Interviews, Surf cultureSurf Simply Interviews: Matt Warshaw
These days we have a greater and more immediate access to information than ever before. If you want to know something, google will spit the answer back at you in under a second; the Internet and search engines have changed everything. But that information still has to find its way onto the Internet in the first place, and in the case of surfing we primarily have Matt Warshaw to thank.
Matt Warshaw is arguably the biggest surf nerd around. As the author of both the Encyclopaedia of Surfing and The History of Surfing, and as a former editor of Surfer magazine, Warshaw has dug deeper into surfing, interviewed more noteworthy figures, and collected and collated more information surrounding riding waves than anybody else. And he’s shared it with the rest of us. A little over two years ago he took the Encyclopaedia of Surfing online, and it is now the go-to resource for anybody wanting to know (almost) anything about surfing and the events and characters that have shaped it. You won’t find an entry about its author on there though, which means that researching an interview with him is no one-stop shop and requires the sort of leg-work that he himself has undertaken for years. Which seems only fair.
In the early 80s Warshaw had a career as a professional surfer, before taking a job at Surfer magazine.
Compiling an encyclopaedia is an enormous undertaking, and so is documenting the complete history of surfing. I guess that one leads, almost inevitably, to the other. Did you have any real idea what you were getting yourself into when you started on the EoS?
Every project I do takes twice as long as I think it will. The book version of EOS was different in that it took four times as long. I started with a big number in my head—800,000 words—and worked backwards from there. Databases were involved. It’s too boring to bring up in public, except to say that yeah the whole thing was mapped out really carefully before I began writing. It had to be, or I would have l ended up living in a basement with tinfoil underwear and photos of the Olsen twins covering the walls.
Both are potentially endless projects. Whether surfing is growing exponentially or simply rapidly, there’s more to document now than ever before. How do you filter recent history into what is and isn’t worthy of note, or does it all get included?
With the Encyclopedia, the size of the project compared to the size of my staff (one) makes it super easy to not feel tied in any way to the idea of completion. I’m talking now about the EOS website. It’s so open-ended and so un-finishable, that I’m free to just do my best, do what I can, and not worry about it too much in terms of what’s in and what’s not in.
The EoS and History of Surfing are two quite different books style-wise. Can you discuss the reasons behind this, and was the change of gear an easy one to make?
Like you said above, one lead to the other. It wasn’t planned, but the Encyclopedia ended up being the research project for History. Because the writing in Encyclopedia was so compact and tight and formatted, yeah I was really looking forward to getting a bit more limber with History—which I knew was going to be my last book. Halfway through History I registered the Encyclopedia of Surfing domain, so that was there waiting.
Producing an encyclopaedia must take a lot of planning and a very systematic approach to gathering and sorting information. How did you go about writing it, and how did you sate your desire to write creatively whilst working on it?
I’m not really creative at all. I like to organize, I like to present things in a clean and hopefully intelligent way. And I’m a fuckin plowhorse. The book version of the Encyclopedia took three years to finish, and History was about the same, and I never got tired of the work. I love repetition in my workday. In little areas I guess it gets creative. Messing around with words, or video, is where that part comes in. I can easily lose an hour building and pulling apart and rebuilding one little paragraph.
Surfing’s grand historian, turning hard off the bottom.
By covering everything, you’ve had to research and present the good, the bad, and the ugly. Which events or characters did you particularly enjoy documenting and which were, to you, something of a necessary evil or a bit of a chore.
Surfing organizations don’t interest me much. Surfboard design I’m kind of lukewarm on. People interest me a lot. There are still hundreds of pages of the book that I haven’t yet posted on the website, and you can kind of tell from what’s not the site, but in the book—mostly those are the pieces I’m not too strong on. Like the NSSA is a pretty big deal in surfing, and has an entry in the book, but deserves to be on the site, but I can’t seem to get around to posting it. I will, though.
Through the course of your career to date you’ve met, spoken with and interviewed an incredible number of figures in surfing. Who would you like to talk with whom you never had the chance to meet?
