Writing a guide to the music of Glenn Donaldson is a deceptively difficult task. First of all, there’s a ton of it. Like, a ton. In fact, Donaldson has so many releases scattered across Bandcamp—all in different genres, on a bunch of different labels, none of them under his own name—that we discovered more during the interview for this piece than were on the original list of albums to discuss—including some that he didn’t know were on the site at all.
“There’s a lot,” says Donaldson with a laugh, as we happen upon yet another one of his projects squirreled away on a random page. “That’s why when I do these things, I’m like, ‘Can we just talk about one band?’ It’s so much work for you and me.”
Donaldson has been making music since the late 1990s so, depending on your age and your musical taste, you might associate him with: his scrappiest earliest recordings as the Ivy Tree; the experimental sound art he made with Jewelled Antler Collective in the early ‘00s; his Byrds-esque jangle band Skygreen Leopards; the rough-and-tumble indie pop of the Art Museums; his psych-folk collaboration with Jeremy Earl of Woods as Painted Shrines; or you might have heard a track from his conceptual instrumental project FWY! in a commercial. It could just as easily be none of those. His newest release is a full-length LP called Uncommon Weather under the name the Reds, Pinks, and Purples. Donaldson has always preferred to give his projects band names even when there’s nobody else involved. It’s ”a weird quirk,” he says. “I mean, I love Robert Wyatt and Alice Coltrane, but I don’t know. ‘Glenn Donaldson’? I wouldn’t buy that. I just love the imagery of a band, and the idea of a band.”
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
As The Reds, Pinks, and Purples, Donaldson makes unabashedly melodic indie pop in the late ’80s mold, sketching out the simplest and sweetest of pop songs from the barest of elements: strummy guitar chords accented with occasional synth or casio keyboard line, undercut by the gentle patter of a drum machine with lyrics so bitterly melancholy and mildly misanthropic they would be heartbreaking if the music itself wasn’t so appealing. It’s a style he’s always loved, sharing that one of his earliest memories is of catching an MTV segment about “the new folk-rock, and it featured R.E.M. and had Roger McGuinn and the Lovin’ Spoonful, and it was connecting college rock with the Byrds. I was so excited. It seemed very cool and new for my young mind.”
One reason for Donaldson’s prolificacy is that he genuinely enjoys recording music, especially at home. “Definitely home recording is my cup of tea,” he says. “I know what I want, and I can get there faster and not have to spend money.” That’s how the Reds, Pinks, and Purples started, with Donaldson recording songs at his kitchen table on “a laptop with one microphone. Some pretty good equipment, I guess, but nothing too fancy.” He would upload individual tracks to Bandcamp as he finished them, using photos he had taken of the pastel houses around the Inner Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco, where he lives, as cover art. “I just started putting them on Bandcamp. Who cares? Maybe someone will like it,” says Donaldson. “That’s what’s so great about Bandcamp. It’s like an experiment for yourself. You can see if anyone pays attention. Or if it just goes into the void, it doesn’t really matter. There’s no investment, really, except your creativity and time.”
People did pay attention. The early Reds, Pinks, and Purples tracks gained notice from music blogs, leading to European labels like Spain’s Pretty Olivia Records offering to turn Donaldson’s digital-only experiment into vinyl. Uncommon Weather is actually the third Red, Pinks, and Purples full-length, but the first to be released by an American record label. Fittingly, it’s being released by the Bay Area’s own Slumberland Records, which has long been home to the region’s indie pop scene with releases from The Mantles, Kids on a Crime Spree, Terry Malts, and the legendary The Aislers Set, whom Donaldson recalls seeing play around the city in the early ‘00s. The Red, Pinks, and Purples could be seen as the latest chapter in that esteemed yet underappreciated history. “I didn’t intend to kind of wave the flag for San Francisco indie pop, but I get how people are relating to it that way,” says Donaldson. “It’s cool, because I think maybe this kind of music hasn’t been taken as seriously as something from England or Australia. Maybe Bay Area indie pop’s being noticed a little bit more like, ‘Oh, maybe it’s actually kind of good.’”
