The Stab Interview: Balaram Stack
Navigating life with New York's premier surfing export!
It’s a late summer afternoon in Long Island, New York, when Balaram Stack hits me back after a few days playing phone tag between time zones, across the globe.
Having put several years in New York City, and found refuge from it in the A-frames that so often litter the groin-laden beaches between Lido and south Long Beach, I can imagine the scene Bal’s enjoying as we speak, the boardwalk packed, a tiny windswell bump lapping on the dark sand, a quiet beach scene seemingly a thousand miles away from NYC’s madness just a forty-minute drive or train ride away.
The “Local Hero,”—as Bill Finnegan called him eight years ago, in a New Yorker profile that ran before the Quiksilver Pro took over his home town in 2011—was dropping some lady friends home, after a quick dip bobbing around on bodyboards, which is where he, and this conversation started.
This is The Stab Interview with Balaram Stack.
Stab: I wanted to first talk about growing up on Long Island. People have preconceptions about Long Island, and it definitely isn’t as a surf town. I think they think of ladies with bolt-ons in sweatpants riding around on beach cruisers, blue collar guys, firefighters, cops. What was it like as a kid, and how did you end up getting in the water?
Bal: I moved to New York when I was like four, from Florida. My mom came up to take care of my grandmother, and we never moved away. I grew up in Point Lookout, which is a town that’s attached to Long Beach.
I didn’t start surfing until I was, like seven. I’d ridden bodyboards in Florida, and a little bit in New York until my brother finally gave me a surfboard. My brothers are ten and fourteen years older, I’m the youngest. They gave me a board, and that’s when UnSound came through. There was a small crew of young kids that hung out there, and that was like the surf center of Long Island, and the only guys that surfed in the wintertime.
That’s a pretty lucky crew to fall into.
100 percent. Just the winter surfing alone, you needed a crew that would show you the ropes, and I was lucky enough that there were a couple kids doing the same thing.
This would have been the late-‘90s, early ‘00s? I don’t think people realize how few guys were surfing year-round up there. The wetsuits back then were shit, and it was almost like a novelty to a lot of the outside surf world. But the waves there during the winter are absolutely world class.
At that point, there was a little contest in Long Beach called King of the Beach, that I did at eleven, and then I started doing ESA at like 12, then got sponsored by Quiksilver at 13.
At that point, was there any connection between the surf scene in Montauk, New York City, and Long Beach?
I mean, with Montauk, there was probably five days a year that those guys were coming to Long Beach to surf, or we were going out there. So there was like this relationship with those guys, just, you know, What’s up, what are the waves like out there? I had friends out there that I talked to all the time, but other than those five days it was pretty separated.
As far as the city, I don’t remember any younger kids coming from there. Honestly, there weren’t many people that came out and surfed here.
What was your experience of New York proper? Were you going into the city to skate or hang out?
I started going out in the city when I was like 17, 18. Before that, it was day trips as a kid going to skate, or going to see a movie premiere.
At that point, did you think that being a Pro Surfer from New York was a reality?
Honestly, I just remember the first crew of guys that could do airs. Because back then, if you could do airs, you ripped. You knew how to surf. Everyone in New York could get barreled, but if you could do airs you fucking surfed good. Chris Tomlin was a guy I looked up to, and Ollie Favata. I just remember seeing those guys do air reverses, and just blowing my mind.
Then, Ryan Carlson came and lived in New York for a while, and he totally opened my eyes to what real airs were.
Ryan. Carlson. I haven’t heard that name in forever. Fucking OG.
He was gnarly, he would fuck with me non-stop, just rip my wetsuit down in a snowstorm and flood my suit, or tie me to a skateboard and have the shop dog chase me.
So, for anyone who isn’t acquainted UnSound is one of those absolute institutions, just a fucking true blue core shop. What did that place mean for you?
Dave [Juan] and [Mike Nelson] Nelly were the guys, that whenever anyone came through town they would make sure to call me up and make sure I met everyone, get some free clothes or a potential sponsor.
And that’s how I ended up getting on Quiksilver. Strider and Andy Ryan put the word in, and I started from there. I was thirteen, I think. I surfed at this day camp, this one day my mom drove me out, and I hadn’t even signed up. I showed up just going, “Can I still be a part of the camp?” And Dave from UnSound called up and got me in. By the end of the day, Quiksilver gave me a box of clothes and stickers and it all started from there.
Nowadays, kids that age aren’t happy with anything short of a salaried contract, but back then as a grom that was all any of us could have hoped for, just a box of clothes and some wetsuits…
That was all I could have ever wanted at the time. I didn’t even know that was possible. We were pretty sheltered to that world over here.
