Last month I found myself in an almost dangerously sweltering show at Death By Audio in Williamsburg, contemplating the ongoing 90’s alt-rock revival from up close. The evening started off with the riff-heavy California X, whose crunchy guitar sound brings to mind a hundred different grunge and alternative singles from my early adolescence, and continued with Roomrunner, a group whose music is specifically designed to encourage headbanging. By the time headliners Speedy Ortiz took the stage, the crowd had entered a kind of fugue state, consisting of a combination of heat exhaustion and mosh fatigue, which was the perfect atmosphere for the heady music that makes up their repertoire.
In the midst of my enjoyment of their set, I wondered if the most emblematic musical genre for Bloomberg’s New York is synth pop. None of the bands that night were from here; Speedy Ortiz are from Northampton, Massachusetts, and California X is from nearby Amherst. Roomrunner’s blistering grunge rock outfit is based in Baltimore, where there’s considerably more space to practice and a lower likelihood of noise complaints. The scene in New York, on the other hand, seems more receptive to electronic acts, crowd pleasers like Blondes and Tanlines, who make clean, hygienic music for dense, high rent cities. I’ve always noticed that if you cross the Hudson River into New Jersey, for example, the music takes on a more guitar-centric aspect, tinged with punk earnestness.
Speedy Ortiz share that earnestness in at least one important way: the band clearly wants to say something. Singer and lead guitarist Sadie Dupuis has been recognized multiple times in the band’s press for her willingness to take risks and play with ideas through her lyrics. Her vocal delivery has the kind of hyper-articulate pronounced texture of a Dan Bejar or Emily Haines, leaving no doubt of the importance of the lyrics to the song as a whole. The music provides the perfect partner for the lyrics, carrying the melodies forward, while also stealing the listener’s attention in its own right. The rhythms kick back and forth to unusual time signatures, alternating between ear-pleasing stoner rock and intricate start-stop dynamics. Lead guitarist Matt Robidoux and Sadie have a riveting onstage rapport, engaging in constant call and response with each other’s guitar lines, trading angular stabs and driving rhythms.
I caught up with the band outside the venue after their set. It was one of the hottest nights of the year, but felt cool compared to the insane temperature inside.
What are you guys up to right now?
Sadie Dupuis: We’re going on tour in three days to support our new album.
How long have you guys been touring this new album?
SD: We just started. We’re hitting the west coast and back.
So you’re doing your MFA?
SD: I’m working on one now at UMass Amherst.
And what are you reading right now?
SD: I started reading Kavalier and Clay again recently. I got halfway through it in 2006 but then lost my copy somehow. So I’m reading it now. I’m about six chapters in.
What do you have to read for your MFA?
SD: Nothing really. It’s pretty self-directed. I did a pretty great seminar where we read Brenda Shaughnessy and some other excellent authors.
Any themes you wanted to bring out in your new album?
SD: I was reading a book about the history of black magic from the 60’s called A Brief History of Black Magic. It’s funny, because half of the book is very skeptical, but then it states deadpan that Aleister Crowley is the reincarnation of such and such. They have a lot of magic squares and weird stuff like that.
I’m from New York before I moved away from here I remember there were a lot of Santeria shops. I’ve seen a poultry shop specifically for the slaughtering of chickens for black magic practices.
But I’m not into that stuff personally! I believe in my computer.
“Tiger Tank” is a cool name for a song.
SD: It’s about female lucha libre, which is a really cool thing. There are a lot of Youtube videos of it. I don’t know too many wrestling moves other than the Rock Bottom and People’s Elbow. The director of the video is also a fan of the comic book Love and Rockets which is where we got our name (Speedy Ortiz is a character).
What do you think of bands that have great online presences but don’t play a lot of shows?
Matt Robidoux: I think it’s cool that a lot of bands can come up that way. Odd Future and Kitty Pryde. I don’t know who else has done that.
SD: Cloud Nothings is an example.
Darl Ferm: Any band with a good Pitchfork score would probably fit into that category. It’s weird when bands haven’t played a lot of shows, but people are aware of them. Creates a pretty unique situation.
I find the opposite even weirder sometimes though. Bands who do big shows but don’t seem to exist on the internet.
Mike Falcone: Spraypaint are an amazing band with nothing online. But I think it’s kind of like a punk thing at this point to not be online, because it’s kind of like going back to old school DIY.
SD: Yeah, because then you actually have to come to the shows to hear the music and be part of the community to have access to the music rather than just going on Soul Seek.
MR: There are tons of punk bands we’d love to play with and there’s no web contact. Quite a few bands from Olympia, Washington. They have a pretty deep hardcore scene.
MF: There’s also a lot of stuff that’s only on cassette, too. Summer Salami is one example.
SD: The Purple Traitor. He’s our favorite. From Iowa City.
MF: Yeah, almost impossible to find. Then there’s Charles Taterbug, from Iowa City, and Tracey Trance – all these people exist on tiny, petite cassette tape labels only and don’t have anything online. That’s not what we aspire to be in terms of getting our music out there, but I think we came from that.
Thanks to Robyn Caplan for contributing ideas for this post.
Speedy Ortiz’s album Major Arcana is available now from Carpark Records.