Big Ups: Jam Band Weedeaters and Jesus Lizard Fanatics
Photo Danny Krug
The twenty-something, NYU-bred noise-rocking brainiacs in Brooklyn's Big Ups are nestled in a corner booth at Greenpoint's Manhattan Inn, downing Buds while barely looking old enough to drink, cracking wise-ass all the way. They shoot down their own goofy name ("It's a really bad band name"), squash the hardcore punk comparisons (Black Flag? They "don't hear it at all') and they even bestowed a silly nickname upon guitarist Amar Lal he's not exactly fond of (or wants printed here).
See also: The 10 Best Bars in Greenpoint
But that's not all of Big Ups' shenanigans. The drummer (Brendan Finn) is really a bass player and the bassist (Carlos Salguero) is actually a guitarist who just picked up a bass in 2010. But standing front and center--stalking, convulsing on and pacing DIY stages--is one Joe Galarraga, Big Ups' brainy-cum-dorky front-man (dude bleached his mop blonde and burned his head in the process) who's spewing of nerdy speak-yelp downer-isms conjures images of Steve Albini, while the mightiest of twitch-heavy and totally infectious serrated quiet/loud Shellac-sized post-punk fury forges full speed ahead.
Big Ups play Glasslands this Saturday, November 30 and December 14 at Brooklyn Night Bazaar
Meanwhile, Big Ups are firmly planted in the middle of Brooklyn's vibrant, yet vast, scene that includes Shark?, The Hairs, Low Fat Getting High and their buds in Flagland and Vulture Shit. But come January, Big Ups will up the ante big time when its flat-out blistering debut LP they call Eighteen Hours of Static [Dead Labour] is unleashed. It's eleven insanely slanted yet hooky tunes evoke everything from the noisy post-hardcore screamoid stamp of D.C.'s Black Eyes to Shellac and the Jesus Lizard's meticulous edges to Nirvana's noise pedal-hopping histrionics.
We gathered the Big Ups dudes over beers to chat about, most importantly, their love for Phish, The Dead, Steely Dan, Double Dagger and how listening to jam bands passes the time on the road.
So, Big Ups, huh? Where did that come from?
(Laughing) Joe Galarraga: It's a really bad band name.
It's not that bad.
Amar Lal: We were young. Brendan Finn: It's memorable.
Galarraga: It came from the fact that at the time when we started this band, there was lots of bands that were plural bands but they had no article, like "the." Then Big Ups is a plural band name but it's also a phrase. That's really it. I just thought it was really silly. We were going to be called Big Ups or Noodles and we decided on Big Ups.
My vote is for Big Ups.
Galarraga: Yeah, well. Neither of them are good.
I was going to ask if there were any backup names.
Galarraga: Noodles was the backup name. But I think there's a DJ out in Idaho named Big Ups...
Lal: ...I thought there was a DJ named Noodles. That's a sweet DJ name. DJ Noodles!
Galarraga: There's an Ed Helms movie, I think, and there's a fake boy band named Big Ups in that.
Salguero: Search engine optimization was pretty terrible...
Galarraga: Yeah, we got some angry emails from fifteen year-olds kids being like "Did you name your band after that move? You asshole!" Big Ups sounds like a bar name. "Let's get beers at the Big Ups!"
Lal: Where would the Big Ups be? That's the thing.
Galarraga: Definitely somewhere in the U.K.
So all you guys met at NYU, and according your press release, you bonded over Cat5 cables?
Galarraga: Yes we did. We were all in the music technology program but we were coming up with a way to tell "the origins of the band" so "we met while assembling Cat5 cables in New York," which basically means we went to school together.
How was the program?
Galarraga: It was pretty awesome but I don't feel like I remember a lot of the stuff that I learned, but...
Lal: This band is the most significant application of my degree--put it that way.
So you are applying the valuable knowledge learned at NYU and Big Ups is the result.
Galarraga: I'm an audio engineer, technically, but I do podcasts and it's not the kind of thing that I'm constantly building cables and amplifiers--I just kind of show up. I put up microphones, I record and that's what I do and that's it. Actually, it could have been the kind of thing that I could have learned, for my job, in an online tutorial in a day to figure out what I do. It's not as complicated as it could be.
