Photo by Andrew Diaz

Oakland’s own Ultra Q are back with a quick 15-minute EP, entitled In a Cave in a Video Game.

The band, featuring Jakob Armstrong on guitar and vocals, Enzo Malaspina on guitar, Kevin Judd on bass, and Chris Malaspina on drums, picks up where their debut EP We’re Starting to Get Along (2019) left off. With their hyper-compressed drums and riff-driven guitar leads, the band captures a lot of the same deadpan, contrarian energy from the early 2000's post punk revival movement and injects it with speed and moshability. Malaspina and Armstrong’s guitars are constantly playing off each other, alternately fighting for control and underscoring each other’s phrases. They make music that’s meant to be heard live, so it came as little surprise to hear that the band is fiending for their next gig.

My initial attempt to contact Armstrong was, unfortunately, thwarted by a prank voicemail. The recorded voice on the other end insisted he really wanted to hear what I had to say while a multitude of voices in the background slowly devolved into chaos, culminating in a wild animal breaking into the house and cutting the call short. As Armstrong later explained, an ill-fated attempt to buy black market Runescape money as a teen led to his phone number ending up on a bunch of spam call lists. It was an oddly thematic setback, as In a Cave in a Videogame draws a lot of inspiration from the games Armstrong played in his youth and as a young adult. Along with the release of this EP, Armstrong recorded and released a video for the whole album, making creative use of a projector and some glitchy, lo-fi editing.

In the video, each song seems to roughly correspond to a different video game backdrop, with the exception of the two heavily video game-inspired instrumental tracks, where the game backdrops give way to natural settings. It’s a recurring practice on this album to take two seemingly incongruous ideas and meld them together. You’ll hear some post-punk staples, like the eighth note single-string guitar melodies acting as refrains and the soaring, reverb-laden vocals, but these tropes start to gain a new meaning when they exist within the confines of a 1-2 minute track. Everything about this album feels frantic, and these moments where the vocals become sweeping, triumphant melodies feel all the more rewarding.

I spoke with Armstrong about his music influences, the sonic choices on this album, and what artistic strategies can be learned from video games.

The Bay Bridged: I’ve spoken with other artists who are finding it hard to get inspired right now. How has this forced isolation impacted your creative output?

JA: It’s given me a lot of time to do things. I feel very dead in the water, there’s no push to do new things and there’s nowhere to go really. In a way, that works really well, and a lot of the reason we made this EP is because we missed seeing our friends play and seeing live music, so we wanted to make something that felt very fast and energetic. The two instrumental songs, intro track "Drkwv" and  the song “Plunk” were made before, but all the others were written as we were making it.

TBB: It’s interesting because I’d imagine most pop records are made like this, over the phone with no in-person collaboration.

JA: It just kind of happened for us. We didn’t really plan to make any music, I just wrote these eight songs and we were like 'Yeah this is pretty cool, let’s put it out.' Not a lot of premeditated thought went into it, it was all very in the moment.

TBB: That ties in with the brevity of the project as a whole I think. I really like how it’s just these quick, rapid-fire songs in a concise package.

JA: It was definitely intentional. I had been listening to a lot of the first Bad Brains album, a lot of really short, to-the-point hardcore songs. I wouldn’t say all the songs were hardcore inspired but I definitely took inspiration from that.

TBB: Yeah, it’s kind of a mix between that hardcore sound and the more restrained post punk revival stuff, which are usually opposite ends of the spectrum.

JA: My favorite band of all time is the Cure, especially Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and anything prior. I also really love Interpol, their first record and the most recent one they released. I’m also a huge fan of My Bloody Valentine, and obviously this isn’t a shoegaze record, but I think the throughline here is guitar-driven music. I’m really interested in making music that keeps the guitars in the forefront.

TBB: I hear a lot of that classic post-punk, drenched-in-reverb sound on your vocals as well.

JA: For me, I think that’s just another way of keeping the guitars in the front. I really like hearing guitars interacting with each other, and the reverb really helps keep them in the background but without losing them completely. I personally like the hidden vocals. On the first album I used a lot of effects to make my vocals wobbly. I remember someone telling me the vocals sounded like they were underwater. I think it makes them sound kind of spooky and scary.

TBB: Yeah it’s definitely an effective mood-builder. I think the flip side is that you can lose some of that direct connection with your listener.

JA: That’s the biggest thing that my bandmates all tell me [laughs]. 'You need to speak clearer, and turn the vocals up.' I try to make the guitar parts complement the vocal melody, and personally I’m OK with losing out on some of the clarity. It’s a balance, and I don’t think I’ve totally figured it out, but I think I’m getting closer.

TBB: How does the video game theme come in? I can hear some almost chiptune-like stuff on the intro track and on “Plunk.”

JA: The first track is actually all samples from Earthbound. There was also this game that came out called World of Horror, just one guy who put out an indie game. It looks very grotesque, kind of an old art style but everything is really pretty. I actually tried to reach out to him to do the cover art, but he said he was too busy [laughs]. I think it's kind of just two different interests of mine.

TBB: I’ll preface by saying I also like video games, but I feel like, especially when compared to music, people tend to turn their noses up more at video games. Were you thinking about that at all, and if so how do you reckon with that?

JA: I definitely disagree with that statement — I really feel like games are transportive, expressive, like I can think of so many games that merge storytelling, visual art, and music. Like look at anything by Hideo Kojima. People definitely do look at music as the more 'true' form of art, but for me this was about melding those two influences and making something that’s a reflection of both. It all felt very natural, once I started.

TBB: Do you have any long-term plans to tour? I’d imagine a lot of that is on hold.

JA: We’ve never been a big streaming band, and our main thing was just playing live shows. We had a plan to release music and tour this fall, which definitely won’t happen anymore. In terms of shows, it’s really hard to gauge. Let’s say they let people start playing club shows in October or something — I have a really hard time imagining people will want to come out; I know I won’t really feel comfortable going out that soon. So I think as soon as people start to feel OK about going out again, we’ll get back out there as well, and until then we just have to take everything in stride.

In a Cave in a Video Game is out now via Uncool Records. Watch the full music video here and stream the EP on Spotify and Apple Music.

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