Glenn Donaldson interview

by Mats Gustafsson

There are probably not more than a handful of contemporary bands and artists that with ghost-like precision somehow manage to epitomize what my sonic taste is all about. One of them is without any question of a doubt Glenn Donaldson, a multi-talented San Francisco-based psychedelia/folk/drone/improv musician who is an integral part of so many fascinating musical projects (Skygreen Leopards, Thuja, Blithe Sons, Franciscan Hobbies, Ivytree and Birdtree to just mention a few) that you can’t really blame those with difficulties keeping up. When setting up this interview it was mainly with the intention to investigate the organic roots of the beautifully layered and loosely structured psych pop/folk of the Skygreen Leopards, a duo that besides Donaldson features Verdure mastermind Donovan Quinn, but after getting in touch with Donaldson I soon realized that there’s so much beauty, intimacy and uniqueness in everything this man is doing that it wouldn’t feel right to focus on just one corner of his creative output. I guess that the way I see his different combos and monikers is as differently colored rivers that unite in one impressive stream of sounds, and depending on where you decide to dip your toes you’re as likely to hear elegantly crafted outsider psych/folk, distant blankets of intoxicating drones and subdued collages, mournful guitarscapes, hillbilly minimalism, dank organic noise and clattering forest ambience as ecstatic tribal damage. I got in touch with Donaldson via email for the discussion that follows.


Tell us a bit about your personal background. Where did you grow up?


I grew up in suburban southern California, hanging out in parking lots, going to the beach, skateboarding, listening to punk records. Music was an escape, something to get excited about. Punk was the big folkart movement of that time...


Do you remember when music really caught your attention for the first time?


I sang in church when I was very very young; I have vague memories of watching John Denver and Alice Cooper on the Muppet Show. I remember schoolteachers singing folk songs while playing autoharp. My best friend's older brother played in a KISS cover band and performed at his birthday party when we were 5 years old. That blew my mind.


When did you start listening "seriously" to music?


Aww I'm not serious. The first band I really loved was the Monkees, because it was playing in re-runs at the time. I also dug the Beatles and the Byrds; I got into 60's music and punk at around the same time. I was in elementary school, pre-teen. I jumped around a lot in my bedroom pretending to be a punk singer or 60's psychedelic guitar player. I didn't have much money to buy records, so I would go to the record store, stare at the cover art and imagine what the band would sound like. I bought the Ramones "Leave Home" and the first Velvet Underground album for $2.99 each on cassette from a big bin at a local bargain department store.


I grew up in Fullerton, so there was The Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange and many more. Another friend's brother was in a group called Medicine Man (a Green on Red/Dream Syndicate/rootsy type of band). We used to hang out in their practice space and bash away on their gear when they were gone.


Was it around this time you went from being a listener to actually play music? Or did that come later?


I've been making music my whole life. My parents had a big electric organ and I used to create a big droning racket on it, messing with all the knobs and switches. I imagined it sounding like a symphony. My friends and I would make tapes, playing harmonica and drums or with someone playing two notes on a cheap electric guitar. Not much has changed really! But I mainly sang in a church choir in public school, then in garage bands playing songs like "Gloria" and then punk music. I didn't really start playing guitar until I was 21.


What made you pick up the guitar?

I wanted to write my own songs.


When starting playing music I guess punk was a natural choice, right? Tell us a bit about your early musical development.


I took a few piano lessons, but I wanted to do things the 'wrong' way, make new sound, just bang on things and have fun. I think this is the natural way to create music. Structure and theory comes after the fact. I want total freedom, and then ideas can flow and maybe form motifs or themes appear and then you can get engergised by them as well. I have a voracious appetite for hearing new music; punk is what originally sent me off into the stratosphere. There's so much energy and feeling, art and style in it.


There is so much beauty and space in the music you do today that I often tend to come back to the landscapes when writing about it. How important is this side of things and your geographical location for you as a person and as a musician?


