In a few hours, Kevin Donohue's electronic jam band SunSquabi will celebrate the release of its third record, Instinct, with a show, but on this January day, he's enjoying a beer and reminiscing about his short-lived flirtation with fame.
Around 2008, when he was nineteen years old, some friends told him they were going on tour with Bizzy Bone, of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony fame, to play in the backing band. They asked Donohue if he wanted to come along and play keyboard and guitar.
“I said 'Okay,'" he remembers. "I quit my job, was like, ‘I made it. Peace out! I’m going to play with a Grammy Award-winning band.’ We play one show, and the tour gets canceled. I had to come back and try to get my old job back. Job’s gone."
Donohue has come a long way from that truncated tour: SunSquabi formed in 2011 with bassist Andrew Clymer and drummer Chris Anderson. Clymer left the band in 2016 and was replaced by Josh Fairman. On the heels of its new release, the group will make its mark as the rare Denver band headlining the Fillmore Auditorium.
On Instinct, the trio shows off its dynamic blend of funky synth lines, soaring guitar sounds, horn samples and booming beats. The record has electrifying moments, and in songs such as “Chrysalis,” “Night Moth” and “Reptile,” the band flexes its ability to shape-shift through genres while having a ball on stage.
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While recording the album, SunSquabi's members put their collective comfort as improvisers to the ultimate test: writing songs on the fly, either in studio or during live performances over the past year and a half.
“The whole album — each track is kind of written in a different way," Donohue explains. "The coolest thing I think we did is coming up with all the ideas, generally, to form the structure of the song. Then we’d test it out while touring by performing it in front of audiences and taking that feel back to the studio. It’s just a much more rehearsed, tight basis to start the production from and layering it from within, as opposed to building a track from within and layering it from the outside.
“It’s something we’ve done a lot more of over the last year and a half,” he continues. “We were on tour at a festival, and it was like, 'Okay, on the set list it says F-sharp, 110 beats per minute. Go.' The first time we do it — sometimes it’s okay, sometimes they’re not so okay, and sometimes it’s like, 'Whoa, what was that? That was pretty dope.'"
“It makes the live shows fun," adds Anderson, "because you don’t know if it’ll sound like the exact same song every time. We’re constantly trying to add variation to what we’re playing, which is really fun.”
Some songs are perfect studio sessions, and others are energetic live recordings.
“Making the whole album like that — where some are recorded in live recording settings and some are piece by piece — and making it all flow, it’s crazy,” says Donohue. “It’s been a really cool project to see come together.”
The band has committed itself to touring on a tight budget and working tirelessly. “We’ve had weeks out on tour where it’s like, 'Okay, our food budget for the whole day is $10 for the whole band — guess we’re going to McDonald’s,'" says Donohue. "But you keep pushing through. There are so many times where you feel like you can’t do it, and then something crazy happens. So much of it has been us doing literally anything to make it work. Another thing is that I feel like we’ve been incredibly fortunate to meet so many great people that have also gone out of their way to help us out.”
"We’re feeling better about what we’re creating and doing live,” says Anderson. “It’s a response to that, hopefully. People start to recognize a song or say something about the set list, and it’s like, 'Oh, people are paying attention!' It’s really motivating on our end to want to step up the live performance all the time and constantly strive for a better show.”
Along the way, the bandmates have picked up inspiration from others.
“I think it’s all the different festivals and events we’ve gotten to go to and seeing so many different bands — you see that soaking in and coming through in this music," says Donohue. "It’s pretty fun to be finding our own sound and recognizing where all these different pieces are coming from.”
Toward the end of 2018, the band played high-profile shows in Denver — including an impressive performance at Grandoozy and a whopping two-night set at Elevation in Grand Rapids over New Year's Eve that included five hours’ worth of music from the new record, some oldies and unreleased material.
Donohue attributes much of the band's recent success to Fairman. “Josh is a great studio musician and a great producer, and his ear’s really good for writing songs, as far as really structuring it out from a producer’s mindset — which is really nice to have to bounce ideas off of,” says Donohue. “He brings a lot to the table in that way, with experience, with what he does in the studio.
“I feel like we can all communicate with each other on a really good level, to where whenever someone has a really good idea, it becomes reality, and when someone doesn’t have a good idea, we don’t spend time on it, and there’s no ego trying to create something that isn’t the best idea," Donohue adds.
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“Josh just wants to make the music sound the best that it can,” says Anderson. “It’s all motivating to get there together. He’s open to all kinds of experimentation in the studio, and letting loose and getting on that level together.”
Fueled by the past year's success, the band is ready to move on to new projects.
“Honesty, the most rewarding part of this [album] is that it’s done,” Donohue says with a laugh. “A lot of these songs were written like a year and a half ago, and they’re really refined and we’re stoked on them, but, okay, be free now. Now you guys have to listen to them a thousand times. We’re going to go work on new things.”