Located a little north of Indianapolis is Carmel, Indiana. It’s a nice enough town to pass through on your way to Indy. There’s shops and things. Decent enough school. At one point there was even a Shapiro’s Delicatessen(I had the best Reuben of my life there), though I think it’s closed now. You wouldn’t think of this Midwestern hub as being the home of a great singer/songwriter, but you’d be wrong to underestimate the power of a Midwestern upbringing.
Bonfire John is a band run by Owen Yonce, the great singer/songwriter from that previously mentioned Midwestern hub called Carmel. Yonce runs Bonfire John as a folksy musical outfit that sounds like Pavement and John Prine collaborating on a Modern Lovers tribute album. There’s definitely more earnestness in his breezy, laid back tunes than the stoned-out subversiveness of Stephen Malkmus’ muscial alma mater. Yonce and Bonfire John just released the excellent College, the follow-up to his 2011 debut under the name Bonfire John and the Majestic Springs Band. A debut Owen Yonce released right after graduating from high school no less. I recently got a chance to talk to Yonce about the album, his music, and whatever else came to mind.
“I grew up in Carmel, IN and Cape Cod, MA, with my mom in Indy and my dad in Cape Cod”, says Yonce as we discussed his childhood. We quickly got on the subject of music. “As a listener I would say I started listening to music since I could remember. My mom listened to alternative radio when we were growing up so I was listening to Nirvana before I knew what music was. The Beatles were the first band I fell in love with. My uncle bought me a Led Zeppelin cd in 7th grade, and my sister bought me a guitar and that’s when it clicked that I should be constantly looking and finding music that was awesome. I only started learning guitar from my mom when she was teaching my sister how to play. First song I ever learned was “House of the Rising Sun” on sheet music. My mom learned how to play in the 70’s. I think I had a huge connection with Nirvana in middle school and I just started writing shitty songs as soon as I could play more than one chord.” There was one influence, however, that made Yonce want to be a serious songwriter. “I read Heavier Than Heaven, which is a bio about Kurt Cobain, and I was listening to a ton of Nirvana and some classic rock and the typical middle school stuff, so I think it just made sense to me to make songs. I knew some other people who played music, two of my good friends growing up, and we starting jamming songs together like Nirvana, Green Day, Led Zeppelin and some other classic rock stuff and we started playing songs we had written too.”
With every great songwriter comes humble beginnings, so I asked Yonce about his first actual band. “First band we formed was The Contrabands till a friend told us that was the name of an album. It was me, Brian McGowan, Zach Mellencamp and later Andy Painchaud. We played some show at school and our first show ever we went by Moose because of the Contrabands thing. Then we later called ourselves the Two-Man Bandits. We recorded a few songs in high school and played a pretty decent number of shows actually. Our first show actually went pretty well. I do remember our bass player refusing to play one of the songs and there was a video floating around somewhere of him sitting backstage flicking off the audience, which I thought was pretty funny.” Soon enough though, Owen had begun to find his own sound. Bonfire John was born. “Bonfire John represented me and the majestic springs band was, you know, just the moniker I created because there really wasn’t a band. But yeah, it did start out as just a little solo project. Right out of high school I wanted to keep going where we had left off, but the rest of the band had moved for school. So I just talked to a buddy and he said he’d record some songs if I came down and played them. On the first record I think I played everything except for a guitar lick on “Fit For Desire”, and some vocal harmonies on “Silly People”. The new record we had 2 or 3 tracks with vocal harmonies and some guitar licks that were done by Joe Linnemeier, our guitarist, and Kate Haldrup, our drummer plays drums on “Wouldn’t You Now”. But, I’m hoping the next record will be a complete album of everyone playing their instrument as opposed to me playing everything. We actually just formed as a full band fairly recently.”
There’s been three years in between Yonce’s Bonfire John and the Majestic Springs band debut and the follow-up called College. I asked Yonce what were some of the significant differences between the two albums. “The first record was super quick. We really didn’t have any idea what we were doing. I went out 2 days before we started recording and bought a drum kit and played it pretty much 2 days straight so I could start playing tracks on the album. That first album was really fun, though. Because structurally speaking, all of the songs were acoustic songs, so as we were recording, I would listen to the acoustic playing and the vocals and just write the other parts as I would listen on playback. This new album I came to start writing other parts before we started recording, but it took all of 3 or 4 years pretty much. Not because the songs weren’t written, because they had been written since the first album really. But our schedules were getting increasingly crazy. This new album went through the Olympics, through me joining the National Guard, through basic training and AIT through the destruction and reconstruction of the label (Tree Machine Records) and through a lot of other stuff, Which is why we called it College. It really represents that time period for me really well, and I think Zack(Anselm, Tree Machine founder) would agree with that too. As far as the recording process, I love it. I go down to Bloomington, we drink, jump into rock quarries, see live shows, see old friends, watch Colts games, and somewhere in between that, we record music. It’s never rushed. It’s always about having fun first. Between live shows and recording, I don’t really think I could choose. Without the other, each to me becomes obsolete. Recently, we’ve started playing a lot of live shows, and we really haven’t in 4 years maybe, so I can definitely say I’ve missed that. There’s something so rewarding about playing music with other people. To have an audience is just a bonus.”
I asked Yonce about his songwriting process and his connection with another local songwriting legend, Josh Hall of Thunderhawk. “It’s hard to talk about great music from central Indiana all the way up to Ft. Wayne without mentioning Josh. I had the good fortune to play some music with him with Thunderhawk and I originally went to him to record the first album. I went to him with probably 2 complete songs that were super s****y. In 2 days staying with him in Muncie I was able to write the first album in less than a week. I think that’s how I learned to really structure a song, and focus on how to lay down a song. So his influence on my process can’t really be overstated. I think for most people who write and record music, the faucet is always on, as you put it. I think right now I’m sitting on 2 full albums, just waiting to record them. Not to mention a few different hand held recorders full of little ideas and other stuff I’ll be working on soon.” As far as how songs come to him, Yonce says this, “Most of the songs I write are when I just sit down with a guitar to play for fun, and somewhere in messing around I play something that sounds melodic or nice to my ear and I’ll either try to remember it or record bits of something on my phone or a hand held recorder. I wish I had time to write with others. It’s such a foreign process to me, but I think it would be fun. Lately, I’ve had a bit of time to sit down and jam some things out with our guitarist and bass player so expect to see maybe a couple songs on the next album to be written by the whole band.”
With the new album, Owen Yonce and Bonfire John will be hitting the road to promote the record. “I’m hoping to get a show together with Thunderhawk in the near future up at the Brass Rail. That has to be one of the best places on Earth to play and hear live music. We’ve played a lot of shows in Bloomington.”
So what’s next for Bonfire John? “Well, we’ve just been playing any live show that comes our way really. I’m hoping to play a few shows in new places and definitely get up to the Brass Rail when we can and I think you could expect to see at least one vinyl release, a split tape release, and maybe a new full LP next year. I’m not sure yet, we may have to take it a bit slower but we’ll see. I’d like to put out a free release at some point too.”