From The Waves To The Stage – With Surfing Legend, Rob Machado
It is well known that surfing and music are a perfect pair together. They complement each other in ways that go beyond describing when it comes to the pure artform and self-expression. But what about how they inspire each other? How does surfing the ultimate wave lead to writing a profound song? Or in this case, how does having headphones on and getting lost in the magic of music influence the thrill of dominating the perfect barrel?
Luckily, we have surfing legend Rob Machado to enlighten us on the role of music in his life and career. Machado is a musician himself, and through his progressive environmental organization – the Rob Machado Foundation, a benefit concert is put on each year that includes the likes off: Offspring, Lucas Nelson, Switchfoot and more.
In the documentary Momentum Generation, released on HBO this past December, you are taken on a journey of a surf-brotherhood that would forever change the sport. The passion and creativity exuded resulted in an everlasting bond that boosted surf communities around the world, in addition to propelling this group of nine men to soaring heights – both individually and collectively. Throughout the twists and turns of the film you will notice an additional big wave that glides alongside the narrative.
Music. Whether it’s the subtle imagery of an acoustic guitar in the frame, the group of guys jamming at a bonfire or illuminating the complimentary punk scene, music serves as a driving force of each swell.
Fresh off the momentum of … Momentum Generation, I had the chance to speak with Machado from his home in SoCal. From his description, it was a day of peaceful waves that would encourage a connection with the water and a perfect opportunity to reflect upon all its sonic beauty.
What is your earliest recollection of being introduced to the power of music?
It’s funny, I drove my son to school this morning and he has a playlist on my phone, it’s his favorite thing to have it playing in the car. It has everything from ACDC to Foo Fighters to Disney songs on it. I was thinking, I don’t ever recall something like that being a part of my word growing up because the technology wasn’t there. But I did have tape deck and an old radio where I’d hear the Beach Boys and the Beatles constantly. I also remember sitting in our living room where we had this clunky stereo. I had these huge headphones with a coil chord that covered my whole head. I would sit there and listen to the oldies station while my family was watching TV.
Somehow in junior high school I really didn’t have much of an interest in the new wave music that had taken over the 80’s. Then on my 16th birthday I got my first Jimi Hendrix tape of Are You Experienced? Shortly after, I started listening to Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins and the Beastie Boys. That’s when music kicked into high gear for me. I became submersed in discovering everything Jimi Hendrix did – from videos to guitar solos to digging up his old songs. It was mind-blowing.
When did you first start playing guitar?
I took guitar lessons when I was 12-years-old and it was so challenging. I was trying to learn folk songs and it wasn’t relatable to me because I didn’t know the songs I was playing. So, I shied away from it until I was 16. My best friend and I then just started playing together. We were listening to a lot of Guns N’ Roses – that was around the time where Lies came out. It was one of the coolest things to play “Patience” on guitar. Being able to play along to these songs you loved opened a whole new world for me. My friend who I was playing with would show up to my house each day and say, “Oh, I learned two new songs last night.” He became my guitar teacher and would show me how to play these new songs. Then, we’d each take different parts and play the song together.
How about putting your surf world together with music. At what point did the two worlds collide with you where music became a motivational factor in your surfing?
16 was like my magic number. The day I turned 16 I got my drivers license. I had a car with a tape deck and suddenly, I had this new freedom – I got listen to whatever music I wanted to and go surf when I wanted to. I started making mix tapes to bring with me when I’d go surfing. Then, I got new speakers installed in my car so the music could be louder. That was it – I was making my world full of music to go surfing. It would get me into a particular zone to go do what I love like nothing else.
What type of music were you putting on those mix tapes that matched perfectly with your surfing at the time?
I was really getting into Pearl Jam with the Ten record and Nirvana. We were making surf movies during that time too and discovering bands like Pennywise and Bad Religion. There wasn’t enough time in the day to listen to all the music we could now dive into.
What about right before you were about to compete, was there a particular artist or genre you would listen to prior to jumping into the water with your surfboard?
Yes, for sure, especially as I got further along in my surf career, I had to find a way to calm my mind before heats. I had so many thoughts like – ride this board, try this move, look out for that. I found this song by Ben Harper called, “The Will to Live”. It’s very grounding and not an aggressive song. It’s more storytelling where it breaks life down and makes me realize how fortunate I am to be surfing for a living. It focuses on overcoming adversity and having the will to live to get through everything. That song always centered me and allowed me to go out there feeling very appreciative.
How about music that represents certain moments for you? Meaning, are there any songs or artists that to this day remind you of a certain wave you took or surfing moment?
