June 14 2011 08:44 PM

The Donkeys have a ‘California sound’ all their own

From left: Sam Sprague, Tim DeNardo, Jessie Gulati, Anthony Lukeus

 The Donkeys just don’t get it. In fact, they’re getting kind of tired of it.

“I think it’s slacksploitation,” says singer / drummer Anthony Lukens over the phone from the road. “We all came up with that term.”

Lukens is referring to the apparently endless amounts of press the band’s gotten that describes the band as having that “California sound.” In a review of their new album, Bowith Stripes, Pitchfork even went so far as to refer to them as a “California band through and through.” It’s tough being pigeonholed in a particular genre or musical aesthetic, but what if the sound is unfairly assigned to represent an entire region? More to the point, just what does California actually sound like?

“Surf music?” asks Lukens. “We all love that sound. Maybe The Grateful Dead. The Beach Boys?”

Think of it this way: We each have a song, perhaps an entire album, that conjures for us what the California dream is all about. The ’60s surf-guitar sounds of Dick Dale. The surfing and psychedelic anthems of The Beach Boys. Maybe it’s The Doors or The Grateful Dead. If you’re of the country-rock disposition, perhaps it’s Gram Parsons or Merle Haggard. Guns ’N Roses or Metallica if you’re a metal-head. 2Pac or Dr. Dre if you’re into hip-hop. It’s easy to forget that Pavement is from Sacramento. If you grew up in the ’90s, maybe it’s Sublime. For you more recent hipsters and indie cats, maybe it’s Wavves or Best Coast.

The list goes on. It doesn’t seem likely that Sublime and 2Pac had much influence on The Donkeys, but since all four of them grew up in southern California, it’s certainly conceivable that they just can’t help but invoke the promise of, as Los Angeles Times writer Oliver Wang recently put it, “California’s utopian fantasy.”

“None of our stuff is preconceived. We’re not trying to do anything other than what comes natural,” bassist Jessie Gulati says. “It’s hard for us to say we’re not a California band because obviously we are, but we just don’t want people latching on to it.”

It’s amazing how many people still don’t know about The Donkeys, considering they’re one of the more successful acts to come out of San Diego in recent years. Since forming the band in 2005, high-school friends Lukens, Sam Sprague and Tim DeNardo (Gulati grew up in Orange County and moved here when he was 18) have signed a deal with reputable indie label Dead Oceans and toured with bands like Why? and The Hold Steady. The band got an even bigger break when Lost producer Eddy Kitsis heard them and cast them as Geronimo Jackson, a fictitious ’70s psychedelic band.

Having individually played in a number of other local bands, Lukens says they all saw The Donkeys as an opportunity to play with friends.

“I had a band that had a gig up in San Francisco, and we couldn’t do it,” he says. “Once I got together with these guys, we all just decided, ‘Shit, let’s just go up there and play,’ ’cause we were having so much fun. On the ride home, we all decided to be a band.”

The band is protean in almost every regard. They’re all versatile musicians, often switching instruments and taking turns on lead vocals, and they’ve garnered a devoted fan base due to their on-stage spiritedness and after-party shenanigans (“If there’s someone around looking for a good time, more than likely we’ll be a part of that” DeNardo says). While their early material hinted at a jammy, early-Dead sound, their second LP, 2008’s Living on the Other Side, saw them drawing on everything from harmonized folk to country-style ballads. It was a mellow affair, filled with vivid images of drinking Corona six-packs while getting sand out of your eye.

When it came time to record Stripes, the band handed over production duties to Thom Monahan of indie-rockers pernice Brothers. Monahan encouraged them to let their freak flag fly—as a result, Stripes (released in April) switches seamlessly from early-’60s rock (“Bowith Stripes”) to spacey psychedelia (“Kaleidoscope”) to Indian-influenced instrumentals (the “Within You Without You”-channeling “West Coast Raga”), courtesy of the sitar-wielding Gulati. If Other Side forsook experimentalism for cohesion, the musical pastiche on Stripes perfectly encapsulates the varying sounds that have influenced the band’s members.

“We all love totally different kinds of music,” Lukens says. “We want to make it sound as different as possible—something that sounds all over the place as far as the genres, but it still sounds like the same band. Hell, The Rolling Stones do that.”

They recently returned from a U.S. tour during which they played 30 shows in 35 days. They’re looking forward to getting some rest before heading back out to do another West Coast tour.

“It takes, like, three days just to get through one state,” Lukens says, describing the drive through Texas. “We’re psyched, man. We always can’t wait to get home. Back to California.”    

The Donkeys perform with John Meeks and Red Pony Clock at The Casbah on Friday, June 17. donkeysongs.com