A day in Hawaii riding waves and playing concerts with Donavon Frankenreiter shows that the life of a surfing rock star is everything you ever thought it was. And less...
I used to dream about being a rock star. Specifically, a surfing rock star.
Here’s how I pictured that going.
I would surf a lot. Like all day. I would hang out with other cool surfers and travel the world finding new and exotic locations to ride waves, stay in nice hotels, and generally just have fun. In my spare time I would play the guitar, write some songs, hide from my fans, play gigs at bars and – when my team of managers and publicists and roadies insisted – I’d roll into a concert venue and rock people out. In short, I saw my life as a very “If I feel like doing that now” kind of existence.
Then I spent the day with a real surfing rock star, OC native Donavon Frankenreiter. It was in a tropical paradise (the North Shore of Oahu), on a day when Donavon had a concert at the luxurious Turtle Bay Resort. The sun was out and a swell was running. In other words, it was exactly my dream come true.
Only it was a nightmare. Actually, it was worse. Not because anything went wrong – it didn’t. But because it was work. Hard work. I don’t want to be a surfing rock star anymore. True, Donavon loves it. But frankly, Donavon is a very weird dude. A great one, and a very nice one, but also possessing a rare combination of Zen master patience, Mick Jagger energy, and pure grade school silliness. And that’s exactly what you need to be a surfing rock star. That, and a whole lot of crazy doesn’t hurt.
6:00 am Turtle Bay Resort. No sleeping in for this rock star. After flying into Honolulu late last night, then driving the hour across the island to the North Shore and arriving after midnight (getting his own bags, by the way – no roadies for this family man, either) Donavon the surf star has an early start. As part of Wanderlust, Turtle Bay’s annual four-day yoga-music-health festival, Donavon is scheduled to give surf lessons to Wanderlust attendees at 7 a.m.
6:45 am Hans Hedemann Surf School. Donavon looks tired as he sits on a low wall in the Turtle Bay lobby waiting for the students. He’s in a torn pair of jeans and a white T-shirt that looks like it got dragged across the island last night from the bumper of his rental car. Hair a perfect rock star mess, tattoos everywhere, even Donavon’s iconic mustache seems to slump with exhaustion.
I ask him about the waiting, which is such a huge part of a traveling surfer/musician’s life: foreign airports, rental car stations, hotel lobbies, etc.
“I try to relax. It’s part of the deal. Besides, you can get a lot of work done while you wait,” he says. I have no idea what that means. Maybe he’s writing hit singles in his head about waiting in random places for random people. All I know is it doesn’t seem at all glamorous.
7:00 am Kawela Bay, North Shore. After a short van ride, we arrive at a secluded bay that is the postcard for paradise – and in fact has played the set for paradise in a few movies. There are small waves breaking a hundred yards out. The morning sun throws a warm glow across the water. It is the dream. With one glitch. Donavon does not get to surf, but instead must spend the next hour and a half pushing wide-eyed tourists into waves while yelling instructions like “Stand up!” “Arms out!” and “Fall flat!” He’s a pro surfer, and a rock star, and I feel very, very sorry for him.
But not for long. Because Donavon is the first one in the water – wearing, incidentally, that same ragged T-shirt in lieu of sunscreen. It’s as if the ocean has entered his veins like a shot of Red Bull (not one of his sponsors, if that’s what you were thinking). Within a few minutes he’s hooting and hollering like a 12-year-old surf grom and shoving ecstatic students into waist-high waves as if it’s his first day surfing, not theirs. His enthusiasm and pure stoke is infectious and before long the entire lineup is nothing but cheers and smiles. It’s like a rock concert, with waves and sun.
“Come-on! Who wants another!” Donavon yells at one point while standing on his board and doing a backflip. He’s performing – but not performing. This is the real Donavon. He’s just about the funnest human to be around. Ever.
On the beach afterward I ask him how he turns on like a switch, how he goes from totally relaxed, almost asleep really, to total performance mode in less time than most people take to drink a coffee. He looks truly perplexed.
“I’m just being me,” he says. “I love being in the ocean, whether it’s surfing, bodysurfing, or pushing people into waves. And did you see how stoked they were? It’s like I get that feeling of riding my first wave all over again.”
For Donavon that feeling came at 10 years old, in 1982, when he was living in Mission Viejo and would force his parents to drive him to Laguna Beach. In a time and place where kids were expected to play baseball or basketball, or pretty much anything with a ball, Donavon rode one wave and chose surfing. And though his parents were supportive, it did cause a little tension.
“Back then, the surfer image was Jeff Spicoli [the stoner/slacker from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”]. So people thought, ‘He surfs. Oh, he’s gonna smoke weed.’ But my parents said I was so dedicated to surfing that they had no choice but to support me,” says Donavon.
Soon enough, they weren’t the only ones. By age 16, he was travelling the world as a sponsored professional surfer. Riding for Billabong and chasing the tour, it was an exciting time. But there was a lot of downtime. While many of his peers went the Spicoli route, disappearing into drugs and partying, Donavon picked up the guitar and found another passion: music.
The individuality music suggested also seemed to fit Donavon’s, shall we say unique, personality, and soon his surfing career followed suit. “I joined the [surfing] tour when I turned pro because then it was all about winning contests. But surf companies started marketing differently. For instance, my sponsor wanted me to miss an event to do a magazine trip to Iceland. So I was in that first generation of surfers who could be professional surfers, but not have to follow a contest circuit. I mean, by just going on trips and documenting it I was getting more publicity than guys who were winning contests. I saw it as the surfer’s dream,” he says.
