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Speedy Ortiz: “You just have to practice a lot on your own – that's how you become a better musician and a better writer”

Speedy Ortiz: “You just have to practice a lot on your own – that's how you become a better musician and a better writer”

11 April 2014, 12:00

Sadie Dupuis has it all. She’s talented, pretty, smart, funny, a little crazy and down-to-earth. Grown up in New York, she has always been surrounded by arts (thank to her mum who is a visual artist) and has been writing songs and poems since she was a kid. After breaking up her first band Quilty, she started Speedy Ortiz as a lo-fi solo project in 2011, self-releasing the album Death of Speedy Ortiz and the Cop Sicker EP. The project then expanded into a full band when Sadie moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to pursue an MFA in poetry and met guitarist Matt Robidoux, drummer Mike Falcone and bassist Darl Ferm.

I meet them in the midst of their first UK shows, with Dupuis raving about the buzz and thrill of their early successes. “It felt a bit like being at a Boston show where all your friends are going,” she explains. “Everyone was singing along, hugging each other, and dancing so much. It was very heartwarming. We stayed at the venue talking to people till pretty late and after a few seconds I was chatting with them it felt as if I had known them for kind of a while.” The backstage atmosphere of the band is charmingly chaotic – laugh-a-minute and all over the place, like a university house party.

Speedy Ortiz have just released the Real Hair EP (still on Carpark Records) which was recorded with long time collaborator Justin Pizzoferrato at his Sonelab studio, a huge space in an old factory in Easthampton, Massachussets, just ten minutes from where the band live. It’s the same studio where they recorded their debut album Major Arcana last year, but this time they were also joined by Paul Q. Kolderie, a famous Boston producer who has worked with bands of the likes of Radiohead and Pixies, and recorded Speedy Ortiz’ first single “Taylor Swift” b/w “Swim Fan”.

“That single was done in just one day session”, Sadie explains, “just Mike and I, and it was actually the first time the two of us played together. Then Pizzoferrato did the overdubs.” Though Pizzoferrato and Kolderie had collaborated on that single before, the Real Hair EP is the first time they worked on a project together in person as a team and with the full band. “It was very interesting to hear them speaking together about sort of nerdy producers’ stuff”, Mike recalls. Sadie wants to add that the new EP is different from everything else they have done so far.

Sadie taught songwriting at UMass for a few years but since the band has become a full time job she had to quit teaching just a few days before embarking on this UK tour. “Teaching is about monitoring your practice and coming up with different ways to teach yourself”. To her songwriting is all about practice. “It’s a predominant thing that determines what you are able to do. I have been writing songs since I was a pretty young kid. My dad had a piano and since I was a baby I used to hit on it and then I was singing songs before I can remember, much to my parents annoyance. Then I started playing music a bit more seriously when I was thirteen”. She didn’t do a lot of formal training on guitar, just a bit of singing and then she mainly studied theory. “Basically, you just have to practice a lot on your own, that’s how you become a better musician and a better writer”. Mike got into music very young too. “For some reason my grandparents had cable TV so I used to watch a lot of things like MTV, which most parents didn’t want their kids to watch at that age, and my family was also buying records for me. Then towards the end of middle school with my friends we were making this kind of hardcore music where we were shouting like douchebags just to be funny.”

Sadie always carries a notebook with her where she writes down phrases and whatever comes up into her head. “I typically write music first, then go look at my notebook and see if anything I have written down can fit that slot.” Her lyrics are autobiographical for the most part but she also finds inspiration in other things, like for instance comic books. She actually named her band after a secondary character in Love and Rockets, one of the first series in the underground comics shift from mainstream superhero narratives to darker, alternatives stories that happened in the 80s. The song “Black Hole”, of her previous band Quilty was based on a Charles Burns’ comic book, and the last track on the Real Hair EP, “Shine Theory”, is based on a Usami Maki’s manga. “But it’s still autobiographical, as that’s about my emotions when I read those stories and I modify the references anyway”. She then confesses me that she spent part of the afternoon at Soho’s comic book shop Gosh! looking for a couple of titles.

Speedy Ortiz’ songs tend to sound on the record as if they were arranged in a way that they already made sense in a live performance. “When I first record on home demo I don’t think of that at all,” Sadie specifies, “then I just decide whatever effect I can turn on and could sound cool on a weird lo-fi version, and when the band rehearse that we try to translate it in a way that works live.” Things may change in the future though as they are trying to gravitate towards having more of a discrepancy between what they record in studio and what they play live. “So far we have mainly done records where we kinda sounded like a band playing live which is cool, but in the future I would like to change things a bit as there are some cool effects I have been coming up with that you can’t replicate entirely live”.

Along with songs Sadie has always written poems since she was little too, leading to her deciding to pursue an MFA in poetry. Her thesis was submitted the day before we meet and as we speak it’s in the mail on its way to her committee. “As soon as we finish this tour we have just a couple of days off then I have to defend it in front of my thesis committee, then fly to DC and meet with the rest of the band as we’re starting our US tour.”

