Why guitarist and surfer Donavon Frankenreiter has the coolest life ever.
By Moira C. Reeve
Donavon Frankenreiter’s fingers sweep along the fingerboard of the ancient Slingerland acoustic, bending notes like a bluesman twice his age. He’s just noodling on the guitar, but the little riffs and patterns sing out clear and natural on this late summer afternoon.
Frankenreiter’s playing is a reflection of himself: genuine, casual and unassuming, but belying a talent that goes deep, deep, deep.
One of Laguna’s hometown heroes, Frankenreiter, 34, also mirrors the town he calls home. This renowned surfer/musician shows that he has many facets and can’t be taken at face value. Oh sure, he dresses as if a jumble sale just fell on top of him, and yes, his conversation is peppered with “totally dope” surfer slang, but he’s gracious, generous and an all-around good guy.
Frankenreiter is only home in Laguna for a little while—it’s off to Europe for a slew of festivals where attendance usually caps at around 100,000. “I just love doing festivals,” he says. “It’s a way to do an hour set in front of a huge audience that may never have heard of me. At one festival, it could be us first, and then Arcade Fire, Bjork and Peter Gabriel. After my set, I can hang out and watch all the other great acts.” A quick tour of America comes straight after, and then it’s back home and into the recording studio.
Pretty good for the surfing wunderkind from Downey. But he’s kind of lived a charmed, or at least enviable life. Spending his pre-teen years at Rockpile surfing, his natural talent landed him a sponsorship deal with Billabong, which allowed him to tour the world while surfing. His teenage buddy, Hawaiian born musician Jack Johnson, also surfed, and Frankenreiter ended up summering at his house, renting a room from his parents on Oahu.
Are You Experienced?
Both Johnson and Frankenreiter picked up the guitar as teenagers, and both spent their off time honing their chops. “I listened to so much ’70s music when I was growing up, like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan,” he says. “I was also into guitar players like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Craig Ross (Lenny Kravitz band), and Marc Ford (The Black Crowes).”
In 1990, high-schooler Frankenreiter played rhythm guitar in a band called Peanut Butter and Jam. “I was so focused on my surfing career that I didn’t have time to pursue music,” he admits. He got a little more serious six years later when he formed Sunchild and played lead guitar. Sunchild signed to the tiny Surfdog Record label, and Frankenreiter began to look earnestly at this new venture as a possible career. In 2001, Sunchild disbanded, freeing up Frankenreiter to explore music not just as a guitarist, but also as a singer/songwriter.
A lot of people think that Frankenreiter traded his surfboard for the fretboard but that’s actually wrong on two counts. “I still surf as much as I did before I was considered a musician,” he says. And yep, he’s been playing as long as he’s been surfing. “Everywhere I went to play music, however, I also surfed. I still do. It really balances itself out, my surfing and music careers.”
Get the Balance Right
That balance is important to this married father of two. He admits that music could be grueling when on the road for a long time. “But I never started to seriously tour until I was 31. When my first record came out, I was married and had a kid. Now I have a second kid, so for me, it’s a different sort of touring. I bring my family everywhere. Musicians who are 19 or 20, going seven days a week and it’s one non-stop party—that’s how you sizzle and fry out,” he says.
He keeps a good perspective on life and is careful to nurture both of his passions equally. “I love putting the guitar down, not thinking about music and instead going on a surfing trip for a couple weeks. When I come back to the music it’s so fresh. I pick up the guitar and I hit a chord that’s different and songs come to me a lot better. Again, that balance makes it all work,” he says.
Home is where the heart is, and his heart is planted firmly off Laguna Canyon Road. Frankenreiter has made his home here in Laguna for years, and finds a lot of inspiration from the eclectic nature of the community. “There are so many cool, artistic people here, from the older generation that has been here forever, to the kids,” he says. “I think deep down everyone in Laguna is kind of a hippie, and I feel comfortable here.
“I always used to drive through here growing up and surfing, but never lived here. But my wife (Petra) did; she has lived here her whole life. When we got married, she wanted to stay in this area.” And there was no argument from Frankenreiter. He continues to be partial to the magical charm of the area, particularly the shore. “I love the coastline here, because there are so many different little coves. You don’t just go to a beach where it’s a mile long strip of sand. You can find a little cave or a nook somewhere.”
He finds inspiration among his peers in town, too. “I get inspired from the different bands and local musicians, from World Anthem, to Common Sense, to Missiles of October, and Ken Garcia,” he says. “Some of the greatest surfers live in Laguna, legendary people like Kevin Naughton, who has been a superstar for decades, Jeff Booth, Pat O’Connell—there are world champion surfers who live around town.”
Any serious surfing for Frankenreiter will probably wait for late summer, when he’ll be finishing his next full-length record, a follow up to his 2006 album, “Move By You.” It has an expected release in early 2008. But he will tide over his fans’ appetites with an EP, “Recycled Recipes.” It features six cover songs hand-picked by Frankenreiter, from artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, The Band and Wilco. “I did it with a buddy of mine, just real simple arrangements with two acoustic guitars and vocals, and it’s our interpretation of these songs. When we started it, the hardest part was selecting what songs to cover. We didn’t want to do anything too typical, like “Brown Eyed Girl,” but we didn’t want to pick anything too obscure that people wouldn’t recognize,” he laughs.
His enthusiasm for creating is just as big as his enthusiasm for the place he calls home. Unlike some locals who have a “been there, done that” attitude about the town’s events, Frankenreiter embraces them. “We enjoy going to the Sawdust Festival, or going to the Winter Festival,” he says. “Now that (wife) Petra and I have children, I can walk around with my son downtown, and there are so many different art galleries and restaurants. I feel really lucky to have the opportunities that I do now, and I welcome the things that I have in my life, too.”
An Appetite For Laguna
You’ll find Frankenreiter takes full advantage of his town when he’s not on tour. He and the family recommend these ways to stave off a hunger for LB:
Food Addiction: Javier’s (update: now located in Crystal Cove Shopping Center at 7832 E. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, 949-494-1239). Established in 1995, offers regionally influenced food and a long list of premium tequilas. “Javier’s is my favorite restaurant, for sure. I have to eat there at least a couple times a week. It has the best Mexican food and the best margaritas, ever.”
Jones for Music: The Guitar Shoppe, (1027B N. Coast Hwy., 949-497-2110). It packs a massive amount of inventory between four walls. Carrying brand-new and pre-owned, the shop is run exclusively by players. “They work on all my guitars and amps, and it’s a fun place to go hang out. I’m a fanatic about old vintage gear—amps, effects, guitars.”
Outside Obsession: The family spends time with Mother Ocean. “We like to go down to Fisherman’s or to Boat Canyon, or we go to Wood’s Cove. Or I’ll go with my son, because he likes to surf on a longboard out at Rockpile. If we don’t want to get surf, we go somewhere where it’s flat. Depending on the tide, he loves playing in the tide pools. That’s what’s fun about Laguna, you can go to so many little nooks and crannies, and it’s always different.”
On the 2007 article: Soulful surfer/musician Donavon Frankenreiter is considered one of Laguna’s hometown heroes, turning pro wave rider at 16 before taking up the guitar professionally. While he lives in Hawaii now, when he’s playing the SoCal circuit, you’ll find him surfing the waves in his former town.