If you're a regular at local rock concerts, you've probably encountered Joel Shanahan. His driving-capped head bobs in the crowd at many metal shows, and he's played guitar in at least a half-dozen groups, including faux-German comedy act Butt Funnel and the backing band for lo-fi artist Julian Lynch. But these days, Shanahan rarely picks up a guitar. Instead, he heads for the synthesizers, where he turns into Golden Donna.
The one-man project began in 2009, when Shanahan started working on dark, synth-driven music in his spare time. The instrument had long been a thing of wonder to him, but the myriad knobs and keys intimidated him for years. He discovered his interest in synthesizers while listening to his mom's New Wave cassettes as a kid. And he listened to synthpop while helping his dad, a Top 40 radio DJ, spin records.
"He was a single dad who didn't always want to get a babysitter, so he'd take me into the studio with him," Shanahan recalls. "There was this huge wall of records, and I'd sit and listen to them for hours.
Later Shanahan became a fan of hip-hop, jazz and abstract noise-rock, and the vintage synth sounds of groups like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. He says house and techno music have often felt like "a melting pot" of many styles he adores. But raves and dance clubs, where house and techno thrived in the '80s and '90s, didn't appeal to him nearly as much.
"I really love dynamic techno artists like James Holden, who...takes you into space and back [with] lots of very human-sounding synth bits and charmingly busted rhythms," Shanahan says. "The dance floor is definitely an afterthought for him."
Shanahan takes a similar approach to his own electronic music. For starters, it's a vehicle for personal expression and slaying his demons. He discovered this when he shed his synth-related anxiety and started experimenting.
"I started working on music on a computer as a tool to find new ways to express myself, and I got fascinated with pulling different levers to make different sounds and tones," he says.
Over time, he acquired an arsenal of equipment that includes a 1978 Arp Axxe and a Roland JX-3P. But for a while, even the cool setup couldn't get him to compose a full song. There was too much going on in his head.
"I had a lot of skeletons, stuff in disrepair, and I was horrible at finishing music," he says.
Then, about two years ago, a solution appeared in Shanahan's basement, where he was hosting a concert.
"I opened up for Radio People, and after my set, [founder] Sam Goldberg asked if he could put something out for me on his tape label, Pizza Night," Shanahan recalls. "I was stoked and recorded the album over the next couple months."
Long story short, Goldberg got too busy to release the songs, so Shanahan sent them to Not Not Fun, an L.A.-based label whose roster includes Ducktails, Pocahaunted and former Madisonians Peaking Lights.
"They got back to me right away, offered to do an LP," he says. "I'm really honored to have a relationship with that label."
Shanahan has also teamed up with CGI Records, which has been instrumental in developing his latest recording, a 12-inch split with Chris Powers, an Atlanta-based artist who releases avant-garde material under the name Cc. On the new release, Shanahan balances Powers' funky, dance-oriented fusions with moody sounds that take the mind to another time and place. It's the kind of stuff that can dredge up a memory you haven't experienced in years.
"I try to make the kind of music where you close your eyes and get transported somewhere else," he says. "A lot of my favorite music...takes you to exactly where the artist wants you, whether it's straight-up noise or Astral Weeks or old, gritty Three 6 Mafia stuff."
Shanahan acknowledges that this can be a pretty intense experience. It's one reason music of this type is sometimes labeled "psychedelic." But he hopes to find a place on the spectrum that a broad range of listeners can enjoy.
"I lean more toward a mix of that [intense and cerebral] stuff and something you'd sing along to, like Depeche Mode."