Kevin Donohue is checking in from the Artist Lounge aboard the 19th edition of Jam Cruise. After a day docked in Grand Turk, the floating festival has embarked on the final leg of its seaward journey, now bound for Miami, Fla. As the multi-instrumentalist sits for his interview, Andy Frasco & The U.N. are raging on the Pool Deck, adding a spark and igniting a definitive reason to assert the conversation about his Colorado-based unit, SunSquabi.
Since 2015, Donohue and his collaborators, Josh Fairman (bass, synth) and Chris Anderson (drums), have lit up live stages at legacy venues such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre while also generating a following and tens of millions of streams online. From collaborations like sexy electro-groove “Cinnamon,” featuring Late Night Radio, to jam-funk epic “Top Down” with The String Cheese Incident, the trio has delivered various layered instrumentals that seamlessly merge funk with electric while always inviting space for sit-ins.
Apart from their free-flowing in-person gigs which traverse with improvisation, SunSquabi’s discography ranges from fan-favorite drops like 2016’s Odyssey to their most recent batch of dance-floor-ready material, on 2022’s Arise. And there’s more to come from the group, as Donohue covers in the following interview, which occurred prior to the band’s final 2023 Jam Cruise appearance during the 1 a.m. slot on Feb. 12.
You have been staying busy. From touring to turning out your fourth full-length studio album this past fall. Can you talk about your latest drop and how the material on Arise came to be?
The writing and creative process [for that album] began right after we did our first Jam Cruise in 2019. We worked on it for three years and started testing out those songs live over the festival season and on special occasions. Then, we were locked in our basement for two years, which ended up not being a bad thing creatively.
We took the time to make it and spent a lot of those hours refining the songs, like “Let’s give this more definition… Let’s write some more songs to put on it.” So, it was an EP, just like six or seven songs and it ended up being an 11-track album.
It was a cool experience to hold something in for so long and then finally let it out. I’m very proud of that album. [And, we’re] kind of getting to the remix phase now. The Sponges are about to do a remix for us. Chris Karns who collaborated on the album a lot is doing a remix as well.
Can you talk more about the collaborative aspect of Arise?
It’s kind of a grounding experience to reach out to people around you to collaborate. There are a lot of collaborations on that album. That’s really one of the most fun parts. Jeff Franca, who’s the drummer from Thievery Corporation, plays some percussion. Like I said, Chris Karns is on there. We’ve got some sax players. I’m really proud of how it turned out, but it was nice to let it go. Now, we’re 10 songs deep into a new album.
A new album? What can you tell me about your next project?
You won’t hear it for a while. We’re going to save a lot until it’s really put together and then unleash it all at once. If you look at our setlists from Jam Cruise 17 compared to some of the songs that we’re playing now, there are a bunch of new ones. But we had been teasing songs that were coming out on Arise for that long. We were about to release Arise prior to the pandemic happening, so a lot of those were beta tested. With this next album, I think we really want to refine the sound of it and then unload it in full…like playing a set at a festival where no one’s ever heard a single song. People will be like, “What? This is SunSquabi?”
Beta testing, I like that concept. Can you talk a little bit more regarding the process of trying out material in front of a live audience?
I say beta test, but it’s kind of a surfaced experience. Something that we’ve done in the past is played a song live at a big festival or on a tour. You’re showing people this rough version of it–this new idea. You’re sort of testing how the audience reacts, and you’re looking at people’s faces and wondering what is something we could refine to communicate the feeling we’re trying to express.
With this next one, I really want to take the time to wrap it all together as a cohesive message and put it out in a different way than we’ve delivered our last four records. So, this new album is going to be really special. I would love to show it to you right now, but my goal is to keep it inside until it’s ready to present to the world.
So no chance you’ll throw in a new tune during the SunSquabi set tomorrow?
We may or may not play one tomorrow. We have some rehearsal time, so I’m leaning toward it. One of the songs that will end up on the album is a collaboration with Kanika Moore. Just to speak to her character. She’s so fantastic to collaborate with. An absolute queen. She was doing her thing in Charleston, S.C., for a long time and now people are really seeing what she’s capable of.
She actually reached out to us to collaborate and just stepped up to the plate and wrote all these lyrics to our songs that were already out. And I was like, “Do you want to write some lyrics for our new project?” And she just blew it out of the water. So I might share that with everyone tomorrow. A recording of it is already out there and the final version will end up sounding a little different.
When can fans expect to listen to the new collection? Do you have an estimated release date?
I would like to start putting out music from this album by the end of the festival season, so summer. It’s all as it comes.
Besides new music, what’s ahead for SunSquabi?
It’s looking really great. We’ve got Okeechobee Festival and Sonic Bloom, we’re doing runs around Colorado at some of our favorite spots. We’re playing in Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs and Vail. Just the little mountain towns. It’s always such a thing, if you’re a Colorado band it’s like, “Ooh, these guys play at Red Rocks, but they’ll also play at the taco bar for 200 people.” End of ski season, everybody wants to party. So we have that coming up and I’m really looking forward to it.
It’s really exciting to have a fuller schedule again and have all these things lined up. Just making friends and seeing people again has been a real privilege and kind of reminds me why I got into it in the first place. This year is going to be a really big year for us for sure.
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