At Work: Desmond Jones

Larson Sutton on December 16, 2021
At Work: Desmond Jones

After issuing two genre-blending LPs and two equally eclectic EPs, the members of Desmond Jones decided to consolidate their scope. On their latest full-length effort, Why Not? A Sensational Midwestern Jamboree, the Michigan quintet gathers together a concerted collection of 16 “countryadjacent” songs. The move makes sense—bluegrass and Americana actually have deep roots The Wolverine State, even though those genres have long been overshadowed by Detroit’s trademark Motown sound. “In Michigan, bluegrass and Americana seep into you,” says Isaac Berkowitz, who divides his time between guitar, drums and vocals. “It’s been part of all of our lives.”

In 2020, Desmond Jones laid down the bones of their country-leaning album at band manager Kevin McKay’s Lansing-based Inmuso Studio, before the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home. Quarantined and separated, they worked individually on solos and overdubs. Berkowitz, Chris Bota (guitar/vocals), George Falk (sax/vocals) and John Nowak (drums/vocals/ guitar) ended up writing a half-dozen new songs that still kept with the album’s intended theme. And they also added a new bassist, Taylor Watson.

Using gear that they borrowed from McKay, the five musicians consciously crafted their parts—a departure from a previous process that encouraged spontaneity reflective of their infectious live performances.

“Being a jamband, we’ve always been focused on the live show,” Bota says. “On our past releases, we’ve always had a little less room to breathe. This was the first time we had nothing to do but finish the album.”

As Berkowitz admits, there was a learning curve. Though the ensemble had the luxury of limitless attempts to get the notes just right, they risked losing “the feel” or, worse yet, burning out. It also meant telling each other when something didn’t work. The musicians looked at touchstones such as the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and John Prine’s self-titled debut—as well as the catalogs of country music’s current cosmic messengers Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers. Yet, Berkowitz and Bota both agree that the idea of making a proper album in the streaming era was the ultimate motivating factor. “A lot of bands are switching to the format of just releasing singles,” Bota says. “We all love that, for a lot of older bands, the album was their pride and joy. It was nice to have the time to do something we’ve wanted to do for so long.”

Berkowitz hints that another LP is already in the works, with an anticipated release set for some time in the next six months. And the band has not ruled out shifting sonic gears once again either. “We’re not trying to be country musicians. We’re trying to be Desmond Jones. And sometimes we make country music,” Berkowitz says. “We’ve love what we do in this band and we’re excited to keep it all going.”