Bonny Doon :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Bonny Doon came together in a scrappy DIY Detroit punk garage scene, but over time has moved towards the sunny clarity of classic pop. The band’s latest album, Let There Be Music, distills exuberant songs to their essence, tamping down the guitar mayhem to make space for the piano and breezy “ooh la las” waft over dreamy hooks.

It comes after a long pause during which Bonny Doon became Katie Crutchfield’s touring band, then recorded St. Cloud with her, and the band split off in various directions. Both guitarist Bobby Colombo and drummer Jake Kmiecik battled serious illness, and the pandemic shutdown brought things to a halt for nearly a year.

The record was a long time in the making, against a backdrop of struggle, but that’s part of its power. During the pandemic, says guitarist and songwriter Bobby Colombo, “It felt like music was a frivolous privilege that we would never get back to experiencing again. The band started to feel more like something that existed in our minds only…Just finishing this one and finally getting it out into the world has been a huge exercise for us. In perseverance. It feels real again to us. And I think that’s the greatest gift that we could have asked for.”

We spoke to all three members of Bonny Doon—Colombo, Kmiecik and Bill Lennox—about their journey and the good, productive place that they’ve finally landed in. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You were moving towards a clean, laid-back sound in Longwave but it’s really come to full flower on Let There Be Music. Is that something you’ve been working on or aiming for? Or is it something that just happened?

Bobby Colombo: I think a big part of it is just always trying to get at the essence of things and trying to have a very solid foundation. We were trying to focus on songwriting and trying to have that be as strong as it could be without too much accoutrements. Just trying to get it clean and simple and as pure as it could be.

Jake Kmiecik: Yeah, I think that with each record we’ve been focused more on songs and less on production or some sort of sonic aesthetic.

AD: It seems like the very first one was a bit scrappier and rougher.

Bobby Colombo: Yeah, and that was very intentional. We were trying to create a world and have an interesting sonic experience. This time, I don’t know if we’re aiming for a neutral sound, but I don’t think it’s something we put a lot of thought or concern into. It was very much just let’s record the songs. Let’s make the songs good. Let’s make the instruments sound like instruments. We’re not using guitar pedals. It’s just undressed piano. It’s very simple sounds. I don’t know. It wasn’t so much an intent as a lack of concern to make things sound a certain way.

AD: How does that work? Do you all write songs and bring them in? Or is one of you the main songwriter?

Bobby Colombo: Bill and I are the songwriters. Some songs we write by ourselves but increasingly, they’re collaborative. We’re kind of tossing them back and forth until they feel complete. We have a very close working relationship so we’re able to write lyrics together, which some people find hard.

Bill Lennox: Or for each other.

Bobby Colombo: Or for each other. We have different voices and a lot of times I’ll write with Bill’s voice in mind. I know he could sell this way better than I could, or whatever.

AD: Have you all known each other for a long time? Did you grow up together?

Bill Lennox: We met about ten years ago. We were playing in the local music scene in Detroit, this kind of DIY punk stuff. We would see each other at shows and bars and whatever. Jake and I met through a friend of a friend. We were both looking for a place to live. So we came together and got hooked up that way, and we ended up living together. Bob and I had played in a short-lived band randomly together for a couple of months and we said, let’s do our own thing.

AD: One of the things that’s happened between the last album and this one is you don’t all live in Michigan anymore? Do you live in LA now?

Bobby Colombo: I live in New York. I moved to California for a few years, but I live in New York now.

Jake Kmiecik: Bill and I both live in Detroit still.

AD: How does that work when you’re far apart?

Bobby Colombo: It works pretty well. For me, anyway.

When I moved to California, the model changed. It really dovetailed with the band growing into a new phase. When we all lived in the same place, we had practice religiously twice a week. Monday and Thursday nights. You better have a good reason if you cancel. We just kind of really stuck to that discipline and like any local band we were learning how to play together.

