Interview: Donavon Frankenreiter

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Some songs you can remember the exact time and place you heard them.

It was brutally cold and snow-covered February day in 2008. I was at the mall in Freehold, New Jersey with my then girlfriend (now wife) was shopping for something at Nordstrom and I was utterly bored out of my mind. My only saving grace was an in-house music video channel that played in near the couch I had parked myself on. I use the term saving grace loosely as the channel played nothing but the sugary and hollow pop and dance music of the time.

Then came the sweet sound of a Hammond organ. The infectious groove of a bass line. The melodically raspy and soulful voice of a wild-haired man with the world’s most luxurious mustache.

The song was “Move By Yourself” and the artist was Donavon Frankenreiter, a surfer who had followed the path of Jack Johnson and decided to make music his career. The song has since remained one of my all-time favorites and my go-to summer song for the past six years.

Ever since that sound resonated so harmoniously inside my eardrum, I have been dying to interview the man himself. For years missed connections, Hurricane Sandy and bad luck have prevented such an interview from happening. But, six and a half years after hearing that song, on a rainy August afternoon, I had the privilege of speaking with Donavon about his new music and of course, his mustache.

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When you released your live album Live at The Belly Up earlier this summer, how did your fans react to it? There always seems to be people who are anti-live album because it “doesn’t sound exactly like the record.” Did you get that or was the reception positive?

Donovan Frankenreiter: What you hear on the record is basically what we’re doing live. It’s the real thing. There’s no over dubs, we [didn’t take] back to the studio and do anything. It was interesting making that live record because I have a whole kind of new project; it’s a three piece band. We’ve been having a lot of fun with it because we break it down and do two a piece and the drummer goes to percussion. Then while we play as an electric group, I’m playing this thing called guitorgan, so it’s like an electric guitar and an organ. My bass player has a double neck guitar — he’s playing bass and on the top neck and on the bottom neck he’s playing electric six string. It’s like he’s looping the bass and then moving to electric, and it’s real cool, fun and interesting.

And so we did about three shows, and then our third show was literally the Belly Up gig, and we recorded it, and I never really intended to putting it out live. I said let’s listen to it first. And then we enjoyed it, and we said fuck, let’s just do it. We’ve already gotten leaps and bounds better than the third night playing together as a three piece. It’s even gotten better from where that live recording’s at. I just feel like, if it sounds decent and it’s a good recording why not put it out. So we did it, and we went and did this summer tour, so I needed something, you know, to kind of release and have out. So I thought it would be kind of a good opportunity to do that.

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I have never heard of guitorgan before. Where did you find such an instrument?

Donovan Frankenreiter: This company out of Waco, Texas made them in 1966 to like ’76, they made 3,000 of them. They’re impossible to find. I found two, and they’re not that expensive, they’re like a thousand bucks, maybe $1,500. All the guitar collectors love to have them in their collection because it’s fun — people call them a gimmicky guitar. For me it was great because I use it and address it in a way to where it’s like a pad underneath the whole band. It’s literally like two instruments in one, so inside the hollow body of this guitar is the schematics of a Hammond D3, and then they got wires going all the way up the neck, and every fret becomes like a sensor. And so if I just hold down a G chord on my neck of my guitar it’ll come out of my Leslie speaker like a Hammond D3. And then if I go and I pick the guitar then that’ll sound like a 335 coming out.

So it’s like two separate instruments, I got a volume pedal for the organ, and it’s really a lot of fun. But, you go online you might see people playing it, it looks kind of corny because people are maybe just playing the organ, you know, on the guitar. I think people watch this and they go where the fuck’s the organ coming from? You know, they don’t know. And so it’s in there – and we layer it. We put it in the mix with the band where it’s not out front blazing as if there was like a guy playing a Leslie on stage like super loud. It’s a textural thing. We’ve been having a great time because the bass player [for example at the] beginning to “Move by Yourself” he’ll loop that bass line and then he’ll shift it down to the bottom neck and he’ll start playing six-sting electric. It’s fucking been so fun – we’ve been having just a blast. He’s playing two instruments, I got a couple going on – it’s been great to strip it down and open it up a little bit, let everything breathe.

Was there a huge learning curve for you to actually learn how to play the instrument? It sounds like if you know how to play guitar, you have basics down, but there could be lot of finessing involved.

