Big Ups' drummer Brendan Finn and bassist Carlos Salguero prepare me for watching Contact with two short sentences: “You’re gonna freak out when you see what happens to Jodie Foster.” “Yeah, she turns into an alien.”
I'm seeing it for the first time in a Greenpoint living room with the four twitchy musicians, whose debut record pays tribute to the 1997 Jodie Foster classic in its misleading title, Eighteen Hours of Static. We are equipped with emerald green cans of Genesee and a box of strawberry and grape Nerds. A slideshow of sugar gliders acts as a substitute for the previews.
Finn elaborates on how the movie shifts gears halfway, breaking the dead heat of its rising action for greater, more overwrought heights.
“That’s the best part about this movie. It just goes whoomp”—he says, shooting his lanky arms skyward—“straight into outer space.” He seems unaware of his pun.
Amar Lal, unassuming guitar player and the most soft-spoken of the group, makes a sweeping, dense sound to cosign Finn’s earlier point.
Fwomp, fwomp, fwomp. Lal is circling his hands in a motion that looks like a widening net, or the rings made in a lake when skipping stones.
“This is the probably the first time they ever had sub-bass in a movie,” Salguero posits.
I brought the band together to stage “punk band does Mystery Science Theater” as a means of understanding Big Ups and their hyperaware version of vulnerable confrontation. It’s obvious that the group isn’t drawn to Contact because of its riveting storyline.
They rightly laugh at the sentimental backstory of Dr. Ellie Arroway’s tragic youth—“Did her dad just call her Sporks?” frontman Joe Galarraga asks—and are unimpressed by the film's pseudoscience. When Foster shrieks, “HYDROGEN TIMES PI—HOLY SHIT,” the whole room shakes with laughter. “What does that even mean?” (Note: It turns out this actually means something.)
As the film leads up to its mid-movie reveal, their fascination with the fwomps begins to make sense. “Dude, this is like a dubstep video,” Lal says. “Where’s the drop?”
“Drop the bass. Drop the bass,” Galarraga pleads, and a group of scientists rush pell mell around a sterile room, turning on TVs, cranking up stereos, and screaming at each other to comb the mysterious noise for meaning. There’s a longhaired character in cargo pants and a Hawaiian shirt, whom Galarraga warmly declares as “the wacky scientist.” “He cracks a joke, but when it’s time to get down to business, he definitely knows how to get down to business,” Finn adds.
I look around at Galarraga, Finn, Salguero, and Lal in the dark, eerily lit room, the clobbering bass permeating the space. Charmingly off-kilter and companionable, Big Ups reads goofy, soft even—but this is in complete contrast to everything else I know about them. Their stage presence, their live show, and their absolutely terrorizing debut record, is a greater force, an unstoppable power, almost nothing like the playful banter and plucky commentary they give here. Perhaps in order to be as fierce as they are in public, in private, they choose to embrace the cerebral.
Eighteen Hours of Static, which released yesterday in the EU and releases today in the States, is poised to be a record that finds its place in a number of circles. If you’ve never seen Big Ups live, you won’t feel left behind. The quality of sound produced by the four piece—who have managed to exist since 2010 with only one guitar, a resonant bass, skeletal drums, and Galarraga’s screeching vocals—is threatening and sharp. A torrential debut for a young band, Static is dominant due to its searing, self-aware lyrics, pinning Galarraga as the magnetic, keening frontman.
But it succeeds on a multitude of levels. Big Ups blend together well, while also keeping their individual roles simultaneously dominant and separate. They aren’t just a fourpiece band—they’re four solo musicians who intersect gracefully, like thousands of pages of technical drawings, that when arranged correctly, form to make one monolithic machine.
The reason for this is that the four musicians met at recording technology school at NYU. This is a telling detail: Big Ups as a band knows what they’re doing, they are meticulous at doing it, and when they are out of phase with their nerdy, analytical backgrounds, the fourpiece gets a chance to access pure power. They set aside—or willingly bury—all that they know, all their quirks and concerns, to slavishly dedicate themselves to being as upfront and coarse as they can. They address their cerebral anxieties by pushing them to the edge.
Sitting in a dark room with them on a damp Saturday night, casually munching on tortilla chips and complaining about Spotify (“I’m a premium user—this is bullshit!”), I realize that Big Ups is actually kind of duplicitous. As people, they're all brains, but as a band they brandish brawn.