When I moved to California, we had been playing together for four years, and it was nice to just let things breathe and find another way to work. We started doing retreats. We’ll borrow someone’s house or if we can afford to, we’ll rent a house somewhere and do a week or two, maybe longer, and just hang out and work on stuff all the time. Honestly, it feels like you can go deeper that way, and you don’t get burned out going to band practice like it’s a job. It becomes a vacation. That’s really worked for us.

AD: Does that mean that you’re drawing inspiration from different sources, since you’re all off doing your own thing when you’re not there?

Bobby Colombo: That might be true.

AD: Can we talk about some of the things you were listening to and thinking about as you wrote these songs? Was there a distinct set of influences?

Bobby Colombo: Yeah, we can talk about that. You know it’s all in the pot. It’s all going on. We all have pretty eclectic tastes, not to say that we’re trying to reproduce everything that we come across, but I think that there’s a wide range of spices that go in the stew.

AD: Were you listening to anything special this time?

Bobby Colombo: I’ll start because I can remember very vividly a couple of things. When I first moved to California in 2019 when we were writing this stuff, I was living in rural Marin County and this was the first time in my life I ever lived outside of Detroit. I was really enjoying how beautiful it was. Just to drive around and go to work or run errands. I was obsessively listening to Popul Vuh, and it just fit so well, their pastoral sound with the environment out there. But that’s just an example of…probably no one would pick up on that.

There’s another record that I was listening to a lot. We all were. And one could trace back to these songs a little clearer, and that’s this British songwriter Ernie Graham.

He was part of the pub rock scene, and he made one solo album in 1971. It’s eponymous. It didn’t really do anything, but it’s masterful. It was really inspiring because it’s just how the band plays. The songs are great, but just how the band plays together and extracts the most out of very simple arrangements. That’s something we were definitely talking about a lot.

Bill Lennox: The piano, too, is really driving on that record. We had that in mind when we were first talking about making this record. We wanted a lot of acoustic piano.

AD: It does seem like there’s more piano this time. Who plays piano? Is that you Bill?

Bill Lennox: We all play a little bit. None of us are really that great, so we get in where we can. If we feel like we can do it, we do it. On this one, we had the pleasure of working with an amazing pianist. Our friend who is part of the jazz scene here, Michael Malis, he plays on the song “Let There Be Music,” the title track. He just goes crazy on that.

AD: It really changes the sound when you have piano as an important element.

Bill Lennox: It does.

Bobby Colombo: Kyle Forester and John Andrews also played and arranged piano on the record. We have five or six people playing. Of varying abilities at different points. It was really fun to mix it up. We’ve never worked with people like that. People playing on our record before. That was a whole new thing to hear people interpret our music and guide that process, which was really fun.

AD: Was this live in the room together? Or did they send you stuff?

Bobby Colombo: Michael was live. That was the first session, and it happened before the pandemic. The rest was remote. But we did get to do “Let There Be Music” with Michael in early March of 2020, and that was a blast.

AD: I think it’s super interesting how the pandemic, which was otherwise a very negative event for musicians and artists, opened up collaboration that a lot of people had not done it before. Because if you can’t get together in a room, it doesn’t matter where people live. So you could reach out to people that you never would have worked with otherwise.

Bobby Colombo: Totally.

AD: What about you, Bill, were you listening to anything in particular as you were starting to think about these songs?

Bill Lennox: Yeah, well, it’s always Neil Young. He’s my touchstone for this record.

AD: Though when you say Neil Young, you could mean any number of things.

Bobby Colombo: All eras.

Bill Lennox: I think On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night were two that were heavily on rotation for me. Also just 1990s and early 2000s radio and college rock. Gin Blossoms and the Wall Flowers and stuff like that. It’s been going on a lot in my house for the last couple of years. When we were writing this, I was definitely thinking “back to basics” when it comes to writing rock songs.

AD: How about you, Jake?

