Band To Watch: Slonk Donkerson
Formed in 2010, Slonk Donkerson is a trio of childhood friends who grew up with each other in Pound Ridge, New York. Though the three official members — Dylan Vandenhoeck (bass/lead vocals), Zack O’Brien (formerly drums, now guitar/backup vocals), and Parker W. Silzer IV (guitar/vocals) — have known each other since they were kids, and often played with each other in various bands, it wasn’t until their college years that they began working as Slonk Donkerson. Back then, with the three of them spread out between Charleston, Providence, and Manhattan, Silzer would work on material and bring it to the other two to be fleshed out and arranged, basically allowing them to work on albums over their summer vacations. Having all moved to Brooklyn in 2012, the three got an apartment together (“We’ve been called a sitcom,” says Silzer) and began working as Slonk in earnest, playing shows in Brooklyn’s DIY scene and crafting a more expansive sound from the roots of the ’80s college-rock — a lot of Replacements, a good amount of Hüsker Dü, guitar riffs with serious R.E.M. vibes — that had been the foundation of the band’s sound years ago.
After a few self-released works, their new album The Lunar Martini Motorbike Club And Their Respective Destinies, is technically their third but also their first full-fledged, official release. On first listen, it’s exhilarating and catchy and enjoyable in what seems to be a straightforward way. The first surface-level thing you notice is those ’80s college-rock aesthetics — at least if you are introduced to the album through “Watching Every Channel At Once” and “Build Something, Break Even,” as I was. But the reason The Lunar Martini Motorbike Club is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums of the year is how weird it reveals itself to be below that surface-level, after a few more listens. One of the things that makes Slonk Donkerson exciting is that they’ve begun mixing a very weird array of musical touchstones; suddenly the perennially hip antecedents of the Replacements or R.E.M. are mingling freely with more stereotypically passé reference points like ’70s and ’80s hard rock, even hair metal. That self-aware indulgence in rock history all takes place within an ethos and framework the band dreamt up as the “Lunar Martini” world. Suddenly, an album that initially comes off as one of those simple pleasures in life — driving rock music with great melodies — reveals itself to have a whole lot of art-rock thought behind it, and becomes a more interesting listen as a result. It wouldn’t work if the songs weren’t just straight-up amazing, though, full of surprising arrangements and the occasionally densely harmonized vocal part that continue to add little twists and turns, so that Slonk Donkerson claim old forms as their own.
The Lunar Martini Bike Club is coming out next Friday, but we have the album stream premiere for you today. (The band is also playing an album release show at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on Saturday, 9/26.) Ahead of its release, I met with the group last week at Manhattan’s Cake Shop, to talk about their experience in the Brooklyn music scene, what the hell Lunar Martini is all about, and, of course, Rush.
STEREOGUM: Listening to your record, it sounds like there are a lot of weird influences colliding. I’m curious where you guys are coming from individually, because it sounds like there’s a lot of strands that wouldn’t normally be put together, and it seems like you’re drawing on some things other people are drawing on, and then some things that nobody else is drawing on. Like, are you grunge fans? Or more so of the people who influenced grunge?
SILZER That’s more what it is. When we first started the band, it was a lot of Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements, and Wipers especially, that we were into. Since then, a lot of other things have taken over in our priority and in our hearts.
STEREOGUM: You can still totally hear that college-rock thing, though.
SILZER: That’s sort of what it was founded upon.
VANDENHOECK: I like the ethos of the Replacements, loving arena rock and trying to do it but not being able to.
STEREOGUM: Did you guys see any of the Replacements reunion shows?
SILZER: We went to the one in Forest Hills, [Queens].
STEREOGUM: Wasn’t that unreal?
SILZER: I cried, man.
STEREOGUM: What has your experience been like coming up in the Brooklyn music scene?
VANDENHOECK: Once you start to find the people you actually like, it’s so small, so it’s fine.
STEREOGUM: I know things are kind of a big free-for-all genre-wise anyway, but do you guys feel like you’re outliers in the Brooklyn scene?
O’BRIEN: Yeah, I think sometimes we have trouble putting our finger on who the appropriate bands are to play [with].
SILZER: Who the appropriate audience is, too.
VANDENHOECK: Even our closest friends play some kind of post-punk thing, which I don’t even relate to that much anymore. I feel like we do rock with hard rock or arena rock things. Something more bombastic with some more thought behind it.
O’BRIEN: I think the DIY ethos has gained traction, and we’re involved in it by being at these venues and playing with these bands but our music doesn’t reflect that as much as a lot of the bands we play with.
SILZER: And especially not … this record is just coming out now, but we’ve been playing these songs for two years. Especially once we transitioned to playing these more classic rock-influenced stuff, it’s felt even more separate.
STEREOGUM: Do you find people are accepting of it, though?
