Too Easy: Pure Bathing Culture Talks with Jonathan Rado (Foxygen) About Richard Swift

The three reminisce about their late friend and collaborator.

Jonathan Rado is a co-founder of the band Foxygen and has produced records for artists like Weyes Blood, Whitney, and Father John Misty; Sarah Versprille and Dan Hindman perform as the Portland, OR-based indie pop duo Pure Bathing Culture. All three artists had a close relationship with the late producer Richard Swift, after whom PBC’s new EP Carrido is named. The three hopped on the phone to talk about Swift, and about recording the EP at his National Freedom studio. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Jonathan Rado: Welcome to the Jonathan Rado Interview Hour, episode one. We’ve got Sarah and Dan on the line — how’s it going guys? 

Sarah Versprille: Good, good.

Jonathan: What have you guys been doing during this pandemic? 

Dan Hindman: We’re busier than we would have imagined. We’ve been doing some scoring work, which is new for us. We were about halfway through writing a new record, and when that started we sort of had to stop writing the new record to do the work. Which is great! We’ve gotta survive somehow. It’s been cool to have work. 

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s awesome. I think a Pure Bathing Culture score would sound pretty cool. Is it in your style? 

Dan: It’s very much in our style. There’s a couple different projects, but there’s a short film that we did the score for, and it’s in our style. A very contained version of our style, too — drum machine, a lot of keyboard, bass, clean guitars. Stuff like that. 

Sarah: I feel like the stuff we’ve gotten asked to do is all romance — budding romance, or relationships—

Dan: Getting together, getting back together, you know. 

Jonathan: [Laughs.] The cycle.

Sarah: Exactly. 

Jonathan: Maybe in five years you’ll get asked to do an action movie. Some Hans Zimmer drone guitar, really dark.

Dan: [Laughs.] Like a Transformers movie. 

Sarah: But it’s all about love — the action heroes are fighting to keep their love alive. 

Jonathan: Can’t escape the love. Well, let’s talk about the new record, Carrido. That’s Ricardo — should we talk about Swift for a little bit? Do you want to sort of sum up the genesis of how this record came to be? You went to [Swift’s studio] National Freedom.

Dan: We did. After Rich passed away, [Swift’s wife] Shealynn reached out and asked if we wanted to come down and record. I guess they were trying to figure out how to get the space full of music again, and keep things moving. It felt right to us to do it, we wanted to do it. We had some songs leftover from our record Night Pass that we actually had been talking to him about maybe working on. 

We went down and Chris [Colbert] was standing in the driveway when we got there. Chris is a very longtime Richard Swift collaborator; in recent years he mastered some of the records Richard worked on. He recorded Swift in the studio, and did front of house for him on tour.

Jonathan: He’s a legend. 

Dan: He is. 

Jonathan: He’s on the cover of The Atlantic Ocean — the first time I met him I was like, “You’re the guy from the cover of that album!” [Laughs.]

Dan: Yeah, and he was just sitting there in the driveway.

Jonathan: How long after Swift had passed was this? 

Sarah: We were there maybe September 4 through 9 [of 2018], so just like a couple months, really. 

Jonathan: Wow. Yeah, I remember you telling me you did that and it was so cool. I went up recently — maybe we can just talk about the space a little bit. The vibe that Swift had curated for so many years was still so surprisingly in tact. 

Dan: There’s such a strong energy.

Jonathan: That you can’t remove. His touch on that place…

Dan: All of his instruments being there — he was more of a musician making records than an audio engineer producing records. The space is basically filled with art; a lot of his instruments, and the ways that he made his sounds, are kind of just there and set up. There’s not, like, a million things — there’s certain ways he would record if he was using a microphone or recording a guitar. It’s not like a studio where there a nine different condenser mics that you shoot out on a vocal. It’s like a work-craft space. I don’t know what it’s like for you, because you’re making records now obviously, but for me it helped to demystify the process of what it meant to make a record. Especially a record that feels really cool and heartfelt and artistic, as opposed to just the dry craft of doing recording. 

Jonathan: I feel exactly the same way. When I first went there, I’d only made records in my room. I’d never even been in a recording studio. So in a way, it was the perfect environment to make my first real album. I think a lot of people have had that experience with him — even someone like Damien [Jurado], who didn’t make his first record with Swift, had this kind of rebirth. 

You go in and it’s not really a studio — he’s got good stuff, but everything has a certain touch, and it really feels like making a record in your house. But it sounds way better because that place is built really well. It actually is a really good-sounding room. 

