Influential singer-songwriter Dave Dondero got his start in the indie music scene in his band Sunbrain, before moving to Pensacola in 1996. That year he started playing drums for This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, worked at Sluggo’s and honed his songwriting skills playing there on Sundays when it was located on Palafox.
Fast forward 20 years and Dondero has a handful of solo albums under his belt and has been called a “top living songwriter” by NPR.
Ahead of his upcoming gig at The Handlebar, Inweekly spoke with Dondero about his new album “Inside the Cat’s Eye,” his thoughts on Donald Trump and how his time in Pensacola shaped him into the songwriter he is today.
INWEEKLY: Tell me about your ties to Pensacola and your time in This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb.
DONDERO: I moved to Pensacola in 1996 through ’99 and then on and off until around 2001. Around 1993 my first band Sunbrain would come down to Pensacola from South Carolina to play shows at Handlebar and Sluggo’s. We became friends with Woodenhorse and many folks in the music community. When Sunbrain broke up, I formed a band with the members of Woodenhorse called Flatwheelers and I played drums for This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb for about two years. The first time I really got to go on the road was with them and Operation Cliff Clavin. They taught me how to tour DIY. I used to live on Alcaniz and worked at Sluggo’s.
INWEEKLY: I imagine that Sluggo’s and The Handlebar hold a lot of memories for you. Were you sad to hear of the closing of Sluggo’s?
DONDERO: I am sad to hear that. They have closed before for short times, so hopefully it’s just a hiatus. But would be a shame if it’s final. If it wasn’t for Sluggo’s, I probably wouldn’t have ever gone forward with my music. Terry allowed for me to host a songwriter night on Sundays which really helped me get it together learning how to perform a set of solo songs. It was a great time and space to create and have the freedom to do it in that space. One of my favorite memories was playing downstairs at the old Sluggo’s on Palafox. We’d move the jukebox into the fishbowl (the little room up front) and sing where the jukebox usually sat. One night the Drive by Truckers (before they were famous) played and the music went on until long past closing time. It was inspiring to see folks like Kent Stanton, Matt Lucas and Rymodee sing on a regular basis.
INWEEKLY: How often are you on the road and how do you keep yourself sane with such a busy touring schedule?
DONDERO: Last year I was hardly on the road at all, but this year will be pretty busy because I have several new releases. I’ve decided to do a three week on /two week off music touring schedule. Three weeks is just about the point where I start to feel the grind and stop enjoying it as much. So it’s about perfect that way. Then two weeks at home and I work independently doing historical restoration and our focus is on windows. My girlfriend has four goats and we spend a lot of time hanging out with them on the farm. Also, I love to go to the galleries of DC. Ride the trains. These things keep me sane.
INWEEKLY: Can you tell me about your new album “Inside the Cat’s Eye”?
DONDERO: It was recorded in Oct. 2015 in Austin, Texas at the Cat’s Eye Studio. Thus the title. We recorded it live to 1-inch tape as a rock n roll trio. Even the vocals were live. We rehearsed the day before and recorded most of them the next day. There were minimal overdubs of piano, vibraphone, trumpet, accordion, and tuba. The whole thing took three days. I have lived on and off through the years in Austin, and all the musicians on the album are friends of mine from Texas. Cully Symington played drums, Kullen Fuchs played vibes, trumpet and accordion. Tom Crail played Tuba, Adoniram Lipton played piano, and Doug Walseth recorded it. John Winsor played bass. Unfortunately, John took his own life in March, and the album was delayed almost a year out of respect to John. The photo of the cat on the front cover was taken last February in Acapulco, Mexico. Above the cat, out of the picture frame, were photos of the missing 43 students (who were kidnapped in Iguala, Mexico in 2014 and never found) and the cat would come out and greet me in the morning. Almost like it was saying to me “See what happened, look” then the cat would run away and never let me pet it. I snapped the photo, and it seemed to fit.
INWEEKLY: What experiences shape your songwriting the most?
