Not Ironic: Life On The Farm
From Stab issue 84: Roots meets punk where the ocean meets the freaks, on the NSW north coast.
“It never ends!” says Sabrina, Ellis Ericson’s girlfriend. Their rural farm cottage, known as The Farm, in the Byron Bay hinterland, has been running as a crude halfway house for the past week now.
Anywhere from five to 30 have been calling it home over the Christmas/New Year break; sleeping on the floor, on rugs or swags in the backyard, or in one of the half dozen rusted vehicles parked on the acreage below. A new batch has just pulled up and Sabrina’s head is starting to spin.
Being a transient hedonist’s a fine way to spend your 20s. It’s even better if you can do it on surf company dime. Here’s a snapshot of the life of Beau and Ellis. They’re not going to get to their 40’s and regret the things they haven’t done, that much is for sure.
“I came in here one morning and there were two people passed out, sitting upright, on that couch!” she continues, between mouthfuls of baby spinach and quinoa salad. “S’how it should be,” says Bad Love, drummer for the Drunk Mums, over a can of VB.
You wind through the hills, through the rainforest, and across unmarked roads, then hang a right onto the muddy driveway and you’re at The Farm; the humble North Coast shack rented by Ellis Ericson and Beau Foster. In the five or so years Ellis has had the lease, it’s become something of an institution in the Australian surfing landscape. It’s an old style crash pad of the kind everyone who’s spent time as a hedonist have enjoyed and you’ll find it playing host to a rotating menagerie of surfers, artists, shapers, photographers, videographers and degenerates at any given time.
Ellis cools off with two of The Farm frequents.
“I love this place so much. I could never imagine leaving,” says Beau.
As much as he loves it, there’s no denying it’s a shit hole. The roof is full of ants and breaks open once or twice a year releasing waves of them into the kitchen; the hot water doesn’t work, neither does the washing machine; the stove has one knob left on it; the living room, which is also a jam room, has a drum kit, three guitars and a set of amps in the corner; there’s a tangle of mic leads on the back of the door; the backyard is full of rusted cars and a pummelled caravan Ellis hoped to use as a shaping bay (“But I’m not a chippie, so I couldn’t fit it out”); and the verandah, with its rack of crafts spanning every era since the short board revolution, alongside, my favourite, a pair of leather chairs perfectly positioned for drinking tea, smoking joints, and watching the sub-tropical tempests roll in. It’s a simple life with a simple goal. One that hasn’t changed in the 40 or more years since this region burst into the popular consciousness.
That’s Beau Fozzy and Ellis Ericson’s living room/the practice room for their band Wash.
Byron Bay and the hills that surround it have long been the home of Australian counterculture (not to mention something of global mecca too). Its transformation from a dairy, logging and meat/whaling district to what is now known as ‘The Rainbow Region’ might never have happened if it weren’t for the surfers who first arrived here fleeing Vietnam war conscription and burgeoning consumerism in the late 60s and early 70s.
If you’re going to take your health for granted, then your younger years is the time to indulge. Much noise is made about the tobacco habits of some of surfing’s current freesurfers. But jeez, let ye who hast never chuffed down a cancer stick in vain cast the first stone.
The likes of Nat Young, Alby Falzon, and the Morning Of The Earth crew were among them, pulling up in 1971 to record dream sequences of endless blue peelers at Broken Head. They rented cheap farm properties for between five to eight dollars a week, and lived much the same subsistence lifestyle that The Farm subscribes to today. US Surf champ and revered filmmaker Rusty Miller was another, fleeing the “oppressive climate” of Nixon-America to turn up in the shire in 1972 and begin the area’s first ever alternative newspaper, The Byron Express (…For A Higher Shire). Santa Barbara’s George Greenough was another, making a home for himself in the Broken Head bushland just prior to it being declared a National Park (thereby forbidding all other development on the headland).
Though, it was the Age Of Aquarius Festival held in 1973 that really kicked it off. The 10-day festival, organised by students from Sydney University, arrived in what was then the dying dairy town of Nimbin. It was billed as a sequel of sorts to Woodstock, though with a distinctly Australian twist. Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane were out, replaced by a brave new vision of alternative thinking, multiple occupancy living, organic food cooperatives, and various other tenants of sustainable living. My father was part of the festival’s organising brigade, Ozzie Wright’s parents met there, and an entire generational subset of alternative thinkers was born. Many of the hippies that came for the festival never left. They remain as alive and active as ever. Huge anti-development wins at Terania Creek (1979) and the Bentley Blockade (2014) have bookended more than 40 years of defending the region’s socially and environmentally progressive ideals. They might have a hippie aesthetic up here, but when it comes down to it they’re punk to the bone and they don’t take no stick.
