A winding, West Philly chat with Speedy Ortiz

Cynthia Schemmer

Photo by Dylan Johnson.

When Speedy Ortiz toured through Philadelphia in April,  the four-piece stayed at my sprawling albeit crumbling house in West Philadelphia for two nights. They played at Johnny Brenda’swith Mitski and their Boston pals Krillto an audience that had already memorized every word to their recently released album Foil Deer. According to the band, this is their “poptimist” record.  Live, the audience is lended a more pronounced sway and chorus. “I’m still learning the lyrics!” Sadie Dupuis laughed when she spotted the group of women in the crowd reciting the new songs word-for-word, filled with feminist sentiments and constructive anger.  Behind her, a tank top that read “GENDER IS OVER” was draped over her amp.

The first time I met Sadie was last year, when Speedy Ortiz was on a short Canadian tour with our mutual friends in Swearin’, who I was travelling with at the time. Since then, she has started writing an advice column for She Shreds, a magazine that I am managing editor of that is dedicated to highlighting women guitarists and bassists. She also played some tunes as DJ SAD 13 at the She Shreds showcase in Philadelphia.

I met with Speedy Ortiz at a local West Philadelphia coffee shop where we drank coffee and kale smoothies, complained about allergies, and passed around a rogue dandelion. We talked about passion planning, gender, what New York means to those of us who left, and the difficult balance of maintaining life as both a writer and a musician.

As one once-native New York to another, what are you feelings about it now that you’ve left?

Sadie: Most of my feelings about, or criticisms of, New York are from the perspective of a musician. We did an interview with Y-Not Radio and they were like, “What do you think is cool about the Boston scene?” and I said the scene in Boston is very similar to the dynamic that I’ve seen in Philly. All of the bands you play in, you are friends with. We’re all buds with each other, and live with each other, and have played in different side projects with each other. It’s very community-oriented even though there are some bands that are touring nationally. I just think it’s hard for that to exist in New York, you know? It’s just too congested. If there’s not a schtick you can define the band with it’s kind of hard to get anyone to care, whereas I think if you go to a show in Boston that any of our friends are playing…everyone is there, singing along to all their friends’ bands and people really care about each others’ songwriting. I just never experienced that as much in New York. Except for like, some of the ‘burbs a little bit. SUNY Purchase definitely has it’s own little scene and songwriters.

That’s exactly how I felt. I also went to SUNY Purchase for undergrad.

Sadie: Purchase has it’s own cultish music scene that so many great bands have come out of…

Totally, and it was so weird going from Purchase—I’m originally from Long Island—and immediately moving to the city in 2006. I was like, “This…is cool,” but then I was like, “No, this sucks. Nobody cares about what I’m doing.”

Sadie: There are certain little enclaves where people do care, like the Silent Barn or Shea Stadium, but you could go to any venue in Manhattan on any given night and no one gives a shit.

Mike: Didn’t someone accuse Boston of having a fragmented scene recently?

Darl: It kind of does. I don’t know anything about the metal scene or the folk scene or all these other scenes that exist  in Boston that have a lot more DIY stuff going on than the scene we are apart of currently does. I have no idea what those are like. Boston’s a pretty segregated place all around. For everything. Economics, race, music. It’s a great place for music, I just don’t know a lot of like, the metal scene, for example.

Sadie: It’s a bit genre-specific in Boston. Maybe in that sense New York has more of a spotlight on different genres. I feel like a metal show in New York is just as likely to get attention as another kind of show.

Mike: There’s a spot for that kind of thing in New York. That last Ovlov show was at a metal-centric venues.

Darl: St. Vitus?

Sadie: St. Vitus gets good shows. It’s not to say that New York isn’t a great place to see music. So many good shows don’t even come to Boston and I end up driving to New York to see them. I just think that a sort of community, insularity almost but in a positive reinforcing way, is really present both in the Boston scene and in the Philly scene. It’s interesting that those are the two major cities north and south of New York. It’s just hard to find your space in New York.

Darl: Is Philly really regional with it’s scenes?

Yeah. West Philly is a lot of bands that my band Radiator Hospital often gets associated with, but there’s also so much more going on than that small pool of bands.

Sadie: We shouted you all out recently on that Y-Not radio. They were like, “any shout-outs?”

Mike: Fu-Wah. The Liberty Bell. Will Smith. Rocky. We shouted out a lot of stuff.

When you shouted out Fu-Wah Deli at the show last night…first of all, there were these dudes standing in front of me who were straight up burping in each other’s faces during the set. They would just be like, “Yo, bro” then would burp in the other’s face and I was just… on guard and ready to pounce.

Sadie: That’s kind of amazing. Mitski ended early last night so there was this 35 minute period where nothing was happening on stage. Those guys should have just got on stage and burped.