Donovan Frankenreiter: I fell right into it in the sense that we figured it out and did it. We had one rehearsal and then hit the road and started playing live. Every night I play I learn a little bit – something more about what the guitar likes and what it doesn’t like. I mean it’s an old fucking guitar. There is a learning curve, it was real simple for me, but you had to relearn the chords. You couldn’t just hold the chord down, and lift the chord off, and then grab the chord again, lift it off, and hold it on, and put it up because then you would be like (makes a dissonant noise), because the organ would come on and off and be really weird. So you had to learn how to use the volume pedal, and make it work in a sense of strumming the guitar a little bit differently. But it all kind of came together.

Matt [Grundy], the bass player and guitar player, every gig he gets better too, but he’s got a million things going on. He’s gotta loop the guitar, and then loop the guitar to the back of the bass, and do this, and do that. It’s just been fun ‘cause it’s not like a loop that he builds and then we built the song off of that, it plays the whole thing. He’ll build a live loop, and then go to the electric six string, and then next time around, he’ll build a live loop again. It’s always something live, and then it gets looped. The thing that we all had to work on as a band was when he loops the bass, and then he goes to the six string guitar, it’s like that bass becomes the fucking click track. Once the bass is locked in, you learn very quickly when to push or pull on the groove. That was interesting, to learn how to just kind of walk into that bass, and just play to that. I think we’ve become better because once he sets the tempo of the bass, and it gets locked in, and we follow it, and there’s no going away from it, or it starts to sound weird. So it is really neat to be like locked into like one certain thing that’s looping.

With the new instruments and the different techniques you’re using, do you see that has changed the way you perform live in terms of have you noticed that the energy and the vibe of the show has changed at all?

Donovan Frankenreiter: I have. I feel like there’s more energy in the show, I feel like there’s more space, there’s more room for the vocal to sit. We’re having more fun together on the road just me and two other guys on stage. It’s just an interesting thing, and I think if you’re a musician and you watch this you go “Hmm, that’s interesting, I see what that guy’s doing” because a lot of people watch it, and they go “That was great, I can’t believe the organ player, he was wonderful.” There was no organ player even up there!

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I’m really excited to like take this into the studio. So we’re gonna make a new record, a studio record next year, and it’s gonna be fun to make it, you know, with a three piece band. Nobody’s really seen us, or heard about it, or having talked about it really. It’s just kind of like we’re going out and doing it, kind of honing out skills, go and make a record, and then go out and hit it hard with the three piece. It’s been fun because we can break it down, and do three songs duo, just me and my buddy on acoustic with the drummer going to percussion. It’s sort of like you got this electric rock show, and then come break it down to some acoustic stuff, and then it kind of goes back up to electric. And, yeah, it’s created more space, which I’ve always wanted in music, you know, I’m always looking for that.

What was the impetus or inspiration to go so outside the box with a performance like that because you’ve had a successful career with what you’ve done prior to this three-piece?

Donovan Frankenreiter: For the last couple years actually me and Matt Grundy (who I’ve been with for 11 years, he plays the bass and the electric now on that double neck), we’ve been doing a lot of duo acoustic shows, and we’ve been having a really great response. And I’ve been like “Man, it’s been so fun playing duo acoustic with the space and the – I want to revamp this.”

When Start Living hit, I put him on guitar [because] we found another bass player [at the time]. But, it’s been two years and we have been going through bass players. He’s been playing bass for me forever,and [every time] we have another bass player it’s never felt right. And so that’s been a battle, the whole push and pull, and the whole groove thing. So I was like “Look, why don’t you get back on bass, and I’ll play guitar, worst case scenario it’s gonna be that much better than just our duo acoustic thing.” It’ll go back to where we started, you know, I started like that, me on acoustic, him on bass, and a drummer. I kind of wanted to go back to the basics. But then he was like “Hey man, you know, there’s this thing, I could probably play this double neck. It has a bass.” And we were kind of laughing about it. I’m like “Are you fucking serious? Will that work? Like you could play bass, and then loop it, and then go to your electric six string?” He’s like I think I could do that.

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So then we instantly got online and we bought this double neck bass and then he was like “Hey, look, I’m just gonna throw this out at you, I don’t even know if you’re gonna like this idea, but they make a guitar that has a built in organ.” I’m like what are you talking about? So then we got online and we checked that out, and like it all came together. I was like holy shit, this is great. I didn’t know [it] would work, so we bought all this stuff, and then by the time we got home from this Australian tour it was all sitting there in the studio, and we went and rehearsed one night, and I’m like ‘Oh my God it’s happening. This is great.” I’ve always wanted him to play bass and electric, and I’ve always just wanted to play guitar, and then have somebody just play the simplest chord aggression underneath our music.’

I think the music we play suits itself for like simplicity. The more guys on stage it’s hard to tell people like to play the root notes and lay back [because] all of a sudden it’s like halfway through the show they get bored and they want to start noodling. I just like having that space, you know? Being able to communicate with two other people is a lot easier and it’s really fun to go back to where it started for me.

