Photo by Adam Kolodny
Sometimes, despite all of our efforts to the contrary, we end up becoming a part of the machine we often rage against. Ever since the first wave of punk and hardcore bands made music that exposed political hypocrisy, punk has been a vessel for free speech and anti-corporate insurgence. But that initial burst of first-era punk eventually pooled out through the years into silvery new-wave post-punk. While rooted in the same unrest, the post-punk genre took on a paranoid nihilism towards society that began to replace punk's original need to defy it. Fast forward through thousands of punk and post-punk bands to 2016, where Brooklyn’s post-hardcore outfit Big Ups are on the rise with their distinctly balanced approach to the two.
Raised in 90s suburban Baltimore, Big Ups vocalist Joe Galarraga watched his single mother work tirelessly and sacrifice her freedom to provide for him and his sister. The economic realities of Galarraga’s upbringing come to a head in his lyrics, particularly on the single premiering below titled “National Parks.” He explains that the song is “a lot about digging into myself, personally, to figure out sort of how I fit into this world. How I either contribute to or detriment it. I thought that it only made sense to kind of look at from the beginning.”
So much of Big Ups' music rides on a personal relationship with economic guilt, especially fist-clenching songs like “Justice” and "Goes Black." But the single “Capitalized,” released last month, broke new ground for Big Ups: after several EPs and their debut full length Eighteen Hours of Static, the band’s sheer volume is finally neck-in-neck with the lyric’s level of rage. Following a fall tour with METZ and Toronto’s Dilly Dally, Big Ups have announced the release of their sophomore LP, Before a Million Universes. Galarraga’s post-punk mutterings continue on the upcoming record, as they characteristically erupt into hardcore verses on a dime.
Down to the pure sonics, Big Ups' music works to conflate the dynamic of us versus them. The anxious verses use sparse bass and near whispers to convey Galarraga's driving emotional stir. But given the socioeconomic context of his words, each chorus strikes with Bartleby-like defiance and brings an anti-establishment focus to a personal struggle. Consider the following lyric from their song “Capitalized”: "Tell me what you’re worth/ Salary, two weeks off from work?/Move forward, it’s progress/ Resources, I digress/ Your choices? That’s nonsense/ The money? For defense."
These are the kinds of questions that Big Ups have asked consistently throughout their releases. The foursome of Joe Galarraga, Amar Lal, Brendan Finn, and Carlos Salguero Jr. met in college at NYU for music tech, coming from different music backgrounds but pulled together by a shared interest in punk. Currently unsigned and most likely staying that way, Big Ups will inspire you to take a long hard look in the mirror until you fucking break it.
“The economic system pervades basically everything,” Galarraga explains as we discuss the new record. “How you value yourself in terms of in relationship to money or perhaps just social capital about being, like how do I fit into an immediate community? Like am I worth while to this community, and then you know you give yourself value based on how much money do I earn. Is that really who I am?”
Stream the single "National Parks" and check out Big Ups' live set on KEXP below. The full album, Before a Million Universes, is due out on March 4 from Exploding in Sound Records and Tough Love/Brace Yourself in the UK. Follow them on Twitter.