Yeah, and done a real thing. But you all shouted out Fu-Wah and they didn’t know what that was and were just going off  about it and I was just like, “It exists. Relax.”

Sadie: Were those the bros shouting out for “No Below”?

Mike: Yeah, that’s become standard stage banter at this point. Someone shouts for us to play “No Below” and we’re like “go home.”

Let’s talk about the new album. I feel like Major Arcana I got this moody cynicism vibe from it and I feel like with Foil Deer it’s a bit more…

Sadie: It’s our poptimist record.

It’s poptimist, but lyric-wise I feel the anger is a little more projected in the content.

Sadie: Maybe. I think it’s just a different kind of anger. It maybe needs better articulation than whatever moody stuff was going on before. Writing these songs, I didn’t feel like, “fuck you, gotta get this feeling down.” I was excited to talk about some of the things in Foil Deer. I was pretty happy writing it. We were on a break from tour, which was really nice. It was right after that tour that you were on [with Swearin’] where I was puking a lot…

We all just kind of went off on our own. I was trying to write a lot and exercise a lot, swimming, and we would reconvene on weekends and try to work on some of the songs I was writing. We hadn’t had new stuff in a while, and we never had new songs with Devon, so that was an exciting thing for us to be working on.

Mike: It was a breathe of fresh air.

Yeah, I guess the lyrical content isn’t so much angry, but a little more…

Sadie: They were problem solvers!

Mike: Like the TV show?

Sadie: Yeah, like the cartoon. I feel like this album is like your notebook.  What’s it called again?

[laughs] Passion Planner.

Sadie: Planning out how to get rid of the obstacles and planning your passions. Put that on a sticker on the front of the record.

Where did the title of the song, “Raising the Skate” come from?

Sadie: I was thinking of the Melanie song, “Brand New Key” which is an innuendo sort of about raising the stakes. I think I was sort of using that as…you know, adjusting your skates to get a little taller and skate past shit.

In it you sing, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss” and it totally got me thinking of other words society uses to bring down women, like “naggy.” I fucking hate that word. I never really hear that a man is being naggy, and I’m like, oh, so sorry I’m a woman being direct in what I want.  

Sadie: I just had this conversation with someone the other day. You never hear anyone referred to as an ice king. Yeah, there are certain words that become gendered.

Mike: I’ve never heard that expression.

This record is like … planning out how to get rid of the obstacles and planning your passions. Put that on a sticker on the front of the record.

Sadie: Ice queen?! Really, whoa. There was some article about an actress, I forget who, but it referred to her as an ice queen, and I was like, really? You’d never see someone referred to as an ice king. They would be stoic.

I read in an interview recently that the album title “Foil Deer” is based off a sculpture you saw. Do any other mediums influence your music?

Mike: Movies and TV.

Sadie: Yeah, totally. I watch a shit load of TV. Sometimes a song lyric comes from something I’m watching, like a line or two. We were talking about cartoons for the longest time the other day.

Mike: Yeah, it was so fun. I want to do that more.

Sadie: I don’t want to do like a weekly podcast about cartoons. I don’t think we’d have enough to say.

Mike: How about a bimonthly podcast?

Darl: Dude, I’m down. I can go pretty deep.

Sadie: We probably shouldn’t get into it. But yeah, in terms of lyric writing sometimes I’ll take a line or a scene from a comic I’m reading, or something like that.

Mike: Oh yeah, comics. Do you pull from comics a lot?

Sadie: I do. I mean, less so on this record I think.

Mike: What’s an example of a movie or TV thing?

Sadie: “Pioneer Spine” is a Law and Order: SVU song.

Mike: Oh cool. I didn’t know that. Now I like it even more.

Darl: I usually watch TV while I’m writing bass lines.

Mike: Like what, Seinfeld?

Darl: I kept watching Louie on mute for this album.

Sadie: Mike will certainly tell me after we’re done that the song should be in this TV show or movie. I feel like we’re always thinking of that kind of stuff.

Oh Mike, here’s something for you….I love the Livejournal you keep for the band. Only because I was so immersed in Livejournal culture when I was younger, and it’s totally making a comeback.

Mike: Is it?

Yeah!

Sadie: I still use mine. I just got a zine from Suzy X that’s called, Chronicles of An 8th Grade Mallgoth. I’m reading this, it’s like a 2002 diary, and it looks exactly fucking like my Livejournal from 2002. I want to do a response zine, and use the same dates she did and do kind of identical shit like studded belts, you know?

Yeah, I had a one from in high school all through college, but then I got freaked out and deleted it. And then I started a new one in college in 2002 and I wish I kept the old one. Just like, all these stupid ridiculous moments immortalized through the internet.

Mike: Yeah, ours will be up there forever.

