When Worlds Collide: The Freak-Folk of Bones & Beeker

words by Eamon Whalen

photo by bfreshproductions

photo by bfreshproductions

The first thing to know about Bones and Beeker is that they were never supposed to exist. “We weren’t even trying to be a band!” says lead singer and guitarist, Tony Newes, as he sips a beer in the band’s practice space, the garage of his south Minneapolis home. “There was never really an official start date. We never said, ‘hey we should start a band.’ We never had that conversation,” seconds producer and percussionist Brendan Kelly, also known as BK-One, a Rhymesayers Entertainment artist and Brother Ali’s former longtime touring DJ. 

Newes and Kelly were brought together not by the idea to begin a defined project, but by a friendship and a longing to explore new musical terrain as both exited longtime musical commitments and entered fatherhood. It was precisely their lack of specificity in goals that allowed this duo from contrasting musical backgrounds to fully realize what they could be together. “We were just two new dads who had full time jobs and not a lot of free time but an instinct to create,” explains Kelly. Their self-titled debut, that was released this past Friday via Wax Poetics’ record label, is a blend of catchy melodies and folky multi-tracked vocal harmonies supported by a worldly, hip hop-leaning sample-based production that, while eclectically scattered, retains a certain exploratory cohesion. 

The duo originally met five years ago as co-workers at a group home in Uptown, while Kelly was still touring with Brother Ali and Newes was playing in Pop-Rock band Villa. Initial co-worker small talk turned into longer conversations about music, that before long turned into a creative exchange. “I thought, ‘this is someone that I like as a person, for x, y and z. Incidentally he’s also a creative dude, so why don’t we go to the basement and fuck around?” recalls Newes. 

So to Kelly’s basement they went, but it took time and a little frustration to know exactly how they were going to mash their sounds together. “We didn’t have the vocabulary to communicate with each other, so we had some really awkward results when we tried to make music together at the beginning,” says Kelly. Newes follows, “Brendan would send me something and I’d think, ‘does he think I’m like this?’ Because I’m not, at all.” Over time, they intuitively started to find each other’s sweet spot. As they describe their musical backgrounds, it seems that the common thread they’ve found in Bones and Beeker is a continual urge to fight what they call “musical restlessness,” and embrace the unknown.

Photo by Jenna Klein

Photo by Jenna Klein

“When I get immersed in one scene, and everyone’s doing a similar thing, I think I get a little uncomfortable,” says Newes. He grew up in Canon Falls, MN listening to oldies—Beach Boys, Beatles, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder—and learning to play multiple instruments. After graduating high school, he had stints in Arizona, Washington, and California that saw him playing guitar and singing in bands that ran the gamut from Folk to Prog Rock to Bluegrass to solo acoustic work to his last band, Villa—whose signature three-part harmonies have influenced his approach for Bones and Beeker. 

While Newes is largely self-taught, Kelly was classically trained as a Jazz pianist and vibraphonist at Milwaukee’s High School For The Arts, where he got the opportunity to play alongside Jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Yusef Lateef and Wynton Marsalis while still in school. Jazz also helped him fall in with records, specifically the idea of crate digging and “looking backwards in time for inspiration.” When he moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, his record collection got him an underground rap show at Radio K, which got him noticed by the then up-and-coming Brother Ali. “I kind of backed into being a hip hop DJ, but that was my career for ten years” says Kelly, who now serves as the program director for 98.9 FM, the forthcoming community radio station in south Minneapolis. 

Kelly's time as a DJ naturally sparked an interest in production and sampling, and so before his last year touring with Ali, Kelly, along with Minneapolis producer Benzilla, he released his debut album, Radio Do Canibal. The album paired Rhymesayers’ finest like I Self Devine, Slug and Ali with icons like Raekwon, Scarface and Black Thought over instrumentals derived solely from music from Brazil. The title and approach was inspired by the Brazillian concept of “cultural cannibalism,” the idea that the country feeds off everything in its cultural melting pot, and in the process forms something wholly new to be consumed. 

