Surf Shacks 018 – Steve Zeldin

Steve Zeldin is a surf media legend. In the year 2001, instead of the world ending with a space baby or Y2K fallout, Steve created the best surf publication of all time: Water Magazine. Water was an honest and refreshing take on modern surf culture at the time, in my opinion it elevated surfing to a new creative aesthetic and changed the surf media game forever. Before Water Mag, Steve was a jack-of-all-trades at Surfing, then Publisher / Editor-In-Chief at Transwold Surf. Now he is backing the latest in surf media gems, What Youth. Needless to say, his professional career has centered around documenting our beloved sport and the beautiful lifestyle that surrounds it. Last month I spent an afternoon with the great Zeldini at his beach-front pad in Newport Beach for a little glimpse into his world and to take many, many notes. Please note: This is a homage to Steve’s infamous 20-30 page Water Magazine interviews. In other words, because I am a super-fan of Steve’s work, this interview is a little longer than usual. So get cozy, apply some sunscreen for a little laptop tan and settle on in for the long read.

Steve Zeldin is a surf media legend. In the year 2001, instead of the world ending with a space baby or Y2K fallout, Steve created the best surf publication of all time: Water Magazine. Water was an honest and refreshing take on modern surf culture at the time, in my opinion it elevated surfing to a new creative aesthetic and changed the surf media game forever. Before Water Mag, Steve was a jack-of-all-trades at Surfing, then Publisher / Editor-In-Chief at Transwold Surf. Now he is backing the latest in surf media gems, What Youth. Needless to say, his professional career has centered around documenting our beloved sport and the beautiful lifestyle that surrounds it. Last month I spent an afternoon with the great Zeldini at his beach-front pad in Newport Beach for a little glimpse into his world and to take many, many notes. PLEASE NOTE: This is a homage to Steve’s infamous 20-30 page Water Magazine interviews. In other words, because I am a super-fan of Steve’s work, this interview is a little longer than usual. So get cozy, apply some sunscreen for a little laptop tan and settle on in for the long read.

Where are you from?

I had kind of a mongrel upbringing. I was born near Disneyland, my parents lived in Fullerton. They split up when I was pretty young and I ended up moving to Laguna Beach when I was in elementary school and I was living right on Cress Street by the beach and also at the top of Bluebird Canyon before that. So that was kinda cool to have some Laguna roots, then I ended up back inland in Fullerton with my dad. After high school, I lived in Orange, where I went to Chapman University, then a couple years later I moved to Downtown LA to go to USC. After I graduated, I bounced around from Newport, Huntington, San Diego, San Clemente, then ended up back in Newport where I’ve been for the last 20 years.

How did you get started with surf journalism in the first place?

I’ve always loved to read, I loved magazines and books. I also started to do a little writing for the high school yearbook and that led to college where I was taking creative writing classes and enjoying poetry. I was a business major, but I was doing so well in my English courses that I got coerced to move majors to English. I was taking classes at Chapman and would write for local campus magazines there. I wrote a surf column for them, then right after graduating with a degree in English, I met a guy named Ali Baba and he and I started this magazine right out of college called Beach Happy. It was the first zine for surf culture that I could remember in So Cal. I think we had seen a copy of Tracks out of Australia, that was inspiring to us. We grew up on Surfer & Surfing too, and anything from MAD magazine to Sports Illustrated. I used to read Guitar Player, Playboy, whatever, we were just trying to combine our love of crafting a story with going surfing.

So we whipped up this zine that lasted all summer until I got sucked back into the graduate program. I went back to USC to take a course in professional writing. While I was working on my masters degree out there I was still contributing to Beach Happy. When I got done with the program, Ali Baba and I went out to Europe to follow the Grateful Dead. In between the shows we’d go surf. We went to Sweden, Belgium, Spain – all over the place. We came back talking about the magazine and how I was going to fit in, but the same synergy didn’t exist. So I branched off and did another surf zine called International Surf Megazine – with an “e” for “mega” (I don’t know why, another play on words). It was funny because now me and my boy Ali Baba went from like best friends to now being in like competition with each other. So that was fun, I think it almost came to throwing blows at an ASR show. I think we actually came to wrestling in the aisles with piles of magazines in our arms. This guy was 6’5” I had no business getting into it with him, but I probably had a few beers in me, so what the fuck. But we ended up as friends in the long run, it wasn’t until I sold International Surf to Surfing about three years later though.

I built the thing up good with a bunch of brands that were just getting their start in the early 90s: Volcom, World Jungle, Counter Culture, Ezekiel, Black Flys, Arnette. I had all those brands’ advertising. That was a cool transition in my life. I remember asking Bob Hurley, who has always been a mentor to me, “What do you do in this situation?” He was like, “You got to do it, I know that’s your love, the magazine that you started, so just go with the progress.” I took over as the editor of the mag and I did that for a year or two, but I got the bug to not be at a desk all day. Nick Carroll was a real mentor to me too as far as surf Journalism goes. They bought me a laptop and a camera and just sent me on the road. We just had this epic crew. I traveled, that was the best thing I had going. I’d do specialty events, I was getting other freelance gigs. That was the best of both worlds. I had my board bag, a good novel, and a travel sized guitar, I was all over the place.

Sounds very Hunter S. Thompson.