The Farm seems to fit comfortably into this tradition on face value. Over New Years it had hosted its own Age Of Aquarius festival, called ‘Lez Fest,’ in honour of The Farm’s owner, Lez, a thick-set farmer with a mouthful of gold teeth that lives 50m away. Lez Fest was an old fashioned roots-punk-ho-down featuring a handful of Australia’s best degenerate thrash bands – The Drunk Mums, WOD, the Dumb Punts, and Wash – Ellis (bass), Beau (drums) and Creed’s (guitar) band. They spent the night howling obscenities into the valley below and lighting things on fire, including (though no one’s owning up to it) an abandoned car down the road.
The crew who base themselves at the farm are exploring new ways of existing within the professional surfing world. The beauty of being paid for your image is that you can go a day without standing up, start a garage rock band and shape your own crafts. Your net value just goes up.
“We’ve got the most lenient landlord ever,” smiled Ellis one day. “I’m not that fucken lenient,” rebutted Lez, standing right next to him. “He’s the best,” said Ellis.
The end of Lez Fest was supposed to mean the end of the drop-ins, but it hasn’t happened. There’s cars parked down below whose owners haven’t been seen for days. One of them is Noa Deane. He arrives one day with hair like a bird’s nest, a footprint on his back, and bewilderment in his face. “I’ve been torrrrrrrching it! Cooked, zilched, creeeeeeeamed!” he exclaimed.
“…I was leaving this yuppie campsite and the chick’s like, want some of my drink and I’m like, skull it grommet. She was off it. Where’s WOD?” “They drove back to Melbourne (20 hours).” “Farrrrk that’s cooked. I gotta fly out to Bali tomorrow. We gotta get the train to Brisbane at 4 in the morning. So farrrrrrrked.” With that he was gone. Not everyone is picking up what The Farm is putting down, however.
I’m cornered one night by a dyed-in-the-wool local at the pub, The Rails. “How can it be real? They’re a bunch of pro surfers living the ‘hippie’ lifestyle while making bank off some giant surfing corporation. It’s a load of shit,” he’d said, poking me in the chest to accentuate his point.
Lez, who it turns out is a graduate of the Joh Bjelke Peterson-era Brisbane punk scene, isn’t buying it either.
You see the guy piloting that wagon? That’s Toby Cregan. He’s the auteur behind all of the films that come out starring this merry band, and his work perfectly captures the vibe of the gang. It’s raw, chaotic, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. A breath of fresh air in the stagnant world of surf media.
“It’s like they’ve printed out a photo of what we used to do and they’re acting it out. It’s all style and no substance,” he told me. What was the substance, I’d asked? “The politics and intellectualism.”
It’s a pertinent time to be asking what exactly today’s generation of counter-culturalists stand for, and the older generation are right to ask it.
Bandmates, housemates, Beau and Ellis.
Byron and the region around it is, for the first time, showing signs of caving into corporate interests and greedy developers. The original freak tribe who set up here were not afraid to chain themselves to bulldozers and take to the streets whenever a threat presented itself. There are no shortage of influential artists, musicians, surfers, photographers, and taste makers calling the region home today (Ozzie Wright, Wade Goodall, Creed McTaggart, Dion Agius, Duncan McNicol, and many more all live here now), but are they doing enough?
Where the grit lies at The Farm isn’t immediately clear but it is there. On this day there are several people seated around an old cube-shaped TV, about the size of a human head. Screening is a VHS (they don’t own a DVD player) of Taylor Steele’s early naughties classic Momentum: Under The Influence, featuring a 22-year-old Bruce Irons bashing the shit out of a lip at Rifles. Ellis opines on the surfing days of old.
“I don’t know why surfing was so much better back then. It was like they hadn’t analysed it as much. It wasn’t so refined, they hadn’t gotten it to where it is now, so you could see people’s personal style so much more,” he says.
There is undoubtedly a fascination with the past on The Farm. It’s everywhere, from the complete collection of Tracks magazines, dated 1989 to 1993; to the VHS collection ranging from Endless Summer to the most recent surf film, Montaj (2002); to the pair of signature edition Reno Abelleira boardshorts mounted on the wall; to the record player on the milk crate in the corner.
Ellis, and the perks of calling Byron home.
Seen another way, The Farm represents the characteristic aversion to all things new and the deep distrust of modern consumerism held by so many of today’s youth. It might be ammo for the mainstream to finger them as hipsters or retro try-hards, but up here it’s a way of life. And it’s been this way for a long time now.
Whatever your position, you only need to turn out for a day of waves on the points to see the effect The Farm, and the many people living like them up here, are having on surfing in this country.
If you’re going to choose a period from the pick ’n’ mix of history, the early seventies in Byron Bay, Australia, would be a mighty fine place to start. Here’s a shot of the gang that could’ve easily been taken in 1973 by Alby Falzon or John Witzig. But it wasn’t. It was taken in 2016, by a young freelance photographer by the name of Josh Simpson. As much as things change, they still stay more or less the same.