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Some of Donaldson’s varied output lives on his own Burundi Cloud Bandcamp page, named after the Jon Hassel and Brian Eno song “Charm (Over Burundi Cloud)” and described as “the digital label for Edmund Xavier & friends” (Edmund Xavier is Donaldson.) He enjoys curating the page because, “you don’t have to make a bunch of records and have boxes sitting around. Then the cream kind of rises to the top and people start to demand them on vinyl, and then they move over to vinyl.” Donaldson designs much of the cover art for his releases himself, something he considers as essential as the music. “I think of records as little art pieces,” he says. “I’m always concerned with the success of the band as much as I am about the album cover being awesome.”
“I’ve always really liked this quote from Robert Pollard—and I’m probably mangling it—where he was like, ‘People should spend less time learning guitar and more time coming up with good song titles and artwork,’” he continues. “I completely related to that.”
Though a few of his projects have achieved enough success to take them from Bandcamp to stages around the world—and bigger indie labels like Woodsist and Jagjaguwar—Donaldson never starts with any particular goal other than making the music he wants to make at that moment. “For me, it’s almost like making a painting,” he says. “It’s like, I want to realize this concept and make the album, and then sometimes they sort of accidentally go to this other level where a label wants it or someone wants us to play a show.”
For now, Donaldson is focused on the Red, Pinks, and Purples—he has a live band, and hopes to tour for Uncommon Weather when it’s safe to do so—but there are, naturally, other projects in the works. As he loves recording, and has the ability to do it whenever he wants without leaving his apartment, nobody can predict what kind of music he’ll make next, not even him. “I’m just really whimsical when it comes to stuff,” he says. “At any given time, I’ll just change. People are always like, ‘Oh, you should pick something and stick with it.’ But I don’t care. Maybe that week I felt like being that.”
Below, Donaldson takes us through a few of his notable musical projects from over the years, ranging from off-the-cuff punk rock and dogmatic sound art to improvised indie pop and jangling psych-pop; from bands who played festivals in Wales to those that recorded in tunnels in Marin County. It’s an impressive collection of sounds from a man who says he’s “never been a real musician. I just kind of figure out how to do things my own way.”
The Ivy Tree
Birds Are the Life of the Sky (1995-1997)
“The Ivy Tree page has some four track stuff I did that dates back to the late ‘90s. That would be the oldest [project on Bandcamp.] It’s called Birds Are the Life of the Sky. Those are my early, early attempts. I didn’t really know how to make a chord, so I was just making up my own versions of what that would be. I don’t know if it’s the best. It’s definitely more folky. I mean, I think what I do now is still folk music. Indie pop is folk music that’s just a little more arranged, with electric instruments.
“It’s interesting because, in writing material for Red, Pinks and Purples, I am pulling out a lot of stuff from a back catalogue that I’ve never used. So some of the words and stuff are just old songs that I’ve repurposed. But it’s definitely more crude and folky, like one chord music before I could actually make the chorus come in.
“I think I just always liked pop. I grew up on the Smiths and R.E.M. and punk rock. So I’ve always loved songs, but I think I just was trying to come up with a new kind of song. I was very aggressive about trying to invent new forms, you know? It sounds folk because all I owned was an acoustic guitar that was broken and like one pedal and a four track. So that’s what it became because other than that I didn’t own, like, a bass. Or anything.”
“Recital Program did a vinyl reissue of an unreleased Ivy Tree album called Unburdened Light, which is the album that I was working on before it kind of fell apart for me. I definitely recommend that one. Sean McCann [of Recital Program] is great. He came to a show of mine when he was in high school and now he basically does all my mastering. I pay him, but he’s the mastering guy I use for everything, which is great because he totally has heard all my music. I just give it to him and I don’t even really check it. I just go, ‘If you like it, then that’s what it should sound like.’
“[The Ivy Tree] did actually kind of take off. I got some labels interested and I was invited to play festivals, and I was on the verge of getting signed to this bigger label. But it was just a weird time in my life where I just lost my mind, basically. It’s too much to get into, but I was living with someone and we split up and, you know… It was just a hard time, so I couldn’t really pursue it.”
