Unlocked: Liam O’Brien In ‘Wandering’ - Stab Mag

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Unlocked: Liam O’Brien In ‘Wandering’

An 18-minute DIY surf film featuring one of the CT’s classiest acts.

cinema // Sep 20, 2023
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Watch all the 2023 Stab Edit of the Year entries here.

“LOB learns things quickly,” filmmaker and manager Beren Hall tells me.

“I reckon that applies to most things he does. This film, for example, he edited it all by himself. Did all the graphics, chose all the music — if he doesn’t know how to do something, he’ll just hop on YouTube and watch tutorials.” 

A proverbial ‘if you chop your own wood it will warm you twice’ kinda guy.

“I’ve always liked making little clips and having a bit of creative control,” affirms LOB. “So it was cool to do on a bit of a larger scale. Beren and Nick oversaw it all, and Bez colour-graded the whole thing, which was nice to have a bit of a professional touch on it so it’s not completely amateur.” 

LOB is comically understated but cites and celebrates his filmmaking influences generously. 

“I grew up in that Kai Neville era, and to me that’s an opus of the best stuff ever. I was obsessed with Dear Suburbia and Modern Collective, Joe G’s stuff as well. They always seemed so surreal and otherworldly. I’d say I’ve got a pretty eclectic taste for surf clips. I really liked Noa’s [Deane] clip last year, Jacob Wilcox had a sick film a couple of years ago, Shaun Manners’ one this year, Kael Walsh in ‘Idiot Box’… just anything with a bit of artistic value where there’s consideration gone into the edit as well as the surfing and filming.”

The best hair on tour right now, surely.

Jed Smith touched on LOB’s vast intellect in a profile piece published right after he qualified in Haleiwa — an event where he could’ve gone all the way, had he not fallen into the rite-of-passage, spaghettifying wormhole of post-qualification beers the night before. “I was pretty hungover for finals,” he told Smiv at the time, adding, as means of justification, “It was huge and I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t reckon it’ll be on…’ 

…But it was on. And LOB, still dusty, threw on his jersey and remarkably, won his quarter-final heat on the heaving, treadmill current of the Haleiwa bowl. “I actually felt alright by the semis but I surfed pretty shit and lost,” he laughs. 

Riddle me that one, high-performance coaches.

Post-qual, pre finals day.

But just as sudden as LOB’s rise to CT rookiedom was his subsequent dismissal from it. 

Rolling up to Pipe days before the start of the 2022 CT, a pastel yellow firmament standing in stark contrast to the mutant 8-footers doubling up at OTW, I recall cringing everytime his Gath-adorned dome packed pits over hardened magma. For someone who composed together the words “quark”, “equine” and “azure” in a game of Scrabble, I thought his wave selection brutish. “Yeah he fucking charges,” laughs Beren, who shot him in the cathedrals at the end of this film. “Calculated, sure… sometimes.” 

Frame from Make or Break. Rinsing Morgz Cibilic and Bottz in a game of anagram-finder.

A few days after witnessing LOB shapeshift into a meat crayon and paint the reef at OTW in flesh, he had withdrawn from all five events in the first half of his ‘rookie season’. Going left on a ‘little Pipe tube’, LOB hit backwash, dorsiflexing his toes back toward his calf muscle. “I ended up breaking my fibula and sustaining a deltoid and syndesmosis injury.” Surgery required a plate, screws and a tightrope inserted in his hoof. The WSL awarded the 2023 injury wildcard — his only hope of not having to requalify via the Challenger Series — to Gabriel Medina and Yago Dora. 

Rookie year, squandered (in style).

“It was just such a moment of triumph to finally qualify and achieve your life dream, so after the injury I was pretty down in the doldrums,” LOB admits. “Eventually, I got to a point where I was like, ‘Whether it’s on the CT, CS or QS, getting paid to surf and travel is a blessing, so I’m just going to savor it while it lasts and not get too devastated or cynical.”

His requalification campaign got off to a rough start.

“Hopping back on the Challenger was humbling. I lost early in the Snapper and Manly Challenger Series events and I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t think I’m getting back on tour’. Then I went over to Mandiri for the QS and lost first heat there as well, I was just like, ‘fuck, this is heavy’,” he laughs. “But it ended up being a blessing in disguise, because the waves were just pumping everywhere the entire time.” 

30 of these, or 3,000 points: which would you choose?

Of note: LOB produced this clip on his own dime (i.e. paid filmers and cleared all the music himself), on top of glueing the whole thing together. His cheat code to keeping costs down was his resourcefulness. “I’d just either extend my ticket or go a bit early. You’re in proximity to it already, so it’s not like you have to fly all the way around the world just to go and try and chase a swell,” he explains.

There’s a lot that intrigues me about LOB. For one, he absolutely charges. Two, everyone I spoke to about him was quick to bring up his unwavering affable energy. “LOB is one of the best young blokes of all time. Such a great bloke,” Stace Galbraith texted me, “just have a chat with him.”

The other thing that interested me were the allegations that he gets passionate talking about things beyond surfing — which let’s be honest, can get pretty fucking stale. 

You can imagine what kind of wave preceded a kickout like this.

“I think I’ve been the beneficiary of some kind media with that ‘highly intelligent call’. I don’t know if that’s too accurate, but yes, I definitely committed to school. It was a bit of a deal with my parents from when I was a little kid that if I did my best at school and graduated that they’d let me do the QS for a year and see how it went. So that was a big carrot. I ended up enjoying trying to learn new things and develop skills and just keep the brain ticking over.” 

LOB’s final year results were stellar enough to get him straight into the highly-competitive course of Medicine, but he chose Engineering instead. “I felt like I bit off more than I could chew with trying to study engineering while competing. I mean it’s definitely possible, but I probably just lacked a bit of discipline, so I’ve been deferring it for the last few years so I can focus full time on surfing. I’d definitely love to go and finish that degree off at some point,” he says with a faint undertone of sheepishness. 

As a side, LOB’s girlfriend Sophie McCulloch managed to finish a double degree in Biomedical Science and Marketing at the University of the Sunshine Coast whilst competing full-time on the CT and Challenger. Full blown power couple.

“When you first pick a uni course, you kind of just throw darts at a dartboard and see what lands. But I’m definitely interested in maths and how things work. Initially I thought electrical engineering sounded interesting, but I think with the wavepool technology becoming more and more prevalent, I wouldn’t mind maybe switching over to civil and specializing in hydrodynamics or something like that.” 

Suffice to say, the marriage of surf and engineering has been, and will continue to be, one of the most captivating developments in the progression of modern surfing. Luddites needn’t apply. 

“To have that power as a surfer to be behind the control board going, all right, I’m going to dial this down, dial this up, and then I’m going to run out and catch a few and then come in and change the settings a bit, is the stuff of dreams,” he purrs, likely contemplating a ramp-filled Cartesian theater. 

“But for now I’m pretty content getting to go surfing for a living, it’s pretty sick.”

Watch Liam O’Brien’s 2023 Stab Edit of the Year entry above.

Watch all the 2023 Stab Edit of the Year entries here.

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