It’s been four years since our ears have been graced with a new Decemberists album, …
It’s hard to make an album. Even when it’s easy, it’s still hard. When The Donkeys started work on their newest album, Ride The Black Wave, back in 2012, no one had any idea that album wasn’t going to see the light of day until 2014. That’s two years. Two years of sitting on a record that they knew kicked serious ass. You want to talk about hard? Try pouring yourself into a project, finishing the project, and then being forced to kick back and wait for the stars to align or the moon to pass through Jupiter or whatever the fuck. Fortunately, The Donkeys are a pretty chill group of extremely talented dudes, and even though the wait was hellacious, they came out the other side for the better.
The California quartet has seen its share of success, taking home “Best Rock Album” in 2011 from the San Diego Music Awards for Born With Stripes, and following that up with a “Best Rock Band” award in 2012. They’ve been touted on NPR. They’ve been featured alongside the Dum Dum Girls and shared a stage with Cass McCombs. Suffice it to say, they’ve followed the ‘how to make it as a band’ blueprint fairly closely. Of course you have to be on top of your shit musically as well, and these guys have that down. On a given song, you’re bound to hear a cluster of genres bent and twisted to fit seamlessly together; The Donkeys can write a damn song. They’ve got a unique blend of laid-back surfer vibes, some garage fuzz, some indie pop, and some Eastern influences. You might also pick up on some tinges of country western here and there as well.
The ability to constantly shift musical gears is an enviable talent. It doesn’t happen overnight, obviously, and over the course of our interview, band member Anthony Luken pointed out that the development of their always-burgeoning sound was both difficult and rewarding. The Donkeys approach music with an eye toward constant collaboration and improvement, and spreading all that around four people is a challenge. Fortunately, they’ve managed to keep it working. From the roots of the self-titled debut—a strong, defining record—it’s been a bit of a journey, both as musicians and as people. It’s clear they know who they are and what they want as a band, and if Ride The Black Wave is any indication, what they want is to rock some of the most unique and best music coming out today.
Flying down the freeway toward Escondido, Anthony took a few minutes to give Eleven the rundown on how they deal with stage divers, super tall mic stands, and why George Harrison was a poser.
ELEVEN: How are you guys doing? You said you were rolling up to a show?
Anthony Luken: We’re stylin’ man! We were just talking about our show last night, and how we had a stage diver, and how that was super sweet. So yeah, vibes are high.
11: So how’d you deal with that—the stage diver?
AL: It was nice; he waited and made sure people were ready for him. It was very polite stage diving. It was at the very end of the last song—it was like an encore, actually. It was pretty exciting.
11: I’ve had a chance to listen to the new record a couple times—really digging it. What’s the feedback been like so far for it?
AL: So far it’s been really positive. It’s been really exciting—everyone’s been super stoked on it. It’s good—so far it’s been great. And it’s been good for us, too. We’re just so excited to be able to finally share it, because we’ve had it under wraps for like—I mean, we haven’t let anyone hear it . . . It’s been under wraps for like 15 months or something. We recorded it like two years ago.
11: Oh wow, so what’s with the time lag?
AL: We just didn’t really know who was going to put it out. There was some of that, and we’ve just kind of been hiding it, you know? We’re just stoked that it’s here, and it’s good that it’s here in the summertime—it feels like it’s appropriate, and we’re just stoked.
11: Yeah, it feels like a pretty laid-back, summertime album. Is that something you guys did on purpose? Not to necessarily time it up with the summer, but to get that general feel? Stylistically, how did you end up where you did with Ride The Black Wave?
AL: Consciously, I think there was kind of something. . . We originally recorded these tracks was in the summer two years ago. We definitely had beach themes and ocean themes and water themes we were working with lyrically. Stylistically, I think it just kind of fell into place, you know? Like, we have a song called “The Bahamas” and “Ride The Black Wave,” and I think that kind of pushed out the theme of “ocean.” And also just knowing that, and riding with that. No pun intended.
