Matt Grundy of Donavan Frankenreiter

Matt Grundy

Recently I met up with Matt Grundy as he came through Boston on tour with Donavan Frankenreiter.  Matt is a fantastic bassist with a quick right hand and a formidable presence on stage, but he is also a soulful songwriter.  The track above, recorded after our interview in the back of the Frankenreiter tour bus shows the depths to which Grundy’s lyrics and voice can take your heart.

I relate very strongly to Grundy’s position as bass side-man with his heart in his own tunes so it was great to talk at length with him about his experience as a man making it work on both fronts.  As you’ll see in this interview, he finds enjoyment in working with Frankenreiter even when their images or philosophies are not one and the same.  For me, this was one of many great lessons in learning to guide my career towards a happier, more successful place.

Cheers, Matt for taking the time!

WC: Give us a little back-story as to how you came into your role as the bass player for Donavan Frankenreiter.  How did you land the gig?

MG:  I guess I’d have to start back with going to college at a Christian university in Costa Mesa in 1999.  Vanguard University.  I went there for a couple of years, then met a group of musicians and started playing with them.  Eventually the singer from this band called Flood that we were playing in, who was a man of means you could say, wanted to hire a bad-ass drummer.  So he hires this drummer, Dean Butterworth from Los Angeles who had played with Morrissey, Ben Harper, and now with Good Charlotte.  We started playing a lot together and I loved playing with him.  His feel was the same as mine.  When Donavan ended up calling Dean for his solo thing, Dean called me.  I had never met Donavan before, but he was an Orange County guy as well.  Dean probably called me because I was young, hungry and would probably do it for cheap at the time.  So we did a couple of tours with Dean, who went on to the Morrissey gig and here I am nine years later.

WC: Donavan’s notoriety as a surfer is pretty unique for a touring musician.  How does that impact the tour?

MG:  I’ve been around the world I don’t even know how many times with Donavan.  We tour like eight months a year usually, maybe six, but it feels like we’re on the road all year.  We’re never home.  We play places that American Rock bands don’t normally go to.  Because some people know Donavan for surfing, we’ll do like Hossegor in France or Fukuoka in Japan on the beach.  We’ll also play in Australia, being the surf continent that it is.  We’ll do Byron Bay Blues Festival, we’ll go to Perth at least once a year.  We go all through Europe, Japan and South America.  In some places, the music is almost secondary.

WC:  With all this time spent traveling the world with Donavan, what can you say about his life philosophy?  What kind of fans does that philosophy attract to the band?

MG:  The whole Donavan Frankenreiter thing is not just surfer, but like a soul surfer with a vintage vibe.  I don’t know much about surfing, but I guess his whole trip is to surf like the old guys and that’s why he’s so famous in the surf industry.  He’s a real free spirited guy.  A business man for sure, but his whole deal is kind of like the modern hippie surfer, easy, laid-back, everything’s okay musician sort of a vibe.  Jack Johnson is obviously the kingpin of that whole thing.  His fans are cool.  For the most part, his fans are nineteen year old surfer kids, but since he’s a Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) artist so in big Triple A radio towns, you’ll get people that are mid forties or whatever.

WC:  What elements of your playing have served you best as your career has progressed towards touring in an internationally recognized band?  What did you learn along the way?

MG:  Here’s the deal.  When I joined Donavan’s band, I was young.  I was twenty-three years old and I was just about to turn twenty-four.  My whole bass playing thing up until then was being real flashy.  I was into crazy flash.  I spent countless hours laying out Victor Wooten stuff like under-thumb techniques…or at least trying to.  I actually got to the point where I could do some of those sixteenth note triplet things and tap things though.  Then I learned real quick that you’re not going to get a gig doing that.  Maybe you could get a specialized gig, but if you’re going to show up and do a rock record and you’ve got those kind of chops, they’re not going to help you at all.  You’ve just got to find a good part and pocket that part.

Donavan’s music really got me to start doing that.  When I was young, I met Merlo Podlewski (bassist for Jack Johnson) and he’s about the most simple, groove oriented bass player you can get.  There’s a lot of low end and hardly anything that’s going to cut through the mix.  He’s just feel and just really super simple lines.  I remember thinking when I first heard it, “that’s too simple.”  But really it’s not.  It’s really a lot of the reason that Jack’s music feels so good.  This guy’s just thumping away really simple stuff and that’s what I call on, the real simple stuff.  I kind of like to think that I’m driving a lot slower than I can go.

WC:  How do you identify yourself as a bass player?  Are you more of a creative whose focus is on writing or are you a workhorse with a focus on being able to play anything put in front of you?