And I take it the audience has really taken to the new style?

Donovan Frankenreiter: They love it. People have been coming up to us, and nobody’s ever said, “Hey man, I really miss the other two guys,” or “Why did you do this?” I mean a lot of people just go “Hey, that’s great, the organ player was great,” or “Wow the guy on the bass was great.” And I go did you see he was playing electric too? And they went what? Oh my God that was him? You know, like and then musicians we meet will be like it’s really interesting what you guys are doing. It’s gonna be fun to like get 10 new songs on a record that are all new that are done with this three piece ‘cause right now we’re just doing what’s out there on the last six albums. But it’s been a blast man. I’m really happy.

Speaking of touring, man, I don’t know if this is on purpose ‘cause I’ve noticed the tour dates in the summer are more near the beach areas and stuff and then the winter dates are more near like warmer coasts. Do you purposely plan to play towards like beaches normally?

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Donovan Frankenreiter: I kind of want to go where people are. I feel like the East Coast in the summer in August everybody’s down at the beach, and every night’s a Friday night. So that’s fitting we’re able to book our tour 25 shows in a row. It wasn’t really hard to find a place to play on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday when normally, if it was the winter time, and you’re trying to play a beach town on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, I mean there’s no way. But like here, like right now we’re in Montauk, they don’t even care what they do, it’s like every night’s Friday night. I feel like it’s the same thing on the Cape, or if we get to Florida, or New Jersey, or wherever we go it’s summertime, and it’s like summertime in August man. And then if it’s wintertime, I kind of like to take it to the mountains where there’s snow because a lot of people are there. But also, they’re all back in the city, and people are doing their thing. So we do – it’s fun for us because we like going to the beach, and we like surfing.

I wasn’t sure if you were taking the – you took the touring mentality of like Point Break where it’s just like they go where the waves take them, you know what I mean?

Donovan Frankenreiter: Nah, I mean I go where, people want to see us too. I don’t want to like try to push the envelope and try to play somewhere where nobody wants to come and see us either. I just think our music works too, like summertime, beach community, fun, happy. I don’t know it works up in the mountains and it’s snowing, or – it just kind of worked – we have been doing the same sort of tour, in these same beach communities, it’s been like this annual thing, it’s been really fun.

One thing I’m interested in because I’m about to be a dad in December, and you have two sons, and you’re a full-time touring musician, is it ever difficult balancing being on the road so much and having kids, or is it like hey kids, here’s your summer vacation, we’re all going on the road?

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Donovan Frankenreiter: When that works it’s real easy. But when I say, ‘Hey kids dad’s leaving for four weeks” it’s completely horrendous. It’s gnarly. I’ve never found a way to make it cool. I never met anybody that has ever figured it out. It’s still difficult. But when they’re with me, and they travel with me it’s just incredible, it’s awesome. We get to share all this together, and it’s super fun. It gets hard on my wife, I mean she never signed up to be a single mom at home, but you know, there’s ups and downs.Then when I do get home the upside to it is sometimes I’m home for two months, and I don’t do anything while I’m home besides be a dad, take them to school, make their lunches, have fun, cruise. So there’s ups and downs. It’s really hard sometimes being on the road for a long period of time and away from them.

And I’ll bring it back to a little lighter question. You have a magnificent mustache. I’m secure in myself to say, that as an owner of a beard myself I always appreciate good facial hair. But in your opinion who has had, or has the – outside of yourself, the best moustache in the music industry?

Donovan Frankenreiter: You know, John Oates had kind of a legendary one for years, and then he shaved it off. He got sick of it. So, he ended up crushing one all through the ’80s.

It was pretty legendary. I think the day the music died is when he changed…

Donovan Frankenreiter: You know, the non-rockers though like Magnum P.I. and Hulk Hogan had a couple of fucking gnarly rocker moustaches.

When 2014 ends what would you have like to have accomplished with this band?

Donovan Frankenreiter: By the end of the year I hope to have all the songs ready, and the band’s ready to go, and locked and loaded, That’s what I want to do with the band — I want to make a record next year. So by the end of 2014 I’d like to be ready to go in and make a record.

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Bill Bodkin is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. He can be read weekly on Trailer Tuesday and Singles Party, weekly reviews on Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Hannibal, Law & Order: SVU and regular contributions throughout the week with reviews and interviews. His goal is to write 500 stories this year. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English and currently works in the world of political polling. He’s the reason there’s so much wrestling on the site and is beyond excited to be a Dad this coming December. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites