Interviewed By: Abbey Pechman
Ugly Purple Sweater is an endearingly quirky band, that is-if you couldn’t catch on to that from their name. Their unconventional style also reflects back to their music, with the band’s unique approach to folk-rock displayed on their latest album, Conventions (released November ’11) . With a string of performances that the band already has underneath their belt so far in 2012, Ugly Purple Sweater will be headlining the Rock and Roll Hotel this Thursday, May 3rd at 8:30p.
Before their upcoming show, DMD had the pleasure of chatting with member Sam McCormally. With our conversation ranging from L.L. Bean sweaters to the D.C. music scene, there was really no subject that went untouched.
For more information about Ugly Purple Sweater, and to also preview their album Conventions, click here
D.C. Music Download: How long has Ugly Purple Sweater been around, and how did the band get started?
Sam McCormally: I moved to D.C. in 2007 and didn’t know anybody playing music, so I answered an ad for a keyboardist and ended up playing in a band called Mother (with Rishi Chakrabarty and Mike Tasevoli, whom later joined Ugly Purple Sweater), and all the while wishing I was working on my own songs. At the time I was working for a think tank. To distract myself from my failure to make a ripple in the world of white papers and shiny suits, I made myself record some songs and post them to Myspace.
DMD: Probably the most frequently asked question, but had to ask-how did the name Ugly Purple Sweater come about?
SM: At the time, I had this terrible polyester blend L.L. Bean sweater I’d bought at a Goodwill in Richmond, IN, which I liked primarily because my friend Caitlin Robers, a thrift-store connoisseur, despised it. Another friend of mine, a musician, said he noticed that when he’d sing in unison with other people, he has a tendency to sing slightly flat-because when he did, it’s a lot easier to hear himself apart from his bandmates. I think I kind of do that in life in general; I’ll gravitate towards hideous and uncool things just to see if I’m still a person with my own opinions. And I think that’s why I liked the sweater.
So one day my upstairs neighbor said she was putting together a fundraiser for Barack Obama, and asked if Mother wanted to play, and I sneakily suggested that Ugly Purple Sweater play instead. At that point, I’d considered Ugly Purple Sweater to be my “solo project,” but Rachel Lord joined in on a few songs, which were obviously the most popular, and we kept playing shows like that for a couple of years. We traveled around the country sometimes, sleeping on couches and playing for 6 people in Arcata, CA at 3PM and that sort of thing. And then in 2010, we attempted to record a second album of mostly acoustic stuff, and it didn’t quite get off the ground. At that point, we decided it was time for a change, and recruited Mike and Rishi to play with us, as well as Will McKindley-Ward, a singer-songwriter from Mt. Rainier, on electric guitar.
DMD: On your Facebook page regarding your album, Conventions, you mention: “This inclination to pull at musical loose yarn resembles the lyrical content of the album; the ways we rely on the conventions of romantic relationships, the moments those conventions fail us, and the realization that we’ve achieved genuine intimacy by playing the part.” Could you elaborate as to what you mean by this, and how this quote relates to your lyrics?
SM: I was trying to write pop songs, but to follow the little kernels of oddness that cropped up along the way. I like the little surprising bits on albums; long and ambient outros; the songs that have unexpected second halves; unusual harmonies. There’s a bit in the bridge of “Ba Ba Ba” where the electric guitar and the keyboard are playing phrases of different lengths, so it goes out of phase before realigning. I don’t know if anyone else has ever noticed or cared about that, but it’s the kind of thing I live for.
As far as the lyrics on the album, I’ve long been averse to writing very many love songs because of how hard it is to avoid just copying other people’s work. Now I’m engaged, and I’ve been thinking about how strange a thing it is to become intimate with someone, and I wanted to write songs about that. Love songs, but weird ones. To take an example, I think a lot of people prefer dating pretty much anybody to being alone, and when they get into a relationship that is at least passably functional, they dive all the way into it; incessant text messages, canceling plans with friends, spending five nights a week at the apartment of someone they’ve known less than a month. I think I used to find that kind of thing disingenuous or desperate. But now I feel like going through the motions of intimacy can help people achieve genuine intimacy, which is sort of a surprising thing to me-that you can start with something obvious and cliche and end up somewhere you didn’t expect.
And to connect that back to music: songwriting is really a medium of structural conventions, of verse and choruses and bridges, and you might think that having all those limitations would impede one’s creativity. But I think the experience of most songwriters is exactly the opposite. Having limitations like that are incredibly productive because they let you shape your raw creative impulses. That strikes me as similar to the conventions of romantic relationships, the ones that I used to view so suspiciously.
DMD: On Conventions, which song or songs are your personal favorites to perform live and why?
SM: I love playing “The Water’s Edge” because I think it shows off everyone in the bands’ strengths: Mike is playing this really fluid, propulsive beat; Rishi’s locked in; Will is doing this neat textural slide guitar work; Rachel’s drumming up all these overtones on the melodica. It feels like visiting your childhood home.
DMD: How do you think your songwriting has changed or evolved since your first releases?
SM: I think I’ve become more concise, both lyrically and musically. I used to be afraid of being too transparent in my lyrics, but recently I’ve been appreciating the power that music has to make simple statements seem really dignified and true. Plus, lyrics have to be written at the rate of aural comprehension, so slowing down and repeating oneself is totally necessary if you want people to know what you’re talking about. I try to be more aware of that as I’m writing.
DMD: What bands do you have on your radar right now (both local and national)?
SM: Lost in the Trees from North Carolina are a band that ought to be bigger than they are. I last saw them at SXSW a couple years ago, and they are so good at listening to each other that you really get to hear all the detail in their music.
Dustin Wong’s solo sets absolutely must be seen to be believed. I tend to roll my eyes when people call music hypnotic, but it’s truly the best word for it.
As far as locals go, I relish every time I get to see Hume.
DMD: Outside of D.C., what city and venue is your favorite place to perform in and why?
SM: Probably my favorite performance memory is from a show at the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern in Bellingham, Washington. Bellingham is a college town, and we played there in July, when it is absolutely beautiful and absolutely deserted. There were 8 people there, but it was at the end of our tour, and we gave it our all. Afterwards, the bartenders sat us down and gave us free drinks and played us music that some of the other bands had played there-and we stayed at the bar, drinking and listening, until 3AM.
DMD: On top of the show you have at Rock and Roll Hotel coming up, what other upcoming gigs/projects does the band have on the horizon?
SM: We’re playing at the Black Cat backstage on May 31 with Typefighter and Plume Giant. We’re also talking about releasing a single on vinyl in the fall and touring on top of that.
DMD: Speaking of local music-how do you feel the music scene in D.C. has evolved since you’ve been around?
SM: I think really the thing that’s changed is that I’ve gotten to know the scene a whole lot better! I’d say the main development is the opening of a bunch of venues with proper sound systems, like the Hamilton, U St. Music Hall and Red Palace just to name a few. I remember moving to town and thinking there wasn’t a whole lot of music that I liked being made in D.C., but then I quit whining and met a bunch of people and found out I was wrong.