The Reds, Pinks, and Purples' Glenn Donaldson on Indie-Pop, Jewelled Antler, and the San Francisco Scene

The Reds, Pinks, and Purples' Glenn Donaldson on Indie-Pop, Jewelled Antler, and the San Francisco Scene

This is a free installment of Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also get a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday, with music I've been enjoying as well as some thoughts around it.

Earlier this year, Glenn Donaldson's The Reds, Pinks and Purples project put out a beautiful record in the form of Summer at Land's End, evoking the downcast and lovely sounds of classic guitar-based indie-pop right down to its last jangled jangle. Glenn is a veteran of San Francisco's underground music scene in general, having established the Jewelled Antler collective in the late '90s as well as left-field rockers the Art Museums in the late 2000s. He's seen some shit and made some fascinating music along the way, and I thought he would be the perfect person to talk to for those reasons.

I’ve talked to a lot of people for the newsletter—which started during the first year of the pandemic—over the last two years, but I just realized I haven’t talked to anyone living in San Francisco. How’s it been over there?

After the year of the pandemic, I think there was some creativity happening about how to deal with it that was interesting. People were putting on generator shows in this park near here. As far as music, I feel like a lot of shows have come back. The audiences are a little bit lighter, overall—I think people are still worrying about going to shows, and of course shows are getting canceled. You book a show, and inevitably one band drops off. It’s quiet. I went out to the store today, and everyone’s got masks on again, noticing the sicknesses.

The last couple of years, the city got quieter and the traffic got lighter, so it reminded me of the ‘90s in a nostalgic way—before the city blew up. There were lots of vacancies and rentals, and the rent dropped a little bit for some people, so they moved around. It’s an interesting shift.

I really liked Summer at Land’s End a lot, and the way you evoke this specific indie-pop sound fascinates me, especially in the greater context of your career. Talk to me about what indie-pop means to you as a sound and style.

I’m 50, so my lifetime of knowing about music spans the creation of indie-pop. I was just thinking about that today, actually. Some of the first music I was ever into was punk rock—I’m from Southern California originally. I knew about punk when it started a little bit, but I wasn’t able to go to shows until later in the ‘80s, when indie-pop and college rock was developing. So I’ve been there for all of it. [Laughs] I was there from the beginning. But really, I was! These bands I’m referencing, I remember when they were new bands—that’s a little different than someone who’s younger and learning about what indie-pop is on the internet. I actually witnessed it. I’m not saying I’m some ultimate scene guy, but you know what I’m saying—I was there for the arc. R.E.M.’s Murmur was a watershed in terms of jangle, and when that was a new record it was totally beguiling to me.

As a musician, I don’t think I always made indie-pop, but I’ve always been a fan of it. My trajectory of making music is long, I’ve done so much—but I never really wanted to make indie-pop because I wanted to do music that was not referencing a genre, that was creating its own genre instead. So I’ve certainly referenced it over time, but I never fully did it. At some point, I decided I just wanted to make pop music for this project, and I wasn’t gonna worry about breaking down the walls of genre and creating a new form. I was just gonna concentrate on songcraft, writing songs, and having the songs be compelling and reach out to people. The lyrics can communicate in the way that the best indie-pop did to me. It’s based in folk music—there’s story songs, love songs, things that are very relatable in song form. I wanted to just do that and have no other gimmick other than writing good songs, with myself in the center of it, which for me is what the best pop music is.

In the context of your career, what does it mean to put yourself at the center of your music?

I never wanted to be the center of it. I wanted the music to be mysterious on its own, separate from the personality. But I’ve always been a fan of music that presented a strong personality at the core of it. I think that part of aging has been coming to accept my flaws and realizing that the key to being great at being a personality is to be as forthright and earnest as you can, no matter how ridiculous it looks. And it is ridiculous. It’s an absurd version of me, and I don’t feel comfortable doing it. [Laughs]

But it’s been working, which is interesting too. So it’s all an experiment. I really felt like I had to dig deep. I spent years cooking up what this project would be before I actually launched it. I took a lot of inspiration from stand-up comedy, which I’m a fan of. The best comedy isn’t just well-told jokes, it’s when it transcends that to become this personal thing. I wanted to let it all hang out like that, in song.

You talked about being there at the beginning of the jangle and indie-pop era, and now you’re putting records out on Slumberland, which is one of the labels when it comes to indie-pop.

My other music that I did before was a little too left-field for them. I’m sure they’re aware of my older stuff, but I don’t think they would’ve considered putting it out on Slumberland. Indie-pop was too cool for me at that time. I was like, “I’m too weird for that, I’m not gonna be accepted. I don’t have a cool haircut, and my music doesn’t fit the genre.” So it’s funny that Slumberland came around when I decided to do some straight-up pop, but it’s cool. I’m happy some people have embraced what I’m doing.

I’m not too concerned with trying to fit in with indie-pop, to be honest. For me, it’s about making successful songs, and the vehicle happens to be indie-pop or college rock or whatever, because that’s just what I can accomplish as a musician. If I could sound like Scott Walker, I’d do that, but that’s impossible, because I don’t have the skill to do that.

