Originally, Jim Donovan just wanted a creative outlet, a place to complete his song ideas, some which sat around for more than a decade.
He had given up rock ‘n’ roll and drumming in Rusted Root in 2004 for a more grounded life that involved family and helping others as an educator. But the gnawing feeling that he had more songs within him eventually led to the Sun King Warriors‘ 2016 self-titled debut.
Inspired by the experience of recording and playing live again as well as by his six enthusiastic and talented bandmates , Donovan pushed its highly danceable “groove-rock and Americana with two tons of drums” towards a muscular sound that featured expansive arrangements with reggae and calypso influences on the group’s sophomore effort, We See Through It.
The new release rocks harder but the positive message stays the same. Sun King Warriors remains a joyous outlet for its creators in union with its listeners. It’s why commercial ambitions are low while motivational objectives are high. To that end, the group gives the album away on its website, SunKingWarriors.com, in a manner that connects fan to artist.
When it’s time to interview Donovan, it’s after a band rehearsal at a very un-rock ‘n’ roll time of early morning.
“Everyone is at their sharpest in the morning for some reason in this group. If it was nine o’clock at night then I’m done. I’m ready for bed,” he said, laughing at how absurd it seems to the perceived musician lifestyle.
Besides rehearsing for and playing live dates, Donovan was already writing and demoing tunes for the next album. At the time of our conversation he had “14 in the cooker.”
“For no other reason, it’s just fun. It’s the part that I love. It’s not really work.”
JPG: The new album is surprisingly loud and aggressive and not as laidback Americana sounding as the Sun King Warriors debut. I’m thinking of songs such as “The Last Dance” and “You Are My Everything.” It’s a big loud record, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
JD: No. I take that as a compliment. (laughs)
JPG: Were you a bit surprised how it ended up during the final mix?
JD: What happened was that the last record was really just me figuring out if I could even do this. We talked about this last time. I didn’t even know what the project was at that point. I just wanted to write the best songs that I could. There were a couple that were a little bit heavier, and the guys that I’ve amassed around the project, they all stayed, and they do that kind of stuff well.
I’ve always liked it but I worried about doing it for some stupid reason. I don’t exactly know why I resisted doing things that were a little more aggressive. It’s a big part of my nature. It’s a big part of my musical palette. I never got to do it in Rusted Root. I wanted to but it never seemed to fit.
With this, the material that was popping out was really different because I knew who I was writing for at the time. I had each of these guys in mind when different sections would come up and knew that they would take the map of the song and make it their own. That came from playing together for a couple years. That’s the result. There’s nothing really soft this time. All of it was on purpose. It felt like the right thing.
JPG: And you played all of the songs live before you recorded them?
JD: Yes, and that was different, too.
JPG: I imagine you had that momentum and live feeling going into the studio.
JD: That’s true. That’s something I learned early in Rusted Root. I learned what happens when you don’t do that. The songs grow live if you allow them to have time.
I knew that we were going to do a second one. As soon as the first one was out, I kept the writing going and didn’t stop the process so that I could get new things in the sets quicker so they had more time to incubate because I knew once we hit the studio the songs would fee lived in. I would definitely sing them better, everyone would be more comfortable, and it would take less time, which was true.
JPG: Since approximately six months into promoting the Sun King Warriors debut you were thinking about the next album, did it become something more than getting something out your system to recognizing that this is a band, this is something serious?
JD: Yes. That’s what it became on the last cycle. I didn’t know if everybody would hang out. I didn’t know if they were going to like it. I didn’t know I was going to like it. It turned out that we really liked it.
Rehearsals, I look forward going to them. And I leave feeling good. That hasn’t happened in a really long time.
JPG: Because the musicians in Sun King Warriors have other jobs, are adults with a maturity level that should be higher than it would as a 22 year-old, there isn’t the pressure of making music then promoting and selling it as the only thing in your lives.
JD: Right now, to do it as the thing I’m not making a living at, there’s no desperation. At the beginning of Rusted Root when I had nothing it was like, “This has to work…(laughs) because if not I can’t find dinner.”
