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Even without the best waves in the world, South Florida has a thriving surf culture, with enthusiasts ranging from "super kook" to "full on ripper." That's one reason world-famous pro surfer and musician Donavon Frankenreiter is kicking off his summer tour with a two-night stand at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale. If there are waves — join us as we pray — he'll take in a couple of days of SoFla surfing. When New Times caught up with Frankenreiter, he was getting ready for the tour by "getting my guitar restrung and my surfboard waxed up." Right on.
Although Frankenreiter first cultivated a serious following shredding waves across the globe, music is nothing new for him. At 16, he picked up the guitar and around the same time began a surf career that introduced him to world-famous musician/surfer/filmmaker Jack Johnson. "[Johnson and I] were obsessed and addicted to surfing," Frankenreiter says. "[Music] was something we did when we weren't surfing. He'd show me chords; I'd show him chords."
For a while, his relationship with music remained casual. He would jam with fellow surfers such as Johnson, Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, and Tom Curran but played live shows only occasionally, including one at an elementary school. "Nobody really knew that we were ever going to pursue music as something that we could actually do on a completely different level." That attitude changed around the turn of the millennium.
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Late in the 1990s, Frankenreiter played in a band called Sunchild. Though he doesn't remember it, that band played in Fort Lauderdale back in 1999 at what was then called the Chili Pepper (now Revolution) at a premiere event for a surf film. Sunchild, which he now describes as a "glorified cover band," broke up in 2001. Around that same time, at age 30, he began writing songs and singing, and his longtime friend Jack Johnson became an international star and started Brushfire Records. These combined factors allowed Frankenreiter to take his music to the next level, and his Jack Johnsonesque self-titled solo debut was released on Brushfire in 2004.
The advent of his musical career was not indicative of a shift away from surfing, however. He still does both as much as he always has.
"If I'm not on a music tour, I'm on a surf tour," he says. "It all is one for me. They balance each other out." What has changed is that he is now not only a man with two passions but two careers. "It's kind of a trippy thing for me, 'cause it's two things not that I just love doing but also they're my job," he says. "I try to make a living and support my wife and my two kids [Ozzy and Hendrix] and my life."
Surfing and music have always gone hand in hand — not just for Frankenreiter but for wave-inspired people throughout history. Starting with Hawaiian folk music, the connection can be felt in reverb-drenched pop harmonies accompanying the American surf craze of the '50s and '60s, punk rock scores from surf films of the '80s and '90s, and for the past decade, the mellow tones of Johnson and pals gently flowing from iPods and sandy acoustic guitars.
Frankenreiter's music is part of the most recent movement, but it wouldn't be fair to completely lump him in with Johnson. After a debut album composed of mellow, poppy, acoustic tunes, much like Johnson's, Frankenreiter's second album, 2006's Move by Yourself, employs Curtis Mayfield-style soul and funk grooves backing his salty delivery. The follow-up to that, 2008's Pass It Around, brought together elements of the first two efforts and carved Frankenreiter's name into the same palm tree containing the unmistakable JJ a bit farther down the trunk. Call it two performers and friends doing different maneuvers on the same wave.
Linking the latest wave of popular surf music with its origins, Frankenreiter's just-released Revisited reinterprets his first album Hawaiian style. The concept began as something he and buddy Kirk Smart set out to do just for fun. After Frankenreiter lived in Hawaii for a few years, he had "[fallen] in love with the sounds" and wanted to make some music with the instruments of the region. Smart had a studio, the instruments, and the know-how to bring them to life. It took just three days in the studio to record the tracks, which feature Frankenreiter on guitar and vocals and Smart on everything else, including such classic instruments traditionally used in Hawaiian music as the ukulele, lap steel guitar, and slack-key guitar. The result is unmistakably surf-influenced and Hawaiian.
Fans of the Hawaiian sounds will have the chance to soak them up in person on this summer's tour. In the middle of a standard show, attendees can expect a 20- to 30-minute Hawaiian set, performed with accompaniment from Smart and the rest of the band. "I want to bring that to the people," Frankenreiter says. "So they can get a taste of what Revisited is all about. "
Eventually Frankenreiter plans to rework all of his albums in the same way. Fans will have to be patient, though. The releases will be spread out for "years to come." In the meantime, Frankenreiter plans to release a new studio album in October titled Glow and has more installments of his Recycled Recipes EP series, featuring cover songs recorded on the road, in store.