Sweeping Promises’s Lira Mondal and Caufield Schnug’s successful 2020 album Hunger For A Way Out debuted in the thick of quarantine, but that hasn’t stopped them from making more music in their bathroom-turned-studio.
WORDS / CORRENE SPERO
PHOTO / JACKIE LEE YOUNG
It’s not every day a band with Arkansas roots gets played by Iggy Pop on his BBC radio show, but after one spin through Sweeping Promises’s Hunger For A Way Out, it makes perfect sense.
The 2020 release, which NME hails as a collection of “raw and urgent basement bangers” has earned the band praise from various corners of the blogosphere and landed them on several “best of” year-end lists.
Lira Mondal—bassist, synth-player, and vocalist of Sweeping Promises—settles in to talk about the band’s adventures as her other half in music and life Caufield Schnug busies himself setting up what they jokingly refer to as “the studio” in the bathroom of their house near Austin, Texas. “DIY or die!” Mondal says with a smile.
Mondal was born in Arkadelphia and grew up in Fayetteville until moving to Russellville with her family at 14. She began exploring music as a student in Arkansas’s public schools. “I went to Russellville High and did all-county choir. Of course, when I lived in Arkansas, I felt its flyover state status. I used to think, ‘The Backstreet Boys will never come to Arkansas!’ But, I so treasured living and growing up in Arkansas. There’s no place like it.”
Of her childhood in Northwest Arkansas, Mondal recalls, “I loved living among the Ozarks and going hiking, seeing the mountains and the foliage. It wasn’t until I left Arkansas that I realized as much as I want to go everywhere and do everything, it’s really special that I had that.”
Mondal’s musical background includes piano lessons as a child and a foray into the guitar as a teenager. “I had a practice guitar I begged my dad to get me when I was 15 or 16, and I tried to teach myself. I didn’t play in bands as a teenager. I didn’t think I was cool enough. I felt sort of like I was on the outside looking in.”
At Hendrix College she majored in music, but it was a chance meeting with Schnug, originally from Texas, that set them on their current musical path. “I was a sophomore and he was a freshman and we met in the practice space of the music building. I saw his head pop up in the window of the door and he was like ‘Are y’all in a band? Can I play with you?’”
Schnug, who co-wrote Hunger For a Way Out with Mondal and plays bass and drums on the album, began playing in punk bands at 13 and has a similar memory of their first meeting. “I was not a music major and I was trying to break into the music building to play the drum set. I saw Lira playing and singing and she was really good. She had raw talent.” When asked about the possible complications of being a couple and a band, Mondal jokes, “Well, we were in a band before we started dating, so it’s music first!”
It was at Hendrix that Schnug encouraged Mondal’s bass-playing. “Lira has perfect pitch, so I couId be like ‘Play a D,’ and she could play it.” Schnug says. Mondal adds, “I always loved the bass, and I learned about both Kims [Gordon and Deal] and admired this legacy of female bassists. I was a music major, so I had theory on my side, but when it came to the bass I didn’t practice any specific technique. I just did it all from feel and from ear.”
Mondal and Schnug’s postgraduate journey led them to Boston where Schnug attended Harvard (now finishing his doctorate degree remotely) and Mondal worked as a high-end pastry chef. Hunger For A Way Out was recorded at Harvard with one mic in what Mondal describes as “this underground concrete science lab re-purposed into an artist space with 40-foot ceilings and amazing natural reverb.”
The changes to both academic life and the restaurant world brought about by COVID-19 prompted the band to relocate to Austin where they started a new Sweeping Promises album, recording vocals in the bathroom while tracking bass and drums at a studio about five minutes away.
With characteristic humility, Mondal credits much of the success of Hunger For A Way Out to Schnug’s production, and her face lights up when talking about her partner: “Caufield does the engineering, production, and the mixing. He has such a unique sensibility.”
“I come from a tradition of home recording,” Schnug says. “I believe that capturing sounds in a personal and direct way is important.” In line with this philosophy, the band’s sound is minimalist in all the best ways, with Mondal and Schnug both recording through one guitar amp.
“With Sweeping Promises, there’s this idea of ‘one’; we record into one mic, the record is in mono, and a lot of things happen from one position,” Schnug says. “The amps are always in one place, and we stand in the same place. It’s kind of like with camera angles in a film—you can get different shots with different cameras, but Sweeping Promises is one-dimensional. It’s all from one position.”
Sweeping Promises has plans to tour through as much of 2022 as possible and are contemplating a move to Los Angeles, but no matter how far they may roam, they feel it’s important to stay connected to the Arkansas art and music scene. “We feel like we learned how to be a band in Arkansas,” Schnug says.
Mondal and Schnug recently donated proceeds from a successful Sweeping Promises Bandcamp Friday vinyl sale to Central Arkansas’s music and arts nonprofit Trust Tree; organizations with a focus on music education, especially those encouraging girls in music, hold a special place in their hearts.
“I owe a lot of where I am to having educators in my life in Arkansas whose mission was supporting young people in the arts,” Mondal says. “There were some students who came from rough backgrounds and these music teachers were like their social workers. And it’s really important to have girls believe ‘I can do this! I have every right to make some noise!’ I love that!”
IG // @SWEEPING.PROMISES