As San Diegan folk-psychedelios, The Donkeys have become a southern Californian regional favorite for encapsulating everything lovable about their favorite place in the world, and last Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking with them before the second show of their tour, sharing the stage with Extra Classics and The Blank Tapes. Anthony Lukens (singer/keyboardist/guitarist) texted telling me to come early and hang, and met me at the front of the Glass House as soon as I arrived; drummer Sam Sprague was shopping in the Glass House record store with Jessie Gulati (guitarist and occasional sitarist), who was doing some imaginative math to work a Lyres vinyl into his personal budget. Lead guitarist Timothy DeNardo met us there to complete the quartet, sporting a spiffy new blue-and-white Hawaiian shirt, the first he’s ever owned somehow, despite living in sunny San Diego. As charmingly laid-back as their sound is, their personalities and friendship are even more so.
VS: So do you guys do any mental/physical preparation to get ready for touring, to stave off exhaustion and the like?
Jessie: We should! But yeah, I don’t… at all…
Anthony: I’m preparing just by eating every meal at home until we leave, that’s my big thing. Just get as many vitamins and minerals in me before the big fast.
Sam: It’s weird, I feel like I eat better on tour almost, especially on the long ones, since we go grocery shopping mostly. ‘Cause you can’t snack, I mean, not anymore. Well, you probably could… [Gestures to me; I shift uncomfortably in my seat.]
Jessie: We make sandwiches, eat fruit, eat a lot of vegetable snacks, carrots instead of Doritos. I mean you could eat Doritos all day until you feel like crap, it’s super salty, for hours…
Sam: You drink a lot of water though, to be candid.
Timothy: I have a hard time drinking, I usually get really dehydrated a lot on tour, because I just have to pee a lot if I drink a lot of water, so it’s like I’m pulling over every twenty minutes if I do, so I just don’t drink any water.
Anthony: Yeah, he has a notoriously small bladder.
Timothy: Yeah dude, they just get mad at me, I get into trouble…
VS: What albums do you guys bring with you on tour?
Sam: We buy records mainly, so it kind of sucks in terms of bringing music on tour.
Anthony: We do have a little record player, and we’d play it in the back room and motels and stuff.
Jessie: That’d be real fun, because we can just go shopping that day, then at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning listen to everything we bought.
VS: Do you ever listen to your own music? As a joke or otherwise?
Anothy: I have this old iPod and every now and then I’ll forget there’s some of our old music on it, like weird demos and crap we haven’t heard in a while and I’ll put that on as a joke. And we’ll be like, “Wow, this is awesome”, so yeah, sometimes we listen to the older thing?
Jessie: Yeah, it’s like looking at old photographs, where you hear the song and you’re like, “Yeah I remember that time! when we did that thing0…”
VS: I noticed that you’re closing off this tour with Pickathon in Oregon. Do you guys have a preference between playing smaller shows and larger music festivals?
Sam: We mostly play small shows. Festivals get a little weird because it’s such a high pace of turnover, super chaotic getting in there, quick on, quick off, it’s super hard, unorganized.
Jessie: Well, on the tours we play, we usually end up playing earlier, which is super fun because you just get to hang out all day, you don’t have to worry about loading in and out [laughs].
Are you guys festival-goers? Do you have an opinion on the direction large-scale musical festivals are taking?
Sam: I haven’t been to a festival that we haven’t played since I was like… twenty… two… [laughs] It doesn’t appeal to me, no. It’s a little too much, I’m a “less is more” kinda guy. I’d rather see a band at a small club. I love seeing bands at festivals while we’re playing there, though. Maybe it’s out of laziness, but Coachella just doesn’t sound fun, too much of like a shit show.
Timothy: I like Coachella because of where we live; we can pick up the stragglers on the weekends or weekdays because all those bands are coming through during the week and you get to see really cool bands at smaller venues. But festivals, it’s just too much too fast. It’s a lot of people.
VS: What was the general ethos behind Ride the Black Wave? What did you do on this album that you didn’t do on previous albums, would you say?
Anthony: We experimented with new sounds a little more, because we were recording in a place that had more toys so we can try out some new stuff. Maybe that, but I don’t think there was this whole plan of making it too differently. This was the first time we tracked digitally; that was different.
Timothy: I don’t think it was so much we were trying to do things differently, but we were trying to make things a little more cohesive. I know when it came to mixing it we wanted it to be less about the individual songs and make it more about an album experience. We haven’t always thought that way, but this time we were really conscious of time and getting the sequence together and finding ways we can make one song turn into the next.
