Vinnie Donatelle aka Friend Dog discusses his debut EP, moving to Portland (and back), The Last Revel, and late friend Max Graham
Vinnie Donatelle is a Minneapolis-based musician known primarily for his work as a multi-instrumentalist in The Last Revel. His first solo EP--Tending a Timid Flame, under the name Friend Dog—will be available in the coming months.
He took a phone call from Alex to discuss the EP, The Last Revel hiatus, and several other topics, including what he learned during a short-lived move to Portland, how "impermanence" shapes his musical vision, and the love he has for his late friend, Max Graham. (Please note: Max's family is in need of support. Please visit this link to see how you might be able to assist his wife and children.)
Alex: So … Friend Dog. What was the spark to start a new project with its own name? I feel like when you name something, it becomes important. What led you to that step?
Vinnie: For a long time, I thought it would be an important step in my music career to take on a solo project I can float on my own without having to go through as many logistics and creative negotiations to both produce music and play live shows. But much more on the creative content end of things. At the same time, I never really liked the idea of just putting effort into music as “Vinnie Donatelle.” Something didn’t feel right about that. Maybe it’s too egotistical for my humble Minnesotan roots.
The Last Revel was kinda taking a bit of a step back, professionally. I thought it was a nice opportunity for me to establish a new project and see where it goes.
Alex: Was that hiatus COVID-related? Or are we talking about a general burnout before all that happened?
Vinnie: Ehhhhh … It was a combination. We were going through some struggles. But when COVID came around, it was like, OK, everybody needs to just take a step back.
Alex: You had a mini reunion recently (with The Last Revel’s Ryan Acker) at the livestream for Max Graham.
Alex: Did you call each other up? How did that work?
Vinnie: Ryan lives in Montana now. [pause]. Sorry, I’ve got a mouthful of pasta salad. He lives in Montana now, and he got a call from somebody to come record some music in Minnesota two weeks ago. It just so happened that, when we got asked to be part of the music for Max, it just so happened … he woulda been sleeping on my couch, anyway, at night. We decided it would be a good idea to play some music together.
Alex: Was it nice to dip back into some old songs you haven’t played in awhile?
Vinnie: Yeah, it was. It was really invigorating and eye-opening. I think I particularly do a suboptimal job of appreciating creative works from my past as meritorious. So when I’m forced to pick them back up, it’s like, “Oh, yeah! That’s right! This *was* a lot of fun.” I remember looking at Ryan when we were running a song and just fumbling it when we were practicing. And we both just started laughing, because—it was a fun experience to reopen those songs—but at the same time, it’s like, no one would believe us if we told them that thousands of people danced to this song.
Alex: So when you’re doing your solo stuff as Friend Dog … were those songs collected over a long period of time, or did you have a really fruitful creative swell for a few months?
Vinnie: I’m going to be releasing my first EP with that project in the next couple months here. The songs that are on that come from a pretty wide range. There’s a couple songs that I pretty much wrote within a couple months of recording. The first iteration of the song fit and made sense. And then there’s a couple songs on the EP that I wrote upwards of three years ago where I learned a new technique on the guitar, put the lyrics over that, and it made a lot of sense.
Alex: Yeah, I saw a post you made about the technique change. Was it Ryan that was working on that with you?
Vinnie: I was just gettin’ some guitar tips from Ryan. I always really admired the way he could play guitar. So as I’ve been trying to figure out how to sound better with it—being that playing guitar is kind of a necessity to a solo project—as I ws trying to pick up more guitar, I hit Ryan up and started picking his brain about what different styles would work the best. And also asked him how he does a couple things I really like seeing in his playing.
Alex: And you’d probably describe yourself as a musician that picks things up pretty quickly, I’d imagine?
Vinnie: Yeah, I’d say I’m a pretty quick learner, but it’s difficult for me to really master things.
Alex: Is that an attention thing? Or what? Jack of all trades, master of none…
Vinnie: I don’t know if it’s an attention thing! I’ll have to ask my therapist about that. [laughs heartily]. It’s partially an attention thing. For the guitar especially, I just haven’t been with it long enough. I know for the violin it was definitely an attention thing. Especially the kind of music I was playing with The Last Revel. It wasn’t the easiest to practice those parts without the condition of the other music around it. So I practiced a lot of things that didn’t feel very relevant to the music I was actually performing.
