Bonny Doon :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Detroit’s Bonny Doon won’t kill you with kindness, nor will they burn much rubber on their musical journey. The foursome’s second full-length, Longwave, continues in the vein of forebears such as Berman/Malkmus coupled with the breathing atmospheric aesthetic of their fellow Woodsist labelmates. Part confessional, part confrontational, Longwave stretches out like days long on thought – the kinds that are peppered equally with illumination, frustration and inebriation.
We spoke with principle songwriters Bobby Colombo and Bill Lennox about the growth of their partnership, the categorization of their music, and the role their hometown plays in both their music and beyond.

Aquarium Drunkard: How much thought did you put into the track order of Longwave?

Bill Lennox: We put a fair amount in. I think we knew we wanted “Longwave” to be the first song on the record from the beginning.

Bobby Colombo: We had wanted to call the record Longwave before we wrote the song. And we wrote really quickly. “Longwave” was improvised in the studio, I think we only did it two or three times and that was it. A lot of the songs were improvised in the studio. And we were so happy with how it came out. Our friend Shelly [Salant, of Shells and Tyvek] played guitar on it.

We had a little riff that we wanted to build a song around, and I had a second riff – we just sorta did it. And you know, we made a few adjustments, did it again, and that was it. But we didn’t have lyrics or anything.

Bill Lennox: The riff, the guitar melody for that song, is actually from something that Bobby and I were scoring, a podcast for a friend of ours. And it was this little thing I was playing on the piano for this podcast. I came back around year later and said, “yeah…”  this could work.

Bobby Colombo: So we knew we were going to call the song “Longwave” and we were really happy with the way it came out, with the music and feel of it. We knew we wanted that to be the first song, and after that we just felt it out, Bill and I tried a few different things. Saw how songs transitioned into other ones. Also, there were last minute discussions, choosing tracks.  We dropped some stuff to make it shorter. We recorded probably four or five songs that got dropped. Some of them we dropped quite early and some of them were last minute.

I’m curious if I may, what you’re thinking of, what the subtext of that question is?

AD: Well, “Longwave” feels like the most hopeful song on the record, serving as a yin to the yang that comes after it. The rest of the record has a lot of self-critique and self-awareness, as well as listlessness — because of that, “Longwave” belies what the rest of the record will entail.

Bobby Colombo: A yin-yang is an appropriate metaphor. When you – if you – listen to our music, there’s a lot of self-critique and doubt, and questioning. That could be construed as negativity – I don’t think we do, though. With “Longwave,” when I did write the lyrics, it was a real intentional thing to try. We really thought the music came out beautifully, and we wanted to capture a beauty, an essence and a quality with the lyrics, have them be sparse. We kind of knew what it was, and that was an affirmation. I think of the song as a mediation on self-compassion and I think that’s a necessary balance to the other, internal themes that we explore.

AD: Is that a theme you explored with your writing in the past, or does self-reflection feel entirely new?

Bobby Colombo: I don’t know. Bill, do you see self-compassion as something we’ve written about?

Bill Lennox: I don’t know, you wrote most of the lyrics to that song and could speak to it specifically… I guess my default mode in writing is… not the opposite, but more critical and inward. Maybe more of what I aspire to be. My writing is always kind of like a diary. “Longwave” is definitely an outlier on the record.

Bobby Colombo: As I’m thinking about it, I don’t think I ever recall us ever speaking to self-compassion directly like that, but I do think it was something  that we were thinking about a lot of the time when we were wrote this record.

AD: Can you speak more to how you came to that place of some self-compassion? Has there been a slow and subtle shift afoot as you’ve grown together?

Bobby Colombo: I do think there’s been a shift afoot. Just speaking to this record compared to the first record, I think that it has a lot less to do with the world. I think it’s more internal than first record. I think of it as it having a spirituality to it. There are a lot of songs that, in our own way, tease around thinking about that compassion. I don’t know if we’ll stay in that place, or it’ll continue and evolve, but that was definitely a shift or a growth from the first record. It still has a sense of humor but maybe it’s a little more serious or something… I don’t know, “mature” is a really overplayed music word.

AD: Some terms used around your music have been laid back, meandering, rambling — and I don’t necessarily see it. You’ve both played in punk bands — do you feel the speed and style that you’re playing in Bonny Doon makes some listeners think there is a lack of intentionality to your song craft — if only because it’s not raucous punk or because it’s improvised in parts?

