Smile Politely

Year Of The Weird: An interview with Speedy Ortiz

Speedy Ortiz are a band perpetually in motion. Since releasing Twerp Verse in April, they’ve embarked on what seems like a non-stop tour, which includes joining legendary musician Liz Phair on several tour dates later this year. Past years have been no different, with the band consistently releasing albums, singles, remixes, songs for charity compilations, and constantly, constantly touring since 2011. The quartet of Sadie Dupuis (vocals, guitar), Mike Falcone (drums), Darl Fern (bass), and Andy Molholt (guitar) are, undoubtedly, superhuman.

Friday’s show at 51 Main marks Speedy Ortiz’s first show in Champaign-Urbana in almost three years. We spoke with Dupuis about the writing process behind new album, and how taking different approaches can yield pleasantly unexpected results.

SP: Very excited that you’re coming back to C-U. This isn’t the first time you’ve come through; what keeps you coming back to our area?

Sadie Dupuis: We had a really good experience the first time we played there, and people have been really kind to us every time we’ve come through. It’s a cool place! And we also have some friends in town.

SP: Was the You Are Not Alone benefit the first time you were in Champaign?

Dupuis: No, I think Pygmalion was the first time we played there. It was the first time I ate Chipotle too, because I think that was the catering. I didn’t eat it again for a few years.

We came and played Pygmalion in, I want to say, 2013? [Editior’s Note: It was 2014] But we’ve come back to do a few club shows. I think we played at the Highdive [now 51 Main] twice. One time we played there, someone who’s now a good friend came up to me at the merch table and had written a really nice note about how Speedy had inspired her to start drumming and playing in bands. It was such a nice gesture, and we became really good friends after that.

SP: Christine Pallon, from Spandrels?

Dupuis: Yeah! Christine is the coolest person. This was a long time ago, maybe about four years ago. We became friends, which led to us becoming friends with Casey and the other Spandrels people. So that’s more or less how that benefit show happened, about a year later. And it was also the third or fourth time we’d played Champaign, but we haven’t been back since. So this is going to be really fun!

SP: What was it like transitioning from writing and recording the first Speedy Ortiz album solo to working with a full band?

Dupuis: I didn’t track the drums on the first album, but I did record everything else. But Speedy Ortiz started as a solo project, where I was home-recording and playing all the instruments, so the first couple of things we put out were all me home recording anyway. So I was always kind of used to working that way, and I never really consider a song written unless I’ve written a demo of them. And I tend to go pretty in-depth with the demos in terms of instrumentation. I’ve always written by recording and making home demos, and that’s been true since I was first writing songs on a 4-track. So the songwriting process was pretty identical in that I just started making demos in Logic and kept building them out. The big difference with the Sad13 project is that, with Speedy, I get to a point where I feel like we can have enough to rearrange it with the band and go from that, whereas with Sad13, I was staying up at all hours adding things and tinkering. They’re two completely different things, and it’s really satisfying to take something from start to finish by yourself and not feel like it would benefit from bouncing ideas from someone else. But it’s also really satisfying to send songs to Speedy and get everyone’s feedback on different parts. They’re identical, up until the point that there’s mixing, if that makes sense.

SP: It does, and it sounds like it’s grown to be a much more collaborative process, even if you’re demo-ing the stuff yourself to start.

Dupuis: I’ll get the songs as close as possible when I’m demo-ing. On this record, actually, one thing that changed when going back to play with Speedy was that I got better at home recording. So all the synths on the record are the synths I played on the demos. We’re building up from the same sessions I started with, but instead of me continuing to play everything, my bandmates are able to add their parts and we subtract some of the stuff I wrote.

SP: One song that’s really worth noting off the new album is “Lucky 88.” It felt very out-of-left-field, both in the context of the album and the Speedy discography as a whole. The heavy emphasis on electronic elements makes it really stand out from the rest of the album. What was the motivation behind using something so different as the lead single for the album?

Dupuis: It just felt like the strongest song, and certainly the poppiest song we’ve written. I tend to gravitate towards the more complicated songs, like the ones we’ve written that will have eight sections that don’t repeat. Those are the ones I feel most proud of, but not always the ones that people connect to most. The song that people like the most by us is “No Below.” That’s maybe one of my least favorite of our songs, to the extent that we didn’t even play it for the longest time. “Lucky 88” kind of finds that balance, in that I’m really proud of it, and we put a lot of weirdness into in, but it is a pop song with a structure that other people can understand and aren’t put off by.

I think, also, the sentiment of the song seemed like a whole capsule of what we were trying to do with the whole record. It’s a song about feeling disheartened with the state of our country and politically, but also it’s got optimism to it and encouraging that, hopefully, things can get better if we keep working. There is also some of the shock factor of it being a very different-sounding song for us, but I feel like it still sounds like us. It doesn’t sound so pop. We were drawing from a lot of ‘70s rock that has a lot of glam elements, like Squeeze, more than contemporary pop.

SP: And it’s really good to be able to do something like that, without it feeling like a completely different artist. I think of other musicians like St. Vincent or Chelsea Wolfe, where they change radically from album to album, while still being able to sound like themselves.

Dupuis: Yeah, I love them both! I think it’s good for artists to change over their records, and it was important for us to not make a record that sounded like the last one. When we made Foil Deer, it was important to make something that didn’t sound like the first one. The next one will probably not sound much like this one; we always want to explore different sonic elements, different eras, and different things we’re all fans on.