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Sadie Dupuis Speedy Ortiz

Their debut album Major Arcana was named Best New Music by Pitchfork and has generally received very positive reviews. I want to know how much importance they give to media. “I don’t think they influence us in any way in the kind of stuff we make”, Sadie tells me. “I don’t take it too seriously whether the review is positive or negative, but obviously a positive review is nice to read and it’s also fun to see different interpretations that other people apply to whatever we make”. Mike can’t help but read most reviews. “I get too curious. If you know that someone has written about you on the internet there is that kind of thing that goes off when you can’t help but look for it and read it”. Sadie jokes it’s like when you are in middle school and you know that someone has written something about you in one of the bathrooms. “You just want to know what they wrote about you, like whether you are a babe or a dummy!”

In pretty much every single article about Speedy Ortiz, you will read tons of comparisons with American indie-rock bands of the 90s, something you can’t help but at least partially agree with. The comparison has been magnified by divulging things like that Sadie was in Babement, an all female Pavement cover band, the importance of which was apparently overstated. “That was just for two shows! My friend and I knew how to play some Pavement songs so we just did a cover set at a gig, which was just like a college party, and then we decided to do that again the following weekend – though our drummer couldn’t make it. Then another friend of mine that worked for a magazine and came to one of the shows wrote about it in one of our first interviews and afterwards everybody picked up on that!” They were also going to start a Sebadoh cover band called Shebadoh (all those funny names!) but her friend moved to Florida – so that will have to wait till she comes back.

Cover bands aside, have they started getting a little tired of the 90s music comparison? “Though that’s not totally representative of what we do we are frequently fans of the bands we get compared to so we can’t really complain”, Sadie points out. “There were so many other bands before the 90s we totally love and have been influenced by, but I understand that there are lots of similarities between our sound and some music of the early 90s.” Mike kids: “Yeah, how come we are not Minutemen influenced?” In the end they both seem to be quite cool with it and agree that the 90s music category is pretty fashionable at the moment. “There is a sort of twenty-year cycle of what people want to write about and we are obviously in that decade at the moment. But songwriting is not about choosing what decade to sound similar to”, Sadie concludes.

As all three of us are clearly huge fans of that sort of 90s underground indie-rock scene, we start discussing our favourite records and the ones we think that really changed the music history. Mike and I agree that it will have to be something by Pavement, maybe Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, as they are that kind of band there seems to be a before and an after. Sadie first jokes saying it might be something by Fatboy Slim. “I am just taking it to the negative and ridiculous as sometimes we are asked stupid questions on what we think about 90s bands like Aqua or Fatboy Slim,” she jokes. She then becomes more serious and admits that Either/Or by Elliot Smith is probably the album that has influenced her songwriting the most.” They carry on throwing names and finally seem to conclude that Spiderland by Slint is the right choice.

From “Tiger Tank” to “Ka-Prow” and the more recent “No Below”, Speedy Ortiz’ videos have always been cool, so I ask them how important they think music videos can still be today. “I really like them, but I don’t necessarily think they are super important as a promotional tool”, Sadie says. “People put up fan footage on the internet and that gets the same if not more views, and also you just tend to watch a video of a band you already like anyway. But on the other hand there were bands when I was a kid that I wouldn’t have known of if their videos hadn’t been awesome.“ Mike starts listing his personal favourites which range from anything Casey Raymond directed or Liars were in, to less obvious choices such as El Guincho “Bombay” from three years ago. “That was probably one of my favourites of all the time. It’s not that there is a proper channel that figures stuff for you, you just have to seek out for those bands. I mean there are channels like MTV but they don’t always work the way you expect them to. Also sometimes there are forgettable songs that have amazing videos, like Wax’s “Southern California”, directed by Spike Jonze, which has this guy running on fire in slow motion.”

Guitarist Matt reappears and joins us just in time to talk about the Northampton music scene, something he knows better as Sadie is originally from New York and Mike from Connecticut. “It’s very small. It’s like a village where you see the same people at the shows you go to and pretty much every member of the audience does something creative like they are in a band or they are visual artists or something. It’s just a really active pocket for the small area that it is in itself. As a band I think we identify with the larger Massachusetts / Boston demographic. So we think of ourselves as a Boston band though technically we aren’t but what we do is closer aesthetically to artists from that city. Boston is very similar to Northampton just on a larger scale.”

While the influences are obvious and at times Speedy Ortiz’ music may seem a bit derivative, with their angular, crunchy guitars, their flexible, oblique rhythms and surrealistic, witty lyrics, these Massachusetts kids have managed to create a distinctive sound that feels as nostalgic as refreshing, and are set for an ever-brighter future.

The Real Hair EP is out now on Carpark Records. The band are set for a US tour with Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, before returning to the UK in May – details here.

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