VANDENHOECK: Yeah, they love it. We just have friends, they’re opinions I value.
STEREOGUM: I think I enjoy your album so much because it sounds like music I grew up listening to, but I can’t think of many other contemporary bands that sound much like you that I would listen to. It’s guitar-heavy, hard-rock music in a way that’s kind of refreshing right now. Do you guys feel at all out of time because of that?
SILZER: I think the people who like us, like us. Sometimes I don’t know if we leave a whole lot of room for a middle ground, or middling opinions. We tend to inspire a, people get it or they don’t. A lot of that has to do with our name. I’ll open that door for you, so you don’t have to knock on it yourself.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I probably wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask what was up with your name.
VANDENHOECK: I was thinking about it today … we made the name, basically … I don’t like band names. I think they’ve already had their time and place.
STEREOGUM: Wait, but what would you refer to yourselves as if not by a band name?
VANDENHOECK: It’s a real name. It’s a first and a last name.
SILZER: Slonk Donkerson sort of is a first and last name.
VANDENHOECK: It sounds good. It’s also totally empty, so you can build to it. What was once a meaningless thing now has a music association to it. It’s this word that has a thing. I was thinking about that, and when you have a basically empty signifier to throw things into, it only grows backwards. It’s hard to leave a lot of room for forward momentum, because it gathers all this weight and energy and ends up being like boots stuck in the mud. I think, at least in the recording process, people have a lot of expectations of what our sound is based on what we’ve kind of built into this name. It’s not a name that is pounding doors trying to get our next sound.
STEREOGUM: At the same time, it’s not as empty a term as something like the National, which they chose as a sort of intentionally innocuous moniker. People have a reaction to Slonk Donkerson.
VANDENHOECK: Well, that’s a whole different thing.
SILZER: Yeah, we definitely didn’t want something innocuous. It’s also … when we first started doing this, it was that time of a lot of bands with animals in their name, a lot of bands with Beach, Cave, Crystal. You know, there was something to us that was simultaneously refreshing and funny to us about a kind of total nonsense name. Just because, you know, we recorded this little EP in Dylan’s basement that isn’t even online anymore, and we spent days and days and days trying to come up with an ostensibly cool name that was somewhat classic and iconic.
VANDENHOECK: We were just pissing ourselves off.
SILZER: When we hit Slonk Donkerson, there was something so “Fuck it” about it.
STEREOGUM: I’m giving you shit about the name, but the thing is, these ’80s and ’90s traditions you guys are coming out of, I don’t think your name would’ve really been out of place actually.
SILZER: It’s coming from one place where, like, well, Hüsker Dü does mean something. Maybe not to English speakers. Prefab Sprout, who we love, but it’s another kind of borderline nonsense name. People get it after a while.
O’BRIEN: Slonk Donkerson to us, it’s now only when I’m meeting a new person who is not involved in my life at all and the band comes up and they’re like what’s your band called and I’m like “Ohhh … .Slonk Donkerson.”
VANDENHOECK: There’s nothing more satisfying than being on stage and hearing “Slonk! Slonk! Slonk!”
STEREOGUM: The album is called The Lunar Martini Motorbike Club And Their Respective Destinies. So, uh, explain that to me.
SILZER: There was a point a couple years ago where we had a weird day/night and there was a little brainstorming about this alternate universe, the Lunar Martini Motorway.
VANDENHOECK: There was an Ed Ruscha print at Parker’s friend’s really nice house, with like an olive floating in the corner, over a house in perspective. It looked like a moon. It became this, Lunar Martini Bar mixed with this very generic rock ‘n’ roll world with this motorcycle guy looking backwards while his light shines in front of him with a skull looking back, this backwards-looking face in the distance toasting with his martini glass. It was this imaginary place to start making music.
SILZER: I think because of touring, which we haven’t done a lot of, but there’s always been this element in a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, this endless forward momentum of the road. I think that sort of lineage, American road lineage, is part of this in a big way.
VANDENHOECK: It’s that kind of music we play, everything is just bup-bup-bup-bup, kind of engine.
SILZER: It’s the motorik beat from Krautrock and stuff that’s inspired a lot of people. We had this fascination with strange high-brow colliding with dive-bar cliché lowbrow. For us, there’s a lot of self-awareness and absorbing the cliches to hopefully give it a little bit more of an intellectual/artistic mooring to it.
STEREOGUM: Are you just shoring up your wall against critics?
SILZER: [laughs] Well, we have to. We have to fucking shore up the wall.
O’BRIEN: Based on how it’s received and people in the scene … I think the biggest issue is —
VANDENHOECK: With genres, it’s so easy with the amount of music there is out there to be like “Oh, this is this genre,” and then that’s a wall you’ll never get past. We’ve run into that a lot.