The Knit Separates
Swords, Then Diamonds
Compact Disc (CD)
“The Knit Separates was around the same time as the Ivy Tree. It was me collaborating with a singer, Jason Honea. He was like this whirling dervish of a person and he kind of turned me on to like a lot of the indie pop stuff that I still like to this day. Those [songs] are probably my first attempts to do something similar to what I’m doing now. Most of the songs are improvised. We would just hammer away on the guitars and he would sing over it. We had a four track and we’d bang it out, play a few chords. Jason’s really good at improvising and he had a big book of poetry so he’d just open a page and see.
“Jason lives in Berlin now. He’s a bit of a classic punk-rock eccentric, and in Berlin he does a solo project called the Shitty Listener. It’s almost like performance art, he does a cappella singing. He also sings in punk bands and stuff. He was in Social Unrest, which was an ‘80s hardcore band. But he’s always secretly wanted to be in the Smiths. He would never say that, but I know it’s true.”
Jeweled Antler Collective
The Franciscan Hobbies, Masks & Meaning
Compact Disc (CD)
“Jeweled Antler Collective was like a real art project among friends. CD-Rs were a new technology and we had this idea to do a label based on the music we were making, which was very freeform and based around field recordings and recording outdoors in nature. We were doing almost ‘conceptual-art-as-music,’ where we would turn trees into instruments and record that. Me and this other guy ran the label, but it was like a loose group of musicians of around 10 people. Five or six people were the core of it, but there were other people that would come in and do stuff. Like we had a filmmaker, Keith Evans, that we’d collaborate with and he’d do all these grand visuals.
“We totally shunned playing rock shows at all. We very rarely appeared at clubs. We would do site-specific shows or we would do warehouse shows or art gallery things. It was kind of anti-rock in a way. We played at a festival at a farm in Wisconsin. We played in a culvert, completely unamplified for a big group of people. That was really fun. We just showed up at the festival with no equipment and we just decided to play this culvert and that was our performance. It’s not something I would do now, but we had this bold attitude of like: Whatever we do, that’s the music. We were just going for it. We would borrow stuff and we’d sort of cook things up. It’s funny to think about it now because, I mean, we played some rather large shows with completely no planning.
“We did a few gallery appearances. We had an appearance in Scotland at a museum. It was very much part of the art world where it crosses over with sound art. But the label was just us making handmade objects. We never really thought people would buy them. We thought it was just art for art’s sake, and it ended up kind of taking off as a little label, when CD-Rs got popular there for a little bit in the early early ‘00s.”
The Blithe Sons
We Walk The Young Earth
Compact Disc (CD)
“Oh, that’s on Bandcamp? I had no idea! Blithe Sons is all improv stuff that’s recorded outdoors. That was the group that…performed in the culvert in Wisconsin. We used to perform in the Marin Headlands in those old old gun tunnels where there were World War II artillery installations. We’d use the natural space, the natural reverb in those places. That’s how we made a lot of those records. Me and this guy Loren Chasse would haul acoustic instruments up there and record with Casios and harmonium—stuff like that.”
The Jingling World of the Skygreen Leopards
“This was me getting sick of avant-garde and just wanting to make some pop songs, because all along I’ve been a fan of that music. One of my formative shows was seeing Beat Happening, so I always connected with that very simple, crude pop thing. The Skygreen Leopards was me being like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to put the performance art aside and just play songs, because I love melody.’
“It was a duo of me and Donovan Quinn. He’s from Walnut Creek. We actually met on Craigslist because I wanted to find a musician that was outside of my circle and was interested in making songs. It was early Craigslist, which almost always fails, right? I mean, everyone knows that back then, if you posted, something really horrible happened to you. But I think I was kind of desperate to get away from a certain mentality of just being so experimental and artsy all the time, because the guys I was playing with were really aggressively opposed to even having a bass player in a band, or ever learning a song. So I put up an ad that said Television Personalities and the Byrds and the Monkees and all the pop stuff, and I found [Quinn]. And we just somehow it worked out. We ended up releasing a lot of records and touring and writing a lot of songs.