For sure. I remember there was an obscure Smashing Pumpkins record that came out in 1994 that only had a few songs on it. I had one of the tracks on there, “Dancing in the Moonlight” on repeat on this trip to Reunion Island. It was me and a few buddies and nobody complained that we had one song playing all the time. It was one of my favorite trips, to this day I have the best memories of sitting in a little rental car jamming that song. It’s a great example of really connecting with a record when it first comes out. The same thing has happened to me with Bon Iver.
One thing I love about surfing is when I’m catching a wave, I really can’t think about anything else but that ride. Laird Hamilton once told me he often has a song playing in his head in those moments and it helps his focus. Does that happen for you?
It depends upon the situation. Like today for example, the waves were about two-feet and pretty mellow. I rode an 11-foot board and took mostly straight rides. There was more time for thought, I didn’t have to concentrate as much. In the opposite scenario, when it’s very intense, I find I don’t think at all. It’s this place of wonder where I stand up on a wave and everything else is on autopilot, I react to what’s in front of me. So, I agree, it’s a rare and magical moment where you are just locked in at one place.
Art by: Nick Martinez
Your new documentary Momentum Generation touches upon the surfing world coming together with the punk music scene. How important do you feel that was for you and the sport in general?
That was a huge change. Surf movies up until that point were shot on 16 or 35 millimeter and contained soundtracks that were very slow because everything was shot in high-speed. Taylor Steele came at it with a video camera and sitting on the beach. He didn’t have a ton of options, so he discovered that putting punk rock to these clips, doing fast edits and realizing you don’t need to show the wave from the take-off to the end would be exciting. His aim was to just put in the maneuver. Once he put punk rock behind that approach, he discovered something really cool. It was an alternative movement that was happening around the same time as grunge. It all went hand-in-hand. It was a crazy time in our lives because we were discovering how music and surfing could go together and people were eating it up.
There seemed to be an acoustic guitar present in almost every setting of Momentum Generation. Was that an integral part of the camaraderie amongst the surfers in your crew?
Yes. Once I learned how to play guitar, I realized how valuable it was when you’re not surfing. The waves aren’t good all day. We would certainly surf constantly, but there was a lot of down time. Having a guitar was a common denominator all over the world. No matter where we traveled to, music was one of those things that was everywhere. It goes beyond language or religion. It can bring people together based on rhythm.
How many instruments do you play now?
I play guitar and I tinker around on the piano. I can pick up certain instruments and understand them, but I haven’t taken the time to learn much other than guitar and ukulele.
Do you write songs?
I have, yes. It’s a scary world to dive into, it’s very challenging, but rewarding.
Machado/Switchfoot. Photo by: Dave Stotts
One of the highlights of participating in your Rob Machado Foundation is the annual benefit concert you have. It’s great to see how your musical relationships from the early punk scenes have sustained and now some of the artists play your show.
I love that night. We have a venue down here called The Belly Up, it’s probably one of the best music spots in San Diego. It’s very intimate with amazing sound and the perfect vibe to have something like this. We try to bring in bands that there’s a connection to. We make an effort to bring the musicians together too so it’s not just a bunch of people playing sets and then taking off. At the end of the night we’ll have everyone on stage just jamming out to a Tom Petty or Bob Marley song. Everyone embraces that, and it’s more of an acoustic format.
Offspring played this past year. They were blown away by doing their thing acoustically because they don’t often do that. The whole place was singing along. They walked away from it really stoked and wanting to do things like that more often.
Coming full circle here, when you think about your surfing career to this point, and all you’ve accomplished, how important has music been to your success?
Music has played a huge part. I think most athletes use music to do many different things. For me, it’s often to calm my mind and to get me more amped. It’s always been such a huge part of my life, not only for the physical side, but also lyrically – learning about self-expression and finding ways that it’s relatable to your life. It’s really helped me learn about myself. Most songs are about some sort of struggle, that’s a good thing because it shows an example of coming out the other end. You see you are not alone. Being on the road so much, especially when I was younger, was very challenging at times. Music was there to help save me.
Favorite concert experience:
I ended up on stage with Pearl Jam in Brisbane in 1998. I was playing guitar during “Rocking in the Free World”. There were maybe ten thousand people and they turned the house lights on, I was horrified. The whole night was unbelievable. It was the first time I met the band. We went surfing, sat out on my balcony and Eddie Vedder let me help him write out the setlist. It was like we knew each other but we didn’t, and we finally got to connect.
One of the most moving concerts I’ve ever been to was when I got to see Bon Iver play at a small theater in San Diego for about a thousand people. He had a nine-piece band on stage. You could hear every instrument being played perfectly. It was mind-boggling. I also saw Ed play his solo show at the same venue. I love those smaller intimate settings.
Top five favorite artists:
Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Beck, Ben Harper, Pearl Jam