The Rainbow Region is the centre of the Australian surfing universe right now, with every kind of craft, approach and attitude being pushed to its outermost limits of pure fun and performance.
When the humidity gives way to thunderstorms and a thick east swell, the points churn to life and the Rainbow Region spreads its technicolour wings. A mysto offshore sandpit has been doing its thing for days now with only a handful of people on it, among them David Rastovich, whose exploits had sent tongues wagging in the Shire.
“He got the best wave I’ve ever seen in real life,” recalls Ellis, of watching him waltz off a wash-through into the roundest, longest cave he’d ever seen. “He was in this pit just standing on the foam ball, screaming! The whole pit turned into an echo chamber!”
Band practice occurs whenever it wants to in this house.
Eyewitnesses claim he piloted 10 straight drainers that day, picking the gems amongst the wash-throughs, and gutting them. Add to that the barely accessible mysto wedges he’s been surfing in the front of the cliffs, dodging sharks, to weave through some of the widest, bone-dry kegs ever seen in the area, and you’ve got a man who’s fast becoming something more than that up here.
A big plus of living in the Byron Shire is the quality and consistency of the surf.
In a perfect illustration of the value in looking back before you look forward, Rasta’s recent exploits along this coast and in Indonesia have been done on a piece of technology he and Ellis unearthed after several meetings with the original design guru, George Greenough. The pair have made a habit of venturing out to his bush shack and talking boards. The result is the resurrection of the ‘edge bottom:’ a trippy inside-out rail that, when combined with a twin-fin set up, disperses aerated water (foam) across the board into the concaved bottom allowing the surfer to manoeuvre off the foam ball. Ellis reckons it’s been getting him more barrelled than he’s ever been in his life. “He is a god!” says Ellis of Greenough. It’s a philosophy he’s applied to life in general.
This is the reality of swell season in Byron. Long walks, fast tubes, and endless lips to refine your frontside stomp; not bad work if you can get it.
Back at the mysto sandspit, I watch Andrew Kidman, director of Litmus, Glass Love and Spirit of Akasha, throw a series old school shapes in the barrel on a red edge-bottom Ellis made for him. Creed contorts himself into all manner of poses and stances as he makes endless runs through inside mini-drainers. Ellis is all over his local spot, showing Slater-esque wave selection on his way to racking up more tube time than anyone else.
Creed’s got some epic Ewan McGregor Train-spotting steeze going on at present. When the rest of the surf world looks like they’ve got lost coming back from Woodstock and ended up in Byron, Creed looks like he’s just stepped out of a rough Edinburgh pub.
Though, it’s Beau Foster who gets the wave of the day, a deep frontside take off pit before shooting out into a speedy line adjustment and a frontside rail grab a la Brendan Margieson, for a long squeaky inside chamber.
The bakery is the post-surf centre of the universe. Ogle cuts a diagonal across the zebra crossing, his earrings jangling, bleached pineapple top wisping, Oakland Raiders shirt billowing, and a pair of Doc Martens splotched in paint on his feet. He’s fresh back from Sydney where he’d had a shocker, getting lost in the big smoke and ending up in McDonalds drinking cold soup out of a tin. He then spent the night in a bus shelter. “Fuck Sydney,” he says.
Ellis here is one of the few that can call himself a true Byron local, and as a result, his point game is well refined. Caves and aggressive pocket turns, that’s the cornerstones of Australian surfing right there.
One of The Farm’s drop-ins narrowly avoids getting reversed over by a car. “Watch out you fried fuck,” barks Ellis. It’s midday and the kid is still cooked from the night previous. “Should we take you to the doctor?” asks Beau. “Take me to the vet,” he slurs.
And here comes Lemnos, the artist who’s kicked his heroin habit and is making a fist of it up in here in the Northern Rivers. “Yeah, Lemnos!” And who could forget Udon, the cosmic bogan with the Greenough “window-mullet,” and the kind of insight into women that only comes from countless failed relationships and rejection.
If you’ve ever surfed a cyclone swell on the north coast of NSW then this shot should bring it all back. The rain creates that silky texture, and surfing just gets that little bit more frontier. Here’s Ellis banking hard off the bottom, eyes fixed firmly on the doomed section.
After the surf we pile into the rusted Red Camry and weave through the hills behind Mullumbimby. Beau takes the corners with the confidence of a man who understands curves better than most. A vast green valley runs beneath us, rimmed by forested mountains. Weatherboard cottages stand sentry over luscious farmland. A young woman in flannelette and Doc Martens with a bird tattoo on her shoulder walks the hill road with her thumb out. As we pass the huge wall of soundproof glass on the highway – every single panel shattered by the bullet of a farmer’s .22 (the glare from the glass wall had lit his house up) – Creed belts out the Billy Bragg classic, Which Side Are You On?
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