Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis on feminism, equality in rock and ‘Adventure Time’

Speedy Ortiz is at the forefront of gender equality conversations in the indie rock world. The first single from the band’s sophomore album Foil Deer directly quotes the #BanBossy campaign, and in particular, their frontwoman Sadie Dupuis is upfront about her and her bandmates’ feminist and queer politics. In addition to all that, Speedy Ortiz is responsible for some of the best music of 2015: Foil Deer is a tightly wound, darkly gorgeous slice of rock goodness, with sometimes cryptic (“So will you cauterize the bleeding or bastardize the meaning? / I’m the one worth seeing“) but cathartic (“Is it getting old sealing all your kisses with poison?“) lyrics, and melodies that hook into the core of your brain. (Much has been made of the fact that Dupuis got an MFA in poetry, and rightly so.)

As the band gears up for a tour supporting the Girls Rock Camp Foundation, HelloGiggles spoke to Dupuis about the fallout from the band’s safe space hotline initiative, changing gender attitudes and norms, and progressive children’s animated shows.

HelloGiggles: I went out and saw the band play when you toured Los Angeles, with Alex G opening; I was in the front row and was probably creepily staring at you the entire time. Sorry.

Sadie Dupuis: I hope I stared back!

HG: I really liked your record Foil Deer, and I just read your Noisey feature for Band of the Year. Congrats!

SD: Thanks! They didn’t give us a trophy though. Even when I did the interview, I was like, “. . .are there trophies?” Because I could use one! And Annalise [Domenighini, the writer] was like, “We’ll look into it.”

HG: Maybe you can take a screenshot.

SD: I could. It’s actually like the Drake song though: “Sh-t don’t come with trophies.”

HG: You can make your own trophy. Or at least make some for your band members.

SD: I feel like if I did, I’d have to knit it out of cat hair or something equally shut-in and sad.

HG: Oh man. [nervous laughter] I’m so nervous to interview you; I’ve been reading and following you and the band all year.

SD: I was nervous about this too because I like this website! That always makes the interview more high-pressure.

HG: The band’s been doing a lot of press recently! How has it been, to see the band’s profile and its reception, not just from the critical community but from fans, escalate over the past year? And how do you deal with that?

SD: [jokingly] Well, I made a lot of cat hair sculptures. No, sometimes it’s hard to have a lot of perspective on it, because we spend so much time away from home and touring. You notice that the shows are getting bigger, but from the stage it’s hard to tell. I usually go out and sell merch when we play, and meet fans that way, people who I become friends with.

It’s hard to see what that amounts to when you’re on tour; you’re just doing your thing every day, meeting people who support you, and feeling grateful for that. So we’ve kinda been away for the past bunch of months, and I just got home last night. Today I just did five interviews: one’s with you guys, and one’s with Vanity Fair. When that stuff happens, and I haven’t been home in a while and have a day in my pajamas, like a regular sh-tty Sunday when you have a day job — I’m not gonna wear underwear, I’m gonna eat gross sh-t under a blanket all day — but my wearing pajamas day is now doing a phone interview with Vanity Fair. That puts things in perspective and it’s like . . . holy crap! It’s been quite a year!

All good stuff, mostly. And then sometimes, there’ll be days when we announce a charity tour and get spammed by Men’s Rights Activists all day. So sometimes that can put things in perspective too, because if all the sexist cybertrolls have an agenda against you, you know you’re doing something right.

HG: I spoke to Ijeoma Oluo, a pretty prominent feminist writer and activist, and she said something like, I realized that I was saying the right stuff when people were going, “Actually,” and then it’s like you’re reaching a large enough audience that people can have opinions about you. A blessing and a curse.

SD: Sometimes it can be stressful to read extensive spam, but then sometimes they’re only spamming because you touched a nerve, and it’s clearly a nerve that needs some healing.

HG: I read some of the press that came out when you announced your safe space show hotline (and covered it myself), and for something that seems like such a no-brainer, especially for a place that can be as violent, while also as vital, as the punk scene — you had your detractors. What was that all about?

SD: It was interesting to see some of that, because while we did get a lot of overwhelmingly positive responses from it, the people who are happy about something aren’t going online to make comments. Some of those would range from stuff that was clearly benign against us but just kinda revealed some implicit racism, like, “This kind of stuff only happens at rap shows! I can’t imagine that this could ever happen at an indie rock show!” Or there were people commenting on our Facebook saying that this was such a tattletale thing, and going further and revealing that they’d been assaulted at shows. It’s almost like people blaming themselves and turning it around into some victim blaming.

