The Radically Chill World of Bonny Doon
Bonny Doon had no idea what was going to happen.
It was March 2020, and the Detroit trio had entered the studio to begin recording their latest batch of breezy tunes, unaware of just how carefree the songs might sound by the time the rest of the world heard them. A lot would happen in the next three years, and that’s even if you don’t count the global pandemic. Bonny Doon’s three members underwent a nightmarish series of individual health struggles (diagnoses of Lyme and Crohn’s diseases and a concussion that lasted a year, to name a few). They’d also barely begun their multi-year stint as the backing band for Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield on her Saint Cloud album cycle, which ended up giving Bonny Doon a major career boost, even if it delayed their next record by several years.
Now, as they finally prepare for the June 16 release of Let There Be Music — Bonny Doon’s third, and finest, LP to date — they can hardly believe the degree to which outside circumstances ended up reinforcing the boldly out-of-time feel of this daydreamy, almost impossibly mellow record.
“It feels like we can never go back to that time, those innocent days,” says Bill Lennox, one of two singer-songwriters and guitarists in the band. To listen to Let There Be Music in 2023 is to experience Bonny Doon’s immaculately textured, Seventies-inspired California dreaming as an almost radical chillness, an album that’s so committed to its own zen aesthetics during these decidedly non-zen times that it can feel like a provocation. And yet, if you listen closely, there’s a slow-simmering tension amidst all that blissed-out West Coast vibing: “They gave amnesty for hippies long ago,” goes one lyric in “Fine Afternoon.” “But is there mercy here still?”
When they were choosing a band name before their self-titled debut in 2017, they settled on the name of an idyllic-sounding Bay Area locale they’d never been to — “a cheeky thing,” says co-singer-guitarist Bobby Colombo, that served as a way to establish the band’s oppositional musical identity in their Detroit hometown. “We’re not a garage-rock party band,” he adds understatedly.
Since then, Bonny Doon has become one of the Midwest’s most exciting exports. The band followed their self-titled LP just a year later with the huge step forward of 2018’s Longwave, the record that truly made their longtime friend Crutchfield fall for Bonny Doon’s sound. “When I heard that album, it changed my life,” she tells Rolling Stone. “There’s so much spaciousness that you just want to live inside of it.They did such a good job of just creating a world.”
There’s an easy rapport between Lennox, 33, Colombo, 38, and drummer Jake Kmiecik, 29 — the result of many years playing around each other in the same scene and, more recently, on the road. (Former bassist Joshua Brooks left the band after the release of Longwave; at shows, that role is currently filled by touring member Colson Miller.) In a recent conversation, the three bandmates discussed their latest record with a casual intentionality that they would pause to poke fun at whenever they found themselves veering into self-seriousness.
Talking about the progression from Longwave, Kmiecik mentions how the record was defined by Lennox and Colombo’s process of finding their voices as songwriters. After Lennox agrees, Colombo chimes in:
“So what you guys are saying is that we were really influenced by ourselves.”
At another point, an earnest conversation about Detroit’s supportive, unfussy local music scene devolves into a quick bit about the cliched way their hometown might get written about:
“The DIY spirit is really running through…” begins Lennox.
“Coursing through everything,” Colombo interrupts.
“Coursing through the veins of the arts community,” Lennox says with a smirk.
THE LONG-BREWING TUNES on Let There Be Music feel like the band’s most distilled attempt at their own unique world-building. On “Maybe Today” and “Crooked Creek,” two carefully-crafted out-of-time tales of sunshine and heartbreak, you can hear Bonny Doon hitting their stride. “Those are just all-time great songs,” says Crutchfield, “so strong, so melodic, but there’s such a real sadness to them.”
Many of the songs on this album started years ago: Lennox first wrote “Roxanne” well over a decade ago, and the mood-setting, album-opening highlight “San Francisco,” which Colombo sees as the heart of the record, started back in 2017, in the midst of making Longwave. “San Francisco,” which ended up being informed by Colombo’s brief stint living in North California, is the latest in a long series of Bonny Doon songs that hold up California as a central ideal — spiritual, romantic, aesthetic — a stand-in, perhaps for the kinder, less harsh world the band works to conjure in its songs.
“It’s just the fantasy of it,” Lennox says. “Being from Detroit, obviously California is a sort of paradise in contrast to that, just the polar opposite in a lot of ways.”
Kmiecik describes the romantic hold that the place still has on the band as a “deep, instinctual thing” that very much finds its way into the music and began in their outcast childhood. “Very early on, my life was just pining for California,” he says. “Punk music, skateboarding, it seemed so much more possible out there. You yearn for something different than your own experience, and as we’ve gotten older, it still, to me at least, maintains that romanticism.”
That romanticism has manifested sonically as what the band describes as a “natural music ensemble,” a meaningless term, they admit, that, if anything, serves to deflect the lazy genre categorization they often receive as a band: country, alt-country, indie rock, you name it. “Not something we identify with,” Colombo says to all of the above. “You have one note-bend in one spot, and you’re ‘country.’”
Regardless of how it gets labeled, the band’s penchant for creating self-contained moods and spaces is exactly what drew Crutchfield to them when she was writing Saint Cloud. “Their sound as a band is what really inspired the sound of [that] record,” she says. She ended up recording the album with Colombo and Lennox, in addition to using them as her touring band for the many shows that followed.
Having someone else believe in what they were doing as much as Crutchfield has helped give Bonny Doon some extra confidence as they move beyond some of their past health issues and embark on this new phase of their career.
“There was no reason that Katie, at her point in her career, should’ve picked Bonny Doon to be her backing band,” says Colombo. “When she asked us, I think we were like, ‘Are you sure?’ But she had an instinct and believed in us. Sometimes other people can see what you may not be able to see.”
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