FOR A BAND that only played its first live show in January, Pure Bathing Culture's quick rise to prominence seems surprising—until you listen to the four perfect songs on their debut EP. Each one is a lush, almost clinically clean pop number, but delivered in undeniably human tones by guitarist Daniel Hindman and vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Versprille. Hindman's guitar notes hit like cleansing water drops; Versprille's synths provide a soothing rinse as her voice rings with subtlety and strength. It's no wonder that these cool, calm, collected songs have attracted so much attention: Pure Bathing Culture have packed them full of warmth and heart.
Hindman and Versprille met at freshman orientation for the prestigious jazz program at William Paterson University; after moving to New York, they joined Vetiver in 2009 and also played in Richard Swift's touring band. Swift heard an early demo of the song "Lucky One" and urged them to come to his studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon.
"I think at that point we thought we'd never leave New York," says Versprille. "I really thought I'd be there forever." But after realizing how much money it would take to renew the lease on their apartment, the two impulsively decided to give Oregon a try, moving to Portland at the start of last year and visiting Swift's studio intermittently to lay down tracks for the Pure Bathing Culture EP.
"Everything about the project has evolved just because of what we had to work with," Versprille says. "We didn't set out to have it be a duo with a drum machine."
"The drum machine came from not having a drummer," says Hindman. "I remember literally waking up and thinking, 'We're going to have to get a drum machine.'" (For this series of upcoming shows, they're excited about adding an actual drummer—Jeff Brodsky of YACHT and Jeffrey Jerusalem—to the live lineup.)
Pure Bathing Culture's distinctive sound also hinges on Hindman's immaculate guitar tones, which were perhaps in part inspired by listening to the Durutti Column in Vetiver's tour van. "There's definitely a lot of nostalgia in it," Hindman says. "I think it was also having played in so many folk-rock bands—it was a way to make music that wasn't, like, folk and roots-rock. It was just a fun new frontier. And it relates to pop music so well, just discovering the love of those sounds and then the love of writing a pop song. Something about the two synthesized perfectly for me, at least."
The name Pure Bathing Culture came from an experience that Hindman's brother had while studying architecture in Switzerland; he visited the Therme Vals spa, designed by architect Peter Zumthor, and ended up undergoing the treatment routine, which involved different mineral baths in a series of rooms, each lit in different ways. "And the last session was the most serious session of the day," Hindman says. "No one was allowed to talk or anything; you were only supposed to listen to the sound of other people's bodies in the water around you. My brother said the English translation of it was 'pure bathing culture,' which he thought was really funny. It's come to mean something different; immediately, people get all this beach-y connotation, which is not what it's about at all."
Versprille mentions other elements of what could be considered bathing culture: "Bathing in the Ganges. Rebirth, transition, transformation."
"We've been so lucky to have people want to write about our music," adds Hindman, "and a lot of times, blogs or whatever will write, 'Sunshiny music to, like, sip beer or margaritas by the pool.' It's just funny, because no one's ever listened to the lyrics, I don't think. Because the lyrics aren't about any of that stuff."
While Pure Bathing Culture's ascendancy on the Portland music scene has been speedy, it takes Hindman and Versprille a long time to put a song together. Following a busy tour cycle with Vetiver, they only recently have been able to dedicate their full attention to Pure Bathing Culture, working on accumulating songs for a full-length album.
A big part of the songwriting process involves, rather than playing, the two of them talking about ideas. "We do that more than anything," says Hindman. "We put a lot of thought into it. Someone asked recently if we jam. We don't jam."
"We jam intellectually," jokes Versprille.
"There's always a curatorial process that takes place," Hindman says. "I kind of feel that with Pure Bathing Culture, the universe wants us to work pretty hard on it. That might sound weird. But just coming at the point in our lives where it came, and the way it's come in, it's been equal parts a gift and equal parts a lot of hard work."
"Sometimes it's easier than other times," says Versprille, "but it feels really good to do it. And we have just great, positive feelings about it. It represents all good things to us."