Interview: Speedy Ortiz

Written by Max Freedman

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Quite literally two days after Speedy Ortiz were described as better than “a lot of other indie that is being put out in the current Pitchfork scene”, that same publication awarded the band’s debut album, Major Arcana, its coveted Best New Music tag. Fast forward a year later, and Speedy Ortiz are still the subjects of a pretty large buzz, all of it well-deserved; they’ve now released their Real Hair EP on top of Major Arcana, and are on the verge of yet another extensive stretch of touring. This success is in no way surprising; Major Arcana’s lyrical intricacy, noisy but melodic garage rock, and quavering, spine-shaking vocals made it one of 2013’s most memorable albums, one that’s still playing in many fans’ heads and speakers today.

As Speedy Ortiz began their brief European tour, we caught up with them to discuss seeing the word “ratchet” in college papers, academic alter egos, the veracity of Lana del Rey’s self-proclaimed fascination with poetry, and moving past Nirvana.

Photo Credit: Daniel Topete
Photo Credit: Daniel Topete

Your lyrics, as I’m sure you’ve been told many times, seem a bit more thoroughly mused over and wry than many of your contemporaries. It’s a nice match for the notably intricate soundscapes your band composes. In that regard, do you write lyrics and bring them to the band to write music for, does it work the other way around, or do you just mix and match?

Sadie Dupuis: With almost no exceptions, I compose music first by recording a demo (which can be just guitars or, like, guitars and bass and drums and keyboard and cellos and percussion and theremin and other bullshit). I’ll do a scratch vocal with lyrics that may or may not stick, though the vocal melodies generally don’t change much. The band will work from that and we generally rehearse without vocals, trying to get the instrumental stuff down. Sometimes the lyrics will change for a live set or change right when we’re recording, but once in a while a line will get stuck in my head that I think is good enough to write a whole song around. But it’s usually paired with a melody.

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Is there a certain state of mind you like to be in when writing lyrics for the band? It’s clear that many of the lyrics relate to depression, loneliness, and similar topics, but I’m wondering if you need to be fully experiencing these states to write about them, or if you can just reflect on past events to write your lyrics.

SD: Yeah, if I’m miserable at four in the morning sometimes a good song will come out. But also if I’m biking or walking or driving and not listening to any music, my brain is likely to cook up a melody or two. So I don’t necessarily have to be miserable. We’re working on writing new material now and I asked a friend if he would be mean to me and break my heart so I could write some stuff and he was like, “You’re being ridiculous. You don’t need a horrible interpersonal issue to write songs.” So I’ve been trying to come at it from more of a place of fun and craft lately, and less from a place of, like, “I must publicly shame a person who has hurt me.”

You’ve stated in interviews that writing song lyrics is different than writing poetry for you, but has teaching classes at U Mass Amherst impacted your lyric writing at all? Is there anyway that your teaching has influenced the band’s sound?

SD: The biggest impact teaching had on my writing was learning slang from students I might not otherwise have picked up on. We probably wouldn’t have a song in which the speaker describes herself as a “ratchet kid” if my students hadn’t used “ratchet” in like every essay or class discussion.

How do you balance touring with studying for an MFA and teaching? (Actually at this point it’s possible you’ve completed your MFA – just ignore this question if that’s the case)

SD: I finished all dat shiz! It sucked to balance it while it was ongoing, though. Especially when it got to the point where my students figured out I was in a band and would ask questions about articles they saw on Pitchfork or whatever. That felt hugely embarrassing. I went by Sarah for teaching and wore glasses so it was like an alter ego or something.

Do you like touring or teaching better, and how will this impact future plans for the band?

SD: I like them both! We’ll see. Both are tough jobs to find.

One of the things that, to me, helps Speedy Ortiz stick out from the myriad other punk bands out there today is that specifically wiry, dissonant, and anxious tone. Can you personally claim responsibility for this, or was this one of Matt Robidoux’s contributions to the band?

SD: I think the songs are naturally pretty dissonant because I grew up listening to and performing classical vocal music that was, like, super calculated clashing notes that resulted in these super euphoric and simultaneously terrifying compositions. And I’ve always tried to exploit that feeling in pop music since it’s what I react strongest to. As far as Matt’s guitar playing is concerned, he’s more interested in experimental performance and so the droney, more ambiguous harsh noise stuff on our records was him.

After the piece on Lana Del Rey in The Talkhouse, did she reach out to you or the band at all and try to start beef, as she’s known to do? Did any of you listen to Ultraviolence just for kicks?

