Southern California rockers the Donkeys don’t care much for structure. The members of the group—guitarist Jessie Gulati, bassist/guitarist Tim Denardo, keyboardist Anthony Lukens, and drummer Sam Sprague, who have been friends for more than a decade—formed the band during a spontaneous jam and frequently shuffle their show setup, swapping lead vocal duties on the fly. Even the band’s name was established on a whim.
“In the beginning, we’d do these really weird all-night jam sessions,” Lukens says. “Sam was on a graveyard schedule at Denny’s and the rest of the guys were working nights, so the four of us would just jam all the time. Eventually, it turned into a code like, ‘Are the donkeys gonna do it tonight?’ It was sort of a joke thing.”
But when the San Diego-based outfit was approached about a last-minute gig, the name stuck.
“We had a show offer up in San Francisco and figured that the four of us could knock out a half-hour set,” Lukens says. “We ended up going by the Donkeys and we’ve been the Donkeys ever since.”
For a band that values keeping things laid back, the Donkeys have been reliable when it comes to releasing new material. Since their self-titled debut in 2004, the group has put out three full-length albums, each expanding on a homegrown sound that pairs a dusty, sun-steeped vibe with a bit of blues, a little alt-country, and whatever else the quartet throws into the mix. That solid track record is no doubt influenced by the members’ long-running friendship.
“You know when you’ve known someone for so long there’s that non-communication thing? For us, it’s definitely easier in that way,” Lukens says. “Like, we know when people screw up or we know when people are upset. You can kind of vibe everybody easier. We don’t necessarily get along every time we hang out, but we love spending time together.”
On their latest record, 2014’s Ride the Black Wave, the Donkeys sing about being “lost in a sunny daze.” The sentiment makes sense; the group isn’t shy about letting its Pacific Coast roots show. Breezy harmonies float throughout the record’s sonic layers, which include everything from gramophone crackles to cawing seagulls. But while the Donkeys definitely have a penchant for mellow instrumentals—the band has been compared to classic California acts like the Grateful Dead and the Byrds—the group incorporates a variety of styles, from rootsy twang to smooth soul, into their easygoing indie rock.
“We have influences from all across the board,” Lukens says. “We’re inspired by rock records and we’re inspired by rockabilly records. Tim likes to listen to weird electro stuff. We love stuff from Tennessee—I guess I should say y’all’s state—and we love California music, too.”
Like their live performances, the band’s recording process allows members plenty of room to toss their individual tastes and playing styles into the mix. This collaborative mindset generates a diverse, playful sound that’s constantly evolving. But while some songs are formed on a whim and others have been in the works for years, the group always sets aside plenty of time to flesh things out before hitting the studio.
“You’ll bring your rhythms, your lyrics, your songs, your whatever with you and we’ll work on them as a group—we’ve done it that way for a long time,” Lukens says. “That way, we’ll have a ton of songs when we go into the studio. It makes it easier to weed out the ones that aren’t working. So you go from 30 to 20 songs to 20 to 15 to whatever your goal is.”
Ride the Black Wave marks the 10-year anniversary of the Donkeys as a band. And while the group has hit plenty of milestones over the past decade—touring with big-name acts like the Hold Steady, performing at popular festivals—they’ve also managed to snag an association with one of the most popular cult TV shows of the past decade, posing as the fictional 1970s band Geronimo Jackson on Lost.
But for all of their success, the Donkeys haven’t been immune to a few shakeups. The band’s long-time label, Dead Oceans, passed on the most recent record, leaving them in a tough spot. Luckily, the group found a home at L.A.-based label Easy Sound Recording Company, a branch of Vanguard Records.
Since signing with Easy Sound, the band has settled into a groove. Ride the Black Wave has received mostly positive reviews, and the band is already working on new material. But for now, the quartet is gearing up for a month-long tour—one where every member will have a chance to take the lead.
“I think it makes it more fun when everybody can sing songs, you know?” Lukens says.