Once the smoke cleared a little bit after announcing it . . . because we really didn’t think it was gonna be such a huge thing when we planned it. We had been at a festival where we’d seen some gross stuff, and were like, “Man, it sucks that there’s no way to help people out when they’re in these situations.” We had a music video planned to release that week, but we were going on tour at the start of the week and wanted to have this hotline up.

The second we put it up, there was so much response to it that we had to push some other stuff we had planned back. It became this all-consuming thing, and at the end of the day, we’ve barely used the hotline at all. We have it up and it’s available every night, but there was a lot of simultaneous, people going “Right on, this is needed” — and I think that it is and wish more people would adopt it, and some people have since then — and then like, reactionary people being like, “Women lie about rape.”

HG: The usual suspects.

SD: Exactly.

HG: I remember going to this all female/female-led music festival, Burger-A-Go-Go, and then this same sort of thing happened with, of all people, Kathleen Hanna. [A man in the crowd was harassing other members of the audience.]

SD: Yeah, I heard about that.

HG: It’s like, come on. That’s a prime example of why this hotline initiative is so necessary.

SD: Right, this shouldn’t happen anywhere, but when people are at a show like Burger-A-Go-Go or Ladyfest or even one of our band’s shows, they should know what they’re going to, to some extent, and hope that their politics and outlook and human decency are a reflection of the politics exemplified by Kathleen Hanna or Burger or Ladyfest. The overwhelming braggadocio that comes with that kind of entitled privilege means that the context of the place makes absolutely no difference with these people who want to make a scene, or want to be center of attention, or feel that they’re entitled to touch the performer.

I have this friend, a poet named Wendy Xu. She’s brilliant and amazing, and she just posted about this reading that she did — she’s on a book tour — and a guy came to the reading just to tell her that she rejected him on a dating website, years prior, and how pissed off he was about it. And she was like, “How gross is this person’s entitlement that they felt the need to wait years, show up at a place for my book, only to tell me, ‘F—k you for rejecting me on an Internet dating site.’” This is just one example of something that so often leads to violence, this entitlement that leads people to believe that they’re allowed to shout over a woman, interrupt her work, to make it a conversation about dating websites.

That’s the thing. When we announced [the hotline], people were like, “Oh, this doesn’t happen at rock shows.” Of course, the term du jour that people are using [to describe men at these shows] is “beta male.” But it doesn’t matter what show you’re at, because it’s not a reflection of the artist, it’s the reflection of a poisonous society that allows people to act in this way unchecked. It doesn’t allow them to reflect on the advantages they’ve been given, that mean that their voice is guaranteed an elevation. So, yeah. The world is depressing sometimes. But at events like Burger-A-Go-Go or Ladyfest, or the Girls Rock Foundation, which we’re working with for this tour, they do a little bit of work to change that cycle, to pull it back a little bit, so that kids growing up now won’t necessarily have to think guitar is a boy’s instrument and women don’t have a place doing that. That gives me hope.

HG: It’s great to hear more and more artists being more vocal about harassment and prejudices in the scene. Earlier this year, I interviewed my now-friend Mitski

SD: She went on tour with us for a little bit this year! She opened up the first leg of the tour that Alex G eventually opened for us on.

HG: I remember that you toured together because I was like, “I get to see two great bands together!” And then it was like, “Oh no, they’re doing separate tours after this part!”

Anyway. Women, or people who aren’t cis men, are opening that door for conversation. They’ve been having it on the down low, but it’s great to see, and hear, people actually naming names, and being like, “This person/organization is doing this messed up thing, regularly.” There’s still a lot of danger with that; do you have to compartmentalize what you’re doing when you’re writing music, performing music, with the activity surrounding the band, not just yourself?

SD: I drink a lot of tea and I don’t sleep a lot. I don’t know, I’m not coming from a background where I feel like I have a performative mystique, and the songs are so personal to me that it’s not any different to me to be in playing-a-show mode, and then to be like, in my no-underwear-pajamas mode, like today. I don’t have to compartmentalize too hard, usually.

The only really big thing is, I’m a Cancer, so I like to be at home in comfortable clothing and eating food that makes me happy. Sometimes, I have to just quiet down that aspect of my personality because I’ll be gone from home for three months at a time. To that extent, there’s a compartmentalization; as someone who’s struggled with depression as well, if you’re on tour all the time, you wanna make sure that you’re able to be out and meeting people at the merch table every night, like, talking to the kids who spent their money to buy a ticket to your show. When really, you’re much more accustomed to being by yourself.

