'With as many great bands as there are these days, how are you going to separate yourself?" asks Cody Jensen of weirdo-Americana quartet Bones Jugs N Harmony. "We thought, let's do something no one else is doing. Then they can't judge us in comparison to anyone else."
Mission accomplished. This merry band of offbeat multi-instrumentalists are still working on incorporating a kitchen sink but are otherwise covered. They've got xylophones and donkey jawbones, as well as banjo, acoustic guitar, kazoos, steel drums, double bass and, yes, a jug.
"It started out pretty much as a joke," says band member JP Goguen of the signature instrument. But after the Champaign-Urbana outfit did some research and posted a couple of YouTube videos, the jug became an integral component of the band's sound. "There are different octave ranges, and different jugs have different resonant frequencies. I've kind of delved into it and now we're doing songs that have pretty prominent jug parts. The past few months I feel comfortable enough to play along with almost any tune. But it's like whistling — there's no technique that you can really easily describe."
Inspired by Americana acts Devil in a Woodpile and Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jensen and bassist Charlie Harris had been playing together in bands for several years before starting Bones Jugs N Harmony a little over a year ago. Onstage, band members are constantly changing instruments, and their music can be just as hard to pin down. There's "Wiggle Ya Bones" whose skittering hip-hop beat and speak-rap vocals recall early Beck. The xylophone- and banjo-driven "Party's in the Kitchen" suggests a redneck kegger in the Caribbean, while "Sunday Morning Blues" boasts a New Orleans rag feel. They also do a fine calypso-tinged cover of the Beastie Boys' "Girls."
After releasing a five-song EP last year, the band joined Joseph DeJarnette (Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Wiyos) in his Virginia studio to cut 15 tracks in one week. But when they'd finished recording, they realized they'd booked themselves clear through September. So the debut album's release will have to wait until October, when they'll have time for a proper release show.
Meanwhile the group is already working on a series of EPs, which Jensen says could include "all our instrumental xylophone rags, all of our calypso tunes, a couple of tribute albums — one for Mississippi John Hurt, one for Leroy Carr."
Through it all, there's a joyous abandon and wide-eyed attitude that infuses their music and makes it so infectious. And then, of course, there are the donkey bones.
"There's a fantastic music shop in Chicago, and one time we were up there for a gig and had a few hours to kill," recalls Goguen. "We're all walking around, and on the lower level there was just this wall of big donkey jawbones. And we're all mouths open, 'I want one!' So we bought a few donkey jaws that day, though I wouldn't say we've learned it in any traditional sense."