Jake Kmiecik: I’m one of those delirious Dead Heads. I’m try to poke that through on everything. I go through different eras and phases. It’s always going on. But like Bob said it was a very eclectic time. But that’s always a constant for me. I feel even if it doesn’t sonically come out, the spirit of that is very much alive.

AD: I think people are always interested in what bands that they like are listening to, even if you can’t really hear it on the record.

Bobby Colombo: I’ve noticed the trend of artist playlists on Spotify and blogs that feature that. It’s a good thing. We should probably do that.

AD: One thing that I had heard was influential on your process this time out was that you had worked with Katie Crutchfield on St. Cloud?

Bobby Colombo: Katie and I have been friends for a long time. When we made Longwave, she was really excited about it and really supportive. A few months later, she was hosting us in Kansas City when we were on tour for that record. She took us out to dinner and was like, “I’ve got a crazy idea. I want you guys to hear me out. I think you guys should be my band, and we’ll do a tour, and if that goes well, we’ll make a record.” And we were just kind of like, “Us? Are you sure?”

Because even before St. Cloud, Katie was already very established in her career and had a lot of access to all kinds of more established or experienced musicians. We were pretty freshly getting out of Detroit at that time. We had just put out Longwave and before we put that record out, no one had really heard us outside of Detroit. We did that tour and became her band at the beginning of 2019 and then the middle of that year, we made St. Cloud and we kept being her band and everything was going according to plan and then the pandemic happened and we had to wait a while, a year and a half, before touring that record. But we did eventually.

AD: Did working with her change the way you write songs or think about things or approach things in any way?

Jake Kmiecik: On my end, just real quick, playing with Katie gives you access to a world, but also a mental state of “this is a true way of life.” It’s a huge confidence builder. It’s just very validating and exciting to be around and to be able to play someone else’s songs and have them trust you with that. It’s a very different experience than playing in your own band. There’s more pressure but there’s also more …I don’t know how to explain it. But it was very eye opening and validating and confidence building. At least on my end.

Bobby Colombo: Just to piggy back on that, it was a total learning experience. It was so much more than the music. We worked with a producer for the first time in the context of working on that record. Brad Cook. And we worked at Sonic Ranch, which is a world class studio. We learned so much from the way Katie runs a band and conducts herself and deals with the industry and the lifestyle. Of course, she’s a friend but also a mentor in a way to us for sure. It was an amazing experience.

AD: I understand you also had to deal with illness as you were making this album.

Jake Kmiecik: So, I have Crohn’s disease. I was diagnosed about 15 years ago. I’ve always kind of ebbed and flowed with it. It was always in the back of my mind, how to square that with being a touring musician. I was quite young when all that was going on. I would just kind of push it out of my mind a little bit. Like I’ll deal with that down the road.

Then in August of 2020, we were in the middle of making this record, and I started to get increasingly sick. It’s kind of still persisting to this day, although it’s a lot better than it was. It just really—without getting into too much detail—it’s something that personally challenged me and made me question just a lot of things in my life. You know, there were times when I would ask, is music really viable for me? Is traveling something I can do? Is my body dictating a different path for me?

With the announcing of the record and just getting back into things for the first time in a while, I’ve been having a really kind of triumphant experience lately. We just did a run in California. We did a couple of LA shows, and it was so powerful and validating for me to get back to it and to know that this was waiting for me on the other side of my experience of illness. Being sick has been pushing things further and further away and now I feel them now coming back towards me.

It’s a very difficult road. But with the culmination of this record coming out, I can feel it really pushing me towards a better state of health. It’s a struggle that feels like it was necessary. I went to some pretty deep places with it.

And I know that Bob has his own experience with the other side of this. I’m curious to hear your thoughts. I just am feeling it. Yes, it was a big delay and it threw a wrench in things for a while but I’m feeling now…the feeling of being better for it, having taken those steps and done some real soul searching in a time of darkness and coming out on the other side. It feels really good to be where we’re at with it now. Especially when the record declares “Let there be music.” I’m feeling a new lease on life, personally, but also with the band and all the work that’s gone into it.

