Interview: +/- on a 20 year footprint in indie rock
Although the crowd was small, it was fiercely loyal. +/- is cut from the same fiber that weaved indie rock giants including Versus and Sonic Youth. They’ve toured internationally several times, recently released their single “All the Light Left Behind,” and were in, out, and through SXSW this year playing at multiple venues.
We caught up with lead vocalist/guitarist James Baluyut and guitarist Patrick Ramos after the performance to talk about how they got their name, Filipino musicianship, and an incomparable career making music.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
From the Intercom: +/- has existed for over 20 years now, how would you describe the band’s journey through two decades?
James Baluyut: Well, I would say we were very active in the first decade. We treated it as our job. We did freelance stuff and had side jobs, but it was really our main focus for those first ten years. And we were touring a lot. Really pushing. The last decade it’s been a little more mellow with creating. We kept going because it’s a big part of our lives.
It’s sort of also a way for us to hang out and make things. That’s the important thing. And I think if we touch many people now and people like our stuff, it’s all worth it. The last ten years with families and kids and stuff — that makes it a little difficult to kind of do it full time if you’re not making a whole lot of money doing it. I think we would still be writing. I don’t really want to stop doing that. It’s still an important thing for us to keep writing and keep trying to put records out.
FTI: I had a question about the name. +/-. When I think +/-. I’m thinking about batteries, I think volume controls, I think Ed Sheeran albums. It’s very iconic. Could you tell me the story about the name and its meaning to you personally? Has it changed over time?
Patrick Ramos: We’re big hockey fans and that’s a stat in hockey. It’s not a great stat. The idea was it sort of measures your on ice performance even if you’re not a star. Yeah, it was one of the early stats in hockey before the whole data revolution. Now they have all these other algorithms and formulas to gauge players, but it was a really rudimentary stat.
It just says, when you’re on the ice and you’re not a goal scorer, do good things happen or do bad things happen? Do goals get scored against you on the ice? So it’s a kind of way you measure inside people and that’s the way we kind of thought of it.
James: So like a non-star might have a high plus minus, even though he doesn’t score a lot just because he’s very good defensively. He’s a support player and we were support players for a band called Versus before this. The idea was, what happens when the non-stars try to do something?
Patrick: There were other things too. We liked the way it looked. It made it a nightmare to find us. But at the same time, the name also should be — if a list is alphabetized correctly — at the top. But it never is. That was secondary though.
FTI: Could you describe the rock scene you were growing up with? Was it pretty ethnically or culturally diverse. Were there a lot of Asian faces and voices?
James: Oh no, not really. I mean, we both grew up with 80s New Wave — New Order, The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, that kind of thing. All music was white, especially new wave. Very white. But, every once in a while, you’d see someone like Joey Santiago — he’s a big one.
You would see people of color, but generally there wasn’t much. But anybody can do this. And I think I took the cue from my older brother in Versus. He was always in bands when he was growing up. And I just kind of liked it. Patrick had a similar journey, I think.
Patrick: Yeah, same. I had some older brothers that brought home records here. They brought home The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow. Brought home Joy Division, New Order, and R.E.M. I was like, “What is this stuff?” It blew my mind.
I was playing drums when I was young. And then his older brothers and some friends of his borrowed my drum set and a Casio keyboard, and they started writing songs. And it never occurred to me to actually try to do it seriously. So that was also an inspiration for sure. It made me feel like I could try to do that as well.
FTI: It’s nice to still see you all pushing.
Patrick: We still want to give white people a chance. Right?
FTI: There’s so much untapped potential culturally that we’re borrowing as Filipino Americans even though we’re not intending for it to be that way.
James: Tagalog is sort of a singsong language. Our parents didn’t really teach us to speak it, but if you listen to people speak Tagalog, it’s always like a lot of up and down. I hate to say it like this, but we always joke that Filipinos are musical people, but I think it’s in the language.
Patrick: In my extended family, I do have a lot of cousins who are great singers and I find it’s more rare to find a Filipino that can’t sing in-key. Like almost all Filipinos can kind of sing in-key. And it’s just not the same for a lot of other people. (laughs)
James: Growing up in our community, people had this thing, it was called minus one. Before anybody had heard of karaoke. It’s basically the same idea before it was a cultural phenomenon.
FTI: I saw in a tweet that you went to Alaska recently to write music. Could you tell me about what that is?
James: Well, every year we bring our families together for a barbecue. We decided this year to just do it in Alaska. I was trying to get to all fifty states before I turned fifty. Patrick had also been trying to do this, but the pandemic foiled him. It was an excuse to go to Alaska, that’s what that’s all about.
An interesting story there. When we arrived, we got into our Airbnb and we were like, oh, we should go get groceries. And we went to the closest market and they have all this Filipino food there. It was the weirdest thing.
James: It was a Filipino market. It was called New Sagaya. We were like “Longanisa! Tocino!” They had everything. They had balut in the refrigerator. And we were like, oh my god–
Patrick: We’re home! (laughter)
James: We feel comfortable here. And I guess Anchorage has Filipinos. I had no idea.
