Skygreen Leopards: Interview
“It’s just, this is our bid for a pop album.”
My conjectures aren't so crazy, because Donovan Quinn readily admits it. “This is our bid for a pop album.” The singer/guitarist and co-founder of Skygreen Leopards, the San Francisco-based psyche-folk collective, which he heads up with singer/guitarist Glenn Donaldson, recently released its seventh full-length, Gorgeous Johnny, a record that feels much more upbeat. Well, at least, more jangly, warm and full. (Due in no small part to Jason Quever, of Papercuts – read ahead).
Skygreen Leopards (with Jasmyn Wong, Nick Marcantonio and Quever) are nestled in the spidery-web-hammock-crib between the branches of psych-folk, British invasion, prog/art-rock, and latent post-punk leanings. There's also a bit of negotiation between the hazier morning-after stumble of drug folk and the humble sepia-toned dandelion-lapel of traditional folk. The industrious duo met in 2000 through a band want-ad, bonding over the Byrds, The Fall, and Television Personalities. Incorrigible collaborators, Donaldson also plays in Thuja and The Blithe Sons, while Quinn recently wrapped work on his second album with The 13th Month (with Quever and Marcantonio).
Quinn discusses with TMT the pleasure of dealing with distinct personalities like Donaldson and Quever, the admiration he has for other weird, arty ambient bands that develop straightforward pop forms (see: Skygreen's development), his upcoming Ben Chasney collaboration, and how listeners seem always to love and support each new Skygreen record – but only after it is no longer the ‘new' or latest record.
Hey Donovan, what's new?
Usual stuff. I've worked on a ton of music since the last time I talked to you. There's the (Ben) Chasny record, we started that. There's a new 13th Month record that's been done for a while. And, ya know, obviously, Skygreen Leopards did Gorgeous Johnny, which I like, so, it's been cool. We've got a solid 13th Month lineup too, playing with Jason Quever, who does Papercuts.
I spent a lot of time, last Spring, listening to (Quever)'s latest record.
Jason's great, man, he lives here in town. He can play basically everything, really well. With Vetiver he just plays keyboards and with Skygreen Leopards, we've had him play bass and piano and do some drums for 13th Month. If you're friends with Jason, you kinda wanna get him in your band. Glen (Donaldson) is in a billion different bands too, but Glen works with all these different people, just more, crazy, different bands.
Let's start with the creation/production of your latest, Gorgeous Johnny. Where can you tell me?
It had been a couple years since we'd recorded Disciples of California and the thought was that we'd go back to Jason's to do this, again. It worked really well. Disciples was our attempt to do a, kind of a live-sounding record, with as few overdubs as possible. Whereas, with Gorgeous Johnny, we thought we could take a lot of time, working with different kinds of overdubs, have Jason play a lot more of a role, that's why you'll hear a lot of piano, and organ, percussion parts and that kind of thing. It sounds different, but it's just time passing. We weren't consciously thinking, ‘Oh, it'll be different in this way or that way,' it just happened.
So, can you clarify whether this is a concept album, following a Johnny of sorts?
The Johnny concept was not actually part of the record at all. We recorded the record and we were like, ‘Oh, this kinda seems like it's about some guy, who just seems to be a thread through it.' He was greeted in that way. So, afterwards we created that myth, and me and Glen love that kind of mythmaking. We got a couple of reviews that cracked us up, taking us to task for sticking with this concept, like, ‘Why would you spend an album writing about some guy?' I mean, there was no guy, really…
"I think because we started off, we were such shitty musicians, we couldn't do anything approaching pop music."
If the narrative was coincidental, or unconscious, doesn't that lead to holes in the story? But, beyond that, you mentioned before that, on your own, with 13th Month, you often write ‘relationship songs' whereas teaming with Glen can lead to more consciously absurd commentaries …
Some songs seem to be describing this foppish character. The whole record is kind of urbane, just, we didn't consciously set out to do that. With both of us doing different projects and coming onto this subject, the thing is, it's a lot different because we ourselves, in the past, thought our songs were sad, and funny and absurd at the same time. We're really into that ambiguity and mixed messages, mixed metaphors, and putting things together like, my lyrics and his lyrics and seeming to contradict each other. ‘Goodnight Anna,' even though it's a sad song, I think I actually intended it to be more funny than it comes across – it's a really dry humor that (Glen and I) share. I think it's funny… how people read humor, really, will determine how they react to Skygreen Leopards. We're not making jokes, it's just kinda absurd. There are absurd situations that are also heartfelt. But, it's not irony that we're going for, it's more just, kind of… weird.
Last year, going into this record, you said it would be something close to Skygreen's “…Village Green (Kinks-ian) pop-type record…” Looking on the finished album, what would you say?
We always thought of ourselves as a pop group, but no one else really did. I think because we started off, we were such shitty musicians, we couldn't do anything approaching pop music. (Laughs) We love pop records…Village Green, for sure, but also there's a certain record in a lot of our favorite band's catalogs. A lot of times in indie rock, people kind of look down on those records, like a classic example would be people who say Loaded is the worst Velvet Underground record. That's one of the best records ever made! So, Incredible String Band's Changing Horses, that's my favorite String Band. We probably both prefer Corky's Debt to His Father to any Red Krayola record. We always liked that idea of a band starting out kind of arty and then exploring more straight ahead song forms. There's a beauty to that form. It's kind of a strange time for that music, because garage rock and lo-fi seem pretty big again, which is awesome. I guess maybe we don't totally see pop music the way other people see it. Some people really get it, more than any of our records, but on the other hand, I don't know, the interpretation (from others) of what we were going for seems odd, it's not supposed to be commercial. It's just, this is our bid for a pop album.
