Dave Dondero has been a part of the indie music scene since fronting the South Carolina band Sunbrain from 1990-96. Once a resident of Pensacola, Dondero has since made a name for himself as one of the most influential artists in modern folk music. Described by the Houston Chronicle as “a peripatetic tumbleweed casting across the country’s highways” and by National Public Radio (NPR) as a “brilliant storyteller and poet,” Dondero has influenced countless artists, most notably Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. Dondero’s songs have been compared to that of Woody Guthrie and his songwriting to the stories of Jack Kerouac. Probably his greatest accolade came in 2006 when he was listed by NPR as one of the top ten songwriters alive, an honor about which he has mixed-feelings.
I met Dondero for dinner at Tu Do Vietnamese restaurant while he was passing through Pensacola. In this interview he discusses the trials of touring, songs about the border issues and the death of a transgender friend, getting sober, and his two most recent records “This Guitar” and “Golden Hits Volume I.”
IN: How’s your tour going?
Dondero: It’s going good. It’s been mostly highs and hardly any lows.
IN: You told me earlier that your current take on touring is more of “touring-as-a-lifestyle” rather than a “starting-and-stopping” or “point-A-to-point-B” style.
Dondero: Yeah, it’s an ongoing life process.
IN: How long has that been the case for you?
Dondero: I don’t know. I just do it until I get tired of doing it. I work a job for a little while, and then I do it again. I guess this will be going on until I’m dead. [Laughter.] I guess I’ve been doing it since the late ‘90s or so.
IN: Can you tell me about your new records?
Dondero: I put out a new record called “This Guitar.” It’s all new songs, and I did another record of older songs that I re-recorded. I did those both with the idea of having them funded through a Kickstarter campaign. It’s the first time I’ve ever put out a record that way, and it’s been the best experience so far.
IN: With both of them?
Dondero: Yeah. Just with the direct interaction with people that want to hear the music. It’s funded by the people in the crowd, so it’s funded in advance. It’s turning the old model on its ear.
IN: On “Golden Hits” you have a lot of songs from your old repertoire, but really everything is new. You’ve re-recorded all of the songs, right?
Dondero: I re-recorded all of the songs because with some of the songs I didn’t have the legal rights to them anymore. I was a fool when I was younger. I had to re-record them. I couldn’t afford to pay the record label to re-release them, so I just re-recorded them. It’s safe on my end, so I won’t get arrested [laughter] and sent to a record label detention center.
IN: Did you feel “Golden Hits” was an opportunity to re-tool the songs at all? I noticed a few differences.
Dondero: Yeah, there are a few differences, different lyrics. Some of the songs I’ve been doing for a number of years by myself. I don’t usually travel with a band, and people have said to me, “Why do you have all of these instruments on the records, but you don’t travel with the band?” So I felt I had to put a truer representation of the song out.
IN: Do you like one version over the other, recording with other musicians or just by yourself?
Dondero: I love to record with layers of instruments. That’s fun for me to do, to work with other people. When I travel, though, I generally travel solo, and there isn’t a version of that.
IN: These new releases are on Tate Swindell’s record label, Unrequited Records. What’s it like working with Tate and Unrequited Records?
Dondero: Tate’s in it for half. Tate paid for the vinyl, and that’s how we decided to do it. Fifty-fifty on the vinyl. Unrequited Records didn’t pay for the recording work. The recording budget came out of the Kickstarter campaign, half of the money—the money to have it recorded—came out of the Kickstarter. The other half of it came from Tate. It’s cool, you know, because Tate does a lot of the distribution. When I’m traveling, it’s harder for me to do the mail-outs and the administrative stuff with the records, so it’s been really nice and efficient with me and him. He handles the mail-orders and has a home base. I’ve known him for years and years, and I trust him, so it’s pretty good.
IN: Looking at Swindell’s website, it was interesting seeing your records listed with the Beat Generation poets whose work he’s releasing—Jack Micheline, Harold Norse, Herbert Huncke. And then there’s you. I thought it was interesting in a number of different ways. Most obviously, your writing and your work have often been compared to Jack Kerouac and the Beats—the troubadours and traveling poets. I know Tate’s publicly made some of those connections with your work, but how do you feel about those connections?
Dondero: I feel there’s a direct connection between me and the Beats because if it wasn’t for the Beats and reading all of Kerouac’s books, I wouldn’t have been drawn to the road, or even drawn to San Francisco. I think one of the main reasons I moved to San Francisco was because I was initially infatuated with the Beats. I was drawn to the Beats, Jack Kerouac in particular. A lot of my life had been influenced by the lives of Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, people like that. People that I aspire to be like. Henry Miller and those kind of characters. Traveling writers. And a good vehicle to do it nowadays, to be a traveling writer, is to be a punk. An underground community enabled us to have a framework across the country. Punk enabled us to live out that dream.
