Ultra Q Cares
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
by Charles Anastasis
October 17th 2021
I first met Jakob Armstrong in September of 2019 in Lawrence, Kansas. His band Ultra Q and my band Liily were sharing the opening slots on a tour with Bad Suns, which to this day is still a bill who’s appeal as a collective I cannot fathom. There was a joke shared between us on that tour about how the shows were akin to Bono asking Henri Rollins and Robert Smith to take on the tertiary markets of America. I was sitting in the poorly lit and sparsely furnished backstage area of the Granada Theater, when the members of Ultra Q walked in one at a time. Jakob entered the room last in front man fashion. Everyone in that band walked into the room visually displaying vastly different personality types, which on first impression could seem easy to place an archetype too but, in reality, is almost fucking impossible. I could state that Jakob is the silent and interesting, introverted leader of the group and some of you would gobble that shit up without giving it a second thought, but that would be a lazy lie because no one is that one dimensional -- that applies especially to Jakob. His unrelenting kindness was the first thing I noticed about him, even upon shaking his hand. How nice he was genuinely threw me off. Most men I’ve met on tour are standoffish and try to be as intimidating as possible out of what feels like some weird dominance thing. On that first night I observed him sitting outside changing his guitar strings while humbly listening to a young kid chew his ear off about every detail of every Ultra Q show he had ever attended. I remember being impressed that Jakob seemed genuinely interested in what the kid was saying.
Over the course of the following weeks on tour we became closer, and I learned not only that there was nothing faux about his pleasantness and affability, but just exactly how much this guy freaks out over music. This trait is invaluable in Jakob because as contradicting as it may seem, I don’t think most people in bands care about music as much as you think they do. I’m not saying that being in a band means you must develop an unhealthy sense of codependency with Spotify, I just mean that Jakob seems to care a lot more than most, and it’s cool to be around. Most musicians I have come into contact with -- some for better, some for worse -- talk about the same shit: either how much they despise other bands that are doing better than them or the new direction they are taking their music in. I am guilty of both of those more than I care to admit. But not Jakob. Jakob wants to talk about one thing more than anything else, and that is the music he’s currently obsessing over. Frankly it’s wonderful to be around. I spent sac religious amounts of time listening to him talk about The Exploding Hearts, The Chameleons, and My Bloody Valentine and I loved every second of it. Because the core of Jakob’s appeal and intrigue is his genuine passion for music. I mean he actually writes songs on tour, and for anyone that tells you they write songs on tour I will empirically tell you right now that they are all a bunch of lying babies because it is almost impossible to conjure up that kind of will power, but not for Jakob.
Our conversation last month danced around most of the talking points I’ve already mentioned. More importantly however, we talked about something that I think is seldom expanded upon in the current era of music consumption: How do you quantify success in the age of streaming? We began to talk about Ultra Q’s recent signing to Royal Mountain Records, whose current roster includes METZ, Mac DeMarco, and a new current favorite of mine, Gustaf. This is clearly a big deal for Jakob and the rest of the guys. They are one of the more “DIY” bands that I’ve met, which you probably wouldn’t notice because Ultra Q doesn’t use the DIY buzzword as some kind of weird badge of honor or because I’ve also noticed the more a band throws around that word the less applicable it actually is.
“I just feel stoked on everything right now, we had an agent and a manager for a few years, but both of those didn’t really work out, and now to finally be in a place where we have real support from a label we trust is just great.” His face is unquestionably elated when he says this. But my first question for Jakob was whether or not that ceased any existential worrying for him. There seemed to be two main concerns on his mind.
“What we would always tell ourselves when we started playing shows were things like: oh well once we get signed we’ll be set, or once we have booking agents, or whatever. I didn’t think my worrying would extinguish after those things happened, but I didn’t need to think about that because what needed to happen hadn't happened yet. What I’m learning now is kind of scarier and weirder because it’s way more vague. Like now we have people pushing our music, and it seems like people are listening to the songs, but are they? I worry about what it actually means for our songs to get streams and how those streams translate to real world things.”
