Growing up in Manhattan, Sadie Dupuis realized early that she wanted to be more than just another "earnest-singing, pretty-voiced frontwoman." Starting as a young teenager, she played shows as a solo act and with what she now describes as "shitty" bands, but felt misunderstood as her sound matured. "I would show up as a singer in the band, and the sound guys would turn the vocals so up, and the reverb so up," recalls Dupuis, 24. "They'd assume that if there's a woman fronting a band, it's going to be some kind of singer-songwriter project."
Today, Dupuis is writing her own rules as the leader of rising Northampton, Massachusetts indie-rock act Speedy Ortiz. On record, the four-piece band – which is about to release its debut full-length, Major Arcana – plays melodic yet abrasive lo-fi rock in tricky time signatures. At shows, Dupuis is a charismatic presence, hacking away at her guitar while she croons lackadaisically or outright shouts into the mic.
Speedy Ortiz's music has drawn many comparisons to acts like Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. But while Dupuis admits to modeling her vocals after Stephen Malkmus', "Nineties revivalists" is just another label this band isn't interested in. "Retro is a bummer tag," disheveled drummer Mike Falcone says over a beer before their set at New York's Cake Shop. "I think we sound like now." Guitarist Matt Robidoux agrees: "We're trying to bring variance to a tired form, which is rock & roll."
While the band has graduated from Northampton's no-fucks-given DIY scene to cool clubs in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, they still prefer playing free basement shows whenever possible. "People are just a lot more drunk," says bassist Darl Ferm. "The higher up on stage you are, the less connection you're probably going to have with the audience." Plus, stage shows don't allow the dedicated crowd to lift Robidoux up mid-guitar solo – which happened twice this past Saturday at the tiny Brooklyn venue Big Snow Buffalo Lodge.
The self-proclaimed "music nerds" possess a shy awkwardness that seems to run contrary to their heavy sound. Dupuis – an MIT dropout who works as a college writing instructor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst – writes cryptic, somewhat autobiographical lyrics that are marked by puns and double meanings. "Mirror, mirror on the floor/Which witch here's the biggest bore?" she sings on the track "Suck Buddies." "I'm not cool and I won't ever/Masturbate to that endeavor." "I'm kind of like a third-grade poet," she says. "I try to have some sense of humor when we're writing songs."
Major Arcana, inspired by a book Dupuis read about the history of the occult, has a loose black magic theme. Crowds at their upcoming summer tour will have no trouble singing along to "Plough," which spotlights Ferm's bass before boisterous drums and melodic guitars come together to nail the hook. The lyrics reference occult staples like sulfur and salt, telling a story about a creepy ex who "wants to burn all my candles, but it isn't for love/He wants to burn on his fingers, thinks I'm the one to do it/He wants to burn, it's freaking me out."
As Speedy Ortiz build a following, there's been some talk of the bandmates quitting their day jobs. (Robidoux is a classically-trained guitarist who teaches music to middle- and high school-aged special education students; Falcone is a librarian-in-training and radio show host; and Ferm is a Wesleyan film studies grad putting in shifts grilling hot dogs at a Shake Shack.) "It would be great to play music as a day job, but I don't know how feasible that is in 2013," says Dupuis. Plus, she adds, "It's kind of nice to be grounded in the regular world."