Features

My DC: A Conversation with Keeper

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Photos by Mark Hoelscher

I came to know D.C. trio Keeper through a discussion about a Horse Jumper of Love t-shirt keyboardist Matt Lewicki was wearing when he walked into my then-place of work. I was impressed by the well-polished, intimate and atmospheric nature of their first release, Fawn, especially at a time when much of D.C.’s local offerings sought to express a similar emotional vulnerability through maximalism and aggression. In line with the quiet and vulnerable nature of their work, Keeper opted to shoot their My DC portrait at a museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum specifically, a move that seemed appropriate for a band more than willing to describe themselves as “sensitive Beanie Babies.”

Ahead of their tape release show at Comet Ping Pong, and the final performance of the band in its current form, I sat down with singer-songwriter Marissa Lorusso, guitarist Sam Piercy, and MicroKORG enthusiast Matt Lewicki to discuss their forthcoming release Salting, as well as the radical process of overcoming one’s shortcomings in the public eye.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You indicated that the National Portrait Gallery’s atrium was the spot you wanted to shoot at due to “various, nerdy reasons.” Are you all nerds for American art, or is there something more intrinsic to the architecture and aesthetic feel of this space?

Marissa Lorusso: I don’t know if I would qualify myself as a nerd for American art in particular, but I really like that museum. I think the atrium is just a really beautiful space with a lot of light, so I thought it would be good to shoot there. It’s also very peaceful; it’s got a good vibe. In terms of the museum itself, it’s a place that we go a lot, individually, and also as a group, and I think there are a couple of pieces in the museum that I in particular really love.

Matt Lewicki: I would say some of us are art nerds to a certain extent, I went to art school. I feel like I want to be more nerdy about it, but I have a basic knowledge and going to a museum is a real nerd-out experience for me. I geek out about things while the majority of the people walking through seem to be observing quietly. It’s like going to a rock show and seeing all your favorite rock stars except they’re on the wall instead of on a stage.

You chose to be photographed in front of two particular pieces: Monekana by Deborah Butterfield, which is a sculpture of a horse, as well as a portrait of LL Cool J by Kehinde Wiley. Why these pieces?

Marissa: I was a horse nerd growing up, and the first time I went to that museum I was super struck by that beautiful sculpture. One time I went in there, there was a museum worker who was walking around and saw me looking at this horse. She told me all about the sculpture and Deborah Butterfield, so now whenever I bring friends to that museum I’m like, “Let me tell you about this horse! I know all about this horse!” I just think it’s really beautiful. It also looks like it’s made of driftwood when it’s actually made of steel. The artist really likes the permanence of the steel, which I think is pretty beautiful. Also, one time I went there and met Francis [Quinlan] of Hop Along, she just happened to be in the museum that day, and Hop Along is one of my favorite bands ever, ever, ever. Does anyone want to talk about LL Cool J?

Matt: I think those two pieces are pretty good representations of what brings us to that museum. You have this Deborah Butterfield horse sculpture that is this beautiful modern art piece by this great female artist, which is part of the reason we were drawn there. There used to be this beautiful Jenny Holzer piece that is down for maintenance or whatever, hopefully it comes back soon. But there’s also a pop culture wing of sport stars and movie stars, which is where LL Cool J is. It appeals to both sides; you want to go high-brow, but you can also go middle-brow and see these celebrity and politician portraits. It’s got a little bit of both. That’s part of why we are drawn there.

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Following this subject, as artists would you say you draw inspiration from non-sonic mediums, such as fine art or prose? This is a bit of a pointed question because your song “Goodbye To All That” draws its title from that of a Joan Didion essay.

Marissa: As a musician I feel like I’m drawing more on music that I love, and I guess prose as well, but I don’t feel like I understand visual art that well. The Joan Didion thing… man, I wrote that song a long time ago and that essay is about living in New York City, where I’ve never lived. I don’t know, it’s just an essay about being a young woman and trying to figure out what you’re doing with your life and finding your way. That’s vastly oversimplifying it, but I felt like I was in a similar place when I was writing that song and a lot of the songs on Fawn.

Matt: I don’t think that [fine art] is in the forefront of my mind when we are putting songs together. Any type of visual filter is not being processed, but I would say lessons learned from visual mediums definitely translate into music. You could call our music kind of impressionistic, in it’s kind of washy, reverb quality. You learn a lot of lessons about composition, balance and contrast all from visual mediums. They apply to music, but doing that translation is pretty hard. I don’t think I even necessarily understand it, but the basic qualities apply to both mediums, I would say.