Patrick: Just to add to your initial question, we did bring a few instruments to write some stuff. During the pandemic, we didn’t really get to go to the studio a whole lot. There was a period where we were able to get in before things got really bad. The end of 2020, we started to go back in the studio, but then another wave came and then we weren’t able to get together to record. We were using the trip as another way to write.
FTI: Would you recommend going to Alaska to other bands?
James: Yes. It’s a wonderful place to go.
FTI: Try to book a show there.
James: We did try! Do you know about how we played in the Philippines around 2008, 2009? How would you describe that?
Patrick: That fulfilled a lifelong dream for me, to play in the Philippines. We had a couple shows in Manila, I think. Two or three.
James: We had three shows the first time and two or three shows the second time. But our first show in Manila was in a mall.
Patrick: They had this massive three story banner and our photo was on it.
FTI: Did you get to keep it?
James: No. That would have been huge.
Patrick: I actually asked to.
James: The person who brought us got it. And it was going to be like hundreds of dollars to ship to us. We didn’t have any place to put this huge banner. It sort of blew my mind because even at the very first show, we started our first song and everybody was singing along. We had just put out a record three months ago and even those songs they knew. It was nuts.
Patrick: I had gone there the year before and I had no idea that anybody knew us. It wasn’t a lot of people, but there was a following there. It’s all you can ask for.
James: There’s actually a great music scene there. We became friends with all these other bands in Manila and we’re still in touch. They come to New York and hang out.
FTI: +/- has quite the following in Japan, Taiwan. How did that come about if you know?
James: I think what happens in Japan for small bands is one person will be super obsessed with your band and then try to bring you over and then it goes from there.
There was a band called Bloodthirsty Butchers, this Japanese band who had played in the US with Versus. They became Versus fans. They were the ones who brought us over to Japan initially. Took us on tour, took us under their wing. That was a great experience.
FTI: I read you and your brothers have been deeply involved in the New York scene through Flower, through Versus and +/-. It’s pretty astounding to learn about this as a Filipino American. Did a lot of Filipino Americans come to support the show when you were playing?
James: Some. We definitely meet some of them now. I don’t know if we had an especially Filipino or even Asian audience.
Patrick: No, not really. Not really at all. And that’s not it’s not a dig. I think the music is not for everyone. The people that are into it are people who are into this kind of music. It’s not like it’s not like there is a crowd of Filipinos waiting outside. But that doesn’t bother me. My parents still for a long time were like, what is this music? (laughs) What is this thing you’re doing?
We weren’t on a mission to prove Filipino Americans can play in indie rock. That’s what we’re going to do anyway. You put this stuff out and you don’t know what it does. If it empowers another Filipino kid who’s interested in the music, that’s awesome.
FTI: I don’t know if you keep track of any other musicians. If you do, are there any favorites that you’re thinking about?
James: I mentioned Joey Santiago in the Pixies. When I think of Filipino musicians, I usually think of the ones that I met in the Philippines. I really love this Filipino band called Ciudad. We’ve become quite good friends with them. Their songwriter Mikey is a genius. They’re not huge in the Philippines, but they keep doing what they do. And it’s just it’s just really good. But there are a lot of good bands.
My nephew’s in a band called Ang Bandang Shirley. He’s the main songwriter of that. They’re really awesome. We played together when we were in Manila. There’s another band called Slow Hello that I really like. Maybe one day people here will discover those bands more.
Patrick: My daughter’s favorite band is beabadoobee. She’s half Filipino. We let my daughter skip school so she could be the first in line at the New York show in the spring. So she got there at ten in the morning. I like her stuff. It’s good.
FTI: So there’s this kind of interesting parallel that I’ve noticed between the Basco brothers of film and TV and the Baluyut brothers of New York indie rock. What’s it like to play music with your brothers for all these years?
James: Brother relationships are very important and it probably seeps into the music in some way. You hear about these families where the kids don’t talk to each other anymore. They grow older. They’re like “I don’t talk to my brother”. In a Filipino family, that’s not an option. You’re going to see them a lot. You’re going to be into the same things. I’ve seen a lot of Filipinos where their brother is the best man. And I don’t see that so much outside Filipino culture.
FTI: I notice you guys are playing so many shows at SXSW. Is a US tour in the realm of possibility?
James: It’s always in the realm of possibility, but we’re pretty busy in our lives these days. With a family and kids it’s hard to get away for a long period of time. This is probably the most we can do. For all of us to make it around the country is difficult. But we did a West Coast tour in 2019 and before the pandemic.
So we did LA, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. And Versus played Riotfest in Chicago 2017. We’ll do things, but they’re usually short.
Patrick: Unless the next record becomes this massive.
FTI: New record?
Patrick: It’s in the works.
James: Hopefully next year.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort, in-person at SXSW 2022 in Austin, Texas on March 18th, 2022.
“All the Light Left Behind“ is out now on major streaming platforms.