As someone quite famous once observed, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock’n’roll. Dunedin four-piece Hot Donnas don’t necessarily aspire to reach the top, but as frontman Jacob Sydney King tells Richard Thorne, they do most certainly wanna play rock’n’roll, and if following that musical path means spending time in Australia then so be it.
Hot Donnas came together as a band of Otago University mates back in 2017, and for a relatively young, little known band, already have quite a discography – enhanced with the recent release of six-track EP/album/mixtape ‘The Adventures of E-Wan’. Politely disagreeing with the band’s guitar-swinging frontman Jacob Sydney King, we’re going to call it an album, which makes it their third, following ‘Greek Yoghurt’ which introduced the band in 2017 and 2018’s ‘Dirty Paradise’. All very party hard rocking fun, despite the Dunedin origins, and any Castle St student connections.
Jacob arrived in town from Nelson, gave tertiary study a shot but has since been focused mainly on making Hot Donnas a working band. Bassist Gene Mace, George McLauchlin (drums) and Mitchell Sizemore (guitarist) were all high-schooled in Dunedin, and having completed their university studies, have been flatting together this year.
Getting together in 2017 to play some good-times indie rock the band got off to a roaring start, with enthusiastic audiences and reviews. But even before Covid arrived that momentum seemed to have slowed.
“We did start off with a hiss and a roar, when we were all at uni and able to play gigs at any opportunity. We’d have two-month stretches that were just non-stop, with one or two gigs every weekend,” Jacob happily agrees. “Since then we’ve been faced with different challenges, like getting jobs and balancing workloads, plus the change in our sound played into that too I think.
“The initial record we put out [‘Greek Yoghurt’] was very reflective of what happened pretty much instantaneously when we created the band. Then we started to change and the second album ‘Dirty Paradise’ didn’t get anywhere near as much attention, simply because it wasn’t the same. It was slightly more aggressive.
“We’ve refined that more since, trying to make it better and we wanted to give ‘The Adventures of E-Wan’ time to show what it could be instead of rushing it, and looking back with regret. So even though it took ages we’re stoked with it, super happy, and we’ve figured out where we’re going with it. So now we’re sitting idling and waiting to hit the gas!”
A natural enough turn of phrase for Jacob, who daylights as a postal courier driver. “Postman Jake I’m called,” he laughs.
As singer/guitarist and main songwriter for the band he’s always been the lead spokesman, email correspondent and so on, but says over the period that load has disbursed somewhat.
“The whole time we’ve been a band people have been offering to help and we’ve been super fortunate to get different opportunities that way. For the last six months, we’ve been working with a very good friend who has been helping out with the admin side. We haven’t been able to put the foot on the gas this year so we’re really lining up 2021 as the year that we start cranking. With Scotty as our manager, there should be a lot more direction and force behind the whole thing.
“Having to shift focus to life stuff was a massive change and we rely quite heavily on money from gigs to generate income. So when that stopped and we were locked down it wasn’t the same, we couldn’t really even jam, so that slowed everything down.”
In hindsight, he says, a lot of good came from being forced to take more time than with their previous releases.
“We got a really good promotional campaign behind this and two really good music videos done by a friend who does animation. We’re definitely over the wait and ready to start ripping into it, just waiting out the end this year to start fresh.”
Hot Donnas’ mid-2109 single Tube Socks was recorded earlier that year at the Radio One campus studio, the album’s other tracks completed in one batch later in the year with the same engineer, Stephen John Marr, who has since moved to Auckland.
“We were really lucky to get him before he disappeared. The recording quality we got from Stephen was incredible, he’s an insane sound engineer. Then we took it to Dan Harris for mixing who has a good ear for our sound after recording the album before, and he didn’t have to do much to it really, just polishing.”
Five songs were all recorded in just a day or two, Beach and Two Brains the two singles subsequently treated with music videos.
“We don’t mess around when we go into the studio, we just do it! We don’t have any money to sit in a studio for weeks, we get real tight and go into the studio and play tight and get it done.
“I think what we learnt from ‘Dirty Paradise’ was that we need to bring a little more to the table in terms of production values, the tone essentially, and the way it’s presented. That album is still one of my favourite pieces of work I’ve done, the songs were really good, but the sound, being a new direction for us, made it not quite right.
“With a bit more time re-defining our tone we realised it needed to fit together better if it’s going to be this crunchy now. It had to be bolder, even if it was going to be more intricate, things needed to stand out in the songwriting. Dynamics and all that kind of thing. Making what we are playing really impactful so you don’t miss it.
“Then with the change in process of recording, adding another set of ears for mixing was a really positive thing. Stuff like that you learn by trial and error sometimes, and we’re happy to go through that ’cos we’re constantly writing music anyway.”
He giggles softly, a little embarrassed maybe, when asked to explain the album title.
“It’s a very silly story about our friend who is a primary school teacher.”
To summarise, in calling the roll on his first day said friend inexplicably mispronounced Ewan as E-wan and was then foolish enough to tell his mates in Hot Donnas. On their subsequent band trip to Queenstown it became the band’s constantly referenced joke-de-tour. Just add beer.
“When it came time to crunch down on stuff for the EP, like the title, it instantly came up, ‘The Adventures of E-wan’, and fit into the nature of this whole year – the stupid parts of it.”
2019 also saw the band making their first Australian tour, six main centre gigs up and down the eastern coast in June/July. The booking was pretty loose, arranged almost casually by Jacob through an Aussie Instagram contact, meaning they spent the tour figuring stuff out on the fly. It was successfully ramshackle.
“To say it went badly wouldn’t be accurate, but it definitely didn’t go smoothly! We were constantly picking up the pieces, but we had a good time. Like a bunch of Dunedinites in the big smoke, but lost!
“We were super lucky in getting chucked on tour with a Sydney band called The Darrens. From the minute we met them they helped us with their contacts in each city, which made the whole trip so much better. They play quite heavy punk, clear-the-room kind of music, but they’re the best dudes ever and we had so much fun with them. I’ve made a pledge, if we go back on tour in Aussie it will be along with The Darrens!”
And more time in Australia seems a given if given Jacob’s assessment of the market for Hot Donnas’ sound here vs across the Tasman.
“I personally think that NZ isn’t right for us, and the attention we’ve been getting from Australia makes it a lot more promising prospect for us. If we are to really kick it in the guts I think we probably need to go over there, to a rock’n’roll scene that is already quite substantial.
“I think that Aussie has just had such a rich rock’n’roll history, for so long. Ours is more reggae and roots in NZ, what we listen to comes from that aspect, while their bread and butter is rock’n’roll. If you can go over there and make a statement with good rock’n’roll there’s a big audience of all kinds of people. Everyone enjoys it.
“I think there are always barriers but it’s how you get around them that defines your success. We’re successful in playing music that we like and we want to keep doing that, the biggest obstacle for us right now is finding the market that will allow us to do so. There is a rock’n’roll culture here in NZ, it just needs to be celebrated a little bit more, at least in the commercial market I think.”