STEREOGUM: Do people think you’re some kind of cock-rock band in comparison to —
SILZER: Yeah! A lot of the time. They don’t hear the very intentional art-rock thread that goes through it. They hear one thing. Hence this over-explaining, because, honestly, a lot of times if you don’t fucking hit someone over the head with what you’re trying to do, they just don’t get it. They don’t have time.
STEREOGUM: Without necessarily saying this is a concept record or rock opera or something, beyond being an alternate reality and an ethos and title for the record, does the Lunar Martini biker bar bleed into the songs themselves?
SILZER: In a way. It’s not a narrative record, it’s a concept record. It’s not a rock opera, but there is definitely … there’s a concept, and at a certain point, through writing, we said “Hey, this is what it’s going to be, we’re going to finish within this world.” Try to tie it all together.
STEREOGUM: Did you dream up this whole Lunar Martini world once you were already deeply into the record or was it earlier on?
SILZER: It was pretty much in the beginning.
STEREOGUM: How did that effect your songs this time around compared to when you worked on material in the past?
SILZER: We created a lyrical lexicon. Once we had this world, we had this lyrical lexicon and there are a lot of images that are repeated over and over throughout. Some of the songs start similarly, overlap lyrically. That was one way it was different.
O’BRIEN: We also lived together, and over a few years our apartment accumulates shit, like when we’d find these martini glasses, and then there’s a fucking blacklight. You kind of can’t help cultivating this whole fucking —
SILZER: And, you know, we’re big fans of tchotchkes and trinkets and nuggets, and we had a lot of that in the apartment, too, that was definitely subconsciously informing the visual vocabulary we wanted to evoke on this record.
O’BRIEN: After a while we were buying crap because it was “Lunar Martini.”
STEREOGUM: Wait, what designates something as Lunar Martini then?
SILZER: I mean, once you see it or once you’ve been around it it’s easy to spot. It’s sort of this … it’s funny, because Roxy Music is Lunar Martini but Motorhead is Lunar Martini, too. If you can imagine where those two things aesthetically —
VANDENHOECK: I always talk about it like, you have the Art Deco Metropolitan city, and there’s a bridge going out straight to the desert and there’s a maniac on a motorcycle cackling. What’s cool about rock ‘n’ roll is it’s so from-the-heart, but it’s also escapist, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can have this kind of world. It’s not contradictory.
SILZER: There is this universe, but the songs come from an emotional place.
STEREOGUM: Isn’t “Watching Every Channel At Once” a breakup song?
VANDENHOECK: That was pre-Lunar Martini Bar.
SILZER: We weren’t actually going to put that on the record.
STEREOGUM: That’s my favorite song on the record, I’m glad it made it.
SILZER: Well, thank you. The fundamental core of that song, in terms of the emotional reality being buried in an unreality was completely true of the rest of the record. It is about the relationship orbit of people circling around each other … it’s in the Lunar Martini world, too. It’s more like, how you remember your relationships or when you dream about relationships you have in your life and it takes on this mythological, bizarre significance.
STEREOGUM: Another thing I like about the album is how a lot of the songs can be straightforward rock on the surface, but have a surprising amount of different passages, with more infectious guitar lines and vocal melodies crammed into three minutes than other bands might put into three separate songs.
VANDENHOECK: That’s because most people are lazy. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: [laughs] That first song, “Sonata,” there are like five different vocal melodies in that. It changes over and over. That’s a great moment where you guys sort of mutate what might be seen as more passe rock influences.
VANDENHOECK: With “Sonata,” for the Lunar Martini thing, at least Parker and I were thinking about a song where every beat the arrangement and style would change, or the melodies would go from electronic to Motown to hair metal, one beat, one beat, one beat. It didn’t literally happen that way.
STEREOGUM: There’s a melody in there that reminds me of Rush.
VANDENHOECK: Geddy Lee is a big influence.
STEREOGUM: Wait, really?
VANDENHOECK: At least on my bass-playing.
STEREOGUM: I thought that was one of those things I was just hearing in there.
O’BRIEN: We’ve covered “Limelight.”
VANDENHOECK: Some people feel scared, like, “Oh, is it bad to think that?” But Rush is better than any other band people listen to nowadays.
SILZER: You know, I brought it up before — we’re big Brian Eno fans, we’re big Roxy Music fans. I think a lot of it is bringing that … I mean, if you think about it, it’s easier to look at the past and segregate things into genre. So, like, Phil Collins was playing on Brian Eno’s records. They weren’t discriminating about music when they were actually making it back then, just like people who are musicians now aren’t discriminating. So, like, I fucking love Genesis. [These artists] clearly loved each other. So we just want to do that in one album.
The Lunar Martini Motorbike Club And Their Respective Destinies is out 9/25 via Black Bell Records. Pre-order it here.