That ties into a question for Matt, specifically with regard to considering music a balancing act and your usage of the MicroKORG synth. Your instrument gives the tracks more of an atmospheric, ambient vibe. Would you say that decision or artistic approach is drawn from your experiences working in a primarily visual medium?

Matt: I’d say what the synth is really trying to do on most of the tracks, especially the tracks where it’s not playing bass, is give a setting to the guitar and vocals which is the forefront of the music. It’s about setting the tone, not just with the notes that I’m playing, but the textures.

Marissa: But I would say you have an interest in ambient and more soundscape-y music, which is why I was excited about working on this project with you. I knew you could pull those elements into the stuff I was writing, and I feel like that way of appreciating music is influenced by the visual art that you like, and the type of visual art you enjoy.

Matt: That’s true, a lot of my interest in visual art is focused towards more abstract work. Definitely a lot of minimalist, simple work that evokes an emotion, the idea of trying to hone in on a singular emotion through an abstract piece. Some of my favorite stuff is like that, think Donald Judd, obviously Rothko, and… who’s the guy in the “Hotline Bling” video?

Marissa: [laughs] James Turrell

Matt: Yeah, James Turrell. The type of artist who is trying to put the viewer, or in this case listener, into a setting through something very simple and non-abrasive. They’re all sort of fields of color, these simple structures that emit one single emotion and do it over a sustained period. I feel like that’s most of the synth parts on the album. It’s not really anything complex, it’s just this feeling and textural element that’s held out over the course of the song.

Let’s talk about the new tape, Salting, which is coming out in August on Sad Cactus, and in particular the track “Clothesline” which just debuted. This is your second release and it comes two years after Fawn, your first EP. How would you differentiate the two releases, and how have you changed as artists?

Marissa: First and foremost, Salting was written as a group and it was the first time I had done that, which was a big change. We wrote these songs with the intention of performing them as a group. When I wrote the songs on Fawn I hadn’t played shows in a while, and I didn’t know if I would be performing or what would happen with these songs. When we wrote the songs on Salting, we were a real band and we were playing shows and writing these songs to be played at shows, and I think that had a really big impact on the kind of stuff that we wrote and the kind of sounds we were trying to make.

Sam Piercy: That definitely says a lot about it for me as well. I wasn’t on Fawn, which is the biggest change for me personally. It has a different feel–bigger, hopefully, is what we were going for without losing the intimacy of the first release.

Matt: I guess this album is closer to a full band set up. Having bass on the tracks is really nice because it brings out some of the heavy emotions that are conveyed. It gives it more of a physical feeling, more of a physical resonance.

With “Clothesline” the two separate guitar lines (as well as the synth) seem to play and interweave with one another more than the tracks on Fawn. Did you have a different instrumental approach with regard to recording the music due to Sam’s inclusion in the recording process?

Sam: “Clothesline” was the first song Marissa, Matt and I wrote together; it’s the oldest of the songs on the new EP. We actually played that song at our first show, which was like two and half years ago? So it’s been nesting for a while. “Clothesline” was the first song that I ever helped write, period. I played classical piano growing up, and I got to D.C. and said, “I want to be cool, and cool people play guitar.”

Marissa: It’s true!

Sam: It is! So I just bought a guitar and played during the summer when I was really bored. I would come home after work and just practice guitar for a couple hours. I’m no whiz by any stretch. It was a matter of listening to what Marissa was doing–having fun was the main goal.

The cover art of Salting is a lot less spooky than Fawn, so I also wanted to ask where that photo was taken and why you selected it to contextualize this album.

Marissa: So for Fawn and Salting, the photos for both were taken on this road trip that Matt and I and a bunch of friends went on three years ago, and it was really cool. We drove across the country in a van and drove back across the other way. It felt really formative, the things that I felt and the ways that I grew from that trip were the basis for a lot of the songs that I’ve written since. The Salting picture was taken on a beach outside of the Redwoods in California. I don’t totally remember how we ended up on a beach but we had a day where we didn’t really have anything to do, so we went to this beach. I remember we were climbing through weird sea grass and it was really cold, and the day was super gray… I thought that of all the half-baked film photos I took on that trip, I really thought that one was striking.

Matt: We were talking names for the album and cover art simultaneously, and we were looking for saline-related titles due to the title and theme, Salting. I think it kind of weaves its way into each song in it’s own way. Obviously there’s salt in the sea, but there’s also sweat and tears…

Marissa: And also in preserving. I was trying to find a word that was neutral, that didn’t have any kind of weird connotations. So we started talking about salt, and Sam brought up the fact that salt is a way you keep things around. That’s something that these songs do for me, they preserve really specific moments.

