Singer/songwriter David Dondero doesn't claim to have the keys to staying sane in the music business. But over the past several decades his musical skin has toughened and grown as he's ventured out around the country and experienced a wide range of highs and lows. It's bled into the very fabric of his personality and that in turn has come out in song. He's a man wise on the roller coaster that life can be and has an uncanny ability to uncover and unearth the sinking lows and soaring highs of the human condition. His narratives tell stories made with the blood and sweat of growing up in America.
Dondero started his journey in Duluth, Minn., but at the early age of 7 he started what has turned out to be a frequent move around the country. He grew up in Illinois and New Jersey, moved to the Carolinas for his college days, and afterwards got a really big taste of the country through Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, California and Alaska.
In between that, Dondero has continued to find his footing as an active touring musician through bands like punk outfit Sunbrain and as a solo musician. Sometimes his experiences with labels or bands haven't always been pleasant, but for the most part they have acted as stepping stones in helping him grow his craft. He's gotten the attention of many, including NPR and Conor Oberst's Team Love label. While album sales might be less than desirable, Dondero has kept his sights high with determination to write songs that mean a lot to him and others.
OnMilwaukee.com talked via email with the singer prior to his performance Wednesday at the Cactus Club (Blessed Feathers and Greatest Lakes are openers) to discuss his songwriting and his many ventures as singer, guitarist and drummer.
OnMilwaukee.com: With your writing and lyrics you really seem to hone into the things that make up life, twisting words in clever ways and sometimes using humor. Could you talk about the process and your relation with the song as it comes together? Has it gotten easier or harder?
David Dondero: Sometimes the song writes itself into a corner and you've got to poke fun at it to get out. It's not that serious. Unfortunately writing stems from misery most of the time in my case though it helps me realize that there really isn't a reason to be miserable. I'm free to feel what I want to. So the bummer is part of it but the laughing is where I'm trying to go with it. Laughing at the bummer. It's not that bad after all. It's getting harder to laugh at it though. I see the pictures and I realize.
OMC: You started out drumming with Sunbrain and transitioned to guitar later. Has that given you a wider view of how music works than if you played just one instrument?
DD: Yes for sure. It's helped me break down songs into the various parts and layers. I like working with layers of rhythm ... cadences ... simple beats. I just recently got to play drums again for Darren Hanlon at the NYC pop fest and I had a really great time. I forgot how much I loved it. I might try to join a band as a drummer. It's nice to sit behind the fortress of drums ... protected from the crowd. I realized at that point that maybe I'm better off back there. I've always felt so awkward standing at the front of the stage. The drums are how I started in music ... maybe how I'll finish someday. For now it's the guitar and singing words over it. I play the guitar like a drum though.
OMC: In the past years you've been pretty active with "# Zero with a Bullet" last year and "A Pre-Existing Condition" this year. With "# Zero with a Bullet" you dived into thoughts about being a singer and making records, among other things. Could you tell me a little about that album?
DD: "# Zero with a Bullet" was almost called "It's Peaceful Here" but I opted for the more negative title. Keep to the theme of my career right? Right ... yes ... So I went to Omaha with a batch of songs and just built them slow off the rhythm ... simple parts layered. Had a few friends play on it but some of the songs I did all by myself ... like "Carolina Moon." It was fun to try to recreate a thunderstorm with the floor toms in that big open hallway room using mallets ... then using the congas with mallets ... and snare with the brushes.
I also loved doing the drums for the song "Don't be Eyeballin' My Po' Boy Boy." Deconstructing the second line beat ... It's my version of it may sound a little stiff ... 'cause I'm that way. Uptight. Scandinavian. So it's my version of a New Orleans beat ... which was also very fun to do. Eric Nail from Sunbrain came and did most of the bass but AJ Mogis did a really cool bass solo part for "Caught the Song." I asked him to try something for that little section and it really killed me when I heard it. It makes me laugh every time. We tried to have fun with that album and take it easy.
OMC: How did "A Pre-Existing Condition" compare?
