There are three hard ciders and one hot peppermint tea on our table, also little blinky lights that are embedded into the wood and go through the color wheel in quick intervals. Kind of fitting as Southwork, the seven-piece South Philly psych-rock outfit that’s here sipping two hard ciders and one hot tea, is known for its eclectic, vibrant wardrobe and colorful showmanship. Also fitting that the group is playing upstairs at this very Johnny Brenda’s bar next week, celebrating the release of Arise, the group’s first release, although they’ve been playing together in various groups since they were 12 and 13-years-old.
“Growing up in South Philly, there were only a few kids into rock so we built a community around them. We figured if we’re all doing the same stuff, why not do it together?” says Mike Vivas, Southwork vocalist. The group gets its big band business from choir class. Vivas says being around that many musicians playing all at once and in harmony was practice for putting together Southwork, which includes an entire horn section with baritone and tenor saxophones and a trumpet player.
Listening to Arise, you sense that there’s classical training behind the mechanism. Carefully clustered horn intros make for a triumphant introduction on the title track, vocals are carefully put to highlight brass sounds (“My Demise”), and by track 4 (“Nice to Meet You”), you can taste the Beatles the guys’ must have consumed in their formative years. Tracks on the album, which each hold strong as individuals, find a way to bleed together in the proper way that’s often missed in the digital download, one-track mind world. It’s an album that’s best heard through and through or you will miss the nuances, the subtle similarities that string songs together.
A highlight (or low, depending on how you look) of their early performances included a show at the now defunct Aberlene’s, where the guys encouraged drummer Joe Smith to buy beer because he was 15-years-old, and the whole lot of ‘em got kicked out before they could play the show. The South Street venue is now a Dallas French Fry store. Grease where grease used to be. Potatoes where punk kids used to play.
The guys got to play Aberlene’s before the switch, thanks in part to a friend who ran Flash Mob Booking before “flash mob” was a Philadelphia taboo. These days, as individuals with tons of experience playing the circuit, everyone agrees that it’s good practice to limit local performances. Playing too often provides little time to come up with new material to offer the audience, so it’s a bunch of people in an audience singing along to your songs, knowing all of the words and ceasing to be surprised. And this is a band with a bubble machine. It’s into being surprising.
Still, having a home base in Philly is obviously important. Vivas and Anastasi spent almost two years living in LA, which was a confusing time, or so it sounds. (“There are no seasons. You have to go to Starbucks to figure it out, like, ‘oh, here’s a pumpkin latte, I guess it’s fall. Oh, peppermint mocha? I should probably call my mom and wish her Merry Christmas’,” says Anastasi.)
Then I ask them that question: what do you love about your hometown?
Food, mostly. Bahn Mi sandwiches come first, shitty $1 South Philly pizza, second, hoagies are third or fourth or both and being close to friends and family is on the list but probably would’ve been higher if it wasn’t dinner time.
After Thursday’s record release show, the group gears up for a five week East coast and in tour through D.C., Charleston and Atlanta and back up through Chicago and Columbia. In a gutted short bus.
“The bus is the baby of the band,” says Anastasi, “at least it gets most of the money.” He gets lit on talking about this vehicle, as the other guys kind of sit back and sip, watch. He tells me that after 10 years a school district is legally required to get rid of old road warriors, and that, for cheap, you can adopt. Those in the market are “mostly bands and tailgaters” he admits. If the band thing doesn’t work out, he’s convinced he could pass a driving test and take up a career as a middle school chaffer.