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With Fawn it seemed as though most of the songs are written looking back into the past, but with “Clothesline” there seems to be a greater sense of urgency and a present-tense narrative. Would you say there’s an intentional shift in narrative?

Marissa: I took a really long time writing those first songs on Fawn, and maybe that had something to do with it, in terms of the fact that by the time I got around to finishing these songs they were moments that felt distant. But the things that I was writing about on Salting were not necessarily things that were happening as I was writing them… It definitely wasn’t an intentional choice. I think it had to do with the immediacy of these songs in terms of that fact that we were a band and we were playing shows, and I knew that Matt, Sam and I were going to be performing these songs. Maybe that has something to do with it.

What has the general process of recording and writing Salting been like? When did you start working on it and writing songs, and how did it get to where it is now?

Marissa: We wrote these songs over a period of a couple years… so last October we started really writing these new songs and incorporating them into our sets slowly but surely. It was around the time we went up to Massachusetts and went to my parent’s house and recorded these songs over a long weekend. It was the first time any of us had really done that. We recorded by ourselves, which was really challenging and fun. Then we had our friend Archie Miller mix the tracks for us, he worked with our friends in the band Strange Mangers (I really love their sound,) so I was really excited to see what he could do with our sound. Once we got those tracks, we had been in touch with Sad Cactus, who had hit us up a little while after we had put out Fawn and said that they were interested in working with us, and they were down to put it out.

One thing I wanted to bring up was that at your most recent shows, towards the end of a really intense and intimate song, Matt opened a beer and it very loudly cracked open. It gave the audience a bit of levity in a somber environment.

Sam: [laughs] I think with bands that we really admire that tend to play softer, more somber music, when you do it every day and it’s all you play, you have some sense of humor with the shows you play.

So you get desensitized to it.

Sam: Yeah, exactly, which I think helps because if you were reliving all of the sad things you write about every single time you play a song, it’s a little much, especially for sensitive Beanie Babies like us.

Marissa: You also have to have a sense of humor about your own vulnerability.

Sam: We all feel really vulnerable when we’re up there. We usually play pretty small shows and it’s intense to play something really intimate to a really small crowd. For me it feels really intense.

Marissa: Yeah, and I’m rarely ever writing about anything I’m really proud of. I use songwriting as a way to move through mistakes and questions, not my proudest moments, so when I’m singing it feels like I’m rehashing a lot of stuff I should’ve outgrown by now. But yet, it’s two years later and I’m still here singing about it, so you have to have a sense of humor about putting yourself out there like that.

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As a follow up, do you ever feel that with the intimate nature of your lyrics there’s a threat of oversharing, of getting too intimate? Of crossing that line, especially when you play small shows, often to a crowd of people you know personally.

Sam: Well I feel like you can write about something personal that’s true without having it be one set of events or experiences, which is what I see coming out of our music. It’s tapping into the universal elements of things that happen. I would gather that our songs are about very personal things that have happened to Marissa, but I know Marissa pretty well, and it’s not something I really think about too much.

Marissa: We are playing tiny shows, and I’m playing with my two best friends who have seen all of my bullshit, and I don’t want to embarrass myself or say things that are hurtful. But on the other side, I’ve heard purposeful obfuscation that other artists sometimes use, and it feels phony. If you’re going to put yourself out there, then put yourself out there… also it’s very therapeutic to write, so I have to be honest with myself when I do it.

Matt: Cracking that beer was me just trying to accelerate the good vibes at the end of a sad song.

Sam: So we can get back to party town.

On a personal note, Sam is departing D.C. for Austin, Texas this month. How do you foresee collaborating as a group, or as individuals, in the future? What will the next iteration of Keeper look like?

Marissa: I feel like Keeper is going to take on another form. Sam is going to keep making music. I’m going to keep making music. We’re going to keep collaborating, but it won’t look like Keeper does now, and it probably won’t sound like Keeper does now. It won’t be what it is now. It was pretty important to me that we get this tape out and into the world before Sam moved to Texas because we wrote these songs together, and honestly this band was something that brought us super close together as friends, which is so cheesy, but it was a really powerful part of our friendship. I had only really played music by myself before this project because music feels super vulnerable and it seemed like a huge emotional risk to put myself out there with strangers. Sam and Matt were people who made me feel like I could be doing this music, and it made me feel super supported. This band wouldn’t be what it was if it weren’t for the three of us collaborating. It’s been really special.

Keeper will play a tape release show for Salting on August 4 at Comet Ping Pong with Trace Mountains, Slight and Baby Grill. Doors 10 p.m. / Tickets $10. Listen to Keeper’s new record, Salting, below.