The Donkeys work hard to make laid-back tunes. Across four albums and 11 years, the San Diego quartet has made consistently engaging surf rock, the type of music you’d imagine could be the soundtrack to a sunny late afternoon (if we ever had one). Hailing from San Diego, the band has toured with the likes of The Hold Steady, and provided the music for the fictitious band Geronimo Jackson on TV’s Lost. Ultimately though, they are four guys with a well-crafted California sound. As The Donkeys prepare to play The Chapel on Thursday night, band member Anthony Lukens called SF Weekly to talk Joshua Tree, sitars, and the Velvet Underground.
Is it nice to be playing in San Francisco given that’s where The Donkeys played their first show?
Very good. Oh yeah, of course. It’s definitely on the shortlist of cities to play. The drag is always that we never really have enough time to hang out, but we love San Francisco. It’s definitely one of our favorites.
So given that you don’t have a lot of time here, will you at least be able to grab a burrito or something?
We usually have enough time to get either a late-night El Farolito burrito or… what’s the one between Mission and Valencia?
Yeah! One of those places is the protocol. It’s been a pretty successful protocol. And then usually Ritual is our spot. We went to Philz for a while but then we got into Ritual. That’s the little quick stuff we can do and still get in like a 10 hour drive each day. I can’t remember the last time we were up there for more than one night as a band, but we do love San Francisco. We have a lot of friends in the area.
And you’re playing The Chapel, which is a great venue.
That is a totally rad room. Super fun to play there. Always nice.
How would you describe your live show? What’s the mentality like on stage?
We try to keep it fun. I think the last thing anybody wants to do is come off pretentious; so we try to keep it pretty light, rock it out, jam a bit. Hopefully we can get kind of weird — get spacey. Honestly, when we’re touring, out of all the 24 hours in the day, it’s definitely the most fun hour of the day when we’re on stage. I think everybody is blowing off a little steam, so it’s like a cathartic hour. So the mentality is just to enjoy ourselves. That’s what I try to tell myself: just enjoy it and not trip out if someone hits a bum note. We want to create a fun atmosphere, because God knows when you’re traveling, there are just so many other things that can go wrong during the day. Being on-stage is like the one hour of the day where you just get to single task.
You guys have been a band for over a decade now. Have you noticed a change in how you guys go about creating music now versus when you were getting off graveyard shifts at Denny’s and jamming all night?
We don’t really do that much anymore, like the super late-night ones. Everybody has always brought in their own songs, and then we just try to work them out together. But before there was a lot more free jamming, because it was a very late-night, booze-filled, stereotypical young dudes not worried about getting a DUI coming back from the rehearsal space type of thing. Now it’s a little more organization with regards to getting together and when we can all hang out.
The last time we had a really great writing session together was out in the desert. We were getting ready to record a new EP, which should be coming out hopefully before the end of the year. We were in between tours in March, and we stopped at our friends’ place, which is out near Joshua Tree. We got to just hang out there for like three or four days. That was super fun. We tapped into that vibe of keeping it loose, not having to schedule. Everyone was settled and mellow. We go to hang out and play music. We’d switch instruments, which was what we used to do a lot more. Somebody would just start sitting at the drums and someone else would grab a guitar. It’s like when you do a drawing with your opposite hand — you’re not really thinking as much. We came up with a really great track that’s going to be on our next record, and a couple of other good jams. So overall, I think things are about the same. Maybe time is just a little more precious now that we’re older, I guess.
It’s funny that you bring up Joshua Tree. I recently had a chance to speak with Kurt Vile, and he talked about the inspiration of recording at the Rancho de la Luna studio at Joshua Tree. Have you guys ever had a chance to record there?
No, I haven’t heard of that one, but that little chunk of the world is almost like Los Angeles expatriates. There are a lot of artists and a lot of little studios out there. I don’t know that one specifically, but it’s a little bit more on the radar now, and with this new generation where we’re able to work more remotely, and not be confined to a specific geography, I think people are a little bit more attracted to living out there. I did hear Kurt was out there. It’s an inspiring place. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, going out there with my family. The band has been lucky to get gigs out there, and we’re extremely lucky to have friends open up their house to us and let us take over and make noise into the wee hours of the night. We were there during this incredible flower bloom last spring that was supposedly one of the best in a decade. It was really amazing to be there.
You mentioned you have an EP you’re hoping to get out by the end of the year. I know your last full length [Ride the Black Wave] was recorded in 2012, but wasn’t available until 2014. Are you working on a new full length, and are you eager to make sure your EP doesn’t have to wait as long as your last album did to see the light of day?
Funny you should bring that up. Our EP has actually been a thorn in our side, because originally it was supposed to be the supplement to Ride the Black Wave because that was taking so long. Then we got a new label, and it just got pushed back, so now the EP has been re-recorded, and tracks have been added and dropped. It’s not collagey because it all got mixed at the same place. [Producer] Thom Monahan took the helm there. It doesn’t sound like a collage when you listen to it. It’s been a long process, and now it’s been turned in for a month or so. So now it’s in the hands of the powers that be as far when it will be appropriate to release. We’re very eager to let this one go and get started on our next record. There’s plenty of material and everybody is excited to just start something new and have a different approach. Everyone’s really excited to go back out to the desert, or something like that, where we can be in a retreat situation as opposed to clocking in hours after work. I don’t know when an album might be coming out, but the goal is just to keep putting stuff out. That’s what we’re hoping to do.
“Sunny Daze,” the opening track off your most recent album, has a warm afternoon glow sound but lyrics that are somewhat existential. Is that juxtaposition reflective of where you guys are at as a band these days?
