Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis on Collaboration, DIY, and Musicians vs. Music Criticism

Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis on Collaboration, DIY, and Musicians vs. Music Criticism
Photo by Shervin Lainez

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers get a twice-weekly Baker's Dozen playlist with music I've been listening to along with some criticism written around that music. Right now I'm running a sale on monthly subscriptions, $1.50/month for the first six months instead of the usual $3—grab it here, it'll be available through Friday.

Sadie's appearance on the newsletter is a long time coming; I'd been interested in speaking with her for it for a bit because the two of us worked at SPIN back in 2009. One time we drank on the office building's roof and got dumplings afterwards. But that's not what I wanted to talk to her about, or why I wanted to talk to her, necessarily! (The dumplings were good though, I remember.)

Sadie has truly done it all when it comes to indie's corner of the music industry, and that of course includes her great band Speedy Ortiz, who have a new album out that just dropped last week, Rabbit Rabbit. We talked about the making of that record, as well as a host of music-and-industry-related topics. Unfortunately, I lost the part of the audio where we talked about Deftones and nü-metal...first time my recording software has faltered in forever, we all have our off-days.

Tell me about working with Sarah Tuzdin on this record. I interviewed her for the newsletter a few years ago, and I took away from the conversation that she's a total pro in the studio.
Sarah's one of my best friends, which makes it almost more complicated to answer this—because it's not a one-and-done working relationship, she's someone I text every day. We first met in 2018 when I did a reading for my first book. I really liked the first Illuminati Hotties record and knew that she also engineered.

When I was working on the last Sad13 record, I booked a few days in L.A. and wanted to work in New Monkey, which was Elliott Smith's private studio. It's still a functional studio and has a bunch of his equipment as he maintained it—he was a real studio rat and gear nerd. There's stories of him taking apart the board and reparing it by hand. I needed to bring in an engineer, and Sarah was in L.A. It was a two-day session, and sometimes it becomes so clear that your work style is so in sync to someone else's that you want to keep doing things together. Justin Pizzoferrato, who's done a bunch of Speedy stuff, I have a similar thing with him. When we first mixed together 12 years ago and I didn't have as much engineering vocabulary as I did now, I'd say "What if we did this and this?" and he'd already be pulling it up.

By the time I started working with Sarah, I had more experience, but I would still be like "What if we were going for this?" and she'd already be pulling it up. I really value those type of work experiences and want to work with that person as much as possible. We became close friends, and she mixed Haunted Painting after we'd worked on that together at Sonic Ranch, which was really fun. For this record, we knew we wanted to go to a particular studio, and it was great that we were able to make it happen with Sarah. She brings what she needs to with each project, and I come in with so much pre-production when it comes to what I want to happen.

As someone who's obsessed with the studio, I'm very conscious about the budget, so if we're on the clock, I want to use every minute as productively as possible, because we can't afford to extend it. So I come in with spreadsheets and pre-produced files, and we try to recreate what I did at home. What Sarah brought in was the engineering chops to get the best sound possible there. We'd listen to a demo and I'd say, "This is the White Pony guitar," and she'd be pulling up this amp and microphone. That made it efficient, fun, and creative. We were geeking out on trying out different pieces of equipment. Of course, it reduced the stress of picking out the best equipment for the job too.

You're putting out this new Speedy Ortiz record on your own label. Tell me what it's like to be running your own imprint.
I started Wax Nine to put out a Melkbelly record a few years ago. They were looking for a home for their record, and I knew Carpark had done a couple of imprints, so I asked if they'd be interested in working together. We've put out a few things since then—some Johanna Warren records, Spacemoth who's coming on tour with Speedy.

For this new Speedy record, none of us really left our houses very much during the pandemic. We were all really lucky to do remote and freelance projects that kept us at home. That, of course, was a huge privilege, but we were getting stir-crazy by the time we were getting ready to record. With the fickleness of the music industry, there was maybe this unspoken thing of, "This could be our last chance to get into a recording studio, so let's pick our dream place and use the resources we've saved up for exactly this scenario and do everything we might want if there's no more money for a next record."

Rancho de la Luna was a big bucket-list for me. Matt Sweeney told me it's a place that every band should record at at least once. We spent enough of our own money recording it that we didn't really want to split the profit with a record label. We didn't borrow the money, so why would we want to give 50% of it back?

Is the imprint still part of Carpark?
It is, but we're releasing this one separately. There's a few things I've done over the past few years without their involvement. I've also run a literary journal under Wax Nine for a few years, and I published a chapbook last year for the poet Alexander Martinez. I'm grateful that they've let me do some things together and some things apart from them.

What are the risks and rewards of putting your own record out?
There's more money spent upfront, which means we can start paying ourselves back immediately. If we didn't have enough money in the bank from years of touring before the pandemic, this wouldn't have been feasible. We were lucky that there was a Speedy Ortiz bank account that had the exact amount of money we needed to do this.

But if you don't know what you're doing, it could be a huge mess. I'm grateful that I'm 12 years in on doing this on a semi-professional level, and from other jobs and projects I know enough how things need to get done and on what timelines. That's the thing—we had the money in the bank, which is amazing, but the spending of your own time is the trickier part. But we're almost there, so I guess we did it OK. We'll see!

