I shouldn’t have taken Pure Bathing Culture bowling. Still, that’s what we’re doing. We meet at Brooklyn’s the Gutter, a bowling alley devoid of the nightclub-like luxury offered by most of New York City’s such halls. The duo, composed of Daniel Hindman and Sarah Versprille, are already waiting when I arrive — but there’s a two-hour wait for a lane. So we wait, settled into a table over beers and tequila. The classic rock blaring over our heads feels incongruous for a meeting with such an earthly band. But that’s the thing about Pure Bathing Culture: Despite their indifference toward what we’ve met up to do — “I don’t even know how to bowl,” Hindman reveals — they’re the kind of people who are open to whatever’s next and going wherever it takes them. This receptiveness is how the band came to be in the first place.
Back when the now-Portland, OR-based duo were still Brooklyn residents, they were playing and touring as members of the indie-folk band Vetiver. In 2009, Versprille caught Hindman tooling around with his guitar — as he is prone to do — and felt compelled to write accompanying lyrics. The work ultimately resulted in their 2012 Father/Daughter Records-released, self-titled debut EP, and an eventual deal with Partisan Records. Their first full-length, 2013’s Moon Tides, saw them further advancing their connection as songwriters — and dapped them for Stereogum’s Band To Watch column — and that connection became even clearer while they were working on their upcoming sophomore release, Pray For Rain.
“[The difference with this album is] in the way that we all share a musical language together that is organic: from our fingers and our mouths and our toes and whatever else,” Hindman says, noting they used live drums instead of pre-recorded tracks this time around. “People were writing us off as just another dream-pop band that’s very aesthetically driven, it’s light.”
Pray For Rain is anything but light. The album largely deals with ideas of communication: the way two people connect romantically — particularly Hindman and Versprille themselves — how we explain our personal desires to others, and what happens when our ability to communicate becomes hindered. “A lot of the Pure Bathing Culture themes have to do with being brave enough to be your true self, which is sometimes the hardest thing,” Versprille says. The music, however, is never maudlin. Its carefree tone is almost a necessity when the lyrics rely so heavily on the more tangled bits of our humanity. Despite the fact that it is immediately immersive with a minimalist yacht-rock sound, the opening track “The Tower” is utterly gutting.
“[The song is about] disappearing, but crossing over to the other side and dying and knowing that you’re not going to communicate with people anymore, you’re not going to receive the world around you,” Hindman says. “What will you then receive? That song was about being haunted by that.” This idea was sparked when the band was driving home to Portland from SXSW in 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 seemed to completely vanish mid-flight. He continues, “[We] started thinking about the idea of someone disappearing completely, and being that person who’s going to disappear completely, and what level of consciousness you would be in that state, and what it feels like to see yourself … for example, in the case of MH370 — and I realize that it’s possible that none of those passengers were conscious at the time they went down — to be reckoning with that, that this plane is going to go down in the ocean.”
It’s no surprise to me that Pure Bathing Culture would become consumed with something like this. When I interviewed them for that aforementioned Band To Watch feature in 2013, they explained to me that, while relocating to the Pacific Northwest from New York, they became interested in astrology: something that can make unrelated events feel significant, and assists in finding meanings you were unable to discover on your own. Making that allowance is also part of Pure Bathing Culture’s ethos — whether it’s about being tethered to celestial bodies or not.
“[When] we’re in the zone of working on the song, coming up with lyrics, changing things in form or whatever, when we get finished with the writing, it always reveals this other layer to us, this other sort of message that ends up being some sort of communication,” Versprille says. “We realized that maybe we were writing a song that ended up being ‘Pray For Rain,’ that ended up being some kind of communication for us that we didn’t even know we were having. It was like this other layer.”
“And sometimes that surprises us,” Hindman adds. “It’s like being on a journey toward something really meaningful. I don’t think for a couple like us to stay in a band together — it’s hard to be in a band with someone that’s your partner. It has to feel right.”
