"I Always Had A Mega Chip On My Shoulder" - Stab Mag

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Say it with us, "There's no surf in New York." Balaram Stack must not be a surfer, then. Photo: Mike "Nelly" Nelson

“I Always Had A Mega Chip On My Shoulder”

UnSound Surf’s Mike Nelson and Dave Juan have been the backbone of New York surfing for decades.

features // Oct 5, 2022
Words by Ashton Goggans
Reading Time: 9 minutes

(Editor’s Note: Each week we’ll be diving into the local stories and features within our new series with Red Bull, No Contest Off Tour. You can also listen to cuts from some of these interviews each week on the No Contest Off Tour Podcast, hosted by Ashton Goggans and Tyler Breuer, available on the Stab Podcast channel.)

It’s hard to overstate the contribution that Dave Juan and Mike Nelson have made, not just to New York surfing, but to East Coast surfing at large. 

When Dave and Mike opened UnSound in 1997, surfing in Long Island and New York City was very much an underground, largely two-season endeavor, save for a rare bunch of true believers who endured the winter blasts in stiff, pre-millenium neoprene. 

Throughout the late 90s, Nelly’s photos began to gain the attention of photo editors at Surfer, Surfing, and especially Tom Dugan and Dick Meseroll’s iconic newsprint monthly, Eastern Surf Magazine. 

Meanwhile, New York surfing, and Long Beach specifically, began to rise in profile largely due to Mike and Dave’s efforts launching and growing the UnSound Pro into one of the most successful, iconic East Coast events in surf history. The UnSound earned a reputation for scoring incredible conditions, and became a proof of concept for what would eventually become the Quiksilver Pro New York in 2011, with a million dollar prize purse making it the highest paying event, still, in professional surf history. 

More importantly, UnSound is the only surf shop we can think of that’s ever been the supporting sponsor of a ‘CT event, but correct us if we’re wrong. 

When we visited, Nelly was putting the final touches on his incredible new hardbound volume, North of Nowhere, featuring some of Nelly’s extraordinary archive. It’s available now, and is a crucial addition to any surfer’s library. 

Watch the New York episode of No Contest Off Tour above. Here’s my conversation with Dave and Mike. (Don’t like reading? Listen to the podcast from the interview, below.)

STAB: Did surfing and photography happen at the same time for you, Dave? 

Mike Nelson: My mother gave me a camera. So I kind of wrestled with surfing and shooting a little bit in the beginning. We would go to surf, I’d paddle out for a little bit, then I’d go get the camera and I’d take a couple pictures and get the board again, vice versa.

Dave Juan: We’d have to rush and drive all the way to Rockville Center, because it was the only place that would do the film in one hour. Cause you had sit it in there an hour and if you got there close to when it closed, forget about it. It was costly too. It was like $10 to get film done.

Mike: So it just spiraled outta control from there. 

Sam Hammer. Photo by Mike “Nelly” Nelson, from the book “North of Nowhere.”

And when did you start getting stuff published? 

First one was published 1992, Eastern Surf Magazine, postage stamp, friggin black and white crap. I got a little bit of feedback and then I sent a few to Surfer back in the day and got like one or two quick little bites from Steve Hawk. He actually hit me back, which was like—I couldn’t believe it. You know? Surfer!

I just kind of kept at it, chipping away at it. Eastern Surf Magazine really supported us here in New York. Because I personally feel, I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I had like a mega chip on my shoulder. I was like pissed when people told me that the waves sucked in New York.

“Eastern Surf Magazine, they really, they supported us here in New York,” says Mike “Nelly” Nelson. “Because I personally feel, I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I had like a mega chip on my shoulder. I was like pissed when people told me that the wave sucked in New York.” Balaram Stack by Mike “Nelly” Nelson.

Dave: This is pre-Bal days, but there was so many guys that like, maybe they weren’t doing 10 foot airs, but these guys could get tubed with the best of them, period. 

Our friend from Hawaii was around and he’d be like, “You guys have such insane ways.”

We’d catch Lido by ourselves. And he’d be like, “Jesus Christ. It’s just barreling all day. I can’t even believe you guys have waves like this. It’s the best secret I’ve seen in my life.”

Wide open Long Island. Photo by Mike “Nelly” Nelson, from “North of Nowhere.”
Balaram Stack. Photo by Mike “Nelly” Nelson.

What did you want to try and capture about New York surfing in your photos? 

The main thing that gets me off about surfing photography is like, there’s a lot of guys that want to just take pictures of waves or take lineups or this and that—I want to take pictures with people and my friends. That’s really what I think is the motivating thing for me. That’s the most satisfying thing. It’s a very personal connection, you know. 

I wanted to come up with good stuff of New York to show people what our home does. I feel like the East Coast has always been kind of the redheaded stepchild and, again, that chip on my shoulder to try to prove that wrong. 

“We always knew our focus was always to give kids opportunities that we didn’t have,” says Dave Juan.

So you guys opened this place in your mid twenties out here? 

Mike: We’ve had the surf shop for 25 years now going into yeah, 25 years, something like that. Opened in 1997, incorporated in ’98, and I’ve been running it and working alongside this guy for 20 plus years now

Dave:  We grew up together as kids we’ve known each other since we were like 9 years old. 

Mike: I started surfing because one of my friends started surfing, went to California for the summer, found surfing, came back. He’s like, “everybody’s gotta surf.” So for that summer, everybody surfed and then they all quit. So then the only other person in my town that surfed was him. 