IN: So you feel the connection between the Beats is valid? Do you personally feel that connection with the Beats and yourself, or the punks?
Dondero: I do, absolutely. I think people like Aaron Cometbus are the modern day Jack Kerouacs, they are writing the real work of our generation. I think of that as a continuation.
IN: What’s the greatest difficulty with constantly being on the road, with playing almost nearly every single night?
Dondero: I would actually like to be constantly playing every night. You know, I’m booking myself, and it’s hard to play every night. It takes a lot of work. I try to get every night, but it doesn’t make sense all the time. So what’s the biggest difficulty in life? Holding a relationship together. It’s very hard for that. I wish I could make something work. It’s ruined my relationships, especially with the last person I was with. Maybe it’s kind of an addiction, being on the road. It’s free to travel, but you sacrifice love. It’s a big sacrifice because you end up alone. I’m a very lonely person. It sucks to be in a hotel room by yourself all the time.
IN: Back to that addiction to the road, like all addictions, do you like it?
Dondero: I do. You know, I love to get up in the morning and know I’m going to another city. That’s exciting. I love to travel around and eat good food, like in New Orleans. To go to New Orleans and eat some of the greatest food in the world and play in that city, I love it. I even love driving into Dubuque. The flip side of that coin is that it’s not as exciting when you get back to that motel and you’re by yourself. You’ve got nobody to talk to. It’s hard, but it’s my own doing. I have regrets about that. I wish I could make things work with love.
IN: Do you feel the sacrifice is worth it?
Dondero: I don’t think so sometimes. Audiences are fickle. They love you one day, and they hate you the next. It doesn’t take much to get them to hate you. They love to watch you fall, you know. Especially if you get good press. They love to see you struggle and have a bad night. They love it.
IN: I imagine if you’re playing every night, or nearly every night, that will come up more often. You’ll have more bad nights in front of audiences.
Dondero: Yeah, it does. I melt down every now and then. I melted down in Jacksonville last week. It gets harder to deal with a nightclub when you don’t drink anymore. It’s a hard place to be when you’re just waiting to play, and you just wonder why that band didn’t show up until their show time and left after their show time. It’s because they don’t, or I don’t, want to sit around in a bar and drink. So lately I’ve been trying to go in, do the show, and get out. Then I’m safe. Swoop in and swoop out. No tricks.
IN: You’d mentioned on Facebook that you recently stopped drinking. How’s that working for you?
Dondero: It’s working great when I’m not drinking. When I backslide, like when I drank last week… for the first time in 80 days, and it was a disaster. It showed me that I can’t do it anymore. Something switched in my brain. I don’t know how long ago, but it’s no longer conducive to me being a good human being. When I drink I turn into “Jekyll and Hyde.” I’m a different person. I turn into a person that I don’t want to be. I’m yelling stuff at strangers in the street, throwing rocks, being a genuine jackass, and I can’t do that anymore. That’s why I don’t drink.
IN: I know that there’s the image of the drunken rock star…
Dondero: Yeah, but there’s also the image of the drunken 44-year-old washed-up songwriter, and do you want to be that guy?
IN: Are you concerned about losing something without the alcohol, some of your creative energy? I mean, on “This Guitar,” you have a song, almost a love song, dedicated to alcohol.
Dondero: Well, it’s a love/hate thing. Without the alcohol, I’m losing my ability to be belligerent and rude. But I gain guitar-playing ability. I gain the ability to be articulate with words, not slurring and forgetting. I regain the ability to have a genuine conversation at a bar with a fan, or somebody who’s genuinely interested in the music, who wants to buy a record. I gain genuine conversations instead of some drunken babble. But then again, I gain a lot of anxiety. But maybe that anxiety is a good thing. I don’t know.
IN: If you’re constantly performing, how do you capture the intensity of the original moment while performing in front of audiences that sometimes pay attention, and other times just drink and talk loudly while you’re playing?
Dondero: I ask myself that same question, too. How do I feel those songs? It’s what happened. It’s not a contrived emotion. They came out of real despair. You know, I’ve been through some really weird shit. Some of it is self-inflicted, and some of it was not. Throughout my whole life there’s been a feeling of loss, you know. Maybe it was being rejected by father at a young age, being written off on that level. Or the loss of the first love in my life. She died. There’s really been a hole. I’ve seen a lot of friends die. To deal with it, I write songs and I travel. And maybe I travel to escape when things don’t work out. Or I drink to escape memories…but that doesn’t work.
IN: Well, does it help to perform?