I’m immediately surprised when Hindman says the word “couple.” While there is nothing unusual about two people in a romantic relationship being in a band together, the members of Pure Bathing Culture seem immediately protective of that connection. As Hindman puts it, “We have to make sure we’re both artistically fulfilled and coming into this band for the right reasons.”
He adds, “It’s a hard thing to talk about, too. We’re still trying to figure out how to talk about these things in a way. It could be easily misconceived by people. I don’t want people to think that we’re some kind of cheesy Sonny & Cher [thing] or something like that.”
But any outsider can get a clear idea of the couple’s intimacy with a careful listen to Pray For Rain, especially the song “Palest Pearl.” Inspired by the American ex-pat poet Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle, who lived in London during World War II, the song addresses the ways in which the band members shield their own relationship. “That one is really about being protective of this precious thing in the shell and about being able to withstand the tumbling, crazy environment of the ocean, and also being able to hold this precious thing inside,” Versprille says.
Hidman adds, “It’s also about not fucking up the precious thing. The trials and tribulations of life can just tear things apart, whether they’re full cities or buildings or economies that are torn apart by bombs, or whether they’re relationships. You have to hold something, you have to grow something, too.”
Using the catastrophic potential of war to describe the treasure that is a romantic relationship almost makes it seem as if love is so profoundly special it is unutterable — that its language exists in the intangible space between two people. And it’s through this other method of discovering communication that the two share even more with each other. But it took bravery on Vesprille’s end to even get there. She says the track “Singer” is her most autobiographical to date — not just because she’s the band’s vocalist, but because it was always something she wanted, but didn’t immediately pursue.
“It was just always something that I wanted to do but I could never figure it out,” she says. “What I want to be is the singer of a band, and [it hurts] to have people around you tell you that that’s ridiculous, or your family think you’re insane, all of the things that go along with making grand declarations that make people uncomfortable. But there’s also something really beautiful and magical about standing up for yourself and just saying, ‘No, that’s who I really am.’ And then going through the process of actually trying to be that person, which is not always easy.”
“The message of try is there,” Hindman adds, noting that it occurs throughout the record. “‘I Trace Your Symbol’ is a song about two people trying to figure it out. Two people trying to find each other. ‘She Shakes’ is about two people falling in love that are scared. That was a fun song to write because it was almost like a children’s song, imagining two fantastical characters — the idea that these two people would meet from different experiences, that she shakes because she’s terrified by the fact that she’s in love with him. But that can happen.”
Says Versprille, “There’s an element of the message, just take stock in yourself, I think that’s a huge piece for us.”
The three of us relocate to a booth, both quieter and louder at the same time. Versprille and I talk about how when last we spoke I had recently turned 27 and started my Saturn return, and that I am about to turn 30 and it will soon be over.
“What’s your moon?” she asks.
I tell her that I’ve never had my chart done before so I don’t know. The two of us are now alone and she pulls out her phone so she can do it herself. I tell her the date, time, and place I was born. We pore over the fact that most of my planets are in Sagittarius, which interests her because I am on the cusp of it and Capricorn. She gives some of the details of what it means to be Virgo rising and have your moon in Taurus. Hindman returns to the table and we tell him our findings. “That’s extreme,” he says. “It’s cool, though. You just have every Earth sign.” This is our cue to head out of the Gutter and search the rest of Greenpoint for a place to talk about this with an expert. But before we can actually make a move, our number is called to bowl. And that’s when I realize we shouldn’t be sitting in a dive bar — we shouldn’t have gone bowling at all. We should have gone somewhere that would allow us to connect to something otherworldly. I should have taken Pure Bathing Culture to a psychic.
Today we’re premiering a song from Pray For Rain. It’s called “Singer,” and it was recorded live at Braund Sound in Greenpoint, with Otto Hauser on percussion. Watch and listen below.
Pray For Rain is out 10/23 via Partisan.