By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
The cover of Donner Party Complete Recordings 1987-1989 includes a primitive drawing by the band's chief songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, Sam Coomes. It's a picture of the sun and moon, some fantastical animals, and the Casa Sanchez guy riding his corncob rocket into the happily ever after. In his liner notes, Coomes calls the release "a relic of a bygone age, where a band like the Donner Party had no hope whatsoever of the kind of commercial success to which so many 'alternative' or 'indie rock' (terms which I don't think were invented yet...) bands today aspire."
The Donner Party may be the least likely band to be resurrected from the pre-grunge '80s; there was, after all, no real mastermind behind its growing legend and legacy. The band's recent reactivation happened the old-fashioned way: A word-of-mouth cult developed around the music contained on its two relatively obscure and long-out-of-print albums.
"Donner Party was before the whole Seattle thing," explains former DP bassist and occasional songwriter Reinhold Johnson. "Most of us stayed on small labels, never made money. The best you could do was make enough to support your hobby. The punk scene was going away gradually and this was sort of what came after that -- it was a little less restrictive. People didn't think about what style they were playing. They just did what they did and that was kind of nice."
The Donner Party was not the kind of funny-hair-and-makeup band that dominated MTV and the modern rock airwaves in the '80s (though drummer Melanie DeGiovanni, formerly Clarin, sometimes favored a bejeweled sombrero). Instead, it was part of a post-punk new breed of American bands whose sisters and brothers in arms came from places like Minneapolis and Athens; for a nanosecond, San Francisco was part of that new guitar-rock nexus as well. In the eyes of its peers and fans, the Donner Party was always hard at work with gigs and record-making, a moderate success in a world in which the kingpins were the likes of the Meat Puppets, the Flaming Lips, and Dinosaur Jr. Clearly, for the Donner Party, music was a job and not a hobby. "It was more like a 'jobby,'" jokes the convivial DeGiovanni, the Donner triumvirate's secret weapon. In addition to wielding drumsticks, she added harmony vocals and other instruments.
Though the group officially disbanded when Coomes left the safety of the city for Portland, Ore., over 10 years ago, it turned out to be a good move for him: Coomes went on to form Motorgoat, a band that frequently shared bills with Elliott Smith's old concern, Heatmiser; the two bandleaders became pals. Coomes and Heatmiser drummer Janet Weiss formed a romantic link and the couple later became Quasi. Weiss had also sprung from the San Francisco scene as a member of the all-girl bands the Furies and Ed, and had become a permanent member of Sleater-Kinney by the late '90s. As Quasi, Coomes and Weiss are frequent collaborators with Smith, and today Coomes works on Smith's records and in his touring band. "Not too many people have been around as long as we have," explains Coomes from his home in Portland. "Either they've become famous or quit altogether. We're somewhere in between.
"It was much different back in those days," he recalls. "I guess there are still a few stragglers hanging around. The ranks are probably greatly diminished by the changes that have come over that town. Playing music in San Francisco was just a struggle. I had no idea that it could be a lot funner and that people could support local bands and you didn't have to be mortal enemies with club owners. Portland was immediately a much better place for me to play music."
DeGiovanni and Johnson concur, but are reticent to resort to nostalgia. Besides, neither of them left town. "I hated when Herb Caen used to write what a better city it used to be," says DeGiovanni. For her part, she's never had trouble finding work as a musician. While she was playing in the Donners, she drummed and sang with the Cat Heads, and played with Barbara Manning (she later played full time in Manning's SF Seals). Immediately after the Donners disbanded, she recorded two albums with Harm Farm. Today she plays occasionally with the Buckets and Mare Winningham. Johnson, however, returned to his job in the medical field. "I was never musically inclined," he says. "I don't think we ever expected to make it with the Donner Party. Nobody was making it."
The final Donner Party lineup formed in San Francisco around 1985, when some mutual friends brought them together. "I'd dabbled with guitar," says Johnson. "I wasn't looking to get in a band, but I wasn't against the idea either. I wrote songs mainly because I wasn't very good at listening to records and working out songs off records."
That devil-may-care attitude was in fact the charm of the Donners, as they were affectionately dubbed. Naive melodies drove songs with crazy, surrealistic lyrics and titles like "Godlike Porpoise Head of Blue-Eyed Mary" and "When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out." With their shades of folk and primitive rock, the songs seemed pulled from the same toy chest as those of Jonathan Richman or Daniel Johnston. Coomes' strained yet nonchalant vocal style never wallowed in its own eccentricities, and DeGiovanni's harmonies elevated the songs into something more complete, while the childlike approach could quickly veer into full-on bash and pop.