The Post-Punk Tenacity and Unshakable Presence of Sweeping Promises
Back in 2020, Sweeping Promises released Hunger for a Way Out, a debut effort loaded with zig-zagging guitars coated in a layer of early Rough Trade warbled analog glory at sonic speed. Now based in Kansas, the duo last released the fervently earwormy single, "Pain Without a Touch," co-released by Feel It Records and Sub Pop. To dive more into the duo's minimalist arrangements and sudden ascendance, we caught up with Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug to discuss how their debut album became an instant pandemic-era classic, their creative influences, and the new projects they've been working on.
In late 2019, the then Boston-based post-punk duo Sweeping Promises descended into a converted concrete laboratory with a single microphone. The cavernous reverb from the lab on Garden Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was used as an additional instrument to their highly praised and head-turning 2020 debut album, Hunger for a Way Out. Loaded with zig-zagging guitars coated in a layer of early Rough Trade warbled analog glory at sonic speed, Sweeping Promises is the latest DIY venture for longtime partners Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug following their previous bands Dee Parts, Mini-dresses, Splitting Image, Silkies, and Blau Blau. The duo is also occasionally backed by drummer Spenser Gralla for live shows.
Now based in Kansas, the duo last released the fervently earwormy single, "Pain Without a Touch," co-released by Feel It Records in North America and released everywhere else by Sub Pop. This is just one product of a year-long writing session where they say they yielded in sixty or so songs in total. While the new single wasn't recorded in an underground setting, the duo recorded the bass and drums at Estuary Recording Studio in Austin and self-recorded overdubs in Caufield's parents' bathroom. These dubbed "Bathroom Sessions" also brought out nine other yet-to-be released songs, but in an interview with Stereogum back in December '21, Schnug said, "these will not be on the second album." So, a new Sweeping Promises full-length will be on the way later this year and to dive more into the duo's minimalist arrangements and sudden ascendance, we caught up with Mondal and Schnug to discuss how their debut album became an instant pandemic-era classic, their creative influences, and the new projects they've been working on.
Paperface Zine: Take me through the origins of Sweeping Promises. I understand you were both in different projects before.
Lira Mondal: Well we have known each other since we were in college in 2008 and yes, we have been in bands together ever since. Sweeping Promises happened one night in the fall of 2019 when we were working on another project. We were sort of frustrated with that, so we decided to write some music spur of the moment after we both got out of work and what emerged after about an hour to two hours later was the A-side for Hunger for a Way Out. So we decided to just go with this because it all came very quickly and naturally and just feels right. We wrote, recorded, and finished the album soon as the pandemic happened. It was all very quick.
PZ: How would you say Sweeping Promises was different to past projects like Dee-Parts or Blau Blau.
LM: It's really that level of spontaneity. Whenever we wrote songs together before, we would just flush them out just the two of us and then it wasn't until the past couple of years we started writing songs with me on bass and Caufield on drums. A couple of our other projects had other members so we would jam all four of us in a group and we would just play off one another. But still often, it was the two of us bringing demos to the other members. We wanted to have that stripped down song writing formation and prioritize it.
Caufield Schung: The infrastructure that we played in was different too. We basically had secured an abandoned science lab. There was a group that was doing graduate work in our adjacent field and so they had offered up this space to artists, but nobody wanted it because it was underground and had no windows, but I really wanted it. We had that space for just around a year.
LM: Yeah knowing that it wouldn't be touched by anyone and that we wouldn't have to share the space or step on anyone's toes with scheduling allowed for a really quick and expansive access to creativity especially writing.
CS: Our previous bands were mostly recorded by ourselves in a kitchen and in a practice space that was 90 square feet and Sweeping Promises was in a space that was 8000 square feet [laughing].
LM: Yes with concrete, high ceilings and a laboratory-esque setting. You were essentially just underground and it felt very cavernous. It wasn't quite a clinical setting, but it was very clean and antiseptic [laughing]. It was intended for public use but it was never used.
