dave dondorf

Dave Dondorf worked as a roadie for Frank Zappa during the 1988 tour. After the tour, Zappa offered him a job at the UMRK.

* * *

Reprinted from "Zappa!", published in '92 by Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines:

Dave Dondorf in the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen
It Breaks, He Fixes.

"I'm one of the world's worst guitar players," Dave "Tree Hugger" Dondorf confesses. "I originally cajoled my parents into purchasing me an electric and my cheesy one-tube amp, and proceeded to terrorize the neighborhood until I blew up the one tube. And then I fixed the amplifier."

Thus began his career first as a roadie "hauling B-3s up to third-floor clubs," and eventually as chief technician for Frank Zappa. "Frank makes fun of me because I'm outside all the time, and he thinks that is insanity, " Dave states. "I'm a vegetarian, mountain biker and climber, and an environmental whiner. I especially love winter mountaineering. I go on snowshoe trips by myself in avalanche country. It's not like I'm hoping to end up in one of those L.A. Times stories where someone says, 'Yep, we dug him out in the spring.' I really watch what I'm doing. But to be in the forest, 20 miles away from the nearest human being, in the dead of winter, it's just one the best things that you can possibly do. You're so free. Most people say, 'You're insane.' I find it really exhilarating. Frank and I agree that the world is going to hell, but he has his particular group of reasons and I have my own, and he just likes to make fun by telling me to go hug a tree. His taking some of his valuable time to wind me up is actually a compliment."

Loving being alone is nothing new for Dondorf. Born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, where he lived until he was 16, Dondorf ended up in Chicago with his family, and he moved out not long thereafter, looking for an opportunity. "That's what life is about: looking for opportunities," he says. "It was the Sixties and, more than a lot of people, I knew everything. The friction with my parents who were also under the impression that they knew everything just was too great. They had raised me to think for myself, and when I started to assert that, they tried to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and it wouldn't go. So I left. I always hear people talk about working their way through college. I worked my way through high school and college."

It was also the era of student radicalism, and Dondorf was active in the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and edited the high school underground newspaper. "I got my FBI file once," he recalls. "It was hilarious.  There were actually chunks of it blacked out for national security reasons. Then, at one point, the logic of dedicating my life to some giant struggle to make the world a better place ceased to make sense. I said, 'I'll spend the rest of my life trying to make my life a good place to be.'

Though he stayed in Chicago for the next 16 years, Dondorf eventually moved to Los Angeles with band in search of a fortune and fame that never happened. He be came a shop manager at Audio Technics, the P.A. company, and did stints on their behalf with Chicago, the Everly Brothers, Suzanne Somers, and Kenny Loggins, among others.

He ended up with Frank Zappa by chance when a friend passed a rumor along that Frank needed a new technician for the '88 tour. "I got the call from the production manager, and I was gone," Dondorf recalls. "I was third peon from the bottom, making sure everyone's anything worked. It was very difficult, because things had deteriorated nastily.  Frank's guitar rig was very old. The heart was a pedal board that had hundreds of little relays, quarter-inch jacks, and little circuit boards wrapped up in duct tape just piled in there, nothing labelled, nothing documented. If there was a hum or a buzz, there was no way to tell why. Here was one of the world's foremost guitarists, who people pay large amounts of money to go see, and he's playing through these little crappy boxes. Frank is so receptive to technical change, it's ridiculous. I can't believe this was anything other than inertia. " Even so, Dondorf managed to keep things running and after the end of the tour, Frank called to offer him full-time work.

"So my being here was really serendipity," Dave says. "The beauty has been that I was just given the job and told to do something with it. After the first few months, Frank quit asking me, 'What did you get done today?' or, 'What are you doing next week?' l come in,  I work like a little bee, I go home, and he doesn't have a clue. I basically treat the place as if he said, 'It's your studio, make it right.' To me, that's really creative."

Dondorf's major accomplishments include having assembled all the components of Zappa's revolutionary six-channel surround system used in Germany; helping Marque Coy on the installation of equipment, racks, and wiring for the creation of Joe's Garage; and the entire rewiring of Frank's personal studio.

"If the six-channel system works, it's going to be something new, something no one has heard before. If it's a triumph, I'm a part of a history-making experiment. If it doesn't work, I wasn't even there," he laughs.

The studio was equally challenging. "The level of connectivity in there is truly remarkable," Dave explains. "Everything is in sync. I went at this from the standpoint that I hated the way it had been wired. The original wiring may not have been bad, and I don't want to have anybody coming back and hitting me and saying, "You said I was bad." It's just that there's been a whole series of people who've worked for Frank, and each one had implemented their own ideas in various degrees. I wanted to start fresh, so I virtually yanked everything. The most difficult thing about rewiring was that I had to do it in a very short time. Frank took the family to Spain for a week. When he left there was one studio, when he came back it was a completely different studio, and everything was new."

As to what Frank expects from him, Dondorf states simply: "He wants everything right.  He wants it to work. He doesn't want to have to wait while you make it work, although unlike a lot of spoiled artists, Frank understands that sometimes you just can't have everything. In each of the things I do, there are people who are better. The trick for me is to be as good as possible in one person in many different things. You start talking to people who have worked for Frank, and they go, 'You've worked for Frank for four years? Whoo!' Yes, he's very demanding, but not in a petulant, childish, rockstar way."

To make it right is often difficult. Dondorf continues: "Frank has the ability to generate more ideas than anyone could keep up with. I fill rooms full of yellow pads with things Frank would like to do. Sometimes I just have to guess what's really important, but occasionally I get caught."

Responsibilities today involve putting out fires and doing routine maintainence. "When a problem pops up its head," he says, "I try to bang it back down. Power losses occur sometimes, usually due to wind or bad drivers. Last week one of the transformers in front blew up and was literally raining little bits of molten metal. We can get back up and running in 15 minutes if Spence, Todd, and I are all here. Our console is completely automated, so when it loses power, it forgets a lot of things. It re-powers back up in a default mode so we have to reset everything. It just amounts to pushing a lot of buttons and scrolling through menus it's really not that bad. We have very few failures."

Dondorf especially enjoys the background chatter that accompanies his labors. "Frank seems - though you can never tell - to like having me around," he explains. "We have a lot of interesting discussions. I get to listen to his stories, he listens to mine, and we have a lot of political discussions where the hell is the world going. Those are worth a lot to me. I really don't have a down side to working with Frank. I may be having a charmed life, but generally it's been relatively easy. The best part of working here is it's interesting. It is not a drag, it is not dull, it is not the same thing every day. There's a tremendous amount of freedom. Plus, there's respect. When Frank turns to me and says, 'Dave, how can I do this?' I realize I'm part of a team that's moving things forward."

random notes 

     From: Patrick Neve (splat@darkwing.uoregon.edu)
What's he up to now?

     From: Spencer Chrislu (spencer@nospam.pacificnet.net)
Watch the end credits of the X-Files verrrrrry carefully........

     From: Jon Naurin (naurin@mbox300.swopnet.se)
I think I've seen Harry Andronis in those credits too.



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