From Summer Camp to Shaky Knees:
Bobby Moore Catches Up with Speedy Ortiz
It makes sense that Northampton, Mass. five-piece Speedy Ortiz is likened to guitar-driven alt-rock giants, as its members likely soaked up the sounds of home state heroes Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies in their formative listening years. Plus, a band that uses Livejournal for its official website hardly avoids an air of nostalgia. But a deeper look at the band’s D.I.Y. roots, and closer listen to guitarist and singer Sadie Dupuis’ biting wit, reveals forward-thinkers helping shape indie’s future instead of dwelling on ’90s rock clichés.
Dupuis agrees: “It would be just as accurate to say we’re rooted in the ’70s or ’80s or ’00s. More than anything we feel a kinship with contemporary bands and friends, and I think our sound has a lot more to do with our local scene than any kind of reverence for the past.”
The band’s backstory is well documented. While teaching kids songwriting lessons in 2011 at Buck’s Rock Performing and Creative Arts Camp in New Milford, Connecticut, Dupuis was inspired to pen original material and record it on her laptop. These songs became the basis for Speedy Ortiz. After a pair of solo releases, Dupuis formed a full band to play the burgeoning D.I.Y. house show scene in and around Boston.
Northampton alone had quite a scene when Speedy Ortiz began the punk house basement phase of its indie rock conquest, including fellow buzz bands California X and Potty Mouth. “We are like peas in a pod,” said bassist Darl Ferm of his hometown peers. “It was a lot easier to see everyone when house shows were more common a few years ago, but you still see the usual folks around.” This kinship was captured for posterity when Dupuis made a brief cameo in Potty Mouth’s 2013 video for “The Spins.”
With hype surrounding each vinyl and digital release that followed, and the Boston area house show scene tapering off since the band’s nascent days, venues have gotten bigger and bigger for Speedy Ortiz. For instance, the band’s next outdoor festival appearance on May 9th at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees festival. The band sees benefits in playing the big stage, without feeling the need to abandon its D.I.Y. roots, when a house show opportunity arises. “We flop around between all different kinds of venues – from big festivals to basements to club shows to art spaces–and there are benefits and drawbacks of each,” Dupuis said. “We’re generally most excited about playing festivals because it affords us a chance to see a lot of the touring bands we can’t see in Boston because we’re always on tour ourselves. And there’s a certain kind of energy that comes only from playing for a really big crowd, which festivals certainly lend themselves towards. On the other hand, there’s less of a sense of immediacy and it’s harder to get close to our audience, which are aspects we really value at smaller club shows or D.I.Y. shows. So we like to keep a balance between the big stuff and the little stuff.”
Shaky Knees offers those chances to see touring acts and friends from other cities. “They offered us a spot and we were like, ‘Yep’,” said Dupuis. “We’re stoked to hang with our buddies in Metz on Saturday. Hopefully, we can get there a day early to see Mitski, too.”
Critically-acclaimed music, appealing to a wide audience, is the bridge between D.I.Y. spaces and outdoor festival stages for Speedy Ortiz. Having a lyricist in the band with a Master’s degree in poetry, and a quiver full of guitar riffs and verbal quips, helped the cause, too.
What grabbed many listeners right out the gate in 2012 was tongue-in-cheek A-side “Taylor Swift,” on which Dupuis nonchalantly lists off potential partners (“I got a boy in a hardcore band, I got a boy gets it on to Can, then there’s the boy sings those sad songs I like”). For many listeners, attention is drawn to how these lyrics still seem provocative coming from a woman in the 21st century, though comparable claims have been put to song for years by male rappers, cock rockers, and Lou Bega. If “Taylor Swift” rocked the boat for a handful of listeners, imagine their reactions to “Fun,” a cut from 2013 full-length Major Arcana. Twenty years after Liz Phair’s razor-sharp lyrics to “Flower” shamelessly cast her as the “blowjob queen,” Dupuis turned singer-songwriter foremother’s sexual exploration on its head, proclaiming, “I get my dick sucked on the regular.” Of course there is no multiple decade gap of fearless females looking to topple gender expectations, but it is rare that such lyrics infiltrate the margins of the mainstream.
Major Arcana (Carpark Records) was a benchmark for the band, getting Pitchfork’s envied “best new music” nod. Not bad for a project that had only existed as a full band for two years. Internet hype and a growing fan base, including lots of mid-20s nostalgia junkies who insist they’ve discovered a modern day, female-fronted Pavement, has kept the band constantly on the road, opening for bands like genuine ’90s rockers the Breeders and veteran trio Ex-Hex.
Fans have had their appetites for new songs whet by 2014’s Real Hair EP. Like the “Taylor Swift” single that kick-started Speedy Ortiz’s success, this set of songs was recorded by Boston-based alt-rock producer extraordinaire Paul Q. Kolderie (The Pixies, Juliana Hatfield, Dinosaur Jr.).
Last year also saw the band’s first lineup change, as Devin McKnight (Grass is Green) replaced founding guitarist and live showman Matt Robidoux. Fortunately, McKnight is as capable as his predecessor of matching Dupuis in Helium style angular guitar duels, both live and in the studio.
The band’s frenetic, guitar-driven sound, and Dupuis’ mix of frank lyrics about her personal experiences and scathing takes on social issues, is on display again on Foil Deer, released April 21st by Carpark. The expected poetic storytelling and breakneck riffage are present in spades, but seem more planned, polished, and professional than before, harnessing the sound the band presumably would have captured on tape all along given its current resources.
Fortunately, Foil Deer and the accolades it will likely collect from indie rock journalists and bloggers will not signal an official exit from the underground. They probably won’t need you to release a cassette tape for them on your tiny label anytime soon, but at the very least, you can probably convince them to play your basement or living room. “House shows are the best shows,” Ferm said. “There haven’t been that many in Boston in the past couple years, so we haven’t been playing even close to the same amount that we did a few years ago. Still, there are certain houses we play consistently on tour.”
Why play house shows, when the indie-friendly circuit of venues is your oyster? For Speedy Ortiz, D.I.Y. spaces are appealing simply because they, like the kids attending these shows, are fans of affordable, accessible shows. “It’s also probably a product of stubbornness on our part – we could be playing only 21-and-up shows with huge ticket prices, but we know that a lot of our fans are younger kids or folks who don’t want to pay $20 for a concert,” Dupuis explained. “I mean, when I’m at home I like going to $5 donation basement shows. It would feel really alienating to stop playing the kinds of shows we like patronizing. “
So if Speedy Ortiz is nostalgic for anything, it’s their regional house show scene, circa 2011. Creative partnerships and other opportunities born in basements then played a role in the success the band now enjoys. And with these successes earned in the 2010s, when the internet nullifies many of the perceived benefits of major label backing, the band has freedom to map out its next step. This journey, from summer camp to Shaky Knees, is guided by house show kids, exercising their freedom to sometimes stay D.I.Y. without fearing silly notions of “selling out” when sights are set higher. After all, worrying about being a poser is a relic of the ’90s.
Photo by Shervin Lainez.