Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware

No Big Hair: An Interview with Speedy Ortiz

Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis talks her band's new EP, the blog hype bottleneck, why Boston treats its bands right, and nerding out about music with Stephen Malkmus.
Speedy Ortiz
Real Hair

Speedy Ortiz released what may have been 2013’s best rock record with its debut LP, Major Arcana, a clamorous rush of guitar triumphalism, all knotty chords and wicked solos. Frontwoman Sadie Dupuis writes with a poet’s eye for detail and a comedian’s wit, and she packs more personality into a single slab of vinyl than most of her peers have managed in entire discographies.

Her band released its first new music since Arcana, the Real Hair EP, earlier this year, and Dupuis took a short break from a killer touring schedule to chat about the new release and Speedy Ortiz’s huge year.

Dupuis wrote the four tracks that would become Real Hair over the course of just a few days last summer, during a lull between tours. “I’m not able to do any writing when we’re on the road,” she says. “I wrote those songs in a few days, right before we left on our summer tour before the album came out.”

Though Speedy Ortiz functions as a vice-tight unit when playing live, giving the impression of a hive mind expertly attuned to one another’s rhythms, Dupuis writes most of the initial material herself. “I go home,” she explains, “write a demo, and usually try to have it as flesh out as possible with other guitar parts and bass and effects, and then we work out how to translate into playing it live all together, which gives us a sense of how we want it to sound in the studio recording. That might end up being very different from the demos.”

For someone coming off likely the busiest year of her life, Dupuis sounds relaxed. Speaking from her mother’s house, a place she comes “when I’m home, to find some balance,” she talks about her band’s explosive year with a calm, matter-of-fact tone, appreciative and self-deprecating all at once. It may help that she and the band were on the road while Major Arcana blew up in the music press, insulating them from some of the hype and pressure that something like a Best New Music tag from Pitchfork can thrust onto a band. “When the record came out, we went on tour right away. The only response we saw was all from the road, not sitting at home reading Google Alerts,” she says, laughing.

“That would be a lot. The positive effects were multiple people wanting to buy the record and saying, hey, we read about you in Pitchfork, so that was a nice way of dealing with the Best New Music bottleneck.” Ironically, it was during sporadic breaks from touring that the group’s success became more apparent. “It’s weirder to think about it when we’re not on the road,” Dupuis says. “You know, when we’re on tour, and we’re working, and make a [press] phone call, it’s novel. When you’re at home, it’s more bizarre.”

In that case, it’s fortunate Real Hair should keep the band touring. The EP’s four tracks hone Arcana‘s sound into something at once more brash and more lush, with Dupuis’s vocals and lyrics pushed even further to center stage. Lead single “American Horror,” with its images of mental patients strapped down to their beds, might actually be the lightest lyrical fare in an EP full of vividly dark, evocative, and sometimes strikingly menacing imagery. (An assortment: “Sure that if I second guess my work and stick my head out, / It’ll blow off in one shot;” “I’m a dull knife turned up in a bouquet;” “Fell for a bone bag who sank in my stream.”)

A sense of alienation and loneliness suffuses the record, and when asked if being in a band can strain relationships outside of that group, Dupuis agrees. “You’re so infrequently at home,” she says, “it becomes hard to maintain the normal friendships that can be grounding and important. I started the band because I moved somewhere where I didn’t know anybody, and a band is way to meet people. In doing this, I don’t have any of the normal at-home friendships.” Most of her friends now, she says, are other people in bands. “It’s great to have close friends whose music I love, but it’s strange to only exist in that world when you’re used to being a quiet, at-home-type person.”

Still, whatever frustrations can come with a touring life, when Dupuis talks about the bands she plays with and the bands she loves, her passion is contagious. A good deal of Speedy Ortiz’s press lumps the band into two categories: a), a sort of Pavement-adulating, ’90s guitar revivalism, and b), a poster-band for a booming Massachusetts indie rock scene. Dupuis seems to accept the tags as fair, if reductive.

“Boston is having a moment now,” she agrees, “and I’ve loved so many of these bands for so long. When I moved from New York, I felt the scene there wasn’t vibrant at the time, and I felt more interested in what was happening here. What’s nice about Boston, since it’s smaller but at the same time has so many colleges and kids who want to be in bands, is there’s no pressure to have a shtick. We have a lot of bands here with a fairly straightforward rock configuration, and they make really well-crafted songs.”

In other words, call it a guitar renaissance if you like, but these bands are doing what comes naturally to them, insulated from the constant hype that churns around bands — for better or worse — in Brooklyn. Dupuis understands, too, that much of the hullabaloo surrounding a supposed ’90s revivalist movement comes from music writers eager to shape essays around a trend. “A lot of the ’90s revival,” she says, “is editorial contextualizing. I think a lot of these bands probably aren’t trying to sound ’90s at all.” She mentions fellow Massachusetts band Pile as a good example: “Pile is always told they’re ’90s,’ but they have no fucking ’90s bands on their computers,” she says, laughing. “They’re totally not operating that way intentionally, just writing songs with a guitar.”

Dupuis crystallizes Speedy Ortiz’s sound in a way that makes bandying about a ’90s label seem pretty lazy: “I think we’re concerned with interesting chords that often lean toward dissonance while also maintaining a pop melodicism.” But, you know, getting compared to Pavement and Polvo in every review does have its perks. “I actually talked to [Stephen] Malkmus the other day about Polvo,” Dupuis says, “which was crazy! He was like, ‘I really like this band.'”

Speedy Ortiz is in good company, but then again, with songs as fantastic as Dupuis’s, so is Malkmus.