Raised on "psycho clown music": Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz

The band opens up this year's first Live On King Street show.

It can take a few listens to realize just how odd and sophisticated Speedy Ortiz is. The Northampton, Mass., band began as singer/guitarist Sadie Dupuis' solo project and still centers on Dupuis' witty yet vulnerable songwriting. On last year's album Major Arcana and this year's Real Hair EP, the band wields convoluted rhythms and twisty guitar hooks that sound as if they're born not of virtuosity but of a set of deep-seated musical idiosyncrasies.

Dupuis' lyrics move smoothly between the insular and the plainspoken. At best the words create a texture that's interesting even if you're not digging for significance, such as on "Hitch," from Major Arcana: "If you can stomach the top speed, let's take it on / Your fever's fewer than before and so it's hard to get hot / Is that a challenge or something?" Speedy Ortiz will be sharing the bill with Tune-Yards and Dosh at Live on King Street on July 18. Ahead of the show, Dupuis talked with us about her musical upbringing, Jawbox, and Louie.

Tone Madison: One thing I notice about your lyrics is that sometimes it's hard to tell if the lyrics are coming from you or from a real or imagined character. Are you trying to make that aspect sort of vague?

Sadie Dupuis: No, I think I'm the speaker, it's just I come from a different generational place. It's not going to have that kind of specificity because I don't think in those terms.

Tone Madison: Another thing that people pick up on a lot in your lyrics is humor. Do you think humor in lyrics is something that can help open up other emotions in a song?

Sadie Dupuis: I just think that it's for the same reason that a show like Louie is really dark, even though it's ostensibly a comedy show. I think that if you're beating people over the head with bummer stuff, it's not necessarily going to be very honest or very relatable. I think for the same reason that a lot of comedians come out and say, "Oh, I'm actually really depressed," these are sort of sad songs, but no one wants to talk about being bummed out in a way that's just completely downtrodden.

Tone Madison: It's funny that you bring up Louie as a reference point.

Sadie Dupuis: Yeah, we're just trying to make the Louie of indie-rock albums. I tried to write a song last night and I just wound eating ice cream in bed, so maybe there is more of a connection.

Tone Madison: Do you think the more noisy side of the songs comes out in the live sets?

Sadie Dupuis: Yeah, I think initially when we started working on the recordings, they were very live-oriented, and with the 'Real Hair' EP it became a little bit more of a studio project. The whole project started off as me doing home demos and there was a lot of weird stuff on those that couldn't be re-created live, like double-tracked banjos doing some kind of weird thing in the back, or reversing those or pitch-shifting them. I think when the project turned into a band, we didn't have the time or money to do really in-depth studio time. So we'd be in the studio for two days to do an album and that would obviously reflect what it sounds like live. We're a guitar band, we really just have a couple distortion pedals and maybe a few other effects but nothing too crazy, so it's going to reflect the more angular rock-y elements of it. But I think with the last EP we tried to do a little more focus on overdubs and keyboards, and we just did these two singles and I sent them to a friend and he said, "It's cool, it's less like being bludgeoned over the head with guitars." So I think we like that our music can have a distinct studio and live—the example I would use is Deerhoof, who live sound a very specific way but on their recordings there's lots of little studio tricks that are what makes the core of the songs. Now that we have quit our jobs—we're certainly not by any means rolling in money, but we're at least not hemorrhaging money into the band just to go on tour—now that we can afford more than two days in the studio to do an album, we're gonna lead more towards distinct live and studio sounds. We'll probably sound the same live because we still tour in a minivan, so we don't have the space to bring a keyboard with us.

Tone Madison: That's very true about Deerhoof, especially the last few albums. And it's nice that they've been able to keep the live show really fun while experimenting a lot on the records.

Sadie Dupuis: Yeah, Satomi's doing step aerobics while playing a crazy bass part.

Tone Madison: It's very fun to watch Greg Saunier play drums.

Sadie Dupuis: Yeah, he's my second-favorite drummer currently living.

Tone Madison: People are always throwing a lot of '90s indie-rock references around to describe Speedy Ortiz. One that people bring up that's actually interesting is Jawbox. It didn't make sense to me at first as a comparison to Speedy Ortiz, but over time I started to pick up on how that influence might be in there.

Sadie Dupuis: Yeah, Jawbox is one that actually doesn't offend me.

Tone Madison: Especially the first couple of Jawbox albums, maybe? It's not as tense and fast as some Jawbox stuff, but I can still hear it.

Sadie Dupuis: Yeah, I definitely like Jawbox a lot, and all of J. Robbins' bands and his production. I usually hate the '90s conversation, but I'll happily have the J. Robbins conversation any day. I love Office of Future Plans and Channels and all of his bands.

Tone Madison: Your music has this intricacy to it, but not in a really overt, math-rock sense. Do you like the idea of having complexity, but not being showy about it?

Sadie Dupuis: Yeah, I think part of it is from liking bands that incorporate sort of odd timing or have an undercurrent of weirdness that's maybe not obvious at first listen. But it's also from when I sang classical music as a kid. A lot of that would be, "Oh, here's a random measure of 13/4," and people who are listening to that have no idea that it's going on, but it becomes sort of an ingrained thing… to expect a random measure of 13 or a weird dissonant chord that's maybe not totally obvious to the listener but is what makes the song interesting. SO when I did start to write music on guitar much later, I liked a lot of popular rock music and straight-up pop music, but I was always most excited when there was something really weird going on. Beyonce's song, "Run The World (Girls)," when that song came out, I was like, "Wow, there's this totally other weird vocal part that's running in a totally different meter cycle." I really like noticing little tricks like that later in the song. After you've heard the basic song, you realize that, say, the bass part is in a different key. I'm always excited to try to find something that I can sneak in there. We don't have too many songs where it's a chorus repeating the same chord progression four times. That kind of thing gets grating to me, or is not engaging enough, and I guess I'm trying to engage myself with the songs, first and foremost.

The songs we have that do rely on basic repetition, I have a hard time playing them because I forget where I am in the song because I'm bored, whereas the songs that I have to be actively thinking about how many times something happens because it's different the first time than the second time and the third time's a whole different thing...I have to really think. I think part of what's fun about music is being surprised, and if there aren't surprises in the song then you might as well listen to nothing. There's this Selena Gomez song that came out last year called "Birthday," and it's so fucking weird. It's just five totally unrelated parts that play a couple times and then go into the next part. I really like shit like that that's through-composed or doesn't just do the same thing the entire time.

Tone Madison: And maybe that dynamic doesn't just keep you interested, but also helps the whole group in a way?

Sadie Dupuis: Well, maybe. You'd have to ask the group.

Tone Madison: When you were a kid did you play any instruments, or just sing?

Sadie Dupuis: Well, I played piano as a kid, but I sang in a professional children's choir for six years. We toured internationally and recorded albums, and it was a lot of mid-20th-century Russian stuff. The guy who directed the choir at the time was this Grammy-winning composer who was really into kind of dissonant, scary music, and there was this irony to having these angel-faced 12- and 13-year-olds singing demonic-sounding shit that was ostensibly religions. My mom always used to call it "psycho clown music." My mom is actually sitting in the car with me and cracking up. It's always the mother's fault.

I picked up the guitar when I was in this choir, and I really hated the guitar lessons, and only went to a couple because they just insisted on teaching me "Day Tripper," lesson after lesson. I think I wound up learning guitar a lot learning from vocal sheet music, which I think informed a lot of the parts I play, which are single-note parts, which I think is coming at it from a singing background.