Dondero: To perform the songs? Definitely. It’s still a purging. If I know no one is listening, I just close my eyes, and I purge my brain. It swirls around my ears and comes out, and I just sit there and close my eyes and do the songs. Like at the art museum [in Jacksonville] the other night, no one was listening to those songs. Maybe a couple of people. And that can be disheartening, if you give everything to it, and no one in the audience gives a shit. It’s hard to give a shit, but when I can close my eyes, I can feel that song again, the original intention. But I can’t look at people when they’re not paying attention. I close my eyes. But I should keep my eyes open, you know, eye contact. But I’m not an actor. I’m not an entertainer.
IN: Do you feel that’s expected of you at all?
Dondero: I don’t think so because I’ve never been an actor or entertainer. I’m more of a writer, I’d say. Sometimes I’m an entertainer, but that’s when I want to be. Other times, I’m introverted. I’ve noticed that I’m less introverted and more open to the audience, and even more open to entertaining—if just for my own kicks. Just because it’s fun, and I realize [performing] can be a fun thing.
IN: Does that make the experience new?
Dondero: Yes, it’s becoming a new experience. It’s becoming something that I actually look forward to doing. Whereas when I was drinking, I was dreading it and looking forward to getting back to the bar and getting my free drinks. “Let me just get through this set, and I can get back to my business of drinking.” But I think now, well, I know, the highlight of the day is getting to do the show. I want to get to the show, and I want to do that. It can be fun. There’re no rules to it. I can mess around with the guitar and if I want to dig deeper into it, I can. That’s one of my goals in life, to dig deeper into the guitar.
IN: Getting back to your new records, your song ‘The New Berlin Wall’ really speaks well to many of the issues between the U.S. and Mexico, but in particular the separation between the Mexican people and the American people. How did you first get interested in issues surrounding the border? How did that song come about?
Dondero: Well, it came about from traveling internationally. I went to Mexico, and I was crossing back over to Juarez. I noticed this large group of men, and they were sitting on the pavement, and they had handcuffs on. There were maybe 50 of these guys, Mexican men. They were fenced in, and they were being watched over by these guys in black SWAT uniforms holding automatic machine guns. And there was another area where women and children were being held. It looked like a Nazi camp. This is what I saw through the chain-link fence crossing back into El Paso. I started to take a photograph and a gun came into the lens. The guy [with the gun] got very aggressive…
IN: With you?
Dondero: Yeah. He said, “If you want trouble, you’ll get trouble if you keep photographing.” I thought that was pretty insane. If you walk in [to the U.S.] and you’re an American citizen, walking into America and being threatened with a gun by another U.S. citizen for taking a photograph. That inspired the song. Also, living in San Francisco and working with a lot of Mexican people and finding out their side of the story. A lot of folks want to go back to Mexico, but they can’t. And then there are these arrogant Americans who are like, “Keep ‘em out of here,” yet they’re the ones doing all the work. You know, it’s ridiculous to think that this country, we all know, is based on immigration. The strength of it is the diversity, and it should be embraced. Those in poverty should be taken in and assisted, eventually helping the society as a whole by bringing them up. Not just dangling advertisements over the fence and creating this situation of drug cartels and murder and warfare all over the fallacy of success due to material gains. Does that make sense?
IN: Yeah, and especially considering the story about the cop with the gun in your face for taking pictures. I mean, that’s certainly reminiscent of what we think of when we think of East Germany. But now that’s us.
Dondero: Absolutely, and really the treatment of the people. These are mostly just working people trying to find jobs, and that’s all they’re doing, yet they treated like substandard human beings. These are human beings and they should be treated with respect. I don’t know what else to say except that it’s appalling to me. As far as drugs go, there are things I brought up in the song. I don’t believe in the drug war. As long as there are drugs, people are going to do them. There’s no way to stop them. Drug use is impossible to stop, so educate people. Put the resources into something other than filling prisons and telling people, “No, no! It’s taboo!” because they’re going to do it anyway. At least if we’re a humane society, legalize it all, tax it, educate and provide rehabilitation—that sounds, to me, like progress for humanity.
IN: How’s the song been received?
Dondero: The song’s been received very well. And surprisingly fairly well from Republicans and Democrats. I’ve had my parents, and they’re Republican people, come see me play. The majority of them haven’t had trouble with the song. They say, “Oh man, I really like that song.” I’ll say, “But did you really listen to the song?” Maybe they didn’t hear all of the words I was saying, but I’ve had people walk out on [the song]. In Alaska, I had a guy curse me out, storm out of the room, take off in his giant pickup truck, peel out. Oh, great! He’s more dangerous than these “Mexican gangs,” who he says are going to kill him and get his wife or something. But it’s really like, “No, you’re going to drive drunk, you American, and smash into someone with your big truck.” I mean, that’s about as dangerous. Angry, drunk, white guy, driving his pickup on the street.
