The California psychedelic pop duo Skygreen Leopards releases its latest full-length, Family Crimes, on Woodsist on July 8th. Songwriters Glenn Donaldson and Donovan Quinn split their time between a bevy of other musical endeavors—New Bums (among others) for Quinn—that run the gamut from experimental noise to macabre chamber pop. In these two auteurs’ universe of bands and side projects, the Leopards are but one planet in the solar system. As a duo, Donaldson and Quinn possess a formidable discography, which dates back to 2001 and represents an aesthetic that owes much to the melodious, hook-heavy songwriting of The Byrds and The Monkees as well as to the eccentricities of groups like Beat Happening or The Go-Betweens.
Family Crimes manages to fit fourteen songs into thirty minutes, and accordingly reads as a leaner body of songwriting when compared to the band’s earlier records, which sometimes favored psychedelic atmospherics over pop tune craft. Simple drum beats and persistently strummed rhythm guitars underpin woozy keyboard lines and husky vocal melodies from both Donaldson and Quinn. The production was handled by San Francisco’s Jason Quever, and the breathy shimmer that in some ways is his studio signature, exemplified on his own records as Papercuts, is well suited to Family Crimes’s overarching theme of sunny, short and sweet songs.
I spoke with Donaldson over the phone to discuss the band’s early days during the San Francisco CD-R boom, and how Family Crimes fits into the Skygreen Leopards oeuvre. Quinn then went through the text interview and added interjections and asides, filling in gaps and coloring in the lines.
Andrew Aylward So this is the first Skygreen Leopards record since 2009. Can you tell me a bit about what’s been going on in the interim?
Glenn Donaldson Well, Donovan has been doing his New Bums project with Ben Chasny and I did the Art Museums album for Slumberland and then just various other projects. Skygreen Leopards is the kind of the thing where we don’t work together all the time, it’s just when we are really inspired to do this kind of music we get together and we do it and just keep going, I’m not sure how.
AA So Skygreen is one of many projects for both you and Donovan?
GD Yeah, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s sort of based on a friendship, you know when we feel like hanging out together and making some songs, that’s when it happens. There’s not a lot of pressure to make a career out of it or anything. So the concept of it all has been realizing over a couple of years.
Donovan Quinn [If I’d been in on this call, I’d have noted that I feel an immense sense of pressure about the release and the band in general. It’s likely to drive me out of my mind, in fact. Glenn would have probably analyzed such feelings with a harshness frowned upon by modern therapists.]
AA Is it true you two met through a Craigslist want ad? I read that somewhere on the web. Do you remember what it said?
GD Yeah, I had been playing with some folks and that kind of fell apart, and I didn’t really know any other musicians in town and, yeah, I posted a Craigslist ad. I think it mentioned The Byrds and Television Personalities … and, I can’t remember much else.
DQ [The other bands were: Durutti Column, The Fall, The Monkees, and Talking Heads.]
GD He was living in the suburbs at the time, in Walnut Creek, which is kind of like … imagine living on a horse ranch, in a trailer. (laughter) They were trying to get something started themselves, and there’s not much happening in Walnut Creek. And he just wanted to get out of there and do something, so we started to write songs together. We would have jam sessions where we would play with a few other people and then he made the suggestion of basically a song-writing project, which kind of went on and on. It’s taken the form of a band a couple of times.
AA So at a certain point he was just a total stranger that you were meeting up with to play music with, right?
GD Yeah a total stranger! He gave me maybe a CD-R of songs and it just struck me that they were different and interesting.
DQ [My songs at the time were mostly terrible. Glenn did a good job turning me onto new music and ripening up my aesthetic. He was already making cool records: Mirza, Knit Separates, etcetera. The trailer I lived in was all fucked up. It had holes in the floor and bad plumbing. We’d drink a bunch of coffee and try to write spontaneously. Which is why the old songs have weird awkward shifts and lines like “Party favours hidden in big black bags,” or “She had the bleeding heart tattooed on her door”. After an hour of writing, we’d go out and talk to the horses, make some more coffee and then come back and press the record.]
