Lay Back and Vibe: An Evening with Ugly Purple Sweater

Here is another piece from the NExNW archives. Sadly, Ugly Purple Sweater is no more, but read on for tips on where to find their music and what Sam McCormally and co. are up to now. 

ugly purple sweater

Ugly Purple Sweater in the practice room of their Petworth rowhouse.

“We actually got approached by a company that sold ugly Christmas sweaters who wanted to partner with us to have an ugly Christmas sweater event,” Sam McCormally, Ugly Purple Sweater’s lead singer and the band’s progenitor, told us just after we sat down in the back patio of the Looking Glass in Petworth. “I didn’t want to emphasize the sweater part any more than I already have,” he laughed, but he noted that he wouldn’t be opposed “to being sponsored by, say, a knitting company.”

So what’s the story behind the name? Way back when, we learned, Sam was forced to create a name for his one-man band when he created a MySpace as a platform for his music. The name he landed on was Ugly Purple Sweater. The sweater in question was one he’d found at a Goodwill in Indiana, and proudly sported despite the fact that it was almost universally abhorred by his friends. He settled on the name because he felt that on some level the sweater represented an independence, an identity unique to him, his “own private sense of [his self] without regard to how other people might see [him]”. The music, Sam explained, “was an attempt to write songs for me and not worry about what other people thought.”

The band’s first album, You are Alone but You are Not Alone, was a joint venture between Sam and his wife Rachel Lord. After several listens, we’re still struck by how Sam’s expansive, chorus rising vocals and Rachel’s banjo picking prowess drive the music to barn-stomping heights. Their song “Jumbo Slice,” about the “original” Jumbo Slice on 18thstreet in Adam’s Morgan, is certainly an anthem for those DC transplants who feel a sense of displacement.

Sam grew up listening to DC 101 and has certainly felt the influence of the city in his music. While the city’s vibrancy has inspired him, he’s also quick to note that it’s not always smooth sailing for the DC-based artist. “The arts are always the knife edge of gentrification,” he said, which is certainly true in our eyes as well. Artists, typically on the lower end of the income scale, have to constantly be in the look-out for the cheapest rent and, as such, tend to be pushed out of the downtown areas into pockets like Petworth in DC or Montmarte in Paris (if our readers will allow the comparison).

What other influences, we asked Sam, have helped shape him as a musician? He first mentioned Simon and Garfunkel (he had us there), recalling a tape his father had of the duo’s famous concert in Central Park. And then there’s that particular lyric from Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” As Sam recalled, “It went something like ‘when I look back on all the crap I learned in High School, it’s a wonder that I can think at all.’ And when I was in fourth grade, I thought that was the most badass thing that I had ever heard.”

It was at this point that Will McKinley-Ward, Rishi Chakrabarty, and Mike Tasevoli (Ugly Purple Sweater’s lead guitarist, bassist, and drummer, respectively) joined up with us and Sam at the Looking Glass. After settling down with some beers (and after finishing the NE x NW surveys available for your reading pleasure here), the interview got a little more “polyvocal,” in Sam’s words. It only seemed appropriate that the interview would progress in a way that almost mirrored the band’s evolution from one man band to five person operation. We were sadly missing the band’s leading lady, Rachel Lord, who was working a late shift, but who would join us later for the band’s practice session post-interview.

With the addition of Mike, Rishi, and Will, the band has certainly expanded and deepened their sound. Their first album together, Conventions, is a far cry from the folk mentality of You are Alone but You are Not Alone with its pop-oriented sound, noisy, gritty guitar and pulsing drums. The album was certainly an experiment for the group in finding their identity as a band and as musicians working together. “It is a real challenge,” Sam said, “you want to be sure that the band has an identity, but that the sound is still varied.”

What other challenges come with expanding a duo into a five-person band? The bandmates explained that their music can at times lose coherence and spin out of control. To keep to a more focused sound, the process of work shopping their music together involves a lot of editing and pairing down. “Our process is more subtractive,” Will explained, “we start with a ton of layers and whittle it down.” We likened, somewhat jokingly, the process to sculpting a piece of marble down to a work of art. In response, Rishi joked that the first record they all made together was “Really more marble rather than sculpture.”

On their latest studio album DC USA, released in January of this year, the band has found level ground and have laid back into their collective sound. Though the sweater itself may have perished (it had to be tossed after Sam attempted to turn it into an ugly purple sweater vest), it appears that the band has, in fact, formed its own identity. “There’s a tension where you wanna make sure that the band has an identity and is recognizable, but you also want to be sure that you don’t just write the same song over and over again,” Sam noted. How do you balance the two? Practice, we were told. “Ideally,” Sam explained, “we would go to a cabin in the Adirondacks for like two months and come back with a finished album.”

Living and writing music in DC, however, is not a life that any of the musicians felt they would give up even if given the opportunity. Will noted that they all grew up locally and felt a real sense of community among DC musicians. “The tradition in DC is very local, very community based, almost tribal,” Rishi added. They have developed a real network of musicians and friends in the city; the kind of personal connection to a place that cannot and should not be taken lightly or for granted.

After the interview, we got the opportunity to witness the band in action. We headed to their practice space (as Willona Sloan might have guessed, it’s in the basement of a Petworth row house), and finally had the chance to meet Rachel. Even though she’d worked a long shift at work, she brought her A-game when the band settled down to play together.

And it was there, in the small built room in the basement, whose walls were covered in newspaper clippings and photographs, that we saw what Ugly Purple Sweater was really all about. The band may have joked about their “band motto” – “Lay Back and Vibe” – but, we certainly felt that energy as we listened to them practice. As we snapped a few pictures of Rachel’s fingers flying on the keyboard and Mike killing it on drums, we were drawn to the following conclusion: the eponymous sweater may be long gone, but Ugly Purple Sweater has emerged as a band composed of five extremely talented musicians who have come together to create a wholly unique sound. Keep an eye on them.

In addition to working on a batch of new songs, the band is playing a show at the Indie Adam’s Morgan on May 2nd (event info and tickets can be purchased here). Be sure to attend- we know we will. We’ll be the ones collecting donations for the band’s down payment on a cabin in the Adirondacks.

Do not mourn Ugly Purple Sweater too long. The former band’s members have been busy of late.

Here’s a music video for Sam’s new project “Fellow Creatures.” The song is called “Come Ye” and is just stunningly beautiful. Also check out the band’s Facebook page and their website.

Will is playing drums in the Baltimore-Washington band Leticia VanSant and the Bonafides. Their latest album, Parts + Laboris available for your pleasure.

xox J

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