After ‘Major Arcana’, Sadie Dupuis struggled with intra-band tension and the pains of being public property. But instead of letting it break her, it’s fuelled a fierce new album, says Laura Snapes…
This time last year, there wasn’t going to be a second Speedy Ortiz album. Never mind that 2013’s gnarled ‘Major Arcana’ was one of the best-received indie-rock debuts in years, its cryptic, tangled riffs making them the breakout band of Boston’s renowned DIY scene, or that they were supporting collective hero Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks. Relations within the Massachusetts four-piece were so soured that songwriter and guitarist Sadie Dupuis was contemplating quitting her own band, “because I’m sick and stressed out constantly and I’ve never had panic attacks every day until now,” the 27-year-old recalls over curry in the Boston apartment she shares with Palehound’s Ellen Kempner.
Hard touring didn’t help, but the stress was mostly down to fractious relations between Sadie and guitarist Matt Robidoux. “He would say that he didn’t respect me, and I would take that – basically, for months,” she says, incredulously. Speedy was originally her solo project, which started with a lo-fi, 10-track solo album called ‘The Death Of Speedy Ortiz’, and she remains the band’s sole songwriter. “It was like, why am I not listening to this person? He’d apologise, but if someone tells you enough times that they don’t respect you, there’s something wrong with you that you’re not taking that seriously. I was so bad at sticking up for myself for so long.”
Reached by email, Matt describes what he perceived as the “band camaraderie [disappearing] in favour of the monolith of the solo artist”, and says he felt that he, bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone “were making the shift towards [becoming] a replaceable backing band. I had less and less creative control into something that I was putting all my time, creative work and energy into.”
A week after the initial interview, Sadie emails in response to Matt’s claims. “If I wanted to be a solo artist, wouldn’t I just be a solo artist? …The decision to remove Matt from the band was a three-way, mutual choice. This whole [new] album is about not dedicating energy to people like that – I’d like it to speak more towards moving past toxic people and less about remaining entrenched in battles with trolls.”
So on May 6, 2014, Speedy announced that Matt was going on “indefinite hiatus” from the band, to be replaced by Devin McKnight from Boston’s Grass Is Green. They saved themselves, and thank god, otherwise there would be no ‘Foil Deer’, their dizzyingly great second record. Indie rock is often all too willing to just retread the past and ply simplicity as profundity; Speedy refuse to settle for an easy riff or throwaway lyric, and aggressively expand the definition of indie rock, drawing from Nicki Minaj as much as US math rock bands Chavez and Polvo, and Sadie’s childhood in a choir that sang dissonant Russian traditional songs.
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Their swagger is necessary, and found itself rebooted almost immediately once they regrouped with Devin. He was an old friend and a formative influence – Sadie openly admits to having cribbed his “super inventive” guitar playing ever since she first saw Grass Is Green play with her old group, Quilty (who split in 2011): “He was getting the first Speedy demos before the people who are actually in my band now.”
Later last summer, on a rare month off touring, Sadie quit drinking and embarked on a mental health kick, the start of a process of reclaiming the band and her own identity. In February, Speedy Ortiz had released the ‘Real Hair’ EP, where she addressed the effects of being in the public eye for the first time, exploring the gap between perception and reality.
“Like, ‘oh shit, suddenly people are looking at me and they don’t know who I am and I don’t even know who I am because this is a strange pressure that I’ve never known before’,” she says. “So often I felt like [with] the kind of music that we’re playing, I had to prove myself as one of the boys’ club to coexist with a lot of these bands. That’s not to say that it wasn’t fun, but I felt like I was fighting so hard for these male spaces that I was not in touch with my own gender identity.”
She was also grappling with the emotional exhaustion of having to play depressing songs night after night. ‘Major Arcana’ was a breakup album, though as far as breakup records go, it wasn’t exactly “fuck you, Brad, you broke me!” as she puts it. As a former teacher with a master’s degree in poetry, Sadie’s lyrical trademark is all deliriously weird, chewy riddles, like bubblegum cat’s cradles – take “criminally twisted puny little villain”, from the debut’s ‘Fun’. “If I feel like it could have come from someone else’s voice, it’s not good enough for me,” she says.
After shows, young people would tell Sadie that ‘Major Arcana’ inspired them, or that it encouraged them to start playing guitar. “That’s fucking cool, but I wish the message I was giving wasn’t just, ‘Breaking up is shitty and sometimes people hurt you’. I wished it was, ‘Sometimes people hurt you and you shouldn’t have to put up with it, and these are larger patterns that occur to all kinda of people, and you have to talk about it and you have to fight against it’.”
That message punches through ‘Foil Deer’, Sadie’s unabashed declaration of security in self-knowledge, not giving a shit about external perceptions, and firing shots at anyone who dares underestimate her: “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”, she swaggers on opener ‘Raising The Skate’. “For a long time I had tried to ignore the fact that I was a woman because I was hoping that other people would ignore the fact that gender is a factor in rock music at all. But at this point, when you’re put upon enough and taken advantage of enough, you become angry and it becomes important to fight back.”
Beyond toxic band politics, she had been disrespected by all-male support bands and sexist sound guys who messed with her equipment but not that of her male bandmates. Men would try and touch and kiss her at shows. There was the short-lived professional associate who stalked Sadie, told her he loved her – and, when she rebuffed his advances, that Speedy would fail without him. “If you behave in these unprofessional ways, you don’t deserve to have any kind of job,” she says. “You should be ostracised. We would have so many things like that happen all the time, and I just have no patience for it any more.”
Her aim was to write empowerment anthems, though ‘Foil Deer’ is less about shaking off haters than staking them through the heart: “Don’t ever touch my blade, you fool/You’ll be cursed for a lifetime”, she seethes on the strangled yowl of ‘Dot X’. The record sounds genuinely menacing too, thanks to a more concerted studio approach with producer Nicolas Vernhes (Deerhunter, Marnie Stern). ‘Major Arcana’ was made in four days; this time they had three weeks.
“A lot of the sounds on our previous stuff are very much like we sounded live because that’s all we had time to record,” says Sadie. “This one, every single song we had a massive discussion on tones and textures. All I ever want is to listen to scary pop music – that was a goal.”
Take the blown-out, hip-hop-inflected ‘Puffer’, which billows with the violence of dark street corners. “I feel like a lot of the songs are like, it’s so fucking stupid that we have to be scared of walking home in the dark, like someone’s gonna fuck with us, but you gotta toughen up because the whole world is trying to fuck with you all the time,” she says.
Having almost lost her band due to other people’s shitty behaviour, Sadie is now making a point of always making a stand. Speedy tour more responsibly, with bigger breaks between dates. She and her peers might start a database to share information about industry professionals so that they can avoid working with jerks. She describes the album’s standout, sombre ‘Mister Difficult’ as a rallying cry for female and female-identified artists to talk about their anger and marginalisation: “I got the message/Boys be sensitive and girls be, be aggressive”, she hisses.
“I loved the idea of a cheer for women to be aggressive – let the men write the sensitive love songs for a while,” she says. “The mantle of fighting back can’t really exist in the straight, white male sphere any more, because what are they fighting against, other than in a supporting role to women-identified performers, or queer performers, or people of colour? It’s nice to see braggadocio enter the vernacular because for so long, [rock]’s been such a male space. It’s exciting to see so many women reclaiming strength for themselves.”