Kelan Bonislawski, the mastermind behind WOOF. (one of my favorite discoveries of the year), is a seriously interesting dude. This husband and father of a five-year-old daughter only gets the chance to work on his music for a couple of hours on rare Sunday afternoons, yet still has managed to release a phenomenal self-produced record.
If that wasn't enough to make me feel bad about the untold hours I spend procrastinating, there's also the fact that he's extremely humble. How can someone make such intricately-crafted music with an essentially nonexistent ego? Can you really be this invested in your art if you're completely unconcerned with whether or not anyone hears it? What kind of upbringing develops that person? On a Sunday evening, for my first ever GChat interview, I got the answers to these questions and more.
Kelan Bonislawski: Greetings.
ThrdCoast: How's it going?
KB: Great, I'm enjoying a nice kung pao dish as we speak. How are you doing?
TC: Sounds tasty. I'm just sitting on my couch listening to my roommate play Argentinian boy band music from the late '90s.
KB: I missed that boat.
TC: Yeah, me too until he moved in. I’ve never done a chat interview before, by the way. Should we get started? How about the classic, where are you from?
KB: My last spot was in Chicago, but I'm originally from northern Michigan and somehow ended up here in Montclair, New Jersey.
TC: I feel like every time I end up in Jersey I don’t know how I got there either. How did you get started in music?
KB: It was just always around in the house as a kid. My parents used to be in an Oingo Boingo cover band or something like that in the '80s. I don't know the full story, I'm sure there was a lot of cocaine involved. But he had a keyboard in the house and I was always messing around on it. They were really encouraging and got me a guitar and some drums later. They're saints for tolerating my drumming.
TC: Growing up in a musical family is always interesting. Do you remember when you decided to start making music on your own?
KB: My dad showed me some Todd Rundgren album when I was a kid, and told me about how it was all self-recorded from his home and he played all the instruments. I never knew that was a way to do it before that. I didn't make anything for years after that, but I thought about it a lot. Then technology started getting better and cheaper, and I eventually was able to mess around on the computer. I think I used Sony Acid or something like that the first time.
The first thing I recorded was a cover of "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5, and it was awesomely terrible, but I think it helped me a lot as an exercise. Being able to hear and replicate each layer of a song and hear how it all comes together.
TC: Who got you started in recording? Did you just stumble into it? Was there anyone there to guide you in those early days?
KB: It was all a natural progression. I started with messing around on a free trial version of Sony Acid, recording acoustic guitar layers from the built-in computer mic. Then later, once my dad noticed how interested I was, he bought me an 8-track digital workstation—my dad buying me things is a recurring theme in my musical pursuits. A few years later, I sold the 8-track and upgraded to a Macbook and Logic Pro. I've grown out of the age of dad buying me shit, so I'm still recording with Logic now [laughs].
TC: How old you were you? Did you have friends that were into the same thing, or was it completely lone wolf? And what was your relationship with music and recording as you grew up, went to college, graduated, etc.?
KB: I think I started recording around sophomore year of high school. I still don't really have friends that are into recording, other than some musicians I've met online. But they could be figments of my imagination for all I know. I auditioned on the piano for Berklee College of Music and didn't get in, so I went to Columbia College in Chicago where basically anyone with money can attend. I was getting pretty into photography at that point, and wasn't doing much with music for a couple years. Never finished school, but I'm not sure a degree in photography and music composition would have helped me all that much in the real world. I come from the generation of kids whose parents told them they can do anything they want without much of a backup plan.
Anyway, it wasn't until the past couple years that I started recording again, and for the first time, putting stuff out there on the internet for people to hear. Which has been really encouraging, and the more I do it, the less I'm afraid to make something really shitty, which opens me up and allows me to take more risks and be more creative in the process. I haven't really learned "proper" recording techniques or really ever seen anyone do it in front of me, so the learning process is basically just trial and error. I'm still trying to figure things out as I go.
TC: Even when you go to school for it, a lot of the learning process is just trial and error. On your current projects you still do everything yourself, right?
KB: Yeah, I do everything. It's always been an isolated activity for me. I make so many weird noises trying to figure out melodies, and really take my time experimenting with different sounds. It'd probably drive someone crazy trying to record with me. But it's something I'd like to do, I'm sure I'd learn a lot from someone else's process and perspective.
TC: I think you could comfortably say you know how to make a record. You also play all the instrumental parts? How many instruments do you play?
KB: Well, thank you. I feel like I'm on my way to making something that I really love and will love for a long time, but I'm not quite there yet. But I'll probably always feel that way.
