Making music in a revolving door town: A Conversation with Bonny Doon
Earlier this year the Detroit band Bonny Doon put out their winsome and charming self-titled debut album in America, later released in Australia and New Zealand, and finally next month sees physical release in the UK through Melodic. We caught up with the band’s co-leader Bill Lennox to discuss what it means to have the album released here, the writing of the songs, and how he looks back on the album some years on from writing. We also gained a little insight into Bonny Doon’s second album, drafted for release early next year.
How does it feel to have the album getting a release in the UK?
It feels great! It's kind of crazy. You don't get very much feedback at all until a record comes out, except for your friends or people in town who see you play. Yeah, this is our first full-length and I don't think many people outside of Detroit or the US at all heard any of the previous stuff, the tape or the 7-inch, at all! So it's good for it to finally be out there. Everyone at Melodic has been really excited about it, which makes it great, and yeah I'm excited to hopefully come out there and play for some people over there.
Do you know anything about UK audiences? How they differ from Americans?
Not at all! We have some friends that go out there and play and tour and they say it's great. From what I hear from friends' bands and from people at the label, they say people get really excited because their favourite acts don't always come through, so they're excited when they're around. But that's all I know! What else should I know?
I would say we are hard to impress, but once you do we're all-in.
OK, I think I'm up for that challenge.
How did it come about that Bonny Doon was going to be released in the UK? Was it a surprise?
Yeah it was! I don't even really remember, it just happened really fast. There was an email that came in from [Melodic]. I think what happened was we put our record out in Australia and New Zealand through a label called Spunk, and they work closely with Melodic in the UK, so I'm pretty sure that's how the connection was made. And then everyone over at Melodic really loved it, which felt so good, and we skyped with those guys and they were really fun and nice and excited about our music. So yeah, that was it, we signed the deal.
How long ago did you write these songs now?
This is really the first batch of songs from this band. So, 2014 I guess... three and a half years ago or something. And before that I hadn't really written a song. I met Bobby just playing guitar in bands in town, but as far as being a songwriter, that didn't really happen until I met him, he's a really talented writer. We got a studio in the city and I was helping him record a record that still hasn't come out, some of his solo music, and in that process that collaboration blossomed and really helped me grow as a songwriter, and then from that Bonny Doon sort of came about. But yeah, this first album is just that first batch of songs that we wrote, and I feel like it's crystallised in that time; it feels nostalgic for me already. We're already on to the next thing here, the next album.
Do you feel disconnected from who you were when you wrote those songs?
Yeah, in a way I do. I think even listening to it now, it's kind of like a distant memory, but I do love some of those songs. Some of them I refuse to play, because it's just been beaten over the head so many times. But it would be really cool I think to do some more touring in the UK with this album. We've already toured this album earlier this year, played it around the East Coast, couple-week tours here and there, but I think it might re-ignite some sort of fondness for these older tunes when we come and play them for some new audiences, which I'm excited about.
Which ones are you refusing to play now?
[Laughs] I guess “refusing” is a strong word, but there are some songs from the first 7" and from the tape that are just kind of just packed up and put away in the attic. Maybe they'll come out another day, we'll see.
One day in the future when you've got a huge discography all the fans will be like "play that one song from the tape!"
Yeah, there's gonna be the remastered version of the back catalogue.
On the album you and Bobby both seem really weary and jaded throughout, is that what you were feeling at the time?
Yeah, I think in some ways. We grew up in the city - all of us are from Detroit - so it's kind of a place where the landscape is not easy to be around, and the weather is not easy to be around, and it kind of builds up and grows on you and kind of creates this sombre mood that is reflected in songwriting at times. But I think that the idea of that kind of juxtaposed with our ideal - which is California, being on the beach, more positive things - I think is what makes those two things complement each other. It's kind of what jumps out at people.
Will the new stuff be similarly kind of jaded?
I don't know. I think this first album, this first batch of songs, is jaded, but it also has this youthful charm and a sense of humour, and it really reflects our personalities, and I think that just came out of us; that was what we had at the time, that was what felt right. Some of the newer stuff is a bit more of an exercise in minimalism and just kind of almost a reaction to the sound and ideas of the first record. But that's gonna come along a bit later. I'm excited about these songs too; they are a little bit different.
I want to ask about the song 'Lost My Way', it's such a simple song and so easy to relate to; was there a specific moment that made you feel that way?
