Q&A With: Sam McCormally of Ugly Purple Sweater
[Originally for DC Music Download on 10 January 2013]
This week, Ugly Purple Sweater released their much anticipated EP DC USA. Their signature indie-folk sound is on full display, as is the band’s gift for crafting compelling vignettes. The band (comprised of bassist Rishi Chakrabarty, Rachel Lord on the banjo, Mike Tasevoli on drums, guitarist Will McKindley-Ward and lead singer and guitarist Sam McCormally) celebrated the release of DC USA on Saturday, January 12th at Black Cat Mainstage, alongside Kingsley Flood and Kindlewood. Sam McCormally spoke with DMD about the new release and what the band has in store for the New Year.
D.C. Music Download: How long did it take to write all the songs for the EP? Which song was the most challenging to compose?
Sam McCormally: Three of these songs have been evolving over the past year. They’ve sort of been like our little treasures; the songs we started working on right after the last album was completed. The take of “Central Detention Facility Blues” is literally the first time we ever played the song; it sprang forth fully formed, pretty much, though there are overdubs.
Writing the lyrics to “I Will Not Regret” took me a month of Sundays. I dated someone whose mom was pretty unstable in high school, and it took a long time to figure out how best to convey that. There’s a delicate balance of directness and metaphor that I thought needed to be walked.
DMD: What were you hoping to achieve musically through DC USA, and do you think you got what you were going for?
SM: The songs are all quite different from one another, which works because each song tells a different kind of story. “CDF Blues” is about someone who was in jail for possession of pot, and is now out and trying to figure out what to do with his life. “DC USA” is about the deep ambivalence I have about the way DC is changing. “I Will Not Regret” is about someone dating a woman who is really unstable.
I like that each song exists in a very distinct musical space as well. We tried to summon a different palette of sound for each song.
I think we also felt more comfortable as a group this time around. The five of us have been playing together for a couple of years now, and we developed the songs together, which means they really play to our strengths.
As far as getting what we were going for, I am completely thrilled about how the record turned out, and we have Kyle Downes and Thomas Orgren, who engineered and mixed the record, to thank for that.
DMD: How do you feel the new release differ from earlier music?
SM: I think these tracks sound more lovingly developed than our previous records. We recorded these four songs in three days in the studio, which is really a pretty generous amount of time for us.
We did a lot of overdubs and fussed with guitar tones. Mike Tasevoli ( who plays drums & percussion) played some congas on one of the tracks that we ended up not using. At one point Will McKinley-Ward, who plays electric guitar, spent a half hour playing with an e-bow.
Don’t get me wrong; we weren’t sitting around a Ouija board waiting for inspiration to strike. We were working hard the whole time. But we did get to be more meticulous about the arrangements than we have in the past.
DMD: Is songwriting a collaborative effort for UPS? Or is one person leading the charge?
SM: Our songwriting process has gotten more collaborative over the past couple years. It used to be, I’d demo out a song and we’d work on the arrangements, but on these four, we all worked together from a pretty early stage.
Two of them originated from Mike and I recording our improvised jams. When we went back, we were surprised to discover that there was a song there.
Then from there, I took the song and worked on the lyrics and the structure, and then brought it back to band practice. Songs basically morphs for a while, and then settle down.
DMD: What is the inspiration behind the title track?
SM: DC USA is the name of the shopping mall in Columbia Heights, about which I am deeply ambivalent.
On the one hand, I love that when I lived in the neighborhood, I had somewhere I could go to buy a USB cable on short notice. And I like that the neighborhood is safer, and that the stores provide some jobs.
At the same time, there’s something really disconcerting about eating Panda Express on a site that remained vacant from the 1969 riots until 2007. I remember seeing a sign in D.C. over a new development that said, “When we’re done, you won’t even recognize this place,” and I found it kind of threatening. It seemed like the stated goal of that development project was to erase any sense of history of culture and replace it with something sanitized and placeless.
But I really don’t have any clear opinions on this stuff, other than that I think it’s important for people to pay attention to the history and culture of a place when they move in, and not ignore it or dismiss it.
DMD: What was the inspiration behind the EP cover art?
SM: Will did the album art, and told me that he wanted to echo the ambivalence of the song DC USA in the image.
The people are lifted from an old image that was there on the site where the mall is, before the riots. And the glacier is sort of a symbol for the kind of large scale, seemingly inevitable forces to which we seem to be subjugated.
DMD: Looking back after leaving the studio, what was the biggest experience the band got out of recording this release?
SM: The last time we left the studio, it felt like there was still a lot left to do: corrections, decisions about which guitar take to choose, that kind of thing.
This time, we had some of the vocals left over, but the tracks were in pretty good shape. It was really nice to come together as a band and work on something together in a short time until it was really done.
DMD: Can you talk a little about the band’s video for “DC USA?” How did you and Mike James get acquainted for the video shoot?
SM: Basically, we got extremely lucky. We knew we wanted to work with Ellie Walton on the video for that song, because she’s a documentary film maker whose work often involves local issues.
Ellie’s doing a film right now called Fly By Light, which follows a group of D.C. teenagers who go on this retreat in West Virginia. Mike is friends with one of the kids in that film, and Ellie met him. Mike is a rapper, under the name Superstar Butta, and he had done a music video with Paul Abowd, the other director for the video.
Mike also used to train in boxing, though he hasn’t picked up the gloves in a couple of years. Then, I had the idea of doing a boxing-themed video because it seemed to be a way to visually represent the contrast between the new neighborhood and the old neighborhood, since boxing is really deep in D.C. culture. And Ellie thought of Mike, and knew he was great on camera, and thought we could get him and Paul on the project too. It was really fun to watch Mike him step into that world again; he said it made him want to train again.
DMD: What are your plans for 2013? Any tours, additional releases, or other events you’re planning for and looking forward to?
SM: Our EP release show is on Saturday, January 12th, and it’s going to be a blast. We’re co-headlining with Kingsley Flood, who are tremendous songwriters and performers. There are six of them on stage, and they make it seem like there’s twenty. Kindlewood is opening, and they are maybe my favorite band in D.C. at the moment. Their songs are original and cathartic without being maudlin. It’s going to be a great night.
We’re going to be playing out of town as often as we can, and we’ve got a crop of songs that are making their way down the birth canal. We’re talking about putting out another record in September, and it’s going to be more dance-oriented and weirder than anything we’ve done before. I’m really excited about it.
DMD: Can you elaborate more on that new record-will it be a full-length? What inspired you to take a more dance-oriented direction?
SM: I don’t want to speculate too much, because the songs are still developing.
I get a lot of inspiration from performance, and there is almost nothing better in the world than playing something and having people dance to it. I’ve been thinking a lot about what music is for; what it can offer people. And when you think about it from that perspective, giving people the opportunity to dance is a great gift.
I also want to say that when I think of “dance” music, I think of the kind of four-on-the-floor euro-beat stuff that’s pretty popular these days, and while Robyn’s Body Talk is probably one of my favorite records of the millennium so far, that’s not what we’re going for. I’m not sure what we’re going for quite yet, but I’ll let you know.
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