Slugger from left to right: Robert McLean, Hezekiah Donaghy, Alex Vargas, Josiah Donaghy

It’s a muggy late-summer evening in south Santa Rosa. As the four members of Slugger dutifully distribute a pack of Henhouse IPA in front of their new rehearsal space, the sonic rumblings of another band bleed out of the building and into the parking lot.

Up until six months ago, the sole rehearsal spot for the band was a 15′ x 15′ garage in the backyard of the members’ house, so they are still visually adjusting to rehearsing in a “conventional” studio setting. Over the years, that little space grew into a full-blown venue named the Hendley Hotel. Retrofitted with soundproofing, a PA system, and string lighting, literally hundreds of shows would be hosted there over the years. It was a tiny independent bastion where touring bands could sneak in a small show on their way to San Francisco or young upstarts could play their first show. But most of all, it was home for Slugger.

Slugger(photo: Estefany Gonzalez)

“We definitely took advantage of it. There were parties where there was no music but we’d have a couple beers and set up and just play a set. I had never played anywhere but that place forever. But what I really think how it left its mark on us and who we are as a band- it’s hard for us to play stages. We played on a big stage a few weeks ago, I felt so bad there! The energy was all wrong.”- Robert Mclean.

The band’s music occupies a nice little Venn diagram region where the circles of emo, indie, and early hardcore overlap. Imagine the interlacing guitar hooks of American Football with the vocal urgency of Latterman.

“House shows are more personal, a lot more vulnerable,” guitarist Alex Vargas explains. “You’re in someone’s home, you know? I feel more connection in the times we played house shows-  being at eye-level, there’s no stage. I’m not above anyone. I’m here, in this house, with you.”

(photo: Estefany Gonzalez)

The band started in the Hendley Hotel in 2010, when drummer Josiah Donaghy started writing songs with vocalist Chase Koches. The two soon began performing under the name Kiddo. Josiah’s brother and guitarist Hezekiah joined soon after, along with Vargas, and bassist Robert McLean. Following Koches’ departure in 2013, the members solidified their lineup as a four-piece and rebranded under the name Slugger. The diminutive term of endearment tagged to a child by a parental figure carries with it a tint of nostalgia for an innocent time. Little League games, the smell of fresh-cut grass in the summer sun, a pitcher of root beer with pizza…considering the fraternal nature of the band and their general love of baseball tees,the name is on-brand.

“From being a two-piece as Kiddo to being a five-piece as Kiddo, and now a four-piece as Slugger — we didn’t missed a week of band practice,” McLean states. “When we became Slugger, it felt natural to rebrand at that time because so much had changed. But music never stopped being created for almost ten years now.”

With the release show for their debut LP Let The Good Times Rot coming up on Saturday, the band takes time to reflect on the personal significance of the album art. The cover features a B&W portrait of Josiah giving a melancholy wave goodbye in front of the Hendley, with bright-colored shapes hand-drawn all over the property.

“I interpreted it like these are the spirits of Hendley. There were always people at that house! That’s what made it so magical. There was life.” Although the band rehearsed at the space, Josiah had been the one living there since its inception and was the one running it like a venue. Upon walking up the driveway for a show, he was the first person you would see, ready to collect money for touring bands and stamp your hand. Once you were in though, there was one thing he never forgot to say: “Have fun!”

“I had 24 hours to get the things I wanted from that house and get out,” Josiah says as he recalls his sudden eviction notice. Since the venue was home for so many people, the inevitable bad egg would turn up every once in awhile, and a wrong-place-wrong-time incident occurred, leading to the landlord’s dismissal of the tenants — not an uncommon occurrence for house venues.

The lifespan of a house venue is typically short, especially in the suburbs where city planners view them with a sort of general disdain. They are seen as a blight on peaceful neighborhoods, a sanctuary for drug use or underage drinking. But the reality is they provide a positive alternative to those negative things — young people go to be inspired, to find their people, and ultimately to learn how to be part of a community. And with few exceptions (the Phoenix Theater), there’s nowhere in the North Bay Area for young people to see consistently see live music performed by their peers.

“You really don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” says Josiah. “I lived there for five years. We did a show every week. So this record is a way for the memory of Hendley Hotel to keep living on because we wrote most of the songs there and my leaving was so abrupt and I am still processing the fact that I’m not running a house venue anymore.”

(photo: Estefany Gonzalez)

The dissolution of their practice space/private venue was just one of many major life changes in the members of Slugger experienced during the writing of the record. Transitioning into your late 20s and early 30 is crazy. Shit gets weird. And then there’s the realization of Oh. It’s just going to be like this from now on. You’re forced to make hard choices about what you embrace and what you let go, and understand that the choice might be made for you.

Josiah grips a copy of the LP. “When I hold it, the first thing that comes to mind is…thankful totally down deep down to my bones that I get to hold this record. We’re talking about all this change. Our dad died a year ago, so on top of moving out the house, losing that space, a parent dying, marriages ending, relationships ending, birth of child — family and friends coming and going —  when I’m able to just hold it, I’m like damn, I am so thankful. Everything in my life has changed — having a baby and moving — so for me I feel proud of this record because it shows who I still feel like inside even though so much has changed. In my heart I’m still there. The kid who says ‘Let’s throw house shows. Let’s do this.’”

As the sun goes down, and more bands shovel gear into the practice space, an excited grin stretches on Josiah’s face as he puts down the record and heads into the practice space. “As long as I live in this county, ’til I’m like 50…I’m going to find a space, a garage, or whatever where I’m going to have shows.”

Stream their new album Let The Good Times Rot below in its entirety and catch their release show on Saturday night:

Slugger, The New Trust, Ovvn, Cite
Arlene Francis Center
August 24, 2019
8pm, $10