I think maybe... that's a good question. It's funny, at the time I think I almost wrote it in the sense of like this isn't me, this isn't a personal introspective thing, this is something that everyone talks about and feels, but rarely does anybody say it out loud in so few sentences. I don't know, I was speaking and saying a lot of the things that a lot of people that I know don't really say very much. It's definitely a very vulnerable song lyrically, but then it kind of has that aggression to it instrumentally, and then it diverges into that dying jam at the end, which is I think kind of a metaphor for the idea of the song.
Yeah, that's how you feel when you're going through one of those "I lost my way" moments; you're sad, then you're frustrated, then you're angry.
Yeah, and then maybe you give in or something, I don't know what happens at the end.
Who wrote 'What Time Is It In Portland'?
That's Bobby's song. That's one of my favourite songs, and that's one we still play a lot too.
Do you know why he chose Portland? Were there a lot of people moving to Portland?
That was definitely a trend at one point; the Detroit to Portland exodus. But now, I mean jeez, it happens the other way it seems like. Now that Portland is so expensive and Detroit has this kind of romantic intrigue because it's so cheap and because people like how gritty it is. There's definitely a rich history here, I think that's what draws a lot of people here too. But yeah, I don't wanna speak for him too much, but we have a lot of connection with Portland, close people, old partners and people that maybe have gone there and come back and gone there and come back. There's definitely history there.
You've got the song 'Never Been To California'; have you been to California now?
I did go! But at the time I wrote the song, it was true. I went earlier this year, I was playing drums in TYVEK - Bobby and I both play in that band on and off, just a really great punk band from Detroit. We did a big tour, we went out there, and we played in San Francisco and LA and San Diego and it was cool man! But it didn't really hit the way it will when I go and play there with Bonny Doon, because it's so tied up in the mystery of that place to me.
Do you have plans to tour there with Bonny Doon?
Yeah I think we will, probably in Spring of next year. We plan on doing a lot of touring next year because the second record will be coming out, and I think we're going to try and round that up at around the same time that we do the UK touring hopefully. We'll play all over hopefully, it'll be fun.
There were some songs that didn't make the cut for Bonny Doon; are they still floating around?
Yeah there's some. There's one called 'Weeping Willow' that I really liked that we played a bunch and we recorded, and we ended up using just the instrumental version but kind of like in this slowed down way through an echoplex, and it sounded so beautiful. But even that didn't make the cut, because on the record there are already some of those little interlude sort of dreamscapes that come in and out, which I think is really fun and just kind of a nice break from the sometimes heaviness of the full songs on the album. But yeah, there's quite a bit actually, hopefully we can find some blooper reel that they can go on some day.
Yeah, just put it on Bandcamp or something!
I know, yeah! We talk about that a lot. Maybe a tape or something, or Bandcamp unreleased stuff. That would be fun, we should do that.
You've mentioned the second album a couple of times. Can we talk about it? How far in are you?
It's completely done, but I don't know, maybe that's all I should say about it. We recorded it at this really great studio called Key Club in Western Michigan, right on Lake Michigan in the country, with this really great engineer. We finished the first album and we went to record this album two months after. But it's now been two years in the process of making this second record, which is just being mastered as we speak. I'm excited about it. It's kind of got this even more like, I don't know, stoned sort-of minimalism to it that I hope people will like. It might be a bit different than what people are used to.
Are the tracks all split between you and Bobby, or have you co-written any?
It's kind of a simiar thing where it's about 50/50 his songs and my songs. I think they really complement each other nicely this time around too, so I'm excited.
You'd never try writing or singing together?
We do that a lot! We'll go on these retreats where we'll just go up into the woods of Northern Michigan, either with the full band or just me and Bobby, and we'll just try to get as deep as we can with it. A lot of the times he'll be working on something and I'll write lyrics for him, and he'll write lyrics for me, when we're a little lost or something, and that's what ends up working the best. And I think we just have a full 100% trust in each other, and our taste and judgement, that it usually works out when we're collaborating and writing for each other and with each other. We really kind of are soulmates in that way.
You like to get out of the city to write and record, any reason for that?