Ah man, it was just ideal. So then I was back home in Newport surfing and I’d see Preston Murray out in the water, he was at Transworld selling all the surf brands into all their magazines: skateboarding and snowboarding, but they didn’t have a surf mag. So they wanted to start one. He saw me and said “Hey, I’ve been looking for you, these guys want to start a mag at Transworld and I told them you’re the guy, so want to come down?” and I was like, “Yea.” We went and got sushi and made a deal with Brian Sellstrom that night, I met with him and the other powers that be. I threw a price on them to do like six issues right out the gate and they didn’t even balk at it. Then I was like, “Argh, I should’ve asked for more!” They got me a little cubicle and I found this kid, Blair Marlin out in the water one day and next thing you know I hired him to help get this project rolling and he led me to Chris Cote, who later became the Editor-In-Chief. I knew Steve Sherman and I got him to be the photo editor, against what some said about him not being a surf photographer, but I was like, “Exactly, the guy’s an artist, he’s an idea man and he surfs as good as some of the guys on the tour.” So we had our posse real quick. We started making that magazine. I was supposed to be there for a year. We had the crew functioning, but they weren’t quite ready to govern themselves, so I decided to stay on for another year as editor-in-chief. We’d have our “sales meetings” down in Rosarito and just trash the hotels – not punk rock trash, but trash ourselves especially. Zero work talk, but that strengthened our bond. I think that’s important too: you can’t just go and hire these higher level guys outside surfing if they don’t jive with the core crew.

Preston and I were surfing one day and he came in for a cup of “tea” I’ll call it…

Mushroom Tea?

Ha! No, not that day. He was looking at Surfer’s Journal and he was like, “Man, we could do a magazine like this. We could do something like this, but for short boarding. Actually, we could even make it better than this.” He’s always been a real confident guy. We decided, “Ok here we go again.” And a new magazine was born. We started Water out of a house in Newport – two houses actually. Mine was the editorial house and his was the business hub. That lasted about 3-4 years.

Preston was the administration side handling all the ad sales. We didn’t need any financing for that magazine. By then we were known within the industry and had hook ups with most of the guys running the top brands and everybody just agreed to support this project based on the fact that there was going to be just enough room for the big brands, not too many ads, quality paper and a real keen sense of images that make you want to go surfing, with cutting edge editorial.

We came out with a really fun project, party pictures that would go right into a massive interview – 20-30 page interviews. I started writing this interview with Rob Machado even before Water. He was just getting ready to quit the tour while he was right up there ranked at the top. I was talking to the mags, trying to get them to run the article saying, “I’ve got this big piece on Rob” and they were saying, “Ok yeah, we can give you like 3-4 pages.” I was like, “This thing’s gonna be more like 40 pages” and they couldn’t even understand what I was saying. It was kinda funny, and that was in the first issue of Water; this piece on Rob and it ended up setting the tone for these long interviews that I ended up doing in the next 7-8 years of issues down the line. Those really became my banner pieces and I would end up hanging with each guy for a while to get his story.

I remember Kelly’s birthday one year. Me, him and Keith Malloy decided we would just go to Vegas for a few days to do this piece on Kelly and run tape on and off, just have fun. And that was great. We got to show the world a side of these surfers that they don’t normally see. It’s always hard to get to know the guy when the questions are all the same. Like, “What kind of board are you riding? Tell me about your relationship with your shaper?” They don’t even know what they’re riding half the time, which is funny. They just know if they rip or not on their boards, which has always been a joke within the shaping community.

Anyway, I ran Water with Preston for about 4 years and then came to this crossroads. I wanted to start what became FOAM (Fashion Ocean Arts Music). Preston had an opportunity to start The Skateboard Mag. Preston decided that one guy should buy the other guy out of our magazine, and it was a very amicable parting. So I bought him out and paid him off over time. We’re still great friends today – he was the one who pulled me in on the What Youth deal. So about 3 years after that, Surfline came in and I wasn’t really looking to sell Water – I was actually working with my girlfriend at the time (who is now my wife).

My friend Mark Moreno came in and said, “I hear you’re starting this girls surf magazine? Let me take you to dinner Steve and talk you into hiring me.” So we went for that idea and he told me to meet him at the restaurant. He showed up a little late and while I was walking around looking for him, I met Monica and we started talking and exchanged numbers. I ended up hiring her to run FOAM, which she did for three or four years and then we sold both those titles to Surfline. So that worked out great. Surfline asked me to stay on as their staff writer. They made their run at it, but a magazine is hard to run and the media landscape overall in the surf industry was just changing.

That Kelly Slater interview in one of the first issues of Water was life changing for me. Just getting to know more of his personality than ever before and revealing what a thoughtful and smart guy he really is was very cool. Do you have a favorite interview?

Yeah, Kelly was definitely one of my favorites. When I got a hold of Rob Machado after he had just come off tour and he was willing to open up a bit. I got to talk to some guys that were at the top of their game: Kalani Robb, Taylor Knox, Shane Dorian, Andy Irons and Bruce Irons. I think for me it’s good to ask a guy a question, make sure the questions are really well thought out, lay it down and then just get out of the way and just let guys talk. Even when they’re done, just let them continue and elaborate.