The highlight of Static is the pent-up “Wool.” As Galarraga rambles his way through a low, deadpan poetic unraveling, Lal’s guitar line chirps and strums alongside building—but stable—bass and drums. The final third of the song explodes the tranquility into mania, as Galarraga accepts that he’s better off ignoring something he knows to be true. The whole of the song hinges itself on this transition from buildup to whipping ferocity, making “Wool” the epitome of what the whole record accomplishes. The duplicity remains in the lowlight.
The Eighteen Hours of Static record release show is at Shea Stadium, a secluded hovel that seems impossible to enter, and whose temperature hardly varies by season. It’s a Thursday, which is a decent night for a show of this caliber. Opening for Big Ups are all friends—Washer, Flagland, Mannequin Pussy—and the room is filled with pals, close admirers, and the occasional Brooklyn person of interest. When the group loaded in, they thought it odd that Neil Young was playing over Shea’s speaker system, until they heard later from The So So Glos, longtime fans of Big Ups, that they had gone to see him play at Carnegie Hall earlier that night. “I’d rather see Neil Young than Big Ups,” Galarraga laughs.
Though this show is one of a few dozen the band has played in Brooklyn in only a course of a few months, they reveal no signs of fatigue as they take the stage. In the audience, a fan complains to me: “I miss Joe’s hair.” That hair used to be a stringy, brown mop with bleached blonde tips. Though he may be right that the look gave Big Ups a tactful pop of color (and a lazy connection to another noted frontman), Galarraga’s new look—cropped close—contributes only more to the starkness of the band’s stage presence.
Often caught yelling, eyes closed, and whirling like a punk dervish, bassist Salguero is a mirror for Lal, the two transmitting each other’s energies around and behind Galarraga’s squirming body. Tonight at Shea, the music seems louder, punchier, and they crash through the entire record, even playing songs they’ve never played live before. Strangely reminiscent of emo legend Adam Lazzara, Galarraga’s mic technique incorporates a great deal of swinging and rapping its cable around his fists, and his body is serpent-like, alien. The crowd engages with Big Ups like so few bands I see in this city of too cool, and it crosses my mind: Are Big Ups the best punk band from New York right now?
Collapsing offstage to sell freshly minted copies of the record to a mass of eager admirers, my question seems to answer itself.
Photo by Dylan Johnson
“Contact—with sound production by Trent Reznor.” We’re nearing the end of the film, maxing out at two and a half hours and change, and there’s a faintly beating heartbeat below the surface of all the noise, as Jodie Foster is propelled into space to meet—as the room lovingly describes him—her “space dad.” Lal points out the low tone, finding the strain to hear it “incredible,” and Finn sees the likeness to NIN. Earlier, Galarraga had beamed at a review that compared Big Ups to Limp Bizkit (Salguero shrewdly noting it was “good SEO”) and the immensity of the score this late in the film continues to trip up the room.
When Foster lands in her dreamland Pensacola, her Vega, the CGI imagery does seem a little outdated, but the band isn’t even paying attention to the visuals. Foster presses the animated sky around her and it twinkles each time with a new light note.
“Every time she touches the sky, it’s like a Yamaha DX7,” says Galarraga, much to the enjoyment of his bandmates.
“Were we going to use the space beach art for something?” Salguero asks the room.
“That’s what the album cover is. It’s very abstract,” Galarraga responds, pulling off his best fib face.
“You need to spend more time at MoMA, dude.” The living room bursts into laughter, knowing that there’s irony in the fact that these kinds of guys—the ones who spend weekend nights in watching Contact and discussing insoles and slippers (“I’m bringing slippers on this next tour—I’m going to be comfy”) are exactly the kind who might spend too much time at MoMA.
The scene ends with Foster’s space dad claiming that she has her mother’s hands, which is, amazingly, a lyric from a Big Ups song. The delight at this is almost too much to handle, especially when Salguero asks, “Wait, what’s that from?”
“You know, that song that we played on Thursday? Our song ‘Wool’?” Galarraga ribs him, and everyone giggles. It’s synchronicity in its purest form, and it quickly devolves into Finn riffing off the lines to make the song about textiles.
“You’ve got your father’s hat / and your mother’s gloves.”
“I’m gonna pull the wool sweater over my own eyes.”
“Got my uncle’s hoodie and his red Corvette.”
All this transpires—between fits of childish hamming—over the most sensitive, sentimental scene in the movie. And when Foster wakes up, sucked back into reality, to the concern of her team at home base, she’s dazed and frantic. “Where am I? How long was I gone for?” she demands.
“You’re back in the pod, dawg.” Galarraga says, and we break through the bubble with Foster, thrust harshly back to Earth again.