Desmond Jones boldly explores the sunny, vast terrain of the undiscovered countryside.
The Grand Rapids jam quintet of John Nowak (drums, vocals), Isaac Berkowitz (guitar, vocals), Chris Bota (guitar, vocals), Taylor Watson (bass) and George Falk (sax, vocals) proudly ventures through blazing deserts, rolling hilltops and sprawling mountains on their latest Americana-infused album, Why Not?
“We’re lucky it fell together in a cohesive way because some of the songs were written almost 10 years ago. Others were written two years ago or right before we started recording the album,” Nowak said.
“We tried to collect them in a way that made thematic sense, even though we didn’t write them all together with the intention of releasing a concept album.”
As a refreshing, countrified conceptual immersion and stylistic detour from their funky, glam-jam sound, Desmond Jones’ Why Not? glides through 15 insightful, majestic tracks filled with nomadic adventures, lovelorn moments and bucolic musings.
The addition of warm, folky instrumentation – pedal steel guitars, fiddles, banjos, Dobros and mandolins – and rich four-part harmonies allow the band’s newfangled Americana sound to travel beyond the Midwestern landscape.
“A lot the songs we’ve been performing for over eight years now, and the Americana sound and songwriting style have always been a part of our live show and our catalog. We just never had the opportunity to record a lot of it or package it in that way,” said Nowak about the band’s third album.
“Once we started writing more songs that were a verse-chorus structure and a singer-songwriter style, they started to add up. We realized we had enough material to put it all together in one album, so that it wouldn’t feel as disjointed if we had put some of this stuff together with our funky or more progressive songs.”
The Road to Why Not?
Throughout their Why Not? expedition, Desmond Jones seamlessly bridges that stylistic change on the “Other Side,” a twangy, thoughtful ode to living in the moment and embracing the lone road ahead.
Torchy electric guitars, serene acoustic strums, reflective Dobro, fluid bass, smooth drums and playful piano surround Berkowitz as he sings, “Well in the end it’s great/You won’t have to worry anymore/And with everything you’ve wanted/What else could you have asked for/I don’t know it seems so far away/And I can’t see much/Past today.”
“Isaac always writes about journeys, whether they’re physical, spiritual or silly. He writes a lot of songs that start in one place and then they end up in another. That’s indicative of this song, which is like, ‘Well, if it’s not working here, then we have to go and try something else,’” Nowak said.
The band also released a lighthearted animated video for “Other Side,” which chronicles a weather-worn woman performing in bars and traveling cross-country with her adorable Brontosaurus. Created by Hailey McLaughlin, it beautifully complements the western-frontier-meets-Mesozoic-era artwork by Daniel Benayun on the cover of Why Not?
“We gave her the songs ahead of time, and she came up with these awesome storyboards. And we told her to go crazy with it and use her beautiful, creative brain on her own. It’s just such a blessing to have an artistic process like that because we didn’t have to go in or shoot the music video ourselves,” said Nowak, who’s known McLaughlin since high school.
After traveling to the “Other Side,” Desmond Jones ventures to the downhome, bilateral world of “Two Dreams.” The band beautifully examines a wake-up call for life changes against a backdrop of transient acoustic strums, somber fiddle, eager bass, pensive drums, crashing cymbals, quiet piano and melancholic sax.
Nowak sings, “Just when you think you’ve figured it out/Life comes and gives you a slap/Sometimes the only thing you control/Is the way that you react.”
“For me, it was this mid-20s shakeup where I thought I had everything figured out. But then, as life goes, you realize you don’t, but what you do have control over is the way that you react to those situations,” said Nowak, who also released another Desmond Jones animated video with McLaughlin.
“I’ve been really into mindfulness and Zen and reading a lot of Buddhist text for years now. It’s hard to try to incorporate that into my own music or conversations with people without sounding preachy. But when it comes down to it, my mindfulness and my meditation really got me through some unexpected shakeups in life.”
Next, Desmond Jones shifts to rough-and-tumble outlaw tales on the ramblin’, gamblin’ anthem, “Casino Cowboy.” Easygoing electric guitar, pleasant acoustic strums, tender mandolin, faithful drums, velvety bass, shimmery cymbals, buoyant piano, calm sax, shaky tambourine and vivid a cappella harmonies beckon taking risks and keeping your options open.