Salguero: Amar mixed the whole record (18 Hours of Static) so he probably knows the most.
Lal: I recorded the early (Big Ups) stuff but we had a friend, Charles DeChants, who recorded the new record at Excello (in Williamsburg), which was an amazing experience and I ended up mixing it...
Finn: ...it was a cold experience because they didn't have the heat on and it was February.
That was a long time ago since you recorded 18 Hours of Static then.
Lal: We finished it in July.
Then how did you hook up with the Dead Labour label?
Galarraga: Yeah, so, Dead Labour was started by Derek Evers who runs and founded Impose Magazine and he was like "I want to start a new label" because he had Impose Records but he didn't want to just keep putting out everything with the word 'Impose" on it. He wanted to make some sort of separation in things that he does. We're the only band; we're the first record they are putting out.
I know Derek because when I was actually on college, I interned for him for a whole year. I would just go to this apartment and ship out packages and stuff. Since then though, he's gotten an office and it's pretty sweet. Derek has been very supportive (of Big Ups). I remember back when we had just formed the band about that time...
Which was when?
Galarraga: 2010--that was the fall of our pre-senior year (at NYU). I knew that Derek would book shows, for Impose events. So I was like "Yeah, I have a band, you know, you should get us on it" and he'd be like "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Finally, he saw us and ever since then he's been super supportive.
Has it always been the four of you?
Galarraga: Yeah, yeah. There was a quick minute...
...we had a friend (Drew)...
Salguero: He played guitar and asked to join the band.
Galarraga: So, yeah, we'd have two guitars. But then he quit before we ever practiced with him so he was only with us for two weeks. Drew then said "Here's the thing: I have to work on stuff for my other band so I quit your band." I was like "Oh, okay (laughing)." His band (Montes Rook) is awesome, though. Amar actually played in that band also.
Salguero: They (Joe, Brendan and Amar) were all in a surf rock band.
Galarraga: I played bass in that. It was Brendan's friend from Buffalo and he was living here for a while. He's a mastermind genius and he ad written all these surf instrumentals songs. Then there was a summer and he was wanting to play shows. So he knew Brendan, Brendan knew Amar and Amar knew Nick. So it was Brendan playing drums, Amar playing guitar and I was playing bass. That same summer, I went home to Baltimore for two months and I was hanging out with my mom and working at the farm so I wrote the first batch of Big Ups songs and then I came back (here) to go to school.
Did you write all the guitar parts?
Galarraga: The guitar parts, mostly. Back then the music was very different. It was so much more simple and very formulaic...
Salguero: Three chords...
Galarraga: Three chords, pop punk kind of stuff and then the vibe kind of changed. I've never played guitar in the band but play (guitar) outside of the band. I wanted to be in a band and there were all these bands with front-men that I really liked and I was like "I want to do that."
What bands with front-men inspired you?
Salguero: What bands is Joe gonna say?
Lal: Is there one band that starts with a "D?"
Galarraga: (Laughing) There's this band Double Dagger...
From your hometown of Baltimore.
Salguero: There's also the "Lizards" band (laughing)...
Galarraga: Oh, yeah. The Jesus Lizard. Then last night I went to go see Future Islands at Death by Audio. So I would just go to see Double Dagger and Future Islands. They all just have front-men that are really good. I was just like "How do these people just go up there and do that?" I want to do that thing because that's just crazy.
Are you guys worried about Joe going solo?
Galarraga: At this point, when I play guitar at practice I think I have the chops but then it's like "Oh, god. It's been so long now because I don't play so much."
Joe's using Big Ups as a platform just to break into the solo career.
Lal: He's gonna release his poetry book.
Galarraga: Oh, seriously. My spoken word album. That's gonna be the next one.
Joe, so do you enjoy being the so-called center of attention as the front-man?
Galarraga: It looks exhausting but it's weird. I like performing and doing the "going out there" but at the same time, it is a little weird where you're thought of as "it's that guy."
