This past Friday morning was a busy one for popular indie-rock locals Donora: a live broadcast on WDVE's Coffeehouse, followed by an interview and videotaping for the Trib. Now siblings Jake and Casey Hanner, and bassist Jake Churton are seated in Lawrenceville's Crazy Mocha. Here, just a couple of months ago, they came to an understanding with Pittsburgh-based Rostrum Records, which is releasing the band's full-length debut this weekend.
Not only is Donora a new flavor for the mainly hip-hop and pop-oriented label (home to Wiz Khalifa and S. Money), it's a new business scenario for the label as well: The band already had an album in the can. "We didn't want to delay our CD coming out, and they didn't want to delay anything," says Casey, Donora's vocalist. "We're sort of working on the fly." After some informal negotiations, Rostrum's putting its promotional muscle behind the disc Donora recorded at the North Hills studio owned by the Hanners' father, notable country musician Dave Hanner.
Donora has been on a fast track since making a splash on the local scene less than three years ago. With absurdly catchy melodies, Casey's unique vocal style (sort of like a cheerleading Karen O) and a polished, multidimensional sound, Donora soon drew an enthusiastic audience and became a much sought-after opening act, first on small local bills, and then on national shows.
The Hanners grew up in the North Hills, in an environment where playing music was normal. "My best friend growing up, her dad was also a musician," says Casey, "so I'd just be back and forth between these houses, and the dads would be home all day working in their studios, recording music." Jake studied recording technology for several years, but credits most of what he knows from working with his dad. When Casey started playing solo acoustic shows, Jake began developing pre-recorded musical parts he could trigger from an electronic drum pad, while also playing live drums and singing backup.
Bassist Jake Churton crossed paths with the Hanners while recording at their dad's studio with another local band. Far from simply plonking down the low notes, Churton's bass is often the band's lead melody instrument -- something along the lines of John Entwistle. "I realized they were working on their own parts so hard, they weren't listening to what I was doing," says Churton, which allowed him to experiment. "The chances of finding something cool greatly increased."
Long before Rostrum arrived on the scene, Donora had released EPs that hewed closely to its live sound, hit the road a bit and scored a few music-biz successes, licensing music to promotional videos, small films and even the BBC. And, of course, the band had cut its debut album.
Much of Donora's debut will be familiar to local audiences -- the frenetic "Weekend Tongue" and "Shak'ida," and the wordless refrain of "The Chorus" are live staples. But there are also a couple of surprises: the brand-new "I Think I Like You," written for a film licensing deal that didn't materialize, and the slow, wistful closer "London," an older song of Casey's. "Basically, I took the melody from that song -- took the vocal track and the click -- and then wrote new chords," says Jake. Indeed, the thing listeners are most likely to remark about the record is its full arrangements, with layers of overdubbed guitars reminiscent of The Cure's poppier moments, and other darker textures inspired by the likes of Sigur Rós and Radiohead.
Just don't ask them what the hell a "shak'ida" is. "For me, I guess the sound of a word is way more important than the meaning behind it, lyric-wise," says Casey. "Just the rhythm and the sounds of the words is what I like, and what I listen to in songs."
Whatever they're singing about, plenty of people are listening. While Donora's at Crazy Mocha, Rostrum's Dani Buncher stops by to pick up a case of CDs. She cracks open the shrinkwrap and nods approvingly at the album's artwork, based on an elaborate diorama the band created. "It looked like a tiny city was being built in the middle of the living room," Churton says.
That kind of hands-on labor and artistic independence can be hard to let go of, even though the band is happy to hand over some business matters to Rostrum. "We've been doing it for awhile, and it kind of becomes addicting," Jake says. "They completely understand that though -- they've been letting us ease into that idea," he says, smiling.
He adds, "I just want the opportunity to go to work."
Donora CD Release with Meeting of Important People, Lohio and Br'er Fox. 8:30 p.m. Fri., Dec. 19. Rex Theatre, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. $5. 412-381-6811 or www.rextheatre.com