Road Trip: A Waltz With Sweeping Promises Through Their Savage Garden
Bursting out of Boston, Sweeping Promises are a female-fronted punk trio that needs to be on your radar. Striking while the creative iron was hot, Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug crafted their debut LP, Hunger For A Way Out in a subterranean bunker with a single microphone. The result yielded ten electrifyingly urgent post-punk crackers that bind themes of alienation and adversity to driving rhythms, vocal hooks and angular instrumentation. We took a virtual road trip to speak with the songwriters about what went into making one of the breakout albums of the year.
Having studied vocal performance and classically training in soprano, visiting Austria to perform classical opera in the process, Lira Mondal seemed on a tangent completely disparate from that of guitarist Caufield Schnug; “I played in punk bands when I was 12. Terrible and unmentionable now but it radicalised me. When you’re 12, playing on-stage with punks around, you conform”. When their worlds finally converged within a basement university practice room, little did they realise it would spark a 10-year (and counting) collaborative career.
Beginning with the vintage, garage-rock band Silkies in 2012, the pair later moved onto shimmering dream-pop with Mini Dresses. Whilst subjectively sublime (according to me), these projects failed to fit with any one scene around Boston; “Mini Dresses was never cool enough for the indie kids, Silkies didn’t gel with the garage rock folks. We always felt like we were on the outside”. Having developed songs that felt stylistically separate from these bands, a creative change of scenery in 2019 helped catalyse the duo’s next venture, Sweeping Promises; “Caufield had access to this really incredible space that was an old, abandoned lab that was turned into a gallery for other artists and art practices. It was a subterranean space with no windows, really reverberant. It felt like a bunker. Nobody else wanted to use it but it was just felt like us”.
Recording within the sonorous space necessitated the use of a single Shure KSM32 microphone whilst the room did the rest of the work; “This is a place that’s entirely concrete with a 40-foot-high ceiling. Every single sound you made had a 10-second reverb tail. All the surfaces had sound bouncing off them, so it was feasible to do it with one mic and still have it sound spatial. I don’t know if you could tell but I was playing the drums as lightly as I could because it would just wash through way too much”. Saving time setting up gear further allowed the duo to harness their creative spontaneity; “We wanted things to be as direct as possible. We were on this really prolific songwriting kick and we wanted to catch that energy in the moment”. The overarching aesthetics proved another major drawcard, allowing the artists to fully embrace their punk personas; “It felt transgressive to be in this academic building. Even though it wasn’t used it was still part of the university and we were there after hours making this racquet. It made us feel powerful”.
From the opening anthemic post-punk title track through to the psych-punk flavours of ‘An Appetite’, Hunger For A Way Out reanimates classic punk tropes with the artists’ own penchant for surf-rock and new-wave. When formulating the themes behind the lyrics, Mondal needed to face familiar adversities head-on; “On a basal, instinctual level, making music for us is never a happy thing. It’s always a lot of work and dredges up a lot of deep-seeded anxieties and emotions we barely repress in daily life”. The dichotomy of colluding sensations that ‘Cross Me Out’ features exemplifies this emotive impact; “The whole subject matter of that song is your feeling this moment of erasure because you don’t fit in with a certain economic standard or you don’t present in a certain way. You query if your existence even matters”.
Whilst digging deep thematically, Mondal was adamant about acting on impulse. Where previously over-considering her lyrics would leave her standing still, Sweeping Promises made writing with pace the name of the game; “While Caufield was working on guitar, I would sit and stew with my feelings and pop off with some lyrics. In our very first project, Silkies, it was just like, ok. Three chords, ok. What’s that thing your mumbling into the mic, ok those are the lyrics. We wanted to get back to that and so we just went with the gut”. Culling excess material ruthlessly in the process, the record was finished in quick succession. It led to a family of tracks that feel cut from the same cloth and an alternative clan of rejected seedlings planted elsewhere; “We wrote and recorded the first half of the album in about 2-3 hours. We were quite militant about it. We would delete it if it took more than 20 minutes. Caufield said that songs we didn’t wanna use were to be put in the garden of delete”.
With Spenser Gralla rounding out the trio on drums in a live setting, Sweeping Promises only managed to sneak in a single show before the lockdown took hold. With performance reflecting the height of pleasure, the band describe the Boston scene they miss so much as a microcosm of musicians ranging from punks, DIY doers, Bostonian hardcore thrashers, MIT industrial circuit benders and conservatory trained students; “For a city as small as Boston, the music scene is quite fractured with regional specificity due to public transport not running late and cost of living. When it’s Friday night and you have 4-5 band bills, it’s impossible to choose who to see”. Though only in existence for three weeks, the band are buoyed by messages from across the world, even if intangible; “The response has been jaw-droppingly amazing. That said, we’re locked down where we can’t see our friends or play shows. There’s a sense that maybe there’s an audience here but we can’t feel it or see it. Or maybe we just exist in a simulation and we’re not even real. Like some weird matrix experience”.
As modern-day American punks, Mondal and Schnug stand for the Black Lives Matter movement that has become ingrained in the social fabric of their country and across the globe; “It seems like every day there’s a new example of brutality that comes to surface. It’s important to keep dreaming and to keep ideas of emancipatory politics alive even when radical concessions and negotiations feel like the only thing that exist”. Similar sentiments of support extend to those working within their industry; “It’s hard out for everyone now in terms of unemployment. Not only as a local community but a global one of musicians. I don’t view music as something that takes up space or takes away from more legitimate discourse. Music can provide potentiality and revolution and we should continue to keep working towards that within this beautiful medium”.
Not ones to sit still, newfound fans of the band will be pleased to know another album is on the way. Not needing to fix anything that’s broken, the cut-throat regime that prove so successful first time around appears ready to be utilised for their second cut; “We’re already 11 songs in but we gotta start planting the garden”.