Yeah, there's a clarity to it. When I'm here in Detroit, I go into work and have family and friends around, and it can cloud my clarity, so it's nice to get away, we all agree with that. We try to do it as much as we can. Sometimes we'll just go up and bring a tape machine and record sessions for four or five days. That's what the second album came out of, was just turning a tape machine on for four days straight and playing and demoing. We hadn't really written anything, but the next record is all songs that were pretty much, for the most part, put together almost from start to finish in maybe a week, which is really crazy. We were just in the zone.
Would you ever consider leaving the city to live somewhere more rural?
I don't know. I have some family up north in Michigan and Canada, so I'm able to do it without having to move there - I can just visit and that's kind of enough for me. I love being in the city. If anything I think I would just move to a bigger city if I moved. I love New York City, I lived there a few years ago and I have a lot of friends there. So maybe there, maybe LA, I don't know, we'll see...
Do you feel like Bonny Doon is part of a scene in Detroit?
Yeah I do. At first it didn't really feel like there was a place for us, and we felt sort of like outliers in this city. But really I think we know so many people here, we have so many connections and people we know who've been making music for a long time. Sometimes it seems like our music is a little bit from a different realm or something, but it makes sense with a lot of the stuff that's going on here right now. Detroit has a rich history in all musics really; jazz, Motown and then later with rock and roll and punk. When I came up here it was like everyone was doing garage rock, everything was garage rock; from the 90s until now there's so much garage rock. There's so much everything; rap, a huge jazz scene... But yeah I think people are starting to get that we're doing something different and wanna join in. What we're into is sort of trying to bridge a lot of the gaps. We wanna do shows where people that normally wouldn't be at a rock show would come out; trying to be as inclusive as possible with everybody coming out to shows, all ages and everything.
Do you think you're having success with that?
I think so! It's been really fun and people are really receptive to it. I think what I'm interested in is, at least in town, is creating a space for everybody and anybody who wants to come and listen to music and feel comfortable to come out and have fun.
Are there any Detroit bands up-and-coming that we should keep an eye out for?
There's a great record by a band called Mountains and Rainbows, also former members of TYVEK, they are really cool and really strange and they're a band that we played with a lot in the beginning because they're just so out there and... you gotta hear it - it's crazy! They put out a record on Castleface a few years ago. I don't even know if they're playing anymore but they're really good.
My friend Shelly does a really good guitar music, where it's just ambient sort of guitar sounds and it's really good - it's called SHELLS. She also plays in Bonny Doon a lot. We have a show coming up in a few weeks with Parquet Courts here in Detroit, and Shelly's going to be playing guitar with us. She plays on our new album a lot too; she helped us record it; great collaborator and friend of ours. She's also in a band called The Vitas who are really good, kind of post-punk in a Raincoats sort of way - very good music.
Bonny Doon is obviously named after a vineyard, are you a wine drinker?
Actually that is so funny, because that keeps coming up and that's actually not where the name comes from. The story is that Bobby and I didn't have a name for this project at all in the beginning and we had all these horrible band names written on this chalk board in our studio, and nothing was clicking, and I just decided to open up a map of the United States and I was just pointing at things. And I pointed and there's a city called Bonny Doon near Santa Cruz in California and I kept saying it and it sounded good and I was like "I wanna go to California, I've never been, this name makes sense to me, it sounds great!" So we went with it. It wasn't until later that we realised there was a pretty popular vineyard named that.
But I do like wine quite a bit to answer your question! Right now I've been drinking this wine called Un Litro. We get it here in the States at the end of summer for a couple of months, and then it's gone. It is great! Mostly I like white wine though. I'll drink a nice sauvignon blanc or something. But I'm more of a beer guy to be totally honest.
Is that what you drink before you go on stage?
If we had a rider, which we don't because we're not famous enough, it would probably be full up with beer and wine, yeah.
I thought the name Bonny Doon was explained by the lyric "saw my reflection in a bottle of wine" from 'I See You'; like that was the moment it all crystallised when you saw your reflection and the name Bonny Doon together on a bottle of wine in a liquor store.
I think that's a really great connection to make! I'm glad that that came up, but honestly it didn't happen until later. I think that's fun to find those little things in the music; weird little connections.
When do you think we'll hear something new from Bonny Doon?
I'm hoping by early next year the next album should be finding its way to being released, hopefully. Can't say that for sure, but that's the idea. I don't know, maybe we'll try to put some of those unreleased things out in the meantime. We'll see.
Christmas, yeah! A little Christmas present to everybody, that would be nice.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 13th November 2017.