Brisick talks legends

Brisick's 80's cover shot and Quiksilver ad shot in Fernando de Noronha, Brazil. Courtesy Robert Beck

Jamie Brisick is a surfer, writer, photographer and director focused on surfing and surf culture. He competed on the ASP World Tour from 1986 to 1991 and has since contributed to surfing's media canon with his writing and photography. Author of We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations and Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, his work has also appeared in The Surfer's Journal, Surfing, The New York Times and The Guardian. Brisick was awarded a Fullbright Fellowship in 2008. He currently lives in New York City.

ESPN: You started out on Tour and then transitioned into an editorial role in the surf world. How did that all happen?
Brisick:Yeah. It all happened in basically over the '90s. I was a pro surfer up in until 1991 and my career abruptly finished. At the time I just wasn't delivering the results. There was a recession and that contributed, but it was going to happen regardless. I was kind of on borrowed time. I went through this incredible crisis of feeling like my boyhood dreams were suddenly over and "What I am going to do?"

I did read a lot and I did keep journals and I was always interested in writing and fascinated by writers. I was a very different from getting a formal education. I was reading Bukowski and William Burroughs, really flavorful writers. They were very entry-level is the best way to put it. They show you this almost cliché way to be a writer -- sort of boozing and having a naked woman wandering around your bedroom. I had no idea what it actually meant to be a writer. All that stuff was my point of entry and so I started working at a magazine in Sydney called Waves. I would go to an office there three days a week and I got this sense of "team" but it wasn't rigorous investigative journalism. It was very much the bro-brah, patting each other on the back, not offending anyone. The only time we ever did anything dangerous is when we strayed from surfing. It was just a back patting, handshaking, politically-wired thing. I feel like my growth was stunted there as a writer, because I didn't know what it meant to have a subject to write about, where I had to show both sides of a story.

The industry is still very small in many ways; do you think the same dynamic still exists?
Very much so. My impression is that you're sort of just writing press releases for people and I have mixed feelings about it. Becoming the editor of Surfing Magazine was disillusioning. I'd been raised on surf magazines and I believed in them as a child believes in fairytales. I got on the inside of it to see how politically wired it was. Someone might have a different story, someone who was more administrative-minded may have seen it differently. For me, I wanted to be as creative as possible and I brought a lot of hubris to it. I thought "Okay, I'm going to just blow minds; I'm going to be so clever here," and I was then introduced to excel spreadsheets and the handling of an editorial team and being a sort of leader, which I wasn't and am still not.

But the disillusioning thing was, say, when we were plotting the traveling issue. We would be getting really ambitious and having these really fantastic ideas, and then ad sales guys would march down the hall and say, "I just had lunch with such-and-such who have just signed up for the inside cover or back page, an expensive ad, and I promised we will cover an event that has happening down the road in San Clemente or Huntington Beach." And we're plotting the travel issue thinking about South Africa and Fiji and stuff. The editorial content is being skewed to meet that. But in a lot of ways I'm being very idealistic when I'm saying this stuff. I don't think if you worked at any major publication that that would be the case. But having been raised on the retail surf magazines, it was heart breaking.

You said Derek Hynd was a big influence to you in your surfing and writing career. How so?
He was more of a launching off point. When I joined the Tour, I was trying to be this competitive guy and I did have a burning desire in me and I read biographies about great athletes and I was kind of following this model. But there were events that happened during the time that I was on Tour that really changed me. The main one, which I've written a lot about, was the death of my brother. He died of a heroin overdoes right when I was just getting my bearings on Tour. To try to have that clinch-fisted athletic spirit while that's happening at home was such an inner struggle for me. The thing that emerged was more an artist temperament and just being more sensitive to be honest. You almost want to turn off a level of sensitivity when you are a pro athlete. Where I think in the world of writing and art, you can be peripheral. To simplify it, I think when you are an athlete you're trying to cut out a lot of distracting and keep you eye on one thing. And that's not to say that writing a great book doesn't require great focus, but you're listening to the world around you on a poetic level. I felt like that was an internal struggle.