You knew me before I started this band, and you know that I did all kinds of random jobs and internships, as well as volunteering for friends' bands. All of those experiences helped me be flexible in the ever-changing industry. I'm grateful I know how to write a press release, and how to book a DIY tour, and how to write a record review. All of that stuff helps in terms of self-releasing.

I think the story of media and the music industry over the last five years is the necessity to be adept at, like, 18 things. With writers, they can be like, "I'm gonna be a critic and make $200,000 a year!" But that happened rarely before, and it really doesn't happen now.
When I left New York in 2011, it was because every time I secured a regular freelance gig, the entire editorial staff got laid off. I'd interview for a staff position and go through three rounds of interviews, and the person that was interviewing me would be fired. I was just taking every kind of random gig I could get—hourly transcription work—just to pay Brooklyn rent. I was like, "I don't think I could do this and be mentally well." I went to grad school because I thought I could get a teaching position that would pay better than media in 2011. So the writing was on the wall for me a while ago.

What really cracked me up during the pandemic, especially when being invited to speak to a class or talking to people about poetry, I'm always laughing, like, "Yes, music journalism wasn't lucrative, so I started teaching poetry, which was slightly better, and then it turned out that touring in an indie rock paid slightly better than that, so that is now my full-time job." I don't even know if that's falling upwards, it's just a comedy of very specific jokes. But when the pandemic started, the touring income was gone, so I was back to the same jobs in 2011—but they all paid worse beforehand.

When I've seen writers leave jobs to freelance over the last three years, I've been like, "What do you think you're going to do?" The $500 fees—which were too low to begin with—are gone. Now it's, like, $200. It's crazy.
I've priced myself out of a lot of gigs just by expecting a certain amount of money.

I feel like you've seen a lot of shit change in the last 12 years or so regarding indie and the music industry.
I was remembering some diss I heard about a peer of one of my own bands: "They have 30 press photos and 3 songs." I was getting sent a bunch of bands to check out recently, and I went to their Instagrams and saw a bunch of professional photos that were taken—but they don't have any songs out yet. The pivot to video rewired everybody's brains.

Speedy toured quite a lot, and when it became a full band, everyone in the band had been in a million bands before and were friends. As someone who'd been in the blogosphere and followed music, I definitely was sending out the Bandcamps to someone whose blog I liked in Madison, Wisconsin, so when we played there we were playing at the place that the person in Madison thought was cool. It was a lot of connecting over our shared fandom of bands and discovering back catalogues of regionally disparate and musically similar stuff. There's less of a model like that for newer bands right now because touring was not the first thing that they got to do, since it didn't exist for a few years.

When we were touring all the time, we got asked to be in something for Nylon and needed a press photo. I sent over a disposable camera photo of the band, and we were told it was too lo-res to print in the magazine. We'd already pressed a few records at that point, and a whole bunch of other stuff on Bandcamp, but we didn't have a hi-res photo to print in a magazine. There's definitely been a pivot towards digital presentation first rather than these other components that, during my musical upbringing, came first instead. That's not to say there's less validity to that approach, it's cool to see some projects come with so many other elements formed already—it's not just that they figured out their sound in a basement with some other people.

The look of the thing is tied to the sound of the thing is tied to whatever the lyrics stand for. Whereas I came from a background of, I worked at the door for such and such DIY venue and was Charles Aaron's intern—now, people taught themselves to use Photoshop and Final Cut to make their projects coherent in a digital sense. It's different self-taught DIY digital priorities.

We worked at SPIN at the same time way back in the day, in 2009. I witnessed that discourse online last month involving Bethany Cosentino, Jenny Lewis, and music criticism. There's always this clash between artists and critics, but you've actually worked alongside critics. I'm curious to hear you talk about how the perspective of working at a music magazine has affected your perception of music media as a musician.
I've certainly worked on both sides of it, but I've always felt confused and annoyed by my friends in bands who have nothing at stake and are distrustful of music critics.

I grew up, as I'm sure you did, reading music magazines and blogs and finding out about bands because the alt-weekly had some free downloads, and then I'd go to the shows and it'd change my life. Reading music writing made me so excited to discover all kinds of things I otherwise wouldn't have picked up at the used CD store, so I've always valued that form of art. I bought all the Christgau books and read all the blurbs in those. Even reading a negative review of something I love, or a glowing review of something I dislike, I can learn something from—whether it's from the prose or the person's perspective and why they reacted the way they did. At least, the good writing makes me feel that way. [Laughs] Not, like, the misogynistic writing about Bethany.

So I've never understood the perspective [of disliking music criticism as a musician]. It's like saying "I hate college radio." We're all part of the same ecosystem of people who care about music and get paid for that—or not—by different people in different kinds of positions. But it's also even more precarious to be a music writer than it is a musician, so it feels like an outsized mistrust, especially these days.

Hether Fortune had some perspective on this whole thing where she said, "If you aren't affected by a negative review, then you must be a monster in your personal life." And it made me have to pause and ask myself, "Am I a monster in my personal life?" I've certainly read reviews of projects I'm in where it's not glowing, but as long as it's not coming from a fucked up place of bigoted bias, I feel like I can enjoy a bad review! Maybe I can learn something from it. I can appreciate music criticism on multiple levels.

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Jamie Larson