"Kelly’s a really flexible thinker," says Samuels. "He’s really willing to look at things and see both sides. He talked about his position as a middle brother, and his role reconciling differences in a group dynamic. What that means for him is that he’s willing to listen to a lot of opinions that other people have written off or disregarded or ignored... Like the people that insisted wave pools were never going to work." Photo by Sam Moody
Kelly Slater As Cross-Bearing Messiah, Not Satan Incarnate
A conversation with Lewis Samuels, about his profile of Slater in Esquire, the Disruptive Age we're all riding out, and what our "counterfeit" future might look like.
Of the thousands of visitors now lucky enough to say they've surfed Kelly's Wave, Lewis Samuels might very well be the first person asked, in no unkind terms, to please get out of the pool already.
While I've enjoyed Lewis off-record council over the last few years, this week I was more than happy to get him on the horn to discuss more formal matters, with the Northern Californian critic-at-large's profile on Kelly Slater landing on newsstands and tablets the world over today, in the most recent issue of Esquire.
So how’d the profile come about?
I got a call from Esquire about two years ago, after Kelly dropped the first clip of the pool. A guy named Danny DiMauro had been working with the magazine on producing the feature, and they must have wanted more of an insider perspective because they didn’t just farm it out to one of their Staff Writers, so Danny connected us.
When Esquire first called me up, no one was getting into the pool, except CT guys, and Kelly’s best friends. So I was like, Well, shit, if I get a chance to surf the pool. As long as that’s part of the article, a first-person experience of surfing the pool…
Did you write that into the contract?
[Laughs] It wasn’t in the contract, but I made sure it always stayed in the pitch.
If you assign someone that’s a surfer, I mean… Come on. The person has to surf it. Write from experience. It justified why I was doing the article. Because otherwise, they could have had a professional writer, where this is their livelihood and they’re good at these type of features.
You surfed just before we all went, right? I remember you calling me before we went, and we were trying to slip you in again. You were the first guy to surf it for a piece?
I think I beat you guys by a matter of weeks. Ironically, I could have just waited and had you guys slip me in, and not written the article at all.
Yeah, I think so. The first surf journalist to surf it for an article, yeah. But I couldn’t talk about it, because we were working on the article.
And I didn’t post it on Instagram, so it may as well have never happened, right?
I know there are clips out there. You’d have to be the first guy who left without three angles of every fucking wave they surfed.
I don’t think there’s much, man. But it’s incredible—the great humblebrag from surfing’s elite now is to post a clip of them surfing that wave not very well.*
For the uninitiated amongst you, get to know "The Most Hated Man In Surfing" above.
What’s your relationship with Kelly like these days?
Shit, who knows.
I’ve known Kelly for more than a decade now, going back to Power Rankings days, going to some of the events from that era.
I’m sure you run into this, too, but there’s always a little bit of uncertainty in your relationship with pro surfers who you’re writing about, especially if you’re being critical. It’s a balancing act, or it certainly has been for me.
Lewis and Kelly Slater, in the PostSurf days. Gio Agnoli.
He was open to you hanging at the pool with him?
Well, it was the long long process of Esquire working with Kelly’s PR, hashing this thing out over the next two years. I actually never thought the thing was going to happen. I thought it was going to get axed, or go stale, but strangely enough, it just plotted along. They set a date, which was last fall… Which shows you the speed everything works at in print.
Finally, right before we went to the pool, I texted him and told him, “I think I’m coming.”
I think he immediately saw it for what it was.
Me finagling my way into surfing the pool.
[Laughs] It’s fucking Esquire!
Well, you know he’s done so much mainstream stuff over the years. A huge part of the story is Kelly’s courting of the mainstream throughout the last three decades, and surfing’s courting a mainstream audience.
In terms of Kelly and his ambitions, and the pool—for us this is familiar. But it’s Esquire. I was writing with the assumption that people will not have heard of Kelly Slater. And if they had it was in reference maybe to Pam Anderson, or winning a bunch of World Championships…
I had to find a way to give people a better sense of Kelly and his motivations, and the pool, and all that. Because, what we’re all grappling with in the surfing community is what this means in terms of opening surfing up to a mainstream audience that it’s never been successfully able to find, and whether that needs to happen.
If you’re in the industry, you’re in the biz of selling things, it’s probably a lot more exciting concept, than to the guy who just wants to go to their local beach break.
Lewis' local ain't your average beachbreak.
It’s amazing how anxious surfers have become about What Surfing Is. But there seems to be two parts to it: One, more people going surfing. The great wave of pool-steeped Middle West and Easterners storming the coasts. But then there’s also the sense of surfing becoming more digestible for the average consumer, as a sport.
Fear of crowds due to mainstream exposure seems a little more specific than most people’s anxiety.