There’s some dampening of certain aspects of my personality to cope with having a very social job, when I’m not inherently extroverted. I’m not saying that no matter the context, people are entitled to our attention, no matter what. But, I think we’re pretty lucky in that, 99% of the time, anyone who I’m meeting at one of our shows is super respectful and sweet, and I wanna hear about their lives, and that makes it way easier

HG: It seems like more bands are reaching out to their fans directly. I’m sure social media has given you the ability to do that online, to reach and mobilize these online fandoms.

Speaking of: You’re an Adventure Time fan.

SD: Oh my god, so much. But I haven’t seen any of Stakes [the Adventure Time-based miniseries focusing on the character Marceline]. Have you?

HG: Not yet, but I watched the two recent Bubbline [the ship name for Marceline and the character Princess Bubblegum] episodes they have in the main show.

But yeah, they were holding this Adventure Time event in Hollywood, and I got to meet the voice of Marceline, and I freaked out harder about her than about anyone else famous-y I’ve ever met.

SD: What’s her name again?

HG: Olivia Olson.

SD: Yeah, she’s an amazing singer!

HG: She performed some of her own music too, and there were some kids at the event, and I was like “Whoa, this is so mature!” I guess they can deal with it.

SD: Well, comics conventions . . . Adventure Time is probably the most progressive and normalizing of the cartoons that I’ve seen for kids, that aren’t for [Cartoon Network’s] Adult Swim or something, in terms of its representations of gender or sexuality or family configurations. It’s like, no big deal that in some episodes, characters are . . . Well, not gender-swapped, because that implies that gender is a polarity, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but all the same! It’s still pretty f—king cool to see that! To see characters that they love in drag and it not being a big deal.

Or, the implied relationship between Bubblegum and Marceline, which I love. I think it’s so important for people at that impressionable age, when they’re first getting into things on their own, to be able to choose a cartoon show that embodies those kinds of morals and representations. That’s part of the reason Adventure Time is so exciting for me. Not to mention that it’s really whimsical and goofy, and the animation is great.

I’m glad you brought up Adventure Time. Michael DeForge, who I think is the props designer, he’s a good friend of ours and he designed all the posters for the Girls Rock Camp benefit tour that we’re doing. Every poster that he’s designed, when they’re all collected, it’s a narrative story of a girl meeting different forest animals who join her band. It’s very cute and his artwork and writing are some of my favorites.

HG: That’s amazing!

SD: They’re gonna be really cool! I’m so excited.

HG: In moments like this, I wish, “Why wasn’t there Girls Rock when I was growing up?” I could maybe be some master guitarist . . . in my head.

SD: I was very lucky in that I went to, it wasn’t a gender-specific program, but it was a progressive camp where the girls were the shreddiest kids at the camp. That’s the context in which I learned to play guitar, to play in bands, to record. I feel really lucky that I was able to be in a program like that, but they’re pretty rare, and I don’t have too many friends who did similar things when they were kids. It’s so exciting to see Girls Rock getting traction and opening new places around the world. There’s one in Australia now, that Courtney Barnett is teaching at?

There’s 45 of them across the world, and they’re expanding them this year.

HG: I knew that it was international, but I didn’t know it was that big!

SD: Because the foundation that connects all of them has made a big media push in the past year, to get a bit more attention. They did the series where they recreated some different album covers; they had campers recreating Blondie album covers, Janelle Monae album covers, iconic record covers recreated by kids. It was so cute.

HG: That is getting at the heart of what all of these discussions about women in music oftentimes miss: It’s not just enough to be like, pick up a guitar! It’s about getting people who are young now to understand that women in music is a normal thing.

The current framework of, like, “Why this person’s work is empowering” — you’re not wrong, but empowerment in the long-run is different than just fueling one artist’s career.

SD: Even when we play on tour, the best thing is, we meet all kinds of people, when it’s kids who are kinda young who are like, “There are no bands with women in our scenes. You coming through on tour is a big deal for us because we don’t feel represented here at all, but we started a three-piece and we’re all girls. Now we wanna record and play shows.” That’s the most exciting, when I see younger people picking up an instrument that often, women wouldn’t come to until they were in college or until they’re a bit older.

