Published: January 15, 2015 (Winter 2015 Issue)
The Underwater Sounds: Legendary Misfits of Sounds
As Sean Youngman drives along Grays Ferry Avenue toward Southwest Philadelphia, he notices a disheveled youth standing by the roadside, asking for change. He stops his car and roots around the back seat that is occupied by laundry baskets filled with freshly pressed albums and promotional posters. “I knew I had them in here,” he mumbles as he tosses items around. Youngman locates a box of granola bars, quickly rolls down the window and waves the beggar over. He hands the vagabond a bar with a smile, stating, “I like to keep them around and hand them out to people on the streets. I think it’s good karma.”
It seems that karma has really paid off for Youngman and his fellow musicians in The Underwater Sounds, a West Philly band on the brink of launching into exciting endeavors. The Sounds’ newest release, Visions of Love & Light, Part 1 – recorded at Fishtown’s East Room Recording – has just been pressed in time for a tour.
Youngman approaches the dead-end of Paschall Avenue and hops out of the car. His fellow band members – vocalist Sonni Schwartzbach, bassist Kenny Shumski and guitarist Billy Campion – come out to meet him.
Inside Campion’s home – an industrial building he converted into a living/practice space – the bandmates set down boxes of albums and posters, grab a few bottles of Goose Island beer and collapse on the couches in the practice area. The walls are covered with psychedelic tapestries, and the corners of the room are crowded with band merchandise, amplifiers and instruments. This is a rare opportunity for everyone to relax before launching into another busy stretch. But they’re accustomed to it, ever since forming in 2010.
“It was just me, Sonni and Sean at first, writing and playing [Sonni’s] tunes,” says Shumski. “But eventually, more members came aboard and everything kind of shifted in a different direction. We started exploring collaboration as a group.”
Campion’s addition brought a touch of jam to the unit. But that’s just one element of the package.
“Space roots, world-bop, psychedelic groove…” Schwartzbach lists as she tries to categorize the band.
“I like to say reggae soul,” chimes in Campion.
“Reggae is a cool box to be in but I don’t necessarily think we fit inside a box,” counters Schwartzbach. “We’re not going to be stuck in one scene. We’re misfits.”
Labeling aside, the band coalesced into a distinct sound over the years, with each member providing an element of his or her own.
“Sean and I come from more harder-rock backgrounds, Sonni always played in reggae bands and ska bands and Billy played all sorts of stuff,” says Shumski. “It’s not like we’re consciously trying to create a unique sound. It’s just happening.”
That is the mentality which makes The Sounds so accessible, even to those who normally won’t bother listening to reggae or jam music. Their live shows are legendary, with live art, stilt-walkers, hula-hoopers and fire-spinners complementing the trippy tunes.
“We have a lot of friends with really unique abilities that they’ll contribute to our shows,” says Youngman.
After years of handling live acts and two records on their own, the band has recently signed on to locally-based Rising Pulse Productions – home of Philly funk outfit Swift Technique – allowing them to concentrate strictly on the music.
Although The Sounds have invested plenty of time traveling, they still call Philadelphia – specifically West Philly – home.
“The music scene is accessible,” Schwartzbach remarks. “There’s a community here that’s not typical of East Coast cities to have this homey feel.”
“And nobody complains about the music!” notes Campion in regard to practices.
“It’s cool that we can park the band bus out here, too,” says Youngman with a laugh.
All told, the band’s core ethos is simply summed up in one line.
“It’s a party and we want everyone to have a fucking good time,” says Schwartzbach. “No matter who they are.”
And that’s a party you don’t want to miss.