“The Jingling World of The Skygreen Leopards is the earliest stuff, it’s a reissue of the CD-Rs. It’s very lo-fi, but I feel like it’s charming. It was a reaction to being in improv stuff. There was no jamming allowed. We never were allowed to go over two minutes. Some songs actually did, but barely. And then we would improvise songwriting, too. We would lay down the chords and then say, ‘Okay, it’s your turn to sing, make something up.’ And we would freestyle a lot of it—which also is shocking to me now, because I can’t do that anymore. I mean, I write songs now.
“Donovan is a great lyricist. He knew a little more about traditional song structures than me, so I definitely learned from him the ways chords could go together. We were into a lot of the same stuff, like New Zealand bands, and the Byrds was a big thing for us. We were kind of coming from the experimental world, uncomfortably strolling into pop music, I guess. Then at some point, it did start to get bigger. And we were kind of confused, because we never intended to be a band. And then suddenly, you realize you are a band because you’re on stage and you’re at this big venue or whatever.
“I kind of remember when it happened. We were playing a festival in Wales called the Green Man. It was the biggest show we ever played, and we just looked at each other, like: What is this? The band sort of fell apart after that, actually. I think a lot of the bands that get that big and stick around, most of them start to sound bad. It’s kind of a thing that happens. It’s all about people not paying attention to it. I think that’s why I’m always chopping down the tree and starting over because I really enjoy the challenge of coming up with a new idea and realizing it.
“We bring Skygreen Leopards back every once in a while, because we just enjoy doing it. But the end of the first run was when we played the show for like 3,000 people. That’s the peak. I mean, like, where do we go from here?”
Games For Slaves + Selected Singles
“That was an improv punk band that we had in the early ‘00s, starting in the late ’90s. We had a couple records on Siltbreeze and some other labels. This friend of ours is German, and he was out here visiting and he was like, ‘Hey, let’s make up some punk music.’ These guys are all old punk rockers, they’re older than me. The bass player is actually the same guy from the Knit Separates who was also in Social Unrest, but he goes by the name Boy True in Teenage Panzerkorps—it’s confusing, I know. We were all into The Fall and Savage Republic and the Germs, so it’s just freaking out and making some punk sounds.”
“That’s me and the guy who used to be the singer of Teenage Panzerkorps, the German. It’s definitely post-punk. I mean, you can hear pop in there, too. It’s still me, so it does sound a little like the Red, Pinks, and Purples, but with a German guy yelling over the top. We actually just put out a record like a year ago. Radiant Life actually did pretty well. It got on some year-end lists, and the guy from Grizzly Bear put it out on his label. That’s probably the most popular thing that’s been on the Burundi Cloud page.”
Giant Skyflower Band
Blood of the Sunworm
Compact Disc (CD)
“Giant Skyflower Band is a project I did with Shayde Sartin from the band The Fresh and Onlys. It’s basically me writing psychedelic pop tunes. I play sitar on it. It’s rather similar to Skygreen Leopards, just something I did for a month. At times, as soon as I get an idea, I’ll just do it. Like, ‘I’m gonna make an album this month and finish it.’ I’m a fan of coming up with a good idea and instead of thinking about it, I just do it. Too many musicians spend all their time planning and never get to the thing. I always saw a lot of people like that. And I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to be that. I’m going to make these things that I want to make.’”
Other Times EP + Singles
“During one of the breaks that Skygreen Leopards had, I started Art Museums with this guy Josh Alper, from Santa Cruz. He was a songwriter I always admired. We were both big fans of Television Personalities, so it was basically our tribute band. It kind of took off, and we put out on some records and some EPs. At that point, I very much knew what I wanted, and had an idea about how to record, and it was very easy to make those recordings. We both wrote songs, but I was sort of the producer of it.