Dan: It really is. That’s one of the secret parts of the math of the equation of that space — that live room does sound really good on tape. This is a little outside the realm of my expertise, but I think the floor is lifted, and the room is too? It’s the perfect space to kind of go nuts in. It made sense that he just thrived in there. 

Jonathan: It’s not hard to make it sound good. 

Sarah: That’s his mantra: “Too easy.” I just love that that’s one of Rich’s main quotes. He would always say that. I remember working with him and [he’d be like], “It’s not hard to make something awesome. It’s actually really easy.” That’s part of his magic. 

Jonathan: Yeah, he’d put up just one mic, play the drums awesomely, and it’d sound great. What’s really amazing about your new record is you can hear those sounds again. It sounds like your first album — it has those touchstones of National Freedom that, for me, is such a… like, I know your music so well, I know Swift’s music so well, and all of his little production touches. It was really emotional to hear “Something Silver” and hear those claves come in. I think that’s so magical.

Dan: Thanks, man. Another really close musician friend said the same thing when they heard it. I think there was something in that record where Richard — maybe it was just the period of time, too, but I think we did find a sound in that record that was big for us. 

Jonathan: There’s a rawness to it. I was listening to it today, and obviously every record is great, but that first one… there’s just this raw quality to it. I feel like your first record, you do something raw because you don’t really know any better. You want things to sound better, and that’s natural; you go through and try to perfect your sound, and that’s also important. 

Dan: There’s this pressure to grow, as I’m sure you know well — you’re maybe signing to record labels, you’re trying to make the better thing, and people get involved. That was definitely a process we went through making two or three records. Everyone changes their opinion about their music over the years, but I think with doing Carrido, it’s like a musical home for us to return to that sound. 

Jonathan: It’s really beautiful. What’s the first thing you recorded in there? 

Sarah: I think it was “Midnight Minutes,” the second track. I think we worked on that one first. Then “La La Love,” then “Something Silver,” and then I think we did “Would You?” last. But we were trying to go fast, we were trying to do one song a day.

Dan: Not something we were accustomed to. Especially through Night Pass, which we spent a lot of time on. But yeah, Chris set us up and we kind of just gravitated toward working in the big room. When we were working with Richard, it was when the studio was all in one room, even though there’s the control space now which is really nice. Chris was really intrinsic with that — he helped with setting the Coles microphone up, and getting the signal chain the way Richard would use it. We just started working and it felt great, like we were cracking jokes, and like we were constantly talking to Richard. It felt amazing, especially just to be in there by ourselves in the space we worked in before. It was really special. 

Sarah: Being there was so familiar, but at the same time you’re like, “Isn’t he gonna just walk in right now with, like, bowls of frozen strawberries?” [Laughs.]

Dan: Yeah, walking back and forth between the live room and the control room, you just swear he’s in the other room or something. When Chris walked us into the studio, he pointed over to a bag on a stool in front of the TASCAM console and was like, “There’s Rich.” No one touched that, and at night we would kind of just go and sit and listen to the mixes on the big speakers in the control room, and just hang. It was surreal, but it was so meaningful. It felt amazing. 

Jonathan: I completely agree with that, also having the experience of being there after he’s gone. It really is wild how much you feel his presence there still.

Dan: It’s amazing to know that that’s there. I can’t wait to go record there again. 

Sarah: Totally. I know we’ll make something there again. 

Jonathan: So you ended up with an amazing record! Did you leave with it pretty much completed? 

Dan: We mixed it at home, but we recorded everything there. It was pretty easy, because one lucky thing about the sessions being so fast is there weren’t a lot of tracks, so it just kind of was what it was. 

Jonathan: I think it’s my favorite of your albums. That “Something Silver” song is so good, it’s crazy. How did that song come about? What’s the lineage?

Sarah: That’s an older song for us.

Dan: It’s been around for a while. We’re still always trying to learn what exactly we’re writing about, and I think that song is kind of about a few things at the same time. It’s sort of about chasing your muse, what you love, and feeling inspired. But also, it’s almost poking fun at the creative process at times, or the death of an idea that we all kind of have to go through to keep the content moving. 

Sarah: I think we wrote the song either shortly after we recorded, or shortly after our second record came out. Just before that, we made Moon Tides at Rich’s studio, and the EP, so we were pretty early on in being a band and trying to figure it all out. I think a little bit of it is kind of just the idea of what it feels like to try to keep going in an industry that is really hard to work in sometimes, and just being able to stay in touch with the reasons why you do it and why it’s important to you. It’s pretty apt that it ended up on this EP in that sense, because we started our journey as PBC with Rich. It feels really kind of full circle in a way. 