Sadie, do you write poetry still since graduating from the MFA program?

Sadie: I haven’t in a solid bunch of months. When I was in the MFA program I had to be writing all the time, and reading poetry all the time, and I finished my thesis and haven’t done a whole lot since then. I have a book that’s done. I don’t know if you feel this way, but when we have an album done and it’s not out yet I can’t write anything new. It feels like you’re pregnant and you can’t get pregnant again until the first baby is out. So, I have this book that’s done and I’ve had a couple of poems published but, well, you know how it is with sending this shit out. Maybe on this tour I’ll try to send some things out. I’d love to put this book out so I can write things again.

Yeah, when I finished with my MFA I straight-up didn’t write for two years. I was tired.

Sadie: It’s hard! You did fiction, right?

Creative nonfiction.

Sadie: Oh, that’s right! Here [looks up picture on phone]. Check out this Peanuts cartoon. [shows Snoopy typing on top of doghouse] “Gentleman, I have just completed by new novel. It is so good, I am not even going to send it to you. Why don’t you just come and get it?”

That’s amazing. I love that.

Sadie: That’s kind of how I feel. When people ask about the poetry stuff, I’m like, “yeah, there’s a manuscript done!” hoping that there will be like a casual indie rock fan publisher who’s like, well, maybe there’s a niche market for this.

I keep thinking same thing. I’m like, “I’m in this band but also, I’m working on a book. Hello? Anybody out there?” And you know, I’ve never written poetry, but whenever I sit down to write lyrics to my own songs, it feels, to me, like I’m writing a poem and it feels really strange. Is it two separate worlds for you?

Sadie: I don’t feel like I’m sitting down to write a poem. I write both in a way that’s very prose-oriented. All of our lyrics are written out in paragraphs. I know what you’re talking about, that feeling, and there have been poems where I’m like, oh fuck, this is like formal poem zone and that’s not really my zone.

When we have an album done and it’s not out yet I can’t write anything new. It feels like you’re pregnant and you can’t get pregnant again until the first baby is out.

Who are some of your influences in terms of poetry?

Sadie: The big historical bust I have in my house……Sylvia Plath. I’m a big fan of her poems. Her fictions and her diaries, I really love her as a writer. Dorothy Lasky, also a UMass alum, she’s pretty great. Those are two that I would say are very influential in both the poem zone and the song zone.

I noticed the “Gender is Over” tank top on your amp last night at the show.

Sadie: Yeah. I ordered it online and it didn’t come in time to bring on tour, so peeps brought one to the show and it’s not the size I wanted so I just taped it on the amp.

Totally, why the fuck not?

Sadie: Gender’s over. If you want it.

Totally. You know, for the She Shreds show I organized in Philly, I did an interview with this guy, and he interviewed all the women playing, and he only wanted to talk about sexism. I got off the phone with him and was like, why did that feel so terrible? What the fuck? And then he quoted me as saying that I’m done with talking about gender, and I was like, no, that’s not what I meant. So I responded and said that when things like this happen, when you’re only asking me questions about sexism, it’s fucking tiring. I have to talk about gender because you’re only asking me these questions because of my gender.

Sadie: Totally. I think everyone had a weird time with that guy. Can we talk about She Shreds?

Sure!

Sadie: She Shreds is the coolest. But you know, something bummed me out about the advice column. It was very fun to write, but most of the question were like, “How do you deal with sexism?” and I was like, ask me a guitar question! This is a guitar magazine! I love She Shreds and I love Tom Tom and I think it’s so cool that magazines like that exist. When you’re growing up, you don’t see anyone who looks like yourself playing these things. And then eventually you get older and you don’t care and you just work to assimilate yourself into basically what’s a white male majority. You convince yourself it’s not nice to see people who look like you, yet when you’re a kid, all you want is a fucking American Girl doll that looks exactly like you. I think it’s so exciting, as an adult, to see magazines that are showcasing people who have the same interests as me and come from a background that’s at least somewhat related to mine. I just wish that, for the same reason that Jillian  Mapes just wrote that music by women is not just for women—you don’t have to pat yourself on the back for liking music by women if you’re not one. It seems like, there could be an audience for She Shreds that’s not just people asking questions about sexism.

And I think there is, because what’s so interesting is that the content in the magazine doesn’t really talk about sexism. It’s like, here’s some gear reviews, here’s some interviews, here’s a how-to.

Sadie: Right. You don’t look at fucking guitar magazines and see questions like, “Man. Guitar. What’s that like?”

Mike: “What’s it like being a man holding that guitar?” I want that question.

Sadie: Is it hard for you to hold that guitar?

Mike: Funny you bring that up, I was thinking about getting a smaller one.

Just ask me questions about being a musician. I want to keep the conversation going but…

Sadie: It’s a really hard balance.

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