Have Strum, Will Travel
Half Charles Kuralt, half Jack Kerouac, David Dondero has been exploring the highways and side roads of America for fifteen years, turning his experiences and observations into raw, literate bursts of acoustic soul. The San Francisco-based songwriter spent time in Florida's revered folk-punk troupe This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, but he got his start in the early '90s as the leader of Sunbrain, a modest indie-rock outfit that made a huge impact on a middle-school kid from Nebraska named Conor Oberst. This year, Oberst -- now internationally famed as the force behind Bright Eyes -- returned the favor by issuing Dondero's sixth solo album, South of the South, on his Team Love imprint. The disc's Jonathan-Richman-meets-Billy-Bragg sparseness is fleshed out by contributions from the Big Boys' Tim Kerr, Crooked Fingers' Eric Bachmann and Dondero's longtime drummer, Craig D., his lone companion on a current nationwide tour. Dondero, a troubadour to the bone, wouldn't want it any other way.
Westword: You're always portrayed as this romance-of-the-road type of guy. Is that image exaggerated at all?
David Dondero: Traveling is probably the biggest part of my life. Sometimes people will try to mystify it, make it sound like this Kerouackian adventure. And it kind of is: Jack Kerouac is one of the reasons I do what I'm trying to do. But my life is nothing at all like those books, you know? Nobody's hitchhiking around anymore. They're breaking down in crappy Honda Civics and maxing out their credit cards to get a rental car.
Did you move around a lot as a kid?
Yeah, my mother got divorced when I was young, and we probably moved ten times while I was growing up. I guess that kind of set the tone for my life. Moving just starts to feel comfortable.
In your press release, there's a mention of a tragedy in your personal life that inspired you to start writing acoustic songs. What happened?
Right after the first Sunbrain album came out, my girlfriend died. She burned up in a house fire. This was the girl that I probably would have gotten married to. We'd been in an argument, and she went to live with her mom, and soon after, I found out she was dead. I never got to make up with her. It really made me reconsider a lot of things, and my songs got a lot more introspective after that.
How did you meet Conor Oberst?
When he was twelve or thirteen, he came to a Sunbrain show in Lincoln. He was very excited; he was a really big fan of ours. He bought a T-shirt, and we stayed at his parents' house. Then we started playing shows with his old band, Commander Venus. I was ten years older than him, but we've been friends every since.
Your voice has been compared to Conor's a lot. Most people don't realize that if there's any similarity, it's because he's been influenced by you, not the other way around.
That's kind of a bummer sometimes. I just got to play some shows with Bright Eyes, and some little kid came up and told me, "You just sound like a Bright Eyes ripoff." I just told him, "Gee, yeah, I guess so. You're exactly right." I don't let it bug me too much.
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