Local Band The Donkeys Recall Simpler Times
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
There’s a line in the film “Almost Famous,” when someone declares, “rock n’ roll can save the world…all of us together.” This may seem outdated in a world inundated with technology, low ticket sales, and few record stores. However, the idea of “all of us together” still rings true for local band, The Donkeys, who instead choose to create honest, communal music characteristic of another time.
The band features four friends (Tim DeNardo, Anthony Lukens, Jesse Gulati and Sam Sprague) who met in Southern California. They eventually formed The Donkeys, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2004. Fast-forward seven years later to today. They’ve since been featured on popular TV shows, signed on to a new record label, toured alongside multiple bands, and won a San Diego Music Award for Best Rock Album.
While their antiquated sound draws on classic California bands, their approach to making music is something of a rarity these days—they have no designated lead singer and instead make music more organically. The haunting sitar and rollicking Rhodes keyboard on their latest album “Born With Stripes,” conjures the anticipation of a road trip waiting to happen. They play together like a carefree band of brothers, on the lookout for their next adventure.
Last Tuesday I sat down with keyboardist-guitarist Anthony Lukens to talk about the history of The Donkeys, their alternative approach to making music, and the art of stage diving:
How did The Donkeys become The Donkeys?
We’ve known each other for a long time. Sam, Tim and I all went to high school together and met Jessie just after graduation. I was in a band with Tim and another guy called ‘The Anchors’ and we had a practice space together, but the other guy moved to Italy. That’s when Jessie, Sam and I, would use the space more as the four of us, as this no-name joke band called, ‘The Donkeys.’ Then The Anchors had a show in San Francisco that we couldn’t do, so we decided to put a set together as The Donkeys and do it up there. Our old mantra was ‘the Donkeys do it!’ because we could just do it.
How does living in Southern California inform your music?
People always say we sound very ‘California,’ but I don’t know if we would sound much different if we lived in Iowa. I guess growing up here with that shared musical aesthetic and listening to K-Earth 101. Even though we all have broad musical tastes, it’s still weirdly rooted in California music like The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and The Beach Boys. I think all the best music comes from Southern California.
You have no lead singer. Why did you make that decision?
It just happened, it’s totally organic. I don’t think there was a conscious decision to have no lead singer. Sam’s a great singer, but sometimes it’s hard to have the singer behind the drum kit. It’s fun to have Tim be the singer and I like to sing too. I’ve also always liked playing a lot of different instruments and I probably run around the most onstage because being stationary behind the keyboards is hard.
We’re all tight friends. But it’s a gift and a curse because there aren’t set rules, so it gets confusing sometimes. At the same time, it makes it interesting because you can always mix it up and make it sound different. Sometimes, though, it makes it difficult—we’ll do something in the studio and whoever plays the part best will play, but then we have to figure out how to do it live and jigsaw it back together.
It’s just part of the business and the most boring part of it all. Somebody emails us and we say ‘yes.’ It has to do with our record label and syncing music…that’s what they call it, to ‘sync’ the songs in the TV show.
I think the fictitious band on ‘LOST,’ Geronimo Jackson, is more popular than The Donkeys. They probably have a bigger fan base and Facebook page with a greater number of web hits. It was flattering that we were asked to do it because that song [Excelsior Lady/Dharma Lady] was a quick song we wrote the day we recorded it. It’s also a weird education in how the music business works. That was our first sync and dealing with lawyers and record label people. It wasn’t crazy money by any means, but it helped finance our record—it was a piece of the puzzle.
Do you have any memorable stories from your most recent tour?
We were on tour with The Hold Steady this summer and our last night in D.C. was one of my favorites. The stars aligned—the show had been sold out for weeks, it was in this huge club, and everybody was really excited about it. We’d been on tour with the guys for a few weeks already and had become close. On the last song of their set, we all went onstage and jammed with them. Sam and the roadie had a five-dollar bet that they would pick me up and throw me out to stage dive. So they threw me out and it was very graceful, I was laughing the whole time. But Sam’s funny and motivated by guilt, so he jumped out because he didn’t want me to stage dive alone. He’s a big man and when he jumped out everyone in the crowd moved out of the way. It was pretty hilarious. He was watching the end of the last song from the floor and, meanwhile, I was up on stage.
The most fun for me is that we get to travel places that we wouldn’t get to go otherwise. I just feel really lucky that I have friends all over the place. If I were going to randomly go to Lawrence, Kansas right now, I’d have a network of friends. That’s what I’m grateful for with The Donkeys.
Are you working on any upcoming projects?
Sam and I started San Diego’s newest premiere surf combo, The Cat Burglars. It’s a throwback to classic sounds of Southern California, like The Sandals, The Beach Boys, and The Surfaris. I’m really looking forward to it. There are no consequences—it’s new, it’s fresh and it’s easy.
Jessie just did a ‘Sitar Sunday’ at Bar Pink, where he played solo sitar, which was awesome. As for The Donkeys, we’re trying to get our chops together for our next record. We’ve been working on that and recording a little bit here and there.
Do The Donkeys plan on staying in San Diego?
There’s been some talk, but I think we’re going to stick around. The Donkeys are here to stay.
The Donkeys co-headline with Cass McCombs Thursday (Dec. 1) night at The Casbah Downtown on Kettner Boulevard between Laurel Street and Maple Street. The Cat Burglars play next Tuesday, December 6 at the Soda Bar on El Cajon Boulevard between 36th Street and Cherokee Avenue.