Dave: I lived lived on the other side of town. So we kind of hooked up and just started surfing every day, this and that. He eventually got a job at the other surf shop, but he kind of saw that the writing was on the wall, you know, they were a brief, but bright existence, I guess you would say.

And he’s like, “yo, let’s open a store.” I’m like, “Alright.”

When did you guys start doing the Unsound Pro? 

Mike: Right away. 1999.

Dave: We always knew our focus was always to give kids opportunities that we didn’t have. And we understood, we were traveling a lot going to California and surfing stuff, we had an opportunity to make Long Beach the spot to come to, you know? So, let’s make a video, let’s make sure we have a contest every year.

Mike: People listening to this might think “he’s saying all that so they’ll sell more stuff.” That was completely not true. We were like, we should do all this because this is what we want to do here. That’s it.

We just want to hang out. We wanna surf, we wanted good surfers to come to town. What’s the only way to get good surfers in Long Beach, New York—back then, anyway? Give them money. So let’s have a contest. That’s how it evolved.

Cold comfort on Long Island. Photo by Mike “Nelly” Nelson from the book “North of Nowhere.”

How has the shop and New York surfing evolved since then?

Mike: I feel I would feel lost if I had to open a shop today and like, ’cause it’s just different. I think kids have more avenues and outlets and phones and this and that. When we first opened it, Surfline was a fax. 

When we first opened, we were super nice to anybody. When we were kids, if they were mean to us at the other shops, we were like “screw that shop.” That’s why this place became a pseudo babysitting factory for years.

Dave: That’s one of the reasons we called it UnSound cause we used to go away when we were kids and every time we go to California, they’d be like, “oh, there’s no waves [in New York].” “There’s the Long Island sound over there. We always get picked on. So we wanted to find a name that fit that. So its UnSound, it’s not the Long Island Sound. And it’s like an unsound business. We had no business schooling at all, nothing at all.

Ashton: Tell us how Balaram came into the fold.

Dave: Bal came around with his mom, they moved up from Florida and his brother, Red, surfed pretty good. We already had the store and we had surfed with Red a few times over here on Lincoln. Right away, we were like, all right, they’re cool. They’re nice people. They’re from Florida, the brother rips, you know, they’re cool.

And [Mary] was really, she was awesome. Obviously very supportive of surfing and all her kids love to surf. So she was coming to surf shop to get stuff.

Mike: I’ll say one thing: she’s been the same. She hasn’t changed. Soon as we went surfing with Bal at the same time or his brothers, she was there with hot chocolate when we got outta the water, she knew how to make friends right away.

Dave: Right away, she trusted us, and she had tough working schedule, so she would drop Bal here, then he’d go surf, come back, surf, and come back… and he was always welcome to come whenever he wanted. So that’s how we became super close with Bal. 

Mike: I mean, to be perfectly honest, I have zero recollection of that kid until one day the kid came out and surfed and like, yo, he was this big. I have a picture of him from the first day I’ve ever seen him, duct tape around the front of his board, holding on the nose, brown as hell old board. Kids just out there floating around. I have no idea, and he slowly takes off on a wave and it’s not that big, but it’s like two foot overhead on him cuz he’s so little, and he drops in, full on square, off the bottom, goes right up into it and is gonna hit it, and blows out the fins, completely falls, but like just, you could just see the mechanic. Wave one, boom, right off it, right up From right then I was like, alright, that’s the kid I gotta keep my eye on.

The Unsound Pro has really become a legendary event on the East Coast. Any highlights over the years?

John John was here multiple times. Who else? Chris Ward, Shea and Cory Lopez. Kolohe. Fred Patacchia was here. But definitely the Quik Pro was crazy. That was another intense time for New York surfing.

You wanna give us that story, concept to execution, how you guys were involved with that?

Dave: Andy Ryan worked at Quiksilver, and we always told Andy, “Let’s do a big event with Quiksilver.” And we always thought QS. We knew we could definitely do a 6-star and people would be stoked on it.

So that was our plan. 

Mike: You’re always hunting for sponsors. So every year we’d wrestle up whoever was around, pitching every year, let’s do it. Let’s do it. Finally, in 2010, he’s like, “I think we’re gonna do it.” And we thought it was probably gonna be like a four or six star kind of thing.

And then literally a week later, he’s like, yo, these guys are coming into town, let’s meet. So we meet ’em out for dinner at this frigging place and they’re like, “Hey, we’re gonna do a CT. A million bucks.” We’re like, “Okay.”

They took over our permit, but they were like this is your event too, you guys started this whole thing. We wanna make sure that you are a hundred percent a part of this. 

Dave: We were very involved. We were lucky to be very involved. We were the main sponsor of the trials, which is kind of a feather in our cap. I don’t think any of the shop in the world’s ever been a supporting sponsor for a CT event, especially a million dollar CT.

Mike: Just being involved in surfing, the opportunities come that way. You know, that’s a lot of like what was lucky for us—that happened by us putting in the groundwork first, you know? nn

You can purchase Mike Nelson’s incredible first volume of photos, North of Nowhere, here. UnSound will celebrate their 25th anniversary this year, and plans are being made for a return of the UnSound Pro as soon as possible. Visit UnSound’s website to support one of the East Coast’s most important institutions, or follow them on Instagram to stay up to date on Long Island surfing.

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