(Cover Story) Relaxing in The Sun.
Text and images by Colin Kerrigan.
It’s early afternoon on one of the coldest days of the year in late January. Jon Barthmus, the brainchild behind Sun Airway, sits in his quiet, retro-style South Philadelphia home, nestled between two 80-something-year old Italian women.
His brand new record player is spinning some 50’s big band vinyl that complements the atmosphere perfectly. Blanch, his extremely friendly cat, rolls around playing with nothing in particular, completely satisfied. Barthmus sifts through a variety of tea bags before settling on Zen Green Tea.
He’s patiently waiting for the other half of Sun Airway’s recording duo, Patrick Marsceill, to pick him up.
The two of them have a one o’clock appointment to get a straight razor shave, sometimes know as a cutthroat shave, at The Art of Shaving on Walnut Street.
Marsceill is driving down from Fishtown so he’s running a little late.
Barthmus, 30, and Marsceill, 27, have the type of chemistry that only true best friends have. They first met more than a decade ago during their college days at Drexel University. Barthmus, who studied graphic design, had formed another band previous to Sun Airway called The A-sides, who had a more traditional indie rock sound compared to his project now.
The original drummer of the band bailed rather quickly and Barthmus’ friend recommended his Cosi coworker, Marsceill, who was studying information science with a minor in business. Marsceill lived half a block away from Barthmus and passed the test on his first visit.
Now they make dreamy, shoegaze, psych-pop music together.
Marsceill finally arrives to pick up Barthmus and they only have five minutes to get to their appointment. Once in the car, 80’s pop music blasts from the radio.
“This is like a Delorean cover band,” says Marsceill as he drives around Center City looking for a parking spot.
The next song to come on the radio is Sheryl Crow’s If It Makes You Happy, which Barthmus mockingly sings along too.
“I always did want to take on a really shitty song to cover and see if I can make it sound decent,” explains Barthmus.
“Yeah, we were talking about that Natalie Imbruglia song,” recalls Marsceill. “Remember we use to listen to that? The song isn’t written poorly but it’s just produced really shittily.”
Their debut album Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, released last October, was recorded without actual instruments. It was all Barthmus and Marsceill using different programs and plug-ins to produce the sounds that make up the album.
For live shows though, Sun Airway consists of five people. They want to replace all that technology with as many real instruments as possible.
Barthmus recruited two of his former mates from The A-Sides, Christopher Doyle and Mike Fleming. Doyle is the most well known Philadelphia figure in the band because he bartends at the Fishtown bar, The Barbary. He’s the rather tall dude with a pretty grizzly beard. Fleming is one of Barthmus’ best pals. Their friendship started back in 1999 when they first started jamming out together in “ridiculous bands.”
To fill out the live sound, Barthmus added his friend, Robert West. He’s the culinary master of the group. His band mates are currently filming a YouTube cooking series tentatively titled Robert West talks about talking about cooking.
The barber shop contains everything one would ever need to shave and pamper oneself. It’s decorated as something straight out of the 1950’s but the dreadful elevator music overhead puts a damper on the atmosphere.
Barthmus and Marsceill each take a seat in old-fashioned chairs.
The barbers instruct both the Sun Airway duo to put their feet up and relax as they maneuver the chairs all the way down, similar to how a dentist positions patients before conducting procedures. After that, the barbers don’t say much to Barthmus and Marsceill. They are all business.
First thing the barbers do is place hot towels on Barthmus’ and Marsceill’s faces to relax the pores. They then lather the scruffy faces with white shaving cream. When the shave begins, the barbers really get into the zone as they carefully glide their blades across the faces, taking complete pride in their work. They repeat the lather-and-shave step one more time to ensure they produce a smooth surface before they apply aftershave lotion.
“The best part of that whole thing was definitely when they put the warm towel on my face,” recalls Barthmus as he walks out of the shop.
“Definitely, I agree,” says Marsceill as he follows out the door. “It was so relaxing.”
Their record label, Indiana-based Dead Oceans, picked them up after Sun Airway’s song Put The Days Away was featured online.
“I saw something written about it on Pitchfork,” explains Phil Waldorf, co-founder of Dead Oceans. “I was like, ‘Oh! That sounds really cool.’“
From there, Waldorf took a trip to Philadelphia to see what they were all about live in concert. He also wanted to see what they were like as people.
“They gave me a pretty awesome tour of Philly,” says Waldorf. “The show was fantastic and a couple weeks later we hammered out an arrangement to work together.”
After that shave, Barthmus and Marsceill are ready to take on whatever the day has in store for them. They don’t go far for their next episode.
Just by chance, Barthmus has two Cuban cigars in his coat pocket while Marsceill has a tobacco pipe. Also, by chance, next door to The Art of the Shave is Mahogany On Walnut, a bar and lounge where one can sit and enjoy a cigar while sipping a fine drink. The scene inside looks like a setting straight out of Mad Men, with older gentlemen in suits sitting with younger women on leather couches by the roaring fire. A well-dressed younger crowd quietly converses near the bar.
Barthmus and Marsceill find two chairs near the window overlooking Walnut Street. Unlike so many bands out there today who take off for Brooklyn at the hint of success, Barthmus and Marsceill would never let that thought cross their mind.
“Brooklyn is where dreams go to die,” Barthmus states with a laugh. “I love Philly. It’s such a great city. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Barthmus lights up his cigar as Marsceill puffs his pipe.
Their drinks arrive and the two toast their day and their 2011 Sun Airway adventures.