Singer/guitarist David Otto and bassist Thomas Sommerville have known each other since they were young, and after playing in rival bands, they decided to create their own group, Slam Donahue. Since then, the two’s influences have melded and began to complement each other. Though the duo’s sound could fit under the umbrella of “indie pop,” it’s much more than that. The Brooklyn-based outfit strives to test pop music’s conventions, and for this its sound varies from R&B and hip-hop tinges to new wave. This interesting range is what makes Slam Donahue a band to keep on your radar. Otto and Sommerville are currently in the midst of CMJ (check out their festival schedule here), but they were nice enough to chat with me about the festival, their new EP, Hemlock Tea, and what it’s like to be a band in Brooklyn.
You’re gearing up to play CMJ this weekend. Is this your first time playing the festival?
Thomas Sommerville: It’s our second and already more successful after playing only one show. Everyone was shaking ass at the Banners party and that was just Tuesday night.
Dave Otto: Yeah lets hope the next two are equal to or greater than the first.
What bands are you looking forward to seeing at CMJ this year?
TS: Top two shows are the GZA and Bear Hands and the Ghostface, Elzhi, and Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire. Both will be dope.
DO: I think Q-tip is playing Irving Plaza. Probably going to try and catch that. Hope he does some Tribe tracks.
I see you have another gig coming up in Brooklyn next month; are you planning on touring?
DO: Yep, we probably have a show next month. I would hope so. As far as touring goes, we're planning on planning.
TS: We should try and take over the world at some point.
You recently released your new EP Hemlock Tea. How would you say this release differs from Big House Nice Dreams?
TS: Big House Nice Dreams was recorded over a longer period of time. It is more of a throw everything at the wall kind of release than a proper record. This new one was done in a month and feels much tighter to me.
DO: Also Hemlock Tea was recorded in a studio, and with a producer, while BHND is all home demos.
You worked with Ayad Al Adhamy on this album. Tell me about this experience.
TS: Dave told me the other day he had listened to the demos we went into the studio with and then the actual release and he thought they came out better songs than they went in. Ayad pushed us to do better, he cut out all the oohs and aahs, added synth lines; it was good to have someone say “no” to some things too.
DO: Yeah, Ayad was really great to work with. The outsider’s ear is invaluable, because after writing a song, you kind of get attached to the structure, and maybe there were some weak parts. He sat down with us and dissected each individual guitar lick or vocal melody, and we were able to cut out the fat, and add some gravy, if you only understand things through food metaphors.
You played at the Banners CMJ party on October 16. How was it?
DO: It was a rager. After six hours of drinking everyone was pretty loose. Also we got to play with Ayad's new band Team Spirit, and fellow label mates Zulu Pearls. Shows are always more fun with fam.
TS: It was a marathon but a perfect start. Well really I started with a free massage earlier in the day at the artist lounge. You have to enjoy the perks.
Your music is delightfully poppy and catchy. With so many indie pop bands out there right now, how do you feel Slam Donahue stands out?
TS: I can only name a handful of indie pop bands. It seems all of my friend’s bands sound radically different. A lot of the indie pop that I have heard always lacks hooks. We try to get those in as much as possible.
DO: I'm sure there are a bunch of good ones. We aren't really worried about standing out; we just want to write great songs. If that ends up making us different, then very good. If not, we aren't going to fret. We just like writing, and you might as well show people.
Living in Brooklyn, you are immersed in a thriving music scene. Do you feel like this is beneficial or hindering for an up-and-coming band?
TS: Both, there is a massive amount of bands so it is hard to get attention. It’s healthy competition though; we don’t really want to hurt each other.
DO: I think its great. It's hard to get perspective on where you actually stand with-in the whole scheme of things when you're living in an isolated scene. This can be both encouraging and grounding.
What are some up-and-coming Brooklyn bands we should know about?
TS: You guys probably know all the bands, click around this site. They Might Be Giants though, those guys have some good songs and could be big.
DO: All of our friends have great bands. Bear Hands, Tony Castles, Fort Lean, Team Spirit, etc. The list is long. Brooklyn is pretty healthy.
How do you feel Brooklyn has helped shape your band?
TS: We’re playing live with two Italian friends, Renzo and Alex, we met through being here. It has offered us a lot of different people to meet who all have their own paths and ideas. The city is kind of a background.
DO: It's really difficult to say. When I'm influenced by something, I never really notice it until much later. When I can look back and say, "Oh yeah, that’s probably where I got that from."
Would you even consider moving to another city?
TS: Tokyo. Seems awkward and romantic.
DO: Nah, I feel like we're in the heart of the world. Why would I ever leave that?
What’s next for Slam Donahue?
TS: Full length, we have been fucking around with 14-15 songs we want to record. I know we’ve just released the EP, and we still want to go back into the studio. I’m sure we’ll be touring on the EP. UK possibly very soon.
DO: Yeah, all that stuff. I'm only looking as far ahead as finally getting some sleep once CMJ is over.
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