The 'stache that surfed

- Ralph Mendoza () - November 4, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Who he is is a guy with a mustache. Overlook whatever ‘stache you might have in mind, though; Donavon Frankenreiter’s is of the American Civil War general type. It’s a thick, dark-brown Chevron that covers a good 90 percent of his upper lip, recalling facial hair icons Tom Selleck and John Oates.

“John Oates actually joined our band on the road for a week. It was incredible,” narrates Donavon. “He’d always say he’d never grow his ‘stache again but every time he’d wake up, it’d grow right back on.”

The mustache does suit the 38-year-old’s look, both as a veteran surfer and singer-songwriter. San Clemente, California was where it all started for Donovan, who rode his first waves at the tender age of 10. After going pro at the age of 15, he started getting into classic rock and grunge, playing the guitar and singing onstage a few years after. “I only played rhythm in all my bands because I was never as good as anyone,” admits Donavan. “I was in a Pearl Jam cover band and one day I decided to write songs — anything but covers.”

When Donavon landed a sponsorship deal with international swimwear brand Billabong, he saw it as a chance to surf around the world and turn his stories into songs. But it was when he was surfing in Hawaii that he met now longtime friend, Jack Johnson, who in 2002, signed Donavon to his label Brushfire Records.

Bubble boy: Donavon’s Sanuk bubble was a hit at the San Juan Surf Resort, where he surfed and serenaded his fans under the night sky.

“I met Jack when I was 15 and he was 13 years old,” remembers Donavan. “We’ve known each other forever. And then Jack became this giant star and started his own label, and I said, ‘Dude, I’m gonna sing and write my own songs.’ So he produced my first album and it’s been amazing to work with him ever since.”

His self-titled solo album was released back in 2004, reaching the Top 40 of the ARIA album charts in Australia, where he toured heavily. “Jack also took me out the road for two years and promoted me to all his fans so that was a big deal,” says Donavon. His earnest, emotive brand of soft folk rock soon earned him a fan base similar to Jack Johnson’s. Think somewhere along the hushed, campfire-ready lines of Phish and carefree jam bands of the ‘70s. The acoustic guitar-driven sweetness might be too much, as some critics have put it, but you’ll soon find that his charm lies in the low-key. “That’s the fun thing, though,” says Donavon. “If you write songs and put yourself out there, you have to be ready to take a lot of shit for it.”

Donavon left Brushfire Records two years later to sign with Lost Highway Records, home to the likes of Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, among other greats. A live DVD of an Abbey Road concert in London propelled Donavon even higher, sending him to Asia and recently, places like Manila and La Union, where Donavon surfed with local pros like Luke Landrigan.

Sanuk founder Jeff Kelley had only good things to say about him. “I’ve been working with Donavan even before I had the name Sanuk officially registered and it’s been an honor,” says Kelley. “Donavon represents what I wanted Sanuk to be about. Most surf brands are extremely exclusive and target really competitive athletes to wear their products. Sanuk is the opposite (since) we want everyone to join our club.”

Surfer buddies: Donavon has been good friends with his producer Jack Johnson since he was 15. Photo by Tadd Igarashi

Widely known in surfing communities as a soul surfer or free surfer, Donavon does live up to the label because he surfs for the raw thrill of it, without the pressure of competition. In fact, he channels that relaxed vibe during his interview. As I turn my recorder off, Donavon invites me to finish a plate of chicken fingers with him. I oblige and, well, we just talk.

* * *

Donavon Frankenreiter’s eighth album is expected to drop at the end of 2011. Check out more of him at

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