When a talented band like Ugly Purple Sweater retires, a rumbling can be heard across D.C.’s tight-knit music community. That metaphorical shake was felt earlier this year when Sockets Records had its last showcase, followed by the announcement of Imperial China’s breakup. What tends to be forgotten in the grand scheme of things is what many people don’t see. With every album and tour also comes the blood, sweat and tears that very few people (besides bands and musicians) experience. While it’s initially shocking to hear of a band like Ugly Purple Sweater calling it quits, keeping a band together for four years is certainly no easy feat, and nobody could vocalize that better than the group’s founding members.
In their last interview with D.C. Music Download, Sam McCormally and Rachel Lord reflect on the band’s journey and their most cherished moments. The band will perform one last time tonight at Black Cat’s backstage with Johnny Fantastic. Tickets are on sale for $10.
D.C. Music Download: What’s going through your mind as the last show gets closer?
Sam McCormally: I feel pretty melancholy about it. Will [McKinley-Ward], who’s our guitarist, was wondering during band practice what song was going to make him cry! It’s a nice opportunity to have a last show with this group of people, because we’ve been playing together for four years. To have a moment where we can have this time together and play is nice, and I’m looking forward to it. But, it is also pretty sad to say goodbye to this group and this material.
DMD: At what point did you realize that it was time to retire the band?
SM: I wouldn’t say it was a particular moment. We’ve had a couple conversations in August where it became clear that a couple folks were feeling burned out. I am at a point where I really want to be performing a lot and getting my music out there. When that became apparent that certain people were going in different directions, it seemed like it was time to think about moving on.
The decision to have a last show did happen pretty quickly, in part because I’m used to getting onto the next thing and I didn’t want this to be a slow, painful death! I wanted to rip-off the Band-Aid a little bit.
Rachel Lord: It was something that was sort of happening over the last few months. We had a break over the summer where we didn’t play for a month just because of people traveling and being out of town. When we came back, that kind of gave us a little bit of space to think about what this project has meant to us. What’s funny is that I don’t think we ever had that time. In some ways it was a surprise, and in other ways, it wasn’t a surprise. It was a surprise when we had the conversation about the last show. I think everybody realized, “Oh wow, this is what this all means. This is what ending the project means”. I am pretty sad about it, but then again, I am one of those people who had less energy for it. It was the most honest decision for me to make.
SM: It should be said that Rachel has a real job. She’s a nurse and she has to go back to school.
DMD: Plus, I can imagine with the amount of people in the band, it was tough to coordinate schedules. What do you think was the most challenging thing of doing a project like this?
SM: One doesn’t want to air too much dirty laundry, although we don’t really have too much dirty laundry to air! I think ultimately the issue (and this goes for any band) was that you have five people who not only have different schedules, but different tastes and preferences in music. For a group of five people to hang around a certain musical idea is such an unusual and difficult thing to maintain. But, as long as that’s happening, then the scheduling stuff is easy to do. If everyone in the band thinks that the music they’re making represents them-then the scheduling is easy.
It also helps if you can pay people a lot of money, which we can’t [laughs]. That is another factor that we didn’t have in our favor. I think we got to the point where the music we were making was not the music that everyone wanted to be making. There are only so many hours in the day and most of us play in multiple musical projects, so exhaustion becomes a factor also.
DMD: Given everything you’ve learned as a member of this group, what advice would you give someone who’s trying to start their own band?
SM: I think the thing that I learned in this band is that you can’t fake songwriting. I spent years before Ugly Purple Sweater trying to write songs of one type or another type, and I ended up producing things that nobody really liked-including myself. This project was started by me playing my guitar a lot and writing songs that felt natural and that I was enthusiastic about at a very genuine level. I had the most success doing that. I think the first thing is that you have to write from a pretty honest place.
The other thing (that probably isn’t news to anyone) that you have to socialize. I think that one thing that has helped us is getting to know the music community who’s been so supportive and enthusiastic of each other’s work, who show up to each other’s shows, and gives each other opportunities. I met Mike [Tasevoli] and Rishi [Chakrabarty] ,who play drums and bass for the band, through Craigslist when I first moved to town in 2007. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I wouldn’t have been nearly as plugged into the community as I am. By getting involved, it not only helps you find opportunities, it helps to keep you inspired and feel like what you’re doing matters in a large sense.
RL: I don’t like to admit this, but when we first started playing, I was kind of defensive and nervous about what everyone thought about our music. Looking back at it, approaching bands with this competitive mindset ended up not being good for creating relationships. It took me a while, although it’s incredibly obvious now, to realize that we all have to support each other’s music. When I feel supported and people come to my shows (and when I go to other people’s shows) it’s really all about the experience of playing in a community and getting to know people. Touring, even though it’s hard, it’s one of my favorite things because it’s a really awesome way to meet people.
SM: I remember starting out and feeling a little bit insecure about the music that I was making. What’s hard about being in that mindset is that it’s really hard to learn and get better. I think that was the most important thing for me was to be open-minded and realize that I have things to learn and that I can get better.
DMD: What’s was the proudest moment for the both of you in regards to the band?
RL: Mike and I were reminiscing the other night about our best shows. We’ve had some amazing shows at the Black Cat and also some shows in New York. Having Conventions and DC USA in particular was something that I’m really proud. I feel like I will stand behind those recordings for a long time, because I think they are really good!
SM: We wrote and recorded Conventions in this really manic stretch. I felt like every day for months we were rehearsing or recording. It was this really intense output of energy that year when we were working on it. I feel really proud of that record. The other one I would say is our EP release show in January, which was really fun to play. We got to play with Kingsley Flood and Kindlewood, who are two bands that I love. We got to play in my favorite club to a bunch of people who were really enthusiastic. That show was a big highlight for me too.
DMD: Craziest moment that has happened while performing?
RL: This happened back at the Red Palace. We’ve been playing with the big band for about six months, maybe a little bit longer. But, we started playing “Mighty Fictions” and people started singing along! It was an incredibly ethereal moment, just because there were people that I didn’t know in the audience. It was just like-“Wow, this music isn’t just OUR music!”
SM: I agree with Rachel. That kind of thing has happened a few times and it’s a really beautiful feeling.
DMD: What can people expect for the final show?
SM: Rachel and I are going to start out playing a couple of our older, acoustic tunes from the first record. Then, we’re going to blast through a lot of the stuff that’s been on the other two releases along with a few newer tunes as well. We’re going to play a longer set and we’re going to include songs that we don’t usually play along with stuff that involves just Rachel and I.
Johnny Fantastic, who is opening, is one of my favorite bands in D.C. They put out a great record earlier this year and I encourage everyone to check them out as well.
DMD: What’s next for you after the last show?
SM: I have a number of pots on the stove that will come into fruition. I’m playing the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum on November 10. I think I’ll continue to do solo shows. I’m working on a couple other projects that are not quite off the ground yet, but I think will be early next year. I also do a fair amount of music for films, so I have a few of those projects that I’m working on as well.
RL: I’m taking a break from performing music for a minute because of work and school. We’ll see. I have enough hopes that some project will lend itself to me and I’ll get excited about playing music with some people in the future. But, that’s not on the horizon yet.