Dupuis’ experience as a poet, as well as her social-justice activism, informs her songwriting. But as a child, Josie and the Pussycats influenced her to purchase her first guitar: a Strat. These days she mostly plays her custom Moniker Anastasia. Photo by Tim Bugnee/Tinnitus Photography
Sadie Dupuis has an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, and she’s earned her doctorate in rock ’n’ roll onstage with her band Speedy Ortiz and other groups, which makes her part of a long line of rock bards that goes back to Chuck Berry. Although with their grinding guitar rhythms, waves of feedback, and tweaking, angular lead lines, Speedy Ortiz and Dupuis’ guitar playing are distinctly modernist.
“I get involved in different projects and I play other instruments,” says the activist, writer, and string-slinger, “but guitar is always the one that’s the most comfortable and certainly the one that I’ve spent the most hours on. So, even if I’m recording stuff that I’m going to be playing on synth or a bass, I definitely compose on guitar.”
Undeniably, the heart and soul of Speedy Ortiz—from the band’s debut EP, 2012’s Sports, to 2015’s Foil Deer album and 2016’s Foiled Again EP—has been Dupuis’s singular sonic character. But with the new Twerp Verse, she’s added a kindred 6-string spirit in guitarist Andy Molholt, from the band Laser Background. Molholt joined halfway through the recording of Twerp Verse, bringing an ear for ornamentation that made a major impact on many of the album’s tunes.
“It’s obviously Sadie’s songwriting project,” says Molholt. “I’m more there to fill in the color spots. And I feel like that’s what I was able to do.” In fact, he did it so well that Dupuis was inspired to begin planning the next round of recordings for them, even as Speedy Ortiz rides the wave of Twerp Verse.The album found the band expanding its sound with not only a second guitar, but walls of synthesizer. The songs “Lucky 88” and “I’m Blessed” balance the raw attitude of ’90s-style guitar tones and production with synth melodies that recall ’80s new wave, while simultaneously sounding fresh.
Dupuis has managed to craft a guitar style that is unique and challenging, and she injects Twerp Verse with atonal countermelodies and gritty overdrive textures that sit next to swirling modulations and harmonies that defy expectations. And she does it all while singing earworm pop melodies that often clash head-on with the music in a subdued yet antagonistic fashion.
Her socially-conscious lyrics are also on full display. She sings about the realities of being a woman in today’s world with carefully crafted wit that drives her points home, and her wilting, nonchalant vocal delivery wryly weaponizes her lyrics as a rallying cry for the marginalized.
Guitarists often lament the disappearance of the guitar hero and, sometimes, of real rock ’n’ roll. But after speaking with Dupuis and Molholt about their latest work, I think that maybe we’re just looking in the wrong places. Maybe today’s guitar heroes are right under our noses, forging new hybrid sounds and singing about issues more impactful than fashion, material belongings, and a hypersexualized worldview. And maybe two of them just released a fantastic new album called Twerp Verse.
Speedy Ortiz has a unique sound. Describe your musical background and how you arrived at your songwriting style.
Sadie Dupuis: I first started playing music in a classical setting. I had taken piano lessons and sang in children’s choirs up until age 16. And if I’m totally honest, I had just seen the Josie and the Pussycats movie and wanted to do that. So I got a Mexican Strat for my 13th birthday and started playing.
I’ve never heard Josie and the Pussycats play anything like Speedy Ortiz.
Dupuis: I mean, it was a really good movie, okay? [Laughs.] Well, when I first started playing, because my background was singing choral sheet music, I was like, let me learn how to play some of this on guitar. So I think there’s always been some of that influence on my playing. A lot of the music I’d sing as a kid was eight-part harmonies that were super weird with time signatures that were changing.
Andy, Twerp Verse is your first album with the band. How did you come to be in Speedy Ortiz?
Andy Molholt: [Drummer] Julian Fader convinced me to join this band called Very Fresh, and we opened for Speedy Ortiz. That’s the first time I met them. And then when Devin [McKnight, the previous Speedy Ortiz guitarist] decided not to play with the band anymore, Sadie hit me up saying, “Do you want to play four shows with us? We have one week. You have to learn 16 songs.” And I was like, “Sure!” I personally love a challenge like that. The first four shows went really well, and we thought we should keep doing it. It’s all really natural.
TIDIT: Guitarist Andy Molholt joined the band halfway through the recording sessions for Twerp Verse. He also leads his own group, Laser Background.
How do you see your role within the band?
Molholt: Any time I play in somebody else’s project or especially a project that’s existed for a while, I’m very intent on adding as much as I can without taking away anything that was already making the project special. And I’m the third guitar player for Speedy Ortiz, so I did feel like I had to fill the role that Matt [Robidoux] and Devin both left behind.
It definitely was a little daunting at first. But Sadie’s really good about letting people play something that’s very specifically laid out and also color outside the lines a little bit. Like on “Can I Kiss You?” … the main guitar line I’m playing was originally a bass line. But I remodeled it slightly with a Moog ring mod pedal. And on “You Hate the Title,” there’s a delay guitar part and that was an idea I had to keep the rhythm moving in an interesting way.
That delay has a really smoky sound. What did you use to get that tone?
Molholt: It’s a $40 pedal my friend gave me made by this company called Joyo. They’re super cheap. So I fell in love with that. I have a Memory Man Deluxe that I really like as well, but I use that for synths, mostly.