The Donner Party may be the least likely band to be resurrected from the pre-grunge '80s; there was, after all, no real mastermind behind its growing legend and legacy. The band's recent reactivation happened the old-fashioned way: A word-of-mouth cult developed around the music contained on its two relatively obscure and long-out-of-print albums.
"Donner Party was before the whole Seattle thing," explains former DP bassist and occasional songwriter Reinhold Johnson. "Most of us stayed on small labels, never made money. The best you could do was make enough to support your hobby. The punk scene was going away gradually and this was sort of what came after that -- it was a little less restrictive. People didn't think about what style they were playing. They just did what they did and that was kind of nice."
The Donner Party was not the kind of funny-hair-and-makeup band that dominated MTV and the modern rock airwaves in the '80s (though drummer Melanie DeGiovanni, formerly Clarin, sometimes favored a bejeweled sombrero). Instead, it was part of a post-punk new breed of American bands whose sisters and brothers in arms came from places like Minneapolis and Athens; for a nanosecond, San Francisco was part of that new guitar-rock nexus as well. In the eyes of its peers and fans, the Donner Party was always hard at work with gigs and record-making, a moderate success in a world in which the kingpins were the likes of the Meat Puppets, the Flaming Lips, and Dinosaur Jr. Clearly, for the Donner Party, music was a job and not a hobby. "It was more like a 'jobby,'" jokes the convivial DeGiovanni, the Donner triumvirate's secret weapon. In addition to wielding drumsticks, she added harmony vocals and other instruments.
Though the group officially disbanded when Coomes left the safety of the city for Portland, Ore., over 10 years ago, it turned out to be a good move for him: Coomes went on to form Motorgoat, a band that frequently shared bills with Elliott Smith's old concern, Heatmiser; the two bandleaders became pals. Coomes and Heatmiser drummer Janet Weiss formed a romantic link and the couple later became Quasi. Weiss had also sprung from the San Francisco scene as a member of the all-girl bands the Furies and Ed, and had become a permanent member of Sleater-Kinney by the late '90s. As Quasi, Coomes and Weiss are frequent collaborators with Smith, and today Coomes works on Smith's records and in his touring band. "Not too many people have been around as long as we have," explains Coomes from his home in Portland. "Either they've become famous or quit altogether. We're somewhere in between.
"It was much different back in those days," he recalls. "I guess there are still a few stragglers hanging around. The ranks are probably greatly diminished by the changes that have come over that town. Playing music in San Francisco was just a struggle. I had no idea that it could be a lot funner and that people could support local bands and you didn't have to be mortal enemies with club owners. Portland was immediately a much better place for me to play music."
DeGiovanni and Johnson concur, but are reticent to resort to nostalgia. Besides, neither of them left town. "I hated when Herb Caen used to write what a better city it used to be," says DeGiovanni. For her part, she's never had trouble finding work as a musician. While she was playing in the Donners, she drummed and sang with the Cat Heads, and played with Barbara Manning (she later played full time in Manning's SF Seals). Immediately after the Donners disbanded, she recorded two albums with Harm Farm. Today she plays occasionally with the Buckets and Mare Winningham. Johnson, however, returned to his job in the medical field. "I was never musically inclined," he says. "I don't think we ever expected to make it with the Donner Party. Nobody was making it."
The final Donner Party lineup formed in San Francisco around 1985, when some mutual friends brought them together. "I'd dabbled with guitar," says Johnson. "I wasn't looking to get in a band, but I wasn't against the idea either. I wrote songs mainly because I wasn't very good at listening to records and working out songs off records."
That devil-may-care attitude was in fact the charm of the Donners, as they were affectionately dubbed. Naive melodies drove songs with crazy, surrealistic lyrics and titles like "Godlike Porpoise Head of Blue-Eyed Mary" and "When You Die Your Eyes Pop Out." With their shades of folk and primitive rock, the songs seemed pulled from the same toy chest as those of Jonathan Richman or Daniel Johnston. Coomes' strained yet nonchalant vocal style never wallowed in its own eccentricities, and DeGiovanni's harmonies elevated the songs into something more complete, while the childlike approach could quickly veer into full-on bash and pop.
"Speaking for myself, I was genuinely naive in those days," says Coomes. "I listened to the stuff recently -- and I hadn't listened to it in quite a while -- and I was kind of cringing. They were some of the first songs I ever wrote. I was fresh out of the suburbs of L.A. Suddenly I found myself in a weird, underground, urban world which I had no experience with. So I think that's what the music was about then -- a kind of surrealistic confusion."
