An Extended Interview With John John Florence (Long-ish Read)
On the best wave he caught last year, his distaste for social media, and far more. Bring canapés.
Is John John Florence capable of showing intensity, or fury, or dullness? Perhaps not. He is eternally settled, almost to a fault, and unsurprisingly, this is how Stab finds him when he grants us a rare right swipe. He’s spent the past few days sailing, he’s been surfing a lot, and has just signed an eight-year, $30m-plus contract with Hurley. When he won the world title back in October, it filled surf purists with a sense of satisfaction, like watching a winning Tetris block find its home. Has a more predicted, wished-for, or deserved world title ever been won? Yeah, probably. But right now, all that matters is that the current best surfer in the world is the current world champ. For this reason alone, any insight he grants us is of great interest.
It’s no coincidence that all of John’s favourite things stray from cell reception.
Stab: Hi John.
John: Hi. Sorry, I’m late. I had to get batteries on my boat and we were out til late.
Do you still have your little cat on the beach at Logs as well? I have it on the beach in summer because in winter the waves wash all the way up.
I would imagine you’ve punched it through some big surf. Not huge surf, but certainly when it’s been head high. Going out is so much easier because you can see it coming, but coming in, it’s harder because you have to time it and once you go for it there’s no turning back, really. We’ve had some trouble where the boat fully gets into a wave and we all have to get at the back and lean back and ride the boat on a wave all the way to the beach.
But sailing is all the things you like in the world: the ocean, and no cell or wifi service. Yes, exactly (laughs). Away from it all.
What about the rumour that you were contemplating taking a year off tour to sail around the world? No, I was never going to take a year off tour, not anytime soon. I would love to sail though – the closest thing to that would be sailing to Tahiti for the contest because we have a nice break before Tahiti.
It would be pretty cool paddling from your boat straight to your heat and back again. Is it achievable? Yes, for sure. I’d love to just roll in a couple of days before the event, just like, ”Ah, we’re here, we just sailed from Hawaii.’’ (Laughs)
Imagine clearing immigration at Teahupoo. Oh my god, yes. It’d be pretty funny.
“I’d never shot Haleiwa before this session,” recalls photographer Brian Clifford. “It wasn’t perfect Haleiwa, but there were some beautiful, open faces. I’d been shooting for about half an hour when John John paddled out and started putting on a rail clinic. To be honest, I’ll take a solid carve shot over a barrel shot any day of the week – John proving exactly my point here.”
Can we talk about the Johnterage? You had a big team last year. There’s a ton of people who helped me out last year. I had Eric (Knutson) and Brandon (Wasserman) at every single event no matter what. Brandon just helps out with logistics of everything really. Just makes sure everything goes smoothly because the least amount of stress, the better on those events. A lot of the guys travel by themselves. I think it’s super important to have some support there like that, if you can, because it’s such a big help. It’s so much less stress off you. To be able to go to a place and stop, no stress. It’s like, ok, you know everything’s going go real smooth because you’re not going to have to deal with it.
And, you had Mark Kozuki on hand a lot. Mark’s really gotten to know how my injuries work and how my body works. When I hurt my knee in Tahiti in the final and that was with five minutes to go. Mark was actually in the channel watching, right there sitting on a board. I was like, “Mark, what do you think? I tweaked it, I pushed it this, it went this way.” It was so sore and I was all, ”I don’t know, should I catch another wave?” He was going, “Whatever is good.” He’s all, “y’know, it could just be a sprain.” That made the final decision for me. I was pretty far behind. But just having that kind of support right there, right then, during the heat is crazy.
A voice of reason when the adrenalin is running? Yes, exactly, because the adrenaline is running through. You can’t feel how hurt it really is. It’s like, “I think I’m good to surf.”
What a strange world it was before John won his debut world title. Prior to the victory, the surfing world felt slightly kinked. But then, click! This photo was taken when he’d just landed in France, about to embark on a formidable Euro run. “This was literally the first photo I shot in France last year,” says it’s creator, the charming Ryan Miller. “The file name is 0001.”