Tom Curren was the most interesting interview I ever did and here’s why: I would ask Tom a question and he would just wait about 10 seconds before he’d answer. He wasn’t in a hurry at all. I was thinking, “Should I ask him a different question or something?” After 10 seconds or so, he’d go into his response. He’s a really thoughtful guy, deep thinker, very intelligent guy. As an interviewee, he knew to give me info that was really deep and was in no rush to give me an answer.

There were also some awesome musicians I had the opportunity to interview: Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, Perry Farrell, Jack Johnson, Jim Lindley of Pennywise, Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, G Love, guys that also surfed as a real part of their life. Jack Johnson is an accomplished surfer, but more known for his music and his career. It’s always great to talk to guys that play music to get a different answer, but tying it in to the ocean. A lot of Pro surfers will give you the same answer: this is their career, trying to get publicity for their brands, etc. Universal themes that are great, but going outside the box with who we interviewed was great fun.

Now I’m an owner in the What Youth project and those guys are really after my own heart. David Carson designed that last issue which was great. I love their thinking, they go after the unlikely heroes that live in surfing territories, but don’t have the same outlook as guys on the tour. They cover those guys at times also, but really more than anything, they’ve made a whole project out of the other guys – guys that might end up on tour, but that might not be their forte.

How do you usually interview someone and what do you think makes a good interview?

My first question would always be, “What did you have for breakfast?” It would kind of catch people off guard, in a way that was fun and was a real ice-breaker. I think what happens in surfing is that people are always asking these typical questions like, “tell me about your boards, tell me what your riding.” I always liked to find ways into peoples’ heads that would enable them to speak freely. “Tell me you what you would be doing if you weren’t a pro surfer” or have them describe themselves in three words. Not the typical questions of travels and successes – typical surf journal questions. I think a good surf media source tries to figure out what makes the guy tick. A lot of guys out there have the ability to surf, but there’s not a lot of people that are really calculating. Kelly’s a prime example, he’s always breaking down the physics of balance and the way a wave comes at you. A lot of guys are reactionary and are playing defense. Not that many guys analyze the way a wave works. Do guys want to go out and rip or get the score on a wave? I always had a good time with those interviews. With Water, we’d do these super extended 20-30 page interviews and it’d just go on for so long that by the time you’d exhaust one of those reads you’d understand a guy’s point of view entirely. That’s a luxury. Nice paper stock, limited ad pages versus more editorial. Giving any editorial piece the room to breath was always a good way to just give a clear cut picture of a surfer.

Have you ever pissed off anybody real bad with an article you published?

I definitely pissed off the wrong guy one time. That guy was Johnny-Boy Gomes, and you know I think he’s obviously a strong character, and great surfer. So my assignment was to go live on the North Shore for the six weeks of the contest season and talk about what happened over there. Johnny-Boy Gomes had come from the trials of the Pipe Masters and ended up beating the entire top 44 – he won the pipe masters that year. He took out everybody. That was an amazing feat, so I gave praise where that was due. But I also said something not very sensitive. I said something like “However great he was, he was a bit of a threat to the aloha spirit of our sport.” I forget exactly how I phrased it, but it wasn’t complimentary and it was hurtful. In hindsight, it was something that I probably could have phrased a little better. I wasn’t going for shock value or to single him out or make a name for myself. I was probably just immature in my career – I think I was like 30 years old and I was like the youngest editor of Surfing Magazine ever(at least at the time). In all of my days that was the one time I regretted it, and it came back to haunt me a little bit. He caught me in the lineup at Pipeline before the Pipe Masters one morning. He paddled out, came right up to me and he was not happy. He told me what he thought about what I wrote and after that I think I ended up just paddling away and went to go surf somewhere else. He bummed me out so hard. I forget what he said, but I’ll never forget how upset he was. I felt bad that he felt so bad. He was pissed – it didn’t get physical or anything like that, but he was deeply hurt.

Then a couple months later I ran into him at a trade show in Long Beach. Earlier that day I think we were hanging out I thought we were cool, but then later that night I saw him at a party, we’d all been drinking beers and I think it had just got under his skin again and he approached me again. He wasn’t happy. I tried to diffuse it, but that wasn’t working. I think he was just more hurt than pissed off. He said, “You know, why’d you do that?” I tried to explain myself and justify it, probably tried to rationalize it, but I wasn’t going to win that conversation no matter what. Johnny Boy has become a super positive guy over the last few years though and everyone is really stoked about that.

Eddie Rothman got in there and just kind of mellowed it all out. Later down the road I saw him and things were cool after that. I always wish I hadn’t gone there. It just turned out to be one of those things you learn as a journalist.

Any other good stories?

I don’t know, I mean there are heavy guys in the surfing community that people kind of fear. I’ve always gotten along great with people from Hawaii. I’ve been going over there since I was a kid. Thanks to my great friend Pete Johnson, who I met on the USC surf team, I got to know the Johnson family who I’d stay with over there. I got to become good friends with Jack and Trent, Pete’s brothers and his really nice big family. I’d keep all my boards under their house. Going over to Hawaii got to be real easy and I had the opportunity to meet a lot of good guys. That whole new school of guys: Kelly, Rob, Ross, Shane, Conan, Benji, Chester, Kalani, Akila, Jun Jo, they were the guys to know. So as a surf editor, I was able to access all of those guys. We’d all play cards together and have these poker games, go surfing together – those guys were truly on a mission. Pete Johnson would push me, he’d make me go surf places I wasn’t really ready for. Somehow I’d find myself in these line-ups with boards that were really too big for me. I kinda got thrown into these situations, but it also got to be really fun and challenging for me. I’d always go after the best guys to get the best stories. And those were the best stories – the Hawaiian guys, whether it was Gerry Lopez or John John Florence. Just being in Hawaii and being in the mecca of surfing, the birthplace of surfing.