Are the Baltimore bands and the Jesus Lizard is what you guys were schooled on?
Galarraga: That's probably what I bring to it, is that kind of stuff. But we all grew up in different towns and all of us come from very different (backgrounds). Everybody else has their own favorite bands and stuff that they listen to so I think that's what makes the sound. Amar will write a part or I'll write a part and it's influenced by whatever everyone is listening to. I'll write a apart on guitar then Amar will play it and it won't be exactly what I came up with but it's him playing guitar. Then when all our confluences of things come together, it makes something that sounds like a bunch of (our) influences.
You often play shows with a lot of the same bands. Do you feel part of a scene here in Brooklyn?
Galarraga: There's just a lot of bands in Brooklyn and we have played with a lot of bands here. We kind of found the people who we want to play with then there are bands that I'll go out and see at a show that we don't need to play with. We've been playing with this band Flagland since we started.
Salguero: We played our first show was with them...
Galarraga: ...and that was their first show, too. Flagland, they're great and those are people we knew from college, too. We play with a lot of the same bands. There is a big crew but there's quite not this feeling of a tight-knit unity because there's so many bands. There's like ten shows happening every night and there's like "Oh, you're in a band? Because I've never seen your band or barely heard of your band." I feel like me, coming from Baltimore, it's like you know every band that's from the town and even if it's a bigger band, like Double Dagger, and they are the big local on the bill and there's the touring band, the point is even the small local opener as the first band playing, you definitely heard of that because there's only like twenty bands in the whole city.
Finn: It's the same thing in Buffalo like "It's that guy's new band and those guys from another band."
Salguero: But it is nice (here). We play Shea Stadium a lot and a lot of the same bands come through there. I was out in Detroit for work and some of these guys were in Titus Andronicus, as well, and I was in a bowling alley just getting hammered after a long day at work and they're there and they're on tour. It's just one of those things where you see someone and there is that sense of community.
Galarraga: It is a community but we don't know everyone.
What are some of the other bands besides Flagland where there's that community-minded thing?
Lal: We play with Low Fat Getting High a lot...
Galarraga: ... And Vulture Shit.
Salguero: Awesome front-man, awesome band.
Galarraga: That's my boy and you don't even get to know about them.
Finn: Every time we play with Vulture Shit, I get really upset because it's like "Shit. We have to play after them."
Galarraga: Those guys are so good.
Salguero: They have one of the most prodigious bassists you'll ever see. It sounds like a full band.
Galarraga: It's like if Les Claypool was in a punk band.
Are you guys Primus fans?
Finn: Oh, yeah. I saw Primus at Red Rocks last year and it was pretty sweet. It was great.
Galarraga: I got into them when I was in high school. I appreciate the weirdness. It's the kind of thing where I can't listen to for a long time over and over again because Les Claypool's voice is super-annoying but if you watch their old music videos, they are so fuckin' weird that it's so awesome. Yeah, I dig them a lot.
There is a 90's indie sound quality in the Big Ups' sound, maybe not Primus 90's, though.
Galarraga: It's not bad but the thing is it's weird because all the bands sound like 90's bands now. Every band that's popular now sounds like a 90's band.
Salguero: I don't listen to any of these bands that people they say we sound like. Reading what people write about you like DIschord...
Galarraga: ...SST. Whenever someone compares us to Black Flag, I don't hear that at all. That's not really what we do. We're a bass band, more than anything. (To Carlos) Isn't that crazy?
Salguero: I don't know anything.
So 18 Hours of Static is coming out in January?
Galarraga: Yeah, almost a year after we recorded it.
You must have a lot of new material since then.
Lal: When we play live now, we don't play half the songs that are on the record because we have so many news songs. We're gonna go on tour, probably a bunch next year, but what do we play? Do we have to play all the old songs and not to the new ones?
Finn: We can play whatever we want.
Galarraga: That's true but we have to give the people what they want, man.
Finn: Yeah, yeah.
What about the title of the record, 18 Hours of Static? What's the all about?
Lal: Oh, yeah.