Yeah. Sam [Sprague] wrote those lyrics, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I do love those lyrics a lot. I think they’re really cool. Everybody was so psyched when we all heard them. I think we’ve all had that thought like what the hell are we doing? I think everybody experiences that, whatever you’re trying to pursue, whether it be art or music or accounting. There are just those doubts when you’re kind of grown up and you’re on your own and wondering what the hell are you going to do with your life. Right now, I’ve been preparing for tour, getting my things in order and I’m definitely have those same doubts of what the hell am I doing? I think we had the music first but Sam was really quick with the words and they fit in. I don’t know if it’s an intentional juxtaposition or anything, but I love the way it flows together. We wanted to make that whole record feel sunshiney, and we ran with the theme. We’d never done that before. There were a couple of themes—California, the ocean—so we played with it later, adding in the seagulls on the opening track and stuff to give it a certain feel.
You guys get asked a lot about California band influences, and for good reason, but on a song like “Scissor Me Cigs,” I felt there was an almost Pixies quality to the guitar line.
[Laughs] Yeah, totally! I may or may not have lifted that a little bit.
No, it’s all good! It just makes me want to know what non-surf rock groups you guys brought to the table as influences when you were figuring out The Donkeys sound.
That’s how we all originally bonded. Before I ever played music with Sam, we were talking about bands that we liked. Sam and I have been friends now for 20 years, trading records and making tapes for each other. It runs the gamut. I’m sitting in front of my record player right now, and I have a desert rock and roll compilation just sitting out, and an Éthiopiques record on the turntable. Everybody is into everything. I always go to Tim [DeNardo] for like what’s hot or what’s new. I love that about Tim – he’s always digging through the new stuff. I grew up listening to the Oldies station, and Sam’s kind of the same way. We’re always into the old garage-type stuff first. We really do love everything. I was listening to Kendrick Lamar in the car, so you know, we’re hip. As far as new bands, I dig Kurt Vile. I think we like the Velvet Underground, which is definitely not a California surf band. I think there’s definitely some of that in The Donkeys if you listen for it — dirty rock and roll. I don’t know if anybody would hear that, but I would definitely cite them as a huge influence. Also Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Frank Zappa, and J.J. Cale.
The Donkeys have been known to feature the sitar in their work. I’m always curious how less traditional instruments find their way into rock songs. How did the sitar get incorporated into your music?
Basically Jesse [Gulati] went to India and brought back a sitar. So without it having anything to do with The Donkeys, we were already jamming along with guitars and sitars together. So that came pretty organically. Now we’ve done it on every record so far. Any time we have a song that feels like it could use a drone or is in a D-flat and we’ll try and incorporate it. He was getting better and better at it, and then he went back to India and got a better one and it was on.
I see people asking you guys about moving to L.A. or moving out of San Diego, but I almost feel the opposite tactic is the better one. Do you think in this digital age that where a band calls home is even relevant anymore? To me, it seems like a smaller scene is far more beneficial to a band trying to break in than a city oversaturated with hopeful acts
Yeah, that’s an interesting point. Big pond, little fish scenario versus like Los Angeles. I don’t really know how San Diego has shaped us musically. It’s a cool scene and I dig it here, but you’re right, in this age you could kind of live anywhere. I don’t think we would really be happy if we were living a tiny city in the middle of the country, because we all like living in California. Sam’s living in L.A. now, and my wife and I are trying to move up there too. So far it’s been working for The Donkeys though. We’ve been traveling so much that the process has been good. We can get together and have a little more focus, as opposed to being neighbors and seeing each other all the time but not really getting anything done. We still text each other jams. It’s not like we’re doing The Postal Service thing and recording via email or anything like that. It’s funny, because we have been asked that a lot. Is it nature versus nurture? I don’t know what comes first. I know that certain bands get taken more seriously if they sound a certain way and they’re from a certain place, like a bluegrass band from San Diego isn’t going to get the same respect as a pop-punk band. I don’t know what the aesthetic for a San Francisco band is – like an electro sound or a cool surfer dude band?
We don’t know either.
It’s a funny thing. People like to hold to it, like its easier to wrap your head around something when you can compartmentalize it. I guess I just feel grateful that we’re able to do our thing here and people seem to appreciate it enough that we can keep doing it.
The Donkeys have definitely had success, and a success that plenty of other bands would envy, but the music scene is ultimately a fickle beast. What do you guys want for the band in the years to come?
It’s really awesome to hear you say that, because it’s a funny thing, trying to measure success. Everyone has own definition of what that means, no matter what you’re doing. I can definitely look back and be proud of the things we’ve been able to do and get done. People have heard our music, and we’ve been able to record the way we want to, and make songs sound the way we want, but ideally we would love to be able to keep doing it, and that means actually being able to actually make a little bit more money. That way we could do it more full-time, and not have to be scraping together for tours and stuff. That would be nice. We don’t need to be huge pop stars. I just want to be able to look back on a cool resume of records we’ve been able to do. Also, being able to play. I love to travel and play music. Maybe if we could just make it a little more comfortable, being to travel around and schlep everything around, that would be great too. It would be really sweet if we could be on the road and I could send home a lot more cash to my wife. But I’m sure Jack White wishes he was making more money too, so who knows. It’s like everywhere you go, same old money worries. We’re happy to be able to put out records. That’s what I’ll be most proud of when I’m old and gray and looking back to share with my kids. My only regret will be, however much music we do, that we didn’t do more.
The Donkeys open for Marc & the Casuals at The Chapel (777 Valencia St.) on Thursday, August 27, at 9:00pm. Tickets are $18 adv./$20 door, and can be purchased at thechapelsf.com.