Just like there are scores of insufferable music snobs who dismiss anything that doesn’t fall squarely into their narrowly defined category of choice, just as many aficionados appreciate a little dose of everything. Thankfully, every once in a while, an outfit comes along that redefines how we think about music and music appreciation, and for Philadelphians, that group is Worldtown Sound System. This eclectic crew—which ranges in number up to 12 at any given time—fuses together house and dance music, funk and soul, rhythms from around the globe, live instrumentation and turntable wizardry to create a heady hodgepodge of sonics sure to make you move—which is their goal, naturally. They bring a refreshing burst of energy to the local music scene.
After the release of their debut EP, We the People, and the hugely successful Worldtown Festival they planned and helmed at the Piazza last month, perfectly timed with the beginning of the World Cup, WSS has their sights set on international stages, with gigs in South America and Europe in the works. As they approach their three-year anniversary as a collective, lots more is in store, both for the group itself and the audiences they leave enthralled and exhausted, including an opening set at Philadelphia Weekly’s Aug. 20 “Concerts in the Park” in Rittenhouse Square, sandwiched between DJ Cash Money and Pablo Batista and the Mambo Syndicate. Trust us, there will be dancing.
PW snatched up five of the band’s members for a recent chat: producer and co-founder Ben Arsenal, drummer Gary Dann, vocalist Jonifin Marvin, bassist Jay Powerz and saxophonist Dan “Basskitty” Keller.
PW: How did the group get started?
BEN ARSENAL: Sound System was sort of started informally when I met Femi. He, myself and this other young woman started the [Worldtown] organization together. When we met, Femi and I were both DJing at the time, and we had a bunch of drums. At our first party together, we decided to bring the drums along, and all of a sudden, it turned into this live, interactive experience—and people were blown away, psyched about the live energy these drums brought to the room. From there, we opened up the studio at 9th and Dauphin and started producing a lot more stuff. We met up with a couple members from the West Philadelphia Orchestra and invited them to record some music and vocals and put them over some beats. After that, when we were putting on shows, it was like, Hey, we’re DJing, but look! We’ve got some horns and stuff! I had been collaborating with a French DJ on this one track, and Jonifin had been on my ass to get in the studio anyway, so I invited him to come down, and he sang and wrote the lyrics for “She’s a 10.” Then I thought it’d be cool to have a real bassist lay down an additional bassline on top of all the crazy synth stuff I had going on, so Jules [Jay Powerz] came down before his trip to Brazil and recorded about 20 minutes of music. Then I thought it’d be even cooler to get Gary [Dann] to lay down an additional drum track, ‘cause a live drummer would make this project even crazier. And I thought, oh my God, what is this turning into?
GARY DANN: (Laughing) Yeah, they didn’t tell me that they wanted to start a band that would take up all of my time. They were like, “Hey, check out these tracks. Let’s just jam, and maybe we’ll hang out one day; we’ll play the tracks and see what happens.” Next thing I know, it’s a whole other thing.
JONIFIN MARVIN: It really stems from Ben knowing people from different parts of the city that were involved in different things. Like I was over here doing my thing; he met Jules over here and Gary over there …
What are some of the surprises you’ve encountered along the way?
BA: It was exciting to become aware of the potential of the band. Figuring out what it would look like and sound like, and then the awakening aspect of realizing how tight we had to make things, performance-wise.
GD: I’ve been in a lot of bands; I’ve been playing since I was 14 years old, ya know? And every band I’ve ever been in, if they needed a web site, no one else could do it but me. If we needed photos, I had to do it. I’m not a photographer by any means, but it needed to get done. When the band needed a flyer, no one else did it. It was always me. Rehearsal space, whatever, it was always me, I was always the facilitator.
JM: Or initiator.
GD: Right—or the fire behind everything: “Come on, guys. Let’s make a press kit!” This is the first project I have ever been in where there are about eight or nine others that all have those same skills. We’re all producers, studio owners, dedicated musicians, DJs.
DAN KELLER: Yeah, I DJ as well. I play a lot of house, but also some dubstep and electronica, too.
GD: See? People that make shit happen. It’s just ridiculously refreshing to be a part of a project where I can focus on drums and recording. Now I can really make my role and my skills and talents shine. This is an opportunity for that, whereas in my other bands I’ve always been so bogged down with other shit.
JAY POWERZ: Yeah, sometimes you hear about this person carrying the band or that person carrying the band. This band, it comes together and carries itself.
If your music could be the soundtrack for any genre of movie, what would it be?
BA: Movie? That’s a good one.
GD: There are so many different moods in the music.
DK: Like a 1960s James Bond thriller spy jawn.
JP: I was just about to say! I was thinkin’ some Bond shit, ya know what I mean? ‘Cause he’s goin’ everywhere, man! He’s traveling the world, and it’s really fast paced; you don’t know where he’ll be next! It’s all over the place!
JM: Yeah! It even gets sexy for a minute, all of that. Wait, what’s that Dirk Diggler movie?
You mean Boogie Nights?
JM: Like, Boogie Nights Part II.
GD: We have this one song I love that’s like, my favorite WSS track right now. We usually play it last in the set, and that song always makes me think of some car chase going through the woods of, like, southern Oregon or northern California where there’s trees lining the road, and it’s dark, and there’s this really intense, fast-paced chase going on … I always imagine that song like that.
JM: Really? You don’t think about having sex?
JP: [Laughs] Well, that’s a given!
GD: Yeah, that’s at a stopping point in the chase, man.
JM: Yeah, well. That song makes me think about doing it.
Rusted Root's eclectic mix hits Coda