Sam: We cut out a lot of songs. I think we were definitely dedicated to making a cohesive sound, whereas before we just kind of did whatever. So we cut out a lot of songs and picked the best songs, specifically for this record.
Timothy: We didn’t set out to write the record the way it was, but the demos we started making all had a kind of vibe, so that started steering us in a direction.
VS: I’ve heard you guys don’t have a dedicated lead singer, so how does your songwriting process generally go?
Timothy: Sam writes a lot, he’s quick with the melody and the words, and he writes more often that I do for sure. I think melody comes a little slower to me. Sam’s definitely thrown a few songs my way, and Anthony’s really good at songwriting too.
Anthony: Everybody’s got their strengths and weaknesses, and I’d like to think we can exploit each others’ strengths.
Sam: The best songs we’ve ever written, we wrote together. But yeah sometimes there’s songs where it’ll all be totally done when someone brings it in, sometimes it’ll be like ‘here’s a riff,’ somebody comes up with a melody, it’s gone all ways, which is good for us.
Jessie: We’ve been in a band for ten years, and we’ve pretty much done it every which way.
Timothy: Some of the earliest stuff was definitely just jams that we dissected and re-sculpted into something, but now, as we all get better musically, the ideas come out a little more fleshed out than they used to. As opposed to just getting drunk and high…
Sam: And that’s fun to do too! But before, we used to be like “Okay it’s done!” But now we work on it a lot more.
Jessie: Yeah, there’s a lot more editing, and revising too, rewriting.
Sam: At least it’s happened to me where it’s like, “God, if I had just worked on it a little more it would’ve been better”. It is what it is now, but if I had just wrote this third verse instead of just repeating another one, things like that. I think when you’re younger you’re just happy it’s done. And then when you get older you finish a lot of things, and you just want to pick the good stuff.
VS: Listening to your newest album, Ride the Black Wave, I was sensing an ambivalence towards California, with lyrics like “Trapped in the sunny daze,” and others about moving to France, and we all know France is the opposite of California. What was your specific attitude towards the state for this album exactly?
Sam: [laughs] Most of us have lived in California for the better part of our lives, and you just kind of want change. I mean it’s beautiful and it’s perfect, but you do have this feeling of “change is nice”.
Timothy: You start to question the perfect.
Sam: I mean, Anthony moved to San Francisco for about three months, that’s as much as anything’s changed. Moving to San Francisco would be awesome, it’s such different weather. I love California, it’s just one time I got up, I was hung over, and I saw these guys jogging, you know, in San Diego, and I said to myself, “God I wish I lived in Minnesota where everybody was hung over and its cold out so you wouldn’t see some asshole running”… sometimes you just want to watch a movie but its 75 degrees out and you feel like an asshole just sitting in your house.
Timothy: If you moved to Minnesota it’d be hard to get used to the cold weather, and there’s a weird motivation to that, and a kind of hardship. San Diego has permanent nice weather, and that might create a complacency or lack of motivation where you can say, “Oh, I can just do that tomorrow because it’s going to be just as nice out”. You can’t say, “It’s been shitty for three weeks, so I’m going to make the most of this”.
VS: I notice a lot of interviews refer to your music in relation to California. Does that ever grate on you?
Sam: I’m happy people are just noticing us. I mean usually it’s complimentary; it’s interesting to me, though, to think of what people get from our music. It doesn’t bother me, does it bother you guys?
Anthony: You kind of wonder if people actually hear that [California sound], like a chicken and the egg thing, where you wonder, “Did you hear that first, or did you read that and then think of it when you listen to our music? If you went in blind and heard it, would you still say it’s a CA sound?”
Sam: We’ve just kind of embraced it and so now it makes sense. I think people like hearing words, and then clinging onto them. I don’t really get it at all.
VS: Is it still too early to discuss plans for The Donkeys’ future?
Sam: We’ve kind of done pre-production on a new record, actually. We have songs, we always have songs, but right now we’re just really focused on touring this record. Though recording is my favorite thing to do.
VS: Last question – what are you guys all listening to right now?
Anthony: Well I just got a hold of the New Extra classics record, we had it on all morning, loved it. [It's true - they do love Extra Classics. They went nuts for their set, and wanted to purchase their keyboardist.]
Jessie: I just bought some records now, but the last one I got was a live 13th Elevator record.
Timothy: I can’t get enough of that Frank Ocean record. It’s all I’ve been listening to, I wake up in the morning with it stuck in my head and I jut put it on all day long. I think everyone’s sick of it by now.
Sam: Right now I’ve been listening to Merle Haggard a lot, it’s really good for me right now. I don’t know why. It’s good summer music.