For their latest release, Desmond Jones has fans at “Hello, Helou.”
The Grand Rapids funk-rock-jazz fusion quintet masterfully mixes multiple genres across seven tracks on their second full-length and latest album, “Hello, Helou,” which dropped in July. It includes an eclectic batch of captivating tracks from Desmond Jones’ expansive catalog of more than 40 original songs.
“These songs were already written before we went into the studio, so it wasn’t a collective effort to write all of the music for an album,” said John Nowak, drummer, guitarist and vocalist for Desmond Jones. “Since all of the songs already existed, it was really a matter of choosing which ones we wanted to go on the next album.”
Nowak and bandmates Chris Bota (guitar, vocals), George Falk (saxophone, vocals), Isaac Berkowitz (guitar, drums, vocals) and John Loria (bass, vocals) spent eight months recording “Hello, Helou’s” tracks with manager Kevin McKay of Innovative Music Solutions in Webberville. The band also recorded a few tracks in the band room at East Grand Rapids High School where Nowak and Berkowitz attended.
In typical Desmond Jones fashion, all the tracks from “Hello, Helou” received initial live improvisational treatment before being reimagined as studio versions. With a fun, upbeat sound, the album features a collection of shorter songs compared to tracks from the band’s 2017 self-titled, full-length debut.
Four of the five band members also penned tracks for the album, which include spatial, culinary, relational, existential and fantastical themes. Listeners encounter a dynamic sonic journey while venturing from one track to another.
“In our live shows, we definitely take the liberty to extend songs as long as we want. Some songs are a better platform for that, but songs like ‘Split Again,’ ‘Sylvia’ or ‘Instructional Dance Song’ are similar to how we play them live,” said Nowak, who formed the band in 2012 while attending Michigan State University. “With streaming and attention spans, we want songs that are easily digestible for people to listen to before they come see us.”
Delving into ‘Hello, Helou’s’ Tracks
Desmond Jones fans started digesting new studio versions of “Hello, Helou” tracks in March with “Still Creatures,” a lighthearted, funky track boasting wah-wah guitar riffs and jazzy sax solos reminiscent of a chicken.
The song reminds listeners to live a more purposeful existence – “A job’s a job/But a life’s a life/You gotta find the right balance to make things alright” – and includes a quirky, funny reference to “chicken fingies.”
“One of my favorite songs to play live is ‘Still Creatures,’ and in terms of playing it out live, I think we get super funky in that one,” Nowak said. “I love my drum part for that, and it’s a super fun groove for me to play.”
Another “Hello, Helou” album favorite is “Instructional Dance Song,” a brief emotional track featuring sparse guitars and delicate vocals. Clocking in at almost three minutes, the Falk-penned song leaves as lasting imprint on the heart and mind: “And there are so many tomorrows/Each one as bleak as the last/Seventeen terrible secrets/I am weightless/You’re the last.”
“I think it’s one of the most different sonically put together tunes that we’ve released so far, and I love the two-part harmony that George and I do on it and the swells that Chris does on the guitar. We do our best to make it sound like that in a live setting,” Nowak said. “In the studio, we were able to be as nuanced and quiet as we would like, and I think that really comes through in the recording.”
One of the album’s most distinctive tracks includes “Split Again,” a countrified track mixed with folky sax solos, driving bass and drum lines, and Avett Brothers-style harmonies. As the second single from “Hello, Helou,” the track shows how easily Desmond Jones moves into rockabilly territory.
While “Split Again” moves Desmond Jones into a country sound, the album’s nine-minute closer, “Pat and the Big Carrot,” solidifies the band’s multi-genre improvisational chops. It features jazz-funk fusion guitar, bass and sax mixed with intricate string arrangements and extended instrumental solos.
Also, who doesn’t love a song title that sounds like lost British prog gem from the Peter Gabriel-Genesis era? “This is our saga masterpiece song, which is a little bit more involved and an accumulation of the album,” Nowak said. “It’s a big collection of everything that’s going on.”
Naming the Album, Embarking on a Fall Tour
Outside of the seven tracks, the album’s title and artwork are equally as memorable. The cover features Desmond Jones friend and fan, Antoine Helou, spiffed up in a past Michigan State University fraternity photo (especially cool for the vinyl version of the album).
Helou also sells merch for the band and frequently travels to out-of-state shows. During a recent tour, Desmond Jones band members said “Hello, Helou” when Helou attended their shows. The saying became an instant catchphrase that inspired the album’s catchy name.
Along with “Hello, Helou’s” July release, Desmond Jones recently closed out a jam-packed summer tour filled with festival appearances ranging from Electric Forest to Cowpie to Groove On Up.
They’re also embarking on a 15-date fall tour throughout Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. Tomorrow night, they’ll be performing at The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor with Zoofunkyou, a Chicago blues-infused psychedelic soul-funk quartet.
“In the fall, we’ll start to do more two- to three-week runs going down to the southeast. We’ve been working really hard to get our music out in the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee,” Nowak said. “We’ll go to the east coast in the mid-fall and then head back out west to Colorado in the winter.”
Finally, the band announced the departure of Loria via Facebook Sept. 4. His last show will be Oct. 10 at Shakespeare’s Lower Level in Kalamazoo. In the meantime, Chirp’s Brian Long will serve as interim Desmond Jones bassist through the end of 2019. A search for a full-time bassist is currently underway.
8 p.m. Thursday
The Blind Pig, 208 S. First St. in Ann Arbor