Nearly a quarter-century after the music stopped, members of the band Underwater Sunshine have resurfaced to rock again with old songs tweaked to sound new and fresh.
The foursome had a following on the Vancouver music scene in the mid- to late-1990s, but things fell apart before an album was properly recorded and released.
Now, thanks to technology on a couple of levels, the band members have reunited to realize a dream of producing music again, even though they aren’t performing together right now due to, what else, COVID-19.
The original recording tapes had survived many moves and weathered various garages through the years, according to vocalist/guitarist John Nikolic. This year, the four guys started the tedious task of extracting the recorded tracks into today’s usable technology formats and begin mixing the songs.
The result is Suckertree, an album of guitar-based pop to be released this winter.
Cleverly, the band’s @Suckertree Instagram account features old photos, new songs and some pop-culture moments of the decade when the band was first active – Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear, tickets to Town Pump gigs, dial-up Internet, the Titantic movie, Elaine Benes’ crazy dance on Seinfeld “this week,” eBay’s arrival and more. “It’s as if we are posting in 1996 or 1997, some references to that era,” Nikolic noted.
Back then, Underwater Sunshine attracted crowds with harmony-rich songs that appealed to fans of Sloan, the Grapes of Wrath, Treble Charger, the Posies and other bands of the day.
It’s a sound the quartet began exploring as teens growing up in North Delta, where guitarist/vocalist Tim Bonikowsky still teaches. Drummer Blair Mitchell now lives in Greater Victoria, Nikolic is in Langley after a move from Surrey several years ago, and bassist Enzo Figliuzzi calls Vancouver home.
“We’re keeping the name for a few reasons,” Nikolic said, “because we had a pretty good following back in the day and we’re trying to get the word out to everybody 24 years later. It’s a struggle to get back into the game.”
The recording project was like digging through a time capsule, he says.
“Originally we were doing this just for souvenir purposes, after sitting on the tapes for 24, almost 25 years,” Nikolic explained. “They were never mixed, they were just on ADAT, which was used back then as sort of the first digital-format tapes for recording. So all the vocals, drums, bass, guitars, everything, it was separated and didn’t sound like anything, because you have to mix it all down, and we never got to that point.”
Nikolic said some record companies showed interest in signing Underwater Sunshine, circa 1997, but a deal never got done.
“Some of the guys kind of got cold feet,” he said. “You know, we’d been at it awhile and none of us had been going to school in the meantime, but I had, and they sort of opted to work on career and more of a solid future, I guess. It happens.”
The band was once featured in a Surrey/North Delta Leader newspaper story headlined, “Fab Four: Power pop goes listener friendly.” Nikolic sent a screenshot of the story when he first contacted the Now-Leader about the band’s reunion.
“We were doing five or six shows a month around town,” Nikolic said.
After the breakup, three of them went into non-music careers. Mitchell moved to Scotland to pursue social work, Figliuzzi continued to play bass professionally and later got into the construction business, Bonikowsky is a Student Services Department teacher at Delview Secondary, and Nikolic took over the family painting contracting company.
Of note, not long after Underwater Sunshine split, Mitchell played in a band that would become Theory of a Deadman.
“That original grouping, they all worked at the Keg in Delta,” Nikolic said. “After our band split up, Blair went over there and saw the band also had its frustrations in their early days, so he went into social work and moved to Scotland, his parents’ home country, then came back and moved to Vancouver Island.”
The guys of Underwater Sunshine hadn’t communicated with each other much over the years, according to Nikolic.
“Just recently we rekindled a bit of a conversation. That opened up the idea to dig up these tapes and, you know, ‘Hey, maybe we can mix a few of these songs, see how they sound.’ That was a process in itself.
“It resulted in some pretty darn good-sounding mixes compared to what we would have been able to produce back in the day, which was exciting,” Nikolic added. “There was the technology change and also finding the right guy who understands the technology (Evan Morgan, with Evan Morgan Productions), and it just really worked out. So here we are, and instead of a couple songs we have 16 or 17 we recorded at the time, we’ll bring that down to 12, maybe, and hopefully will release those before the holidays here.”
Early this year the plan was to rehearse together but then COVID hit, just weeks before the first get-together. And so, they’ll have to wait a bit longer to plug in again, for gigs to be booked.
Just last week, in a full-circle moment, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens contacted Nikolic to green-light the band’s recording of the Big Star song “When My Baby’s Beside Me,”
“Back when we were 19, we sent them a copy of the song and received a call from him all the way from Memphis, just to tell me how much he loved our version. Twenty five-plus years later, it’s going to be on our album.”
It’s all been an “exhilarating and fun” musical adventure, Nikolic says.
“We were just kids when we recorded these tracks, and to listen to them again is pretty trippy,” Nikolic said. “We’re not doing this to really break any ground, we’re doing it for some fun and to see if we can rekindle some of that energy, for whenever COVID allows for live shows again, you know, and we’d like to finish off a few things we left unfinished back then, the fun of it all.”