Thank you. I love a big spacious sound. Like an epic movie, a vast desert expanse, an enormous cavern...I love reverb especially, natural and artificial; it gives the music a certain topography. I also like dry upfront sounds contrasting with spacious, formless ones and having multiple layers, like soil strata or dense underbrush, different species of plants intertwining. The landscape literally has an influence on the sound when I record outdoors with Loren Chasse in the Blithe Sons or on my own when I do the Ivytree. But more than that, I love San Francisco and the Bay Area, the history, culture and the parks and the people. This must have an influence on my life and therefore the music I make.


Concerning the environment of recording-- that's a connection among most of your releases and something that truly sets them apart from most other stuff out there. What do you think is added to a recording when recording parts outdoors and including various field recordings?


Playing outdoors is a humbling experience.  You don't want to play too loud and disrupt the silence or the birdsongs. That's part of the reason why sometimes we play so quiet and minimal.  If you play fewer notes, more of the sound of the space can seep in. Field recordings add a visual element. You can see with your ears.


Where does your interest in the nature come from?


Years ago, I took a lot of LSD and mushrooms and roamed around out in the woods down in Santa Cruz, out in the Mojave desert and up north in Eureka. The combination of drugs and overwhelming natural beauty was very potent. I imagine this had some influence, but really experiencing these types of places before I took any drugs was just as intense.

Can you tell us a bit about Mirza and its formation?


Mirza was Mark Williams, Brian Lucas, Steve Smith and me.  Steve and I have played together since we were 15 and we met the other two guys in college at Santa Cruz. We started in 1994 playing pretty structured music. Listening to stuff like Pharoah Sanders "Tahuid" and Pink Floyd "Echoes" and Sun City Girls and those jams on Jefferson Airplane's "After Bathing at Baxters", helped us loosen up a bit. Also 3/4 of the band was smoking a lot of marijuana at the time, so things started to get more fucked up. I started getting bored with electric guitar, so I started incorporating field recordings, casio, banjo, tape loops. Brian Lucas used to "play" a reel-to-reel machine like Eno used to in Roxy Music or Martin Swope in Mission of Burma. The band split in 1998 just when Brian moved to NY and Mark to Spain.


What lead to the decision to start Jewelled Antler? Was there a point at which you thought "we could do this better ourselves"?


Loren Chasse bought a CD-R burner and asked me if I wanted to collaborate on a CD-R label, a novel idea at the time. I think this was 1999/2000. The CD-R label idea gave us total artistic freedom, and we didn't need a lot of money.  Indie labels got kind of conservative for a while there I think. CD-R labels can exist for 4 people or 400 people. It doesn't really matter either way.


What role do you think Jewelled Antler is playing in underground music today? Has that role changed over the years?


I don't know. Hopefully a few more people stop and listen to the wind in the trees for a moment.


What's the story behind Thuja's birth? Why the name?


Mirza was incredibly loud. Our ears were tired, and we wanted to incorporate more acoustic/unusual instruments/field recording etc.  Mirza had these elements, but it was more difficult to do live in the context of a loud rock band. So after the other two guys split, we asked our old friend Rob Reger to play with us. He had a huge warehouse space covered in vine-y plants and cacti. Kind of a beautiful decaying industrial garden which had an influence on the aesthetics of Thuja I believe.


I saw Loren Chasse play in an amazing band called Ohm-A-Revelator (with Greg Saunier from Deerhoof and Cole Palme from Factrix), and I took note of the unconventional way in which he played the drums. A few years later he showed up at a party at our house. I struck up a conversation with him because he had a Magma belt buckle on. A few months after that, he joined our group.


I named the group Thuja after the plant. The word was written really large on a jar in an herbal medicine store I used to go to. Also the break-up of Mirza was disappointing, so I think we consciously wanted Thuja to be loose and unlike a "real" band, so there would be no pressure to practice or put out albums. We played with no expectations at all, and it all developed rather at its own pace.


