The journey is the destination

SunSquabi guitarist/producer Kevin Donohue dishes on the creative process, unexpected influences, rumors of EDM’s demise and landing one of Boulder’s most storied gigs

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SunSquabi
Sam Silkworth

In a locally published review last winter of their LP Instinct, the generally sympathetic reviewer predicted that this year — 2019 — was going to be the Big Year for SunSquabi, a milestone that would put the Boulder-based EDM/funk trio over the top. Which may or not be true, at least as much as an earlier review elsewhere of their headlining set at the Fillmore two years ago similarly enthused. 

The point isn’t so much that critics, especially those positively disposed to their subjects, are prone to slipping into fortune-boosting prognostication; it’s more that there seems to be some kind of assumption that there’s a finish line or threshold someplace in the business of live music past which the toil, the travel, the pressure, the reach for new audiences and new markets just dissolves away and an artist or band can just… y’know… kinda fly free with the angels. Or something.

Everyone loves the underdog, and for SunSquabi, who have been crafting their Ableton-meets-funk-band chops for years as openers and club-gig draws, there is an undeniable satisfaction to watching a formula grow and connect with a wider audience. Good reviewers are always conscious of the hard work that leads up to breakthrough moments. 

But are there really milestones at all? Gigs. Tours. Whole years? 

Kevin Donohue was chilling after a studio session last week (the band is working on a new double LP) when we posed some of these questions to the SunSquabi guitarist/producer. Props to a guy who can formulate some coherent thoughts of the Meaning of it All after a session of making a hell of a lot noise in the studio.

“I think we kind of go into every year with that attitude that we’re going to grow out and so far, for seven or eight years, so far it’s been working pretty well. Always having the mentality that this is going to be a big year for us, and we’re looking at 2020 the same way,” Donohue says. 

“But yeah, I hear someone tell us that every year, that this going to be The Year. And I’m like, the year for what?”

You’ve already headlined Red Rocks. In 2018. What about that?

“Sure, sure. I would say, even before that, the very first time we played there, it was like, ‘OK, you’ve played Red Rocks… whaddya do now?’ This world of things is just so expansive and so infinite in that way, and we’re just really lucky to have a lot of people out there supporting us and pushing us… I feel like everything we’ve worked for at this point is a good foundation, and it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to what happens next.”

We want to talk about “maturity.” Sometimes bands find their sound, sometimes the sound finds them. 

We throw that out: You’re immersed in what you’re doing now — it’s someone else’s job to find out how different/better/more mature you are now than, say, five years ago. You don’t have the bandwidth, with everything else you’re doing, to go back and listen to old work…

Donohue cut us off.

“It’s funny you say that. That’s exactly what I was doing last night.” Ha!

“I think when I hear people say that the sound has matured, it’s just a reflection of us spending so much more time and learning different techniques and pushing ourselves to do something we haven’t done before.”

Not repeat yourself.

“Right. Right.  

“In the same way, I’ve always been influenced by older progressive rock kind of stuff. Yes, King Crimson. We’re all big Return to Forever fans.”

Another proghead! (A brief timeout for a friendly gesture to all those fellow critics who, back in the day, dismissed that mystical musical domain as ridiculous and irrelevant and doomed to the ash heap. EDM as prog’s grand-progeny. Who knew?)

“Yeah. That was, like, the greatest era of songwriting. The way these albums were recorded, with all these different layers and all these subtle notes… it was all attention to detail,” he says.

“In the format we’re in, as a three piece using Ableton, being able to layer in all these different sounds… I mean, I figure out new stuff to do on this program every day. You learn more and more, you’re experimenting, you try and you fail, you make terrible sounds, then you hit one or two that connect with people. 

“And I think that’s what people hear … We’re always doing things we’ve never done before.”  

Another favorite critic conceit, “the wave theory” — you’re either out in front of the wave, comfortably riding it or paddling furiously from behind to catch it. EDM, in its broadest reach, has been especially troublesome for the armchair music theorists, since its critics have watched their furrowed skepticism denied by the genre’s longevity, even while some of its early luminaries have written it off. In fairness, it’s pretty hard to argue that the EDM festival market is under-saturated, and tales of pharma-related misadventure and generally inappropriate behavior have dogged the scene with varying levels of visibility for some years now. Deadmau5 famously told the London Evening Standard that festivals were getting out of hand, creativity was becoming something like an irrelevant afterthought and EDM — the culture, the aesthetic, the scene — was going to die a swift and pitiless death, faster even than disco (brutal!).

But that was almost six years ago. 

So is the EDM scene floundering? 

“Eh,” Donohue pauses, “I don’t really think so. Yeah, everybody always says, ‘This is the next thing dying’, but they’re not the ones going to the shows. We’re there, seeing it. And it seems like it’s not going anywhere. 

“But I would definitely say it’s a continuing shift towards … People want to see people playing instruments and playing from their heart. 

“We’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now, and as soon as we started playing with the electronic toolset, we were like, ‘Well, we’re not going to stop playing guitar. If anything, we’ll play more guitar.’

“That’s what people come to see. A performer losing himself into an instrument. And that can be achieved if you’re DJ’ing or producing — a really good DJ can do that. But it’s a still machine, and there’s a human thing when someone is holding something tangible.”   

After a fall tour, SunSquabi returns to Boulder (conquering heroes?) to play the storied Halloween show at the Boulder Theater, adding their mark to resonances of years of legendary performances and balloon drops and confetti blizzards and costumed madness. Hey, maybe this is the milestone.

“Yeah, definitely. I remember going to a lot of Motet shows there over the years,” Donohue says. “It’ll be great.”    

ON THE BILL: SunSquabi — with Nobide. 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. Tickets are $20-$80, bouldertheater.com