Bobby Colombo: This record is coming out three years after we started recording it and four years after we started writing it, because in large part of my and Jake’s struggles with health. While we were recording it, I had a brain injury from a construction accident that lasted about a year. So that put work on the record on pause for about a year. I also just had chronic issue with mold sensitivity and Lyme disease that was undiagnosed.I developed a sensitivity to a lot of housing, especially housing that had any sort of water damage. I kept having to move. I moved maybe 15 times while we were making this record. Between everything that was going on, it felt like music was a frivolous privilege that we would never get back to experiencing again. The band started to feel more like something that existed in our minds only, as time passed and the pandemic happened and all of the sudden you haven’t played a show in three years.

Just finishing this one and finally getting it out into the world has been a huge exercise for us. In perseverance. It feels real again to us. And I think that’s the greatest gift that we could have asked for.

AD: I was talking to a friend this weekend at a show. We were talking about how great it was to be able to go to shows again, and he said, but you know, it will never be the same, because you will always realize that it could all go away again. Everything feels provisional.

Bobby Colombo: Yeah, and that’s probably not a totally bad perspective shift. We will never take anything for granted again after having lived through that.

Jake Kmiecik: It makes me appreciative of things. I found myself getting very emotional. There’s more of a weight.

AD: The first time you did anything after COVID was amazing. Like, going out for a beer. This is amazing.

Bill Lennox: Yeah, right? Best beer I ever had in my life.

AD: I wanted to ask you about “Naturally” which considering all the suffering you were going through making this album is just such a buoyant, pretty unhurried, lyrical song. I was especially wondering about the switch from English to French in the middle. How did that happen?

Bill Lennox: That song started off very different than it ended up. It had a long life. It really came together in the studio. Half the song, the lyrics had been written. More than half really.

I just loved the chorus. I had written it five, five and a half years before. I loved it from the moment I wrote it. I just thought, I need to write a song around this chorus. It’s really good. I felt that way for a long time. In the studio, we wanted to do it justice. We ended up changing it from a slower ballad to more of an upbeat thing. We had a first verse that we really liked. A chorus that we really liked, and as we were trying to finish up the second verse, we had some ideas, and then we were just like, we can’t really find the words in English to fit this cadence and vibe. I think we thought, maybe…I don’t remember exactly, but we were like, what if we tried it in a different language, French? Do you remember more specifically, Bob?

Bobby Colombo: Yeah, well, we had a second verse. We just didn’t like it. We were doing the vocals that afternoon. So it was like, if you don’t like it, we’ve got to figure something out. So I just had an idea. What would we say if we didn’t care what it sounded like? And then, well, what if we say that in French? Maybe it will sound good. Because I had been listening to a lot of French music at that time.

Bill Lennox: You were really on that for a while.

Bobby Colombo: I was really on that tip, but I didn’t think about that too much at the time. I guess it was subconscious. It was kind of funny. We had enough time to fact check our French because none of us are fluent speakers…

AD: I was wondering about that, because it doesn’t sound like someone who could talk super fast in French.

Bill Lennox: Exactly.

Bobby Colombo: I took a little in high school but that was a long time ago.

Bill Lennox: I had this friend, a skateboarder in Detroit, and he’s from France. I asked him, does this sound remotely close to something? And he was like, yeah, it works.

Bobby Colombo: It was funny because it was kind of a strong choice, and we didn’t have time to think about it. It wasn’t planned. It was something we did on the spot. If we’d had time to think about it, we might have been, oh, I don’t know about that.

Bill Lennox: And it’s a sexy, smooth song. It just fits.

AD: I also wanted to ask about “Crooked Creek” which is a lot more rock, but also kind of mystical. You’ve got this line about, “I heard the new world being born, thrashing and crashing to be born.” What can you tell me about that song?