It seems much more this sense that, if you were a hardcore surfer, you feel like surfing was yours. It was something we grew up with, and it always leaned more towards the Counter Culture. It defined us as people. It’s always been about rebelling from a mainstream life, or a life more defined by financial success, or conforming.
I don’t think it’s that there’s more people doing it, it’s that suddenly this thing you thought was yours, might actually belong to everyone.
Surfers are selfish, and that’s a hard thing for people to grapple with—you see it with localism, with lineup dynamics, with that same sense of identity, and keep it and have it be ours, not everyone's.
It brings into focus part of what keeps us interested in surfing. It makes it clear that for a lot of surfers, we get sidetracked, by the search for perfection, or even getting a better wave down the beach on a given morning.
Surfing a stretch of beach break I think we’ve all experienced this, but you drive the whole beach, and you end up surfing a sandbar with thirty people on it because it’s slightly better. We have this obsession with getting the best waves. That has to do with this constant focus that we’ve had on getting the best waves.
But I had this conversation with my six-year-old daughter. We were watching clips of the pool, from the contest, and she was saying, “Oh, that looks like fun!”
And I asked her, But what about waves in the ocean? And she said, “Oh, I’ll always be an ocean surfer.”
I asked her why, and she said, "Because I love nature." It was obvious to her, even as a six-year-old, that this isn’t, in one fell swoop, going to supplant the surfing experience.
Maybe it will make people aware that perfection and the best wave isn’t what they’re really after. Maybe what they’re looking for after all is just a nice morning in the ocean, watching a couple dolphins swim by, whatever. Being alone with your thoughts and catching a wave.
"I think the term I used, when I was interviewing him for this piece, was “counterfeiting nature”—stealing what’s intrinsically sacred."
Kelly’s Wave still haunts me.
I’ve certainly had the experience, for many months now, after somewhat enforced obsession with the pool, of feeling much worse about the waves at my local spots. It’s occured to me just how shitty the waves are.
And that it turns out that in the scheme of things it really isn’t that hard to create a better wave, that’s conducive for getting barrel, which in someway devalue the barrels you get in the ocean—the calculus tends to get some people upset.
I was talking to Kelly the other day and sort of just bracing him for the fact that the piece wasn’t exactly dripping with adoration for the pool, though I don’t think he would have expected anything less from me.
But I summarized my argument that, basically, purists are upset because the wave is too good. He laughed a little.
He asked, “Well, what, was I supposed to make a shittier wave? Would it be OK if the wave was worse? “
And strangely enough that’s part of the whole thing. The fact that he shot for Perfection, instead of, I don’t know, like a perfect ramp to launch off, like the Waco wave.
I think the term I used, when I was interviewing him for this piece, was “counterfeiting nature”—stealing what’s intrinsically sacred.
And his argument of course, is this is just another type of sacred experience. Surfing in the pool.
Was that a sacred experience, surfing with him in the pool?
It’s just such a bizarre experience, first seeing it. I mean you’ve been there.
Yeah, it’s overwhelming, the scale of it, and the sheer size.
When I was there, I was told Kelly wasn’t supposed to surf. His foot was hurt, he was still rehabbing.
But I came on a day he had a bunch of his old friends from the Momentum Generation. They’ve had this thing going forever now, called The Thread—just a text thread between all of them, staying in touch.
And this was the day the last of The Thread were getting to surf the pool finally. Matty Liu, Jason Weatherly, Kaiborg, Taylor Steele, Keoni Watson.
But when Kelly’s there, as far as I know, it’s customary that Kelly gets to ride the first wave. The first wave of the day, and the first wave after lunch—which everyone knows are the glassiest and most perfect.
He didn’t want to miss out on that chance. He surfed the first wave, and we sat on the sidelines and watched like little kids.
And you know, it’s a pretty incredible experience to see that first wave come out of that deep end. It was a beautiful glassy morning, perfect conditions for the pool…
Of course, that’s a pretty ironic statement.
"Everyone’s always looked to Kelly to hold this thing together."
But it’s true. We’ve let the scale get so precise with that wave.
It’s changed the scale. It’s shifted the reckoning for what perfection is.
But Kelly set the groups, and prepped us. The first group was me and Taylor Steele, Kaiborg, surfing with Kelly.
And it’s really a lot of pressure, for everyone, when you’re in that pool. And definitely when you’re in with Kelly.
The general experience is that, no matter how much you’ve surfed in your life, and however confident you are, there’s something about being on the spot, and this bizarre experience of it being an unlimited resource, but also a limited resource.
You know how many waves you’re going to have in a day, and then it’s gone….You’re not going to be there the next morning.
Kelly surfed his first perfect wave, and we got to paddle out and play back-up. They suggest you spread out in the pool and take positions where you think people might fall. And it just so happened that Kelly got pitched on that mid-barrel section, just got a little too deep, and so right off the bat, first wave that I was in the pool for, poof, there it was.