Last year you flipped your stance on training, yeah? Yes. For me in the past I’ve always been just wanting to surf and have fun. But then last year I was like, ok, I wanted to try a couple new things to put it into the tour. I started working with Kid Peligro. I really like this stuff because you’re not trying to get, like, buff. It’s a lot of mobility stuff and core stuff. He’s just an awesome person altogether, too. I’ve had so many good conversations with him and he’s got a wealth of knowledge for competing and everything like that. Very inspiring. Just talking to him, it’s almost been life-changing for me. He was just a huge help for me last year, just the training and talking and everything like that.
I saw him put up a post-training Instagram, and thought “John’s not gonna be happy, I think Kid Peligro just got the sack.” (Laughs) Yes. I got over the Instagram thing, I don’t really care about this one.
Speaking of Instagram, I think you would be the least Kool-Aid-drinking athlete of all time. You’re not really a shoutout or hashtag kinda dude. Your account is pretty slow. Most guys get hammered on their contracts for this. Discuss. I don’t really agree with the whole Instagram thing. I see so many people just get sucked into that world and it’s funny how you’re enjoying beautiful times and people are on Instagram. It’s super wild. You have to shoot it to be able to tell everyone how good of a time you had. It’s this constant competition to make yourself look better than everyone else on Instagram. It’s just time-consuming. There’s so many other things that I’d rather be doing that don’t involve spending six hours a day on Instagram, or thinking about what other people are doing. I think that’s a big one too: It’s just constantly thinking about what someone else is doing. I know it’s the world we’re living in but people have had huge careers without Instagram. I’ve been very lucky just getting events and getting movies and stuff. But I think that if people spent a little more time working on what they were actually doing rather than trying to please the public eye, you gain a lot more. That’s my view of Instagram.
For all his nonchalance, John Florence was put on this Earth for one role only: The lead.
Let’s talk about your production company, Parallel Sea, and the series, Twelve. Yes, well, the Twelve series is something my whole little team over here helped come up with at the beginning of the year. Because we’d finished the movie and then I knew that I just wanted to focus on the tour. Filming is still a passion of mine. I just enjoy working at the cameras and getting to work with people like Eric (Knutson), and our whole team has helped me to make the Twelve series. We came up with this idea to be able to use the footage for the whole year. I was like, ”Oh, let’s just document the tour the whole year.” It ended up working out really well on that side of things.
Hmmm, surfing docos have a strange history. Shooting rookie years and world title years doesn’t always have a fairytale ending. You could have easily documented a runner-up year. But, the irony of calling your series “Twelve” when Kelly Slater is going for a world title after number 11 is a big risk. Ha. I didn’t see that, I didn’t even think about that. That’s a pretty funny one.
I’m sure a little part of Kelly wanted to spoil the whole video project. Like, “I’m going to get my 12th world title for his Twelve series…” Yes, but that didn’t happen, did it? (Laughs) It’s funny, I did last year more as a test year for the next few years almost. It’s weird to say because it worked out so well. But I was still learning so much. I just was like, ok, this whole year I’ve been just taking it as a learning curve, just like, what did I learn from this? What did I learn from that?’ When I won the title, I was still in this place where I was like, I’ve got to get the next heat and then next heat and the next heat. I wasn’t even thinking of winning the world title, and so I surprised myself. Like, “Whoa, that happened quicker than I thought it was going to happen!” (laughter).
How do you move on from that? How do you stay inspired now? I would say I approach it pretty similarly. Of course you’re always trying to go over that world title in the back of your mind. It’s so hard to explain because you go through so many different mindsets during the year, it’s such a long year. One moment you’re feeling like, “Oh, I’m just trying to win and I just want to win this year,” and then the next moment you’re feeling like, “I’m just going to keep going through heats,” and a little mellower about it. It changes, each event is different.