Bobby Colombo: It started more as a silly writing exercise that Bill and I were working on one time. We never really expected it to be a song. Usually when we’re in the studio, after dinner is time we’ll fool around and just try a song we don’t think we’re ever going to make into a song or try some weird instrument. It was just one of those nights where we were just fooling around. We had those lyrics, and we were just like, oh this is cool. We should actually finish this. So it’s on the record.

There’s definitely some nods to spirituality. We’ve done that before, especially on Longwave, but this is maybe a little less subtle. It’s a topic I’m really interested in, so I like to find a way to write about it, but it can be hard to find a way to do that that’s tasteful. This one was so fun and goofy that it seemed to work.

AD: Do you guys have any favorite lines or sounds or moments—not so much a song but a part of one—that you really love?

Bill Lennox: I really like the bridge/big super chorus in “Roxanne.” That’s a really old song that I wrote in 2010. About an old friend that I lost touch with, sort of. That was another time when we were in the studio ,and we wrote this big triumphant part towards the end. Every time I listen to it, I love it. That’s my favorite part on the record.

AD: Jake, do you have anything like that?

Jake Kmiecik: Well, playing drums on “You Can’t Stay the Same,” is the most fun I’ve ever had on an album.

AD: Why?

Jake Kmiecik: It’s just this rocking, lots of fills, all over the place. It was a challenge to play very loose but stay in time. It was just a very high vibe. And usually making music is, but it was a very celebratory experience. Same thing with the extended jam at the end of the song “Let There Be Music.” That was one we tracked live with Michael Malis, and I was just watching Bill play bass.

Bill Lennox: I was having a blast.

Jake Kmiecik: I was just cracking up playing drums to it. I think of a lot of moments like that of fun and celebration. Also the last few bars of the entire record on “Famous Piano” take me somewhere.

Bobby Colombo: I like after the second chorus on “Maybe Today” where the piano comes in. A little piano fill and a drum fill to kind of lead into the triumph and resolve of the song. That’s Kyle Forester playing the piano on that. We really loved that song, but the recording of it wasn’t really working. It felt lacking. The guitar stuff that we were doing wasn’t really working. We did that remotely with him, and at the end when he sent me that and just hearing that for the first time, I just remember pure ecstasy. It was exactly the spirit that I wanted but I never would have been able to, first of all play it on piano, but second, even explain to someone how to do it. They would have to intuitively get it, and he did. Hearing the music when you didn’t have to put the effort in and it’s a surprise to you, is a whole different kind of pleasure.

AD: We don’t have a lot of time left, but I was wondering if you could reflect on what you think makes a great song great.

Jake Kmiecik: What comes to mind for me, going back to the Dead thing, a great song can transcend the aesthetic of the song, and it can be captured in different ways at different times and it grows over time. It’s not just the recording. The recording is a pinpoint in time of that song, but the song is a living, breathing thing outside of decisions that were made that day. So stuff that kind of feels good and relevant ten years later, that to me, is a great song. Being in a band and playing our songs, something that we’re excited by years down the road and still feels fresh if you have a different take on it.

Bill Lennox: I think, too, when you can feel the spirit of the song through a recording, it’s the best. I was listening to this band The Exploding Hearts, the song “Shattered.” I was just listening to it this morning while I was doing the dishes, and I had to stop doing the dishes to listen to the song even though I’ve heard the song 100 times. I can’t even describe it. The song is just so good.

Bobby Colombo: I don’t know. I think it’s a great question. To me, I would have to think about it more to distill it. Musicians for the most part are people who are obsessed with music, and music writers, too, for that matter. When you have this lifetime of hearing music, you’ve just heard so much of it, then you are able to intuitively understand when something moves your needle. It’s really abstract. That’s the cool thing about music is that it’s so abstract. It’s not a representation of the physical world. It’s unique in that way. It’s mysterious. It’s completely mysterious, why it resonates with us, why certain vibrations sound good, but it’s just something about trusting your instincts after thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of sitting with the stuff. That’s what we try to do. We have an intuition.

Bill Lennox: You know it when you hear it.

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