DD: The second album was unplanned. I happened to be staying in Asheville, N.C. with some friends working temporarily for their jewelry company. I had just finished a long trip and was trying to decide the next move. On the weekend I'd make trips down to Athens, Ga. to visit my old friend Russ Hallauer from Sunbrain. He's got a studio in his basement and we were just fooling around with some cover songs ... It eventually became a record. Unplanned.
Initially I wanted to record a bunch of songs I like with just voice and guitar. Then Russ asked if I didn't mind if he got some other fellas to play on it. So that's how it happened. Rob Keller sang and played bass. I've always loved Rob's voice and he can make anyone sound good with his harmonies. He really knows how to sing. If you're not familiar with the band Six String Drag you should check them out ... Mid- to late-'90s band ... Rob sang with Kenny Roby ... the great songwriter that influenced me tremendously.
William Tonks played dobro and lead. Ken Will Morton played harmonica and Russ played the mandolin and engineered the whole thing. Plus Russ pressed the CDs on Ghostmeat Records which is the label he put together to release Sunbrain's last record back in the mid '90s. The second totally acoustic record that I've done. The first was "Spider West Myshkin and a City Bus" from 1999. "The Pre-Existing Condition" became the title to the covers album. The album actually has four original songs on it. Including the title track. I wrote that song about the awful system we have for health care in America and it was shortly after Vic Chestnutt died. So it was fitting for the time. I think it turned out pretty good for a basement recording. Russ has a few of them left - if anybody's interested, go to ghostmeat.com.
OMC: Could you talk about growing up in music and getting together with Sunbrain? How's solo compared to full band for you?
DD: Music was my best friend through high school. I would play along to bands in my room. The only thing I really liked. I tried doing sports but I sucked at them. So I kept playing the drums. Collecting drums ... refinishing the sh*tty drums I'd get second hand ... saving up for more drums ... working at the gas station. It was all about the drums for so long ... I was the original drummer for Sunbrain but I wrote all the lyrics ... even though I
hated Phil Collins I was back there singing and playing the drums. Then we got a singer to be the front man and I only played drums ... One day we met a guy who played drums way better than I could ever play. So our singer flaked out and I started just singing for a couple years for the band Sunbrain and we went with the better drummer. That was a great time for me because I really got to jump around and go nuts ... dive into the mosh pit and bite people's ankles. Eventually that got boring and I got a guitar. A friend of mine became a Franciscan monk and gave away all of his material possessions. He gave the SG Special to me and that's when I started the guitar when I was 21.
Sunbrain then got a record deal with Grass Records. Grass was really cool for about three years. They had the idea to sign small indie bands from around the country to form a network. So the bands could work together and grow up together. It was working ... Brainiac was on, the Toadies, Mousetrap ... Baboon ... Sunbrain. The label was going along fine for awhile. This was pre-Internet and cell phones so booking shows was done by sending cassettes through the mail and a long tedious process. Very expensive long distance bills as well. There was also the mag "Book Your Own F*cking Life" ... which was helpful. Sunbrain bought a van in 1993 and hit the road for the first time. We toured with Mousetrap and Small 23. The tour kinda fell apart for us in Texas and we limped back home to South Carolina. The next tour was out to Omaha because Ted Stephens from Polecat invited us to play ... We really liked his band Polecat. So we drove from South Carolina and played a sh*tty show in Chicago then played a really good show in Omaha. The first time people treated us like they liked us ... We ended up hitting it off really well with Ted and his friends. Polecat and Sunbrain did a split 7''. They came down and played with us in Atlanta. Ted later formed the great Lullaby For The Working Class and now plays the guitar for Cursive.
Time went on with Grass and the label was bought out and they dumped all the bands. Just like that. Dumped. My friend in NYC saw about 50 Sunbrain CDs at a thrift store budget bin. My first bitter pill from the music biz. Like someone just dropped off a box. Gone ... just like that. The label crashed to a halt. It changed its name to Wind Up Records and put out the band Creed to make millions. I suppose they were right dumping us. We would have never sold records like that. Still sucked but we managed to get the last record back from them for free and put it out ourselves. The band broke up before it even came out. It was called "Liquid" and came out on Ghostmeat. After that I moved down to Pensacola, Fla. Started playing drums for This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb. They taught me the road. The DIY lifestyle. Terry and Rymodee taught me that we can do this on our own. I was bitter about what happened with Sunbrain and swore I'd never work with labels again ... unless it was someone I knew. I toured the country repeatedly with This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb.
