Canterbury in California

Skygreen Leopards grapples with its mythical version of California — and each other.

The lyrical content of Skygreen Leopards’ nine albums creates a panoramic view of a very strange and often tragic world. Since Donovan Quinn and Glenn Donaldson began the project in 2001, they’ve created a state of breathy, untrained vocal melodies, buoyed by just a handful of guitar chords and a percussive pulse. The music evokes folk, country, and 1980s homespun pop, but it’s never beholden to one trendy influence. In fact, Skygreen Leopards has outlasted several regional rock trends, remaining steadfast in its commitment to ramshackle songs and a single grand lyrical endeavor.

Grinning at each other across a barroom table one afternoon, Quinn and Donaldson talked about the most apt literary comparison for their lyrics. “It’s like a fantasy book,” Quinn said, hesitantly. Then it hit him: “It’s like Game of Thrones!” Donaldson objected: “No, it’s like [Geoffrey] Chaucer, like Canterbury Tales. … Hippie Canterbury Tales!” Still, the points remained: Skygreen Leopards’ prolific discography details one big setting, populated by a revolving cast of tragicomic figures, and it’s not yet complete.

In the late 1990s, Donaldson and Loren Chasse founded the Jeweled Antler Collective, a loose platform designed to help affiliated sound artists and musicians release their work. Recordings appeared on small runs of homemade CDRs, usually adorned with Donaldson’s artwork. Under monikers such as Thuja, The Blithe Sons, and Ivytree, Donaldson made recordings that often blurred the lines between traditional songs and field recordings. Jeweled Antler releases often featured a few non-musicians improvising near a chintzy portable tape recorder at, say, the beach. In many cases, the extraneous environmental sounds were as prominent as the actual instruments, if not more.

In 2001, Donaldson posted an ad seeking collaborators on Craigslist. It seemed like an odd move for someone at the helm of a prominent underground enterprise, but Donaldson’s peers in the world of pastoral field recordings weren’t interested in making pop music. “They didn’t want to learn chord changes,” he remembered. “Having a bass player, or playing in a club even, would’ve been considered selling out.” His listing mentioned Television Personalities, The Durutti Column, The Fall, and The Byrds, an eclectic list of influences that revealed pop ambition, however shambolic and damaged, and Quinn responded.

The duo began writing at Quinn’s horse ranch in Walnut Creek, sourcing the name Skygreen Leopards from a poem by Bay Area writer Kenneth Patchen, best known for his painted poems, in which linguistic and visual imagery explode into riotous colors on the page. Similarly, Donaldson considered Skygreen Leopards’ visual and musical components to be inseparable. Almost every album was inspired by a collage that became its cover. With pastel fields of color and cryptic emblems, Donaldson’s collages are indeed a visual analog to the duo’s tendency to pair severe narrative details with saccharine romantic tropes.

Skygreen Leopards released its first album, I Dreamt She Rode on a Pink Gazelle, and Other Dreams, through Jeweled Antler in 2001. The album abandoned the field-recording hallmark of Jeweled Antler releases up to that point, but the song structures and instrumentation remain restrained. On “Leopard Wings,” a meandering guitar lead wobbles, the tempo wavers, a fuzzy keyboard assumes the foreground, and then everything fades away.

“Nothing is intentionally crude,” said Donaldson. “But if there’s an idea about the music, it’s simplicity — simple combinations of the same chords with weird lyrics on top.” The idea informs Skygreen Leopards’ entire discography. “It doesn’t matter how absurd any of the lyrics are as long as they respond to the laws of their world,” added Quinn. “We’ve constructed the world, and we know what can exist in it.”

In 2005, the group leapt to the Jagjaguwar imprint. Not yet the formidable indie powerhouse it is today, the label was then home to folk and Americana outliers such as Simon Joyner, Richard Youngs, and Okkervil River. Skygreen Leopards fit right in, releasing Life & Love in Sparrow’s Meadow, Child God in the Garden of Idol, Jehovah Surrender, and Disciples of California in swift succession.

On its focused 2006 album, Disciples of California, a host of characters relish the state’s sun and shoreline. The album gets ridiculous, too, like on “Jesus Was Californian,” where the songwriters’ cheekily outdo themselves. As much as Disciples of California details love and loss in a semi-fictional idyll, it’s also an homage to Skygreen Leopards’ real musical predecessors in the state. On “Sally Orchid” and “I Remember Sally Orchid,” the persistent ghost could represent the bygone singers of Laurel Canyon, Bay Area acid casualties, or obscure country troubadours.

Nearly three years elapsed between Disciples of California and 2009’s Gorgeous Johnny. The charming vocal harmonies recorded by Donaldson and Quinn conceal the intermittently discordant periods of their lengthy working relationship. During one European tour, band tension resulted in their drummer storming out of a performance on Dutch National Radio while Donaldson and Quinn shouted at each other mid-song. “I actually think it’s cool to not get along,” said Donaldson. “Our heroes are The Velvet Underground, a band comprised of legendary opposites who hated each other,” he explained. “So, we try to hate each other, but we don’t really hate each other, so we can’t be as good as them.”

Outside of Skygreen Leopards activity, they both stay busy. Donaldson creates minimal electronic music as FWY!, fronts the ramshackle indie-pop quartet Reds, Pinks, and Purples, and makes gloomy post-punk with Horrid Red. Meanwhile, Quinn is in New Bums, a subtly subversive, mostly acoustic collaboration with Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny.

“A few times, we actually tried to break up,” admitted Donaldson. “But one of us just wouldn’t let it go. I think we’re both contrarians.”

Defiance pays. Donaldson and Quinn’s most recent album, Family Crimes, is perhaps their best. Released earlier this year on the reputable Woodsist imprint, it grapples further with an uncanny version of California. Donaldson’s cover collage features several symbols on a warm yellow background. An orange represents his childhood in suburban Orange County. Through an open bedroom window comes “real life,” he explained, represented by skulls that clash with and menace the mundane domestic objects. California cradles fantasy, it suggests, but strife and absurdity intervene.


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