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.
[Music: "Jumbo Slice" by Ugly Purple Sweater from You Are Alone But You Are Not Alone]