AA Is there a story behind the name of the group?
GD It comes from a Kenneth Patchen poem. We wanted a name that no one else would have. Patchen has a way of putting words together that don’t belong but they stick in your brain, like it sounds like something but it’s not—it sounds familiar but it never settles in as something familiar.
AA Can you tell me about the so-called “CD-R boom” that happened around 2000, and what that was like, in San Francisco?
GD Well it was pretty exciting for me and some of my friends because there was this pretty cool format—it was high quality and super cheap and just a chance to do all these different projects and not have to worry about having a label or even an audience—it’s the same with cassettes.
AA Today it seems as if there are lots of start up cassette labels where people seem really excited about the fact they can make a physical format, but I guess back then people hadn’t been able to do that with CDs before.
GD CDs were fresh and people were over tapes and—I mean tapes sound great too but CDs, you can really compete with professional sound quality. It was kind of an art project really, like we did all our artwork by hand and choosing color Xeroxes and doing our own packaging—just what cassette labels are still doing.
AA Do you think there’s anything kind of similar to that “it’s here if you want it” vibe with the music going on today? Kind of low-key, putting it out for people who are interested but not—I know you have a label, I read that’s kind of the mission statement—providing but not necessarily pushing it onto people.
GD Yeah for sure. I mean, people got sick of CD-Rs because MP3s became so big so it seemed sort of pointless to have a physical release—
GD —And then analogue tapes are this sort of cool, vintage sound. There’s a massive tape scene right now, which is pretty awesome.
AA What do you think is going to be next, after cassettes?
GD Whoa, I don’t know. I mean I sort of hope it keeps going, because that’s the thing: there’s the threat that maybe at some point people won’t want any objects and it’ll all be digital and virtual.
AA That’s an unsettling thought.
GD Yeah, I mean even with like artwork and stuff. I get to do some graphic work that goes along with different projects, and I find myself making less and less of anything physical, or I’ll make things partially physical and then I’ll scan it and then finish it that way.
DQ [Glenn has a crazy recording/crafts room. It’s chaotic. Scraps of construction paper, mutilated children’s books, tangled cables, broken amps, drum machines, tape machines. He has always seen album art and music going hand in hand. This is a dying concept, which makes it all the more beautiful. When you record at Glenn’s, it’s like being at some weird cobbler’s workshop. Jason Quever’s studio, where we finally recorded the album, is more of a super hi-fi studio but in a tastefully decorated, comfortably furnished home on the outskirts of San Francisco. A gentleman’s studio.]
AA Do you still think of San Francisco as a hospitable place for artists to be?
GD I think there are still people doing things, but it’s definitely not going to be what it was unless the economy takes a turn and the rents go down.
AA Because it’s just so expensive to live there now?
GD Yeah, it’s kind of more comparable to New York. I think you can still find like a room in a house with roommates, but it would be like a grand. There aren’t too many people—let’s just say a certain person with an income of an artist couldn’t really…
AA It seems hard to imagine, someone living in the city and having that kind of cash.
GD Yeah. You know Oakland and Berkeley. Oakland is a really thriving scene, especially for punk and heavier kind of stuff. There are a lot of bands over there for sure.
AA It’s kind of like the two sides of San Francisco music, there’s a lot of louder, heavier stuff but then on the flip side there are you guys and the Papercuts stuff.
GD Yeah, of course I grew up on punk. For me, growing up with hardcore and punk stuff, hearing a band like Beat Happening seemed more punk to me than the hardcore I was listening to. Sometimes doing something really wimpy is punk.
AA I like that idea that there are more definitions of punk than the most obvious thing one would think of.
GD For me it’s just about doing something that’s the contrary thing really, it’s something that’s not with the grain. Obviously we’re not a punk band but the spirit of doing your own music that’s not the mainstream, I think that’s more interesting and in the spirit. But you know, I don’t know if people are really concerned with that anymore.
AA Are there any acts in San Francisco that get you really excited these days?
