There’s not a lot to look at on the corner of South 2nd Street and Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. Yet the barren stretch lined with broken sidewalks and the East River distracted the four members of Northampton, MA band Speedy Ortiz in the same way a superstitious person might glance at a dead bird.
They shot part of our video over here, I’ve been staring at it for five minutes”, drummer Mike Falcone explains.
“I heard the walls of this are all lined with molasses,” singer-songwriter and guitarist Sadie Dupuis replies.
“Oh, cool, are we gonna die?”
The exchange was a one-off, but curiosity cut with a dry comeback is the core of Speedy Ortiz’s music. You hear it on “Ka-Prow!” and see it in the accompanying video that was filmed at the intersection where we stand. In the song, Dupuis ruminates from her bedroom, “Why’d you fuck with my self-esteem, man?” and the film cuts to an enactment of her mind’s voodoo: guitarist Matt Robidoux hanging on Falcone’s back, running down the grim street to a squall of noise.
It’s a fully-baked July evening, Speedy Ortiz is about to play a celebratory show for their exceptional new full-length, Major Arcana, and similar to the images in “Ka-Prow!” all eyes were glued to Robidoux onstage. He crowd-surfed while playing guitar, which probably felt like actual surfing given that Death By Audio was approaching triple digit degrees of heat. He hung his guitar from the ceiling with possibly a belt (possibly his?), as the others swatted sweat in deadpan expressions. The self-destructive guitars (think Polvo, Sleater-Kinney) were all the better to hear Dupuis’ lyrics jut through the noise like pearly bones.
Earlier in the night, the unpredictable guitarist (who, like most unpredictable guitarists is soft-spoken in person), spilled on the band’s trouble-troving days out west: “We went looking for pentagrams in Salt Lake City,” Robidoux regaled, struggling to keep a straight face. “Theres a picture of us holding hands around a pentagram outside of a church.”
“Everywhere you walked, there was a pentagram, on buildings, on the ground, made hundreds of years ago, it was crazy. There’s some weird stuff in Utah,” bassist Darl Ferm added behind some laughter. “We have a little bit of black magic in us”.
But it’s not exactly black magic. It’s more like a little black cloud, which is where the Speedy Ortiz story begins: Dupuis and Falcone both missed out on bands they intended to see in Connecticut around Halloween 2011. As a last resort, Falcone copped a ride with Dupuis to catch mutual friends Grass Is Green and Melt Banana play. Except on this particular Halloween, a snowstorm raged over the northeast, Dupuis got a flat tire on the highway, and they had somebody’s dog in tow that needed safer quarters. Needless to say, Falcone and Dupuis didnt make the show, but after 72 hours together, they started to talk about collaborating.
“But we didn’t take it seriously until Darl joined,” Dupuis smirks.
Prior to Speedy Ortiz, the members cycled through Boston’s sprawling DIY scene, particularly its noise/experimental strain. Dupuis was in Quilty, Falcone was in Ovlov, Robidoux was in Graph, and Ferm was in Daysleeper. They admired each others work from afar. But when I ask how far everyone is located from each other, Newton native Ferm replies: “How far would it have to be to be nearby?”
Following their impressive Sports EP and a breadcrumb path of Internet tracks like “Taylor Swift” and Sebadoh covers, Speedy released Major Arcana, which was recorded in five days by Justin Pizzoferrato (Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis) in Easthampton, MA. The real challenge? “We were all working when we recorded it. I was teaching, so was Sadie”, Robidoux explains. Ferm says he was delivering pizzas (his latest in a string of odd jobs — his last was working with a National Geographic documentarian) and Falcone was in grad school studying Library Science.
Astrology nerds will recognize the album title as the suit of 22 cards in the Tarot deck. The Major Arcana have been around for centuries, inspiring debates for just as long over whether the practice is therapeutic or merely self-delusion. The album’s 12 propulsive songs are both: deeply therapeutic (“Spent the summer on crutches/ and everybody teased”) and hilariously delusional (“Don’t even care if they take my legs/ I’ve limped before, I can limp again”).
The sharp lyrics belong to Dupuis, a poetry M.F.A. candidate who claims there’s little crossover between her songs and poems. She doesn’t write about any specific events, but “love[s] drawing from the lore of New England.” She recently toured Emily Dickinson’s legendary home in Amherst: “She would write letters to the public playing with the fact that she knew she was ‘the myth of Amherst.’ She was apparently really funny and would engage with her writing, but wouldn’t leave her house, even to go to her brother’s house next door after her mid-20s.”
Like Dickinson, Dupuis knows a thing or two about New England isolation. She spent a semester in “the jock dorm” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a degree in mathematics and found creative writing instead. Dupuis made her way to U-Mass Amherst, famous for its Pixies song and raucous fraternity life (“It’s ‘Zoo-Mass’ to the undergrads”). But it was the artistic outpost she craved.
Had Dickinson lived to be 183 years old — assuming she’d be one of those cool old punk ladies with fine pink hair — she would’ve loved Major Arcana. Dupuis recalls the poet’s scant style and gloomy provocations which coalesce on the graveyard waltz “No Below” (refrain: “You were better off being dead”).
Dupuis’ favorite narrator is the kind who is wise beyond her years, but who can’t see past the circumference of a sex bracelet. She enacts this duality best on her personal favorite track, “Plough”. The arrangements stew around a lost soul of an ex-boyfriend (“You picked a virgin over me,” Dupuis sneers). On a dime, she contorts her voice to its highest register as she declares, “You’re freaking me the fuck out.” It’s a dulcet “Dance of the Seven Veils” where Dupuis mirrors Liz Phair’s vocal acuity. And while it’s been 20 years since Exile in Guyville, this “Plough” guy reeks of Phair’s ‘Johnny’.
Yeah, the virgin line, its not real. That would be creepy like some Juliana Hatfield drama, Dupuis laughs.
The creepiest song, “Casper (1995)”, is actually Falcone’s favorite. The song’s minor chords charge like a church organ, the kind you might find at a “wedding chapel exorcism” with acrid guitars and Dupuis’ hunt for witches and boys. “Kids keep telling specter stories just to get each other horny,” she spits, letting the music steamroll her voice like a car pulling over gravel. “The movie had been playing on TV,” Dupuis adds, “but the song is really more Blair Witch than Casper.
Despite the ghosts (friendly or not), the Halloween storms, pentagram-hunting, and one trip to a haunted Cleveland Nazi house, where Dupuis clipped a Nazi ghost chain that she keeps in her backyard, the band dispels any occult leanings. No one in the band has even visited a psychic. Once, Dupuis read a retro 1960s book that praised Alastair Crowley, as she contends: “I think that it’s nice to draw from something that has symbolism without the heft of religion.”
Dupuis is not a complete skeptic. She tells me that if you drip honey on a strip of paper with a person’s name written on it and preserve it in a jar, the person whose name is written down will start to treat you better. It’s something her Mom does, and apparently, so does Falcone’s grandmother.
In the freezer of the house I’m staying in, at the moment, if you look at the bottom shelf, there are a couple jars with ice and there’s a piece of paper with a person’s name written on it,” Falcone, who suddenly looks genuinely spooked, extrapolates. ”She must have been pissed about some shit, like 30 or 40 years ago, and the names have yet to be released.
The situation hasnt improved then, otherwise she’d break her spell,” Dupuis adds, smiling as ambiguous as a tarot card.
The rest? Just a bunch of hocus pocus.