Out on the floor of the hallowed Commodore Ballroom, 900 noisy fans were waiting for the appearance of 26-year-old singer, songwriter, surfer, film-maker, Haleiwa native, and all-round decent guy Jack Johnson. Despite the noise outside, the scene backstage was chilled. Jack, in jeans, flip-flops, and a Moonshine Conspiracy T, was crashed on the couch with wife Kim at his side, trying to remember the chording to the Beatles’ Cry Baby Cry, while myself, road manager Josh, bassist Merlo, drummer Adam Topol, and manager Mike Soens were sitting around, eating swank catered food, telling stories of the recent Byron Bay trip, and musing on the intricacies of the Canadian exchange rate. Jack and his road family are all genuinely good, humble, and friendly people, and I managed to grab him for a few minutes to do an interview for coastalbc.com.
MJ: What was it like having Jeff Johnson, who’s a pretty core surfer in his own right, as your dad?
JJ: Well, it was amazing. I mean, he was taking me out on a surfboard before I even had my own board; I just remember I used to go out and ride on my knees on the front of his board while he’d surf…it’s weird, since before I even really have memories, I have images in my head of riding down waves, watching the water go by, just abstract memories. But he used to take me out all the time. I had two older brothers as well, and they’d always take me out too. He’s just a pretty crazy guy, I mean, he was in the generation of people that were going and searching for big waves before there were cameras and stuff, you know…like nowadays, most big-wave surfers are all about getting the shot, have a camera crew with them always…
MJ: They’ve got fifty thousand buck prizes on the line
JJ: Yeah, exactly, they’ll call up the camera crew before they go surf, but my dad and his whole crew, they were just in it for the love of surfing big waves, going off and surfing out at Kaena Point with no-one around, taking boats out; and Makaha, and Waimea, and Sunset.
MJ: What year was it when he headed out there?
JJ: Well, he’s from Southern California, the South Bay. He’s 57 or so now and he moved there when he was 21. So that would’ve been ’65 or around there…I was born in ’75 and they’d already been there for quite a while.
MJ: Must be some crazy stories around the dinner table
JJ: Yeah, for sure, I mean the North Shore’s a crazy place. It used to be even more so. It’s like the Wild West, kinda self-policing; you see police around sometimes, but people mostly deal with their own problems, kinda settle things on their own. There’s a lot of theft around there; there’s so many tourists at the beach park, so there’s a lot of car theft, stereo theft, stuff like that. Lots of people getting in hassles.
MJ: Parts of Vancouver Island are like that too. Rough around the edges, you know, frontier feel. Pretty similar places I think, except for the weather…but when I was in Maui, in Paia, the surroundings felt so familiar.
JJ: There’s something beautiful about that though, sometimes, the element of when everything’s not picture perfect…like, the North Shore wouldn’t be the North Shore without some guys cruising around that’re sorta shady and stuff. It just makes it a little more interesting I guess.
MJ: The fact that you grew up on the North Shore seems to be something that gets mentioned every time anything gets written about you, I guess because it’s just a real easy thing to pick up on. But nobody really goes into it, just sorta mentions it and leaves it there. What were some of the moments that kinda sum up the North Shore experience for you?
JJ: It’s uh, pretty much when you think of getting to sit there and that view of watching Pipeline, because being that we were right there, we were always sitting on the front porch watching the waves all day. It was like come home, run out, surf, come back into the house and be eating cereal on the front porch watching everybody else surf, and getting to see some of those famous rides; there was Tom Curren, this one wave that we all saw in person, me and all my friends were watching, this wave at Backdoor, that really long barrel he gets and he comes out and does a classic cutback. I think it might’ve been the first wave in one of Taylor Steele’s movies. Getting to see stuff like that was pretty great, you know, and just being around for all the different Pipe Masters, getting to see from Gerry Lopez and guys like that surfing it, Tom Carroll and Derek Ho’s era, and then on to Kelly Slater and Tamayo Perry. Just having a bunch of friends, getting to watch the guys I used to go surf with be the Pipe masters now…like Tamayo Perry, I don’t know if you know his name, but that was my best friend growing up. We went all through school together, we surfed Pipeline big our first day together, we used to always go out and push each other
MJ: And he’s pretty much the guy out there now
JJ: Yeah, Tamayo, Braden, Bruce Irons, Kelly, guys like that.
