Donner Dance Party brings improv style to Geneseo music scene

One of Geneseo’s rising bands, Donner Dance Party—made up of juniors guitarist Steve Dana, drummer Matt Heaton, vocalist Sean Delles, trumpeter John Killigrew and Rochester Institute of Technology student and bassist Jackson McMahon—met to discuss their rather unusual musical aesthetic and inspiration. The opportunity to start a band presented itself to Heaton and Dana, who started playing together in Brodie Hall in empty practice rooms. Their casual jam sessions soon expanded to include their friends, McMahon, Delles and Killigrew. They decided to maintain their laidback approach of composing songs in the moment.

Killigrew has dubbed the band’s sound as “half-math.” Dana describes math rock as “just very complicated, very odd time signature [and] rhythmic change.” He added that Donner Dance Party’s music is “not really complicated enough to be math rock, but it’s sort of in that vein. It’s kind of noisy at times, too. It’s mostly instrumental.” Thus, half-math.

Donner Dance Party’s signature techniques include loops and repeated rhythms, alongside layers of effects that all five members collaborate on. “We all do different effects,” Heaton said. These include synth and loop amps. Heaton noted that his inspiration stems from Battles, a band that created the technique of placing loop amps behind their drummer—used as a guide for the band as they create a song.

The band also approaches its vocals in a non-traditional way. Delles explained that his inspiration comes from Animal Collective’s “ethereal tone,” describing how he used his voice as an instrument. He lays effects over his voice rather than signing a set of lyrics to give the band’s music a tribal sound.

In contrast to most bands, Donner Dance Party does not have a system for writing their music. In fact, they don’t write songs at all, but create music that is “improvisational at its core.” When Donner Dance Party plays, it’s a genuine collaboration of musicians who build off each other to create an organic musical experience for listeners.

Because of their improvisational style, the band prefers to play live and does not have any recordings to date. The band plays “mostly a nice balance of social events,” Heaton said, citing open mics at 48 Avon Road—a typically acoustic venue—and Omega Beta Psi fraternity as past gigs. They have also played a slew of fundraising and outdoor events.

Donner Dance Party looks forward to playing more venues and is making efforts to play on the Geneseo campus. The band also mentioned its interest in recording in the future. It has a growing social media presence as well with a modest Facebook page and two tracks on Sound Cloud. Heaton says the members are “definitely keeping it live for the time being.”

So, for now, if you want to hear Donner Dance Party’s unique instrumental yet electric sound, you’ll have to catch them playing live at one of their outdoor venues or social events in Geneseo.