Speedy Ortiz, more than just a “lyrics band”

PHOTOS: JUDIE VEGH | “I don’t consider us a lyrics band, and I write the lyrics.”

This was Sadie Dupuis’s retort to a question about a subject that had been hashed over a thousand times in print—the weight and importance of her lyrics. She is the lead singer and guitarist for Massachusetts indie band Speedy Ortiz, and I had just made the mistake of accusing the band of being known as a “lyrics band”—a label I never thought of as accurate but seems to stick with the band anyway.

I chatted with the band on a clear blue evening in Cleveland Heights. The band sat on the concrete flower beds outside the Grog Shop where they would be playing that night. Dupuis and drummer Mike Falcone did most of the talking. Guitarist Devin McKnight chimed in agreements at sporadic intervals while bassist Darl Ferm silently smoked a cigarette to the side.

During their show, many of the songs employed a soft-verse, loud-chorus dynamic where the guitars roared to life on the choruses. Dupuis and McKnight had their guitars hooked up to a half-dozen or more effects pedals they slammed on and off throughout the songs. Ferm’s bass was a constant backbone through the set, grooving along during the choruses, disappearing under the guitar’s wall of sound during the choruses and reappearing like a ghost that had always been there but wavered between different planes of existence.

Frequent instrumental interludes gave way to verses and choruses that were awash with bombastic noise. Nothing about their show screamed lyrics band. Dupuis loomed over the audience from her stage. She’s naturally a tall person, but she wore tennis shoes with thick soles that made her appear giant. She looked otherworldly when she ripped on her guitar. The vocals lower in the mix. This was anything but a lyrics band.

“Everyone kind of focuses on my poetry background, but I’m listening to rock bands,” Dupuis said. “I’m listening to all the musical parts before I have any idea what the lyrics are. It takes me like five or six listens before I know the lyrics to anything.”

“I think the MFA poetry thing was mentioned in a press release,” Falcone added. “And it’s like, that’s one aspect everyone ran with.”

“And I get it because for a lot of people who don’t play music,” Dupuis explained. “That’s the easiest thing to latch onto or talk about… We don’t want them buried, but it’s not like a pop project where the lyrics are so far above everything else that the guitars are incidental. I feel like whatever the guitars are saying is just as important as whatever English words I happen to be tossing out.”

Falcone’s drum work deserves special mention. He is a phenomenal drummer, and Dupuis understands why it often goes unnoticed. According to Dupuis, production was “limited in terms of time and financial resources.”

“Something about Mike’s playing is that there’s these crazy, muscular fills, and I think you always felt that on the previous recordings, they were a little buried in the mix,” Dupuis said. “And I just think that all your parts are really well-defined in this record because we had a lot of time to get the drums mic’d perfectly.”

“Hate to say I told you so,” Falcone joked.

The entire band laughed. Falcone bashfully admitted he fashioned the drumming on the new album after Weezer’s Pinkerton. He realized “a big part of what helps the drums get to that level is you have to turn them up.”

On previous albums, most of the instruments blend together. The band was playing together in a single room with Falcone in a drum booth. It was often difficult to pick out the different parts. For Foil Deer, Dupuis said the album is “exactly what I imagined.” For her part, Dupuis admitted she listened to a lot of Deerhoof vinyl records while recording and called it a “reference point” while mastering the album.

“We just like, in terms of the instruments having more space, we spent a lot of time deliberating on every single new instrumental take with what the texture and the tone should be,” Dupuis said.

During the live show, what the band lost in meticulous mixing and texture, they gained in aggression. Every band member still had their moment to stand out, but the band traded some of their indie rock nuance for blistering art-punk. It was awesome. The band had a relentless energy the entire night.

Dylan Baldi from the Cleveland-native Cloud Nothings joined the band to play pan-flute on the final song of the set. The raging, cathartic noise of the rest of the band rendered the pan-flute inaudible, and Baldi ended the song by walking around with his beer and hitting both the beer and his instrument on the drums.

The crowd roared until the band came back out.

“Really?” Dupuis chuckled. “We think encores are pretentious. I can’t believe you want more after pan-pipes.”

Speedy Ortiz ended the night with three more songs. The way they masterfully played their instruments that blared into the night, I didn’t think of their lyrics once while engulfed in that unrelenting sound. Not bad considering they’re just a lyrics band.

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