DONDERO: This album, in particular, was a personal struggle to stay alive, to find inspiration for wanting to be alive. To revive the shell of a human being which I had become. To drain the bottle and throw it against a rock. Clean the body from the inside out. Clean the brain and the emotions. To find simplicity and beauty and reflect it back. To crawl out from being at the rock bottom. I was there. To actually feel again. Hang on for a reason. A meal and the sun or even just a cup of tea. I wish John could have seen that.
INWEEKLY: Do you have any other interests right now besides music?
DONDERO: I’m interested in peace. I’m interested in a no sugar diet. I’m interested in life beyond the bottle. I’m interested in goats, snakes, birds, dogs, fox, deer and cats (all animals but those ones in particular). I’m interested in whether or not drinking goats’ milk after they eat poisoned ivy will actually make you immune to poisoned ivy. I’m interested in fresh, unprocessed, natural food. I’m interested in preventative medicine. I’m interested in yoga and breathing deeply. I’m interested in visual art and videography. I’m interested in old films, particularly from 1965 through 1975. I’m interested in geography and plant life. I’m particularly interested in the orchids of Florida. I’m interested in the weather almost everyday (thunderstorms mostly) and I am obsessively interested in what might be around the next corner.
INWEEKLY: I saw on Facebook you’ve made your entire catalogue available for purchase on Bandcamp on a name your price basis and are donating sales to Planned Parenthood, The Refugee Empowerment Center and the ACLU. How much money did you raise and why did you decide to do this?
DONDERO: I did this because I felt it was the right thing to do in a time when I was feeling powerless and frustrated with the current events. I’ve been going to protests, but I feel these folks (specifically refugees from the Middle East and Mexican immigrants) need help with legal representation and we’ve got to channel money to help them. Bandcamp announced they were having a day in which they would give all of their profits to the ACLU, so I decided to give my share to Planned Parenthood and The Refugee Empowerment Center. I raised $187 for Planned Parenthood, $187 for the Refugee Empowerment Center, and also $66 for the ACLU. That’s for a day of digital music sales. It’s not much but every little bit helps. I was happy and proud to have contributed.
INWEEKLY: I know I probably don’t even need to ask, but what’s your take on Trump, the Muslim ban and the wall?
DONDERO: It was eight years stepping forward, now it’s 70 years back. When I woke up the morning of Nov. 9, I almost had a heart attack. Have you ever seen the movie “My Bodyguard?” It seems like the bully usually loses in the end. It just won’t be that fun to watch this movie. It’s going to be a bombastic melodrama and the script has already devolved into cave-man broken English. It’s hard to understand. I’m fervently opposed to a ban of any religion. It defies what this country is all about. The wall is a ridiculous symbol of arrogance and idiocy. Mostly it’s a distraction of what they’re really doing. Imagine how much we could do with that money to help with our schools and our healthcare?
INWEEKLY: Last time we interviewed you, you said that being named NPR’s Top 10 Living Songwriters a few years ago made you cringe. Do you still feel that way?
DONDERO: I don’t really believe in top 10 lists because everybody has their own opinion. But I don’t cringe anymore and I’m thankful for any positive press that comes my way. It’s a lot better than being on the top 10 shittiest songwriters list (though I’m sure I’m on that list in some people’s opinion).
Here’s my opinion of a top 10 living songwriters list:*
1. Neil Diamond
2. Willie Nelson
3. John Prine
4. Neil Diamond
5. Tom Petty
6. Joni Mitchell
7. Neil Diamond of Brooklyn, NY
8. Tom Petty of Gainesville, FL
9. Neil “fuckin” Diamond
10. N. Diamond
Honorable Mention: Neil Diamond, John Darnielle, Darren Hanlon, Billy Bragg, David Bazan, Simon Joyner, Kent Stanton, Rymodee, last name “Diamond” first name “Neil” and so many more.
*In no particular order and that’s this week, but what’s next week?
WHAT: Dave Dondero with Kent Stanton, P//hutchnsuch, and Marona
WHEN: 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16
WHERE: The Handlebar, 319 N. Tarragona St.