MJ: When you were growing up there, who were the guys that were sorta the untouchables, the idols, the guys that would walk by and you’d just be, like, ‘wow’
JJ: It’s kinda weird, you’d see them in magazines and stuff, but you’d always just see them around. It’s a really small little neighbourhood, and so people like Gerry Lopez, I’d always see him cruising around, and Laird Hamilton, I knew him as being my brother’s friend. Rabbit Bartholomew, I remember seeing him around as well. But I’d see those guys in the front yard a lot of times before I’d see them in the magazines; so when you did see them in the magazines, it didn’t faze you that much. I don’t know, it was weird, it’s just a small place, so even when people like Tom Curren and Mark Occhilupo would come around, you’d see them in the pizza shop…it was cool, you’d just be a starstruck little kid but you’d get to see all them around. I was like any other surf kid growing up, it was like Tom Curren was a god to me, and then you’d get to see god walking around the street, or in the beach park by your house. But all the same, those people were still just as influential and amazing to see in person, and to get to talk to them…
MJ: That’s weird, I mean up here there’s a lot of great surfers, but we’re so removed from that whole world. With all the travelling you’ve done, films and trips and whatnot, what’s the dream wave for you so far? Don’t have to name it, but a description
JJ: Well, Indo is kinda littered with good waves. All around Indonesia. Some of the best waves I’ve ever gotten were before I was making surf movies. I used to go down there usually once a summer with my brothers, or good friends. We used to take trips down when we were in high school, and into college, and just travel around. I like when it’s six to eight feet, rights, reefbreaks that are real hollow. That’s kinda the dream wave for me. Lefts I like too, but I bashed my face in real bad on a left, which kinda fazed me a bit for riding backside in the tube, it sketched me out. I still like to, but as a kid I used to be really into it, you know, surfing Pipe, but I have this big thing of second-guessing myself backside. I like rights more…and Rincon down in Santa Barbara, the coast is set up down there so it’s pretty much all rights.
MJ: A perfect session, who would you be out with?
JJ: There could be about a thousand different ones…three or four good friends; or depending on the waves, as long as it doesn’t start to be a problem how many people are out, there could be up to like ten people, as long as there’s enough waves for everybody. I think ideally I would just pick all people that you probably wouldn’t recognize their names, you know, except for somebody like Tamayo. Actually, there’s guys like Kelly Slater, he’s fun to surf with…somebody like him, he’s so famous, the most popular surfer in the world, but the reason he’s so good is because he loves surfing so much. That guy’s so fun to surf with…a lot of times there’s cameras around, he can’t really avoid that, but other times we’ll be at my house and it’ll be pouring rain and the waves will be kinda crappy but he’s always so inspired to surf, he’s getting you all excited to go out and find junk little waves and make them fun. He’s really motivated. And there’s other guys, like Chris Malloy’s really fun to surf with, and Tamayo. Me and Tamayo are, like, surfing buddies since the very beginning, trying to do aerials and stuff together when we were in the seventh grade.
MJ: Following from that, numbers of surfers and whatnot, your films have gone into areas of the planet that are fairly fragile, sensitive in terms of the ecology and the culture. How do you deal with the fact that some of those places might be altered by this influx of surfers going in…it’s a problem in B.C., there are places that can’t sustain a lot of surfers, and there are people who have definitely earned their rights to be there, but then there are all these people flooding in just because board culture and surfing is all cool right now, they’re coming in not necessarily aware of how the area works, how it needs to be treated, how the people that are established there should be treated…so where do you go with that?
JJ: It’s actually interesting, I can’t claim I’ve had the answer from the beginning. It’s something I’ve learned along the way. I actually think about it a lot now, and I’m not even sure I want to do another surf movie, just because of the effect it has. Like, people tell me, ‘oh, I went to the Mentawais because I saw your movie’, and stuff like that, and you really start to realize something you weren’t really thinking about before. I started making surf films pretty young, well I’m still pretty young now, but I slowly started to realize that it’s something you have to think about. I have mixed emotions about, it’s definitely confusing sometimes. I’m definitely somebody that would associate myself with being down with the locals in areas; I have very good etiquette. If I ever go surf a spot that’s a localized spot, I like to show up with just me and one friend, or alone. I’m very aware after growing up in Hawaii and seeing somewhere that used to be uncrowded getting just flooded, and the whole scene that goes with that, so I’ve got mixed emotions about surf films in general. Especially ones that go off and expose a lot of spots. We always try not to name any of the spots in the movies, but word gets out of where it was.
