Speedy Ortiz and Pile Talk Poetry and Lyrics
I wasn’t born or raised in Massachusetts, and I haven’t lived there in a few years. But people always call Speedy Ortiz a Boston band. I moved there from New York to study poetry at UMass, but honestly, half the reason I applied is because I was enamored with so many other Boston bands, chiefly Pile.
I was lucky to go from nerdy fan to playing half a million disgusting Allston basements with the band, trading off on record release shows, and eventually touring the country together. I even namedrop their 2010 record Magic Isn’t Real in a poem I published in my debut book, Mouthguard, last fall. So if I tried to extract Pile memories from my first few years playing in Speedy Ortiz, I wouldn’t remember too much.
Most rock bands are so boring at lyrics that I’ve trained myself to tune them out in favor of riffs. But I always want to dig into the literary work of Rick Maguire, the band’s front person and songwriter. There are few writers I know who manage to make gross images like decomposition, castration and flesh-eating pests live comfortably in lovely, aphoristic short stories on solitude and human connection. Fewer still are songwriters. And the band’s seventh LP, Green and Grey (out Friday, May 3), feels like a lyrical level up.
Mostly in the hopes of learning how to rip him off, I suggested Rick and I chat about our respective creative praxes and habits as readers in honor of National Poetry Month. And Rick from Pile was, as usual, nice enough to humor me. He called me from Nashville, where he and the band have recently relocated (but if I have to have it, they get the “Boston band for life” honorarium, too).
Sadie Dupuis: One thing I’ve always liked about your lyrics is that they don’t read as lyrics lyrics. There’s storytelling and world-building and character building, a lot of stuff that registers to me as fiction. And they’re formatted more like poems; you give attention to line breaks.
Rick Maguire: I would get CDs or tapes from stores and, sometimes, before I could get home, I would start reading the lyrics. And if they looked bad, that really shaded things in a certain way.
Even songs that I hadn’t heard yet from an album, if they read weird, that was disappointing, and would color that song for me when I ended up hearing it for the first time.
I’ve tried to have it be like, ‘OK, they should stand alone and they should also go with the song.’ And not to say that I end up hitting that each time. But those are the two things I have in mind.
Dupuis: Your previous albums I know so well already that to look at the lyrics, I would just have the melody in my mind. But this record is still pretty new to me and I was able to see them stand on their own. Has your practice as a lyricist led you toward writing in other genres as well?
Maguire: Yeah. And I think the reason I became interested in reading fiction or poetry was because of songwriting. And then once I started getting into it, realizing I have an interest separate from songwriting.
I enjoy reading poetry or fiction, and I’ll try do my own versions of that. But it’s still much like writing down lyrics, at first. Looking back can be kind of cringe-y because it’s just imitating people that I like.
Dupuis: Well, that’s how you start in any kind of creative endeavor — by imitating people whose work you admire and then you figure out what your own voice is. Are there certain writers who’ve influenced how you put fiction into your lyrics?
Maguire: Don DeLillo. When I read White Noise that was one that I got really into. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver — I read this a couple of years ago when I was holing up in the south and really committed to not talking to anybody. Between watching Seinfeld and reading this, I was able to convince myself of having a very rich social life.
The last book that I’ve read poetry-wise that ended up sparking something was Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins. It was right up my alley. I was working at the Harvard Book Store warehouse, and seeing a book of poetry called Alien vs. Predator was, like, hell yeah. It was just weird, and even a weird word can spark this spiral of thought into some other weird thing.
Dupuis: The title makes me think that a lot of the songs by you that I would consider more in the fiction realm draw from genres like horror or sci-fi.
Maguire: I could see that, yeah. And I do like horror. Sci-fi, I haven’t gotten into as much, but there are pretty few boundaries there. So that’s appealing to me, to use a lot of metaphors really easily in that genre.
Dupuis: For me, writing lyrics, I’m not usually setting out to do a story. I’m thinking about how words pull together, and if they evoke a vague mood I want to communicate, then that’s fine. But in poetry sometimes, I’ll have some kind of story. And again, because of the nature of poetry or at least the nature of the way I write it, it’s not always a directly communicated plot, even though it’s fleshed out in my mind.
Maguire: With your poetry, you do have more of a specific thing that you’re trying to tackle. And then with songwriting, there’s a general leaning toward a more broad thing that shapes the song. Having done this past year with your poetry book and touring on that, do you think that that’s going to end up strengthening your writing as a songwriter?
Dupuis: It’s tough to weigh in on that because the book is a bit old. I wrote it between 2011 and 2014; I’ve just had the manuscript sitting around. I think I defended the manuscript the day before we started a tour with you guys. And I actually had to fly to the first date we were playing together in DC. I almost missed our set because I was defending my thesis, which was what turned into this book.