How do you feel about all the online content out there and the current state of surf media?

That is a super good question because the surf media platform has changed so radically in the last 5-7 years or so. Right after I had sold Water and Foam to Surfline, all of a sudden print was not even in demand anymore, everything was online. I’m old friends with Derek Riley and Sam MacIntosh, they have some cool stuff going with Stab and Beach Grit as far as content goes. Surfline is of course the top dog, they are a great organization. I’ve always been about entertainment. My last two projects have been more about entertainment, but I have gotten to a point where there is so much media out there that it’s hard to keep up with all of it. The internet is a beautiful resource. There’s a lot of good stuff out there and there’s a lot of fluff too. You’ve got to be discerning and you have to have a lot of time. I’d rather be out surfing than sitting at home reading about it personally.

How did you start surfing?

When I moved to Laguna in around 3rd grade, my mom hung out with a lot of surfers and one of them gave me a bright orange Hobie single fin pintail, that was my first board. Actually, my mom moved to San Diego shortly after that and the next board I had after that was a Nectar, 6’4 twin fin shaped by Gary McNabb. After that I had a George Hulsizer twin fin with leopard spots on the bottom and tiger stripes on the top, that was a pretty radical board.

They don’t make em like they used to!

Yeah, that was around the late 80s. And then my next board was a South Shore, also a twin fin. I remember having a lot of those early boards were pretty legendary, then one that Bob Hurley shaped, an IPD (International Pro Designs) that a had a bunch of crazy stripes on it – it was a quad, decades before quads were popular. I had Kovich boards and Lipsticks shaped by Howard Duck, and just a lot of the local Southern California boards that people were riding back then. As soon as I got into the surf industry, I started getting boards by some of the guys that I idolized growing up like Town & Country, Blue Hawaii, Glenn Minami, Jeff Bushman. Jeff would sponsor these Country Leather ugg-style boots photo shoots that I would conduct for Surfing Magazine. They would buy ads from us, I came up with this idea to put a girl in these sheepskin boots and have her carry a surfboard, walking on train tracks or just hanging out by the beach in a bikini. I was having a lot of fun with those shoots, if you know what I mean. Those ended up getting to be pretty well known ads, so every time we’d shoot one, Jeff would send a board over and I ended up with a whole bunch of Bushmans. I’d keep about 10 of them under the Johnson’s house at Pipeline for a couple decades, so it made it nice to not have to travel with boards over there. Likewise, Pete and Jack always knew there would be snowboards here waiting for them whenever they’d visit California.

It was cool though because of the advertisers that we’d come across, I ended up with really cool boards – like this one called a C5 that Rusty shaped. That was the first 5-fin surfboard, Rusty revolutionized that whole movement. It was a prototype that he sent to us at Surfing to do a board review and I ended up getting to keep it. I had boards from Blake Case, a really progressive shaper from HB, who unfortunately ended up leaving the world too early. He used to make these boards with these bevelled kind of rails and epoxy boards. He used me in one of his ads actually. I was doing a floater on a better sized day out front here in Newport, which was pretty cool to get an ad in Surfing Magazine while working in that industry.

Eventually I found myself forming a really nice relationship with Al Merrick after calling him for an interview and ordering a couple boards that he hand-shaped for me. Then I got into just having every possible Channel Islands board I could have – from the little small wave boards, to the boards that I would travel with, to the semi-guns, even fun boards for the small days, he had one called the Water Hog, another called the M13 which is like a big thruster with a lot of volume in the nose, I still ride that board all the time when the waves are just kinda average.

I also ended up getting to try a few of Kelly’s boards. There was a summer when Kelly was staying here with me in Newport. Of course that meant that the entire garage was filled with his massive quiver of Al Merricks. His boards were a little small for me, but I really got to see the way he was experimenting with different round tails and things on his shortboards. He’s always been a master of riding the unexpected and going as short as he can. So that opened my eyes to a lot of stuff just having him here as a roommate one summer (probably about a decade ago).

Pretty funny story actually. One day when Kelly was staying here, we were inside getting lunch and I went outside to go grab a board to go surf again and my board was gone. My wetsuit was still there, Kelly’s board and wetsuit were still there, right outside my front door. I couldn’t believe someone came up my stairs and grabbed my brand new shortboard, made off with it and didn’t bother to take Kelly’s board (or either of our wetsuits). They probably had no idea the opportunity they were missing.