“It started to get a little bit bigger, and then it was kind vexing for Josh, and we ended up splitting up. We couldn’t agree on certain things, and I think all the attention was vexing. Like, he would pore over the reviews. It’s hard being in a band. I don’t fault him for anything. I’m sure he would have complaints about me. But it’s hard to keep a collaboration going, especially when there’s attention put on it. It makes it even harder.
“Josh sadly passed away a couple years after that. He was in a car accident. It was a real tragedy. The guy was a major talent, and it was really tragic to lose him because he was a beloved person. He had a real talent for melody. I think we made some great music.
“That was the last pop thing I did for a while. It put me off making this kind of music, I just couldn’t find those songs anymore. So I went into doing other things.”
“I was learning how to program a drum machine, and was doing a lot of instrumental music. I think I just wanted to be free of having to come up with lyrics. You know how Brian Eno put Music for Films so anyone could purchase the music to put in their film? It was like a commercial effort. For me, FWY! was that. It was nice to have no pressure and just be making sound and not having to worry about songs, which have so much emotion tied up in them for me. But it ended up taking off on its own.
“It’s probably the project that’s earned me the most income, because some of it ended up getting used for commercials. I don’t even know how to sell out with that stuff. I don’t have an agent or anything. I just started putting it up, and a guy who is a fashion guy became a fan and asked for a song. The biggest one I did was Uniqlo clothing. It was a song for their spring line in like 2000-whatever. It was all this money, and then they asked if they could use it for some European thing, and the money just kept doubling. Then like three surf companies ended up using some FWY! and Horrid Red, too. So that’s the most lucrative thing of my entire, you know, so-called career. I’m here ready to sell out if anyone’s buying.”
Under the Bloom
“Vacant Gardens is a new band. It’s me and this singer-songwriter, Jem Fanvu. She lives in L.A. now, but she’s originally from the Bay Area. I knew her from up here. I was mixing something for her for another project, and I just thought in my head that we should make some records, because I just really liked her voice.”
“43 Odes is me and another guy from Jeweled Antler, Steve Smith. He’s got a big Bandcamp for his music. He’s a guy I grew up with and was kind of reconnecting with. We just decided to make some instrumental music. I guess it kind of relates to Jeweled Antler in a way, but it’s more arranged, more song-based. It’s kind of like cinematic pieces. I guess it’s sort of post-industrial music, like Zoviet France, This Heat… It’s kind of in that zone. He and I were roommates in the ‘90s so 43 Odes is like a throwback to what we listened to in the ‘90s, but now. It’s just a fun project, really. We’ll see where it goes. We have a new record coming out later this year.”
The Telephone Numbers
Pictures of Lee
“That’s actually my neighbor, this guy Thomas Rubenstein. He’s a pop songwriter, and we kind of like each other’s stuff. I just helped him with the mixing, and I played on his recordings, but it’s his project. I want him to get the credit for it, because it’ll get under my name and he’ll be shortchanged. He plays guitar in my live band for the Reds, Pinks, and Purples.”
Heaven and Holy
“This is me and Jeremy Earl from Woods. We’ve been friends for a long time, and we’ve worked together before on some Woods stuff. He sent me a CD way back when, and wanted to set up a show with Skygreen Leopards, that’s how we met. That’s back when you would mail something to someone introducing yourself.
“I think he was in-between things, getting inspired, so he asked me to come out and record. We just made up a new band and pretty much did all in one week. We both brought material. I think he wrote most of the songs, but I wrote like a quarter of the songs, and we recorded them together. That was actually two years ago. During COVID, we finished with the final overdubs and then he got sidetracked with Purple Mountains and Woods stuff, so that’s why it’s coming out now.
“There’s actually one song on the record that’s also a Reds, Pinks, and Purples song. There’s a crossover there. On You Might Be Happy Someday it’s called ‘Your Parents Were Wrong About You’ and then on Heaven and Holy it’s called ‘Not Too Bad.’ It’s really cool because Jeremy sings lead on it. I had the song and thought it would be fun to hear him sing a song of mine. They’re really different versions, but they’re the same song.”