[Photo: Andrew Diaz]

Spiky art-punk unit Ultra Q love playing. Hell, they don’t even need a crowd. They love practicing. So you can only imagine what social distancing during the pandemic is doing to them. And you can rejoice in how guitarist Jakob Armstrong decided to fight back.

In A Cave In A Video Game is the new Ultra Q release, played and recorded under quarantine. Assisted by bandmates via FaceTime calls and chats, the six-song mini-LP is essentially a solo Armstrong outing. The band dictated suggestions to the songs for Armstrong to execute. In addition, he put together an entire longform video marrying the music to his “video game nerdom.” The resultant package works as both true indie-savant fascination and as compelling outsider art. Leave that playlist cherry-picking alone: In A Cave is the kind of collection you need to consume in one sitting for maximum joy. 

Armstrong talked to AltPress about the methods behind the Ultra Q benchmark for all quarantine rock.

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Did the other members of Ultra Q have input regarding In A Cave In A Video Game?

JAKOB ARMSTRONG: Oh, yes. I recorded all the parts and such. We’ve been talking a lot since we can’t practice or play shows anymore. It was collaborative in the sense that we all talked about it, and we’re getting excited about it all together. I was the only one that was recording because I was the only one that was able to.

I recorded the video at home in the garage, and recorded the songs at home. I have this shared space that I use with my brother. There’s no live drums on the entire thing. It was super-simple, fun and exciting. I would come up with something [and] send it to them. They would talk about it and then have an idea, and then I’d do it. We didn’t even really plan to put this out. If anything, it would be like, “Let’s put this out on SoundCloud just for fun.” But we really liked how it turned out, so we thought it would be cool to put it out.

The vibe of it is very direct. It feels like outsider art at the same time. Was that something you were looking to achieve? As a whole body of work, it feels like a great listening experience. There’s no cherry-picking the individual songs. 

I agree. There wasn’t the idea of “Oh, we’re going to have a single,” or “We’re going to playlist these tracks.” It wasn’t a planned thing. It was all in the moment. I know everyone has been affected by not being able to go to shows or not being able to practice, really. We’re thinking about what it means to be in a band right now. So we started making demos that turned into actual songs. And then we just put it out. [Laughs.]

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Just being able to get it out into the world so quickly does a lot to maintain the energy and excitement of the release. There’s no monthly deadlines that need hit in the realm of a record label. You’re maintaining the emotional energy blast of it by getting it out so fast.

Absolutely. The songs were written so fast. I’d write a song and then record it the same day. And then do it the next day. It wasn’t like we were sitting on material I was hoping to make something out of. It was super-in the moment, super-fast and super-high energy.

It definitely comes off that way looking at the video. Did you film it in the same way?

Chris [Malaspina, drummer] and Enzo [Malaspina, guitarist] both work at this warehouse in the Bay Area that recollects old electronics from companies. They brought me over this projector their company had that I could use for a few days. I went in the garage, set it up and I was using the projector to mess around with some different video stuff. I had done a lot of video stuff when I went to school. I was doing a lot of weird video art. I was messing around with this projector and trying to make something I thought fit the vibe. I’m really happy with the way the video turned out. I was just projecting old shit. [Laughs.]

I’m a video game nerd, so I was trying to bridge those two things for myself. The newest game on there is UNDERTALE. There’s this game that came out recently called WORLD OF HORROR, and it has a super-cool pixelated art style to it. It was definitely inspiring for the sound and the look. Kind of spooky and high energy but also musical in a way, too. I just pulled speed-run videos off YouTube and projected them on top of myself while I played the songs. 

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If you look at ’60s and early ’70s rock history, you’ll see those light shows from the Fillmore West. The oil-type projections and light shows. The Ultra Q video is an extension of that mindset with different technology and a different mindset. Not saying your band sound like the Grateful Dead. You’re creating a visual atmosphere that complements the tracks.

Absolutely. The visual component is super-important to all of us.

In A Cave In A Video Game is pretty compelling considering the constraints of how you made it. How are you doing during the pandemic?

We are all super-fortunate and lucky that we live with our parents. Half of our band graduated from high school last year, and Chris and I are the oldest. I would be a junior in college right now, but I started doing music full time a year-and-a-half ago.We’re super-lucky that we all live at home, and we’re able to stay with our parents. In comparison to a large majority of people, we’re definitely doing well. 

But it’s hard being a musician right now. Especially a band of our size. We don’t do well streaming. We’re not on a bunch of playlists. [The pandemic] shook what it meant for us to be a band right now. We can’t play shows, which is the main thing we did. We can’t tour. We can’t practice even. I’d say we’re all doing well. But I think in terms of the band, though, it’s been difficult to figure out what to do with ourselves a little bit. It’s definitely the first time since we started our band that we think we’re going to be worse off by the end of the year. I think we’re very lucky. But I think we’re trying to figure out how to tread through all this.

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The pandemic is the great equalizer. It’s the one thing that unites all generations. When this lifts and we’re all allowed to enjoy live music again, how is the art going to be? Two years’ worth of ruminations about the pandemic. Which is the last thing we’ll want to hear. 

I think there’s a few sides to this. People, especially in this moment, want something that is authentic. I don’t think that anyone, especially right now, is not going to want to listen to something that isn’t truthfully original. I feel as though there’s gonna be a lot of people making bedroom records and a lot of people making rock recordings. 

We just miss going to shows. We love live, fast music that has a lot of energy that’s loud and abrasive. We’re all into hardcore a little bit, and we all miss going to those shows. We miss seeing our friends’ bands play. I think half of it has to do with not necessarily writing a lot of songs about being depressed in this period of strangeness right now. But I think a lot of it has to do with missing the lifestyle that we had, going to shows and being with our friends in the Bay Area.

I definitely agree with you that nobody is going to want to listen to a bunch of songs about the pandemic. I think people are going to be ready to go to live shows and have fun dancing to music. So I think there’s going to be a lot of people playing that type of music. I hope I’m going to be making a lot of music like that by the time this is done. We’re counting down the weeks until we can play a show again.

Check out the video for In A Cave In A Video Game below.