Ugly Purple Sweater’s Sam McCormally on Boxing, Banjos, and the Allure of Target
Five-piece indie-folk band Ugly Purple Sweater has been making its name in the D.C. music scene since forming in late 2008, but it hasn't ever rested comfortably within a single genre. The group (composed of guitarist Will McKindley-Ward, banjo player Rachel Lord, drummer Mike Tasevoli, bassist Rishi Chakrabarty, and lead singer and guitarist Sam McCormally) infuses its indie rock with an unmistakable folk twang. With two full-length albums already under its belt, yesterday Ugly Purple Sweater released its newest EP, DC USA. (Listen to it on Bandcamp.)
I recently chatted with McCormally about the Columbia Heights shopping center after which its EP is named, as well as UPS' first official music video (watch it below) and the band's plans for its album-release show at the Black Cat this weekend.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Washington City Paper: What made you want to write about D.C. now?
SM: I tend to write about wherever I am. For some reason, place has sort of been a recurring theme. I moved to D.C. in 2007 after I graduated from college and moved into Columbia Heights and that was right when that mall was starting to go up. And I just found it really interesting to be there at that time. ... For a while, I was going swimming at the pool in the Washington Sports Club, and I would often have an experience where I would be done swimming ... and I would start to leave the gym, and as I would descend into the second floor where the Target and the Best Buy [are], I would always have this compulsion to go buy something. It was like, "Oh, we probably really need toilet paper," or something, even when we didn't ... I thought that that was a really strange experience to have at a place that was built on what had previously been a rubble field, since the previous mall had been burned down in 1969 after the riots. I just thought that was such a strange juxtaposition.
WCP: One of the songs I was curious about after hearing it was "Central Detention Facility Blues." Is there a story behind that? How did that one happen?
SM: No, that's a fictional song ... That one happened, well, you know where the Central Detention Facility is. It's over on the property where the old D.C. General Hospital is. Right now, there's a homeless shelter there. It's where RFK is. I was working for D.C. Public Schools for about three years, and I was doing outreach for the early childhood special-ed program, so I got to ride my bike around town a lot, and I spent a lot of time over in that neck of the woods just because a lot of the families I was working with lived over there. It's such a strange spot with the stadium, and there were some new townhouses that were going up and then there's the old prison there. I guess I'm really interested in just how much economic inequality there is in the city. It's something that troubles me, but it's also something that really interests me.
WCP: The video for "DC USA" is your first sort of large-scale video, right?
SM: Yeah, there are some live videos of us playing, but we'd never done a music video and it was really fun. I do some music for film for Ellie Walton, who's one of the directors of the video, and so I sort of called in a favor. I was like, "Will you help us do this?" and she and Paul were just awesome and so it was a blast. We thought about trying to do something ourselves but we were like, "If we're gonna make a video, it needs to look awesome, just so we can compete for views."
WCP: How did you find the kid who's boxing in it?
SM: Mikey is the friend of somebody who is featured in a documentary that Ellie is working on, so she just knew him through another friend. I mentioned to her this idea of doing a video of somebody boxing in Columbia Heights. Like have you ever seen the guys who are running up and down 14th Street [NW] in their sweats doing boxing training? It's something you see every once in a while in the middle of the day. They'll have garbage bags wrapped around their torsos to try and sweat down to fighting weight. Anyway, I just thought that was really interesting, because it's like a little of the old neighborhood and the new neighborhood ... so I suggested to Ellie that we could do something involving boxing, and she was like, "Oh, I know this kid who used to train to be a boxer," and so it just worked out that way. And he was so much fun to work with. He really got into it and I think he's just awesome on camera.
WCP: How many instruments were you all using when you recorded this?
SM: It's mostly guitars, bass, and drums. Rachel plays banjo on two of the tracks, and then there are keyboards throughout. There's five of us: Mike plays drums and Rishi plays bass and Will plays electric guitar, and then Rachel and I switch between keyboard, guitar, and banjo. So that's what's going on and mostly—those songs are us just playing. There's a few overdubs where it was like, "Oh, it would be cool to add an organ here," that we don't always play live, but for the most part, it's just us playing.
WCP: Was there any sort of rhyme or reason to putting these four songs together? They all sound so different but they fit together really well.
SM: I'm afraid that that is just the result of my sort of dissatisfied songwriting style. There are a lot of bands that have a really focused mood or sound and that's what they do, and I'm always like—I get to a point where I write a song in a certain feel, and I'm like, "OK, great, I've done that. I want to try to do something new." That's just part of what keeps me curious about music. Essentially, we had been approached by a small record label that was interested in putting out a single this year, and so we were like, "Oh, let's record four songs," and then that sort of fell through so then we were like, "Let's put out a four-song record because we've got these four songs that are ready to go." And it did occur to me that they're all really different in mood, so that was kind of fun to put out something that shows some versatility, hopefully.
WCP: Do you all have anything special planned for the release show?
SM: Yeah, we do. It's exciting, Kingsley Flood is also playing that show ... one of the [members] lives here in D.C. and the rest of the band lives in Boston. They're releasing an album around the same time, so I'm going to sing a verse in one of their songs off their new record, and Naseem, the lead singer of Kingsley Flood, is going to sing a verse of "Central Detention Facility Blues," so that'll be a fun combination. We're also going to play four songs that are newer than the EP. We're getting ready to record the next full-length thing so we thought it would be a fun time. We'll play the EP, we'll play some of the songs off the older record, and we'll play four or five brand new songs. I'm really excited about that. And then I think we'll have a trumpet player for a couple of songs. We're recruiting some of our musician friends from around town to sit in on a few things.
Ugly Purple Sweater plays with Kingsley Flood and Kindlewood at the Black Cat on Saturday, Jan. 12. Tickets $12. Doors at 8:30 p.m.
Ugly Purple Sweater photo by Kristian Whipple.