As far as collectible boards, I’ve had a lot of keeper boards come in and out of my life. I had a Gary Linden 8’0 balsa board that I saw him riding at Todos Santos, then had him make me one. I ended up selling that one to an avid surf craft collector, Paul Naude. I also had a 11’1 Skip Frye longboard with a triple stringer that Brad Gerlach helped me obtain, it was one of the most fun boards I have ever owned. I was moving a lot earlier in my life and I didn’t have a place for that board so I foolishly parted with it too. I do still have this Gerry Lopez board though that was a replica Pipe Pro trophy that was a collaboration between Gerry Lopez and my good friend Andeaux Borunda, who was working in the marketing department at Billabong for a long time. He took this abalone paper and covered the deck in it. Bede Durbidge won the Pipe Masters that year and received the board as a trophy, but they had some of the abalone paper left over so we got a hold of Gerry, who I’ve known over the years and is an amazing human (as everyone already knows). Anyway, I got him to shape the blank and we glassed the abalone paper in it. Now the board hangs in my living room. It’s a little ironic because it’s a board that’s a little out of my league. I’m not a guy that would charge Pipeline on a 7’6 Lopez single fin pin tail, but I have been forced to go out there and surf on good sized days at Pipe after losing bets during the Pipe Masters at the Johnson house. Maybe I would, but I don’t know if I’d ever ride that board, it’s more of a collectible.

Your band room is pretty awesome – it’s like an adult-sized play pen. When did you get into playing music?

When I was like 10 years old living in Laguna Beach, my mom bought me a drum kit. My best friend at the time had a huge drum set and for a 10 year old kid, it absolutely blew my mind. So my mom got me a kit too and I used to take lessons after school. Actually, before that I used to play piano, I got lessons from about age 5. I used to have my piano teacher get me sheet music from bands like Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, all these bands that were super unlikely to have their music translated on to the piano, but like any kid I was just a little rocker wannabe. So that led to the drums, which I feel like is just something every kid wants to do: bang on stuff all day. That was cool, I think it helped me get a little rhythm in my life. It’s funny, now whenever I play the drums for my little 15 month old son, he sorta dances around and you see him feel the beat, which is really promising. By the time I was about 12 years old, I think I said something to my mom like, “Wait a minute, all the cool dudes are playing guitar.” So she said alright, and I ended up getting my first electric guitar around then and my dad got me an amp. Then when I turned 13 I had my Bar Mitzvah and officially became a man, my dad took me to the music store and let me pick something out. So I picked out a guitar called a Gibson Explorer, which was made famous by a bunch of different bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Metallica. I still have it, it’s become a bit of a collectors item now and I’ll always keep it, especially because it was a present from my father who has since passed away.

I was always in bands growing up. We had a band in junior high called Jamola with 2 guitar players and a drummer, no bass player. We won the junior high school talent show out of like 20 different acts, we played “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. From there, we would just cover all kinds of heavy metal tunes and play in each other’s garages, then got gigs at birthday parties in pizza joints and peoples’ back yards.

Garth Tarlow who was a former pro surfer and actually signed Jordy Smith at O’Neill, he had us play in his back yard in Fullerton when we were probably seniors in high school. There must have been over 500 people in his back yard, people just in the pool, on the roof, full on mosh pit. His mom and dad were there BBQing chicken and people were taking tequila shots. That was one of our first back yard parties where we thought, “Wow! we could be like, rock stars!” We were that delusional.

I ended up playing in a bunch of different bands though and stuck with guitar. By the time I got to USC, I remember moving into this apartment building and hearing a guy playing guitar down the hall. It was this guy named Craig Vandeman, we ended up becoming best friends and forming some bands throughout the USC days. We had a band called The Coolheads. He would write songs and I would try to improvise on what he was doing. We would play these guitar duo shows at the local watering hole around campus and we would go into Hollywood and play at Coconut Teaser and this Russian brewery downtown called Gorky’s, we had regular gigs all around town. Those were fun times, it was a great way to meet girls and rock out. We played mostly cover tunes; old blues songs, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, we were really into the Grateful Dead at that point so we’d cover a lot of their tunes. The goal was to play stuff that was danceable, or at least music you could drink to.

The days of playing out and about are kinda limited for me now, I had a 50th birthday party not too long ago at a killer venue close to here called The Boathouse Collective, so we managed to get our band together and have a bunch of other guys jump on stage and jam for that. You gotta play out – live, that is the essence of being in a band I think. Getting a band together and playing in public, especially for the benefit of other people is where it’s at. Being able to play in front of an audience and to look out and see people dancing or having a good time is such a stoke – that’s what has always motivated me for the most part. I just love music – all styles, I love to dance.

A while after college I connected with a guy named Ithaka Darrin Pappas, who was a hip hop writer and performer – also photographer and accomplished surfer from LA. He found himself living over in Portugal and through a magazine I was publishing at the time called International Surf, he contacted me to write stories and submitted his photographs. Ithaka also makes some really cool sculptures, which you may have noticed hanging up in a few areas in my home. I ended up meeting him at one of his shows in Portugal. I was coming back from Morocco around the year 2000 and I called him up to ask him how the surf was in Portugal, and he told me to come on over and to open for him when he was playing a show at the World’s Fair. So that was pretty radical, there must have been about 5,000 people in the audience there at the Sony stage at the World’s Fair in Lisbon. I was wearing this black velvet suit I had made in Marrakech, up on stage playing solo guitar, it was a trip.

We ended up partying all night in Lisbon and when we came out of the bars it was starting to get light out and Ithaka said, “You know, there’s no wind right now, we should probably go to Coxos.” Which is a pretty famous wave up on the central part of Portugal. So we drove out there with a couple girls in the car, went and got our surf stuff and headed up the coast. We ended up having this amazing day, it was probably 6-8 foot, perfect Coxos and one of the local guys there was getting married, so there were like 20-30 guys that would have been dominating the lineup all gone at this wedding, so we just absolutely scored. That was one of the best surfing / rock & roll experiences of my entire life.

