Stepping into Donut Friend, a new gourmet donut shop in LA's Highland Park neighborhood, you might be struck by its eerily cute murals, Pinkberry-shaming toppings bar, and lack of the crackheads and senile octogenarians that seem to haunt many of the city's more typical late-night donut spots. But upon closer inspection of its menu, something long-buried may stir inside of you; an inkling of a feeling from your adolescence. The chocolate-glazed Bavarian cream appears on the menu as the Custard Front Drive; the sprinkled classic, Rites of Sprinkles. The shop's t-shirts repurpose the Drive Like Jehu logo to read "Drive Like Jelly." Umm, have I wandered into … an emo donut shop?
Donut Friend is the longtime dream and pet project of Mark Trombino, the former drummer of Drive Like Jehu and producer of every pop punk record that you emoted to in the late 90s and early aughts, from Blink 182's Dude Ranch to Jimmy Eat World's Clarity to Mineral's EndSerenading. For more than two decades, Trombino made his mark on an endless list of indie, pop punk, and post-hardcore bangers, but now he's manifested his most prized idea of upping the donut ante.
And it seems like he's pretty damn good at it. Donut Friend's crazy-inventive take includes creations such as the Jets to Basil (a donut stuffed with goat cheese, strawberry jam, and fresh basil, topped with a balsamic-sugar glaze) and the GG Almond (with Gruyere and honey filling, with a topping of toasted almonds), either of which I would gladly trade a baker's dozen of overrated Cronuts for any day. I caught up with Trombino on one of his only days off to figure out what made him want to leave the music business for the deep fryer.
MUNCHIES: Hi Mark. So, why donuts?
Mark Trombino: My music career has been in decline for like ten years now. Music as a business is changing. I had to make a decision of whether to try something new. And I had this idea for a donut shop for years, so I thought I'd try it, even though it was something out of my comfort zone. It wasn't that I love donuts so much or have a passion for donuts. I just had an idea in my mind that I thought was so good that I didn't want to see anyone else do it. It was the idea of having a donut shop where you can do things to-order, kind of like a yogurt shop. And I just thought that I could do it.
How did you make the transition from record to donut production? I did a lot of research. This was like five years ago, when I first started thinking about this. I went to different donut shops popping up at the time, like Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland and Top Pot Doughnuts in Seattle. I really liked Top Pot. In fact, my basic donut is loosely based on their recipe. I tweaked them at home and made them vegan. Even though I'm not vegan, all of my friends are. I didn't want to be a punk rock donut shop, and I didn't want to be a vegan donut shop. I just wanted everyone to be able to enjoy my stuff.
Do you feel like your background in music production has an influence on your creative process? I do. I don't know if it's an asset though; I wouldn't say that. It's very different, and that's great and bad at the same time. When making records, I did everything myself. I engineered, produced, played the drums, editing, everything. With Donut Friend, I can't do that. It's about letting go, delegating, and trusting other people. But as far as the creative process, I feel like this is more creative, personally, than making records. When I was making records, I was taking other people's music and bringing it to life. With this, I feel like it's something I've made up and I'm bringing it to life.
How did you come up with the idea to do band-themed donuts? I was with my friend hanging out at a bar, and we were making up punny donut names. They were super stupid, and I was like, I could never really do this. But then I started thinking about it and there were some that I thought would work. Like Rites of Sprinkles, it's clearly a sprinkled donut. People would read that and think, sprinkled donut. I don't think anyone who doesn't know the band would think twice about it. Well, maybe they would.
Do you feel like you want to reinvent the donut on a conceptual food level? I don't have a motive other than to open a donut shop to fulfill this idea I had. It's not so much about the donuts as it is about the whole thing—creativity and music. It's about more than pushing the donut's boundaries or whatever; I feel like I've already done that with the concept. When it's bordering on state-fair food, sometimes it goes too far. I've been thinking about doing more savory things, stuffing it with more savory options. Something to make it more of a meal, like a pizza donut.
Have any of the bands tried their signature donuts yet? Yeah. I used to have a donut called The Jelly Sound, and Blair from The Jealous Sound came in a couple of times and had his donut, and one of the dudes from Wall of Voodoo visited to try the Walnut Voodoo. Jets to Basil is one of my favorites. It's also one of the least donut-like ones, which I like, and one of the most popular ones. That and Bacon-182 (a maple-glazed donut topped with bacon), by far.
Could you conceptualize a donut for artists of different genres, like, say, Skrillex or Miley Cyrus? That would be hard, even as a joke. If I could just make a really shitty donut… that might be funny.
Are you still doing any music production? The shop is kind of all I can do right now. I was warned how crazy it is to open a restaurant, but it's true. My vision was to do this for a while and to somehow to get to a point where it mellows down and I can start doing records again. I always intended to and I don't want to stop. But right now this is a 24-hour-a-day type of thing.
How do you look back on the records you've made in the past? I'm proud of most of them. Listening to my records—as I'm sure it is with anyone who makes records—you can't really listen to them in any kind of objective way. As for the one I had the most fun making, it was probably Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American, because that one was just the band and me, no label, no management. The purest form of making a record that I've ever had.
What contemporary artists are you listening to? I'm becoming more and more disconnected from current music, which is bad, but it happens. The trends are so cyclical that they keep coming back around. I've always liked music that's forward-thinking. One of my favorite bands right now is YACHT. And it's so weird because it's super poppy dance stuff, and not typically my thing. They came into the shop the other day and I totally nerded out.
Thanks for chatting with us, Mark.