The band's first release was a self-titled album for New York's Cryptovision label, which had recently issued a single by San Francisco guitar rockers Flying Color. "Hector from Flying Color gave them a tape and they wanted to put out the record but we'd already broken up. So then we got back together," says DeGiovanni.
"It sort of kept us going," adds Johnson.
"We were less go-getters than the Cat Heads," continues DeGiovanni. "I wasn't going to do any booking or pushing and neither was Sam or Reinhold."
For its second album, again with the eponymous title Donner Party, the band had signed to Pitch-A-Tent -- a step up, so to speak, in the local guitar-rock underground. By this time the band had become more proficient and was attempting complex song structures, but its humor, naiveté, and primitive style remained, particularly on quirky folk-based songs like "When I Was a Baby" and "Lost in Hoboken." With their friends in Camper Van Beethoven and Spot 1019, the Donner Party members forged a connection with Santa Cruz bands as well as a number of bands in town whose members overlapped: the Muskrats, Buck Naked & the Bare Bottom Boys, X-tal, and the Ophelias. They were among a larger circle of bands whose members sometimes slept together, gigged together, and lived together in houses in the Haight.
"There were a lot of buddy bills where you knew everybody," says DeGiovanni. Jennifer Joseph, who fronted the Furies, recalls, "Mel always had that beatific smile on her face -- she was so relaxed it looked like she was always about to kick her drum kit over." The reunion at Slim's is one of those buddy bills too: Old friends Spot 1019 and Warm Wires, which features another old DeGiovanni and Coomes bandmate, Brad Pedinoff from Harm Farm, are also appearing.
"Our goal was to be legitimate," says Johnson. "We thought we had to put out three records. A lot of bands put out one or two records, then disappeared. There weren't that many that made it to three. We almost made it."
Like the story of the group of Northern California explorers the band named itself after, the Donner Party legend has grown since the band's demise. Pat Thomas of Innerstate Records spearheaded the search for the master tapes, and Coomes' permission to release them. "Any time I'd go outside of San Francisco and I'd meet some old or young indie rock dudes, they'd ask if I knew where they could find the Donner Party records. We've had more orders and requests than for any release we've done and that proves to me I had the right instincts," says Thomas.
"That's one of the reasons I agreed to go ahead and do it," says Coomes. "I probably wouldn't have thought about it at all if it wasn't for the fact that occasionally people would come up to me and ask me about it in weird places like in France or Canada. I don't know how these people ever heard it in the first place. In all honesty, I always thought of the band as one in which I was still learning how to write songs and I didn't have a super-high regard for what we did. But other people seemed to have a higher regard for it than me."
The CD anthology includes the first two albums, the third unreleased album, and some live tracks, including a cover of the Who's "Squeeze Box." "They used to do 'Help Me Rhonda' and 'Strange Brew' at a time when classic rock hadn't made its comeback yet," says Thomas. "They did them very reverential, all the way through, not like the Replacements who'd play 10 seconds of a song." The songs on the third album, for the most part unheard, are a shade more experimental and instrumental ("Chocolate Shake," "Nutty Booty"), with advanced and heavier rock ("King Chico," "Trepanned"), but only by a matter of degrees. The off-kilter harmonies and skewed rock melodies that fans grew to love are still there. As DeGiovanni points out, anyone who went to the shows will remember the "new" songs. In fact, anyone who went to the shows is probably on the CD in the audience. "All 20 to 30 people!" she jokes.
As Coomes is currently busy with his Smith commitments, DeGiovanni and Johnson have former Cat Head Mark Zanandrea in to rehearse with them for the one-off reunion event. "I guess we'll get together the weekend before," says Coomes. "Since we haven't played in well over 10 years, we'll give ourselves a few days, even though the material is extremely simple. Almost because the music is so simple, the only way to make it work is to nail down the little subtleties that make it interesting. I don't think it will be that hard to remember the chords, but as far as remembering the words I'm a little skeptical. But I didn't even remember them back in the old days when we sang them all the time so I don't think it'll matter too much." For the first time during the interview, Coomes laughs.
"I'll be nervous, I'm sure I will," says Johnson. "It depends how many people are there, I suppose. I was kinda hoping it would be more of a small-time thing."
"Donner Party re-forms in Mel's living room!" says the drummer. She pauses as if realizing for the first time that the Donners may have found a potentially wider audience 11 years after disbanding. "Do you think people who like Quasi will be there?" she asks.
Probably, but it's the Donners' party, where considerations like that never mattered.
"We're a little rusty and crusty," warns DeGiovanni.
"A little shaky," says Johnson.
DeGiovanni assures him, "Ah, it'll be fine."