Words by: Mel Enright
Equally at home on stage as he is in the ocean, we caught up with Billabong freesurfer, musician and Laguna Beach native Donavon Frankenreiter during the London leg of his European tour to talk surfing, life on the road and the recording of his new album.
So Donavon, tell us a little about yourself... I grew up in southern California and I started to surf at 10-years-old on the beaches around southern California. I turned professional when I was 16 years old and I'm 35 now so I've been surfing professionally for something like 22 years... I don’t know, sorry can’t do the math that quick right now! Something like that! Yeah, so that’s the basic background. I've been married for seven years and I have two kids, aged one and five. I started playing music when I was 16 but I never really did anything musically with it until I was around 30. I did my very first record when I was 29, so it’s been a new thing for me but it’s been a lot of fun.
Did you get into surfing through your family? Yeah, dad took me to the beach and I saw these guys standing up and riding waves and I was like ‘Dad, please can I do that, I wanna do that!’ I was 9-years-old and my dad was like 'nah'. No-one in my family surfed and nobody that they knew surfed, but for Christmas I got a surfboard and literally from that moment on I would beg him to take me to the beach every day. They’d take me down at weekends and then when I was old enough I would take the bus. As soon as I got a driving licence and I could drive a car I was never at home! I was literally addicted to surfing! Yeah, it was nice.
You didn’t make a record until you were 30, what made you finally do it? I was in the high school band for a long time but we did cover songs and I got really sick of playing other people's music. I decided to concentrate on my surfing career and to not play music anymore, cause I would rather not play music than be in a bar band playing cover songs all the time - it just wasn’t fulfilling. I would get to the end of the night and think what was that all about? There was nothing wrong with playing other people's songs but I didn’t want to feel like a jukebox. It was right around that time that I met my wife and I would sit around the house trying to play songs to her but I was so nervous I could barely get the words out! She was really supportive and I decided if I wanted to be in music I had to do my own thing. I either had to start writing and singing my own songs or literally stop playing music. It was something I really wanted to pursue and whether I failed or succeeded at least I knew I'd be happy playing and singing my own songs. I never tried to sing until I started writing my own stuff so it was all sort of a new. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I just went for it. That was when it all started.
Who would you say influences you music-wise and surf-wise? Musically, old school guys like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, Tom Petty, Bob Marley and whatnot… I am influenced by a lot of different people. Even modern stuff from the Black Keys to Ben Harper and I’m good friends with Jack Johnson, G Love and all those cats. But I listen to all different types of music from Metallica and the RHCP to Sade and Nora Jones. The new girl Duffy seems really cool and Amy Winehouse is great. I'm really like a sponge when it comes to music cause I love all types of music and I listen to everything. There is nothing that I hear and think ‘oh no, that sucks’ because I don’t think any music is 'bad', it’s all beautiful in one way or another, it’s just a matter of what you enjoy listening to or what kind of mood you are in.
And Jack is in London at a similar time to you, do you think you will get a chance to meet ? I hope we hook up. I don’t know what exactly he's doing but we both recently played at a festival in Tennessse and I went to see him there with his band, it was wonderful. I haven’t seen him in a while so it’s really neat to say hi to him. It’s always cool when you see people on the road, especially when paths cross in another part of the world. Hopefully we'll meet up and connect while we're over here, that would be great.
How do you find the audiences in Europe? We have a great time in Europe, like down in Cornwall, in London at Shepherd's Bush which is amazing, and in Amsterdam at the Paradiso which is a really old church that we play there. The fun of it is that you play and stay a few days in one place, then you get on the tour bus, go to sleep and wake up in a totally different country! Every day people are speaking a different language and that’s what’s so neat about touring through Europe. When you're touring in the United States, it gets to be a bit like ‘Whoa here we go again!’ It's the same thing, and it almost turns into groundhog day, but there is always that element of surprise when you're on tour in Europe.
Will you get a chance to surf whilst you're here? Erm, maybe tomorrow… maybe in Devon although I don’t know as I've never been to that part of the coast. I've surfed in Cornwall and in lots of different spots in Europe - Portugal, Spain, Biarittz and up in Norway. Maybe tomorrow it's time to try Devon - as long as it’s not raining!
How would you say your music has evolved on this album? It’s definitely evolved… It’s definitely the most mature record I have made. I made a point of collaborating with as many people as possible in recording and writing songs, and I had a guy come in to produce the whole record. I have worked with some amazing people who contributed a lot of time and effort to this record and the result is definitely the best record I've ever done. It’s been a growing experience and I think in music that’s what you are always looking to do. I never want to make the same record again and again. I never thought that every single record I was going to make would be better than the last one, but with this album at least I feel like I have grown in a different direction and it was really neat collaborating with different people. That was the thing that took this record to a completely different place.