The same can be said about Bones and Beeker, who take an all-sounds-are-welcome philosophy in crafting their music that lands them in territory that's routinely undefinable. “We ended up trying anything that sounded fun,” says Kelly, who cites their bright, Paul Simon-like song Samana (above) as the moment he and Newes honed in on a sound. He continues, “[Samana] it wasn’t a style that either of us would’ve done on our own, we just arrived at it in the middle. From there, it was like ‘That’s the sound of the band.”

That "ahh-hah!" moment was three years ago.

“Here’s the thing you need to know about our band. It started with zero kids and now there’s four,” says Newes with a laugh. So they’d meet up and record when their families went to sleep and take advantage of every nap time to tinker with a new idea or sometimes, have to record with a newborn on their shoulder. "I’d be holding my daughter, because she wouldn’t stop crying unless I was holding her, and do 5 or 6 takes in a row of an idea and send it to Brendan,” says Newes. 

The songs lived in Kelly’s computer without much intention to find a new home for them until Newes asked for Kelly to burn him a CD of what they’d worked on so far. Kelly’s natural inclination as a DJ was to make the songs flow. What he realized in the process was they had the makings of a record. For a new band.

Once they had a polished album they shopped it to labels that had groups that “halfway reminded” them of a song of theirs. Wax Poetics, the New York City based magazine that also has a record label, got back to them in less than 24 hours. Their enthusiasm was a shot in the arm for Kelly and Newes. “[Signing with Wax Poetics] was like ‘oh, we should take this seriously, we should give this the best chance it can have.’” says Newes. Because Wax Poetics celebrates the same culture of crate-digging that makes up the soul of Bones and Beeker, it was a natural fit. “They’re not bound to a genre but to a mentality that kind of brings that magazine together. It’s where different worlds collide. I think the same is true of us,” says Kelly.

These colliding musical sensibilities are present throughout the 14-track album. Some songs lean closer to Kelly, like the Bee Gees-esque disco-rap hybrid, “Heartbroken In Love,” or the breakbeat-centered, “Lupine.” And some lean closer to Newes, like “A Song for Al’s Dead Mother,” that has around ten vocal harmonies woven together over a sparse guitar and minimal percussion. “I had an idea to assemble a choir of people, and write songs and hand out parts. In retrospect, that’s kind of what this ended up being,” Newes says of the song, and his vocal inspiration for the album as a whole.

Though central to their sound, both Newes’ vocal arrangements and Kelly’s intricate, percussive production presented a challenge when the duo realized their new record deal meant they needed to get a live show together. One of the project’s inherent strengths was that it was written for the studio, with no live show in mind. To transfer it to the stage would almost be like starting a new band. And that’s almost what they’ve done, enlisting guitarist/vocalist Nate Collis who used to play with Atmosphere, bassist Chris Bierden of Polica and vocalist Nick Hoolihan from Villa. “It really has been phase A and phase B on some levels. Every song has totally different instrumentation so we’ve had to figure out if they work or don’t work live, and build them from the ground up,” says Kelly. 

Newes, on the other hand, has never truly been a frontman. “I’ve never felt like a lead singer, and some of the songs I’m singing a super high falsetto, and I had no anticipation to do it live. There are few songs where I’m just singing. I’m putting my guitar down, and feeling that nakedness,” he says of the handful of shows they’ve played so far. And after years of feeling like he was just hitting play and letting someone else do the work, Kelly juggles playing Kalimba, keys, and his MPC during their live show. “I wanted to recreate what I had done, so really this is the first time since I was playing jazz, that a performance really feels like a performance. Where every moment my heart’s racing. It’s exhilarating to be back in that space.” 

Even with a formidable live show in place, Newes and Kelly, both with full time jobs and families, remain opposed to touring. That, and the sonically scattered nature of their album, even leave them admitting that the cards might be stacked against them. Yet neither of them seem too worried about it. If they never had an official start date they don’t necessarily have an official end date, after all. In fact, they were ambivalent to even name such a malleable partnership, but settled on Bones and Beeker in something of a happy accident. “Me and Tony had different backgrounds in music, different visions of where we saw our music going and different processes on how to make music. There’s a lot of dichotomies. I was sharing that with somebody and they said, ‘even your name, Bones and Beeker, is kind of like a collision of the natural world and the synthetic world.’ So there you go,” says Kelly with a smile. Pretty good for a band that was never supposed to happen.

Stream Bones and Beeker's album here and purchase here