CS: I think in general we believe that songs shouldn't take longer than 20 minutes to write. That's kind of a weird superstition we have. Obviously it can take longer than that, but like 70% of the song should be there in that 20 minutes. If that doesn't happen, we don't think the song should have a future.
PZ: Did this underground setting play into the tone of Hunger for a Way Out?
CS: Yes totally. We recorded working around a lot of echo. If you multi-mic'd things, it would just get nutty. We didn't use headphones either. we just used one mic and single streamed from a place in the room that we liked and just collected the echoes. It's very different from recording in a kitchen or bedroom. I think now we are thinking more spatially because while we were living on the East Coast, you had to learn how to record in a small setting.
LM: So we had another project that we were also doing concurrently that was a more drum machine-based and sort of minimal wave influenced goth project. I remember trying to record vocals in our garden level apartment at home and just being so worried that someone was going to hear me or the neighbors were going to complain. Just being very self-aware and sometimes not being able to perform. So, at the Garden Street lab, all of those concerns went away and nobody heard us. However one time, there was some students because it was next to like a grad student housing complex and we were both just jamming and these two girls came through and said, "We heard this music and we just had to find out where it was coming from, and we really like the band!" and we just thought, "Wow, this is cool," but it was a very funny moment that was galvanizing [laughing].
PZ: You've done so much over the years because you recorded launched most of your projects including Sweeping Promises in Boston, then temporarily moved to Austin during the pandemic, and now you're based in Lawrence, Kansas. It's funny because when I first discovered you, I thought you were from Australia! [laughing].
CS: It's parallel thinking. We joke that we were discovered in Australia, but that wasn't something that was planned but was kind of inevitable.
LM: In other words, we are big in Australia! [laughing].
PZ: Do you collaborate or work with Naarm/Melbourne musicians at all or planned to?
LM: We hope to earnestly. A lot of fellow bands there who we like were very supportive of us from the get-go and then Sam Richardson of Feel It Records has a very close relationship with some Aussie bands and works together with Anti Fade Records on distributing so we've got connections!
PZ: How did the name Sweeping Promises come about?
LM: Oh that was all Caufield.
CS: [laughing] Oh, was it?
LM: Yes, you have a list. He wanted to call it Apple.
CS: I think A.G. Cook has an album called Apple-
LM: Mhm. Did he get sued by Apple?
CS: No, but I wanted to get sued by Apple [laughing]
LM: There's still time [laughing]
CS: Yeah I think I just want to get sued. I badly want that [laughing]. I don't know, I like something that sort of can be a slogan like something that would be used by a lawyer. I think it means something different to different people. I think it's meant to be critical.
PZ: You've been referred to as "post-punk revivalists" by some music outlets, but across the debut LP, you've invented this ridiculously groovy sonic world with swipes of synths and six-strings that recalls favorites like Sneaks, Aunt Sally, Bush Tetras, Le Tigre, Kleenex/LiLiPUT and Whammy-era B-52's. What were your influences going into this record?
LM: We both share a love for '80s post-punk and offshoots of solo. Solo is like a music journalist term that never got picked up, but has come into the mix again in recent years.
CS: It's like wacky, conceptional, and somewhat abstracted punk music. In general, Lira and I are really drawn to forgotten, marginalized or unarchived punk music. I think we are interested in what didn't happen in the genre. But we listen to a lot of music outside of punk as well. At the time, I was listening to a lot of electronic music. I love plastic-y sounding music.
LM: Around then, I was listening to a lot of exotica and lounge music. I was working in a restaurant at the time and often I would just blast XTC or like Les Baxter, just these super cheesy space age '50s soundtracks and soundscapes. I think there is a big crossover between that and the sounds you hear in new wave. It's very futuristic, but also very quaint. A futurism that is so rooted in the time that it was created that it becomes a relic in itself. It's funny to me.
CS: I think it's safe to say we are really interested in background music or music made by industries. Punk I think had some sort of relationship to that. A lot of punk bands are adopting corporate culture and significators. It's mocking, but in a way it's also learning from.
