Some bands can get by on streaming royalties for a while in the event of a catastrophic pandemic, but Oakland’s Ultra Q is not a “streaming band,” frontman and bandleader Jakob Armstrong said.
Brothers Enzo and Chris Malaspina, Kevin Judd and Armstrong, the youngest son of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, are all sheltering in place with their families but have been unable to play shows or even practice together. There’s been talk of a livestream performance, but it’s more difficult for a garage rock band (formerly known as Mt. Eddy) that can’t fall back on acoustic instruments.
“Our band really only grew from playing shows; that’s how we did everything,” Armstrong said. “That’s what we love to do. Now that we can’t do that, we’re just, like, ‘Oh, shit. We might be a little screwed.’”
That drove Armstrong nuts. So in the early days of the March quarantine, with the guidance of his bandmates, he wrote and recorded seven songs, set them to a visual of classic video game footage and released the set to YouTube and streaming services as the band’s second EP.
In a Cave in a Video Game clocks in under 15 minutes in all and is a conceptual outlier to both Ultra Q’s 2019 EP, We’re Starting to Get Along, and its older Mt. Eddy material. Full of wiry post-punk guitar playing, punk percussion (which Armstrong programmed), eerie synths and 8-bit bleeps, it combined the frontman’s interests in video games, early digital technology and uneasy visuals.
Armstrong and his bandmates consider themselves lucky because their lives are easier than that of many others during the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Armstrong and Malaspina are just a couple of years removed from high school, while the others graduated in 2019. None of them have to worry about paying rent.
“Most people are definitely feeling this a lot more,” he said.
Still, he’s worried about how Ultra Q (named for a Japanese science fiction series) will succeed following the shutdown.
“Our whole plan that we had just got completely destroyed,” he said. “We have to start over in terms of what our future is going to be after this. But so is everyone else.”
RIFF: What inspired In a Cave in a Video Game? And how did you go about writing and recording it by yourself but with your bandmates’ contributions?
Jakob Armstrong: This is our second EP now, and the first one was a bit slower. It had a bit of a different vibe, for sure. All of the songs were made in March. That was the start of quarantine in the Bay, at least. It was honestly about missing going to shows and seeing our friends’ bands and stuff. We all love loud, fast music, and that’s what I wanted to make; something fast. All the songs are really short. … Something we’re really into is making a body of work instead of a single. That plays to our strengths. Singles don’t really mean anything to us. We just wanted a complete thing. I made the whole thing. I would talk to Enzo on FaceTime. We would do this while I was working. We would talk about it and listen to it together, and then go through it. Definitely, I was the main person working on it, but everyone contributed by being excited about it and talking about it.
I take it the “cave” is your basement or garage, and the “video game” element is self-explanatory. What came first—the record or the idea to create a visual with video games playing behind you?
Probably the music. Half the time making stuff like that, I was just playing guitar. I was listening to a lot of Bad Brains, and I was getting into this band called The Horrors. It was really exciting and fast. I was listening to a lot of fun music. Visually, there was this game that came out a few months ago called “World of Horror.” It has this spooky digital visual art style to it. I think we were kind of going to marry two things I was interested in: fast music, and I’m a big gamer. I wanted to bridge those two things for myself a little bit. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to make this a video game thing.” It was just different stuff that I was into and wanted to work together on.
Is there a common thematic element that ties the songs on In A Cave in a Video Game together?
For me, the process is not that I’m writing specifically. Usually for lyrics, it starts out as poetry that’s not really related. I’ll take from my book of it and mix and match stuff together. Thematically, I was discussing that spooky digital feeling of both the sound and the visual of the video that I made for the whole thing. I like to keep things abstract in the way that it’s not very specific. It can be relatable, but at the same time, it’s also kind of bizarre. Lyrically, one of my favorite bands is The Pixies because they use folklore and all sorts of weird adjectives. What’s cool about it is you can read a Pixies song on its own, and it reads like a poem. I’m not nearly as good as Francis is, but that’s kind of what I was going for. They’re [the songs] not necessarily related, as in a story or anything like that, but they all come from the same place of like, an interesting block of poetry that I try to start with, then just putting it together to make something. I don’t necessarily set out to write one thing, but it all comes together at the end. Usually if it feels right with the song, that’s the way I’ll go about it.
Are these songs that Ultra Q will play live once you’re able to play together again?
We can’t wait to play them. We’re counting down the days until we can play together again. We’re looking forward to playing them live.
Are you going to do any livestreaming while you wait?
I did do a live thing by myself where I played [the new songs]. … I just took out the guitar and vocals, so I sang along and played to it. We’re trying to figure [playing together] out. There’s a few apps you can use that do low-latency streaming so you can try to play at the same time but in different places. We’ve been working on trying to be able to have practice together, so maybe we can try to do a live set that way. We’ve been researching and trying to figure out different ways that we could do it.
Other than making late-night TV appearances, how have you and your family been passing time during quarantine?
My mom is really into puzzles. She always has a puzzle going on our table. We pick a movie series, and then we’ll watch one movie a night. We just watched the new “Star Trek” series all in a row, so we just watched the first one and the second one. We also did all the “Mission Impossible” movies in a row, which was fun. That was a wild ride for sure. … Everyone kind of does their own thing during the day. Early on it was trying to hang out with each other as much as possible, but now we’ve been together for so long, where all we want to do is do our own thing and meet up later. We watch a lot of TV and do puzzles. … Usually I’ll stay in my room for a bit. Toward dinner time is when we all come and hang out for a bit.
What’s something other than playing shows and practicing as a band that you miss a lot right now?
I love to go to the movies. That’s one of my favorite things. On the weekends, if there was a movie out, I would just go. … We miss going to see our friends’ bands play. We just miss being with our friends in the Bay and watching their bands play.
What’s next for Ultra Q?
We’ve been working on stuff that was supposed to happen this fall … for at least two years; pretty much since Mt. Eddy stopped being a band we’ve been working toward this thing—these shows that we had planned. It looks like it’s not going to happen anymore—it’s definitely not going to happen anymore. Once this is all done, the next thing we want to do is put out more music and play in the Bay, like at Gilman. We just want to play; that’s literally all we want to do.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.