We’re playing because we really enjoy it. We’re not worried about money right now. And if it stays this way – if we do just a few shows a month – and that’s just how this project is, then that’s okay. If something catches fire and there’s a reason to go do it on a bigger level like I’ve done before, we’ll look at that. There’s no pressure for it but I treat it as if it’s going to be huge not because I need that for ego but I want to make sure that I approach the music that seriously and the recordings that seriously so that no corners are cut.
JPG: That brings me to the idea that the first album was for you while this album is for others? It’s message music but not hitting you over the head with it.
JD: Yes, it’s not so much of a love letter to my family this time. I did that. There’s still things in there that they influence big time. There’s a lot more to it this time.
JPG: What did you learn about the process from the last album to this one, even though you’ve been a musician for decades?
JD: That’s one of the nicest parts about doing things like this is that if I’ve got my eyes open it’s teaching me something every step of the way. I think I talked last time about one of the reasons I switched roles was because I needed that kind of a challenge and make myself the lowest man on the totem pole so that I couldn’t be comfortable. I had to be completely uncomfortable. In doing that, I see the benefit of that. I see my own progression. I still see the places that I’ve got to work on and I love that. That’s energizing to me.
As it is now, I do the majority of writing. I end up demoing ideas in the car on my voice recorder. They tend to drop in when I’m on a long drive, when I’m not really thinking about much. Then, I’ll grab these snippets of ideas…once I’ve got enough ideas for a song I’ll take it back to the house. I’ll teach it to myself, demo it up and…I make a map, I call it a map for the guys. I give them that and say, “This is just a map. I need you to fill in the neighborhood. Let’s figure out what else goes in here. How do we approach each of these pieces?”
So, I give it over, and I trust them. We’re really good with honest communication. We’re okay saying we don’t like something. We’re okay when we do. It’s a real refinement mindset. We don’t let ego into the room with us. It’s very delightful.
JPG: Could you elaborate on this quote, “For me, it didn’t make a lot of sense to make something that didn’t make you feel.”
JD: If I’m doing lyrics, it won’t pass muster if there’s not some legitimate real feeling in it. I don’t want to be clever. I don’t want to write things like joke songs to make people laugh, which are totally fine and have their place but it’s not what I want.
I want to listen to it and I want to feel transported into some sort of space, maybe it’s an emotional space, maybe it is some sort of memory, some sort of sensation that needs expression that I can’t quite get out in the words. For me it needs to come from some depth.
JPG: As far as songs that have echoes of Rusted Root, there are “You in My Arms” “We Have Arrived” “Love Is Right.”
JD: Those definitely have that flavor.
JPG: Obviously, Rusted Root is in your musical DNA, but the press release for the new album mentions Led Zeppelin and the Black Keys. Are you listening to things that now seep into what Sun King Warriors create?
JD: When I go back and listen to this album I can hear the Rusted Root stuff in there. That stuff really is embedded in my brain. That’s good. I’m glad for that. A lot of the attitude of the early Rusted Root time — we can be whatever we want, we don’t have to try to fit into anything. There is no limitation. That’s something I loved about that time. I wanted to make sure I kept that part. That helps everybody a lot because they don’t feel restrained, and neither do I.
The Zeppelin stuff is in there, especially in the drums. I like big drums. I like things that just smack you in the head, punch you in the stomach, as far as the rhythm goes. In Rusted Root there’s a lot of good stuff in there but I was never quite happy with the actual sound of the drums. I’m the drummer there and I could never get them loud enough. (laughs) “C’mon, just turn ‘em up.”
JPG: You got your wish now. On the last album the guitar and voice were mixed a little higher. Now, I think the drums just about are equal to the voice…
JD: For these kinds of records I feel like they should be. If that part’s not good then who cares about the rest? You’ve got to be able to feel that stuff first. I’m lucky I got Joe Marini – he’s playing the majority of this record, I play a couple of songs – and he’s badass. It’s so nice to have someone who can play anything you throw at ‘em and he can play a thousand things that I could never think of.