11: Are you guys all from California?
AL: Pretty much. Jesse’s the only one that was born in California. Tim and I were both born in Michigan, and we moved to California really young. Dan I think moved to California when he was five. So we all kind of grew up here, and, you know, in the ‘burbs—the Orange County suburbs. We all grew up going to the beach on the weekends, and we all grew up with the same radio stations as kids, so we all listened to the same oldies station and just kind of that California sprawl. So we share that in our DNA.
11: Yeah, you can kind of hear, on some of your songs, that oldies influence. I was thinking about it, listening to some of your music—not to go too overboard here, but some of it reminded me of The Beatles a little bit: you have those distorted vocals, you have the Eastern ragas, and you just have stuff that, sonically, is a little bit different than what you typically hear coming out today.
AL: Oh, yeah, we all love—I mean, who doesn’t—we all love The Beatles. We all go through periods of Beatles obsession. But [about] the Eastern stuff, the thing that’s so cool is that Jesse is actually Indian. He grew up not only listening to KS101 like the rest of us, but with his parents and the ragas all the time. So he’s got like an actual Indian genome in him musically—that’s part of his DNA. So when he got his first sitar, we were all so obsessed. Of course, we would all listen to the Beatles and smoke weed and try to get sounds off the sitar. And as he got better and better at it, good enough so we could all jam together, that was kind of the secret weapon—something that would be unique to us. It was this kind of “East meets West” kind of thing. And kind of worked because, you know, the Beatles made that a thing, so it kind of brought it back to this West Coast-hippie-surfing kind of thing. It kind of felt like this cool surf thing. I mean, I don’t know, there’s sort of a Beatles thing, but just because they did it, too. The thing that makes it kind of cool is that we actually have an Indian playing sitar as opposed to a white guy wishing he was Indian. George Harrison, RIP. No disrespect, George. We’re actually in his old stomping grounds in Escondido right now.
I mean, Sam is a major record hoarder, and there’s just constantly music that we’re shuffling through, garage ‘45s. I mean, we all love that garage, dirty fuzz rock. We love music.
It was an experience that I’d have to describe as loving every second of it.
11: I guess you’re probably in the right business. So it seems like, from listening to some of your older stuff, that you guys have definitely grown musically. It seems like your sound has opened up quite a bit—from the record you put out in ’06 to Ride The Black Wave– it’s kind of cool to listen to that stuff and hear all the different directions you guys are capable of going in. Has your writing/composing process changed over the years? Is it a democratic process, or how do you guys go about that?
AL: Well, I don’t think our process has changed much since we’ve been doing it, but it’s probably the same thing as far as like riffing off everybody’s ideas, and kind of trying to take a riff or something that someone brings and constantly try to improve it and make it better. But yeah, it is a really democratic process—which is really challenging, but it’s awesome because, I mean, I could never make a record on my own that sounds like Ride The Black Wave; it’s everybody’s effort together. Everybody’s got their own talents and shines in a different way, and that’s kind of my favorite part—even though it can be really challenging, because sometimes there’s just so much material that it’s hard to figure out how to present something. With this last record coming out after two years, it was tough because we had all these garage-y riffs and didn’t know how it was all going to fit. But yeah, the writing’s the same; the process is the same. But I would agree, listening to the old stuff —I haven’t actually listened to the oldest record in a while—but I can just remember how challenging certain things were, musically, that are so much easier now because we’ve just dedicated so much time to it.
11: So then for Ride The Black Wave, what was the hardest part? You said it can be challenging, and that makes total sense. But for this record, you said you guys made it and then had to sit on it for a while—which, I’m sure, was shitty. So aside from having to wait, what was the hardest part about putting it together?
