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Q&A: New York's Big Ups on the importance of Baltimore and eschewing nihilism

Interview: Singer of Brooklyn's Big Ups on why Baltimore made a "huge inspiration."

Although the members of Big Ups — a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based four-piece that blends punk, post-punk, noise and metal influences — met at New York University, Baltimore influences are at their core.

Singer Joe Galarraga, who grew up in Randallstown and whose mom later moved to Reisterstown, discovered local bands like Double Dagger and Future Islands near the end of his high school years and on college breaks at home. Big Ups’ upcoming album, which does not yet have a title or release date, will have an even stronger hometown connection — it was recorded with Baltimore’s Dan Frome, the bassist of Roomrunner. (It will follow the band's debut, last year's “Eighteen Hours of Static.”)

“I think partially I wanted to do something in Baltimore because I relate so much,” Galarraga, 26, said. “I’m very inspired by the music here, and it was cool to get out of the city and only worry about recording.”

Antsy to get back on the road, Big Ups is playing a handful of shows over a week. Before performing at Ottobar on Sunday with Baltimore bands War On Women, Hive Bent and Et Al, Galarraga discussed new material, not taking himself too seriously and more.

Do you have any affinity for or connections to the Baltimore music scene? Were you involved in it before you moved to New York?

Oh, definitely. I went to college in 2007 and it was right about that time, when I was a senior in high school or the summer after that, that I sort of started going to shows. It was kind of almost like I discovered something too late because I was leaving, but I would come back every summer when I was in college as well. About 2007, there were so many good bands in Baltimore, a lot of media attention on bands and stuff, and without kind of stepping into that accidentally, I don’t think I would be making the kind of music that we do with the band. It was a huge, huge inspiration.

Can you tell me more about how the band initially formed? Did you take a class together at NYU?

I didn’t know what I was doing and I ended up realizing that I wanted to study music, so I joined the music program when I was a junior in college. I basically met all of the guys in the band while we were taking classes together, and realized that we all really liked playing together. … [After an earlier instrumental surf-rock band] the music has changed a lot and evolved. That was like five years ago when we first started playing with the four of us. It was a lot more pop-punk influenced and now we draw from a lot of different eras and different styles, too, whereas before, everything was very formulaic. Now it’s kind of like, well, if we want to have fun with this, let’s do it. Whereas before it was kind of like, well, does this fit into the way we kind of pigeonholed ourselves?

Why do you think you pigeonholed yourself in that way, and what made you able to break out of that mold? Was it just gaining confidence as a band?

I think when we first started it wasn’t anything we took seriously. We were still in school, and basically all we wanted to do was play parties and have fun. There was no real artistic vision beyond that. ... I think what happened was we just started playing more and more and seeing other bands in New York. Then we built a touring band, and it was just like getting inspired and being like, “Oh, this is something we do like to do more than just play a party. We want to make actual music that we can be proud of instead of background noise for somebody’s living room mosh pit.” And also it became more of a collaborative thing, too. At the beginning I wrote pretty much all the songs, and then we practiced more and definitely when you’re playing more, ideas come up.

What can you tell us about your new material?

It’s certainly different from our last record. I think it is way more well thought-out than the last record. The last record was sort of like, almost a compilation of songs that we hadn’t recorded yet. And sure, there was some intention behind it, but I think this is the first thing we have conceived together written all the way through and not just a collection of singles. Recording with Dan [Frome] was the best experience I’ve ever had recording. He’s a really talented engineer. His demeanor is very conducive to working.

What do you hope to convey in your live set?

It’s kind of vague and probably what a lot of performers want to do, but I want to wow the crowd to the point where they walk away and they feel differently about — maybe not even necessarily like, “Oh, that was the best thing I’m gonna ever see,” but kind of say, “Music or a live show can be more than I think it is.” I think that’s something that’s really important for me.

Like I said, when I was in high school and going to these shows, a lot of the stuff I had been to before was just people kind of playing their instruments on stage, not really performing — playing the music, but not making it any sort of spectacle or show or anything that’s actually engaging with people. So I think that that’s part of what we try to do. I try to make it fun but also more than just a band playing, and I think that that comes with a lot of different things. Just actually remembering that there is an audience there and you’re not at band practice.

Your music explores a lot of dark topics like anger and frustration, but you also seem like a pretty hopeful and idealistic person. How do you reconcile those seemingly conflicting perspectives in your music?

Part of it comes from not taking myself too seriously, and I think that’s perhaps a mechanism for me just in a way that gives me perspective and also helps me be a happier person. If everything is terrible and doom and gloom then what’s the point? Why am I making music? Why am I giving an effort? I can’t be completely nihilistic.

Do you consider your music to be political?

That’s an interesting question. I think it touches on political subjects, definitely, but I don’t think I’m necessarily the most educated person or perhaps the best person to be talking about these things. I think it’s more personal than political in the sense that these are my thoughts and my beliefs, and I’m sure they’re shaped by stuff I read and conversations I have, etcetera etcetera, but I don’t think I have any sort of answers for anything. They’re more like meditations on things that preoccupy my thoughts. ... I don’t have much of an interest in writing a love song or anything like that.

INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED

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If you go

Big Ups perform Sunday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St., Remington. War On Women, Hive Bent and Et Al will also perform. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.

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