Targeting the young kids and saying, “Your gender shouldn’t have any bearing on what your interests are,” and teaching parents that too, is the most important work to be done. Not only in terms of . . . Guitar is an amazing outlet, but it’s like, somewhat frivolous compared to some larger things like the Girls Who Code initiative. Even the Ban Bossy campaign has a greater focus on not letting gender dictate how a child’s raised, and that’s really exciting. HG: I remember seeing this printed slogan displayed in the backdrop of every Speedy Ortiz show.

SD: Gender Is Over!

HG: Yeah, that’s not necessarily the kind of thing you see in the backdrop of most rock shows.

SD: A li’l subliminal drop.

HG: It is cool to have that publicly enter perception of what you’re doing. If you’re gonna see a show with all dudes, no one will question that it’s all dudes. If you put a woman on stage, in a perfect world, it would not matter.

SD: I feel like what’s been so simultaneously gross and exciting is that I never thought about my gender in regards to playing music, because the context in which I started playing in bands was this progressive, Montessori, do whatever you want camp. Sometimes it’s like, why is this a revelatory thing to see a woman on stage? But at some level, we do have to talk about it ad nauseum until it’s normalized.

In the same way that Adventure Time is normalizing, making people of all genders comfortable about talking about why it shouldn’t play a role in your personhood helps get you to a point where we can be not as concerned with it. It takes a certain amount of time for things to enter the artistic canon. You brought up The Punk Singer — have you read the Carrie Brownstein book that came out?

HG: Part of it. Still working on getting my hands on a full copy.

SD: It’s really great! A lot of the issues that we’re talking about right now, people have always been talking about. At least, people who aren’t cisgendered men have always been talking about gender, in regards to representation in artistic communities. At this point, bands like Sleater-Kinney or Bikini Kill are considered “up there” with what we consider classic rock, canonized, important classic rock. Same with Fugazi.

It’s exciting to see these memoirs and documentaries coming out now, putting into print, for longevity, these ideas. I’ve never read a book where my experience like, coming to load in and sound check in a venue, was reflected in what I’m reading! If I read about a rock band in a book, it’s from the perspective of a group of men who are smelly and might pick up a girl that night. In Brownstein’s book, she’s like, “The sound guy wanted to make us face our amps together as an experiment, and he couldn’t believe that we weren’t okay to do whatever he told us to do.” It’s so important that we’re seeing a diversity of voices and representations of “the rock band experience,” which up to this point, those memoirs have had a specific kind of tone and won’t resonate with anyone outside one specific demographic. When the reality is there are all kinds of people across gender spectrums, of different races, of different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, who are playing rock music and want to see themselves represented too.

So, that’s cool!

HG: Everyone aboard the gender equality, racial equality, all equality train.

SD: It’s like, hype work by women, now. I only mostly hype books by women, bands that show that there are other kinds of people.

HG: Let’s talk about what’s changing for women in music and what still needs to change.

SD: There was a rule until, or I think this was the reason Lilith Fair was started, was that there was this generally accepted rule that if you were booking a festival, you couldn’t have two female-fronted acts performing next to each other, in terms of the time slot. There were so many women, you had to disperse them around? I don’t know.

It’s still very often that way, or that women or queer people or women of color are ghettoized to a specific stage instead of showcasing them regardless. So, sometimes I see that in festivals we’re playing and you have to roll your eyes and be like, “What the f—k,” and give a shoutout to the two other bands playing that aren’t entirely comprised to dudes.

Which isn’t to say that we should get rid of all dude bands! Yet, my three bandmates are men, and they roll their eyes too. It’s so monotonous to exclude a diversity of voices. But, we’ve seen more festivals lately; we played this festival in Omaha [Maha Music Festival], and 60% or more of the bands were fronted by women. A larger percentage of almost every band that played had a woman, other than two acts, and it wasn’t something that they did on purpose, which you can do intentionally, but it’s even nicer when it happens on its own.

HG: They weren’t pulling out a Rolodex of “women in rock music.”

SD: Right, they weren’t trying to fill a quota, or promote this to get feminist cred, which is increasingly becoming a thing. Like, fine, if it gets more women on stage.

It’s really exciting to play festivals like that, where naturally, the immense diversity of the population of America that plays rock music is reflected.

