Longtime Donkeys Timothy Denardo, Anthony Lukens, and Sam Sprague have been visiting Disneyland together since they were kids. In early 2017, they added trash-picking to their theme park itinerary.
“We were just in line at Adventureland goofing-off. We were eating churros and went to throw them away and there was this leopard notebook. I grabbed it as a dare. It was kind-of gross, but then we were stoked on it because there were all these drawings and stuff. We were reading it in line thinking we were gonna throw it away and then we ended up folding it up and taking it with us,” Lukens said.
The notebook would provide both the inspiration and basis for the Donkeys new album, Sun Damaged Youth. They re-enlisted the producer of their debut album (Jason Quever) to helm the boards and set forth to give the notebook new life as a concept album.
“In general, the story’s just about how everyone’s left California because the environment is too toxic to live in,” Sprague said. “The rulers that live there are just kind of grinding it out and fucking up the whole environment. But there are these kids that stay and have to live radiation-proof, but they won’t give up. They won’t leave. They’re just gonna hang on to only thing they know — surfing and skating.”
The kids that stuck around California were referred to as the “Sun Damaged Youth” in the notebook. Not all of the album material was directly drawn from it though. Some of the songs embellished ideas or offered similar views or themes to the notebook’s. A couple of the songs that ended-up on the album were written before the notebook was rescued from the Disneyland janitorial staff. “I was like, ‘This song would really work with it because, as it turns out, it sounds a little apocalyptic.’ That was kind of a serendipitous little coincidence,” Sprague said.
The Donkeys, "Cool Kids"
The first single from Sun Damaged Youth.
Fans who have been along for the ride since 2003 can expect some new sonic flourishes on this album. There are more synths incorporated into this effort, some mellotron and, according to Lukens, “a lot of surf guitar and organ.” Longtime lead guitarist Jessie Gulati bowed-out of the band a couple years back, so Quever (who also plays in Papercuts) covered most of that territory.
“His style of guitar is so much different than what we usually record,” Denardo explained. “There’s not going to be as many big, jammy guitar solos which, to me, makes this record stand apart.”
When the band hits the road in July, Jason Begin (Octagrape) will assume the role of Donkeys lead guitarist for-hire. Lukens describes his playing as “creative and unpredictable.”
“Jason just has a really sick and twisted sense of humor and it really comes out. He’s also a really technical player that was a big fan of the Dead when he was younger. He came up on Jerry, but then just kept taking drugs and became even weirder,” he added.
Another Jason (Cirimele) has lately been filling in as a hired-gun guitarist as well. The band considered taking all three Jasons on the road (Quever, Begin, and Cirimele) but the money just wasn’t there. Plus, there was the nightly train wreck potential.
“Somebody would say ‘Take it, Jason!’ And then they’d all be confused,” Denardo said.
This album cycle will be a major step in the life of the Donkeys. After a string of releases on Dead Oceans and Easy Sound Recording, the trio decided to release Sun Damaged Youth on their own Flop Records label. Like most groups leaving a label behind, it’s a moment that merges both excitement and fear.
“There are pros and cons to the whole thing. It was scary, but I think we did it because we loved it, and loved to do it. We’re gonna be in a band no matter what, so let’s just do it. We’re broke anyway, so why not? What the hell?” Lukens said.
Denardo added, “If nothing else, we’re gonna make more money by virtue of not having to give a percentage to somebody else.”
The identity of the Sun Damaged Youth notebook’s author remains a mystery. Even though the content seems to be geared towards skate and surf culture, Sprague speculated that it may just be “a total nerd who’s just making stuff up in their head.”
Lukens chimed in that since the notebook was found at Disneyland, the author may not even be from California. “Maybe they grew up in Utah and just left it there,” he said.
“If the author hears it, they’re gonna know it’s theirs. Hopefully they hear it and reach out,” he concluded.