Big Ups Discuss ‘Before A Million Universes,’ Tour Life, and Walt Whitman

"One of the bigger themes on the record is this self-versus-society paradox."

big ups interview

Photo by Dylan Johnson

New York’s Big Ups continue to churn out roiling post-hardcore squalls on their sophomore album, Before A Million Universes, released on March 4th. Their abrasive side still recalls Steve Albini’s steel wool scour, but the band have expanded the elements that Pitchfork described as “quiet moments” and “gradual buildups.” The album’s title comes from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself,’ wherein the author advises to “let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

The four members of Big Ups (Joe Galarraga, Brendan Finn, Amar Lal and Carlos Salguero) met while studying at NYU. They are currently touring Europe in support of their new record. I caught up with the band while they were taking a break in their tour van on the road in London.

Dan Redding: Can you guys paint a picture for me of where you are, who’s in the van, and what’s the mood?

Brendan: We’re at a service station outside of London. ‘On the M-1,’ says our tour manager, Tom, who’s lying in the back bunk catching up on some TV while we’re stopped here. Carlos, Joe, and Brendan are all sitting here… Spirits are high! We had a good London show. England is very green – rolling hills that we can see.

How was the show?

Joe: It was packed. It’s pretty weird coming from New York and coming over to England and having a lot of people at the shows. We haven’t been here in like two years. It felt good that people still care. It made me feel like coming over and doing this tour was a good choice. A very enthusiastic crowd.

What has the response been to the new album?

Joe: People like it, which is good. (laughter) People have been singing along… The album is pretty new, but looking out into the audience and seeing people singing the words to some of these new songs, it is cool that people are liking this record. I do think that it’s different sonically and in terms of the tone. Thematically as well. It’s cool to see that people are generally enthusiastic about how we’ve changed as a band on this record.

Some of Big Ups’ songs address the economy and its effect on people’s lives. I’m wondering how you feel about the economy of the music industry – is it possible to make a living as a musician in 2016 for anyone except Guns N’ Roses?

Joe: That’s something that we do struggle with a lot. Especially because we live in New York and our cost of living is pretty high. We all hold down other jobs and do this band. One of the only real ways to make money is by touring, but then in order to tour, you have to have a job that allows you to leave and come back. I don’t think it’s a sustainable model… You can be in a band and make records and have it be hobby-like – but if you wanna be a [professional/full-time] musician and tour, it is unfortunate that you have to rely on a bigger indie label because that seems to be antithetical to independence.

big ups band live

Photo by Andrew Markowitz

There are at least two Walt Whitman references on Before A Million Universes – in the album title and in ‘Yawp.’ Joe, what is your relationship with Whitman’s work?

Joe: I got really into Walk Whitman when I was younger. One of the bigger themes on the record is this self-versus-society paradox. That was stuff that Whitman wrote about a lot. I don’t wanna say that what we’re doing is just rehashing that, but I think it’s a good reference point. We’re talking about how an individual becomes a part of something bigger and how a person’s identity helps them to see their place in the world and perhaps be a force of change in it. We’re building upon that but talking about things that happened in our generation. So yeah, there’s a lot of references to Whitman and reaffirming things that he said a long time ago but I often think are overlooked. So often, people are expected to be one thing. Walt Whitman was about celebrating yourself and celebrating idiosyncrasies. There’s a certain open-mindedness in that that I think is important in the modern day when it’s easy to distill everybody into an enemy, a right-winger, a left-winger. Allowing for people to be more than their signifiers – to be people. Peoples’ identities are way more complex than they may appear on the surface. Perhaps we should take a step back before jumping down somebody’s throat, or see things from different perspectives. This record is centered around those kinds of ideas.

That’s really refreshing – it’s so divisive the way people are put in black and white, Republican/Democrat categories and everything’s turned into a contest with a winner and a loser.

Joe: Right. Everything’s on a spectrum you know? That’s important to realize, and instead of working in dichotomies, to realize that everybody is trying to figure out who they are. Perhaps it’s better to be conversational than combative.

Joe, I stumbled across some information online regarding your volunteer work. I read that you spent time building “environmentally-friendly cooking stoves in Peruvian adobes.” Is that true? What was your experience volunteering in Peru?

Joe: Wow! How did you find that?

Carlos: Deep cut!

Google research, man!

Joe: Yeah, I definitely did that. That was through a program in college. Wow, that’s really funny, we were just talking about this right before you called. That was almost ten years ago. It was a great experience. It was a little weird being the privileged college student going down to work in an underprivileged community, but it was eye-opening and educational. I got to meet a bunch of interesting people who had a lot of life to share and positivity. The work that we did ourselves was perhaps nominal, but more than that, we offered person-to-person interaction and companionship, friendship. It was cool.

I’m wondering if experiences like that shaped your worldview. You’ve done a variety of volunteer work and it seems to connect the themes in your music. Were those formative experiences for you?

Joe: Yeah – my mom also works with homelessness in Baltimore, and I volunteered in Baltimore as well. I had experiences where I got to – not just firsthand, but through my mom – to see how people lived other than myself. And also through my sister, my sister has done a lot of volunteering and stuff like that. That certainly opened up my perspective to seeing people that weren’t like me. That was important. It’s interesting that you brought that up, because that’s not something that I think about a lot, but inevitably I think that being surrounded by that stuff growing up made me feel perhaps a little more open in that regard. It’s certainly a fortunate thing to have that kind of experience.

“Peoples’ identities are way more complex than they may appear on the surface. Perhaps we should take a step back before jumping down somebody’s throat, or see things from different perspectives.”

You guys have a dynamic and energetic live show. What artists do you look up to as the benchmark of a live performance? Is that something that you talk about?

Brendan: Yeah. I think we talk about bands that we like or are excited about, but not necessarily in a way where it’s like –

Carlos: “We should be like them.”

Brendan: We’re not trying to take anything from anybody, we’re all just excited about similar music, and it’s how we relate to each other as a band.

Carlos: We just go out there and try and do what’s normal or right for us.

Joe: I think that’s right. We can all recognize when we see a live band that puts on a great show. I think that all of us would agree that Future Islands is an incredible live band. It’s undeniable. We’re lucky – we get to see so many bands that come through New York on tour. To say that there’s a particular band that sets a precedent for like, “Oh, this is the live show” – that’s a hard thing to say. Every band does different things. There’s bands that can play and stand completely still and it’s just as powerful.

Carlos: Protomartyr.

Brendan: Protomartyr is a hell of a live show… I think their songwriting comes through live in such a great way.

Amar: We were on tour with METZ and watching them put on an amazing show every night – that’s inspiring to want to put that kind of energy into a show.

I just read a book by Rudy Sarzo, who was Ozzy Osbourne’s bassist during the Blizzard of Ozz era, and he was talking about how they went to see the Jackson 5. Sharon Osbourne was blown away and it set the standards that they were aiming for. I thought it was a cool anecdote.

You guys recently performed in Manchester – there’s so much music history there, did you bump into an music history landmarks?

Joe: We were just listening to the Smiths five minutes ago. We had a good crowd, I can’t say that we bumped into any landmarks. We went straight to the show and then ate at a Nando’s in a mall, and then played.

Thanks to Big Ups.

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