Nostalgia can be kryptonite for modern bands.
Some use it as a jumping-off point to explore
uncharted territory. Others get so mired in endless dot connecting and genre exercises, they fail to stand out on their own. Northampton, Mass., quartet Speedy Ortiz and its knotty, razor-sharp sound obviously share plenty of DNA with 1990s college-rock heroes like Pavement, Archers of Loaf and Liz Phair (frontwoman Sadie Dupuis even spent time in an all-female Pavement tribute band called Babement).
On its blistering full-length debut, "Major Arcana," Speedy Ortiz shattered more than a few revivalist stereotypes. The menacing low end from bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone skews metal at times, while Dupuis and second guitarist Matt Robidoux pinball their jagged, discordant riffs off each other with reckless glee. And that angular axe work serves as the perfect complement to Dupuis' bipolar vocal style, which veers among wispy vulnerability, teenage rage and sardonic lyricism, often in the same song.
Such irresistible musical complexities, combined with a fervent DIY vibe and hilarious online presence spearheaded by Falcone, a library science student and Dupuis, a poetry MFA candidate and college teacher, have propelled Speedy Ortiz to rapid success. Nearly every best-of-2013 list has prominently featured "Major Arcana," while both The Breeders and Pavement founder Stephen Malkmus tapped Speedy Ortiz to join them on their respective major venue tours. Hell, Dupuis has even turned up in several think pieces about modern rock frontwomen.
But Speedy Ortiz is taking it all in stride. When Folio Weekly spoke to the band via telephone just before Christmas, they were piled in a van driving 12 hours from Massachusetts to Kalamazoo, Mich., to play a few house shows before joining The Breeders on their recent classic album tour. Speedy Ortiz's LiveJournal website, itself an anachronistic nod to early-hipster preening, described the opening slot as "probably the single coolest thing that's happened to this band so far."
When asked about the balance between its DIY roots and mushrooming profile, Dupuis says, "It was nice to warm up with some house shows before playing the first huge venue show with The Breeders. We're all huge fans of theirs, and Kim Deal has had such an interesting, consistently creative career. It was really interesting to see her as a musician and performer."
However, Dupuis says, guitarist Matt Robidoux had to miss the first few dates of The Breeders tour to "teach a middle school year-end Christmas concert" — an ironically unfortunate turn of events that perfectly encapsulates how quickly Speedy Ortiz rose in 2013. "But Matt's quitting next semester," Dupuis adds. "I'm not going to teach again, either. We're using this recent success to our advantage to tour as much as we can, which is an important opportunity. It'll also be fun to hang out in new cities like Jacksonville, where we've never been before in our lives."
That combination of aw-shucks humility and self-aware ambition might be Speedy Ortiz's biggest selling point. To capitalize on its buzz, the band has a new EP, "Real Hair," slated for a February release. But it's far more than a stopgap teaser; songs like "Everything's Bigger," which, true to its name, sounds more fleshed-out and polished than past lo-fi work, are already getting rave reviews. "Our writing process is still similar," Dupuis says. "We've only been a band for two years now. But as we've toured a ton, we've gotten a lot more comfortable with each other, and with that comfort comes more collaborative arrangements and a stronger ability to write together. The new stuff definitely represents growth for us as musicians."
Like many of its heroes from the original indie-rock world of the '80s and '90s, Speedy Ortiz is an intelligent, fiercely independent band — so while their music will evolve, their personalities are unlikely to change. They've used their elevated platform to spread the word about fellow travelers in the tight-knit Boston-area DIY scene, and Falcone, who serves as the band's primary blogger, says that no one considers all the extra press a big deal. "It just makes sense that when something like this happens, it's going to increase the amount of attention you receive. For better or for worse, that's what we've been handling. We're totally fine with it."
Dupuis is seeing a spike in questions about her role as one of modern rock's top ladies. "It's a good time for gender equality in rock ‘n' roll," she says. "So many bands have women in them, so it's more accepted and natural. And for that to happen without being used as a marketing tactic is the coolest thing possible. No female musician wants to be treated differently."