We sink back into his couch as the stereo plays A House All on Fire by the band Maquiladora. The rootsy San Diego outfit's weeping pedal steel and prickly six-strings share a distinctive West Coast vibe with the broken country shuffles and fragile folk-rock balladry of Donaldson's own group, the Skygreen Leopards (a name nicked from the pages of poet Kenneth Patchen). After checking out a tune Donaldson plans to cover, his partner Donovan Quinn arrives from his Mission flat; he's an hour late. A dusty-haired 27-year-old with a boyish face, Quinn was born and raised on a ranch and studio in the shadow of Mount Diablo. It was there that these two singer-songwriters and guitarists stoned Everlys for the 21st century have produced the bulk of six full-lengths and one EP since coming together back in the summer of 2001.
Apologetic as all hell for his tardiness, Quinn's panting, and his forehead is coated in greasy sweat. The guy is obviously frazzled, probably hung over, and more than ready to fire up his bearded buddy's magical vaporizer. The scene has me imagining Quinn crooning one of my favorite lyrics: "When there's nowhere to get high, beach skies turn bleak." It's a line from "Disciples of California," the duo's bittersweet "ode to bummed-out California stoners" off the album of the same name. Due out in October via the Indiana-based imprint Jagjaguwar (home to Oakley Hall and Pink Mountaintops), Disciples is a perfectly shaped 11-track gem featuring a full backing band for the first time in the duo's career.
"The new record is kind of a mythological tribute to California lore and rock," Donaldson reveals while grabbing the vino from the fridge. We're headed outdoors because the day's golden glow has now exploded into a platinum-blond, and Donaldson only lives a block from Glen Canyon Park.
Soon we are traversing a winding gravel road that cuts through a steep, little gorge covered in tangled eucalyptus and tall yellow grass. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead, and the environment swallowing us up is just so Californian. In fact, it resembles the photograph of a dusty country road that adorns the cover of Old Ways, one of Neil Young's more-country-than-rock affairs from the mid-'80s. Of course, this brief flash sets off within me a whole string of scattered, weed-fueled associations involving Young, the Leopards, and classic California country-rock.
In the cover story of last February's Rolling Stone, Young and writer Alex Wilkinson are cruising around La Honda, just south of Woodside. Young's Broken Arrow ranch (where that cover photo just might have been taken) is supposedly somewhere in the area. Eventually, they reach the tiny coastal town of Pescadero, and Young points to an empty lot on the main strip. He's reminiscing about some long-gone saloon where in the early-'70s he and various members of Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and the Dead put on intimate jam sessions totally unannounced.
Now, about a year ago, the Leopards started to assemble the Skyband, a nebulous collection of musicians backing the duo playing bass, drums, bowed banjo, pedal steel, percussion, and piano. And as the Skygreen Leopards Skyband blew minds at a handful of low-key shows around town, the pastoral, psychedelic folk of earlier days morphed into a cosmic, Bay Area brand of roots-pop.
"We've developed a little of that old-school, San Francisco barroom sound," Quinn tells me while the three of us sit perched atop a massive rock outcropping. "But I almost don't like saying that because it might give people the wrong idea."
That's because this new sound or feeling, really which Disciples documents, sure ain't some retro, hippie cowboy shtick, nor is it simply an nth-generation facsimile of Harvest. It's far more shadowy; the Leopards' new material, including such tunes as "Places West of Shawnapee" and "I Remember Sally Orchid," seem influenced not by the actual music of early-'70s California but haunted by the era's tales and legends. It's almost as if the presence of those memories that Young discussed in Rolling Stone can be felt lurking deep within the record's grooves.
Of course that sounds totally "left coast" metaphysical and a tad pretentious, but the Leopards possess an uncanny ability to invoke the spirits of, say, Dejà vu, American Beauty, and even Brewer & Shipley, despite the fact that their collective musicianship is really quite limited and removed from that tradition. The band is actually informed by the primitive pop of the Velvet Underground as well as groups like the Clean and the Chills, New Zealand outfits from the '80s that crafted a melancholic, reverb-drenched brand of minimal indie rock. Oh sure, Donaldson's hovering falsetto and love for sad songs definitely looks to Marmaduke and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, while Quinn's breathy intonation feels like Don Everly's quivering lower tenor on the nod. And hell, the melodic bass runs of Shayde Sartin (a transplant from Tennessee who also plays with Kelley Stoltz) adds a "drunken Nashville session man vibe," according to Quinn. But none of these dudes possess the well-honed chops of Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band (much less true hippie virtuosos like Garcia and Stills). In fact, one of the Leopards' great charms is just how totally shambolic they are; the group is always on the verge of total collapse.
"All those guys, like the New Riders, are much better musicians [than us]," admits Donaldson, who, as a member of Thuja, has also been an active participant in the Bay Area's experimental music scene since the mid-'90s. "We're trying to play something that we really can't. And so everyone plays just a little bit off. But it's more surprising that way."
Quinn jokingly adds, "Even though we think we're the kings of California from the Sunset Strip on up to the Golden Gate, it's really all in our heads. We still sound more like Television Personalities [a pioneering, VU-inspired Anglo-pop act]. Everything comes out at this weird angle because we don't have a choice with our musicianship."
If Quinn and Donaldson appear somewhat hesitant to totally embrace their stated intentions behind the Disciples of California sound (they crack endless jokes about magic, surfers, and pyramids), it's because they understand that mythologizing the Golden State hippie-country experience through song is, in Donaldson's words, a "weird, awkward embrace of tradition." You see, the duo is all too aware of the fact that the concept they're experimenting with maybe even attempting to reclaim has over the years devolved into this hollow, commodified meme à la Hotel California.
Then again, it's this very ambivalence a brash mix of heartfelt passion and dismissive humor that allows Donaldson and Quinn to infuse their new music with a full-blown mystical lyricism that works where it often did not when cokehead outlaws like the Eagles were taking themselves way too seriously. For example, a couple weeks prior to our interview, the morning immediately after Quinn gave me a CD-R of the recently finished Disciples, my wife and I drove to Ocean Beach, secured a perfect view of the horizon, and cranked it. And about eight tracks into the thing our backs to the towering Monterey pines of Golden Gate Park a gently strummed acoustic faded in from the speakers, followed by Quinn's spare piano and drummer Jasmyn Wong's patient studder-step. Then, after several short bars, Donaldson's soft, mellow cry completed the tune, "Jesus was Californian, with Mary and the prophet Elijah. Jesus drank by the ocean and slept through your tent revival."
It was the type of over-the-top yet intensely honest line that makes you chuckle. But then the sun's first powerful rays broke through the lingering fog and turned the Pacific into a brilliant liquid metal. And it was all too obvious that Skygreen Leopards, with vital contributions from their Skyband, have not only crafted their best record to date but one of the quintessential California albums.