HG: A lot of the music on Foil Deer is coming not necessarily from an explicitly, “This is feminist art!” viewpoint. There are a lot of artists who do that, and more power to them, but when I’m listening to “Puffer,” I’m not necessarily thinking, “This is a girl rock song!” It’ll oftentimes be music that, on its own, if you take away the gendered voice perception, is quite universal. This is about having your heart broken; this is about something really sh—ty that happened.

Then there are songs like “My Dead Girl,” which do come at it from a gendered perspective.

SD: But it’s also just like, a human experience. Something that’s specific to women, but how long have you listened to rock music to men describing an experience that you could never understand because you’ll never live it, but you still connect to it? Nobody has ever batted an eyelash over women connecting to and absorbing and internalizing rock narratives that will never be their story, because they’re so male specific. The only way that comes into question is when you question a woman’s credibility for liking an artist, like for quizzes, but whatever, I can hold my own.

There was some article about boys wanting props for liking Sleater-Kinney. Did you see that? Like, “I’m a dude and I love Sleater-Kinney.” Congrats, you connected to a narrative that didn’t mirror your own. In fact, you should connect to a human entity.

HG: Of course, it’s very easy to get lost in a fog of “Men suck!” But that’s not true, either.

Yeah, I don’t feel that way! So many of the things I grew up loving and thinking were the best were created by men. I just want women to be valued in that same way, and not have gender be a genre or a caveat.

There are so few works that get elevated, which deviate from the standard formula of like, your demographic is straight white men aged 18-25. If you do identify outside of that demographic, sometimes you’re like, “I need my own space until it’s more normal for me to be viewed as your buyer or your target consumer demographic. I need something carved out to feel represented at all.”

You’re ghettoizing these writers, but if you identify in that group, you wanna feel catered to and sometimes that’s the only way to.

HG: It’s across any intersection, you don’t want to be put into this category, but if it’s a choice between this category and not being seen at all . . .

SD: Or even as someone who’s buying stuff, I wanna know that I can find the works that are for me.

HG: Most of the interviews that I do are with women who are either producing music or are involved in the music world. At a certain point, it’s clear that there’s a collective of women who are clearly in conversation with each other, but they field questions that really are aimed at everyone.

SD: I’ve been happy to have this conversation with you, but let’s say you had interviewed my bandmate Devin [McKnight]; would you have had an entire interview about Adventure Time? We get stuck in these conversations about gender, but I hope that it’s not always this way, and it’s better than it was.

You feel responsible for enacting a change. So many of my favorite bands right now are comprised of all men, and that’s because a lot of bands still are comprised of all men. But I feel the personal initiative to shout out bands that aren’t all men, just to prove that there are a lot of us, and that it’s not a rarity.

HG: I can only imagine how on press tours you go through this! I’ve read your responses in other interviews, and I just asked you about this too! But confronting this gender issue is still the only way to move forward.

SD: Yeah, in an ideal world I wouldn’t still constantly be getting tweets like, “Speedy Ortiz is my favorite female-fronted band!” Even from women.

At some point, people get the idea and it’s starting to feel like a difference has been made already. Maybe in a year, we’ll catch up with each other and we’ll talk about Adventure Time the whole time. Or maybe guitar.

HG: Hopefully! Though I don’t play guitar.

SD: But I do!

HG: But you do! Though I am learning the bass.  It’s something that I only started thinking about seriously when I realized that it was okay for me to just be an amateur at this, which is something I do think strikes young women more than anyone else. Like, “Why can’t I just go into something and be the best, so nobody will question my talent?” But that’s not how learning works.

SD: We’re not socialized in the same way, and that’s where parenting comes into it, because you shouldn’t be raising your children differently based on what genitals they have. There’s more pressure on you too; people are always scrutinizing you and questioning why you belong there, holding you to a different standard. Boring ass dude rhythm guitarists who can’t really play, nobody’s thinking about him at all. The second they see a woman on stage, it’s a different story.

It’s cool that you’re learning! I’m excited for you.

HG: This honestly wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the fact that public figures are speaking out and creating an environment conducive to rewiring my view of the world. I’m listening to exponentially more female voices on all subjects this year.

SD: I think we’re all kind of rewiring ourselves together at this point. There’s so many people, myself included, who might say what you just said about trying to retrain your brain, dig deeper, and find other kinds of artists. It’s nice that we’re all in this massive rewiring together, this 2015 culture.

HG: Cyborgism, 2020. We’re all gonna be non-gendered robots.

SD: I’m so down.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Get Speedy Ortiz’s Foil Deer here, and stream it below:

Images courtesy of PAHF, Shervin Lainez