IN: You have another song on “This Guitar” about our friend, Sam Dorsett—’Samantha’s Got a Bag of Coal.’ [Dorsett was a transgendered writer, activist, and mutual friend who lived in Pensacola for several years and tragically committed suicide in 2009]. Can you tell me a little about why you wanted to write that song?
Dondero: Well, I think that issues about transgendered people need to be brought to light. It’s another issue of people treating others who are not like them as substandard human beings. Like throwaway people. Like treating a transgendered person like a piece of garbage, like Sam was treated, which I think eventually led to Sam’s death. It’s unacceptable to treat people like that.
IN: It’s a great song, and it actually gave me the opportunity to talk to my kids about Samantha and those issues, specifically transgender issues, but also death and suicide.
Dondero: Did your kids understand what was going on?
IN: Yeah, I think as much as any kid can understand this crazy, messed-up world. It’s complicated, of course, but the more people talk about those issues, the better it becomes. There is a general absence of discussion surrounding these topics, at least in the media and in schools, and it makes people—transgendered or just anyone who doesn’t fit a mainstream media stereotype of “normal”—feel even more alienated. So it was helpful and nice to have an opportunity to talk about it.
Dondero: It’s true. Someone so peaceful and so intelligent as Sam was. Someone who was an asset to society. Someone who was important for society, to be treated in such a way while people who are awful, like a lot of the police, bankers, insurance brokers, capitalists who put profits over people. Pedophile priests who get away with this shit. Hypocrites who preach hateful ideas to their congregations. These evil people, posing in the disguise of Jesus Christ and breeding these homophobic bigots and creating violence on our streets. Yet these are respected citizens of our community? It should be flip-flopped. A peaceful person like Samantha should have been exulted as an example of someone who was beneficial for society. Someone who was loving and accepting. That’s what I was trying to say in that song: “Here’s a chunk of coal for the hypocrite who’s preaching in the church under the steeple. Overzealous cop who’s acting like he’s the Gestapo. For the money-grubbing bastards putting profits over people.” Those people need to be called out. Still, in Indiana, you get rich, white frat boys yelling out of car windows, calling people “fag” and yelling shit out of pickup truck windows, beating people up for no reason on the streets—still to this day.
IN: Even in San Francisco.
Dondero: Yeah, even in San Francisco. And out in Oakland.
IN: And here in Pensacola.
Dondero: Yeah, definitely here. I had a friend who was nearly beaten to death. They knocked his eye out because he thought another guy was gay and he was trying to…you know…find some loving. That’s all he was trying to do, and you’re going to almost kill somebody because of that?
IN: Well, it’s a powerful way to talk about it.
Dondero: Through a song.
IN: Yeah, it was a nice way to remember Sam.
Dondero: Sam should be remembered forever.
IN: Well, a few years ago, NPR listed you as one of the Top 10 Living Songwriters. It was you, along with Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and others. How did it feel to have your name on that list and be recognized on that list?
Dondero: Well, every time I see it, it really makes me cringe. It’s not true at all. It’s one person’s opinion. I think that being said about me is more of a curse. It’s a hard thing because it’s something I’m not. I’m not those guys. If people read that, and I didn’t write that, but they might think, “Who does this guy think he is?” I’m not of that quality. I’m different than those guys. It’s flattering, and it’s nice. Thanks. But it’s embarrassing on the other hand, because people will continuously use that in press, like it’s a contest. There’s no best in the arts. They make all of these lists nowadays. You’re number 16 out of 20 or some shit like that. A best list. A list of this or that. It’s really annoying, these lists. Especially regarding the arts. I didn’t get involved in the arts to get on any list. Best or worst. It’s just what it is. Some people like it. Some people don’t. It’s just some people’s taste.
IN: What do you see yourself doing in the next 10 years?
Dondero: I want to put a book out.
IN: Have you tried?
Dondero: I have and I’ve been writing. I lost the first one I wrote. I had over 100 pages, but I didn’t back it up, and my computer was stolen. So I started over, and this time I’ve been backing it up.
IN: What’s it about?
Dondero: It’s historical non-fiction. Like “In Cold Blood.”
IN: Do you think you’ll be able to put it out?
Dondero: Maybe I’ll try to put it out, maybe with a Kickstarter. But I thought about going back to school for writing.
*Scott Satterwhite teaches writing, rhetoric and literature at the University of West Florida.
DAVE DONDERO AT THE HANDLEBAR
WHAT: David Dondero with Greg Bond and Dull Actors
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday, June 13
WHERE: The Handlebar, 319 N. Tarragona St.
DETAILS: pensacolahandlebar.com or 434-9060