Berkowitz sings, “I’ve got no home/Just game to game I roam/And I know one day I’ll see/All that’s out there in this world for me.”
“I think it started because we love the imagery of a casino cowboy. When we were first starting out, we were playing shows in Mount Pleasant. After the show, we all got $20 of the money we made from Rubble’s, and we took it to the casino,” Nowak said.
“You see these casino cowboys there, whether they’re urban, rural or bedazzled. You always see such an interesting crowd at the casino, so I think that’s where Isaac got that idea. When the song is surrounded by other thematic structures and lyrical tones, I think it can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.”
Outside of the casino, the band ventures to a mystical land on the Johnny Cash-esque ballad, “Giant Eye.” Radiant pedal steel, bouncy bass, light drums, majestic banjo, crashing cymbals and mellow acoustic strums push listeners toward the shiny promise of the future.
Falk sings, “Give me your heart/And your head and your hand/We’ll live together in the sun/Of the giant eye, oh my.”
“We’ve only done it live, but it’s sort of our faux punk-rock version of it, where we go really hard for two minutes. It’s usually at the end of our sets if we have a couple of extra minutes. We’ll just crush that one real quick,” Nowak said.
“Now, we have a country version of this song. George does a great job of walking that creative and tasteful line of blending himself in and serving the song.”
The Why Not? Calvary
For their latest release, Desmond Jones enlisted a first-class troop of collaborators to solidify their spellbinding Americana sound. The band initially recorded Why Not? two years ago with producer-manager Kevin McKay at East Lansing’s InMuSo Studios.
“We were sitting on the project for so long, and then the pandemic happened, and it was kind of on the backburner. All of the vocals were recorded in the last year remotely from everybody’s separate homes, so that was another thing that we had to learn how to do,” Nowak said.
“Kevin sees big picture things when maybe we’re so focused on minor details and vice versa. Sometimes he can bring us down to reality when we get too crazy in our own heads. He’s such an experienced professional, and we trust and value his opinion so much.”
In addition to McKay, Desmond Jones recruited Mark Lavengood (Dobro) and Don Julin (mandolin) to expand the album’s country sonic palate.
“That was a networking opportunity that I wanted to create for ourselves, and then we ended up becoming great friends (with Mark). We’ve played shows together with our bands, and I’ve sat in with Mark on the banjo. When it comes to Dobro, he’s one of the best in the region, if not the country,” Nowak said.
“With Don, we met him at Cowpie Music Festival two summers ago, and our bands played on the same day. He’s just a virtuoso when it comes to mandolin, and he literally wrote the book, Mandolin for Dummies.”
Outside of talented collaborators, the band also invested in learning new instrumentation for Why Not? with Berkowitz on pedal steel, Nowak on banjo and Falk on fiddle.
“We were able to add these instruments that we already played, but never had a place for in the live setting. It was a fun opportunity to explore that idea,” Nowak said.
“It’s always been a part of our sound and songwriting experience, and this is just our way of packaging it all together and putting a bow on it and releasing it.”
The Why Not? Live Experience and Beyond
As a touring mainstay, Desmond Jones continues to share that Why Not? musical package throughout their energetic, improvisational live sets. The band will bring that live experience to Ferndale Friday at The Parliament Room at Otus Supply with Act Casual and Ann Arbor on Nov. 20 opening for Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers at The Blind Pig.
“We’ve intentionally been playing songs off the new album to promote it and get it into the ears of the people who are at our live shows. It will be a nice mix of Why Not? and the stuff we’ve been playing before it,” Nowak said.
With a busy touring schedule and a recently released album, Desmond Jones is already thinking about their next project, which will likely reflect their signature funk-rock-jazz fusion roots. Right now, Nowak and his bandmates are looking at a spring or summer release.
“We want to be constantly putting stuff out, and we have so much material that we need to be doing that. We still have 50 or 60 songs that are unrecorded that we’ve been playing live for years,” Nowak said.
“It will be a big departure from Why Not?. Now that we’ve got 15 Americana songs on one album, we can focus our energy on something else. The next one is going to be a lot funkier and fresher and have songs that explore more of a composition and theory base.”
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12
The Parliament Room at Otus Supply, 345 E. Nine Mile Road in Ferndale