Jonathan: I was reading the lyrics and it can just mean so many things. What’s really nice about PBC lyrics is, they’re a little bit hard to — not hard to decipher, but they really can mean whatever you want them to mean. 

Dan: We’re pretty drawn, I think, to acknowledging darkness, but we’re always wanting to… I think we sing about heartbreak and death a lot, but that that’s OK. A lot of people don’t dig that deep when writing about our music — I think they yearn to kind of generalize it quickly or not take it seriously — but I remember one time seeing a review where someone was taking about our music and themes of existential dread, and I was like, Wow, someone actually gets it.

Jonathan: Yeah, there is a lot of existential dread in there! 

Dan: But there’s always love, you know. Love is the chance to not let that consume you. So basically, we want our songs to be about that. [Laughs.]

Jonathan: I wanna talk specifically about your guitar tone. What’s the evolution? I feel like it’s a really signature guitar tone in a time where I feel like people don’t really have signature guitar tones. 

Dan: This is like the Guitar Player Magazine section.

Jonathan: Hour one. 

Dan: It’s been kind of a journey to point. I spent a lot of time prior to Pure Bathing Culture playing in other bands and doing my best to learn to be a jack-of-all-trades with the guitar. I did some really cool things that I was happy with. Especially playing in Vetiver was really great for me, it opened up so many doors. But I don’t think what I was playing in Vetiver sounds like Pure Bathing Culture, really.

Jonathan: Yeah, it changed with Pure Bathing Culture for sure. 

Dan: I went through a really big jazz phase, but I don’t know if my playing is really jazzy. I was listening to a lot of African guitar. Did you ever listen to this [Zimbabwean] band called The Green Arrows? 

Jonathan: No.

Dan: They have this one record that I listen to a lot. There was something about the clean sounds in African music that I was hearing, but also Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins. The Durutti Column is another thing — Vini Reilly. Things where the fundamental sound could be really driving, but also simplistic and not overwrought, I guess. 

Jonathan: I think it’s the best clean tone out there. I struggle myself with the clean tone, and I’d be lying if I didn’t think of Dan whenever I was trying to get a clean tone. [Laughs.]

Dan: I think that’s an easier question to answer on a technical level. I think that having pickups that have a really low output helps a lot, because the sound is so clean that you could do whatever you want with it. You could EQ it, or squash it. It’s about having a really clean, single-coil pickup.

Jonathan: It’s those fingers, too — those magic fingers. 

Dan: One of my fingers actually is magic. The rest of them are cursed. 

Jonathan: You guys toured with Swift for a while. I saw a Vetiver/Swift show and, I’ll always remember this: I had an extreme fever — this was in the time that you could still go out with bad fevers — and it was at the Eagle Rock Arts Center. I was the biggest Richard Swift fan, and I waited outside your van to get his autograph on my copy of Atlantic Ocean. I just remember that show being so amazing. 

I always sort of joked with Swift that if he ever got to tour again, I would immediately join the band, but I never really got to play with him. What was that like? Do you have any fond memories of that time, or stories? 

Sarah: So many fond memories, and many, many stories, for sure. I don’t know how many are totally appropriate.

Jonathan: Woah!

Sarah: [Laughs.] No, no, I’m just kidding. But for me, being in Swift’s band was really the only time — I played trumpet in high school, and it was really the only time I played trumpet as an adult. Rich was just so stoked when he found out I play trumpet, and was like, “You have to play trumpet!” So I played trumpet in Swift’s band, and I feel like that’s such a great example of what a rad musical person he was to work with. He really was just so open. Obviously we were playing his songs, but he was always just kind of like, “Whatever you’re going to do is gonna be rad.” 

I played piano on some stuff. I remember, there’s a crazy Juno part on “A Song For Milton Feher” that I had to learn that was pretty nuts — it was really stressing me out, but then Rich would just be like, “You did it, Sarah, that was so rad.” I’m sure it sounded crazy, but he just was so down for you to do your thing. I think that’s part of the great loss of not having him in our lives in that way anymore — having that person who encourages you and tells you you’re a genius, and that anything you do is rad and perfect, and that music is too easy, and to never forget that.

Carrido is out now via Infinite Companion

Pure Bathing Culture is Sarah Versprille and Dan Hindman, an indie pop duo from Portland, OR. Their EP Carrido is out now via Infinite Companion.