MG:  I’ve never really been the guy that’s going to sit down and work out bass parts.  I always feel really out of place when people say, “hey do you know this Jaco tune?” or whatnot because people sometimes hear me doing some fast stuff and think, “oh this guy sounds like Jaco so he must know his Jaco tunes.”  Really I don’t.  I’ve heard a couple of songs, I understand his tone, the whole rear pickup jazz bass thing and the real fast stuff and I dig it.  It’s the same thing with Francis Rocco Prestia.  He would be an influence too but I couldn’t play you one Tower of Power song.  I’ve always been the guy that’s like, “I can do this so now I’m going to go join a band and write my own music whether as a collaborator or something else.”  That’s all I’ve ever been.  I’d be the worst top forty bass player ever so I’m glad I don’t have to do it.  Except when it comes to the blues.  I grew up playing blues with my dad and I can play all that blues stuff.  But that’s all the same songs in different keys so it doesn’t really count.

WC:  There are a lot of players out there who would certainly identify with that sentiment.  What advice would you give those players on practicing their skill set?  How do you practice creativity?

MG: My advice is that if you hear a song in your head, try to make it happen.  Those are your songs in your head and they’re there for a reason.  You’ve got to try to get them out.  With everything that I write, especially some of the solo stuff that I write, it’s really not something that I ever have any plan for.  It’s just kind of something that happens and I try to capture it.  If you’re a kid coming up now, well, I don’t know how I would have done it if there were things like YouTube and Flip cameras and Garageband.  If I had Garageband when I was ten, twelve years old, it would have been a whole different game.  Stuff like this is going to make some amazing musicians come out of the woodwork.  I just hope it doesn’t put me out of work.

WC:  How do you cross over from your supporting role as bass player to the leadership role of fronting a band playing your material?

MG:  I’m a horrible bandleader.  I’m finding that out just from trying to coordinate this record.  I’ve always been just a side guy.  I’m working on this record now with my buddies, Sean McCulley on drums, Blake White on bass and my Aaron Geezer on production and engineering.  I’m really bad with organization and I’ve also learned that when it comes to having other people around, I’m totally cool with what they do but it might not be the “right thing” and I can only manage my own parts into being the “right thing.”

WC:  Have you found a way to leverage your post as Donavan’s bass player to further your solo writing career?

MG:  The type of music that I want to write and play isn’t necessarily going to cross over into fans like Donavan’s.  I definitely would jump at the chance to bring my band out and open for Donavan on a tour or something like that if that opportunity were ever to come up.  But I don’t know if my music would appeal to his fans or not.  As far as people that I’m meeting, I always try to make friends with all the people that help Donavan out.  Not that I’m going to send them my CD and they’ll say “oh this is Grundy’s CD so now we’re going to sign him and we’re going to distribute him and book his shows and manage him.”  But you’d be surprised at who’s going to help you out just by being a nice and cordial person.

WC:  What is your music about?

MG:  It’s my first attempt at being a moody, deep singer-songwriter guy like Nick Drake and Neil Young.  I’ve always been a literature fan and poetry fan so I wanted to see if I could write some compelling lyrics.  On the record everything came out the same way, kind of a finger-picky, Iron & Wine kind of thing.  I’m pretty proud of it for what it was.  I got a record deal out in Japan, they put it out and it got some radio play so that was cool.  I made that album in 2008 on a laptop and an M-Box in my apartment.  I had to go to a studio to get some drum tracks.  I couldn’t record drum tracks in my apartment or I would have gotten kicked out.

Lately, my trip has been to try to capture the essence of the deep songwriter.  Compelling lyrics, not the every song being about a girl or about whether you’re tough thing.  Not that it’s bad, but there’s a lot of rock and roll lyrics out there that seem like they’re the same. My friend Gary Jules is an awesome example of what I would like to do.  His lyrics are super compelling, his melodies are right on and his arrangements are really unique and they grab me right away.   He’s not topping the charts either by any means, but I’d like to do that and incorporate it in an almost smart rock thing.  So that’s what I’ve been trying to do, to write things especially in odd time where you listen to it and you don’t even realize that it’s in odd time because it flows.

My second record should be out in February and that’s a little more mature and there’s a lot more upbeat stuff on it.  I’m hoping to get closer to a rocking sound that’s not going to put you to sleep.  At least put you to sleep if you don’t have an ear for lyrics.

WC:  How has the lyrical content of your music evolved?

MG:  My first record had a lot of Christian overtones that some people told me seemed like I was a singer frustrated with Christianity or something, which might be the case, but not really.  I don’t know.  Unfortunately until now, I haven’t had too many experiences with writing lyrics sober.  That’s honest.  I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking.  I connect the dots when I’m sober.  I’m actually in a writing slump right now.  I have to finish two songs lyrically and I can’t even sit down to start.  It’s the weirdest thing.  It’s like when it rains, it pours and I’ve literally told people this and I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s like I’m not writing it.  Stuff just slips out and then I make sense of it later.  It’s kind of strange.

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