I got to know Chris Clavin from Plan It X Records. We toured with Operation Cliff Clavin and The Devil Is Electric. During that time I wrote more and more songs acoustically and started opening those shows in the late '90s playing solo. Then I recorded the first solo album in '98. That's when I dove into it. It seemed much more free traveling alone. No restraints. Then I met Craig D in San Francisco and he started playing drums with me. That lasted about five years. He moved to Omaha and joined Tilly and the Wall. We still play together from time to time but I usually play alone these days.
OMC: Over the past decade you've moved between a couple labels. Is there more freedom when not strictly tied to one label?
DD: I have moved to different labels. Initially with Ghostmeat but when I moved to San Francisco I met up with the people from Future Farmer and that turned out to be a good thing for awhile. They put out stuff like M Ward, Virgil Shaw and Nik Freitas. I liked all that stuff and felt in good company. I respected the stuff they were putting out. I liked the guys there. Jeff Klindt founded the label and used skateboard money to finance it. He's the guy who made the spitfire logo. He bankrolled the label. I liked him and trusted him. He ended up dying in his house on Twin Peaks. The label kind of went to sh*t after that. Dennis Mitchell ran the label and was one of his best friends. I think everyone lost it for awhile after the death and the label went to the back burner. It was never the same after that. They still exist but not like it was.
I left and went to Team Love because it seemed like the right thing to do. Conor Oberst had the idea to put out friends' records that he liked. So he formed that label. I was giving plenty of time in the studio and they pressed vinyl for the first time in my life. They have treated me well when I look back at it all. Even though my records haven't sold very well. It's still chugging along. I'm thankful for what they've done. Though sometimes feel it could have been promoted a little better.
OMC: It seems like a number of singers like yourself have gone from punk to more singer-songwriter type of sound. Are there common things about each that make that transition natural?
DD: It happened as people got older. More of my music/band mates have gotten married ... had kids ... mortgages ... I chose the other way of life. So it happened that I'm alone playing music. It progressed that way naturally I suppose. I play with different bands sometimes though. Like the Faders in Chicago or Slow Train down in Austin. The Welfare Liners in Athens. These bands will back me on some songs. I never thought it would be like this. I always thought when I was playing in the punk band that it was all for one for life. But it was only for a few years until everybody grew up and went there separate ways. So I gotta make due with what I've got.
OMC: Getting called one of the best living songwriters by NPR's "All Things Considered" in 2006 must have been a humbling moment for you. What do you think about the mention and people really connecting with your songs?
DD: That whole thing makes me feel a little weird. I don't think it's true but it certainly is flattering. They left John Darnielle, John Prine, Bill Callahan, Simon Joyner, Kenny Roby, Tony Tidwell and David Bazan off the list ... and so many others that are much better than could ever be.
OMC: What was it like getting to meet Conor Oberst?
DD: I've known that dude since he was 13. Since before he was famous and coming to Sunbrain shows. Yeah so ... I guess it was really cool to meet the famous Conor Oberst when he wasn't famous at all. A much different scene back then.
OMC: Any thoughts about playing at the Cactus Club?
DD: I'm excited to play a new place always. I like that Palomino place next door ... with the good food. I like that neighborhood. So I'm looking forward to the show.
OMC: For someone's who's toured a lot, what are some of the biggest things you've learned/picked up on?
DD: I've learned to try not to drink too much. Don't hang around too long 'cause people get pissed. Respect where you are. Don't take anything for granted. Don't hit on the promoter's girlfriend. Don't drink after someone out of a bottle ... you'll get a cold. Try to use your own blanket and pillow. Brush your teeth. Clean dishes if people put you up at their place. Don't be an assh*le.
OMC: What's next for you after this tour?
DD: An endless tour.
OMC: Last but not least, if you had to briefly characterize your sound or where it's headed how would you describe it?
DD: Sidewalk ice cream dumpster music blowing up into oblivion.
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