It's something serious?
Galarraga: It is kind of serious but it started off as a joke because we played this show in Baltimore where we got really fucked up and then watched Contact....
...Jodie Foster...it's one the last lines of the movie. So Jodie Foster is like traveling through time and space and at the end no one believes that she's doing it. So, she's like "I was on this other planet for eighteen hours and they are like "No, you were only gone for thirty seconds. You dropped through this pod..." You know, it's very sci-fi. Then they go through her videotape that she had on her and they are like "Actually, they recorded eighteen hours of static." And that's where the record comes from. It was totally a joke at first but then when we were thinking about, we did a couple of kitschy things. So the vinyl has an infinite loop at the end of it. So that idea of bending time sort of thing. Oh, man, that's such a shitty answer.
There's this interview's headline.
Galarraga: Yeah, "there's like loop at the end, and, uh..."
Salguero: We put the earth on it and it's grainy...
Finn: We watched Mask of Zorro right after.
What were you guys fucked up on?
Galarraga: Oh, just like beer and weed. It wasn't like we took Ayahuasca and watched Contact.
Finn: We drank some of that shit Austin had.
Galarraga: That was like weed juice.
Finn: It was delicious.
Galarraga: It works for a little bit then it went away.
Joe, do you have to be on something when you are doing the front-man thing?
Galarraga: Actually, I don't like being fucked up when we play. I've done it a couple of time and it's just really silly. I was like laughing to myself.
The record is really tight.
Galarraga: Thank you...
Salguero: ...not always our reputation (laughing). It's like "those guys are getting fucked up and then play a bunch."
Galarraga: Yeah, it's like "They're fun but they're not good (laughing)." But I think we are trying to be a better band.
I guess when you are a bass-guitar-drums you have to be tighter. Finn: I always kind of forget it's a three-piece instrumental band. And then...Joe.
Galarraga: Yeah. I don't really do anything.
Finn: I'm not really a drummer, by the way. I'm a drummer in disguise. I'm a bass player playing drums but I have more fun playing drums.
Salguero: I didn't play bass until he sent me a Facebook message and then I was like "I could play this." I played guitar but then I was like "How hard could this be?" So I started playing bass in 2010--which is also the PIN to our bank account.
So Joe, you write all the lyrics?
They sound kind of...downer?
Galarraga: The whole thing is pretty depressing; there's not a happy song on the record. I don't know why that is--I've tried to write happier lyrics. But it just doesn't come out. I'm generally a pretty happy person but every time I get bothered by something, it's like "Alright. That's gotta be a song." Part of the fact is that I'm yelling as part of my delivery most of the time so it's like kind of a cathartic thing to be like "Alright, this thing pisses me off so I'm just gonna scream about it for these three minutes or two minutes or minute-and-a-half," however long the song goes.
Is there anything specific you rail against?
Finn: The Internet!
Galarraga: That's on our next record. That's another song that's actually not on this record. There's a few songs on Hours of Static that kind of deal with the same topic that's like being overwhelmed by whatever it might be. We have this song called "Grin" and there's literally--or at least there used to be--a place that would build caskets like right down the street from me and I'd walk by it every day and it's just dark.
Finn: I didn't know what you say.
Galarraga: I know you don't know what I say. You're too busy playing.
Finn: I can't hear anything Joe says. It all sounds like different things to me, like pigs, and...
Galarraga: So probably some of the funniest things is Brendan interpretations of the songs is he always hears the wrong things.. . Finn: ..."Start my car up all the time."
Galarraga: Yeah, we have this song--the last one on the record--where I say "I got my guard up all the time" and Brendan thought it was "start my car up all the time."
Yeah, I can't make out some of the lyrics either.
Galarraga: I kinda don't want everybody to know exactly what I'm saying because it's kind of like personal, a lot of it. That's why we don't have a lyric sheet. Maybe at some point I'll write lyrics down so people can read them but it's a pretty vulnerable thing to be like "This is what I'm thinking, by the way" and you're gonna look at me and say "this guy is angry all the time." But I would say a vast majority of the lyrics on it is are dealing with reality and the ways to be able to function when you are faced with a bombardment of information, stuff that's really depressing or seeing your friends going through stuff and it's difficult and a lot of it is you gotta ignore it and you gotta live your life. And that's a lot of the songs on there.
