He drops into a Pipeline barrel as smoothly as he pulls out a riff on his white Fender Stratocaster. His vocals are an audio equivalent of a Hawaiian postcard – sunny, mellow and soulful. Riding waves, he draws lines across the face better than an L.A. surgeon. Hell, he’s even strummed a guitar while surfing. He is gregarious, groovy, funky and free, that bushy moustache serving as a surf marketing staple for good vibes.
All of these thoughts about Donavon Frankenreiter drift through my head as I climb a gravel road backstage on a late July evening at FloydFest, a mountaintop music festival in Floyd, Virginia. A surly stagehand, his crossed arms and bouncer’s stance right out of Road House, eyes me suspiciously as I ask for directions ‘to the green room.’ He points to a nearby hill, where a small white tent stands on the crest. He mutters a ‘yep’ when I thank him, and off I go.
Pulling back the tent flap, I peer in, and am startled at what I find inside.
The room is whisper quiet. There are a couple of hospitality tables with catered food, a few Pacifico empties and a laptop resting against the far wall. Passing a pair of bandmates who had nodded off in chairs like sentries asleep at the castle gates, I find Donovan Frankenreiter resting across a sofa, wearing white mirrored sunglasses. A twinge of guilt strikes as I fear I’ll have to wake the man for our interview that evening, and then he turns his head at me, smiles, and waves me inside.
Frankenreiter starts the process of unfolding his rangy 6’2” frame, the moustache that has helped sell thousands of Sanuk sandals perfectly in place. We shake hands, exchange introductions, and I take a seat in a chair to his left. He swings up, affixes a black brimmed hat on a crop of tousled, sun-drenched hair. He is wearing a slim fitting camel sport coat, printed white t-shirt, several necklaces and bracelets, dark jeans and what look to be tailor-made slip-ons. A relaxed style that consolidates his wanderlust and worldly adventures. If there ever were a rock star-surfer look, Frankenreiter could package and sell it worldwide. Actually, he can claim a signature clothing line for industry giant Billabong which, in fact, sold worldwide. He uses ‘you know’ as both a comma and question mark, and honest emotion rings out in his speech. He’s open, engaging, and enjoys a livelihood of playing carefree music and competition-free surfing. The troubadour who most could live a vicarious existence through finds inspiration in everyday people. Like other professional athletes and musicians, he’s gifted at working hard, day and night, to make the gift look natural. Yet the trait that separates Donavon Frankenreiter from others whose fortune is being fortunate is that he’s truly thankful for the life that his gifts, surfing and music, have provided for him and his family.
“What time is it?” he yawns, stretching his arms as I check my watch.
“6:57,” I answer, wanting to bite off my tongue. Our interview is for 7:00pm.
He smiles, knowing those three minutes of relaxation are gone forever.
Finding time to rest on the road comes at a premium for Frankenreiter, who began his pro surfing career signing with Billabong at the age of 15, and with crafting parallel careers in and out of the water, recording his first musical album at 29, the Downey, California native has not slowed down since.
Growing up inland from the beach, Donavon Frankenreiter was raised under supportive parents who encouraged his childhood activities, which ranged from BMX to skateboarding. He received his first surfboard at age 10, the natural footer surfing all along the Southern California coast. On a surf trip six years later, a buddy taught Frankenreiter three chords and he was hooked. Clapton and Hendrix came first as musical heroes. His surfing led him to Hawaii, where he rented a house from the parents of another surfer-musician on the rise, Jack Johnson, near Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore. He and Johnson forged a friendship, surfing and helping the other learn guitar into their late teens.
From that point on, Johnson headed to UC Santa Barbara for film school, while Frankenreiter helped start rock group/cover band Sunchild, releasing two albums and playing all over Southern California, opening for Willie Nelson and Ben Harper, among others, and even holding a spot on the Vans Warped Tour. As lead guitarist, a creative urge burned in Frankenreiter, and when Sunchild ended in 2001, he began writing his own songs, seeking a more meaningful and personal experience with his music.