Ugly Purple Sweater
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Ugly Purple Sweater

Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States | SELF

Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States | SELF
Band Rock Folk

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What makes an iconic hometown anthem? Catchiness, yes, but a little bit of unconditional hometown love helps. That’s why “DC USA,” local folk-pop ensemble Ugly Purple Sweater’s ode to Columbia Heights, works so well: It’s a nuanced tribute to a neighborhood whose history hasn’t always been lovable. Touching on Columbia Heights’ tumultuous history after the 1968 riots, singer Sam McCormally runs his finger across several decades, taking us to the neighborhood’s present state: the cradle of the DC USA shopping center, a Big Boxified monument to capitalism and a major driver of gentrification in the area. “Now it’s an acronym/Putrid from the stench of no smell,” he sings. It’s the warts-and-all embrace of Columbia Heights that makes for a believable tribute. - Washington City Paper


Ugly Purple Sweater is a local band whose five members were not only born in the D.C., area, they also sing about it.
Their biggest hit is a song called "Jumbo Slice," written about, yes, the infamous eatery on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Lead vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Sam McCormally says "Jumbo Slice" has more or less become Ugly Purple Sweater's unofficial anthem.
"I was going to make a really preposterous comparison, which is that it's like our 'Creep' by Radiohead. But obviously there's some distance between us and Radiohead!" he says with a laugh.
The ever humble McCormally says he wrote "Jumbo Slice" shortly after moving from the suburbs to D.C., proper — before he really understood the scene, or got to know that many people.
"It's in particular about me being there, the pizza place on 18th street, late at night, not having very much to do, watching people walk by and just sort of feeling very resentful at, sort of, the world," he says.
Yet the song has a playful, upbeat feel to it, as McCormally sings of: "all the staffers and hipsters / Comparing the size of their big long resumes," and cooking "lamb shoulder / and greens."
Moving beyond the Jumbo Slice
But while "Jumbo Slice" hails back to 2009, and is one of the band's first songs about D.C., the city gets a whole new treatment in a tune from the just-released EP, "DC USA."
McCormally's wife and band mate, Rachel Lord, says the song "obviously references the DCUSA-Target complex on 14th Street," but it isn't just about the gigantic shopping center in Columbia Heights. It's about what was on that space prior to the riots in 1968.
"When Sam and I first moved to town, we lived a couple blocks away from there, before it was built," Lord recalls. "From my understanding, the building that was there previously burned down in the riots. And then it was sort of an empty field that had a gate around it until the Target was built. So remembering that space was something else before the Target, I think is sort of an idea we were trying to play with."
Granted, McCormally says, development can also be fantastic for the city. It can bring in revenue, and it can create new jobs. But, he says as you develop, you have to be careful about erasing all sense of place and history."I remember seeing this banner over a construction site, and the poster said, 'When we're done with this place you won't even recognize it,' which I think they meant to sound promising," he says. "But it also sounds like a threat. Like it sort of sounds like what you say before you beat somebody up."
Not all of Ugly Purple Sweater's songs reference D.C. Some tunes are far more far-flung, like "Roatan": a wistful ballad named for an island off the coast of Honduras.
"I went there once, and wrote a song about it," McCormally explains. "And then, after we posted it, the Roatan New Times got in touch with me. They were like, 'We're so happy that someone wrote a song about our island!' So we did a short interview with them.
"We really would like an all-expenses-paid tour to the Caribbean, paid for by the Roatan New Times. But they haven't taken us up on it!"
A hard-to-define band in a hard-to-define city
Ugly Purple Sweater has recorded dozens of songs at this point, but overall their sound pretty much defies genre. Will McKindley-Ward sings back-up vocals, and plays the guitar, and he admits that in a way, the band's sound is kind of all over the place.
"There's a lot of stuff going on," he says. "It's a pretty wide net for what we're willing to play, and what we enjoy playing."
Sam McCormally says that's actually the point of Ugly Purple Sweater. It's also tied, believe it or not, to the band's rather distinctive name.
"I had this ugly purple sweater, and a bunch of my friends said it was the ugliest thing they had ever seen, but I really liked wearing it," McCormally explains. "I think the reason I named the band after it is that the band was sort of my attempt to get out of my head about writing songs."
"For a long time I was trying to write songs in one genre or another genre; I was trying to write a punk song, or a new-wave song, and nobody seemed to like it very much, including myself. So I was like, 'I'm going to try to just write songs that I like, and not worry about it too much.' Sort of like 'I'm going to wear this sweater because I like it, and not worry about what other people think.'"
As for what became of that ugly purple sweater, McCormally says it eventually fell victim to an experiment gone awry.
"I attempted to turn the ugly purple sweater in to an ugly purple sweater vest," he says. "But it ended up looking sort of like a Viking basketball jersey! And that was the end of that!"
Luckily, though, it wasn't the end of the band: this homegrown band with its wide net of genre-defying tributes to the city it's always called home.