He fell right in front of me, with just enough time so I could turn and take it. And I was lucky I didn’t overthink it, I just turned and went.
I think it helped seeing Kelly feel the same nerves. Once you wear off those nerves, once you catch that first wave, it all gets easier after that.
Well, I think you were lucky in that. A lot of people I surfed with left just so fucking deflated. Like, depressed. And I scrapped way too many waves, and was so psyched, but felt guilty, because I knew how bummed I would have been if I hadn’t gotten a good one, knew I might not ever get another shot, etc.
It’s such a strange combination of euphoria mixed with this immediate sense of like, sadness that you’re not going to get another shot at it. Whatever you did or didn’t do, that was all you were going to get for a long time, if ever again.
Gleeful best day ever combined with simmering pressure under the surface. If you don’t perform your best in the pool, you’ll leave thinking about it for a long time.
There’s a real come down to the whole experience.
"Maybe [Kelly's Wave] will make people aware that perfection and the best wave isn’t what they’re really after," says Samuels. "Maybe what they’re looking for after all is just a nice morning in the ocean, watching a couple dolphins swim bay, whatever. Being alone with your thoughts and catching a wave."
Your, um, performance in the pool is still talked about. Care to explain.
You know me. I’m a frother. I love to catch waves. Especially lefts.
I was trying to make the most of it, and so what that meant for me was, when it wasn’t my turn, I was going to position myself in what I thought was the most likely place the next guy was going to fall.
I guess some people just sit around, but after every wave I literally ran. I would jump out of the pool and run up the sideline, and reposition myself right past the midsection barrel.
Just doing laps, running back and forth along the pool, and I think that was cracking people up.
I think that was an uncommon approach.
You have to gamble, and think of where that particular surfer is going to make a mistake. So you’re trying to figure out if this is the guy that’s going to fall trying to go big on the first section.
I talked to you about this before we went.
I coached you. I told you what to do.
Sam and these guys wanted to kill me after we left.
It’s a very funny psychological exercise on so many different levels. But it’s never enough. No matter how many waves you get there, it won’t be enough. And I say in the article, most surfers only catch a handful of waves.
When the article went back to Slater’s PR people for fact check, that was one of the things they got hung up on. One of the things they argued was the concept that people only get a handful of waves.
Kelly’s people talked to them, and they were like, “That’s bullshit. Lewis got a ton of waves.“
They called you out to the fact checker?!
Oh, the guy grilled me. That’s his job. There was definitely more rigour in his fact check than you’d ever see in a surf magazine [haha].
But Esquire’s fact checker was given this weird task of having to unravel: Wait, did Lewis get enough waves?
He was like, “Ok, well let’s unpack what a ‘handful’ means. How many rights did you get? How many lefts? Where did you catch them?”
It was like being deposed by a lawyer.
The Wheaties box anecdote, about his manager reaching out about getting on the box and them saying they only featured legitimate athletes—that stood out to me as one of the more remarkable forks in Kelly’s road.
That was in Slater’s autobiography. I went back and tried to read everything that had been written about Slater. Esquire was really interested in getting into Kelly’s motivations for building this thing.
I think a lot of people forget that, for a large part, this isn’t about him. It’s about the legitimacy of the sport, and it’s a mantle that’s been handed to him by the founders.
It’s not a coincidence that event was called the Founder’s Cup.
Because he was always supposed to be this little pint-sized messiah of surfing that was going to take the sport and the culture to this next level. And the Promised Land he was supposed to take us to was legitimacy.
That’s what those guys always wanted: for surfing to be a real sport and have real money and real recognition for the athletes.
People like to see this as being an ego driven thing, all about Kelly, but I think honestly it’s more about that obligation he feels to the sport overall.
Plus, his World Titles mean a lot more, if 20 years from now surfing is as big as the NBA or something. For him to be the Babe Ruth of surfing, or for surfing to sizzle into obscurity. Those are different legacies.
You think he feels that responsibility, though?
Everyone’s always looked to Kelly to hold this thing together.
When you look at the disintegration of the surf industry, that was a lot of people losing their jobs after twenty years, with families to support.
It seems like he’s building a structure where he can take care of his people. It’s been an uneasy dance for him, straight through his career.
There’s a quote in the article, where Kelly acknowledges how every step of his career he’s been called a sell-out, from Baywatch to the wavepool. A lot of it has been about that drive towards mainstream acceptance and legitimacy. Now you can argue that Baywatch isn’t the best way to achieve legitimacy, that was more about fame.
Kelly’s had to learn from those lessons. You can make the argument that he was always pushing things in the direction of expanding the experience of surfing beyond the little closed garden that it was in. But Kelly’s never been afraid to just blow that up in pursuit of something else.