You were quite formulaic in the way you surfed heats. Especially earlier in the year. Are you going to change that up this year? I’ll probably do something similar to last year, but I’m definitely going to work on a lot of things I have in my mind to fix. I’ll just be surfing – it’s cool because there’s really no limit to how good you can get, I think. I would like to just keep bettering myself in every way.
What’s the worst thing about winning a world title? I think the biggest downside was just before winning the world title. There’s so many people talking about it and you get to a point where you’re just like, “stop talking about it.” Anything can happen. Going into Portugal and France, or even right when you get the yellow jersey, you’re like, “Ok, I got the yellow jersey.” But there’s still such a long way to go and people start just assuming things and throwing things at you and you can get caught up in that pretty easily. It’s just like they build up these stories that are pretty… they’re pretty amazing sometimes. It’s just funny to look back at it. Seriously, that was the worst part.
Usually, abstract’s not our bag. The line between ‘art’ and ‘shit’ can be elusive. But this, of John, at Backdoor, is an example of success. “I wasn’t in position for the turn from the front, so I did my best to get it from underwater,” says photographer Mr Matt Catalano. “Autofocus was on my side that day. Rail game is an art form and JJF makes good art.”
Matt Paul Catalano
You won the world title in the morning, right? You guys went back to the house? We actually stayed down in the contest area for a few hours and had some beers and a pretty funny little afternoon down there.
But after everyone packed up went home, you went back to your house, and then you went surfing again, yes? Yes. I got home and the waves were actually super fun in front of the house, and it was just clean and glassy and there was no one out. Me and Kiron Jabour, one of my best friends, we just went surfing out front. It was just… so much fun. It was the best way to take it all in, just being in the water surfing again, with no one out.
It’s quite the contrast. For so long you’ve been unable to do anything without a camera in your face or being documented and then your first surf as world champ was without any cameras. Yes, that was exactly it. It was just being able to go surf with no pressure and no… nothing. That was my real first surf without having the pressure of cameras, not having the pressure of the world title, not having the pressure of anything. I had some fun waves but it wasn’t the best session ever, but it was like the most relaxing session.
In the history of surfing, I wonder if anyone has ever won a world title and then gone surfing again in the afternoon. I can’t recall Andy or Kelly doing it. Or Mick. At that point – what are you surfing for? You win a world tittle and yes, you win this thing that you’ve done all year, but you don’t change as a person, you don’t change as a human. You’re still that same exact person. For me, at least, I surf because I want to surf and I love surfing. I didn’t change. I still came back to my house and I was like, “the waves look fun, I’m going to go surfing.”
Ok, what was the single best wave you caught last year? There was this one really big wave at the beginning of last year, right before the Eddie. I caught it at this outer reef that me, Nathan and Kiron were surfing. It was this big double-up and was the biggest barrel I’ve ever paddled and pulled into. I didn’t make it. I was on my 10’4”, grabbing my rail and going down it felt like a huge Pipe wave. I let go of my rail, it closed out and I got so worked. These huge slabs were coming in; it was a crazy day.
Were you wearing the floatation vest? Yeah, I had a vest on, I pulled it.
Pretty cool that in a year when you won The Eddie and a world title, the best wave you rode was a closeout. It was a big wave, the biggest barrel of my life. It made my 10’4” feel like a Pipe board.
So, I’ve still been trying to organise this trip with Dane Reynolds and yourself. He said, “Don’t bother, I think John is more a control freak than I am. He’ll want to do it with his production company. He’s a massive control freak, I can tell.” Yes I’m a bit of a control freak I guess you would say. I like having control over what goes out.
Well, Dane doesn’t want to do a boat trip. I don’t want to go on a boat trip either.
Maybe Africa? I’m open to a little trip. I want to go where the waves are really fun and there’s no one out. I would rather not go to Durban and surf by the piers.
Ok, so maybe there was one photographer around during his first surf as world champ. Luckily, that photographer was Ryan Miller. Can you even imagine the breeziness of Mr Florence’s headspace during this session?
