Two Peas in a Pod
Philly rockers Pete Donnelly and Juston Stens finally connect over freewheeling rock 'n' roll and solo careers
On paper, Pete Donnelly and Juston Stens share plenty of parallels. They both call Philadelphia home. They both cut their teeth in quirky, uncompromising independent rock bands (Donnelly in The Figgs and NRBQ; Stens in Dr. Dog). They both went solo in 2011, switching instruments and embracing their inner songwriters in the process. They both love home recording, and both have two albums of delightful, retro-tinged rock under their belts.
So why did it take so long for Donnelly and Stens to tour together? Good question. As the two attested in separate interviews for Folio Weekly, edited together here for clarity, sometimes life works in challenging and mysterious ways.
Folio Weekly: How long and in what capacity have you guys known each other?
Pete Donnelly: I've known of Juston here in Philly for a long time because of his history as Dr. Dog's drummer. As a fellow rhythm guy who's also a songwriter, I could relate to him starting his own band, whose soulful, early rock sound and great energy I love. I don't like it when music lacks fun. Songs can be dark, heavy and twisted, but performing music should be joyful.
Juston Stens: I've only known Pete in person for a month, but we have lots of similarities. We've both played with different groups for a long time, but that clearly isn't the end of our musical lives. Sometimes you just love it so much that you can't stop, and I definitely see that in him. We're destined to do this. Our sound is pretty complementary, as well. My band might be messier or louder or have more vocal harmonies than his, but through and through, it's all rock 'n' roll. We're a pretty good match.
F.W.: Talk about each of your respective experiences playing with a band before branching out as a solo artist.
P.D.: It's great for me because I don't have to commit to anyone's agenda. Playing by yourself is a solitary mission, and I like being able to take advantage of that. I'm trying to explore something new, which I really went for on my new record ["Face the Bird"].
J.S.: Musically, if you can play two instruments, that's going to give you an edge. Pete's a hell of a guitar player, but a lot of his rhythm and feel comes from other things he's played. Some people love being in the background of band, but for me, this is the first project that feels honest, close to home and personal.
F.W.: Both of you have recorded your most recent albums in unconventional ways. Juston, tell us about "Share the Road," which comes out next spring, right?
J.S.: Yes. It was tracked in the fall of 2011, when I rode my motorcycle across the country, stopping in 15 different cities to write, record and connect with different friends who are great musicians. It's much more collaborative than [my debut solo album] "Trash or Treasure," which was just me trying to figure out what to do with myself after six years in Dr. Dog.
F.W.: Pete, didn't Hurricane Sandy throw a wrench in your plans with "Face the Bird"?
P.D.: Absolutely. I set up a studio off-season at the Jersey Shore so I could camp out and record without interruption. I'm a family guy, so my life usually has routine to it, making it hard to fully immerse myself in the music. But here I was trying to be irresponsible, and I kept having challenges that forced me to be responsible again. Then, when I was out of town, the hurricane hit — lucky for me, the guy who owned the building that I was recording in put everything on a couple of tables. So even though water flooded the first floor, all of my stuff survived unscathed. I was so lucky. It made me realize that the challenges we face in life are pretty superficial compared to losing your house or a loved one.
F.W.: Neither of you has a lot of recent experience touring in Florida. Are you excited to get back to the Sunshine State?
J.S.: I haven’t been in about three years. For a lot of the guys in my band, it’s their first time ever, so I’m excited about them enjoying some nice Southern weather and good company.
P.D.: I haven’t been in a while, either. Honestly, it’s probably been at least 15 years since I’ve played in Jacksonville.
F.W.: Pete, you frequently back up Graham Parker, who appeared in the movie "This Is 40" and also has a cult hit, "I'll Never Play Jacksonville Again." That hasn't rubbed off on you, has it?
P.D.: [Laughs.] I didn't know whether to bring that song up. I've certainly played it — I even think I recorded it with Graham. Maybe after this show we can work on getting him back down there.