That sounds absolutely epic.

Through music I’ve had a lot of really good experiences combined with my involvement in the surfing industry. For example, in all the magazines I worked on I would always involve music. I got to interview all kinds of amazing artists that crossover between surfing and music, I managed to find them all and involve them in one way or another. Then I’d also get to surf with all those guys, so that’s always been a really cool part about having music in my life.

G Love, is another guy I had the opportunity to meet through Jack Johnson and he would always call me when he was out west touring. He’d be up in Hollywood and call me up asking how the waves were, then I’d tell him to come down and have a board and suit ready to go for him, then jam out here in my music room together. That guy is just an incredible blues musician and amazing to jam with. Kelly’s also a really good guitar player, not that many people know that about him. I’ve also got to play with Tom Curren, Rob Machado, Donovan Frankenreiter, who always pulls me up on stage during his shows, which is super fun. A lot of the guys over the years just pick up music through travel and down time during the tour.

Having a guitar on the road is always just a good way to travel. I’ve even left guitars a lot of places I’ve been. I don’t know how many guitars I’ve left at Tavarua, I gave Druku one as a present once. I used to get a bunch of guitars from Ovation Guitars, they were really good, durable acoustic guitars — perfect for having around the beach and I would give those as gifts on the road to almost everyone I can think of. It was just always nice to “stoke it forward” to people wherever I go.

I’ve also got all these half-written songs on napkins and beer box tops from traveling over the years. I’m going to compile them eventually and incorporate it somehow into this book I’m writing about the 2-3 decades spent in the magazine business and the surf industry, my travels, and all the photos I’ve shot. It’ll basically have a lot of short stories that’ll come out in a big collection in the form of a nice little coffee table book one of these years. It’s a work in progress though, as the saying goes.

I can’t emphasize it enough what an amazing combo surfing and music is – it’s what led me to meet the guys from Blind Melon in New York one time. They got to know me as “the surf guy”, so they hit me up when they got to LA. I picked up the whole band at the Mondrian Hotel and all piled boards and wetsuits onto my car and went down to Manhattan Beach to surf. They ended up inviting me to more shows in Hollywood, then San Diego. It was pretty amazing getting to meet Shannon Hoon and getting to jive with him in their tour bus, play guitar and get high and talk story from the road. That was one of my very favorite bands. I love a band with 2 guitar players – Rolling Stones style, and those guys did it as good as anybody out there. They were just a really influential band for me in my life. It was a real tragedy when Shannon left this world at way too young of an age. Again, that whole relationship was formed through my job working in surf media and having a strong love for music, I was able to make that connection.

A lot of brands make the surf music connection too. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Surfrider Foundation (who isn’t I guess), but I think it’s really important to support what they are doing. There have been some other good environmental organizations as well doing similar things, but they are the original. They have always done a good job of combining surfing with music for events and promotions. Volcom has also always done a great job with Veeco Entertainment, bringing surfing and music together under their brand. They’ve even got a full on recording studio at Hurley, which is rad to see them committed to music as well. I just love when I see all the collaborations in the surf industry with music and bands, it’s such a natural thing to have them linked together.

What are some of your prized musical possessions in here?

I’ve got some old Fender guitars from the 60s, all kinds of guitars, a banjo, mandolin, ukuleles, and my charango my wife brought back from Chile, drum kit, bongos, congas, acoustic guitars, a lap steel custom made amplifiers, keyboards, PA system, and a 64 Martin tenor ukulele that my wife gave me as a wedding present – that’s my most prized possession as it’s from my life and the year I was born. A signed cocktail napkin by Les Paul, that guy’s a legend. A photo by Brian Bielmann shot of Bob Marley at the Waikiki Shell in 1977, that’s one of my most prized photos. A picture of Led Zeppelin playing live, a Grateful Dead album signed by Bob Weir. I’m super into going to concerts, I’ve seen pretty much every big band you can name over the years, from Pink Floyd to Pearl Jam, Queen, Elvis Costello, U2, I’ve also seen probably 300 Grateful Dead shows.

Back to the surf stuff. As someone who has covered the sport and lifestyle of surfing for a while now, what’s your take on the current state of surfing and where do you seeing it all going?

My business partner Preston Murray was one of the original pro surfers in the Echo Beach era along with Danny Kwock who really paved the way and put Newport Beach on the map. These guys were doing things differently, wearing a lot of bright, loud neon colors and their boards were way shorter, they were riding twin fins and going places on a wave that people hadn’t really gone before. It was a point before aerials really started, it was at a time when the most progressive guy out there was Buttons in Hawaii.

When I mention Preston and Danny, the three of us are now the horsepower behind the scenes at What Youth. Then the guys who came in and made Surfing Magazine cool again a couple years ago when it was really bogging were Travis Ferre and Scott Chenoweth. They teamed up with Kai Neville, who is like the modern heir to Taylor Steele in the surf film arena. Those three guys are What Youth, with the rest of us kinda behind the scenes. And that has been a really fun project so far.

So I think it’s all about progression and evolution. Although we are trying to do a lot of what hasn’t been done before with that project, we’re also taking a lot of the factors that have always made the surfing media successful, enjoyable, and popular. Like more than anything; running images that make you want to go surf.

