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Healing waters

Swimsuit bring the sounds of Ypsilanti to Olympia

SWIMSUIT: Looks warm, right? Courtesy photo

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Ypsilanti, Michigan, is a capacious, creative "dark horse little sister" of a city, situated only six miles outside Ann Arbor. In the late 19th century, the ambitious hucksters of the Cornwell Paper Company sold effervescent "healing water" siphoned from a well almost a thousand feet deep ("If you are sick / just try our cure / drink Ypsilanti's water pure" the song went). I don't know if there's really something in the water, or if the city of just over 22,000 naturally cultivates or attracts artists, but noise-rock trio Wolf Eyes calls it home, as did an adolescent James Newell "Iggy Pop" Osterberg Jr.

The Huron River flows through Ypsilanti's city center - City Center, incidentally, is the name of Swimsuit guitarist Fred Thomas' longstanding solo project.

"(Michigan is) a really fertile place for people coming together and making good things," Thomas says.

City Center is one of three Michigan bands currently touring the U.S. together. Sharing a van is not an issue, as Swimsuit and Secret Twins draw from the same pool of tight-knit talent. Dina Bankole plays guitar in both Secret Twins and Swimsuit, and her bandmates are likewise busy: bassist Amber Fellows has a side project with Thomas called Damned Dogs, and Shelley Salant has drummed with Detroit lo-fi act Tyvek. Secret Twins' Tim Thomas rounds out the cross-continental carpool. Fred Thomas has been told that, "Those five people comprise three of the most important bands in town."

Cumulatively, this crew of jammers, DJs, bookers and DIY label-heads are bringing the varicolored sounds of Washtenaw County to America. Along the way, they're playing with some of the country's best underground noise-makers, including Olympia's own Calvin Johnson.

Swimsuit's music is timely - volleying from brisk and beguiling pop to noodle-y instrumentals in the vein of Mathew Mondanile's many mellow-psych explorations (Ducktails, Real Estate, Predator Vision). The operative (if criminally overused) word is "beach-y." Swimsuit - perhaps unsurprisingly for a band of their name - seem coincidentally tapped into the same mass-consciousness musical instinct that's largely defined much of the past two or three years of indie music: wide-ranging but similarly summery, oftentimes instrumental jams that uplift more than they unsettle.

"We definitely weren't thinking about it all. When we started playing shows, (that's) when people started telling us we sounded like that," Salant says.

Swimsuit's shore-side vibe came naturally, much in the same way that the band's songs are refined from free-associative jam sessions.

"(Our process is) more thoughtless and less organic, almost. We'll point at something and that will be the name of our song," says Thomas.

I have my own convoluted theory on the origins of this unusually sun-soaked musical climate (call it "chillwave spectroscopy," but only if you must), though I, like Thomas, resent most critics' impulse to lump bands together based purely on their mutual proclivity towards radiant and relaxing sounds. Besides, Thomas hints that something frightening is lurking in the warm waters of Swimsuit's surf-flecked sound.

"There's also some darkness and weird, like, strange things happening in there," he says, cagily. But don't let that scare you off - Swimsuit will soak you with positive vibes, just like the Cornwell's promise of yore: "If you are growing weak and lean / just come and try our healing stream / and splash till you are pure and clean / and your troubles washed away."


with Calvin Johnson, City Center, Secret Twins
Monday, May 23, 8 p.m., All Ages,
Northern, 321 Fourth Ave., Olympia

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