Bill Lennox: The music on Longwave is much more spontaneous than the first album. The songs on our first record were crafted with so much attention. Not to say that the new songs aren’t intentional – I think they are in their own way, but this record is trying to capture the sound of our band just in its purest form. And to me that sounds like something a jam band might say -but we took that route and it ended up being something I think is very beautiful, even though it’s very simple in the structure.

longwave

Bobby Colombo: On the first record, there’s a few instrumentals – you know one’s like five-minute-long and they’re wrong notes that we left in there. And at some point it might feel like it may fall apart but it doesn’t. I think that kind of stuff is maybe what they’re speaking to when they use words like that. There is an intentionality on our end to have all that stuff in there because that’s what our process is like. If you were at one of our practices, there are a lot of wrong notes and feeling it out and 20-minute excursions into ideas and we like having all that stuff on the final document. It feels fun to have it in there, and a lot of the takes that end up on the record were just the first or second take that we did of something. And we might have worked really hard on a later version, and put vocals on it and took out some things and rerecorded them, it was a big sonic thing – I’m thinking specifically of “Crowded,” the last song on our first record. And after a few months of working on it, it was just kind of like, “eh, this first take we did through the guitar amp is pretty cool, I feel this a lot more than the quote-un-quote ‘finished song.'” Maybe it’s those kinds of decisions that people pick up on, but they obviously don’t have access to our decision-making process. I guess they can hear the fruits of the vision and that is what I assume they’re speaking to.

AD: How has your relationship as writers who write together evolved from the first record to this one?

Bill Lennox: I feel like we’re always evolving together and individually, but you know, our music tastes are all over the place. Our ideas are coming from a lot of different places. As far as writing, we’re kind of always doing it, coming together with our separate ideas, to turn them into something that makes sense for the band. I don’t ever really think about it, it’s just this force that has to happen.

Bobby Colombo: The band started as me just helping Bill. Bill had a couple of ideas and we had a studio together and we were collaborating on some music, like four years ago. And he didn’t have any experience singing, he’d never sung in a band before or anything like that. I’d done that a lot and I’m older, and have played in bands longer. So I was helping him finish songs and record them. We were doing that for awhile and he encouraged me to sing, and bring my songs into the fold. So it started out separate – there were Bill’s song, and my songs. And that was sort of the first record. But for this one, you couldn’t draw such lines.

I wrote a lot of lyrics for Bill and Bill wrote lyrics for me. Obviously, Josh [Brooks, bassist] and Jake [Kmieck, drummer] helped with the writing and arrangement and everything. We did the record quickly – we just had some ideas and wrote it in a few days. Doing it that way required all hands on deck. It would be really hard to say a song is mine or Bill’s on this one.

To me, (the process) was a lot more fun – I honestly don’t really want to write songs by myself. I have a lot more fun with the collaborative process and writing with Bill. We’re really close, we’re best friends, and spend a lot of time together and really understand how each other thinks. We understand our different voices, both sonically and in how we deliver a song. We can write for each other really well and it’s really fun that way. I wouldn’t want to go back to it being more separate. I think it’ll probably only to continue to be more together as time goes on, because I’ll only enjoy it more.

Bill Lennox: Likewise, I would agree.

AD: Is that a unified voice, one that neither of you would individually write like, where the subject matter and how you address it is unique to this project?

Bobby Colombo: My feeling is that the blueprint for Bonny Doon was established by Bill’s voice. And I think I’ve   tried to tailor my writing and my voice and my delivery to that.  Some of the early songs, my songs on the first record, were trying to do that and not really succeeding. I mean they’re fine songs but they don’t sound like Bill.

I really like Bill’s songwriting approach and style, and I’d gotten so bored with mine over the years. I just always write very narrative driven things, every line needs to relate to the last one, and things need to tie up neatly. Bill has a freedom to how he writes, and that’s really inspiring to me. I’ve just tried to learn from it and not be afraid of there being a lot of space  in the songs. Doing more with less. That was something I was really pushing myself to do on this record and obviously it ends up in a different place because I’m a different person. But it was a really fun exercise, and took me to some places I’ve never really been before as a writer.

We really wanted to not overthink things, so a lot of things were just improvised. Lyrics too. We literally jammed – someone would come up with a chord progression and we’d jam on it for the first time and whatever we were singing over it spontaneously just became the words. “Saw A Light” is like that. There are a couple other songs pretty much like that too. So yeah, I see Bill’s style as the blueprint, but I don’t know how he feels about it.

