Discovery: Slam Donahue

Photography Kyle Dean Reinford

Published December 16, 2011


The young men of Slam Donahue—vocalist and guitarist Dave Otto, vocalist and bassist Thomas Sommerville and drummer Keenan Mitchell (who is also the lead singer of Fort Lean)—have created a collection of pop songs (recorded through a boombox) that reflect upon the subconscious anxiety of growing up and living life to its fullest. Their music sounds a little bit like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and is slightly reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins, too, which matches their interest in pop with a capital P.

The band will be touring next year, and play SXSW in March. A new single comes out in February. In the meantime, Slam Donahue has been playing shows in the tri-state area. Interview spoke with Dave Otto, Thomas Sommerville, and Keenan Mitchell on living in the new “Haight-Ashbury,” the anxiety of New York City, and doing it all on their own.

ON MEETING THROUGH BEAR HANDS:SOMMERVILLE: No, Dave and I didn’t go to Wesleyan. We got pulled in later to the scene. We’ve been friends with Dylan Rau from Bear Hands for years and years. He turned us on to the whole thing. We met Keenan through him, and he hooked us up with all of those guys.

ON COMPARISONS TO MGMT AND PRODUCTS OF WESLEYAN:SOMMERVILLE: No, we’ve been compared to a lot of bands, but MGMT is not one of them. We get Smashing Pumpkins a lot. That’s really flattering. We grew up liking a lot of that kind of rock-‘n’-roll and pop music. We’re latecomers the pop scene. That’s why we’re excited to be making the music we’re making. We are fans of MGMT. We listen to them a lot. We listened to a lot of Oracular Spectacular.OTTO: I feel like we used to get that more often. Earlier, when the band first started, we probably were more similar to them. We probably were more similar then, but we’ve obviously changed and found our own sound.

KEEPING THE MUSIC CATCHY:SOMMERVILLE: Yeah. Absolutely. We try to simplify our music down to the basic elements. It’s all chorus, pretty much. We want to include people. Instead of having long, drawn-out parts, we try and simplify it down, so it’s mostly hooks. It’s more like a hip-hop attitude towards music with the melody and everything. The hook is there. I guess it can be catchy. Of course!

ON BEING PROUD OF CHORUS-WRITING:OTTO: One thing I used to be criticized about in my past bands is, “You’re a good songwriter, but you only write choruses. Every time you write, it’s a chorus.”SOMMERVILLE: I don’t think that’s a bad thing, actually.OTTO: Well, they meant it. I don’t even know. I never understood.

ON EX-BANDMATES AND WEIRD BAND NAMES:OTTO: [laughs] Well, we didn’t even come up with it. It was actually people that used to be in the band, these two kids from Connecticut. I don’t know, they were just weird, spontaneous kids. They came up with this band name and it was just a rattled off band name. We were like, “Sure, we’ll use it.”SOMMERVILLE: We stole it from these kids. They were in the band. It kind of didn’t work out, and this is what we kept from our experience with them. I’m sure it’s something we’ll regret later.

ON OLD FRIENDSHIPS AND PLAYING MUSICAL CHAIRS:SOMMERVILLE: Dave and I have known each other since we were young: for the past 12 years. I was in a band with his older brother and that wasn’t working out. I realized that Dave was the talent there. We started playing together. We toured the country twice in other bands that we were in when we were teenagers.OTTO: I was 14.SOMMERVILLE: Dave was 14, and he toured the US. We separated for a while. We had talked. Then, I showed up for a show. I was the only paying customer at the band’s show. I said, “We have to go. We have to leave Connecticut.” We moved to New York City. We’re about to put out our mixtape of our own home recordings that we mastered on the Internet. We’ve come this far in one year. Next week is the first single off of it. We’re really proud of it because this is the stuff we did at home, by all by ourselves. We produced the whole thing by ourselves. It’s really cool that we got a little recognition from a label that wants to put that out.

SONGWRITING ON THE EDGE:OTTO: I don’t know. It was hard to say. Usually when I write songs or lyrics, the whole thing is sort of like a subconscious experience. I just sat down and listened to the mix tape a couple of times a week ago, and I realized that it was all about anxieties that I’ve had; anything that worries me. I didn’t even realize.SOMMERVILLE: I feel like the first single that we’re releasing off of this, which is called “It’s Scary,” is really about the anxiety the transition to New York. I feel like we don’t even realize it when we write the song. It just kind of comes out. We’re a real, natural band. We never force it into recording. Everything is done in the moment. It makes it really exciting.

ON LIVING BY THEIR OWN RULES:SOMMERVILLE: We did release the single in Europe, but this is going to be exposure. It’s really cool because it’s all self-produced and recorded. We tracked everything ourselves and recorded everything ourselves. We didn’t have any cross-communications. We did exactly what we wanted.OTTO: This feels so much more honest and actually [like] what I was trying to portray with the songs. We did everything ourselves at home in our bedrooms.MITCHELL: This whole mixtape was recorded in Dave’s father’s house in Connecticut before we moved here.

INFLUENCES:OTTO: I really like Of Montreal, his earlier work. I really appreciate Weezer. Obviously, the Beatles, and I also like Michael Jackson. My God, I don’t know.SOMMERVILLE: Dave is really into the big ones. Dave is influenced by the legendary people. He wanted our mixtape cover to be a collage of Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, all these legendary people. Keenan likes Creedence Clearwater Revival. We’re much more influenced by our friends’ bands. Our friends are only in bands. Everybody is doing their own thing. That’s hugely influential to us. Our apartment is like the new “Haight-Ashbury.” There are three bands coming out of our apartment.