Q + A with Slam Donahue by Olivia Beteta
Brooklyn’s Slam Donahue is – David Otto [singer/guitarist] and Thomas Sommerville [bassist]. Two-and-a-half years ago the synth-pop duo left their small town in middle Connecticut and came to New York to make music. The band’s most recent 7 track mix-tape, Big House Nice Dreams, [ out via Cantora Records – MGMT, Bear Hands ], is currently available for free download.
With an almost non-existent budget, Slam Donahue managed to record a surprisingly polished lo-fi, syth-pop album, lush with captivating harmonies, high energy beats and brilliant drumming from Fort Lean front-man Keenan Mitchell. Most impressive, each song on this collection was made with “borrowed” recording programs and department store keyboards. Tracks like “Where are you” and “No More Talking” prove – it doesn’t take a lot of money to create a catchy song.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Slam Donahue before their recent show in Brooklyn, to discuss their music and plans for the future.
DISCOSALT: When did you guys get together?
THOMAS SOMMERVILLE: Two-and-a-half years ago. But prior to that, we knew each other for a long time. We were childhood friends. I’ve known him [ David Otto ] since I was thirteen-years-old. So, twelve years ago…I moved to Wolcott, which is this tiny town in Connecticut…there were only three or four kids doing music…and Dave and I sort of just gravitated towards each other.
D: Why did you decide to release Big House Nice Dreams for free?
DAVID OTTO: For exposure. I mean, we really want people to listen to it and they don’t have to give anything. So, it’s easy for everybody. I don’t need money to do this.
TS: Yeah, I liked that idea too. We want to disseminate all the free music we can. We’ve been doing that for a long time, so it’s just the culmination of that. The past few years we’ve been slowly leaking things online and people started noticing, more and more and more, and somebody wanted to collect them and put them out as a whole. It was cool for us – because it’s totally from our hearts – we did every note – we recorded every melody.
DO: And mixed everything.
TS: We were sitting in out bedrooms, just bouncing ideas back and forth.
D: I think the whole mix-tape is incredible, especially considering the lack of professional equipment you were working with. “No More Talking” and “Con Song” are a couple standouts for me and “Tent” is by far my favorite track.
TS: I’m glad! Those are all out “little babies”.
DO: “Tent” is beautiful. That’s one of my favorite pop songs we’ve done.
TS: The most lurid – it’s definitely the most sexual…and we don’t write sex songs. We read in some magazine, somewhere, that 90% of “The Top 200” songs in the past ten years have been about sex…so, we looked at our back catalogue and realized that not one of them was about sex. The next song ,“Tent”, was about sex.
DO: But it’s not like, we were like, “let’s write a sex song”. [ Tent ] is based off an actual experience of mine; I ran away from home and lived in a tent for a couple of weeks.
TS: There’s been some trauma…don’t dig too deep. He was homeless in the woods with his girlfriend and all they had to do was – hang out in his tent and comfort each other.
DO: Yeah, there’s nothing to do out there.
D: You guys didn’t have a big budget for this project and, I read, you used really cheap instruments. Is that true?
DO: I’ve been using a $90 Yamaha keyboard that an ex-girlfriend brought when she moved in with me
TS: All the recording programs are stolen off The Pirate Bay.
DO: I use Sonar… Sonar-4, which is like a really cheap, shitty program but I know how to work it really well.
TS: That’s what happens after years and years of home-recording…you know the little quips of the bootleg program you use.
DO: Yeah, you know how to make your shit sound – at least – listenable.
D: Did that influence your recording process?
TS: Dave and I are spilt on this.
DO: I think so…Basically I just really like the sounds – the shitty sounds. There is something enduring about lo-fi. I like bells, and I like strings, and the “lo-finess” of it. Then, I distorted it.
TS: We discussed this the other night. Dave really wants to push forward in the band, but I like working in the restrictions of the “lo-finess”.
DO: I think as soon as there are “no restrictions”, I’m going to creatively explode!
TS: We’ve just been in the studio the past few days, so, it’s just been idea after idea, pouring out of us.
DO: Oh my God, it’s been the best! We’re working with Ayad [ Al Adhamy ], who used to be in Passion Pit, and he is producing our music. And he is brilliant, just brilliant!
TS:He laid some dope keyboard lines over the top of our stuff and he added a bunch of new ideas, and verses, and chorus. All that.
DO: Two brand new songs too.
TS: Yeah, two brand new songs that have never been leaked on the internet. We were so invested in the mix-tape, we put everything – we just put the past year of our dreams – it’s us moving to New York, the anxiety of moving to New York. All those songs really reflect the last year or so, so, it’s good to move forward finally.
DO: To be able to [move forward ] because there is such a delay between – what you feel and what you get to release. These are things I felt when we moved here, like a year and a half ago. We finally get to release it now, so, I’m psyched about that. But I’m even more excited to be able to put down what I’m feeling right now. I was thinking about “Bug in the Sun” and that song is so incredibly – “Me” – right now. Exactly how I feel, right now.
TS: “Bug in the Sun” is our new song. I’m excited and really happy with how well it’s going. I know that you’re not supposed to act excited – you’re supposed to act all cool- but I’m very happy with the progression and where Ayad is going.
DO: And he is doing a good job keeping our…
TS: “Je ne sais quoi” – the “I don’t know”- of the group.
DO: Yeah, that…secret ingredient in the recipe. I don’t know what it is either, but he has found a way to mine it out of us.
TS: It’s strange, we’ve worked with a lot of producers. So far, some things have struck and some things have gone terribly south. It’s really refreshing to work with someone who understands our sound.
(photo credit: Interview Magazine)