Interview: Speedy Ortiz
With razor-sharp riffs and irresistible pop sensibility, this Massachusetts four-piece are primed to become one of indie rock’s major players
ndie-rock has long been cast as the music of choice for ‘slackers’, with the lazy drawl of bands such as Guided By Voices, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement seemingly created by artists who’d dragged themselves out of an inebriated slumber, strapped on their instruments and poured themselves into their microphones. Such a perception is to do a great disservice to the prolific outlook, articulation, relentless touring and dedication to their craft that these artists displayed.
Massachusetts-based indie-rockers Speedy Ortiz are already making waves not just on the indie-rock scene but in guitar-based music as a whole. With their brilliant full-length debut Major Arcana (reviewed very favourably here on Songwriting) receiving plaudits in both Rolling Stone and the NME, they’re threatening to become the next truly great ‘slacker’ band.
We caught Speedy Ortiz singer, guitarist and songwriter Sadie Dupuis in the midst of a hectic tour and was told, in definitely non-‘slacker’ spirit, that songwriters should always challenge themselves in their writing by never settling for the ‘easy phrase’.
How does touring affect your songwriting?
“Occasionally I’ll write down notes and phrases about a landscape we’re visiting, or something we see on tour, and that’ll wind up in a lyric later (or a poem, depending on what I’m writing at the time). And frequently we’ll come home from tour especially inspired by a band we played with, which may influence either the song I write or the parts that my bandmates contribute. Music we listen to in the van can do that, too.
“Like I remember driving across Nebraska on tour last January and seeing all these fields covered in frost that looked like they were made of metal. I wound up using that imagery in a couple of songs and poems.”
Nebraska is the home of Conor Oberst, one of my favourite lyricists. Who are the lyricists and musicians and bands who have influenced you?
“I was a huge Conor Oberst fan when I was younger, though I don’t think our lyrical styles are really similar. I really liked his lo-fi home recorded stuff, and when I first started recoding myself in my mom’s basement, some of his early albums were influences. The double-tracked vocals, the blown-out drums, the somewhat out-of-time keyboards. Of the Saddle Creek stuff, I was also really inspired by Cursive – their guitar lines and sounds. By that token, Fugazi is a huge influence, lyrically and musically (to whom Cursive, especially early Cursive, owe a huge debt). I love Chris Brokaw’s guitar playing. PJ Harvey was another big influence. I don’t know. I could go on about a lot of people.[cc_blockquote_right] I KIND OF HEAR [THE SONGS] IN MY HEAD PRETTY FULLY FORMED BEFORE I EVEN START PLAYING THEM [/cc_blockquote_right]“The bands we play with most are bands from Massachusetts and New England – Pile, Grass Is Green, Ovlov, Fat History Month. We’ve played with them so many times that it would be hard to avoid their influence. The first time I saw Fat History Month I was so excited about their songwriting that I came home and tried to write a Fat History Month rip-off song – which, now that I know the band better, I realise sounded nothing like Fat History Month! I like aggressive guitar rock but lately have been listening to a lot of quieter, more atmospheric stuff. Which is probably why my bandmates keep saying that all of the new demos I’ve sent them sound like ‘quiet’ songs.
“And then there’s Sebadoh, Pavement, Guided By Voices, Helium, a lot of seminal college indie stuff that I’d heard when I was a kid. But I was also into the K Records stuff that was coming out in the 2000s, like the Microphones or Mirah. And all of these are just as important to me as the bands who are our contemporaries.”
K Records and the lo-fi movement all sound so honest, like every note has a direct line into the emotion that led to its creation. Is that something you strive for in your songwriting?
“I’m not sure I have any direct goals with the songs. I kind of hear them in my head pretty fully formed before I even start playing them. If anything, my goal is to get the arrangement as close to what I hear in my head, so I can have a song to present myself. Which was easier in some ways and more difficult in others when I would record everything at home myself.”
What would you say the main differences are between writing alone and writing with others? Is it harder to present a fully realised song or to come with an idea and have it fleshed out with others? Which is your preferred method of writing?
“I’ve never been very successful at writing with others, unless I only had to come up with the vocals for someone else’s song (which I’ve done in a couple projects). I’m pretty particular about what I know a song should sound like, but I’m also bad at communicating those wants to others.
