When I hop on the phone with Corey Smith-West, he’s on the way back to his Bed Stuy apartment after leaving a job interview. “I don’t want the job,” he says with a chuckle. “I had a moment of weakness where I started applying to a bunch of different places. I got to the final round of interviews, and now I feel like there’s no way I could go back to a 9 to 5.”
One half of self-described “surf R&B” group Bathe, Smith-West is desperately hoping music will be his way to avoid a 40-hour work week. Although the Brooklyn-based duo have released one song so far, he and his bandmate Devin Hobdy have been making music together for years, starting when the all-black a capella group Hobdy sang in in college was looking for a sound guy. “I was the only black sound guy on campus, so they hunted me down and asked me to mix their shows,” Smith-West says.
Smith-West says he approached Hobdy about singing over the beats he was producing, but self-doubt creeped in. “Every time I would send him a beat, I would get self-conscious that it wasn’t good enough,” he says. Hobdy remembers the inception of their partnership a little differently: “Some friends and I were tripping on shrooms and and we were all spiraling out,” he says, recalling a night during his senior year. Corey came in the room and plays this really incredible song, and we were all centered again. It was one of those ‘Come to Jesus’ moments.”
After college, Smith-West and Hobdy went on to play together in Indigold, a collective rooted in Philly neo-soul, then decided to start a project of their own. Bathe’s name plays on the theme of water, and the beach comes up frequently in our conversation. They describe their sound as “summer music.” Though they cite D’Angelo and Andre 3000 as influences, they’re also inspired in no small part by the Beach Boys—although Bathe is partly an attempt to redefine who gets to enjoy the sun and sand.
“When you imagine The Beach Boys in ‘Let’s Go Trippin,’ you imagine a bunch of white people tanning with their beach towels,” Hobdy says. “It’s almost like only white people are allowed to have this life of leisure and enjoy the water and the sun.”
Ahead of their debut EP, I’ll Miss You, which is due out (you guessed it!) this summer, Smith-West and Devin Hobdy are premiering their first visual as a duo. It’s a music video for “Sure Shot,” a song from I’ll Miss You that challenges the social conditioning of young black boys.
Featuring a stripped-down palette of Smith-West’s guitar strums and Hobdy’s vocals, it’s a song that goes beyond its flowery melody, exploring the ways that young black men are otherized in society. Speaking over the phone with Noisey, Hobdy described some of the thinking behind the song’s haunting refrain—“Guess you thought I was a sure shot”—which he said was inspired partly by his father “[My father has] had a lot of experiences where he’s always ready for some shit to go down,” Hobdy says over the phone, pointing to the psychological toll that a period of incarceration had on his dad. “It was really vitriol as a child having to see my dad always on guard and really quick to anger. That line is a succinct way of capturing the idea that you think someone thinks they can get the best of you—even if there’s no one trying to victimize you.”
Directed by Cameron Michael Debe, the video follows a group of young boys over the course of day at Bed Stuy’s Herbert Von King Park. The clique indulge in a game of basketball, football, and even some wrestling before playing cops and robbers. A few boys use their fingers as guns, pointing them to the viewer before the camera zooms out to a wide frame of five boys with their hands up—recreating the jarring visual of Black Lives Matter’s “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” symbol.
“Sure Shot” doesn’t rely on choreography; much of the footage is the raw joy of little ones running around. That imagery, paired with the vocals, raises difficult questions. What is the line between real and make-believe, between an innocent game of cops and robbers and the effects of structural and racial inequality these boys will have to contend with throughout their lives?
Hobdy and Smith-West watched the kids play, and said they were struck by one interaction in particular. “One of the kids got frustrated with one of the other kids,” Hobdy recalls. “His grandmother stepped in and the kid kind of hit her. It was one of those moments where it was just like, ‘Oh shit. This is how it starts, how it develops, and how it becomes a role we’re supposed to play out.”
Both Hobdy and Smith-West are aware of the weight they carry around in the world as black men. They tell me in separate conversations that they’ve been aware of it as early as elementary school. Bathe is a chance for them to not only find the sun, but to enjoy it—even if just for a moment.
“[Bathe] is like having a vacation, but knowing the America you have to come back home to,” Smith-West says. “That doesn’t go away. It doesn’t matter how relaxed you are, there’s always a tension.”
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.