Interview: Bonzo

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I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Sciortino, the vocalist/guitarist behind the Ann Arbor existential post-rock outfit Bonzo. Keep reading to see our discussion about life, influences, and the band’s incredible new LP With Your Belly.

Alex: Could you start by introducing yourself and stating your role in the band?

John: I’m John, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter of Bonzo. I spend a lot of time bothering my bandmates about shows and practices, as well as sending cold call Facebook messages to DIY promoters when we try and book tours. I’m a proud Vermonter, and I also book a good amount of shows in Ann Arbor.

A: With Your Belly, the new record y’all just dropped, is your fourth release now. What’s the songwriting process like for Bonzo in its current form compared to a few years ago when the project was first starting?

J: On our first record, I was just trying to figure out how to play guitar and write songs during my first two years of college, because up until then, I had only been playing drums in various bands in high school, without much time spent on writing by myself. So, I brought some acoustic guitar songs to Maya and Mac in the fall of 2014, and asked them if they wanted to bring them into a full band setting, adding drums and bass. But every record has been different following that—on 88.3, I wrote and recorded everything on my own while I was figuring out how to use Garageband, using a lot of programmed instruments. On Stranger, I had been recording more iterations of my demos, and then bringing them to Mac, Maya, and Tristan when they were close to done, and we would have everyone fill in the details with their own style. But on With Your Belly, most of these songs would start with a demo from me, and then Maya and I would do another iteration together, and then we brought the songs to Tristan to add in his drum prowess. For me, running songs through as many people as possible usually produces the most interesting product, and I think we found ourselves in a good process for writing the songs on this record, and it was fun to see them contort throughout the writing process.

A: The leading single from the new album, “leaper” is an exceptional track. GoldFlakePaint seemed ecstatic about the new record and it seems like there’s been a good amount of press surrounding it as well. How’s the reception been on your end?

J: I think Bonzo has always had a bit of difficulty fitting into our local music scene and the indie/DIY/internet world at large, so it seems like we haven’t really produced too much “buzz” for this record. But, through touring and meeting new people during shows at our house in Ann Arbor, we’ve been lucky to form a solid network of friends and musicians across the country who really support our music, and are excited to pass it around to their friends. Our friends Zac and Jorge helped us out a bunch with landing some press contacts for this release, which has been incredibly helpful in spreading the word. So, it’s been spotty, but the people who have told us that they like the record seem to really enjoy it, which is all you can really ask for at the end of the day.

A: What was the recording process like for With Your Belly?

J: We were in a bit of rush since Tristan was moving to Boston during the middle of the summer, so once we settled on which songs we were going to record, we took a couple weeks to practice them heavily and flesh out what they should sound like through our band’s voice. The actual recording process started in June, and it only took a week to track everything. It was fairly easy and laid back since we record everything on our own at our practice space in Ann Arbor. But, the difficulties came in trimming down what we were going to record and keep on the record—I’m pretty sure we initially had about 16-18 songs we were considering, recorded 13 of them, and then cut 2 to have our final 11 tracks. And luckily, mixing this record ended up being much easier than we expected. On our last record, we took a couple months to mix, but this time, we only needed about 2 weeks. I am lucky to have a bandmate like Maya who is an incredible engineer and also the easiest person to work with when it comes to mixing. We both have very similar ideas of how Bonzo songs should sound, but we also have distinctly different musical backgrounds which somehow blend together nicely when it comes to what we want to hear out of a mix. It’s nice to be able to propose an almost incoherent idea to her about what I’m thinking of for a sound or part, and then have her deliver exactly what I’m looking for within seconds.

A: Who were some of your biggest influences on the new record?

J: In terms of songwriting and composition, I always feel compelled to mention Alex G and Palm—two artists who I feel are always making new spaces for songwriters to enter into, and mull over the new possibilities of what a song can be. But “Pleasure Suck” by The Spirit of the Beehive, and Horse Jumper of Love’s self titled record were two records that I got really into this past year, whose attitudes and details really motivated me to make a record that had a holistic aspect to it. Apart from music, I read a lot of really meaningful books by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emmanuel Levinas, and David Foster Wallace that had a massive impact on how I thought about the design, intrigue, and depth of any form of art or behavior. What I’ve gathered from those authors heavily influences the way I currently approach making a song, and what kind of impression I want it to make on a listener, as well as what I want to do as a person.

A: What are your plans for 2017?

J: We’ve secured a new lineup for live shows that we are really excited about, so we will be tightening things up and getting ready for the gigs ahead. We have some really cool shows coming up this fall, and hopefully a few weekend runs here and there to get us out of Michigan. But, there will always be new music in the works. We are already well into working on another album, which will continue to get a lot of attention from us since most of our free time nowadays is devoted to music. For me, Bonzo is a constant writing project, so it really never stops or leaves my focus, but we are all always involved in several projects at the same time, so I am looking forward to gigging with those other than Bonzo.

A: Are there any up-and-coming bands from your area that you think people should be listening to?

J: My friends in Platonic Boyfriends have been doing their thing for some time in Ann Arbor. They are easily my favorite band to watch in town, and put on one of my favorite sets of all time. They are incredibly thought provoking, hooky, and ethereal—absolutely worth everyone’s eyes and ears. Also, my friends in COMPs have been playing some great sets around the area, and have a super catchy and tight group of songs. Definitely a band to watch and keep up with.

Follow Bonzo on Facebook and listen to their music on Bandcamp!

– Alex Boundy