- WAMU


"The first noticeable sounds on the new album (which you can stream from their website) are massive, swirling guitars that magnificently swoop into the background so that Sam McCormally's equally massive voice can take the lead. It's fitting that, considering its content, this melody-driven rock and roll that's a few degrees of quirkiness away from being Muse or a Snow Patrol sounds like it's shooting for the stars." - DCist


“Roatan,” the dreamy, doo-wop-infused waltz that kicks off the band’s sophomore album,Conventions. Formerly a folksy duo, Ugly Purple Sweater flaunts its expanded five-piece lineup with the tune’s lush, poppy atmospheres, and frontman Sam McCormally spins a yarn about seaside temptation and “a girl in the white” who “likes how [he] whistle[s].” - Washington City Paper


Ugly Purple Sweater feature Sam McCormally’s wonderful songwriting. I caught a recent solo set from Sam and it was breathtaking. Seriously. - Brightest Young Things


I have spent hours, days, sometimes weeks tirelessly searching the internet in hopes that I would stumble across sound that excites me. It’s frustrating, but on the occasion that I do, stumble, across a band that intrigues my ears I am elated to the point where the hours, days and weeks vanish into hindsight and all of the time spent is forgotten in an instant.

Outside of the internet, where I spend most of my time, I also find it very rare that I stumble upon music that draws me in. That’s what makes Ugly Purple Sweater so special. It was the 4th of July and I was hanging out on Wallingford Ave in Seattle. Across the street a band started playing. Already having had a beer, or two, or…Ok five beers! I STUMBLED across the street to catch some of their music. As my ears started to tune in I noticed the ethereal music they were creating was starting to formulate into something; holy shit, that something was Voodoo Child and it was being played on the cello. At that point I was cursing that I didn’t have my digital camera handy to capture the performance. After Voodoo Child the band performed originals until the fireworks started popping off. The way that they performed put the audience at ease and evoked an immediate response. As can be seen by the images below, Ugly Purple Sweater had the audience literally dancing in the streets of Wallingford. I made a point to look this band up when I got home. Sure enough their recordings were equally as good as their live performance. I was hooked and knew I needed to write about them. - Camprevival.com


Discography

"DC USA," 2013
"Conventions," 2011
"You Are Alone but You Are Not Alone," 2009

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Bio

Equal parts bombast and earnestness, Ugly Purple Sweater is a rock band whose innovative use of texture and instrumentation never disguise their love of a good hook and solid song. In the past year, the band has attracted a growing following, playing at the Kennedy Center, selling out the Black Cat in Washington, DC, and earning the attention of bloggers and music journalists.

The band started by accident when founders Rachel and Sam inadvertently got themselves a show at an Eritrean restaurant in Washingon, DC. After the release of their first album, "You Are Alone but You Are Not Alone," the duo decided they wanted to make more of a racket, so in 2010 they recruited Mike, Rishi, and Will to fill out the band.

Since then, the Ugly Purple Sweater has been selling out shows in Washington, DC and attracting fans up and down the east coast with their enthusiastic performances. The band has earned comparisons with Freddy Mercury (for the singing), Andrew Bird (for the melodies), and the Arcade Fire (for the intensity of their live shows).

On their second album "Conventions," Ugly Purple Sweater marries the staples of the the pop-music form (fist-pumping beats, noisy guitars, and catchy hooks) with peculiar harmonies and oddball song structures. This inclination to pull at musical loose yarn resembles the lyrical content of the album; the ways rely on the conventions of romantic relationships, the moments those conventions fail us, and the realization that we've achieved genuine intimacy by playing the part.

The group's 2013 EP "DC USA" is a tribute to their rapidly changing hometown. The title track was named the Best Ode to DC by the Washington City Paper.