Bill Lennox: I feel that I couldn’t do it without everybody, my songs wouldn’t be anything without the help of the band. I’m too ADD. I think my lyrics come across that way too. They’re more poetic than anything and stream of consciousness. I’m learning from Bob as well, every day. It’s a journey.

AD: A lot of comparisons of bands can be questionable, but one that feels apt for Bonny Doon is Silver Jews, and the writing of David Berman. Berman spoke to the deterioration between urban and suburban places and people, and was addressing many of the stressors that America in the 21st century has undergone.   Do you see that comparison? And do you feel you address Detroit in the context of that grander discussion?

Bill Lennox: I mean, I’m a huge fan of Berman, most Silver Jews music and his writing. With my writing, I like digging deep for something that I know everyone, or many people like me, can connect with. And I find those things in the mundane moments of my life, just observing others, on the streets around me. I think that’s where the connection to Berman is made, it’s this observational thing, that happens to be abstracted, poetic. We’ve all been in Detroit for a long time, and it changes so fast. It’s overnight here. It’s hard not to notice it and and comment on it.

Bobby Colombo: I think there are themes about gentrification and responsibility and how one faces living in contemporary, urban America. That narrative piece is something that we’re really interested in. It’s so in-your-face here in Detroit, the sort of, competition to control the narrative and tell the story, it’s something that is really a big part of the whole dynamic here.

There’s a lot out there that has a story like, “all resources coming to Detroit are good. All people with resources and all businesses with resources are good, there’s nothing to be questioned.” As people who all grew up here, we have a lot of stake in this community and have a much more dynamic view of the city. Sometimes that critique finds its way into our music, for sure. That stuff tends to be secondary, I don’t think it’s mostly what we’re interested in as writers, but it’s just so in-our-face that it finds its way in there sometimes.

AD: Do you see a disconnect in how the rest of America perceives Detroit? Further, is there a disconnect within the city, even between likeminded residents, between settled families and more recent move-ins?

Bobby Colombo: Yeah, and that’s something we’ve written about a little bit. I think a lot of times the popular narrative of Detroit in the last ten years, in certain circles, in New York, or Portland, or wherever, it’s sort of like, “oh yeah, I’ve heard of Detroit, it’s really cool out there, I’m thinking about buying a house, properties are cheap.” And it’s reduced to this capitalistic lens of, “what can I do there with the resources I have?”

Obviously, we live in a world where people move around and people should be free to move around. I think though, there’s a piece that a lot of people are unfortunately missing when they talk about coming to Detroit. That sort of stake in the wider community and relationship to it, that feeling where it’s not just the transaction, it’s so much more complicated than that. I think that people who are from New York or L.A., those have historically been huge international cities, they’re just used to it: people come and people go. It’s not as weird – but Detroit’s not that. It is an international city in a sense of it, but not like those cities. Many people have been here for generations, and there’s a wide diaspora. But for several generations, young people have left the region. And it hasn’t attracted people until recently.

AD: How has your relationship to, and feelings for, California evolved since you started this project? Did it start as an ideal, or a joke, or something else altogether?

Bill Lennox: That’s a good question. It’s this question that I feel can take many forms, but in the literal sense, Bobby and I, when we first started playing music together, we were just like trying to come up with names for a band as you do when you’re writing songs with somebody.

Bobby Colombo: I wish we could send you a picture – we had a studio in an  old school, and there was a chalk board in there, and on the chalk board had a list of all the potential band names.

Bill Lennox: I don’t remember any of them

Bobby Colombo: One was NPR.

Bill Lennox: Yeah, so you get the picture, but at that point, I was just  looking at maps and pointing to places and if the name of that place sounded cool and like “what about this?” and eventually Bonny Doon was one of those places, near Santa Cruz.

And there’s a juxtaposition to the raw, sort of darkness of Detroit that we’ve live in – not that that’s all it is – it’s just a big part of living here. Winter is half the year, snow is covered in dirt and trash. And it’s gloomy. The ideal of California definitely became present  when I was first writing these songs.

Bobby Colombo: A lot of Detroit artists really like to cash in on the brand, or attach themselves to the caché of Detroit. The feeling to us was to distance ourselves from it in a whimsical and ironic way at the beginning. That’s not really something we care about anymore.   words / b kramer

Further Exploration: Dig into the Aquarium Drunkard interview archives, here.