MJ: Stylistically Thicker than Water and September Sessions were pretty radical departures from what was going on in surf film, and your music too is fairly divergent from a lot of the crap that's out there. I remember seeing you play in Portland and it was a pretty young crowd and you played Dylan's Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, which isn't exactly the most accessible song. Whether it's intentional or not you're challenging your audience.
JJ: I don’t think I’m doing it consciously, it’s kinda just a case of communicating the stuff I’m into, as far as what I like to listen to. But I think it’s good, at the same time, if you’re going to have sixteen-year-olds at the show, it’s nice to be able to turn them on to stuff they don’t know about, and get them diggin’ on people who have something to say, like Bob Dylan, or by covering Marley or Hendrix, because a lot of kids don’t even know about that stuff. I mean, when I was growing up, I didn’t know about much, but I had two older brothers who were always turning me on to stuff. But yeah, I know what you mean, it’s a challenge; there’s easier songs to cover that people will respond to; we play Sublime songs, and everybody knows it, gets right into it, and then we play Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie and everybody’s kinda like ‘ok, what the heck is this…?’
MJ: There’s definitely a morality in the lyrics and the films; there’s a certain vision of life that’s coming through.
JJ: It’s just trying to get a feeling across. With the films at least, it’s like you were saying, kinda a departure from what was going on. It seemed like there was a lot of sensationalism, which is just kinda the easy way out, and that Jackass style of humor. I mean I’ll crack up and watch that stuff too, but at the same time, I see surfing as being something really special, and the way I was raised and what surfing meant to me, I wanted to get that feeling across. It wasn’t about just going out and trying to do the most radical trick, it was kinda a whole way of life, the culture and the family of it, trying to get that across. And with the music, a lot of times I’ll see people that seem like they’re struggling with an issue, and they might think it’s specific to themselves, but you realize there’s something there that everybody deals with, and you wish you could just sing them a song that would make them feel better right then…I’ll write a song later that deals with something I saw. One of the nice things people say is that they felt a certain song was about what they were going through at the time…and when it appeals to a lot of people, that makes you feel good
MJ: Yeah, it’s why guys give their girls mix tapes.
JJ: Heh. I hope…
MJ: Your concerts seem to be becoming real community events, where it’s not just a bunch of random people at a show, but there’s a real sense of solidarity in the audience and between the audience and the music. Ben’s shows are like that too. Do you see that, and if you do, what’s the feel that you’re getting?
JJ: It’s funny, yeah, I know what you mean. But there’s differences between Ben and I, like with Ben’s music, he’s super heavy, he’s got that element where if I’m at one of his shows and people are talking, I start getting mad, I just want everybody to be so quiet and listen
MJ: It’s incredible the way he commands attention, like five thousand people in the audience and it can be just dead quiet, he’s so intense.
JJ: Definitely. And I guess with my stuff, it’s more just a singalong. I kinda dig when everybody gets into it…I don’t necessarily need everybody quiet. It’s two different things. But it’s nice if you’re playing a new song and the lyrics are something you want people to hear; I like the quiet in those situations. I guess with the community events, I really like just feeling the energy of it, I like when people are at the shows for the right reasons, just wanting to have a good time.
MJ: It seems that with your album Brushfire Fairytales, it’s just been this slow burn since it was released, to the point that a lot of people outside the surf community have only heard about it recently. Was there ever a point where you felt it just wasn’t going to go?
JJ: Nah, it was a slow build the whole time. It’s funny that you metion the surf community, and that was the whole idea when we recorded it. We had an idea that we might sell 5,000 copies, and that’s all we expected, the surf community, people who know about the films would go out and get it, and then it sold 5,000 pretty quick and went further, and everything since then has been almost a bonus; ever since a month after it came out, it’s all been more than expected, slowly picking up the whole time, and every week I can’t believe that it’s still growing.
MJ: On the flip side of that, was there a certain moment when you realized that things were really starting to blow up?