“For the first few releases with this band, it was either stuff I’d played everything on or everyone learned from demos I sent them in which I had played bass and drums and multiple guitar parts. On this album, I still wrote a couple of guitar and bass parts for Matt (guitarist) and Darl (bassist), and sent Mike some ideas for drums, but other than that we worked more collaboratively on arrangements. Which has made the project much more of a band than it was when we started. And I think the diversity of everyone’s influences has made for a more interesting record than if I just dictated what should happen at every turn.”
The album, Major Arcana, sounds like a natural progression. All the composite elements seem to work in harmony. It reminded me of Blur’s 13, especially the last part of Gary. What music inspired that album?
“I really love 13. That’s my favourite Blur album. I don’t know if there was a particular influence for our record, but like 13 I guess it’s a break-up record, so that’s a fitting comparison.
“A song or two was inspired by Unwound. Pile and Two Inch Astronaut, friends and ex-labelmates of ours, were also influential. I’m sure the things that I was listening to when writing these songs were not the things my bandmates were listening to when coming up with their own parts, except maybe U.S. Maple.
“Yeah, when I want to feel hella bummed out, No Distance Left To Run is a go-to. 1992 as well.”
You studied poetry to graduate level. How has having an academic interest in words shaped and influenced how you write?
“Probably the biggest effect has been a desire to not settle for an easy phrase. In a workshop with other writers, I guess just like playing shows with other musicians regularly, you become inspired by their style but also work to make your own voice. Mine has always involved playing with syntax and grammar to generate new meaning –pretty rarely do I say stuff in the most obvious or literal way. But really I think it’s that studying something in an academic setting forces you to have tons and tons of practice, and to read avidly. Both of which activities I guess can help writing in any genre.
“But the poetry I write is really pretty different from the songs I write, which are different from my tone when I do non-fiction or fiction.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I’M REALLY HAPPY TO EXIST RIGHT
NOW [/cc_blockquote_right] So in terms of grammar and syntax, would you say that playing with the meanings of words – say for example On A Plain – is something that has an impact on your writing?
“Sure. I spent a lot of my undergraduate thesis talking about plurality and multi-meaning in Pynchon. I’m a sucker for puns, high-brow and low-brow. I will say that I am not a huge Nevermind fan, though.”
If you could have written just one song, just one album and been part of one distinct, movement which would they be?
“Boston, Massachusetts, and New England at large has a really potent and supportive scene that encompasses great bands and songwriters. I couldn’t be happier to be part of that. I’m really happy to exist right now. My friends are making the best songs I’ve ever heard. I don’t know that I’d wanna swap!”
Who are the artists from that scene that Songwriting readers should know about?
“Some of the ones I mentioned before – Pile, Fat History Month, Grass Is Green, Ovlov, Kal Marks, Sneeze, Earthquake Party, Pretty & Nice, Krill, Saralee, Guerilla Toss. There are so many great bands who live in/near Boston right now.”
Bands such as Bratmobile and Team Dresch are as much about the message as the music. Does your songwriting have a message?
“If it does have a message, it’s more of a personal message. I’m politically minded but have never really used art as an outlet for expressing those views (other than longform or non-fiction writing, or occasionally ranting on social media). Maybe occasionally gender politics come into it, but not in any serious way.
“And since you mentioned Bratmobile I feel like I should address riot grrrl, since people frequently assume that we come from that tradition since I’m a female frontperson. While obviously the riot grrrl movement was hugely important, it hasn’t had a ton of bearing on my own practices as a musician and writer (other than paving the way for more female voices in media). Partially because my own politics make me more of a gender neutral lyricist.”
You’re currently touring, do you have any plans for a UK/European tour?
“Yeah, we’ll be there in February.”
To put you on the spot, what question would you like to be asked about your music?
“I’m not sure if I have a great answer for that. I’m always surprised and flattered when anyone cares enough to ask anything at all! You’ve already asked a bunch of things I was stoked to talk about.”
Interview: Damien Girling
Speedy Ortiz’s debut album Major Arcana is out now on Carpark Records and, if you’re USA-based then you can catch them at one of their upcoming performances, details of which can be found on the group’s Bandcamp page. Meanwhile, here’s the video for Tiger Tank, the first single from the LP out now…