California Sunshine

The golden state of Skygreen Leopards' cosmic roots-pop

"All those guys, like the New Riders, are much better musicians [than us]," admits Donaldson, who, as a member of Thuja, has also been an active participant in the Bay Area's experimental music scene since the mid-'90s. "We're trying to play something that we really can't. And so everyone plays just a little bit off. But it's more surprising that way."

Quinn jokingly adds, "Even though we think we're the kings of California from the Sunset Strip on up to the Golden Gate, it's really all in our heads. We still sound more like Television Personalities [a pioneering, VU-inspired Anglo-pop act]. Everything comes out at this weird angle because we don't have a choice with our musicianship."

If Quinn and Donaldson appear somewhat hesitant to totally embrace their stated intentions behind the Disciples of California sound (they crack endless jokes about magic, surfers, and pyramids), it's because they understand that mythologizing the Golden State hippie-country experience through song is, in Donaldson's words, a "weird, awkward embrace of tradition." You see, the duo is all too aware of the fact that the concept they're experimenting with — maybe even attempting to reclaim — has over the years devolved into this hollow, commodified meme à la Hotel California.

Then again, it's this very ambivalence — a brash mix of heartfelt passion and dismissive humor — that allows Donaldson and Quinn to infuse their new music with a full-blown mystical lyricism that works where it often did not when cokehead outlaws like the Eagles were taking themselves way too seriously. For example, a couple weeks prior to our interview, the morning immediately after Quinn gave me a CD-R of the recently finished Disciples, my wife and I drove to Ocean Beach, secured a perfect view of the horizon, and cranked it. And about eight tracks into the thing — our backs to the towering Monterey pines of Golden Gate Park — a gently strummed acoustic faded in from the speakers, followed by Quinn's spare piano and drummer Jasmyn Wong's patient studder-step. Then, after several short bars, Donaldson's soft, mellow cry completed the tune, "Jesus was Californian, with Mary and the prophet Elijah. Jesus drank by the ocean and slept through your tent revival."

It was the type of over-the-top yet intensely honest line that makes you chuckle. But then the sun's first powerful rays broke through the lingering fog and turned the Pacific into a brilliant liquid metal. And it was all too obvious that Skygreen Leopards, with vital contributions from their Skyband, have not only crafted their best record to date but one of the quintessential California albums.

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