By Ygal KaufmanDavid Dondero doesn’t really seem to care that you haven’t heard of him.
“I’m 44 years old, slightly overweight, kind of a frumpadumpalous… I’m not star material, and I don’t write songs that are catchy and sellable. I might have influenced, slightly, certain people, but that doesn’t always translate into popularity, and it never will. And I’m very well aware of that, and honestly I don’t care,” says Dondero over the phone.
That’s a great way to look at things. I admit I would probably be less good humored about it. To be one of the best singer-songwriters in the world of folk and pop (NPR named him one of the greatest living songwriters alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits) and be playing a venue as small as Interzone, in a college town, is insane. Most campuses in this country would rightfully have Dondero playing in an auditorium for a university-sponsored event, maybe as part of a festival with some of his contemporaries like Wilco and the Mountain Goats. Yet Dondero can’t seem to get recognized in a lineup.
“I play any kind of venue: living rooms, house shows, coffee shops. I play in parking lots, y’know? I go through Bill’s place [Interzone] because Bill’s one of my oldest friends, and I love to see Bill and Iris once a year, at least. I love Interzone, it’s like a home, a homebase for me when I come to the area,” he says about his seemingly self-imposed lack of fame.
Dondero’s debut solo album The Pity Party was released in 1999 to critical acclaim, but he had already made a mark on the rock scene as a member of the band Sunbrain. Started nine years earlier, the band had been the impetus for the start of Ghostmeat Records, which Dondero would record with for years. They are seemingly less remembered by casual fans of the genre than they are by other legends of it. Connor Oberst, who would basically own the folk scene 10 years later as Bright Eyes, has called the Sunbrain album Perfection Lies one of the 10 records that are most influential on his own music.
“I don’t want to talk about Bright Eyes, and all these other people. I’d rather not, you know, go into that,” he says gruffly when I broach the sensitive topic. It’s understandable that he’d be less than eager to discuss the guy who many think basically stole his sound.
His solo albums have mostly been of the singer-songwriter styling, with moody country and blues sensibilities. But Sunbrain was sort of a hard rock concoction, equal parts Archers of Loaf and Mudhoney. As Dondero explains, his influences are not only in American roots music or country.
“Americana wasn’t even Americana when I started playing music. You know, I grew up on punk rock, and early hip hop, and Bruce Springsteen… heavy metal and classic rock,” he says of his influences, continuing, “the Flying Burrito Brothers and Neil Young, then in the late 80s and early 90s, Uncle Tupelo and Blue Mountain… I think maybe Steve Earle was a bridge into making early Americana music. There’s a lot of bridges in that world, but it’s all just countrified rock ’n’ roll.”
Dondero makes the jump from folk music to punk seamless in his recollections. After Sunbrain, he played drums for the semi-legendary This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, a politically engaged punk-country outfit out of Florida, for two years, touring the country melting faces, while simultaneously recording his solo work.
But Dondero doesn’t seem to look back that much, for a guy whose genre is rooted in the “good old days.”
“Never ever, will there be a reunion with Sunbrain. They’re friends of mine, but those are songs that I no longer have any feeling for. I don’t want to sing any of those songs,” he says matter-of-factly. But that doesn’t mean he won’t dust off some of his classics for a live set.
He describes his live show: “It’s a mixture of the last 25 years of what I’ve been doing. It just depends on how I feel that night. I never have a preconceived set list.”
That carefree rock authenticity is what draws fans in, regardless of whether he fits in on the folk pop Mount Rushmore with Jeff Tweedy, Oberst, and John Darnielle. Frankly, he could give a &$#%.
“What I do, I mean. 100%. And I’m not out here for the money, I’m living out of a %$&@ing Toyota Corolla. A ‘91. And I’m scrounging for money right now to figure out where I’m gonna sleep tonight.”
David Dondero will be playing at Interzone Café on Monroe Avenue on Saturday, May 10 at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.