Most of the guys on the What Youth radar are just free surfing. They may surf contests too, but you’ve mostly got guys like Dane Reynolds, Craig Anderson and Mitch Coleborn who are known for their free surf antics and radical progression of the sport. It’s all about re-inventing, but also keeping respect for what has happened in the past. There’s never gonna be another Mark Richards, Michael Peterson, Occy or Tom Carroll. If you ask pretty much any regular footed surfer in the last 25 years of the sport who their favorite surfer is, they’re gonna give you the same answer, or the same handful of guys: Kelly, Tom Curren, Archy, Sunny, Taylor Knox. But if you ask the kids now, they’re gonna tell you Dane Reynolds, Kolohe Andino, Chippa Wilson, Mitch Coleborn, Noa Deane.

I know from spending time with Kelly that his mind was always trying to think of what he could do differently, or new places he could go on a wave that people haven’t gone. “What can I do on that part of the wave, how can I stand differently on a surfboard?” With surfing, it’s always hard to take something that is so incredible and follow it up with something better or just different. There are so many radical guys throughout the years who have all brought a new level of creativity to the sport.

It’s like a hit song on the radio, you think there is no one who could ever write anything new or different. Google any good idea you think that you are coming up with and you’ll see a dozen or so results. But just when you think every possible chord, progression, lyric has been explored or been done, somehow every month there’s a new song still on the radio that stands out and all the sudden is getting played every day, over and over again. That’s what it’s about, it’s a combination of having this killer instinct, keeping your eyes open, having a keen vision of what the future could be, and keeping a nod to our history. You just have to have a vivid imagination. That’s what it takes now, whether it’s a clothing brand, films, music, media, whatever.

Kai Neville is on the forefront of that type of thinking these days, he’s always one step ahead. That’s why people respect his work, and the same goes for Travis and Scott and why I believe in those guys with What Youth. People can call it hipster or whatever, but it’s just progressive and that’s what it takes to move the needle. Maybe it’ll piss some people off, but if you’re not doing that, you’re definitely not trying hard enough. That’s a given. You’ve gotta experiment, you’ve gotta fail (miserably), fall on your face, go over the falls, you gotta snap your best board, tweak your neck, and everything that goes with the discovery of what can evolve out of experimentation. I can’t really think of anyone else in the surf industry who is doing that as far as the media goes. I really feel that What Youth has a real advantage there, and not just because I am one of the owners. These guys are young and living it, chasing waves and girls, drinking beer, traveling the world, sleeping on couches, riding skate boards too, listening to music and experiencing what it means to be young and alive. I’m just really stoked to support their dreams and ideas.

Obviously the media has really evolved and people are more interested in what’s online. What Youth does a great quarterly print magazine that is now pretty highly regarded, but for us it’s all about driving traffic to the site and to see all those brand messages that of course our supporters are paying for. If you look at other projects like Stab for instance, they’re more so covering the news, but we are more of an entertainment source. That was also our goal with Water: to be more of an entertainment source and cover more in depth stuff than what Surfer or Surfing were covering, not necessarily all the events, the basic interviews and surfers you’d expect to see.

That’s why when Preston came to me and said, “Hey I could do this What Youth project, these guys found me and they want someone with some experience to get behind it” and that’s why he was a good choice to be running things behind the scenes for these guys. But he asked me he said, “hey I could do it alone, but it’s not gonna be that much money to fund this thing, and it would be more fun to do it with you as a friend and also just to have more good heads involved.” Which then also led us to involving Kwock and Eckert who have some pretty heavy accolades in the surf industry from Quiksilver and Volcom. These experiences we’ve all had have led us now to this great project. Again as long as it’s unique and continues to evolve the sport and make surfers push the limits and show what a great athlete looks like in the water, it’s pretty unlimited how far we can take this thing. From an entertainment standpoint, that becomes important for the brands, they want to be part of that. And there are new brands that pop up every day, but how many of them make it or are gonna be around even a decade from now. I think of the statistic – what’s it like 70% of all new businesses fail, or if you’re a restaurant it’s probably like 90%. In surfing media though, this is a hardcore, insular, very specific category. It’s heavily scrutinized, the industry is all about “Hey, what’d you say about me? What did you do for my athletes? What didn’t you do? I like you and I’m gonna support you or I’m not.” So I think it’s pretty cut and dry. It’s not like, “Meh, I think these guys are ok, we’ll throw em a few bucks.” I mean, it took a while, it took three years and now What Youth has managed to gain the respect and support of all the major brands, which is obviously vital to the existence of that project. They’re just starting to get on a really good roll right now, hopefully the kinda roll that lasts a lot of years. Hopefully that’ll keep the stoke and motivation levels high with our staff as well as the athletes to keep pushing the sport. More than money, it’s more about, “Wow those guys did something radical. Did you see that on What Youth?”

What about with other parts of the surf industry, like products?

Yes that goes for all the apparel and lifestyle brands too. Anything that has a green initiative to it, that’s where everything is going. Being conscious and treading lightly is in style. I hope Kelly’s Outerknown project is going to have a lot of impact. He’s always been very environmentally conscious himself, so I imagine what he’s doing is going to be a lot of good things; locally sourced and manufactured products. Making things overseas is obviously more profitable, but then you gotta transport the materials & goods over here, that takes fuel, packaging, etc. The environment is something we cannot afford to take for granted, everything we have, this beautiful ocean – which I can’t wait for my son to be able to enjoy as much as I do someday.

