The Donkeys go way back. Tim Denardo (guitar, bass, lead vocals), Anthony Lukens (keys, vocals), and Sam Sprague (drums, vocals) attended high school together in sunny San Diego. After graduation, Lukens and Sprague’s old band The Anchors shared a practice space with Jessie Gulati (guitar, bass, sitar). When a show for The Anchors fell through, the four decided to play a set as their joke band The Donkeys, and the name stuck. After releasing a self-title in 2006 on Antenna Farm Records, the band moved to the larger Texan label Dead Oceans. With 2008’s Living on the Other Side, the group began to build serious buzz. They were approached by a producer for Lost to be featured as the fictional band Geronimo Jackson. References to Geronimo Jackson were peppered throughout the Lost series, and The Donkeys re-recorded their song “Excelsior Lady" as "Dharma Lady,” specifically for the show. In 2011, The Donkeys released Born With Stripes on Dead Oceans.
It’s always tempting to bring up comparisons when listening to the early songs of an upcoming indie rock band. It’s what rock critics do: liken a hotshot new group to older touchstones to provide context to the new sounds they hear. After releasing two albums of chiming and laid-back guitar pop, Southern California quartet The Donkeys were inevitably saddled with nods to groups like Pavement, the Grateful Dead and the Byrds—three bands known for shifting song structures and extending their catalogue into lengthy concert workouts. But this doesn’t mean that The Donkeys are a jam band; instead, they use Pavement’s Crooked Rain and the Dead’s more structured albums like American Beauty as a jumping-off point for a set of gorgeous tunes perfect for both the open road and a beachside campfire. The Donkeys’ latest album, Born With Stripes, opens with “Don’t Know Who We Are,” sort of a mission statement for what lies ahead—plenty of loping, catchy and mid-tempo songs that defy expectations. It’s quickly followed up by the strut of “I Like the Way You Walk,” which adds a bit of bluesy gusto to the rays of sunshine that brighten the rest of record. Singer Sam Sprague—who, like The Eagles' Don Henley, is the rare frontman who also plays the drums—has an earthy, wide-ranging voice, and he’s often aided by his bandmates on songs like the “Range Life”-baiting “Ceiling Tan” and “Valeria.” The rest of the band is no slouch, either, adding thoughtful touches (sitar on “West Coast Raga” and counterpart “East Coast Raga”; zippy keyboards on the title track “Born With Stripes”) and coloring each tune with guitars that both gallup and grind. And though it’s easy to play a game of musical Connect the Dots with The Donkeys, Born With Stripes proves that the band is more than capable of creating its own identity. That identity might be tied to the California coast, but why run away from a good thing?