Mick Thomas

Album retrospective #2: Donkey Serenade

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As the new compilation These Are the Songs approaches I will continue with a series of album recollections, this week it’s Donkey Serenade I’m thinking about….

Last week I discussed the making of Dead Set Certainty – my first studio album post Weddings, Parties, Anything. In the article I compared that record to one of the later Weddings albums Donkey Serenade. I think it’s a fair comparison. Both were records constructed entirely under independent resources. Both were records that had a lot of cover songs interspersed with some choice originals. Both were records where a sense of gentle experimentation was coupled with a feeling of apprehension at being such unsupported releases. I’m probably not going to cover the making of every WPA album in these stories but I think this album is a particularly significant one for the body of work that would be created over the next twenty years.

Donkey Serenade definitely crept up on the actual band itself as an actual concept. We had been signed to RooArt records for some time and without wanting to get into how that relationship broke down or how we were able to free ourselves from the deal, suddenly, surprisingly, we found ourselves able to walk. It was all a little surreal, and as liberating as it was scary. We could make our own music as we saw fit. But who the hell was going to pay for it?

It was the mid nineties and records were still reasonably expensive to make for a band like the Weddings – by that I mean, for a band accustomed to having budgets and all the excesses that entails and encourages. But the home recording DIY concept had certainly begun in earnest by then even if the Weddings were a little slow on the uptake. Myself, Jen Anderson and Paul Thomas had all bought ourselves some sort of home rudimentary recording gear. The problem was we’d all purchased vastly different formats that wouldn’t really talk to each other. And none of us really had the right sort of set up in our houses physically to suit a full band. But we had some songs, some ideas and we were confident our live support base were keen to see what our new found freedom and rejuvenated line-up could produce. As much as it might have looked precarious from an external perspective, the band had consolidated into a really keen and effective unit. We were ready to make a statement. But as I’ve already said – how were we going to pay for it?

I’m not sure at what stage studio engineer Cameron Craig became involved in the project but he was certainly the person I remember being responsible for pulling a lot of the loose ends together. I think Stephen O’Prey had worked with him previously in The Badloves and Jen had been regularly using him for various studio projects. Most importantly he seemed confident of the various disparate recording formats and equipment we had purchased and while he was dubious of the idea of us doing the whole thing ourselves he was helpful and ever ready with advice.

First stop was the Public Bar in North Melbourne which we used to patronise fairly heavily at the time. We organised to use the back bar for a couple of days and while it was a reasonably inefficient set up in terms of what we would later be able to access in our own various abodes at least we were up and running. Our live sound person Dylan Hughes came down and was tireless as usual – setting up, patching, re-patching, nothing too much trouble. We ended with three full band tracks (bass, drums, guitars) which we were able to take away and work on in our own home set-ups at mine and Jen’s house. I think we began another couple of songs in our various home environments and ultimately as Cameron became more involved we bit the bullet and booked a few days at a small studio in Carlton. Then we decided to mix the whole thing at another studio and before too long the album had taken some sort of shape. I am not even sure how much money we had saved doing the whole thing in this way but I think it was important for us to feel we had control and we were doing things for ourselves.

The cover art was easy enough as I had found an old packaging graphic that depicted a couple of donkeys working against each other before eventually deciding cooperation was the best policy (a thinly veiled comment on our experience the previous few releases in record company land). And if that gave us the name of the album, for the back cover photos I think the overriding feeling was the band members were so thoroughly sick of turning up to photo shoots it was easier for me to get the band’s stage person Stan Armstrong to put on a donkey’s head and imitate the various characters. Looking back I think the cover in a way gives you the key to the record. It’s patchy – intentionally home made in it’s overall appearance but kind of referential and endearing for all that.

Importantly, Donkey Serenade was the record that saw us finally wipe the crippling debt the band had accumulated over the first ten years of our existence. It really marked the advent of us making strong decisions at management, marketing and merchandising levels and significantly it was a really fun record to play and one we were really proud of. In retrospect, it may have represented a false dawn for the band but without a doubt it’s the reason I could charge into a solo career a few years later with a bit of confidence.