guys in vintage tees and skinny jeans are as true to their geekery as any Calgary Expo cosplayer.
I write all of the above somewhat frivolously yet seriously. This is because the next band in these pages is Big Ups, whose six-word descriptor could be shortened to the ‘epitome of everything cool.’ They are a New York based post-hardcore band. Beyond that, though, they really love them some Magic: The Gathering.
“Carlos and I have been playing a LOT of Magic: The Gathering,” begins singer Joe Galarraga. “We’ve been doing draft nights and building decks and just playing all night.”
Sighing, bassist Carlos Salguero adds, “I will never be able to beat Joe’s Pelakka Wurms…”
Salguero was instrumental in the launch of the new head-mounted technology Google Glass, therefore part of making the present feel a little more like the future. The other guitarist in the band, Amar Lal, recently took a day off from a tour to program a custom data structure in the Python programming language (a computer software that expresses concepts with minimal coding requirements) for his Master’s thesis. Meanwhile, they make the music of Big Ups, which the Guardian described as “like Talking Heads if they’d fallen for hardcore punk not white funk.”
Big Ups formed in 2010 from the ashes of an instrumental surf-rock band called Aaron and the Burrs, in which Galarraga and current Big Ups members Brendan Finn and Amar Lal all played. The band began when the Burrs bandleader, Nick Reynolds (now of garage rockers Space Wolves and punks Bad People), left New York. Galarraga made demos of a few songs; Carlos Salguero was recruited for bass duties and someone chose the name.
The term Big Ups originated in Jamaican Reggae culture, where it meant to show respect or to shout out a person or group. It was probably a better fit for the group in their early incarnation as bouncy, poppy Descendents-sounding punks than it is today, when they are seething, socially-conscious, dark and aggressive post-punks. The transition from what they today call a “joke band” to their current sound was both an organic adaptation to their circumstances and the result of a process whereby they could start to be themselves.
“I just read this really interesting bit of David Byrne’s book (How Music Works) where he talks about music being created for certain contexts,” begins Galarraga.
“And I think this really applies to us. When we started writing and playing songs, we played at college parties and house shows, so we wrote loud, brash, fun music to fit that context. When we started playing DIY venues in New York, this felt really out of place, so we started writing less joke-y music, and more serious, but still very hook-based music. Now that we feel more comfortable on these and larger stages, where we feel people are there to listen to us as a band, we’ve begun to experiment more with dynamics, time signatures, song structures and pushing the musical content into (what we feel are) more and more interesting directions.”
Today they have one album to their name, the excellent Eighteen Hours of Static. From its dark, creeping intro (“Body Parts”) to its closer “Fine Line,” in which Galarraga talks about “looking for reasons not to cry,” Static is not, in any way, a happy record. It isn’t a torrent of purely abstract suffering but, like the better miserablists from Morrisey to Pissed Jeans, each song takes aim at something, even something minor, that makes life just that little bit worse. “TMI” takes on technology addiction, (key lyric: “I’m a robot from the 20th century/I am designed and never feel anything/My operating system runs on complacency/Think it’s fine, it doesn’t really matter me.”) “Disposer,” the title a nod to the Pixies song “Debaser,” is a litany of disposable items: razors, table wear, contact lenses. “Wool” begins with a gentle guitar line that Fugazi probably wish they’d thought of, covering that the mental fog that we can all get lost in. “Fresh Meat” is a vignette of a man on the street with a dog that he clearly can’t take care of. The song doesn’t make it clear why, nor what we are supposed to take away from the scene.
The song “Atheist Self-Help” might seem like a simplistic anti-religion screed, but according to Galarraga there’s more going on.
“(It’s) not strictly an anti-religion song. It associates atheism with independence via an extended metaphor. I think that religion is often twisted in a way to create conflict or division, but I also believe that most religions have redeemable qualities and messages that promote justice, understanding. Religion and spirituality are deeply personal, and often intertwined with culture. Diversity makes the world richer; I think religion becomes a problem when it denies this.”
Diversity comes easily to Big Ups. Their songs move between sounding like the aforementioned Fugazi (cool, almost jazz-like guitar and drums, reggae bass and explosions of sincere emotion) to Drive Like Jehu in all their seemingly chaotic but in fact perfectly controlled glory (if you didn’t see them at Sled Island please roll up this magazine and hit yourself with it.) They have released two split EPs during their career with their friends Flagland and Washer, both like Big Ups in their willingness to take up the banner of the great post-hardcore bands from Rites of Spring onwards, letting go of hardcore’s machismo and anti-intellectualism (whether that’s expressed through more literate lyrics or crazier changes in time signatures) and allowing bands to just be themselves. The overwhelming feeling when you’re listening attentively to Big Ups is that you’re being talked to by a person, not a spokesperson for Hardcore Incorporated.
Big Ups will not remain easy to pigeonhole into ‘post-hardcore’ for long. They’re too restless, too willing to let themselves evolve and just plain too smart to allow themselves to stagnate. The fact that they are willing to go naked into the great wide world with no edgy punk mystique also helps.
“I don’t think the growth process should ever really stop,” says Amar Lal. “If we’re growing and changing as people and musicians, why shouldn’t the music reflect that?”
Salguero chimes in: “I’m still gunning for an album with a Steely Dan’s Aja meets Mastodon vibe but I’m not optimistic.”
He jokingly concludes, “I may have to start a side project like everyone else. DM me.”
See Big Ups with METZ and Dilly Dally at the Gateway on Friday, July 31st.AB, Alberta, Big Ups, Gateway at SAIT, The Gateway