SP: Going back and listening through the albums, too, there’s definitely a significant evolution from album to album. Foil Deer had a lot more acoustic elements, and here you’re bringing in more electronic parts. It’s exiting to see where the next album goes.

Dupuis: It’s so early; I haven’t even written anything for the next Speedy record. But every time we’ve talked about it, we always bring up doing a heavy record next. So maybe we’ll sound more like Chelsea Wolfe next time!

SP: With regards to the recording process, this album was recorded at a DIY space, right? Silent Barn?

Dupuis: Yep. Rest in peace, it’s closed now.

SP: Oh no. Was this record their swan song?

Dupuis: No, I’m sure they did a bunch more records since we recorded ours there. It was over a year between when we finished tracking and when they closed. They just closed a few months ago, and we finished tracking in February of last year.

SP: It’s always heartbreaking to hear about good DIY spaces closing.

Dupuis: I know. There’s not too many left in New York that I like.

SP: We’ve had our share of spaces closing too, unfortunately.

Dupuis: I feel like every time I do an interview and this comes up, I hear about some great space that had good ethics that’s now closed because no one could afford rent.

SP: On a slightly less depressing note, what drew you to that space as opposed to a “glossier” studio?

Dupuis: It’s funny, because the first two records as a full band were recorded in high-end studios. What ended up happening with this record is that we had intended to record the whole thing with Mike Mogis, who ended up mixing the record. We had written a bunch of songs, but weren’t really sure what we were going to do with them. So we decided to demo them before going in to record with Mogis, partially because working with a world-class engineer like him is a little expensive for a band like us. We can pay for a record, and we can pay for the amount of time it takes to record quickly and no frills, but we can’t pay for months in the studio. So we decided to record some demos at Silent Barn, in order to have a plan for when we were in the studio with Mogis. We decided to keep the Logic sessions that I’d started for the demos, so that all the synths and some of the programmed drums were still there. We went into Silent Barn to see how we would do the record with Mogis, but it turned out we really liked what we recorded and how it sounded.

Sometimes we get really in-our-heads with recording, and takes can take forever. With this, we were a lot looser, because we could say something like “oh, leave this guitar thing, it’s just a demo.” And we ended up at some pretty cool and weird guitar stuff that way. So when we were listening back to everything, we started thinking “maybe we recorded the record! This is good!”

It was sort of a long process, though. We tracked a lot of it in the early fall of 2016, and while I really liked how the performance sounded, I felt like a lot of the content wasn’t up to snuff for me, especially in everything leading up to and following the presidential election. So, after having done this, we came up with this plan that we would track a bunch more songs at Silent Barn, and then go mix it all with Mogis. We did wind up working with him, just not as the engineer, although he added some production, too. It’s funny that everything started at this DIY studio, as demos, but mixed by one of my favorite producers ever, and mastered by Emily Lazar, who is this amazing, Grammy-winning mastering engineer. It kind of went up the scale in fanciness, from starting essentially in my living room. I don’t know that we’d do a record like that again, but it really worked well for this one.

SP: This album does feel like the most heavily-layered and textured one so far, and it’s really cool to hear that coming out of this small DIY space.

Dupuis: And I think a lot of that is because we started from my demos. Usually I would make demos, and then we would try to recreate everything live. But when I make demos, there’s like one hundred tracks with little things like keyboard sounds that only show up once for a few seconds. So, when studio time is tied to your credit card, it’s not always easy to try recreating every little thing. But this time we started from the same session files, and because we did it this way, it was able to retain more of the spirit of the original arrangement and composition than our past records have.

I’m also not super great at remembering every single part I come up with when I write a song. I just kind of go in a trance, and then eight hours later there’s one hundred tracks in Logic. Trying to recreate them all in the studio is so time-consuming because I would end up thinking “what did I play? what are the effects on here?” It just takes so long. So it was kind of cool to not have to worry about that.

SP: My way around that has been to obsessively write everything down.

Dupuis: I never write anything down, and that’s my problem. When I write these songs and go in that trance, there’s so many little parts that I have no memory of playing. And then I have to try figuring everything out when we go on tour.

SP: Speaking of tours, a few years back, you donated all the proceeds from one of your tours to the Girls Rock foundation. What has your relationship and involvement with them been like?

Dupuis: I’ve never volunteered with them or anything like that, but I really support the program and think it’s great. A lot of my friends work with the program, and I know a lot of kids and bands that have come out of different Girls Rock programs. I did a thing this year for Reverb where a bunch of musicians donated gear of theirs, and it was auctioned off to benefit the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. There’s a couple different organizations that fund different camps; Girls Rock Camp Foundation was the one we toured for. If there’s benefit shows that benefit those kinds of groups, I’m always happy to be involved.

We’ve done different fundraisers for different organizations over the years. I would say we’ve probably done fundraising for at least a dozen different nonprofits. We were able to do an entire tour for Girls Rock because we had one huge festival that paid us enough to cover us for that year, but times are a little leaner now. One thing we’ve been doing a lot lately is putting out a tip jar every night on tour, and depending on the tour, we’ll fundraise for a different cause. We just finished up the first big chunk of headline touring, and all the money that we raised from that went to a Palestine relief fund. And of course we do benefit shows and stuff like that too.

Speedy Ortiz will be playing on Friday, July 27th at 51 Main with Spandrels. Tickets available here, they are $15 advance and $18 at the door.

The show follows a free panel discussion and free a reading (which Dupuis is a featured reader).

All photos courtesy of Brilliant Corners Artist Management, taken by Shervin Lainez.

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