Just like anything else, whatever we can do to minimize our footprint, I think our entire future will be based on that, like buying local produce and buying sustainable products. Whether it’s bamboo being used in surfboards or recycled materials in the blanks we use, and fiberglass in surfboards has always been a topic. I know some top brands like Pyzel Surfboards for instance have been very conscious of that, but he also lives on an island where people are a little more conscious of their environment (for the most part) because it’s smaller and there’s more impact. Dustin Barca is another guy I respect tremendously for taking a stance on environmental issues in Hawaii. I’ve watched him go from a pro surfer kid to a Mayorial candidate in Kauai and also a full on advocate for environmental and social causes. Every surfer should be about that and every surfer should be thinking about what impact their life has on the environment because we are the ones enjoying an outdoor venue and an arena that is so very precious, priceless and irreplaceable.

In California, I pick up trash on the beach in front of my house almost every day and it’s never-ending. It’s a bummer, but it’s also a good feeling when I come inside and wash my hands knowing I was able to make the world a better place. So I think taking care of our planet is going to be crucial whether you are printing a magazine on recycled materials or using soy based ink for example. I can’t stress enough how much I try to make that a factor in my life. Just to recycle. Everything. Not to get on a crusade here, but that has just become something really important to me.

I’ve always been in sales with the magazine business (besides all the writing), but my mentality has always been; you eat what you kill. If everyone could just eat what you grow, I think we’d all be in a much better place. It’s not all that hard to get some planter boxes and grow your own veggies, there’s organic soil, organic fertilizers, recycled wood that you can make planter boxes out of, then you get to watch something grow and come to fruition and enjoy it, then teach future generations about that. My mom was always really into healthy living, eating organic foods and living a clean, simple lifestyle.

Have you made your folks proud?

I always wanted to make my parents proud. My dad always wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer like everybody else. And I tried, I started down one of those routes, but I always had a creative bug and a desire to do stuff that involved the factors that I loved in my life, like surfing, photography and journalism. My mother, on the other side of the coin, was like, “do something you really love and the money will follow.” I tried to live by that philosophy. It’s such an enthusiastic, young, healthy place to be. For me it was a real natural thing. I managed to find my way around the world, find waves and interesting people, bring back souvenirs and stories from the road and having an outlet for all of that.

My dad was always really clever with words and there was this article that I wrote one time in Details Magazine about surfing (I was the editor of Surfing Magazine at the time). They called me up for a quote in an issue I’ll always remember, it had Cindy Crawford on the cover and it was for this article about wetsuits and how a wetsuit was supposed to fit. It had stuff like how you should be able to bend down and touch your toes, it shouldn’t be pulling too hard on your lower back, or choking you around the neck – just stuff I learned from going to the Frog House here in Newport my whole life. I said something like, “You definitely want to make sure it doesn’t rash your balls” and that was the pull quote they used because they were going for the shock value and trying to be funny. But I remember when they credited me in the article, they referred to me after my name as a “Surf Magazine Editor / Wordsmith” and my dad, who was always a master of words saw that… He loved that “Wordsmith” line, he tore that page out and framed it. He didn’t even care about the cover or the rest of the story, he just loved that they called his son a wordsmith because he himself was the master of language and twisting words – bending, meshing words into something fun or clever, humorous or astute.

My dad was a serious reader, he’d read everything. He was also a big traveller, I just remember seeing pictures of him all over the world growing up – in China, New Zealand, Morocco, Tahiti, all these places all over Europe, the stories he would tell me were crazy. Like this one time he showed up in Paris and he bought this car for $40 and there was an old beret in the back seat, so he just put the hat on and started driving all over Europe through like 10 different countries. When he finally sold it and got his $40 back, he did the only fair thing, which was he took the beret off and put it right back in the car and handed the next guy the keys. I don’t think I’ve ever told that to anyone before, but it just always taught me that when you find something, enjoy it, get the most out of it that you possibly can, and then leave it like you found it – if not a little bit better.

So I felt good that I was able to take a counter-culture thing like publishing a surfing magazine – and it took me a lot of them before I was able to build one up (2 actually) and to sell those to a big, established media group like Surfline, and to get a nice chunk of change for that which has even contributed to my retirement money and my family’s future. While my dad was still alive I was able to do something and got a huge check for it and make him proud. He never thought publishing surf magazines was all that commendable or respectable, or something he could brag to his friends about until I proved that I could make something out of it. That wasn’t my goal, it came out of left field, but I think that’s awesome that it can still happen where you’re just doing something that you love, it gets recognized and it ends up turning into something lucrative. You do what you love, and the money will follow.

Now I’m just trying to live the dream for as long as I can though. I’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to still live in the heart of things here, right on the beach. There’s always the sound of someone waxing their board outside the house or grinding a curb on a skateboard or a beer bottle falling out of someone’s car or somebody yelling or setting off firecrackers – that’s the beach. I like the thought of my son getting to grow up with all that on the beach too.

/ Photography & Interview by Matt Titone

Check out more Surf Shacks here.

Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio and now resides a bit further north in Oxnard.

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