February 15, 2017

Q&A: David Dondero on Life on the Road, the Animals He Knows

Saturday, Feb. 18 @ Flicker Theatre & Bar

David Dondero is a true American troubadour. Since the arrival of his 1999 debut, The Pity Party—via Athens’ Ghostmeat Records—Dondero has spent a lifetime traveling from coast to coast. Every note he sings and every pluck of the steel strings on his Gibson Hummingbird tells a story. Before making his way to Athens in support of his latest album, Inside the Cat’s Eye, Dondero took a few minutes to tell stories about the animals in his life and the places he’s been.

Flagpole: Is that your cat on the cover of Inside the Cat’s Eye?

David Dondero: It’s not my cat, but I wish it was. If it was, I’d name it Graybee Baby, the cat of my dreams. The photo was taken in February 2016 when I was travelling around Mexico. I wound up in Acapulco for a few days. I’d walk for coffee in the morning, and the cat would be at the same spot, staring at me, so I snapped its photo. Acapulco is a tense beach experience, with soldiers walking the beach carrying machine guns. The cat seemed to be guarding a shrine of photos of the missing 43 students in Guerrero. It was looking at me like, “You see what happened here… Do you know the story?”  

FP: And that’s how you came up with the album’s title?

DD: It literally means what it says. We recorded the album at the Cat’s Eye studio in Austin, so we were “inside the Cat’s Eye” recording the songs. I liked that title because it lends itself to run farther into the imagination. What’s going on inside the cat’s eye? There were many cats surrounding the studio running through the overgrown grass. They congregated outside the place near the broken rotted foosball table. They’d watch us coming and going, and I wondered what was going on inside their little cat’s eyes.

FP: Animals hold a significant place in your songwriting and imagery: The cat on the new record, the bird on The Transient, and I have photos of you holding a chicken, and another with a goat.

DD: Animals have had a significant impact on my life and psyche. Franki Chan, who drew The Transient cover from a photo of me holding the pigeon, turned it into what looks like a dove. The pigeon flew into the old Larimer Lounge in Denver and landed on my drummer’s throne. It was choking on something and making a terrible noise. Finally, it coughed up a small pebble. The strange thing is, I had horrible bronchitis at the time, and I’m watching this bird cough, so I start coughing. The next day, my cough was practically gone. It may have just been perfect timing on the bird’s part—showing up while my cough was going away—[but] I’d like to think the bird made it happen.

The chicken was my friend John Pfirman’s in Austin, TX. I worked landscaping with him. He played pedal steel in my band, The Entire State of Florida. I’d meet John at his house before work, and we’d eat eggs from that chicken and then bust our asses digging in the dirt. We collected grubs and worms and various other insects to feed this beautiful creature to make for better eggs, which made for a better day of work with more energy. One day, we found a giant grub under some brush we tore away. It was the size of two of my thumbs. We brought it to the chicken in the photo and couldn’t believe how it gulped it down. That grub looked twice as big as the chicken’s mouth. The other chickens chased it around the yard trying to get a piece of it. Those eggs had yolk as yellow and deep as a bloody sun.

The goats I live with now in Virginia will chew the logo off your car and chew the windshield wipers off… I learned from the goats that they will give you back what you’re dishing out, tenfold. If you’re an asshole to them, they’ll give it right back. They exposed me to my own assholishness and taught me to be more thoughtful towards them. If you treat them peacefully, they will respond sometimes with a kiss on the neck. If you yell at them, they will head-butt the shit out of you and shit on your car. They are smart animals. I love the goats.   

FP: You have worked and toured as a musician for many years. What has changed?

DD: There is a lack of payphones. People were more involved in eye-to-eye direct communication back then. Nowadays, it seems like it might be easier to call your friend who is sitting right next to you to get a word in. Fear and paranoia have overtaken parts of society. There was no social media back then. Shows seemed to matter more, and attention spans were longer. Maybe just because I was in my early 20s and the energy was more desperate…

It was harder to put out records and book tours before the internet. There were fewer bands touring. [In Atlanta], I remember Deacon Lunchbox and the Jody Grind. I remember Cabbagetown before the mill was restored and getting wasted with Benjamin Smoke once in one of those row houses. My girlfriend of the time lived next door to him.

I remember seeing Dirt at the Clermont Lounge while some drunk guy cut off his long underwear with a jackknife near the stage and fell asleep. When the old Masquerade was surrounded by a no man’s land of broken glass and squatable buildings. Now, I guess it’s closed down and moved to Underground Atlanta. I remember the old Atlanta before the gentrification. It was my youth.

FP: How has your songwriting changed over the years?

DD: I’m pushing away from myself and looking farther into dreams and nature.

FP: Are there things or places you look forward to visiting when you’re passing through Athens?

DD: Usually, my first stop is The Grit to get the Golden Bowl. One of my favorite dishes. The beauty of Athens is that it hasn’t changed all that much since the ’90s. You can still walk the town, and it brings back the true smells and hot flashes of my youth. I look mostly forward to seeing the lovely faces of my few remaining friends who still live there. [It reminds] me of how old we have become, but how much more we’ve got to try to keep the fire in our brains burning.  We are still young until we die, if we believe it and reinforce the positivity.  

FP: What kind of guitar do you play?

DD: My favorite guitar is the Seagull, but I’ve been playing a Gibson Hummingbird for the past 10 years. I acquired the guitar in Austin with help from the Team Love record label, which I was on at the time. I’ve grown used to it and attached, though I have a backup Epiphone with the same setup. I have cursed that guitar before and blamed it for ruining my life. I punished it by leaving it out of the song that was written about it [and] using the piano instead. It has taunted me from the case and told me I couldn’t play well. I’ve wanted to smash it so many times, but then it comes back with the sweet talking and the sounds that calm.

I came to realize it was not the guitar that ruined my life. It was only me and my own actions. I was to blame. The Gibson, which I call “Chordie,” has got a lot of my blood and sweat inside of it now, and seems to have settled in nicely with my body.