Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney
There's a line in 'C'mon Virginia," a song off of the debut album by San Diego's The Donkeys where singer/drummer Sam Sprague sings, "You've got those eyes/Seems you could throw a penny in 'em," that somehow makes it all sink in. It's a simple piece of lyric that's only supposed to be about a dame batting some pretty blue, cavernous eyes, but the calming and delightful way that the bushy Sprague lays it out makes you want to imagine the young band as a neverland of sorts, a place to lose yourself completely without a bread crumb or popcorn trail to lead you back. Everything they do is reminiscent to a quiet pier, a tranquil lake that looks like it's make of mirrors or a shady yard with a spacious oak tree and a tire swing dangling down from a creaky branch. They are easy living and virtuous. They're in favor of bringing back the good old days and the soda fountains. They support cookouts and beer from the bottle. They are gentle beings who believe in country, folk, roots and rock as much as they do peace, love and dope.
Listening to their lone album, you bear witness to the idea of what it must be like to be completely assured, to be connected to that one part of your makeup that's beyond reproach, that is your true constitution any way you cut it. They are sympathetic to their inner motors and drive shafts, which leads to the delivery of songs of innumerable pleasures and sleepy acquiescence. It's given to the listener with resounding love marks and invisible kisses, put down on record as triumphs that aren't belabored or trite. These are songs that have ancestors aplenty, but their shared features and distinctive markings are few. These songs - sprouted from jam sessions and laidback hangings out at a rehearsal space - are slowly roasted in a golden heat and put on the cooling racks when they've caught a light cinnamony sugar coloring, just as one would catch a sun tan. It's as natural of a process as that. Inside of each of these songs is a reprieve from the heat. You can sense small victories in the seams, even when a job's been lost or a girl's been trouble. There's a little Dylan lurking in these bones, there's some old country and there's some sick melodies that can actually punctuate. I mean REALLY punctuate, no periods or semicolons, just fat ass exclamation marks and combos of exclamation and question marks that really signify portent. They are the, "Holy shit!?!" of melodies.
And yet they hang onto their scruff, this band does. They never light the fuse and blow anything out of those soft, calming waters. They let things float and simmer so that they can be ingested at will and not at gunpoint. This is free will. The songs never boast, but continue with a cohesion that's gained from Sprague's never showy drumming, Timothy DeNardo's perfect bass gallop, Jesse Gulati's bright guitar lines and Anthony Luken's sensationally radiant Rhoades work.
Now, this is just me thinking out loud. I wonder how many times this band has worked through hangovers. I wonder why these songs sound so easy. I wonder if there's a better record for a summer drive. I doubt that there is. It would pain me to listen to this in the winter as the cabin fever would get to be too unbearable. I wonder how long it will be before everyone's throwing their name around as a just-discovered diamond in the rough. It's no wonder that the people at Antenna Farm Records mentioned that it was a privilege that they were able to release this record. To borrow the band's personal war cry, "Yeah Donkeys. Do it." And hit us like a breeze.
*The Daytrotter Interview:*
*What's the low-down on how you guys got started as a band? You've all got the common characteristic of being uber-chill. We like that about you.*
Timothy DeNardo: For the most part we've all been friends since high school. Anthony, Sam, and I all meet there and we met Jessie shortly there after. We all played in bands together but not all at once. I was in The Anchors with Anthony. Sam, Jessie and Anthony used to be in a band called The Moon and Sixpence...there's a long list. Anyways, our collective bands shared a rehearsal space and at some point both bands stopped practicing. So in that void we just came together to have fun and jam. Many late and intoxicated nights passed and those jams started shaping into songs, so we gave it a name and started playing shows.
Anthony Lukens: We've been in bands together for a long time, this summer marks ten years since Sam and my first band The Parking Lot Kids. A couple of years ago we started jamming and having lots of fun. Then Tim 's and my band had a show they we couldn't play so the donkeys did.
SS: We met in a tube one day. Anthony is the mayor of Tube City and employed us as his surfboards.
*Why the donkey? Is it an equine response to all of the wolf and horse bands flooding the marketplace? Be honest.*
TD: In all honesty, Sam always thought that would be a good band name. I think we kept it around as a joke for awhile and it just stuck.
Jessie Gulati: I don't really remember why. It just stuck. We used to jam for hours and hours and say, "Yeah Donkeys. Do it." The name just stuck.
SS: We just thought it sounded cool. Turns out it's kind of embarrassing to tell your grandpa the name of your band.