Jakob brings up a point that I seldom hear talked about from an artist's perspective. There’s obviously a huge disconnect between the level of success one can conjure up on the internet and success that exists in the real world. This discrepancy, I think, is made even more abstract in the music ecosystem. The easiest and arguably most legitimate metric for quantifying a thriving career in music in the 21st century from a label’s perspective is tickets sold - it is easy for fans of an artist, or even the artist themself, to quantify success through Instagram followers and Spotify monthly listeners, but I think here is where the disconnect lies and where I think the problem was exacerbated over the last year. Because with 18 months of venue foreclosures and empty stages the only essence of understanding how many people give a shit about you falls on the brittle spine of streams and followers. So Jakob's deep sense of confusion and worrying is completely justified. I spent the same amount of time at home utterly confused and it wasn’t until I found myself in Rochester, NY last week looking out at a crowd of 10 people in a 450 capacity venue that this idea truly hit me. In no way, shape, or form can I expect two million streams on a song that I made, and a couple hundred thousand monthly listeners, to mean a goddamn thing other than using it as a palliative to make myself feel better when people ask me why I’m 23 and don’t have a job.
The second prong of his concerns is the thing that we all worry about and rarely vocalize, which is what if this just doesn’t work out?
“Obviously I am going to keep making music to some degree for the rest of my life but at what point, if you haven't reached the level of success that is required to be a full time band, do you go, well maybe this isn't something that I should be doing anymore?”
The only aspect of this I would like to elaborate on is that even though Jakob and I both fear this cultural pressure, that if you have
n’t met whatever metric of success you are comparing yourself to by 29, then you’re practically fucked, there needs to be an understanding that there is more to life than whatever venue you think you need to sell out in order to be worth something. And this is also where Jakob stands out as an exceptionally unique individual, because he does truly understand this because aside from his worrying, Jakob honestly just cares about writing songs. That is why Ultra Q is such a good band, because their music sounds like friends who like writing songs together and their videos look the same. For fucks sake even their fans look the same too.
When I brought this up to him all he said was “we’re just so unbelievably grateful for the people that we have managed to surround ourselves with, it’s literally just us making art with our friends which is great.”
Jakob and the boys are going to be playing some shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco in November and I highly recommend going, they also have two new wonderful songs out now titled Bowman, and Handheld.
I finished up our conversation by asking him a hypothetical of mine:
So let's imagine one of your favorite bands extends an offer to your band for the opening slot on their major North American tour. You are obviously elated by this and as a celebratory measure you decide to close the first night of the tour by covering a song from the headlining band. This decision ends up going extremely well, in your favor, and the crowd goes absolutely mad over your rendition of your favorite band's song. You can’t tell at this point if the audience is fawning over you because they appreciate the humor, or because they preferred your performance of the headliner's song. After the show the headliner (your idols) also seemed to have enjoyed the performance and saw the humor behind it. So you and the rest of the boys decide to do it again at the following show, that performance goes just as well if not better than the first. Within a couple of weeks you guys have swapped out a majority of your own songs for those of the headliner and the crowds continue to obsess over Ultra Q, you begin to sell more tickets than the headliner forcing your two bands to switch in rotation of the shows. Ultra Q is now being sent through the stratosphere in terms of critical and commercial acclaim, but all the recognition is being given towards the songs that you didn’t write, your band is eclipsing your favorite band by playing their songs. The peculiar thing is that no one in the general public seems to care that you haven't written these songs, it’s not as if they are unaware that these are not your songs, they simply just prefer yours vastly more than the other band. This peculiar career trajectory continues for years, every time the band whose songs you have been playing records an album, you go and record the same one and the record sales are immediately in the millions, whereas the band who wrote the songs see’s no success whatsoever. One night, after a sold out show to thousands, you find yourself backstage celebrating yet another successful performance when you are interrupted by a young child (how he got backstage is of little to no importance for this hypothetical) you approach the child and upon greeting him, he says this to you.
“Why don’t you play your old songs again? I really loved those ones, plus my dad can’t play his songs anymore because you keep stealing them.”
And on that note I asked Jakob this:
“What do you say to this child? And is what you are doing technically stealing? I mean you are paying his dad songwriting credits”
All he had to say was, “Oh shit that is heartbreaking. It's also so embarrassing. This is going to sound fucked up but that's kind of happened to us after we stopped playing Mt. Eddy songs. But to the kid I would say sorry and then start crying.”