Although Mirza is no longer you’re still involved in a number of groups, some of the better known being Thuja, the Blithe Sons, the Franciscan Hobbies, the Skygreen Leopards, the Ivytree and the Birdtree. Care to give us a brief description of each combo/moniker?


Thuja: 3 or 4 people listening to each other more than playing.


The Blithe Sons: two people attempting to merge 19th century Transcendentalism with 20th Century Minimalism and folk music, but mainly just an excuse to get outdoors.


The Franciscan Hobbies: a myriad of friends and ex-friends having a sound-picnic.


The Skygreen Leopards: two people strumming 200 year-old-guitar chords and trying to discover a new mythology of love, hope and dreams.


The Birdtree: collages with bird-headed figures with sad music.


The Ivytree: yet more of those collages and sad music with thin rays of light coming through the branches.


What do you want people to experience from the Skygreen Leopards’ music?


Love, sadness, humor, passion, confusion, joy.


Tell me about the Skygreen Leopards’ debut album? How did it come about? What was the response like?


We recorded two CD-Rs in 2001 and then late 2002. Then the Leopards went to sleep for a bit. Donovan really wanted to get some Verdure albums out. I was doing Birdtree/Ivytree/Blithe Sons/Thuja and a million other things too. But I really wanted to make more Skygreen music, because it is such a joy to work with Donovan; he inspires me; he's one of the most brilliant people I've ever encountered. Chris Berry from Soft Abuse offered to re-issue the CD-Rs, so I convinced Donovan to record some 'bonus' tracks with me, and within a month we had a new album. People seemed to like "One Thousand Bird Ceremony", we got some very kind reviews and emails.


Are the first two Skygreen Leopards CD-Rs still going to be reissued?


Yes, but I'm not sure when or how yet.


Does each release have a different unifying idea, or goal behind it? If so, what would you say makes “One Thousand Bird Ceremony” on Soft Abuse so special?


I don't know if it's special, but thanks for saying that. We pull our lyrics from the unconscious, Donovan is a Freudian and I am a Jungian.  So our songs have a mythological quality to them, but at the same time they are very personal stories about our lives and experiences. We are very sincere and serious about making good music, but also we don't want the whole thing to be ponderous. We want to make pop music, inspired by the AM radio psych-pop/folk of yore, but we can't help but make it a bit strange, because we are a bit strange. Each release does tell a story. It's a non-linear saga. Like Life itself, we're not sure where it's all going. The albums are about us and the people we know, our histories and dreams.


Earlier you described the Skygreen Leopards as some sort of new mythology of love, hope and dreams. How important are dreams to you? Do they play any kind of role in the creation of your music?


It's hard to 'know' the meaning of a dream intellectually, but it's a poetic hint at understanding yourself. The lyrics might come from the same place. Being aware of dreams certainly influences my life and therefore the music I make.


When I'm making collages, I feel like I'm in a waking dream. I always learn something in the process. Also I sometimes dream about music, impossible instruments and sounds. I once dreamt that I had my hands in a shallow creek and discovered that if I lifted these small smooth stones in the creek-bed, a watery organ tone would be emitted. So in my dream, I could actually "play" the creek-bed like a primitive pipe organ. I tried to recreate that sound on some instrumental passages of the Ivytree CD.


How did you get in touch with Jagjaguwar?


Soft Abuse sent them "One Thousand Bird Ceremony" and Chris Swanson wrote me an email saying come join us, and they've got Nagisa Ni Te who is the greatest band in the world, so we had to say "yes". Also they told me that next up they were working on a Supreme Dicks box set. I took this as a sign from the almighty that we should join their roster.


I totally agree with you on Nagisa Ni Te’s excellence. Don’t you think it is kind of odd how relatively unknown they still are? I mean, they should have conquered the world by now.


