Frankenreiter now riding his own wave
For Donavon Frankenreiter, life is all about balance. Hardly surprising for someone who started surfing at age 9 and turned pro at 16. But it isn't just a matter of keeping a low center of gravity on his surfboard. For Frankenreiter it means keeping a balance between family and career, between staying home in California and traveling the globe, between the artistic and the athletic.
Now 34 years old, Frankenreiter is still an active pro surfer, jetting off to ride the big waves in front of the cameras and promote his various sponsors. Since 2002, however, he has split his working life between surfing and making music.
"It's something I've always done. When I was traveling for surfing, it was just one of the things I always took along--some surfboards, a bag of clothes and an acoustic guitar," Frankenreiter told The Daily Yomiuri earlier this month over the phone from his home in California. Frankenreiter had just returned from the Caribbean, where he had been plying one of his trades for an upcoming surf film, the latest in the popular Drive Thru series, and was about to jet off to Brazil to play as a supporting act for Ben Harper a couple of days later.
After Brazil, Frankenreiter is planning a short recreational surfing trip to Hawaii to break up his flight to Japan, where he is to play nine shows across the country in just 12 days in February. The breakneck pace continues in March with a whirlwind tour of Europe.
Frankenreiter is no stranger to Japan, having visited about a dozen times on surfing expeditions and for the shooting of at least one surf video. He also wowed the crowd at the Fuji Rock Festival last summer and has a real affection for Japan.
"I love coming to Japan, it's like nowhere else in the world. We had a lot of fun at Fuji Rock. I just wish we could have stayed longer and checked out more of the bands."
"It's hard; I'm gone a lot. My wife is expecting our second child in April, so I'm taking some time off. It's tough to balance music, surfing and family--this will be the first break I've had in about four years, but I'm taking four months off," says Frankenreiter, adding sheepishly that he will probably spend a lot of time writing new songs with an eye to going back into the studio later this year to work on a new album.
Asked whether he considers himself a singing surfer or a surfing singer, the shrug can almost be heard over the phone. A few moments of conversation show that the two pursuits are very much Frankenreiter's yin and yang: "I love doing both, but it's great to be able to get away and do something else. The music thing can get pretty crazy with the touring and recording and promotional stuff, so it is really nice to be able to put it down and not think about it, just go surfing for a few weeks and then come back to it fresh. I've been surfing since I as 9 and surfing still keeps me healthy. It clears my mind and my soul...The two really balance each other out."
Frankenreiter's surfing connections have played a big part in his musical career. When he was 16 he moved to Hawaii's famed North Shore and rented a room from the wife of surfing legend Jeff Johnson, father of pro surfer-cum-pop star Jack Johnson. Being the same age and both fanatical surfers, the two became fast friends.
"I was already playing guitar when I met Jack and so was he, but we sort of bounced stuff off of each other. I'd teach him a song; he'd teach me a song. Later on, we did a few surf movies together," Frankenreiter says. "We've been friends a long time."
Both started getting more serious about music around the same time, and Johnson's early success enabled him to start his own label, Brushfire Records. Frankenreiter's first eponymous album came out on Brushfire in 2002.
The comparisons were inevitable and possibly even apt, given how much the record was shaped by Johnson as producer. The two share some stylistic similarities and are old friends, but after a while Frankenreiter clearly got a little tired of being written off as a Jack Johnson imitator by people who clearly had not listened to his music.
"I wanted people to listen to my music and to know who I was...Sometimes it was a little too close for comfort," he says.
For his second effort, last year's Move by Yourself Frankenreiter moved to a new label under the Universal Music umbrella, Lost Highway. Two years on the road with his own band and a different approach to recording made for a different record.
"The first album was done with Jack's band and we recorded it on Pro Tools, which makes it really easy to move stuff around. I'd never done a record before and I was really impressed by the things they could do...It was great working with Jack at his studio in Hawaii."
The second album was done with Frankenreiter's own band, and most of it was recorded live onto two-inch tape. "Recording live like that is very much about capturing a moment, getting the best vibe down that you can," Frankenreiter says.
A slight departure from the mellow folksy charm of his debut, Move By Yourself is full of funky blue-eyed soul grooves that sound reminiscent of '70s R&B stalwarts Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder with a dollop of Lenny Kravitz and a smidgen of Beatles thrown into the mix for good measure.
The last track on the album, "Beautiful Day," was recorded in one take on the spur of the moment with bassist Matt Grundy improvising a guitar lead and drummer Craig Barnette playing a shaker that happened to be close to hand.
"It was about two in morning and I had this idea and I wanted to get it on tape, mostly for the guys to learn the song with the idea that we might record it. So we just crowded around one mike and I started playing--if you listen to it, you can hear the rhythm guitar is slightly out of tune--and it just worked. It has this great vibe to it."
In music, as in surfing, sometimes you just have to ride the wave.
Donavon Frankenreiter (with special guest Timmy Curran) will play Feb. 6-7, 7 p.m. at Ax in Shibuya, Tokyo, (03) 3444-6751; Feb. 9, 7 p.m. at Drum Logos in Fukuoka, (092) 771-9009; Feb. 10, 7 p.m. at Weather King in Miyazaki, (0985) 20-7111; Feb. 11, 7 p.m. at Club Quattro in Hiroshima, (082) 542-2280; Feb. 13, 7 p.m. at Big Cat in Osaka, (06) 6535-5569; Feb. 15, 7 p.m. at Club Quattro in Nagoya, (052) 264-8211; Feb. 16 7 p.m. at Kyoiku Bunka Kaikan in Toyama, (076) 432-5566; Feb. 18, 7 p.m. at Jasmac Plaza Zanaedu in Sapporo, (011) 261-5569.