BIG UPS’ new album definitely isn’t a pile of rubbish.
Words: Giles Bidder.
“We’re not a political band,” offers Joe Galaragga over a bowl of cereal during his pre-work shift at a coffee shop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Big Ups, who are in the run-up to their next album ‘Before A Million Universes’, are a unique entity to a bubbling hardcore-punk scene on the East Coast of America. The quartet have a ferociously spiky outlook and blue collar charm. Their unspoken leader comes in the form of 27-year-old Joe.
On the surface, they sound like a Fugazi-influenced new breed of punks. But it goes deeper. At times, their dynamic indie-rock weaves around itself in a way that could only ever sound like Pavement. Others – a face-to-the-wall, unforgiving Touché Amore – can make your brain hang off. Perhaps it’s easy to see why they’ve occasionally been mislabelled a political band. There’s a palpable depth to all four: this kind of calculated, putrid energy, inspired by 80s hardcore bands like Minor Threat, is unpredictable and intelligent.
“We all met when we came here for school. We all went to NYU for a music technology course,” Joe says. “It happened gradually, I met them early on but after a while we started playing music together.” The band spent their formative years not on the road, but around New York. “We didn’t play a good show until we’d been a band for two years,” he states.
More recently, however, Big Ups’ ways began to change. Their touring schedule got heavier, the releases kept going and the capacities of their shows increased. The release of their debut full-length, 2014’s ‘Eighteen Hours Of Static’, marked a Dischord Records-sounding taste of post-punk. But while it made waves in some circles as a fresh new sound of familiar identity – something which brought Joe to punk as a teenager – the frontman feels that ‘Before A Million Universes’ is a more accurate reflection. “The lyrical content of the last album was all over the place because those were songs that weren’t written for an album. They were just songs that we had played at shows and it was like ‘oh look, there’s enough of them that we haven’t put on 7”s that could be an album!’”
For the follow-up, however, Joe saw a whole new side to his lyrics. His new-found penmanship became that of “an overall feeling of disaffection and angst”. “I don’t want to say it’s a concept record,” he says, “but there’s a loose theme of discovery and I was trying to write from that perspective, to make a lyrically cohesive record that deals with the self.” ‘Before A Million Universes’ twists and turns its way around rock, creating its own dynamic spectrum. Big Ups have never had a meeting, or definitive moment, of “this is our sound”. When they’re in a practice room and writing something new, it either feels like a Big Ups song or it doesn’t – no matter what it sounds like.
“We like to try different stuff at shows, but you also don’t want to play a set that people haven’t heard any of it, otherwise you’re forcing them to watch your band practice,” Joe explains. “This is what we want to represent, this is what we want to do. I still love Dischord Records and all those bands, but I think it would be easy to make the same record twice. I want to do the stuff that feels right to us in terms of where the music wants to go and not give ourselves too many limits. I think too many limits would harm the process of what you can do.” “Limits” is certainly not a word you’d put next to ‘Before A Million Universes’.
Much like the band’s thematic suggestions for the artwork, the album is an “expression of American individualism. This ruggedness, the sense of freedom, has always stuck with me since then as a world to aspire to – to be okay in your own body, and be okay with yourself. Even if you’ve started out in a society that doesn’t accept that or promote it.” The album was written slowly, Joe continues. The songs came together gradually, but they were keen to keep a raw sound. They gave themselves a deadline, before heading down to Joe’s home city of Baltimore, Maryland to record it over a week. The frontman’s teenage years there played a part of what he is, and what Big Ups are, today.
“I was probably in high school when I got into the Sex Pistols and Ramones, the gateway drugs if you will,” he explains. “The Ramones were sunny, but I wanted something darker. I wanted to get what was the most extreme.” Before long, he wanted to find something more experimental. “I remember being drawn to that sound but also seeing that as one dimensional, a lot of hardcore bands sound the same in structure, so from there I got into Fugazi. The first record I got was ‘Red Medicine’ which was a weirder, less anthemic rock record. It was way more experimental and I was just amazed by the sound of that record.”
“I don’t know if I would be making music like this if it wasn’t for being influenced by Crass, Fugazi or Minor Threat,” he continues. “You’re drawn to that sound because you’re drawn to the expression of the content; it’s like ‘these people believe what I believe’. It’s a mutual thing.” At 18, he got into going to noise shows. This influence was later honed when he moved to New York and formed Big Ups. “It’s is a tough place to live,” Joe says. “You have to fit into the groove to go about a life here. I don’t think people need to live so close together and work as much as they do, it’s a serious grind.”
And ‘Before A Million Universes’ is a tough record. It looks at rejection and dissatisfactions of modern society. The album title is from a Walt Whitman quote: “And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” Joe first heard it in high school while analysing poetry in an English class. “My professor, he was great, one of the better things that came out of high school. Looking at it word by word line by line and seeing how it all fits together.” With the album, Joe is now making full use of it. Politics or not. “I think it’s certainly political that it’s music within that genre but at the same time I don’t think the statements being made on there are pointed. It’s political in that it expresses dissatisfaction with modern life. It’s the effects of the emotions of something political, it’s more of a reaction to it.”
When it comes down to it, Joe and Big Ups have one thing in mind. “One thing I just want people to take away from the record, personally, is ‘I know there’s a better way, I just can’t say’.”