You actually recorded in the Sunset Sound Studio where the Doors and Janis Joplin recorded. How did that feel? It was really crazy. For the first two days we were at Sunset Sound, I was actually pretty nervous. When the red light came on they said ‘okay, let’s record’ I was like ‘Whoooa’. I sang in the same vocal booth where Mick Jagger, the Doors, Janis Joplin and Prince recorded a bunch of their albums. The history of that studio was just resonating a pretty heavy vibe, and all the pictures on the wall of the studio were funny as they haven't touched the studio since the sixties so the walls, the microphone and the set-up is exactly the same - it’s really a trip! I would be in there and the guy producing the record would be like ‘Hey, let’s try that again, and by the way that vocal booth where you're singing is where Janis Joplin threw up!' You can just imagine all the crazy stuff that happened in that studio...
If only the walls could talk... Yeah, yeah I was trying to make them talk!
What do you find to be the most creative process, music or surfing? There are a lot of major differences. For me, surfing is something you do by yourself, you paddle into the wave by yourself, you surf the wave by yourself and if you have an amazing ride, you kick out and you know you are the only one there going ‘wow, that was a really incredible’. You get this feeling through your own body, which is like a rhythmic sensation where you feel connected to the earth… On the other hand, I think that music is something to be shared, something to be collaborated and something that is not just mine, it belongs to everybody. That’s really the fun thing about music, when you collaborate with so many people, everybody contributes in one way or another to the sound, the feel and the vibe of the record so while it might only have my name on it, behind the scenes it's a collaboration with a lot of amazing people. That’s a really special thing; it freezes a moment in time for me that I'll always remember.
Does surfing influence your music? Yes, definitely. My music would be a lot different if I'd grown up in a city and I never surfed and I never went to the beach. I couldn’t imagine... I'm not sure what the outcome would be but surfing definitely inspires everything I do.
Is being authentic in all that you do important to you? I think no matter what you do, you have to be real and you have to be truthful. I'm the kind of guy for whom that is all I really have to hold on to; I'm not the kind of musician that can go up there and be like ‘hey’ and put on a show. I don’t have a voice that amazes people, I just go up there and be myself and that’s all I have to hold on to. I think that honesty and truthfulness resonates with the people I come across… Musically, when I perform, play or record stuff, I would never do something I wasn’t proud of. I wouldn’t wanna play a song every night that I was like ‘err, even though this is a hit I don’t believe in this’. It would be weird for me. And we don’t play the kind of concerts or shows where it’s ‘alright guys, put on your costumes and get up there and pretend we’re somebody else’. There is nothing wrong with that and I think it’s entertaining when people do it, but I prefer to go with my mood. If we're feeling really bummed out or sad then we’ll have a bummed out show, or if we play in front of a bunch of people who are sitting down then we are gonna play a really mellow show, but if we are playing at a festival outside and people are going nuts then maybe our songs will be a little faster and we’ll get a little more excited. It definitely has that sort of vibe to it.
As a free surfer is it important for you to be sponsored by a brand which is eco-aware? Yeah, it’s cool that's the way all of the companies are going now. The surf companies that endorse me and the things I do, obviously they do a lot for the environment and they give a lot money to companies like Surf Aid, because inevitably at the end of the day if all of the oceans where polluted and you couldn’t swim in them then that would change their whole company. Surfing is the root of all that they do, whether they sell sunglasses or surf shorts, so if you take the surf element away then they become just another clothing company. If they are a surfing company first, then wherever we are able to give back to the environment, we should do so.
Having travelled the world many times, where's your favourite surf spot? I do have a favourite surf spot but it’s a secret spot! I can’t tell you! But really I just love to just surf, I could be anywhere: on the beach in Cornwall, in Australia, looking at the beach where I live. I just love to be surfing at the beach, so wherever I am at that moment I’ll get in the water and have fun.
Your music resonates a lot of joy. As a husband, father, free surfer and musician do you feel pretty blessed? Yeah for sure. I feel very blessed to have surfing as a career and it’s a dream to have music as a career… And to have a wife and two kids is just amazing. It’s like I am living a dream! However, the downfall to the deal is all the travelling and having to leave them. I can only bring my family on so many trips a year because my oldest son goes to school. It’s very hard. Everyone imagines living the dream, being on a tour bus and all that, is an amazing experience but in reality I'm only home for nine days at a time and then I'm on the road for three weeks. That's literally what my life is like, especially when a record comes out. You can be on the road like that for two years and you can lose your mind sometimes. I am missing some of the most joyous times with my kid and he’s only gonna be four once and I didn’t get to see him make his first football goal. You just want to be a part of all that stuff, so I bring them on as many trips as I can. They are definitely part of my life but it’s a balancing act. I'm lucky I have a wife who is really, really supportive of what I do, and there is a huge trust thing there - you have a bond like no other. The only bad side to what I do is that I can’t stay at home and do this! But I can't imagine staying at home and becoming a butcher or a gardener. I love playing music and I love surfing and that’s all I know how to do to make a living, so that’s basically what I am doing. It’s definitely a dream but there is a little bit of heartache in it as well.
Do you think your little boys will be into surfing? Music? They love it! That’s the only thing that’s not a problem, I can’t keep my oldest son off the stage. He’s like ‘come on Dad, I wanna play this song with you!’ He’s only five, but he sings and plays harmonica. I’ll probably be opening for his band soon… I’ll be his roadie!
Donavon Frankenreiter’s new album ‘Pass It Around’ is released in the UK on 18th August 2008