Up from Under the Sun

Orderly California quartet The Donkeys examine their past and present

May 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm


ased on sound alone, The Donkeys come off as pretty mature. The San Diego band plays a tender, starlit kind of Rock with a folky side that isn’t too sleepy, an AltCountry side that isn’t too twangy, a Blues side that isn’t too reverb-heavy and a Psych Rock side that isn’t too psychedelic. 

We have it on good authority that the Apocalypse won’t actually happen in December, but come 12/21/12, you should still consider concocting a cocktail, cueing up a few Donkeys songs and leaning back — just in case a meteor happens to hit Earth or something. Whether The Donkeys are exploring darkness or light, they do so in measured, methodical fashion, creating a calmness that could keep you cool in the face of disaster.

With the maturity of their work acknowledged, that maturity wasn’t really on the minds of The Donkeys’ four members when they started. The group origins trace back to a modestly populated Orange County city called Dana Point. Tim DeNardo, Sam Sprague and Anthony Lukens attended high school there during the late 1990s, bonding over music and what DeNardo half-jokingly calls “our unification against the jocks.” 

Donkeys’ future personnel were sprinkled through bands that sound little like what they’re known for today. Sprague and Lukens were in a Ramones-ish outfit called The Parking Lot Kids and DeNardo’s first group was “this technical, Math-y, kinda Emo band.” The seeds for Donkeys’ sound were surreptitiously planted by their elders, as DeNardo’s dad was big into David Bowie and Talking Heads, and Sprague’s parents had introduced him to The Band and Fleetwood Mac.

Early on, the band culture appealed to DeNardo less because of the actual music and more for the byproducts of playing. 

“We just really enjoyed getting together in this space that was ours whenever we wanted to, and just getting pretty wasted on top of it and just being loud and making music,” he says, speaking of a practice space the various bands shared. “Some of the moments coming together in that drunken haze were nice little times. Just being wasted, fucking around in parking lots, breaking things — y’know, (being) immature in all the ways that you should in your twenties. We never really grew up, so we’re keeping the dream alive.”

By 2004, there had been some changes in their clique. Jessie Gulati had entered the picture and a new combination of players formed The Donkeys. When their sister band The Anchors had a show at Thee Parkside in San Francisco they couldn’t play, The Donkeys stepped in for what would be their first public performance. Even though the unseasoned band spent most of their stage time jamming, things went extremely well. 

“From what I remember, it was amazing. We played the show and it just felt perfect,” DeNardo says. 

Naturally, not every subsequent show would be as fantastic as the first — DeNardo also recalls the band once driving through tornado weather to play in Des Moines, Ia., to only the bartender, the sound guy and the door guy. 

As they’ve gained name value through recording (their third album Born With Stripes hit in 2011 and they’re recording another this summer), touring and, in an unusual turn, appearing on the soundtrack of the TV show Lost as the band “Geronimo Jackson,” much has been written about The Donkeys, with three pieces of characterization coming up repeatedly. The first is using the word “lazy” to describe their sound, used not as a pejorative but rather as a compliment for the breezy vibe. 

DeNardo isn’t crazy about the word but gets the gist behind its use. 

“To a certain extent, maybe that’s the Southern California coming out in us,” he says. “There is a certain amount of complacency in just having beautiful sunny days every day, all day long, that maybe lends (itself) to getting into that leisure routine.” 

This brings up the next frequent characterization: The Donkeys sound is deeply Californian. For the most part, DeNardo buys this, too.

The third is more of a point of contention. When The Donkeys are compared to other bands, rootsy and Psychedelic bands linked to the 1960s invariably come up — think Grateful Dead, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds and Crazy Horse. It’s very understandable why these connections are made — The Donkeys’ “Dolphin Center” sounds like a younger cousin of Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” — but the band is uncomfortable with being seen as some kind of a throwback act. Their latent discomfort with this became evident when The Donkeys’ former label, Antenna Farm Records, used feedback from the band members about what should be in their press release as part of the press release itself. 

“Feel free to beef it up but just don’t make it sound like we’re retro or sixties e.g. psychedelic, jammin, captain tripish, mushroomafied, medieval, medical, tasseled, groovy and so forth,” the band wrote in one of those examples of someone appearing to both joke and tell the truth in the same breath.

DeNardo voices a love for Hawkwind and notes that Grateful Dead’s American Beauty was a big thing for The Donkeys around the time of 2008’s Living On the Other Side. But he still doesn’t feel that they’re a “retro band” in terms of sonic ambitions. 

“We are a modern band. We are a Rock & Roll band drawing influences from everywhere — the stuff we listened to as kids, Pavement, The Ramones and all that kind of Indie Rock or Punk Rock, and then also from the Grateful Dead and The Byrds,” DeNardo says, also acknowledging his band’s preference for analog recording and vintage equipment. “Like any art or music, you pull from what’s around you or what you’ve learned, and whether or not parts of that get picked up or placed somewhere else, to say (one genre) is the only influence is not really giving (the music) full justice.” 


THE DONKEYS play a free show at MOTR Pub for “Final Friday” with Southeast Engine.