I think if there's any accentuated reaction to the ‘more poppier' sound, or feel, or whatever you want to call it, it may just be from those looking back at more feedback-drenched sounds from slightly more gothic, atmospheric, or at times mystic or haunting records, like Life and Love in Sparrow's Meadow.
One thing I really like about Skygreen Leopards: every album we've done, since Life and Love, well, One Thousand Bird Ceremony was the first record anyone knew, with Life and Love, a lot of people thought that was getting too into ‘songs' or song forms. And, then Disciples came out and it was like, ‘Oh, Life and Love was great' all of a sudden, but Disciples was like, ‘Skygreen's attempt at country rock.' Then, we released Gorgeous Johnny and everyone was like, ‘Oh, well…Disciples was awesome!' But, when Disciples came out, they were like, ‘Oh, they used to be cooler when they were an ambient/whatever-band.' We've really enjoyed the reactions to this one.
And I've noticed that same skull cut-out appears on a few album covers…
Every time we see that skull on the record cover it cracks us up. It's something people don't notice but we spend way too much time thinking about. There's things like, the album art and even the press release, which we always use as an excuse to make up a little story. The press pictures, we tried to make it where it was a bunch of really whimpy guys trying to be tough. And the album cover is a little bit, like Physical Graffiti/Exile on Main St. That's the cool thing about the idea of Johnny, he really thinks he's this worldly guy with delusions of grandeur, that goes along with us doing a pop record when we have no chops whatsoever, (laughs). Jason's a ringer.
" Glen, everything he does is based on spontaneous invention and subversion. He just upsets things ... Jason is a mad scientist-type."
You and Glen used to record everything on your own. Has your perspective or preferences changed, regarding recording?
I always really liked recording in Jason's studio. I did the (most recent) 13th Month record with him, so I've actually been collaborating with Jason for a couple years. Especially with this new 13th Month record, which will be called Your Wicked Man, it's really a collaboration, I wrote all the songs but the music, Jason has as much to do with it as I do, if not more, he's just really talented. It's interesting working with him and then Glen, they're such opposites. Glen, everything he does is based on spontaneous invention and subversion. He just upsets things, he'll take something and then he'll, every step of the way, in the writing, in the mixing, just tweak one element of it, he indulges in exploring. Jason is a mad scientist-type. I really enjoy collaborating with people that are very different in terms of their processes. I feel the most comfortable at Jason's studio. That said, (next) I think I'm gonna go back to my same tape machine that we started recording Skygreen with, just because it's always good to take yourself out of any kind of comfortable situation you find yourself in…
You mentioned the upcoming 13th Month record, what can you say about it, how do you feel?
I'm really excited. It's different from everything else I've recorded. I started doing it with Jason right after we finished Gorgeous Johnny, but they don't sound anything alike. It's an album about loneliness, basically, from different monologues. It's not a relationship record. I was inspired by this book, Wittgenstein's Mistress, by Marcson, it's a great book, this amazing kind of experimental book. It's this long monologue on this woman who believes she's the last person on earth. There's this small part, where she's saying, I think it's Wuthering Heights, that she realized it was a book about windows. There's all these people looking at windows. (Ben) Chasny mentioned to me, ‘You always mention windows and light in your songs.' I never thought about it. I like the idea of doing an album that is about a lot of different rooms and looking at people through their rooms and through little things that they do on a daily basis. Even though it's about loneliness, it's more up-tempo, and more energetic pop, but it ended up being a totally sad, bummer of a record, just naturally. I think it's really pretty and I think it's sad, in a way, but it's not caustic in any way, you wouldn't grieve to it. But it's not a party record. (Last year's) 13th Month record was a statement about the inability to deal with someone you're really close to. This (Wicked Man), every song is a longing for something, illumination that never came, seeing this through people's rooms. What people will actually think when they hear it, I don't know. They could be, ‘It sounds like shittily played folk rock,' I don't know! But I really hope people get into this one, cuz Jason and I labored over this record. I spent more time on this record, by far, than anything I've ever been a part of…
And, you also mentioned a project with Ben Chasny, how is that going? What's the status? What's it like working with him?
That's going pretty good. That was done after Your Wicked Man. We still don't have an album title. Ben lives in Seattle now and he flew down here and slept on my floor for 10 days (while we recorded). Honestly, we just got really hammered, day after day, to where… the first four days we were basically in the cycle of, going out and getting drunk and, instead of coming back and starting to play, getting more wasted and spending the next day recovering. Ben's one of my best friends, so we wanted to have a good time, but eventually, we said let's get down to business. We spent the last few days really spending a lot of time recording two guitars, live, and then doing overdubs. It worked so perfectly, it's kind of like a Jacobites sound. That was the whole point. We're buddies, we're drinking buddies, so we thought this will be a drinking buddy record. Really, literally… And, the songs were written in that spirit. We'll finish that record in a couple months. And hopefully get the Your Wicked Man out by the end of the year or early next year.