Let’s see. I play guitar, bass, and piano. I used to include trombone, drums, and banjo in that list, but I sold my trombone when I was in college and the money was gone in a few days. Bad move. Then I lost a snare drum. I don’t know how that happens. And I really don't know how to play the banjo like an actual banjo player, but it always sounded cool to say I could play the banjo [laughs]. Now I just take care of the drums with the synth, and whatever other sounds the synth can make without sounding too fake and corny. Except if its over-the-top fake, that can sound cool in its own way.
TC: Do you perform live?
KB: No, I don't know how to pull off the big sound by myself, and I don't know any musicians to help me out. Plus, I have very little time to do so. I wouldn't want to play any songs live unless I thought they were really fucking good, and I'm not sure I'm there yet. I'm totally okay with just recording and putting songs on SoundCloud. It seems delusional of me to think I could turn this into a career, but I really love the recording process. It's therapeutic. I'd be content with just doing this for a while.
TC: Can you tell me a little about what that process is like, and how long it usually takes for you to create a song from start to finish?
KB: It totally varies. I've worked months on a single song that I'll end up hating, and I've recorded songs in a few hours that I love. Drums and bass usually come first, then guitars. That's usually the first day. Then I mess around with synths and sounds for an unreasonable amount of time, then come vocals, then mixing for weeks. But I'm trying to mix the process up now, because I'm finding the longer I obsess over something, the more I forget the original feeling I was trying to convey.
That's one of the problems with doing everything in Logic. There are just way too many options and you can get lost in making choices. But there's really no formula, it's just a crazy, mad-scientist mess every time. The fun part is always when something unintentional and unexpected happens that informs the rest of the song. I should note, though, that the recording sessions usually happen in chunks of three hours every week, because with a five-year-old in the house, alone time is rare and precious.
TC: I can’t even begin to imagine! That leads nicely into my next question, though. What's a day in the life of Kelan Bonislawski like? The day job? The family? And what is it like making music in that environment?
KB: Oh, dude, a day in my life is super exciting. I get up at six, have a cup of coffee, commute to the city, sit in a chair in front of a computer for eight hours, then commute back home, where I'm so exhausted from sitting for eight hours—yeah, that's a real thing—that by the time I get home, I have zero brain energy left to record, so I leave that to Sunday mornings or early afternoons. But when you only get to see your wife and kid for a couple hours a day after work, you just want to spend time with them anyway. Once the kid's in bed, Netflix and junk food are all I need. I'm a bonafide 21st century American dream family man [laughs]. I've even got the faux-white picket fence in front of the house.
TC: How long have you been married?
KB: For a year. Legally being married really wasn't that important to me, but it was for my wife. So I've been married a year, and my daughter is five, so the commitment was obviously already made long ago.
TC: What do they think of your music?
KB: I keep my music as hidden as possible from people I'm close to in real life. I didn't think it was that weird until right now, answering this question [laughs]. Probably just insecurities.
TC: That's not entirely unheard of when it comes to musicians. Do you think they would be surprised to hear it?
KB: My biggest fear in showing my music to people I'm close to is them assuming that I think I'm the shit because I make music. A fear of being perceived as full of myself or delusional or special or something. I'm hyper-aware of the flaws of my work. I just really love to do it.
TC: That's honestly fairly impressive. What would you say influences the music you're making now?
KB: My influences... It's hard to say. I don't think my music sounds like these people, but I think I share some similar sensibilities with musicians like Beck, and Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal in the way it's kind of a hodgepodge of different sounds and styles, in sort of a manic chaotic way. Also, that's the first time I've ever used the word "hodgepodge," and it felt fucking great.
TC: What do you want people to get from your music? How did you get involved with Tree Machine Records?
KB: I’m not sure about what I want people to get. I like to keep expectations really low, so if people think my music sucks, it's not devastating, and if they like it, it’s just a surprise bonus. Some would call that a defense mechanism, or even pessimism. But it works. In regards to Tree Machine, Zack Anselm—the guy who created and runs the label—emailed me after hearing one of the first few songs I put on SoundCloud, "I Got Away", and identified with something in the music. I was psyched anyone was into what I was making, let alone a record label. He's been insanely helpful and encouraging. He fought for this album to get some press and attention at a time where I was really discouraged and not really feeling great about it. And there's plenty of bands on the label, so he's got a lot to deal with. I love the label, and he's been incredibly helpful.
TC: Would you say it's helped drive your creative work?
KB: Yes, he's helped instill a lot of confidence in me, and that helps a lot when recording, and not being afraid to make whatever I'm feeling despite how weird I might think it is.
TC: Anything you want to say to officially conclude our first-ever GChat interview?
KB: Yes. Kill Whitey. Now we're good [laughs].