Kelly talked about how people have this idea that surfers are these easy going, open-minded people, when really it’s a closed-minded culture. But it’s shown we’re not immutable to change, and there’s a whole set of rules we adhere to without questioning their validity in all sorts of regards.
Cross-bearing messiah or surfing's satan-incarnate? Oh, don't be silly!
He seems really good at holding up a mirror to things that make people uncomfortable.
Kelly’s a really flexible thinker. He’s really willing to look at things and see both sides. He talked about his position as a middle brother, and his role reconciling differences in a group dynamic. What that means for him is that he’s willing to listen to a lot of opinions that other people have written off or disregarded or ignored. Like the people that insisted wave pools were never going to work.
Same thing with moving away from Quik and trying to do Outerknown with a better supply chain, or doing Firewire and trying to make more eco-friendly boards.
He’s created a ton of controversy in the industry around those choices, and they've been massive disruptions.
But what are the critics resisting? Change? Are they trying to protect people’s livelihoods? Would we be better off with what we had in the ‘70s? Poor environmental standards in a PU factory, guys who are going to see massive health issues from sitting there glassing and sanding surfboards with a cigarette dangling from their mouth, and no mask on for forty years? Is that a culture we need to protect?
Are we really doing them a service, saying we’re only going to buy boards built in that manner, and we don’t want boards built with more environmentally friendly and non-toxic materials, where there’s actual strict regulations?
It becomes a really interesting debate.
Do you think Kelly’s Wave is as responsible for this shift as people give it credit for?
Surfers are adverse to change. I studied cognitive science in college, and took an ethnography approach in looking at how people interact with culture and the world around them, and that’s still what I’m doing in a professional setting, and it shaped how I looked at surfing.
I think we’re at a point where technology is disrupting surfing, just like it’s disrupting everything else. We’re seeing these changes in every part of our world, to different degrees, based on the impact of new technologies.
I think the effect of smartphones and social media has been even more important than wavepools, along with just how much time we spend watching surfing.
For surfers worldwide, to spend time watching clips on Instagram while other people ride this wave, as they lie somewhere in a darkened bedroom, possibly with a significant other being ignored next to them in bed… that is a different experience than waking up before dawn and saying I’m going surfing.
Surfing and surf culture used to be held together by the group of people who surfed your beach—parking lot, surf shop, shapers. And then it was the magazines, surf movies. And that’s all changed. I think we’re seeing the inevitable impact of a lot of different technologies on surfing.
Even Kelly has the general sense that surfing is losing some of its magic and romance. It has to do with forecasting, social media, drones, GoPros, and this sense that we’ve taken this thing that at one point was purely experiential and changed it. You had to surf to know the feeling. Now, we documented the hell out of it from every angle, and it is this attempt to provide a simulacrum of that experience regardless of where you are in your relationship to the activity.
The imagery we see has gotten further and further from our own experiences.
Quasi-retired from writing, Lewis spends his days charting sandbanks between SF and points North, while raising young children and holding down a position as a researcher at Google, turning his critical eye on the tech giant's culture much the same way he did with surf.
And of course the fact that people spend more time watching surfing nowadays than doing it. I mean growing up, we had probably six hours of DVDs that we’d cycle through…
VHS tapes, bruh.
[Laugh] But there’s no way I spent as much time as a grom watching other people surf as I do now.
Yeah, there's that sense of overload.
Mark Renneker collected every piece of surf media ever created at some point. Every magazine. Every article. Every movie. That was an attainable goal. Two mags a month, a few movies, some articles in major magazines.
Today we have this endless stream passing over us, this river of content being created every single day just slipping by us, inundated by images that only hold their appeal for twenty four hours before something supplants it. We’re becoming desensitized to all this, and I don’t think it’s fair to point to the Surf Ranch and blame it for everything missing in surfing.
But I do think we’re becoming desensitized to the magic of that experience.
"I’ve certainly had the experience, for many months now, after somewhat enforced obsession with the pool, of feeling much worse about the waves at my local spots," says Samuels, pictured here.
We'd love to tell you the Wavepool spigot's been shut off, at least until September's CT—alas, we're doubling down, with Mikey C. and Sam Moody embedded in a Waco compound currently, an equidistant hour-thirty from Dallas and Austin, both airports sub-$100 one-ways from LAX most days, with a carefully selected posse of literal test pilots on their way to spend a few days taking off from the rampy American Wave Machine wedges.
While the boys are getting an education in German Barbecue and very big everything, Brendan Buckley's got a post-Founder's Speed Power Flow Ranking brewing for the weekend, while Dylan Roberts, Jacob Wooden, and our man Steven Allain are in Brazil, hard at work on the next episode of "No Contest," while the world's collective gaze turns to the narrow and impossibly high tan lines of Rio.
What an amazing time to be alive.
*Guilty as charged.