At what point will we define the music made during these tumultuous, isolated times?
As the weeks stretch into months, artists such as the Mountain Goats, Nine Inch Nails others are turning to a particular brand of music, producing songs that are claustrophobic and angsty, austere and sparse — reflective of conditions where social distancing is the norm and collaborative works are wishful thinking.
If musicologists ever determine a name for these creations — COVIDcore? Flugaze? — the latest EP from the Oakland-based quartet Ultra Q will fit neatly within the genre. Created and recorded in just two weeks, mainly by chief songwriter Jakob Armstrong (son of Green Day legend Billie Joe), the seven-track release, In a Cave in a Video Game, is everything you would expect from an album made in lockdown.
The songs veer from plinky MIDI interludes through ’80s video game soundscapes onto feverish punk anthems. They feel languid and confined, bored and hyperactive, reminiscent of someone who is desperate to run a full-court sprint but can’t race beyond the four walls of his bedroom. That beguiling mix of restlessness and fatigue offers a surprisingly consoling soundtrack for these days — if you’re going fucking stir crazy, you might as well listen to something that mirrors the feeling.
“We really missed going out to live shows and seeing our friends perform, and I think this was our way of creating something that would fill that void,” Armstrong says. “We never had any intention of releasing this to the public, but after taking a listen, we were all like, ‘Well this is pretty cool, actually.’ It was completely of the moment and we were proud of it, so it was exciting to put this out.”
Armstrong wrote and recorded the bulk of the material over a two-week period in March. He would share the foundations of the songs over FaceTime with his band members—brothers Enzo and Chris Malaspina, and Kevin Judd—who would provide feedback and finishing touches to the tracks.
The 21-year-old Armstrong met his bandmates back in elementary school, where during the fourth grade he was blown away by Malaspina’s drumming. Armstrong and the two Malaspina brothers (Enzo is the guitarist) eventually met up with Judd, who claimed he knew how to play bass in order to join forces with the trio. (He didn’t, but he does now.)
After performing under various monikers for several years, the group settled on the name Ultra Q in 2019 and began playing local shows in earnest. They also released We’re Starting to Get Along, a five-song collection of indie pop nuggets.
Their latest EP has a schizophrenic vibe. The opening track, “Drkwv,” is an instrumental tribute to Earthbound, a role-playing Nintendo video game popularized in the ’90s (the band’s name comes from a beloved Japanese action series with a cult following.) From that sample-heavy piece, the sound quickly transitions to a 100 miles-per-minute rocker, “Rosy,” and then to the spiky, post-punk piece “Sticnpoke.” There is another wordless arcade homage (appropriately called “Plunk”) to act as a palate cleanser for a second half of the album that features mostly frenzied, fast-paced numbers.
Eschewing the pop-punk formula that made his dad famous, Armstrong leans heavily on indie rock flourishes, fitting for someone who considers mainstays like the Walkmen and Interpol among his favorite bands. Above all, Ultra Q sounds like the Strokes, eerily emulating that group’s penchant for taut guitars, synthetic drum sounds and sticky, muddled vocals.
That said, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities between Armstrong’s voice and that of his father. Both settle into that faux-British punk sneer, shifting suddenly between indifference and defiance. Instead of shying away from the comparison, Armstrong gracefully acknowledges the likenesses in his delivery.
“At first, I was a little self-conscious, but it’s not like I’m trying to mimic him or anything,” Armstrong says. “That’s just how my voice comes naturally. I think there are probably some genetics working there.”
Even though both he and his brother, Joey (a drummer with SWMRS) are playing music, Armstrong says his father never pushed him to follow in his footsteps. In fact, he says his dad encouraged him to play sports. The younger Armstrong gave football a go in high school, but ultimately found his way to music.
“I tried sports, and for a while I just wanted to be a painter,” Armstrong says. “But it became impossible to ignore my love for music.”
Armstrong says he deeply misses the energy and excitement of playing live shows. The group intended on creating more of a name for itself through a packed schedule of local gigs, but with the coronavirus quarantine scuttling those plans, Armstrong says Ultra Q will consider their next steps. He says he and his fellow bandmates are acutely aware of their good fortune — all of them are living at home with their parents at the moment, so they aren’t scrambling to figure out their immediate future.
Until the cloud of uncertainty lifts, Ultra Q will likely to continue to operate remotely, adding more contributions to the growing canon of COVID-19 creations. For all of us stuck at home, that’s the best we can hope for.