Being on Tour with Derek, he was sort of an outcast and we connected. We stayed together a lot and he would have stacks of books. He'd be writing his reports and he would be literally laughing out loud at the lines he was writing. It was the coolest thing because we'd be sharing a hotel room, and I'd be there preparing my boards for tomorrow's heat and doing my stretches and all that sort of athletic stuff. Derek would be across the room and he would always write with his WalkMan on. He would lay flat on his stomach and write them out longhand and fax them off to Surfer Magazine. I would watch him and hear this chuckle across the room, and then Derek would take off his headphones and say, "You've got to read you this!" So I got to experience this vicariously.

So then who are the guys filling that role now? You've mentioned Dane Reynolds as someone who really takes surfing to a different level.
I came to surfing at a time when it wasn't so much of a sport. Now, if you were a senior in high school and you were really serious and you were doing an NSSA contest, your perspective of surfing would be, "Okay this could be my million dollar ticket." You do have these sort of little league parents now who really want to see their kids be competitive surfers. In the generation I came from it was very different than that. My notion of what it was to be a surfer was to be rebellious and it was kind of going against the grain of what my parents wanted me to do. There was something really nice about that. Now it's more buttoned up, or more like golf and tennis.

I think the thing that Dane brings to it is that he's such a freak and he is so incredibly gifted and it seems to come without effort. I've spent time with him and he's said some interesting things. I asked him if he ever got really competitive in heats, really fired up. He said that the only time he ever got that way was when his opponent is doing it -- like, if his opponent is claiming waves and throwing his fists in the air. He has this kind of post modern, ironic sensibility, raised on Wes Anderson films and things. I think he sees the absurdity of a lot of it. Like when the Rocky theme song plays, to him that's humor. But for other surfers or other generations without that sensibility, they take that seriously. The incredible thing with Dane is that he's kind of able to straddle both of these things. It seems that he's this sort of reluctant surf star and the more he steps aside, the brighter the spotlight hits him and the more people love him. It's so unprecedented. He speaks to that Mickey Dora thing and it's so in a surfer's DNA. You can draw line from Dane to Mickey Dora and then you could draw a line from Mickey Dora back to the Waikiki Beach Boys. It was really about fun. That thing about turning surfing into a competitive thing, I don't know, because to 90 percent of the practitioners, that's not what it's about.

You live in New York. What is the surf culture like there?
I really like the surf culture here. It comes with its territory, but it's not so much as a competitive scene. My friends who surf here embrace surfing for all the right reasons and they are really passionate about it, but it's not a competitive thing. But part of that would be my age. If I was 18, I may be running with a different crowd. But most of the surfers I know, they have careers and surfing is a just a foil and they have all these other things. And with that, it's this diverse crowd, far more so then what I've experience in Southern California.

What do you think about the ASP hosting a Tour event in New York this year?
I think it will inspire a lot of people. The thing about it is, even though I just said my friends and I aren't the competitive type, we are all these sort of surf groupies. Because we do love watching the top pros and watching what they are doing competitively. The surf media has done a great job of presenting these people and letting us know who they are and I'm always fascinated by that. My crew and I refer to these guys by their nicknames as if we know them, but we only know them through these webcasts of the events. To have that in our backyard, to experience it first-hand is really exciting.

It's nothing but positive to me. I think it represents a kind of shift; part of it led by Dane, part of it by Joel Tudor who does the Duct Tape events. It's sort of that Alex Knost ethos or aesthetic, which is more peripheral: being interested in music, being interested in art, being interested in fashion. Some how this event, more than any other event, is going to tie all that stuff together. Because when you have an event at the end of the road in Tahiti you're going to get great waves and great Tahitian culture, but it's going to be different from that sort of, urban culture or pop culture that would come out of New York.