Alex: What are some of the topics or pieces of inspiration led to the songs on your new EP?
Vinnie: I think a big theme is coming to grips with impermanence. In a certain way, I guess, dealing with death. Whether that’s death of a loved one. Or death of a dream, or what have you. That can all come back to uncomfortableness of impermanence. That can kind of take more of a sassy tone in some of the songs. And it can take more of a graceful acceptance in others.
(My fiancée) Julia and I had a really crazy year, and we eventually moved back to Minnesota. We were living in my parents’ basement. We found a house we wanted to buy. Found a house we *could* buy. And a couple weeks out from closing, we were exposed to COVID. And to get away from my parents, we had to go live in my van for a second. Then we found a cabin to hole up in for about a week and a half. That’s where I wrote the tune “Remember to Breathe.” We were just waiting. Waiting in the woods, as you do when you’re waiting to see whether or not you get sick. That whole song was entirely a lighthearted approach to noticing that things never stay the same. Everything develops. And that’s OK. You can just take it one step at a time.
Alex: Well, did you get the house?
Vinnie: We did! We did get the house.
Alex: I’m glad that worked out. That’s an ugly process to go through, so I’m glad you came out the other side of it.
Vinnie: We’re really enjoying it. It’s a tiny place in the middle of Longfellow. There’s just enough space for us.
You guys were in Portland for year? Longer?
Just under a year, actually.
Were you expecting to come back that soon?
We were *not.* We came back because we signed a lease on a place and the rental agency went out of business right away when COVID hit. Their schtick was that they’d give you reduced rent on the auspice that you would take care of their Airbnb on the property. We found a really nice house in the Foster-Powell neighborhood for dirt cheap. $1,000 a month. No, it was Portland cheap. So $1,300 or $1,400. So we moved back because right when COVID hit, they went out of business, and we weren’t able to rent that house. We had to move out in under a week. And all of the other apartments we were looking at were total slumlord pieces of trash. For north of $2,000 a month. Studios. One bedrooms. Some had missing windows and shit like that. Rampant mold everywhere. It was the worst.
Overall, was Portland what you thought it was?
I really like Portland, still. I think it lost a little bit of its luster, based on how we were forced to exit. Also, if we were in a different part of our lives, it might’ve been something to overcome. But we were like, “Nope,” we’ve gotta go. Couldn’t really have roommates because of our dog. But I still really love Portland. I think it’s a unique place and it fosters a unique perspective on the world.
This is totally leftfield: One thing I learned about Portland—this is pretty tangential—is there’s tons and tons and tons and tons of homeless people who try to sleep anywhere at all, and tend to get displaced by police pretty regularly. But the amount of callous you have to build up to step over a sleeping homeless person to get into CVS and pick up your cough drops, or whatever … it was a pretty astounding thing that I’d never experienced. I’ve been around many homeless people. Impoverished people. Living among poor folk. But that was pretty eye-opening, especially to see the collective acceptance of that reality.
People just kinda laugh at the post-apocalyptic nature of it. There doesn’t feel like there’s a need to do anything about it … and a lot of it is the lack of ability to provide mental health care for people who need it. But that’s another subject for another time.
It is, for sure. But I understand ... It’s not like Minneapolis doesn’t have pretty awful problems of its own …
Speaking of, how settled do you guys feel now? Is there another big move on the horizon?
I don’t foresee moving anywhere else anytime soon. Maybe seasonally.
What, like Florida?
Like Guatemala. Or out to my brother’s farm (in upstate New York) for a summer or something.
Earlier, I mentioned the Max Graham benefit. Our guy Nick Spielman was a good friend of his. I wondered if you had anything you wanted to share about Max and the friendship you shared with him.
I first met Max when The Last Revel was the Bitterroot Band and we were playing music in Mankato. We’d all kinda gotten together at the same time down there. Kind Country and Max. Throughout the years, it’s always been consistent to come back, bump into him, and laugh at how crazy it is where we are and how crazy it is that we made it out of Mankato alive at all.
I guess that was really painful news. Really, really painful news to hear that he had passed away. I was always inspired by just how welcoming he always was. How authentic he was. I feel like it’s rare to see someone so authentic. He honestly wanted to share the moment with you. But we’re all in transition. And it’s just really a shame to see him go.
Reminder: You can give assistance to the Graham family via HelpTheGrahams.com.