Feeling the Rhythm of The Waves

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 17, 2008

This is the kind of career dilemma that afflicts many a sixth-grader: whether to be a professional surfer or a rock star. Tell your parents' dinner guests you just can't decide, and everybody laughs and your folks keep saving to send you to dental school.

But to a dude like Donavon Frankenreiter -- and a dude he decidedly is, addressing reporters (and, we can only assume, waiters and customs officials) as "bro" -- it probably seems like an ordinary existential quandary. The 35-year-old, who'll perform at the 9:30 club Sunday night, is one of the lucky ones. He started surfing at 10, turned pro at 16 and had earned his living riding the waves (and endorsing products) for more than decade before he got a record deal.

His solution to the eternal question of surfing or music? Elementary, Bro: both.

"The similarity is that they're both really incredible freedoms of expression," he says before his tour for "Pass It Around," his third album of sunny 1970s-style rock. Although the two career paths may seem disparate or dreamy, they both offer much room for spontaneity, he says.

But the peace and solace he finds on the ocean is a solitary experience, whereas music's greatest joys are communal. "That connection that can happen, whether I'm watching a band play a concert or we're performing -- for that moment, there's a celebration of life. It's almost ceremonial," he effuses. "No matter what's going on in people's lives, they can escape there for those moments."

Escapism is not prized highly by critics, but it is one of the major reasons people listen to music. Frankenreiter's albums, while perhaps not wildly original, are tuneful, reliable delivery systems of this evergreen commodity. "Do what's right for you, and I'll do what's right for me," he soothes on the new album's title track.

Frankenreiter is not the first dude to catch this particular wave. He and Jack Johnson, that other surfer-turned-low-angst-rocker, have been pals for nearly 20 years. When the 16-year-old Frankenreiter's surfing career brought him to Oahu, Hawaii, in 1989, he rented a room from the then-14-year-old Johnson's parents. He and Johnson became fast friends, surfing and playing music together for fun; everything from Cat Stevens to Metallica. In the 1990s, Frankenreiter played guitar in a "glorified cover band" called Sunchild and carried an acoustic guitar with him in his travels as a surfer. He credits his wife of 7 1/2 years, Petra, with encouraging him to give music a real shot. (As if naming their two sons Hendrix and Ozzy weren't evidence enough that music was a calling for him.)

The company he was keeping as a globe-trotting surfer helped, too: G. Love, Ben Harper, Xavier Rudd and, of course, Johnson -- musicians and fellow disciples of the board who invited Frankenreiter to open their shows and later played on his albums. Johnson had two albums to his credit when his Brushfire Records label released Frankenreiter's self-titled debut in 2004. Its laid-back, barefoot-in-the-sand acoustic vibe bore more than a wisp of similarity to Johnson's music.

For Frankenreiter's follow-up, "Move by Yourself," he branched out, bringing in 1970s funk influences and producing the album himself. It came out on Lost Highway Records rather than on Johnson's label, another declaration of its author's independence.

"Pass It Around" is long on collaborations. One of its best songs, "Mansions on the Sand," is a tune Frankenreiter struggled with for years before playing it for singer/songwriter Grant Lee Phillips. "He got on the piano, and literally within five minutes, he had a chorus and bridge," Frankenreiter recalls. Impressed, Frankenreiter asked Phillips to take a stab at the lyrics.

"It was such an amazing thing that used certain metaphors," Frankenreiter says. "I don't think I've asked him if he's surfed; I don't think he does surf. But to use 'Mansions on the Sand,' or 'I'm going to wrap my arms around the sea' . . . it's so neat that he used metaphors that I can relate to so well."

The other rewards of having another album under his belt are more basic. "The first record was 39 minutes long, and we had to play an hour and a half," he laughs. "We had to extend songs and make them 10 minutes long and jam out more. That was fun, but I like to play songs." But with the release of "Pass It Around" (plus "Recycled Recipes," the EP of covers he recorded for $250 in his bassist's kitchen last year) he's sitting on an embarrassment of riches. "Now we have an hour-and-a-half show that's super fun for us to play."

Donavon Frankenreiter Appearing Sunday at the 9:30 club (815 V St. NW). Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets:$20. 202-265-0930. The Download: For a sampling of Donavon Frankenreiter's music, check out: From "Donavon Frankenreiter":· "It Don't Matter" From "Move by Yourself":· "Move by Yourself" · "The Way It Is" From "Pass It Around":· "Mansions on the Sand"

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