AL: Definitely the hardest part was waiting on it. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of grief, just sitting around and knowing we had this rad record and not knowing what was going to happen. That was really challenging. And you know, kind of heartbreaking, too, to know that you put in so much work on something and we weren’t really sure what was going to happen. So it was tough. So it makes it extra exciting to know it came out, and we have so much support. I think the actual recording of it was a breeze, and it was so much fun. It was the first time we really recorded in a fancy place—it was a beautiful studio. The recording itself was so fun; I just really didn’t want it to be over. It was a real treat, a real pleasure to do. So fun. All the challenges were mostly administrative—figuring out how it was going to work, and making the costs work. It was awesome—our booking agent was kind of our pseudo-manager and a real cheerleader to just keep going. He kept us motivated to keep working, keep making it happen.
11: You said this was the first time you guys were able to record in a “fancy studio?”
AL: I mean, we’ve probably dabbled—had little moments here and there in a fancy place that we never would have been able to afford off the street. All the wood, all the ridiculous gear, the mic stands that were like 20 feet tall. . . The most impressive part was how tall the mic stands were. I’ve never seen mic stands so tall [laughs].
11: So you get in there, and all of a sudden you have access to some different equipment, maybe some different speakers, just a different space than you might normally be used to. I was wondering if maybe you went in there with your songs, and then you heard some new sounds that came out and we’re like, “Oh, well, let’s try this,” or something?
AL: Oh, totally. It was like being in a toy shop, absolutely. We were just giddy. I mean, I was, like, giggling the whole time. It was amazing. It was a lot of fun. And, yeah, we also had access to really, really talented people that all worked at that place. It was an experience that I’d have to describe as loving every second of it. We would hang out there in the evening an rehearse there—it was the kind of room where you could just open up the door and people would say, “Wow.” Just hanging out in there with all our gear, jamming, drinking beer in there—it wasn’t even like we had to be in there by nine and out by five.
11: You mentioned before that you guys are into those garage ‘45s. Do you guys spend a lot of time combing through record stores anymore looking for obscure stuff that you might be able to goose the sound a little bit with? Do you consider yourselves record-store junkies?
AL: Oh, yeah, always. We already know we’re going to go to Mississippi Records when we’re up in Portland because it’s near your venue there. Every town—we go to them everywhere. For better or worse, we spend a shit-ton of money on records.
11: You guys are getting ready for your tour. What are you looking forward to most? Any specific locations that you’re pretty pumped about?
AL: Oh yeah, I mean, I’m super pumped about our show with you guys—that’s going to be super rad. Portland used to be. . . we had a rough couple of times at first, going to Portland. But then we started to make more friends, and as we’ve gone more around there, it’s been better and better every time. We always love being in New York because the food’s so good and we have a lot of friends there. It’s always fun. Louisana’s always fun—just all the friends we’ve made on the road. It’s really fun to be able to go back and see them, especially when it feels like you’re doing something cool—and share this record with a lot of people I haven’t gotten to see in a while, you know?
11: I gotta ask—what was so rough about the first couple trips to Portland?
AL: [Laughs] I don’t know, it just never felt like we were in the right room at the right time, or something. My first memories of there were of it being cold and gray. We would happen to be playing at the one club that nobody wanted to be at, or the one bar that would seem like on most other nights there’d be at least ten people there. We would just happen to clear out a room the minute we walked in. I’m trying to remember when the turning point was. I think I was playing a show with The Paper Cuts and then all of a sudden we just started making friends, and then now it feels like we have family there. And you guys have all this good food and stuff. Yeah. It’s rad.
11: Sounds like you’ve gotten your legs under you up there. We’re pumped. It’s going to be a great show. So, real quick, off the top of your head, what are your favorite songs on this new album—the ones you just had the most fun doing?
AL: Um, that’s a tough one. That’s a good one. Mine might be “The Manx.” [Asks around]: T, what’s your favorite song off the new album? “Scissors.” T’s is “Scissors.” [Ed note: “Scissor Me Cigs”] Jesse, what’s your favorite song off the new album? “Bahamas,” from Jesse. Sam, what’s your favorite song on the album? Oh, he says “Ride the Black Wave.” Four different answers, I like that. »
– Charles Trowbridge