LM: Oh yeah, everything can be a weapon and I think not really masking the contempt, but also the desire to have something really emblematic that you can yield so that it represents you. A rendering of sorts. A lot of punk bands have graphics and symbols that are tied to the band. So what happens when you tie these things together that's not really meant for you?
PZ: Yeah that's very true. It's funny to see punk's influence on style and commerce. It's especially hilarious that I can watch that new Sex Pistols series on Disney+ [laughing]. So the debut LP was released during the early stages of the pandemic. Was there any hesitation or concerns about releasing it since you weren't going to be able to immediately play shows around it?
LM: I had no expectations about who it was going to reach. I thought that like a lot of our other projects, that it was going to have a modest audience with online punk circles and that we would probably play a few shows and just start another project.
CS: I think at some point we gave up on doing music as a career and we had often talked about the afterlife of our projects. Like maybe this will matter more when we are 60 and we have to have a timeline of when this will impact our station in our life. And then it was funny to see Sweeping Promises kind of blow up and suddenly have some sort of income coming from it.
LM: And interest. People are actually engaging with our art in a meaningful way and that's any artist's dream. Talking to people through Instagram, and being able to do interviews like this, and relating to the whole thing was magical and completely unexpected because not only was it during the pandemic, but also no one had seen us — we had played only one show at the time. We definitely felt like maybe people didn't think we were real. Like we saw comments online like "Is this band even from now?" [laughing]
PZ: What do you both do outside of Sweeping Promises?
LM: Well, right now it's mostly just Sweeping Promises and academics.
CS: I finished my dissertation at Harvard in 2021. I had been waiting for this field to open up but it just didn't happen. Corona opened up this big professional void-
LM: So sweeping promises of your own [laughing].
CS: Right [laughing], so sweeping promises of my own in academia. The idea of getting a job was preposterous and continues to be. So I decided to focus on making music and trying to carve out an income from this.
LM: Caufield has been doing a bunch of mastering work as well under the name Melody Men with his pal Alex.
CS: [laughing] Sort of DIY-
LM: Yeah and it's been interesting. Most of it through Sam of Feel it Records. Sam has been giving us this sort of pipeline of bands whose recordings need to be mixed and mastered.
CS: Yeah like I've done work on the new Spread Joy and Star Party albums and the demo tape from Class last year. I am also a ghost researcher and occasional copywriter and I'm thinking about doing a little bit of writing, but it's mostly just Sweeping Promises right now.
LM: I have been in the restaurant industry — I was a pastry chef for a long time. When we moved to Austin for a short while, I was thinking about starting my own chocolate shop. When we got here I bought a chocolate grinder because I wanted to do a small bean to bar project and I bought some beans from a trader that imports beans from all over the world — that was fair trade. So I was experimenting with that and I thought I would expand it to a bakery and sell it at the local farmers market here in town and slowly steam around that. But then we got so wrapped up in music that I have really put all of that on hold. I will come back to pastry when the time is right.
PZ: I know a lot of people are anticipating new music from you after the release of the single "Pain Without Touch" in November '21. What can we expect from Sweeping Promises in 2023?
LM: Well, we've got new music coming out this year for sure and we're hoping to be back on the road quite a bit this summer/fall. Additionally, Caufield and I have started a live video channel called Unacceptable Color with our neighbors and good friends Shawn Brackbill (who is a phenomenal photographer) and Rob and Ryan Pope of The Get Up Kids. So far, we've done sessions with Ata Kak, Spread Joy, Zombi, Night Moves, and several others. Our goal is to highlight and archive as many cool bands who come to Lawrence as possible, paying special attention to high-quality audio, and a blend of VHS and digital video. And on top of all THAT, Caufield is busy recording and engineering a ton of music for other bands (he's currently in the other room working with our friends Optic Sink, who came in from Memphis for the week). So there's quite a bit in store for us this year!
Hunger for a Way Out is out now through Feel It Records.