JJ: Sometimes all of a sudden I’ll trip out…I was on a surf trip for the last few weeks and before that we were in Australia, so I’ve been out of the country for a month. I never really try to follow the numbers, it’s kinda just this weird thing they do, but my mom gets all excited, she always finds out where we are on the Billboard charts and tells me, and so when I got back into the country the other day and talked to me she told me that we were #74 on the charts, and I was just like ‘what?!’; it freaked me out, because when I left it wasn’t like that, and I hadn’t thought about it for a month, and it’s quite far beyond where it was when we left for Australia. Just weird to think, you know, #74…pretty crazy, pretty wild.
MJ: Does it scare you, that too much exposure, too much attention will make it harder for you and Kim to live the kind of life you want?
JJ: That’s not anything I really worry about. She’s really involved. A lot of people told us your wife shouldn’t be involved in the business, because it could mess things up, but we decided a long time ago that we’d rather try to do it and be together; and if it didn’t work out, to just stop doing music at all. She’s much more important to me than the music career. We’ve been together for eight years, and the music’s been going on for like a year and a half now. We decided to forget what everybody said, because otherwise I didn’t want to do music if it was going to take me away from her. It’s worked out really good for us, actually. The way everything keeps growing is just overwhelming sometimes…like, ‘whoa, I didn’t know what I was getting into.’ Not with Kim, but the idea of getting in front of more and more people. I like playing some of the smaller clubs, but it’s like things keep growing and you don’t even really have a chance to think about it, and the next thing you know you’re playing in a much bigger place, you come through town and get to the spot and look around it’s like ‘whoa, why are we playing this place? This place is huge…’
MJ: Yeah. Well the Commodore’s a sweet place, and there’s a heck of a lot of people glad they’re in here and not shut out at Richard’s on Richards…and back to surfing, had you heard much about surfing in Canada?
JJ: Not too much. There were kids that came to the shows and gave me pictures and things.
MJ: Have you done much cold-water stuff? And don’t count Rincon in winter as cold water, because we’re dealing with forty-five degrees up here.
JJ: Heh, California’s about as cold as I’ve gone. I’ve surfed in Ireland, and that was pretty damn cold.
MJ: What are your impressions of Canada in general?
JJ: I’ve been here three times now, and I love it. It’s really nice. To be honest, I’ve never had a chance to check out the coast, we’ve always just been straight to Vancouver, and as a town, as a city Vancouver’s so nice. It’s such a clean city, as far as cities go. I generally don’t like cities at all, but in Vancouver I actually like rollin’ around the streets.
MJ: That’s kinda funny, us island folk get here and get stressed out and want to get back to the island a.s.a.p
JJ: Nah, it’s great. San Francisco is a nice city too, there’s certain ones that I kinda dig on being in.
MJ: Have you been the target of any jealousy, you know, any people saying that you’re only making it because you’re a surfer, any people accusing you of using surfing as a marketing tool, anything like that?
JJ: I don’t know, I’ve never heard it.
MJ: I mean, the music has to stand up on its own, which it definitely does. I’ve got a ton of friends who are musically sophisticated and don’t know or care a thing about surfing and totally love the music. Plus surfers are pretty damn adept at distinguishing what’s authentic from what’s not.
JJ: Thanks, I hope it’s like that. But just because I haven’t heard any flak doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. I just haven’t caught it yet.
MJ: OK, last question, dream jam session?
JJ: Tom Curren. He’s a really good guitar player. I’ve never played with him yet, um, he played drums one time and I played bass for this little kid’s thing, it was called the Surf Night on the North Shore, I played bass and Kelly was singing and Tom was playing drums and Rob (Machado) was playing guitar, and it was all just for the kids…but he’s a really good guitar player, and we keep talking about it…he lives around Santa Barbara and he’s come to a couple of my shows and has a studio in his house, so I want to get into his studio and just hang out and play some music, the two of us…it’d be pretty fun, just because he’s such a huge, I mean, if you ever dreamed of being a rock star, what Jimi Hendrix would be to you, that’s what Tom Curren was to me as a kid…I never really thought of doing music back then
-- Malcolm Johnson
Malcolm Johnson claims Metchosin roots and is a longtime south Island resident. He graduated from UVic in '99 and now works as a freelance writer. This is his first story for coastalbc.com. We look forward to many more.