Ideally, especially with weather like this, you’d listen to the Donkeys beachside, your skin warmed simultaneously by the sun and the sand as their tunes tickle your ears. It’s transportive music regardless, the kind that makes you feel dizzy happy or high, the kind that recalls windows-down road trips — of which the Donkeys have had many in their 11 years of touring. It feels like the San Diego band is always on the road these days, which just makes their Thursday, Feb. 11, show at Soda Bar that much better. But it’s not the only thing that makes this show special.
The Donkeys have a new EP releasing the day following their hometown show, and it’s “all killer, no filler,” according to SoundDiego’s own Dustin Lothspeich, who just inducted “Midnight Palms” [watch the video for “Down the Line“] into the SoundDiego Record Club. “That is to say, it’s straight-ahead, blue-eyed soul/pop with all the chill, retro vibes you could ask for.”
It’s not a rule they live by or anything, but the Donkeys — whose core members include vocalist/keyboardist Anthony Lukens, drummer/vocalist Sam Sprague and bassist/vocalist Tim Denardo — typically work with someone new on each record. “Everyone has a different process,” Sprague tells SoundDiego during a phone interview that gives new meaning to the word mellow. “It’s fun to observe so we can just kind of learn. For us, personally, we like trying something new.” For “Midnight Palms,” that was Thom Monahan, who mixed the Donkeys’ two previous records and has produced Devendra Banhart and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, among others.
“This was the first time we did it start to finish with him,” says Sprague, whose cool voice and speech pattern mirror the sort of ease and sun-soaked mellow heard in the Donkeys’ recordings. “Something we’d never done before, which I thought was interesting, was work out the tempos and just kind of break down the essence of a song, find the groove of it, deconstruct it — whereas we would normally just write it and go in.”
They ended up trying the EP’s lead track, “Hurt Somebody,” at different speeds, listening to and comparing how it sounded in each take instead of getting on the floor and playing it however they were feeling it at the moment. Which may sound tedious, but in describing the process, Sprague uses the word “fun” again and again.
With four LPs behind them, the most recent of which being “Ride the Black Wave” in 2014, this is the Donkeys’ first-ever EP — that they’ve released. “We actually recorded an EP a long time ago, a lot more garagey and rock & roll and stuff we really love,” Sprague says. “We recorded it really cheap and fast, and it just never came out. So originally when we got on the new label [Easy Sound Recording Company], we were like, we want to do something like that.”
They’ve got the material, says Sprague, and they’re always writing. The problem is, they always want to record the new stuff, which means there’s a lot of material that gets left behind as a matter of timing.
“We just have a lot of songs because all of us write. We’re really a band — we’re not just one dude. And we’re always so precious about our records. We really wanted something more loose and just not thought about. When I was a kid, bands put out 7-inches regularly, and now we put out stuff and we’re on tour for two years. People put out stuff online, and we should get on board, but we like records. We’re record nerds. To make a long story longer,” Sprague continues, “we’re like, ‘We’re gonna record five new songs.’ And then honestly we got really deep with this record — you can get really involved with five songs. That being that said, it took one and a half years [for this EP]. It gets frustrating for a group of guys who write a lot of songs. I think it’s really good to not be satisfied with the first thing you come up with, but I also think there’s a place for the casual song. But that was the intention.”
Sometimes that new material finds its place onstage before the Donkeys write it into history, but there isn’t always room for that when trying to please a crowd of longtime fans. “It’s weird. In the blink of an eye we’ve been a band for 11 years. So now we have so many songs that it’s hard to squeeze in new songs. It’s not necessarily what people think, but we want people to have a good time. If someone really likes you, you don’t want to bum them out,” he adds with a laugh, commenting on their drive to play crowd favorites.
But there’s little doubt the Donkeys will find room in their Soda Bar set for some “Midnight Palms” tracks. Even though the record officially releases the next day, they’ll definitely have vinyl on-hand at the show (“Buy it!” Sprague says). The show is part of a mini tour for them, to go along with what their label has branded their “mini album,” and it’s all just part of the territory that comes with being the Donkeys.
“We all have day jobs and stuff,” says Sprague. “We have to squeeze in the tour dates, like, ‘Hey, we have five weeks to tour and we want to tour as much as possible.’ We played 31 days in a row last year. I get exhausted, like spiritually tired, haven’t been alone in five weeks. And then you get home and two weeks later you’re like, ‘Man, I want to go play a show.’ It’s like working out or something — it’s annoying, but you feel better afterwards. I just don’t run enough to crave it,” he laughs.