Maguire: Wow! That was like 2013? 2014? Damn.
Dupuis: Yeah. So, I did an MFA program, and having to turn in work every week and have it be scrutinized by a workshop, as well as the faculty, made me a much stronger editor of myself. I could anticipate some of my weaknesses before I’d handed in a draft of a poem.
In the same way that you talk about looking at liner notes and having them color a song, I’m very, very conscious of how the lyrics look on a page and I’m a very scrutinous editor because I have that workshop panic.
So I’m always cutting stray words from lyrics. If there’s a phrase that seems obvious, I don’t want to do it. Lyrics, conventionally, you have the certain rhyme scheme. If I can think of a word that’s close to that rhyme scheme and then use a synonym for it…I love little tricks like that. So studying poetry definitely made my songwriting that way.
Maguire: Nice. Yeah. As far as avoiding the obvious, that is definitely what I think of when I listen to your lyrics. There’s no way you could ever guess what the next line is going to be.
Dupuis: Annoyingly tricky. When I wrote this book, I was touring, you and I were both touring, but not to the kind of psychotic extent that we both do now. And getting used to performing in front of people and realizing that comedy is kind of a part of that, wanting to have a rapport with the audience, has made my readings lean more toward that direction.
So from touring so much and knowing how to do stage banter, poems I’ve written since the book are a little bit funnier because I’m thinking about how they’ll be received in a live setting rather than just how they look on the page.
Maguire: Interesting. Because writing poetry in general just seems immediately that it’s a very personal thing, and you’ve had it shift over into a very public thing, going from place to place and reading it.
Dupuis: I have a friend who used to read his poems at open mic standup events. I always thought that was great, that his poems worked that way. So for me that’s aspirational.
Like, obviously you know the quality of my work; it’s a little dark and moody. But I like to have jokes that come across when read aloud. So that’s more of my focus in newer works since this book.
Remember when we did that reading together where Dora Malech and I read poetry and then Pile played? I love shit like that. I wish this happened more often.
Maguire: Mm. Yeah. I don’t know what it would take for that to happen more often and to have it be a back and forth kind of thing; it was a great night.
Dupuis: It’s fun for me when shows are multidisciplinary like that. Have you guys ever thought about, not necessarily poetry, but touring with another kind of artist?
Maguire: I would love to travel with a comedian, but there’s no one that’s struck me that would make sense in that way. But I would love to do that. Even just doing stuff that’s outside of our genre is really appealing to me.
I like challenging audiences, not in a way where it’s antagonistic. But if people don’t get what they’re expecting, hopefully it’ll help change their brain a little bit, to not expect just a rock show. And I think switching between disciplines is a way to keep people engaged.
Dupuis: For your songs, do you have a plan in mind before you set to writing lyrics? Are there characters that you develop prior to writing the lyrics, or do they just come about as you’re assembling the song?
Maguire: In the past, they’ve just sort of come out, but I’m trying to be more direct. I’m liking the idea of finding a very specific idea, and being able to convey that. In the past, characters would kind of show up, like, ‘This is what’s going to happen to them.’ And there’s a vague connection to something that I’ve gone through. It’s a way of evading responsibility for being like, ‘This is what I’m feeling and this is what I’m doing.’ So I can just make up a character and be like, ‘They feel this way.’
And it gives me some liberty, too, because if I feel like being overdramatic, it’s just the character, it’s not me being overdramatic. But as time goes on, real life gets weirder. So I am trying to capture that a little bit.
Dupuis: Correct me if I’m wrong. But I don’t remember prior to the ‘Soft Hands of Stephen Miller’ you using a real-life character. How did you set about wanting to write about him?
Maguire: He’s a bad guy who isn’t talked about as much as the other one. So I figured he deserved some negative attention. And part of it was, weirdly enough, fictionalizing yourself in another character.
Like, this person is my age and comes from a similar enough socioeconomic background. So the disconnect of trying to identify with any of the emotions or actions that this person has taken. And it’s so frustrating trying to get there. What would have had to have happened in my life for me to get to the same place that he is now.
Dupuis: It’s like dark empathy.
Maguire: Kind of. It sends me down a weird road a little bit.
Dupuis: ‘Your Performance’ is a similar expression, tonally. There are a couple of lines in it that are satirical caricatures, but they’re so nice. Like, ‘Doing its best impression of being human/meanwhile, up on hind legs at the podium’ is a cool image to start the song with.