You were also integral to the Jewelled Antler collective, which was something that exposed me to a lot of left-field music at a young age. What are your reflections on that era?

Me and Loren Chasse knew about how to be involved in the underground, as far as doing your own label and putting on house shows. Our friends were onboard with what we were doing, so it was a group art project. I was very sincere about trying to create a new form of music out of the things that we loved, but not beholden to any particular scene. We just wanted to make our own little scene, and it involved playing outdoors and incorporating field recordings—the idea of fragments of songs and melodies, filtered through natural ambience we’d create or find. It was an exciting project. We’d go on hikes and bring instruments.

Because CD-R culture was taking off simultaneously, the Jewelled Antler CD-R label took off as well, and then people were buying it. When we first started it, we thought, “We’ll make 10 CD-Rs for our friends.” That was literally our ambition. We’d all been involved in indie rock before that, and we were like, “Well, playing in rock clubs isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” It’s hard to get more experimental stuff in a club, too. So we were like, “Let’s go play in the park, or in someone’s backyard.” We’d even abandon having amps.

You’ve been in the middle of a few different notable moments—there was Jewelled Antler, and then you had the Art Museums going at a time in which there was a bit of media focus on the San Francisco garage rock scene. What was the energy like around that time?

It comes in waves, and we’re in the middle of one again right now. It’s a much smaller one, but the bands are really good. I just always do what I like to do, and the idea behind the Art Museums was pop with a drum machine, and electronic drum pads—it had its quirks. But somehow we did fit in with that scene alongside Thee Oh Sees, Fresh and Onlys, the Mantles. It was fantastic. There was so many great shows, and a really big audience. People hadn’t decamped yet. They hadn’t gotten scared off by the tech culture or the rising rents. It was a big scene for indie music. There’s still a crowd here, but there was a lot more people then.

So shows were happening, and I thought the music was really good and energetic. The bands were all really nice. The thing about San Francisco is, and I don’t want to generalize because people here can be just as competitive and backstabby, but it’s not like L.A. where people feel like, “Oh, we’re gonna make it in the music business.” San Francisco has a leftover hippie attitude, it’s very live-and-let-live. The bands are really supportive of each other when it comes to getting each other shows and lending each other amps and things. I feel like, in the other big cities, it’s probably not as much like that. [Laughs] I don’t know why I’m attacking other cities. But in New York, sometimes it’s really hard to get a show.‎

You mentioned how the crowds seemed bigger in San Francisco back then—I don’t think that was a phenomenon necessarily limited to there specifically.

New York was really raging back then, too. You’d have Captured Tracks and Woodsist, which were really big labels at that moment.

It was a different time. You’ve been making music for quite a while, and I’m curious to hear you talk about how you’ve seen things changed from the underground and independent POV.

Well, labels do business differently. Early on, you were able to get an advance usually, and now you usually don’t. A lot of people record at home because technology has allowed that. It’s hard to sum it all up, because there’s so many layers, and whenever I read someone who tries to sum it up, I’m like, “Well, I can think of a million things that contradict this article.”

The influence of social media is something we didn’t have to think about a few years ago, but now the people who are good at social media can be popular musicians, even if the music isn’t that great. [Laughs] There are artists who are so good at social media that I would describe them as “social media artists”—they’re really good at TikTok skits, or they’re really attractive, and they make music on the side. And their music is way bigger than the music from people who are actually trying to be musicians. Obviously, music has always been image-conscious, but the gap between being good at being image-conscious and the artistic value of the music itself has widened.

There is an issue with live shows right now, due to the inflation and the pandemic, which have really disrupted the cycles of touring—but that’s also maybe a good thing. In the pause, people are maybe wondering, “Wait, how are people doing business?” It turns out there are a lot of problems. People are challenging merch cuts. When I started out in CD-R culture, we traded or sold CD-Rs through the mail and distributors—and that became streaming, which destroyed a huge chunk of peoples’ income. Then Bandcamp came along, which was a positive development. Here’s a chance for me to have a record label again, that I can curate for myself, and if people like it, they can actually give me money for it. That gave me new life as an underground musician. I enjoy curating a little label, I enjoy making the art.

Have Bandcamp Fridays been financially beneficial for you?

Oh yeah. Before Bandcamp hit, I was like, “What do I do now? No one wants to buy CD-Rs.” I didn’t want to be in a touring rock band. How can I connect with listeners? Bandcamp became this way for me to do that, and it was very appealing.

Tell me about some emerging San Francisco acts that you really like.

I’m really fond of a lot of bands here. Cindy instantly comes to mind, it’s led by this woman Karina who writes really interesting songs—it’s kind of slowcore, but with really great lyrics at the front. She has several records out, she’s pretty ambitious as an artist too. April Magazine is another band I like, the bass player also plays in my band. They’re a lo-fi, Velvets-meets-Flying Saucer Attack kind of band. I also work with Telephone Numbers sometimes, they’re kind of like Lemonheads-type ‘90s power-pop. That’s just three, but there’s a ton, really.

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Jamie Larson