Somewhere uncrowded is the brief. I’d be stoked to go somewhere. I don’t know if you guys can think up something – I think it would be really fun to go do airs somewhere. I really want to do an air trip again. Get that good wind – a lot of people look at waves to be offshore and good, but they don’t look at the normal trade winds. There’s are a ton of places you can go when the wind blows in a good direction.
West Oz is out. You can’t really do much more there. No, I see that. But I was thinking, what if you looked around the world, look in the Southern Hemisphere, where the wind blows to the right and just find somewhere to go. I don’t know. How about you guys start throwing some ideas around and let me know?
Ok. Africa’s sick too though. I know some really cool places in Africa to go that are insanely fun. I tried to get Dane to go on a trip with me for my movie, but he didn’t come.
Didn’t he? He’s more of a control freak than me. Look at him – he was like, “No, I can’t go for your movie… But I want you to come for my movie.”
In a year when he won The Eddie, The Vans Triple Crown and The World Title, of all the winning waves he caught, this, at a goosebumpy outer reef in Hawaii, was the best wave Mr Florence caught in 2016 (according to him). And, it closed out. More pure than a newborn’s iris, this gent is.
Ha. After Dane awarded Jon Pyzel the winner for Stab in The Dark in New York, I said to Jon, we have good news and bad news. Good news is this will be good for business, the bad news is that we need your star athlete, John, for Stab in the Dark this year. He said yes, but then said that you said no. No, I can’t explain it as well as Dane does. After watching Dane’s thing, I can’t keep up like he can. I know boards by how they feel. Like, “this one feels a little bit stiff in the tail.” I haven’t gotten super into the whole “exactly why” – I do have a general idea, but not as deep as Dane. Watching him explain each board and why it worked that way, or why he thinks it works that way, was interesting. I really enjoyed watching Dane surf a bunch of different boards and I thought he was ripping. It’s funny, it makes Dane surf different in a way. It’s cool to see Dane really put his mind to something and really try to do it.
You probably don’t know this, but there’s been a rumour about Pyzel’s boards, “They’re so hard to ride. The only person who can ride Pyzels is John.” So, I guess that is certainly debunked. It does seem, however, that his shaping prowess has peaked at the same time as your surfing. In recent years, how hard has it been not to take other offers? There have been a lot of offers, I’ve tried a lot of different boards, but you can’t beat a relationship with a shaper. Jon’s like family, I can tell him what I like and don’t like comfortably. He shaped the second surfboard I ever got. We’ve gone through so many boards and different shapes that I feel comfortable going out at 10 foot Pipe on a board I’ve never ridden. It’s all moulded into a trust thing.
Yes, I guess it’s one less thing – it seems you’re trying to cancel out variables – it’s one less thing you have to worry about. Yes, exactly. Cancelling variables is a huge part of winning a world title.
And so, your new deal: You’ll be running for Hurley until you’re 45. That’s a quite a good deal. 62, Sam.
Ok, 62. This is the deal you’ll be on until 2025, yeah? Years wise, I think something like that. What is this year? 2017? I was really stoked on that deal. Because Hurley have definitely been a big, huge part of my whole life and just them changing everything or not changing everything… They’ve really helped me accomplish what I’ve wanted to accomplish, from movies to contest and everything like that. They’ve been really supportive of it which I think was the best thing ever, to be able to go, “yes, I want to make a movie this year,” and they’re like, “ok, go for it,” or “I’m going to focus on contests this year,” and they’re like, “ok, go for it.”
Finally, whose surfing in the world do you love watching the most right now? I’d probably, say Dane, but I really enjoy watching Mick’s heats. I think it’s amazing watching Mick surf. It’s like he’s got it down to such a science that… it’s pretty incredible. At least, it looks like that. He has a lot of control in the way he surfs, in the way he thinks, or the way he just goes about a heat. And, he is a very likeable person (laughs).
For all the tubes and ankle-busting airs, it’s John’s beautifully awkward rail game that really excites much of the surfing fraternity. While his take on power surfing is in many ways unconventional, John always compensates by cranking the last part of the turn with maximum velocity. Few torque better.
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