I can’t do it now because he’s dead, but I would’ve loved to raise a glass or two with Dale Velzy. I’d very much like to go back and time and try and figure out what the deal was with Tom Blake—to me, he is the saddest, most burdened surf legend. The opposite of Velzy. Blake’s had books written about him, but to me he’s not a flesh and blood surfer at all, just an icon.
Is there anybody that you’d like a second round with?
I’d like to go back in time, cure cancer, and have a second round of friendship with Brock Little.
What’s your favourite piece of surf trivia? I’m curious – you must have uncovered some really interesting and quirky surf stories through the course of all of your research.
It’s not trivia, really, but I stumbled onto this long-dead guy named Mad Jack Churchill a couple years ago, and he was without a doubt the craziest, most balls-out surfer ever born. British war hero and bagpipe player and saver of Jewish people. First guy to surf the Svern Bore. I spent two days reading everything I could find about him, just down the rabbit hole.
ADVENTURE, THY NAME IS MAD JACK CHURCHILL
The History of Surfing may have the dimensions of a coffee table book, but it’s a weighty piece of work word-count wise. You used images sparingly. Do you have any favourites, and were that any photos that you wanted to feature but weren’t able to?
The whole experience of making that book was so great, the best of my career, and one of the highlights was pulling the cover together. The rules were: one big photo, no collage, no art. And that’s hard! One photo for the whole damn sport! I picked the shot of the two guys laying on the beach, because that’s something we’ve no doubt been doing since homo erectus days, just checking the surf. But the photo is kind of blank in the middle, there’s no focal point, which makes it a really left-field pick. It only works because the designer did such an amazing job with the type. So that’s my favourite image in the book. Its my favourite surf-book cover ever, in fact. Maybe because my name is so huge!
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re not a great believer in looking back in order to move forwards. Having covered surfing’s history, where do you think it might be headed in the future?
No more print magazines? Wavepools in every mall? That’ll be part of it, I guess. Glad I won’t be around to see it!
You grew up surfing Venice Beach and Santa Monica in the late 60s and early 70s, riding for the Zephyr surf team and running with Jay Adams. That place and time seemed to be a particularly fertile ground for surfers and skaters who have gone on to make contributions within their cultures as writers, filmmakers and influencers. Why do you think that is?
What I remember about growing up in Venice in the late ‘60s and ‘70s was that our parents just were barely around. Not because they were negligent—well, some were—but because they were working, or because it just wasn’t how kids were raised. Anyway, we were on our own. In the streets, on the beaches, in the parking lots and surf shops and playgrounds. Maybe it was that way in beach towns everywhere, but Venice in particular it seemed like we were left to run wild, and maybe in some cases that wasn’t the smartest thing—kids starting going off the rails once we hit junior high—I’d say that for those who didn’t get pulled under it made us resilient, confident that we could get by, less afraid to take chances. I was out of Venice by the time I was 13, but the years I was there shaped me in a big way. There’s just a little bit of punk in me, a little edge, and that’s what keeps me from being a total pussy, and it comes from growing up in Venice.
Childhood friends Jay Adams (left) and Matt Warshaw (right) circa 1970. Photo: Kent Sherwood.
You’ve slowly migrated north from Southern California to San Francisco and then on to Washington State. Does distance from the more “mainstream” surf world help you to see surfing more clearly and document it all with a bit of perspective?
The physical distance matters some, but really it’s the distance in terms of age. I’m not an everyday surfer any more, and the sport looks clearer to me than it used to. In other words, when I was up to my eyeballs in actually riding waves, that obstructed my view a bit. Consciously or not, when you’re you’re really in the middle of it, you’re trying to defend or justify surfing all the time.
Here’s a magic wand. What will surfing look like by the time you’re done with it?
Like something designed by Charles Eames and Ron Stoner.
When is there going to be a post about Matt Warshaw in the EoS?
When I’m dead. My son will lay a wreath made of sweet alyssum petals and dragonfly wings upon the base of my statue at the foot of Manhattan Beach Pier, then pull out his laptop and upload my entry.
Matt Warshaw in his workspace at home in Washington State, photographed by Chris Burkard.