"Wool," which is probably the slowest song (on the record), it's very moody and that song isn't about anyone one person in particular but it's about a bunch of different people from back home in Baltimore and these people are hurting and not really knowing what to do like "I can't help you and you have to help yourself" and watching this happen but what can I do? Ultimately, you gotta pull the wool over your own eyes and that's the lyric. To me, that's one of my favorite songs on the record because it's very personal and I like how it sounds.
The first single from the record ("Goes Black") we should just call that song "Rock Guy Stuff" because it's a straight-ahead rock song and it has a jacking off a guitar kind of vibe. So it's kind of hilarious because I never really thought it was that great of a song.
There doesn't seem like there is a wealth of information out there surrounding Big Ups either.
Salguero: It's definitely not the intention.
Do you have actual band pics?
Salguero: I don't know where they all are...
Galarraga: ...they're in a Dropbox folder.
Lal: It's funny, every time a blog does something about us, they find the one picture we don't them to use.
Galarraga: Yeah, it's like from two years ago...Amar doesn't have a beard in the picture, I have different color hair...
Yeah, when did you do the bleach job?
Galarraga: Over a year ago. I just shaved my head off and then dyed it and now I got my roots showing. I burned my head with bleach.
Do you have day jobs or do you rely on the Big Ups income?
Galarraga: There's not Big Ups income. We don't have money. I used to work at a butcher shop with Carlos and. I was cutting up pig bones and put my hand in a saw. I'm lucky I didn't cut my finger off.
Do you still work there?
Galarraga: I cover occasionally but it's been a while.
(The conversation proceeds to take an inebriated, surreal turn towards Big Ups love for The Dead and Phish)
Finn: I love Phish!
Galarraga: Brendan loves Phish, I went through a Phish thing in high school and that's what they bring in the car on tour...
Finn: That and the Dead...
Galarraga: ...I love the Dead. I still love the Grateful Dead.
So Big Ups are Deadheads?
Finn: It's 50/50.
Galarraga: We just drove through the Adirondacks from Burlington to Buffalo and we pretty much exclusively listened to the Dead.
Finn: Sometimes you get really nice, wonderful and easy rides...
Salguero: ...and sometimes you gotta take a shit and there's no bathroom.
So for the next record, Big Ups is going to go in the jam band direction.
Galarraga: Yeah, noodling.
Salguero: Then we can be called Noodles.
Finn: At the end of every song, I'll be like "Eight more bars!" and I'll just keep playing.
So you the four of you get along and agree for the most part on musical tastes, it seems.
Galarraga: We all get along, which is good because we spend a lot of time together.
Finn: The biggest point of contention is what we're gonna listen to in the car like "I don't want to hear your shit and sometimes you don't want to hear my shit." I feel like that's as bad as it gets.
Galarraga: What are you talking about? Like listening to Steely Dan?
Finn: Yeah, Steely Dan.
Salguero: I'm a huge Dan fan, Van Morrison...
Galarraga: I hate Steely Dan.
Brendan, what do you want to listen to?
Finn: What do I want to listen to? Oh, man. If I'm feeling jammy, I'm looking for some Phish, Galactic...maybe even some old school My Morning Jacket.
Salguero: That I can get down with.
Finn: That we can get down with. But the one band we can all agree on is Pile.
Galarraga: Yeah, Pile and Weezer.
Salguero: Weezer crosses all generations.
Finn: Phish is just great driving music. It's like "you're driving, listening to Phish and you're drive is like four hours shorter because you've listened to six songs."
Have you guys gone to Phish shows all together?
Galarraga: I don't have really have any interest in going to a Phish show.
Finn: I've been to a bunch. To be honest, it's a Buffalo thing. Everyone in Buffalo liked jam bands when I was in high school. It was like "Who doesn't like jam bands?"
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