Boys of Summer
The Donkeys just have that sound
to make you think of California
The soundtrack for the film "The Endless Summer," released in 1966, has an important place in the hearts of the members of the Southern California band, The Donkeys. First of all, the musical group The Sandals, who did the surf theme for the movie, came from the same place The Donkeys did, Dana Point, California. When the original four members of the indie pop-rockers The Donkeys were growing up, the oceanside city between San Diego and Los Angeles was an idyllic place where you could surf, or just hang out on the beach and breathe in the sea breezes, while their families could live there at a reasonable price. But like so many musicians of their generation living in Southern California, their artistic cravings were fueled by the restlessness of being young in the 'burbs.
The film "The Endless Summer" was about a group of surfers, finding California beaches inhospitable during the cold currents of winter, seeking out warmer climates around the world in order to do what they love around the year, thus making it sunny and wavy wherever they went. It's a kind of gypsy idea, reinforced for the 20th century by Jack Kerouac and his novel about life on the move, "On the Road." Fledgling rock bands, therefore, are perfect extensions of this Kerouac idea: of roving minstrels, of easy riders, of boardmen moving with the currents. Touring musicians perfect the surf-and-travel ethic by getting paid something, anything in order to do so. Indeed, traveling bands are the nuclear families of endless summer.
Captured for a comment for a cell phone interview while negotiating traffic in a van moving north from New York for a show in Canada, The Donkeys are living the dream. They love touring but have families and need to strike a balance. In the tour bus were band members Timothy DeNardo, Anthony Lukens, Sam Sprague, and Steve Selvidge, a stand-in member of the tour who also plays with the band Hold Steady. Asked about why The Donkeys recently released a cover of the theme song for "The Endless Summer," the band's drummer and occasional vocalist, Sprague, says the Sandals' original was a seminal moment in surf music and the California sound.
"The record label was asking us for a cover and the Sandals were from Dana Point, and we wanted to pay homage to that," Sprague says. "We recorded it in Anthony's garage and we didn't get too far out with it. It's hard to compete (with the original). It was a masterpiece."
The Donkeys are most commonly categorized by critics as being a new form of hippiefied beach crew, mostly because of their San Diego performance base. They often feature the vocal oohs and ahhs of the breezy Pacific ease of the Beach Boys, as well as the extended jam techniques of the Grateful Dead. They also share an affinity for another California band, Pavement. But in an interview a few years ago, guitarist Lukens denied any sort of strict Left-Coast musical alignment, stating they could have just as easily come from Iowa. Listening to the instrumentation for any of their four albums and a recent EP, "Midnight Palms," you can easily hear the jangle-rock remnants of a legendary East Coast band, The Velvet Underground.
"I love Pavement, but I really don't feel like we sound like them," Sprague says. "A huge influence was the Velvet Underground, a very big influence."
Their first self-titled album, "The Donkeys" came out in 2004, and was followed by "Living on the Other Side" in 2008, "Born with Stripes" in 2011, and "Ride the Black Wave" in 2014. By the time they had released "Born With Stripes," they were getting raves for being one of San Diego's favorite emerging acts and won a nod from the San Diego Music Awards for best rock band in 2012.
They got a taste from mainstream culture in an odd sort of way. A producer for the TV show "Lost" had heard their music, and wanted to use it on the show. Sections of their music have been used throughout the series. The show created characters for a fictional band called Geronimo Jackson and used a tailored version of The Donkeys' song, "Excelsior Lady." This was done by having the fake band lip-sync the real-band recording. Proceeds from the song's usage on TV helped to pay the cost for another Donkeys album. Lukens recently quipped that the fake band, Geronimo Jackson, was actually more famous than the Donkeys.
Sprague isn't sure about any acclaim to fame for being the players behind a pseudonym.
"We are probably still waiting for that big break," he says.
Unlike the Velvet Underground, The Donkeys don't go much into the harsh light of crunching dissonance. Their recordings are clean, with all members of the band sharing the vocals much as the same way as another immaculate California band, the Eagles. They peruse the pop idiom of relationship songs. Storm and stress is kept at a minimum. As Sprague says, "Writing songs about girls is the classic thing. We are a romantic bunch. Who doesn't like love songs?"
The first song on the new EP, "Hurt Somebody," is an uptempo tune with tinklings of keyboards very reminiscent of Bob Dylan when he moved from folk to rock, and includes the highly affirmative chorus, "It will be all right." It sounds like many neo-classic alt-country bands who themselves were inspired by the Byrds. "Down the Line" could have been a hit on FM radio in the 1970s, with its happy message and simple "do-dit-do-do-does." They honor Grateful Dead stylings with "Hold on to You," a rocker with youthful exuberance. "Day by Day" recalls the solo efforts of John Lennon from say, "The Double Fantasy" period. Then comes "Star Bird," even more dreamy with a live-in-the-studio feel, layers of keyboards, airy background vocals, a sweetly skeletal guitar chime and a soothing melody. It's the standout piece of the EP.
"Born with Stripes," their next-to-last full-length album, is ear candy with bright keyboards harking back to some time way back, not sure when. The track "I Like the Way That You Walk" sounds like bands such as The Feelies, who themselves were inspired by the Velvet Underground, but the sweetness of the lyric, in praise of the feminine subject, is feel-good pop. Other songs on the record sound as if they were inspired by long drives across the California central desert. Their use of farfiza and Rhodes organ sounds, and a simplified sort of rock, really makes you think this music was recorded in the 1960s. Especially when they use the sitar. "Ride the Black Wave," from their last full-length effort, makes one think of another Californian, Chris Isaak, except spacier.
"It's great that it sounds nostalgic, we just don't want to be the Beach Boys reincarnated," Sprague says. "Hopefully, it doesn't sound derivative."
Sprague is the youngest member of the band at 37, so The Donkeys aren't fresh-faced folkies trying to reinvent the wheel with obtuse vocalizations or otherwise tuneless, baroque melodies. And if people think of the Dead due to the unified brilliance of their live shows, that's because the members of the band have been playing together in different bands since high school. The band's hive-mind sound really came together after a previous tour where they performed for 32 straight nights.
"We have been playing together, after being in various bands together, for a solid straight eight years," Sprague says. "Nowadays we are more focused so when we get into the studio we can get it done in a day or two. That tour playing 32 days in a row was really rough ... but we are definitely tight as hell. That's the greatest feeling."