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SD: No, who has she beefed with? I actually really like some of the songs on Ultraviolence, especially “Sad Girl.” Her production and singing has improved pretty vastly from the last record until now, I wish I hadn’t blown my LDR-critiquing load on her short film. Although I still don’t really buy her interest in poetry–it seems too calculated and based in a couple of mainstream names. Maybe that’s my MFA talking.

Do you find greater joy in writing songs or performing them? I ask because it sounds like your songwriting process could get pretty lengthy, with all the guitar intricacies.

SD: I like writing and recording more than performing. I relate more to recorded music than live performance as a listener, too. But maybe that’s just because I’m anxious and don’t like interacting with people.

I think in other interviews, you’ve already discussed your musical influences to no end. What might be more interesting is to trace the source of your intense stage presence. What acts in particular would you cite as influences on the ferocity of your live shows?

SD: Even though I appreciate amazing live performers (see: Nick Cave, Mark E. Smith, Angus from Liars), every time I try to personally assume a “stage presence” it feels contrived. I was really into theater when I was a kid and thought I’d be an actress, but performing these songs is sorta personal for me, and it feels disingenuous for me to try to act out a part or move in any kind of choreographed way. I feel like I’m telling a story and being wild onstage would be distracting.

But sometimes I have to kind of force myself to be more engaging, because I want to be a “responsible” showman — like, people paid money to see us perform, I don’t want to bore them. But especially now that sober 95% of the time, it feels contrived trying to pull any weird antics. Sometimes I go out in the crowd but only because I’m sick of people looking at me. Other times I try to pretend I’m dancing at the club and then I relax a little. Tonight we brought onstage some ghoulish actors from a Swedish haunted house, and that was pretty incredible.

Photo Credit: Daniel Topete
Photo Credit: Daniel Topete

Back to influences though – I think comparing you to modern acts is tough. Do you ever receive comparisons to contemporaries rather than the typical “big indie” names? How do you feel about that?

SD: We prefer comparisons to contemporaries because we’re way more part of our local music scene than any historical movement. Any comparisons to bands on Exploding in Sound records are accurate because we’re probably ripping them off in some way.

And now for something you’ve probably heard before, a question about 1990s comparisons – how often do you receive comparisons to In Utero? Some of the most harrowing moments on Major Arcana seem to recall that album pretty specifically.

SD: I love In Utero but I dunno if I ever need to hear Nirvana again in my life and have never tried to write anything Nirvana-sounding.

To me, Real Hair was almost mellower than Major Arcana, in ways. Was this a conscious decision? Do you plan to move more in this direction with upcoming releases?

SD: The production is different, for sure. We just did a few songs with Nico Vernhes (“Bigger Party” for Adult Swim and “Doomsday” which is coming out for the Less Artists More Condos series in October) and they’re a little more thoughtfully arranged than our previous stuff.

We’re definitely trying to move away from our live sound to making more conscious studio and production decisions.

Photo Credit: Daniel Topete
Photo Credit: Daniel Topete

The band has done its fair share of touring through other underground scenes besides the Boston one. What are some of your other favorite DIY communities?

SD: Kalamazoo, Philadelphia, Tallahassee, Chicago.

Devin, you’ve been touring with Speedy now that Matt has stepped out for the time being. It’s been about two months now, do you plan to contribute to the songwriting in the future or is this just a touring gig for you? How does being in this band compare to any other projects you’re involved in?

Devin McKnight: Yes, I am along for the ride indefinitely. It started as a touring thing, but I think we’ve all become well acquainted as band mates and had already been buds in the past. We’re currently working on some new stuff together and I’m doing my best to fit in with this writing process. It’s certainly a different experience since we all live in different places and have to do a lot of traveling and emailing to collaborate and get things done. Also the international touring is definitely a new thing for me since I’ve never been out of the country before this band. Other than the international aspect, this kind of touring thing is what I’ve been doing for years now and it’s great to still have the opportunity to be involved in making music at this capacity.

I think you might have the single least punk LiveJournal out there (but then again, what in the world is a punk LiveJournal?). Why haven’t you posted on there in a while? Are you planning on resurrecting that one?

Mike Falcone: We’re open to any tips on how to make our LiveJournal more punk rock. We’ll bring it back soon, but probably not as a tour diary, which gets kind of daunting after a while. I don’t think we intended it to turn into that sort of thing. Frequent tour diary updates are unfortunately a lot more involved and time consuming than quickly posting something to a twitter or tumblr account (or on our facebook, which is updated almost daily). There’s a lot of content on the Livejournal as it is now, and there will be more posted soon. It’s cool that anyone cares enough to ask about it.

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