But as Donavon poses for pictures with pasty-white tourists in reef booties, then helps them carry their enormous boards up the beach, what I find truly amazing is that he says these words with zero irony. In Donavon’s world, he’s still living the dream.
12:30 pm Turtle Bay Resort. We’re back on the low wall at the Hans Hedemann Surf School for Donavon’s second hour-and-a-half
surf class. Again, Donavon looks like he’s in need of a triple espresso, aka, the saltwater.
He tells me he’s on the road eight months a year. “People think, ‘Oh, it must be amazing, traveling to all those places, seeing all those cultures.’ And it is, and I love it, but it’s a lot of work, too,” he says. One reason is that Donavon does not have managers and roadies. He tours Europe, Australia and the U.S., but sets up everything himself. And when he’s on the road, despite the vibe of his music, Donavon, who is married with two young kids, is not just cruisin’.
“If I’m away from my family, I want to be working,” he says. “You can do it totally wrong. You can get hotel rooms for everyone, take days off, party hard… and you come home from three weeks on the road and discover you barely broke even.”
Instead, a tour for Donavon is more like an endurance race across Europe. A fun one, if you’re him. A daunting one if you’re a normal human. In short, it’s a non-ending series of playing till 2 a.m., loading everything on a bus, driving all night, setting up and sound-checking at a new spot starting at 2 p.m. the next day, then repeating. For 21 days.
“Basically, when you’re not on stage, you’re on a tour bus with seven other dudes who totally reek. It gets weird,” he says with a laugh.
I realize that he has a concert in about seven hours and ask him how he plans to get the energy to perform in front of thousands after giving surf lessons, carrying boards and setting up equipment all day. “Are you kidding? The concert is gonna be the best part of my day,” he says, instantly animated.
Then he literally jumps off the wall to greet the next batch of tourists wanting a part of the Donavon show.
5:30 pm Sound Check. At the sprawling lawn overlooking Kuilima Point at the Turtle Bay Resort. Donavon and his band check the stage and instruments for the show. They run through sound checks for over an hour, making sure each mic and amp is just right.
The concert is outdoors, so the stage is set up under a huge structure open on most sides and that might not be enough to protect the gig from a fierce storm that’s been forecast to hit. There is literally electricity in the air. So I ask Donavon if he’s concerned, because he sure doesn’t seem to be. So far, it’s been a sun-soaked day of fun and surf.
“I’m not worried,” he says, holding something called a guitorgan. “If it rains straight down, we’re okay. If it blows and rains sideways, we’ll build a big bonfire in the middle of the lawn and pull out the acoustics.”
I look at the perfectly manicured Turtle Bay Resort lawn and try to imagine the manager greenlighting that. “Really?” I say.
“No,” he says with a laugh. “If it rains sideways, we’re totally fu%*@#d.”
The thought doesn’t bother him for more than an instant, however. In fact, Donavon seems genuinely more concerned with making sure my wife and I get tickets to the show. He’s got barely more than an hour to put together a set list (“That’ll take, like, 10 minutes”), and get prepared (“I’ll probably just have a drink”), and plan for his performance (“If I think about it too much, it turns out terrible”). Still, he insists on taking me to the promotions department to get me passes.
It’s about a hundred yards away. It takes us 25 minutes.
That’s because of fans. But what I’m truly amazed at is the fact that while a lot of people point and wave and say things like “We love you, Donavon,” Donavon only gets stopped by three fans for photos and autographs. So the amazing part comes in when you do the math: three fans, 25 minutes, eight minutes each of one-on-one time with Donavon.
“How do you deal with all this, especially right before the concert?” I ask.
All this, he says, is “part of the gig.” In fact, he says, it’s a good part. He says when he was a kid he went to a surfing promo event with celebrity surfers. “Two of them were really cool. Three of them were total [jerks]. I thought, ‘If I’m ever that guy, I will not be a [jerk].’ So whenever I see anyone who acknowledges me, I don’t care how long it takes, I acknowledge them. Because I wouldn’t have any of this without fans.”
It also seems like Donavon has achieved that perfect level of celebrity. Not Mick Jagger or Kelly Slater crazy fame where shopping for pants or grabbing a Frappucino becomes a mission, but not some wannabe blasting Instagrams and hoping someone will notice. Donavon’s sort of achieved Jimmy Buffett status, seemingly cruising through his fame, having more fun than anyone at his shows.
8:30 pm The Concert. Donavon’s concert is a light show extravaganza, complete with fans swaying as much as the palms in the gentle trade wind. Donavon is Donavon and plays groovy ballads as well as rockin’ jams. The audience sings along to old favorites like “Free” and “It Don’t Matter,” as well as recent hits like “Shine.” Donavon even invites a few fans up on stage to take solos. It’s a love fest, a bro fest, pretty much a fest fest.
And the storm that was forecast? It stays away altogether. In fact, the bad weather doesn’t hit Hawaiian shores until the next morning, right about the time Donavon is at 30,000 feet, on his way to New Zealand, where waves and fans await. It’s a surfing rock star’s life. Exciting, funky, mercurial. And a heck of a lot of work.