Maguire: Yeah, that is probably a better example of it. It’s not just about the president. It’s more, I don’t know, about me. Like, ‘Look at this guy. He’s a crazy narcissist. And he just wants attention and will kind of do whatever he needs to do to get it.’ Well, that could apply to me also.
Granted there are some vast differences between the two of us. But still it’s like, trying to identify somehow with what’s going on. I’m not saying that so I can understand so I can agree. But so I can at least see where it comes from and be like, ‘Oh, there’s where the disconnect happened. This is where this thing started to become malignant.’
Dupuis: And then I love the line ‘neon cartoon.’
Maguire: I feel like whenever I exercise, I think of these lines that I get excited about. But then, you know, I look back and sometimes they’re not so good. ‘Neon cartoon’ was one that I had written down when I was exercising and I was like, ‘That’s a good thing.’ And occasionally it finds its place in something where it applies and it works.
Dupuis: I’m always interested in people who write while exerting themselves. It’s cool what your brain can get to in those tough spaces. There’s a really great Kathy Acker essay about weightlifting where the point of it is that while lifting you cut yourself off from language in a way. She talks about having a hard time writing about weightlifting because it’s a kind of language that doesn’t access the normal language she knows.
Maguire: Usually I’m running on the treadmill at the gym and then the news is playing on all of these TVs. That gets me kind of worked up. Or at least gets my brain to operate in that mode. I’m curious too, because from what I’ve seen, you’ve been doing a bit of running yourself?
Dupuis: Yeah. I’m training for a marathon. It’s stupid. But exercising, for me, it’s one of the ways that I do the best with composing. I used to swim a lot and I would write whole songs because there’s nothing else for you to do or hear other than what’s happening in your head when you’re under the water.
Maguire: When you write melodies when you’re exercising do you have to stop and record it or do you just remember it? I mean I’d imagine with swimming…
Dupuis: I just do it over and over again until I hopefully remember it. I’ll do it in the shower as well. And sometimes you come up with one section and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can keep humming this.’ But then you have the idea for the second section and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can handle these two.’ And if I get to the point where I have three or four sections worked out in my head in the shower, it’s time to get out of the shower and hum them into my phone.
Maguire: Interesting. Melodies, for me, usually I’m just putzing around on an instrument and then I’ll start humming. You know, the back and forth of building it up and then breaking it back down again and building it up and then eventually it’ll be the thing. Looking back on my writing and listening to it, it’s apparent to me, but I guess I’m not the most objective. It often feels like it’s been torn down to be built up again several times.
Dupuis: Maybe saying this in this interview will ensure that no one will ever ask us again, because I think it’s one of the more boring questions I get asked as a songwriter. The way people always couch it to me is like, ‘Do you write the music or the lyrics first?’ I mean, there are so many more ways to do it than this versus question. But where in that process does lyrics happen for you?
Maguire: It’s kind of staggered. It depends what idea ends up coming first. Sometimes the lyrics come last and sometimes there’s a line that I think of, and then I start working on a melody, like, ‘Oh, this should be shaped around this idea now.’
Right now I’ve been doing a bunch of demos and I’ve got an hour’s worth of music. But I also have a bunch of lines. And I don’t know which came first, but I’m going to start trying to put things where they need to go, and fill in the blanks both musically and lyrically. There are a lot of moving parts there.
Dupuis: It’s similar for me. I always liken it to a puzzle or like a Sudoku, honestly. There are all these kinds of boxes and I just got to figure out which one’s where and why.
Maguire: Yeah! That’s a good analogy.
Dupuis: I find myself going through really long periods when I don’t really create anything and I’m just focused on listening to records and reading other books, not even with any goal other than enjoying other people’s art. And then when I’m working on my own stuff I’m very focused on that and don’t get to have a lot of outside input. So there’s a big fluctuation.
Maguire: I’ve actually had a very tough time reading on tour. But one of the folks that I loved on the road…do you know Sarah Manguso? When I was on a solo tour, I didn’t have too much time to read other than when I was at the merch table. I read 300 Arguments, and that one is great. A small book filled with funny, dark, and self-contained ideas that both stand alone and are part of an overarching narrative. I found myself looking at life through the lens of the author after putting the book down.
I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I’m always curious and interested in something. Following that by way of getting a book is helpful, especially for a roadblock in writing. Trying to have an input period where you just take in somebody else’s ideas, not necessarily to immediately regurgitate your own stuff out of it. But just to give it a break.
Dupuis: I feel very lucky that I can read in the car because on tour there’s a concentrated six-hour period every day where I can just read. And it’s great. It means that I do go through books really quickly on tour, more so than at home, and then I’m excited to check out different bookstores around the country. That’s my favorite hobby on tour, I guess.
(Photo credit: Jordan Edwards)
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