Yeah. Well maybe the tastemakers just haven't caught on yet. They are just brilliant, emotionally majestic songcraft... also the audio design of their albums conveys so much vastness and beauty.


How does your two Jagjaguwar albums "Child God in the Garden of Idols" compliment "Life and Love in Sparrow's Meadow"?


Sparrows are amazing singers; their notes are so pitch perfect, an orchestra can tune to their songs. When Sparrow sings it summons the Child-God. The Child-God brings wonder, mystery and confusion. In other words, the arrival of the Child-God represents the birth of creativity (and thereby of everything).


I hear a great deal of Nikki Sudden and the Jacobites influences on "Life and Love in Sparrow's Meadow."  What were you inspired by when making this record?


It's nice to be compared to Jacobites, that stuff is truly amazing, the Swell Maps too!  I love the first two Jacobites albums and stuff like "Dead Men Tell No Tales". I think the similarity comes from the fact that Nikki was into the same things we are: Dylan, Bolan, Stones, Small Faces, Big Star and Neil Young. Donovan Quinn never actually heard Nikki Sudden till recently.


It's hard to pin down influences for "Life and Love".  When we met we bonded over the West Coast folk-rock and pop, the Monkees, the old Grateful Dead LPs, Donovan's father's band Country Weather, the Byrds, Gene Clark, Kaleidoscope etc. and other worlds like ESP-Disk, old Flaming Lips stuff and Television Personalities. But that's just the launching pad. I mean we listen to a ton of music. The basic structure for Skygreen music is pop or folk music, but at the same time, I'm free to weave in field recordings, noise, whatever.


I’ve never really heard Country Weather. What are they like?


They played heavy psych-rock, some of their stuff sounded like a West Coast take on Cream or early Pink Floyd; then later they had more of a country rock vibe.


How do you and Donovan work together when creating music as the Skygreen Leopards?


We work very spontaneously. We both sing, so often there is a second song within the main song. Nothing about it is random though. We consider it "Pre-cognitive Songcraft", aka "Backwards-shadowing". Each song is a remembrance of a song not yet written. As Donovan Quinn once told me, "we need to travel backwards through a forest twice in order to find our way back."


We spend a good amount of time drinking espresso and listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Holy Modal Rounders together and discussing Art Nouveau paintings and other foppery. Donovan is a bit of a country-dandy. Most of the last two albums were recorded in his trailer on the back of a horse ranch. The animal sounds you hear at the beginning of "One Thousand Bird Ceremony" are right outside his window.


Care to tell us more about the “so much is humored, in love” motto?


The four humors are blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy aka black bile.  Our lives are influenced by the flow of these liquids, and love creates an intense "humoring" in the body. This is only one interpretation.


What is a Skygreen Leopards show like? Any European dates on the horizon?


We play shows as The Skygreen Leopards Skyband with Christine Boepple on percussion, floor tom, bowed banjo, fuzz guitar harmonica, flutes etc. I play 12-string acoustic/harmonica and Donovan plays acoustic guitar and mandolin. I think live our country-folk side comes out more. It's pretty strange and sometimes haphazard but mostly we enjoy it. I think the Skyband is getting pretty good live considering it was previously an all studio thing. We are starting to sound more like us if that makes any sense. We are talking about more touring, but we haven't set anything up yet.


What do you see coming round the bend?


I try not to see past right now. Thinking about the future is a kind of black magic. If you mess around with that too much, the demons will come and take you away.


Is there anything you’d like to add?


I'd just like to add that I'm grateful for all the wonderful people who I've met through music.  I've travelled farther and did way more than I thought I'd ever do. In the USA, there are evil forces at work, very wealthy criminals who want to crush culture and self-expression and kill innocent people in other countries. It's a sad time really and that's part of the reason why we make this music.  So here's a big fuck you to George Bush from "new weird america" or whatever it's called this week.


Written and directed by Mats Gustafsson in 2005, originally intended for publication in Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine #36. This edit © Terrascope Online, November 2007.


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