*Where do you all individually feel most at home? Where does the band as a whole feel most at home?*
TD: I love Southern California. We were all raised here so I think your home always sticks with you. The weather is perfect and the ocean is amazing. There's just something about it that is hard to explain. I find myself missing it when I leave town.
AL: Camping, the beach, my house ("Maybe horse I can't read his writing. but I know he doesn't have a horse," writes DiNardo who is translating Lukens' script.), probably jamming together
*Does the continuous warmth and sunshine of San Diego slow-roast your songs to perfection?*
TD: Not so much roast as much as bake, if you know what I mean. just kidding. I'm sure the weather does keep the music more playful. It's hard to be morose when it's 75 degrees out 300 days of the year.
JG: I'd like to think so.
SS: It's actually a bit distracting. A little bad weather might keep us more busy.
*What keeps you preoccupied outside of music?*
JG: Attempting to teach kids with learning disabilities. Being a homemaker while my girlfriend goes to work.
TD: Life, in all its "grown up" forms.
SS: Candy, baseball and job.
*Do any of you have personal by-laws that stipulate a minimum time of the day when it's okay to down your first beer or cocktail?*
SS: Whenever Jessie gives us permission. He's the band's health guru and he leaves us little envelopes with vitamins.
JG: Lately, I've been on vacation from a job. Going to the beach and sipping on beer can take place early in the day.
TD: Not really. Sometimes you just need a beer. What's so wrong about that?
*Are you known for letting loose?*
TD: Back in those formative days, I would say a big YES. Now it is more like a yes.
*You seem to be very particular with your songs -- everything is in the right place and thought out. Do you labor over these songs or are they flashes that just pop out at you?*
TD: A little of both. We'll record our jam outs sometimes and keep what works. Other times, someone will come to practice with a done song and the rest of us will texture as necessary.
*What do you own in hounds tooth?*
JG: That's Tito's thing.
TD: I got some socks, a scarf from a street vender in Manhattan and a jacket I wish I had the balls to wear. (It's pretty close to totally hideous).
AL: I used to have hounds tooth cloth that I put over my piano that we turned into curtains for the van.
SS: A pair of socks my friend Maria gave me that she got from N.Y.
*What things, sounds, people would you lend your support to bringing back from the dead/past?*
JG: A lot of things. Perhaps a little humble man named Mahatma Gandhi would be nice.
TD: The days when popular music wasn't total bullshit.
AL: Curtis Mayfield.
SS: Captain EO, Willy Wonka, Pee Wee Herman, Jimi Hendrix, Gilda Radner, Lucille Ball, Janis Joplin, Mission to Mars, Keith Moon, Country Bear Jamboree, The Swiss Family tree house and pull-tabs on beer cans.
*How much did you enjoy playing as Owen's backing band? Is that something that might happen again? What sticks out the most from that tour?*
TD: I loved it. It was hard work in that we played two sets a night for a month. I would like to play with him again. In all honesty, Rock Island sticks out most in my mind. And the tornados we drove in the next day.
SS: We'd always be happy to be Owen's backup band. Driving through a tornado storm in Illinois and eating Philly cheesesteaks in Philadelphia were pretty memorable.
*What's your favorite Daytrotter memory?*
TD: The studio was great. Cheap beer, and pizza downstairs. Pat is probably the best engineer/producer ever -- no nonsense but chill as hell. Overall, a great day.
AL: Our buddha, Pat. Owen was pooping the amp and Pat warned him not to do it again. Then Owen did it again and Pat said through the PA, "If you do that again I'm gonna have to come out there and we're going to have words."
*Do you all sleep in or are there jobs to go to?*
JG: Lately, I have been sleeping in. Like I said, I'm on vacation. I usually do wake up early when I work as a substitute teacher.
TD: I wait tables at a breakfast/lunch place. So I wake up early everyday and have all joy sucked out of life by two and go on from there.
AL: I'm the only one that doesn't have a day job.
*What are your future plans?*
TD: We're recording our next album. More touring, less table service and more money.
SS: To turn into a butterfly.
*Has one song ever had you spellbound?*
TD: This is surprisingly a tough question to answer. There's not much in my life that can affect me the way music has and on many occasions I have been deeply spellbound.
JG: When I listen to the composition "Bhatiyall Dhun" by the sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan.
SS: Many. One would be "London Homesick Blues" by Gary P. Nunn.
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