GD There’s some really cool stuff. Friends of mine the Mantles— I’ve been following their music for a really long time and I play music with them sometimes. There’s a new band called Scraper who’s really good. They’re kind of a straight up punk band but they’re really good songwriters. Even some of our friends who have been doing music forever, like The Fresh and Onlys—half of that band used to be in Skygreen Leopards.
AA Oh, wow I didn’t know that.
GD Yeah the bass player and the lead guitarist were both in Skygreen Leopards at one point or another.
AA Yeah they’re a great example of that San Francisco vibe, I really like their records. They are a band I always jump to when I talk about the scene in the 2000’s, as well as Kelly Stoltz.
GD Yeah what’s cool is that even though the city is kind of inhospitable for artists to live in, the people that are here, we all know each other. We’ve all been friends for ten years now. I’ve known Kelly Stoltz since I first moved here. I’m sure there’s some sort of like—people keep tabs on other people and what we’re doing and pull different things from each other. There’s definitely more pop, we kind of fit that garage thing that’s happening. I think it’s all the same thing. It’s all based on folk-rock and going from major to minor chords and pop songs from different eras.
AA I really like the rhythm guitar playing on “Leave The Family” and wanted to talk about where that “strumminess” came from. It signifies a lot of that ‘60s vibe for me.
GD Yeah it kind of comes from—definitely when we first started the band, ‘60s music and The Monkees were big for us. Especially stuff with more of a country vibe like The Byrds, obviously. Especially stuff like ‘80s stuff, I wanted to do like a California version of Television Personalities—they used to call it folk-rock but it comes through as underground … classic song-writing was like twelve chords played different ways. That sort of mellow, cool trance beat…
DQ [Glenn plays the cool acoustic rhythm stuff. I thought he ripped it off all the Flying Nun bands.]
AA What was it like going back to Jason Quever, having worked with him on various records in the past? Was there a target for this album, as in was this supposed to be your fill-in-the-blank album?
GD We had actually done some demos, which we had never done before, and it was just me and Donovan who were doing all the instruments. And that was started just for fun, and then we were like, “Oh maybe we should try to make it more hi-fi.” Jason is just a really good friend of ours and a supporter of the band, so it was easy to work with him. He’s a really good engineer and he jumps in and helps out with the instruments. I don’t know what our goal was; I think we just wanted to write and make a pop record that was short songs—
AA That was one of the first things I noticed: the album fits fourteen tracks into about thirty-six minutes. Well done.
GD Yeah, we’re both really into two minute songs, all of the great ’60s records, all the classic songs are under three minutes. So it was doing something that was stripped down and maybe a little more pop but still referencing our usual kind of thing.
DQ [Manifestos are for murderers and art nerds, as far as I’m concerned, but if Skygreen Leopards had one, I’d spend a good chunk of time ranting about how long pop songs have gotten. All these fucking bridges, intros, outros, and so on. Fifty-minute albums and hour-and-a-half long shows. It’s too much! We may have been accused of being hippies by certain pricks, but the Skygreen’s never jammed, buddy.]
AA Is there a narrative or character aspect that runs through the record, kind of the way Gorgeous Johnny had that going on?
GD There kind of is—there are always certain inside jokes, but that’s kind of making light of it, I feel like we put ourselves in the songs a lot, like little tales of the band and our friends. So yeah, I don’t know how to explain it, but when Donovan and I write it’s something mixed with maybe embarrassing and revealing stories that nobody else will get. The characters in the songs are people we know, a celebration of where we’re at I guess.
AA Is the title track supposed to be kind of funny?
GD It’s hard to say because it’s a weird kind of humour and I don’t think that people get that it’s supposed to be humorous at times. It’s like a tragedy in a song, but there’s a joke in there. I don’t know if I want to explain it. (laughter) At some point we were calling ourselves “California’s Family Band” and this was a joke. It’s a reference to us being kind of marketing music or something. So “Leave The Family” was kind of a joke on that. It’s like admitting that we’re not wholesome. It’s maybe not the tone you get out of the songs. Does that make sense?
AA I think so, yeah.
DQ [There are jokes to make you laugh but there are also jokes to bum you out.]
For more information on Skygreen Leopards and Family Crimes, visit the Woodsist website.