So I remember your big break coming at the Quiksilver Pro.
Before that, I’d made some finals in NSSA events, regional comps, shit you could put on a resume. I never really won any big contests. I won the UnSound a few times.
I’d been riding for Quiksilver for a while at that point, and I guess it was fitting that I got the wild card for the event, since it was coming to my hometown. But I don’t know, I didn’t really have anything with the contest coming to New York, it was just something that happened, and it was so sick to have that event come to my hometown, just the best weekend of my life at that point. Getting smoked by two guys I looked up to as a grom, Kelly and Mick, was pretty damn cool.
I was moving out of New York City when that event came through, and I remember going out to that event and just being so blown away—even with the hurricane raining on the parade—by just how many people were there, and the whole scene.
It was fucking sick, the way they treated the surfers, just catering and hotel rooms right on the beach. I was partying every night, just had my whole crew. Having a hotel room in my hometown, it was the week of my birthday, everyone was so amped.
It was unreal.
What was it like having Bill Finnegan write a profile about you for the New Yorker?
[Laughs] Yeah, that was nuts. The photos for that were too funny. It was these two French girls—just full hairy armpits, the whole deal—taking photos for that profile, and I’d never had photos taken like that—you know, modeling and shit, in my hometown, I just felt like such a douchebag. But they were just incredible photographers, and it ended up coming out sick.
That article came out, and I was completely honored. It was definitely a New Yorker piece, just calling me The Prince or whatever. I loved it, but I would never call myself The Prince of anything.
Well, at 20 years old I’m sure it was different, thinking about than now, just going, I was in the New Yorker!
Around that same time, I had an article in Rolling Stone, and I was tripping. But honestly, I don’t think I knew how to appreciate it then. Now, I look back on it and I’m like, “That was fucking sick!” I wish I would have known how to appreciate it more at the time. I would have probably elaborated more, said something cooler. I was too young, you know?
Was there a little bit of Tall Poppy Syndrome from the boys out there, or were they psyched on the attention you were getting?
Honestly, I never really had any of that stuff come close to home, you know? I was just a Long Beach kid, and everyone was amped to see me in a magazine or anything. Everybody at home was pumped to see anyone from our town in any sort of media.
Well, part of that has to come down to you being humble and naive enough to not get a big head about that attention. In a weird way, it was sort of something that sort of just happened to you.
Exactly. If I had been acting differently to get that attention, I’d probably have two black eyes and no one to surf with.
Looking back on that event, what do you think the Quiksilver Pro did for New York surfing?
I mean, fuck, I don’t think there was that sort of boutique New York surf scene at that point, but after that event it sort of exposed people to the surf scene in New York—that it even existed at all—and people just being attracted to that, and everything that’s come since… It opened people’s eyes to this modern scene in New York. It was eye opening to people in the city, and to people everywhere. Nowadays, you definitely see more people around, more people surfing…
How’s the Long Island crew feel about the whole boutique surf shop Brooklyn surf scene.
Well, that was always more in Rockaway. It was different. It didn’t really come around here. It wasn’t really our scene. It was its own thing.
So after the Quiksilver Pro, where was your head at? Where were you heading?
Well, it wasn’t like the Quik Pro was like a turning point by any means, it was just something really special, and it boosted my profile a bit, but I just kept doing what I was doing. I just kept doing QS’ and those years were really fun, although there were never any waves, but that time in my life was so fun, just traveling with a bunch of kids who all got along for the most part partying and seeing all different cultures and cities, it was just a great couple years.
I feel like people write off the ’QS, but traveling around the world like that, with this sprawling crew of guys, it’s such a radical experience to see the world with this international crew.
Completely. It’s the only way to see the world with a crew of guys like that. I did maybe five years just traveling, and I don’t think I ever had consistent enough results to make the ‘CT, but it just felt like an amazing time traveling, making a few heats, and living stories I’ll never forget.
A lot of guys put so much pressure on that experience, to make the ’CT, that they never get to enjoy it. But when I think about it, around that time it seems like you and Eric Geiselman sort of stepped into that A-List space, as far as free surfers from the East Coast.
Well, at that age you’re getting paid at a point when you don’t necessarily need any money yet, and you’re starting to travel. Then you get paid just a little more and you can afford more trips, and then you learn how to get barrels and realize you can just use that money to go get barreled so I just started spending all that extra money on trips between the ‘QS’s. I think I went almost, like, eight years where I was not home for more than a week, and that was just from the ‘QS and getting waves, and that’s sort of what I’ve been doing ever since—the more money I was making just meant the more trips I could take.
So what was it like for you to part ways with Quiksilver? Was that a hard pill to swallow?
I think it was, like 2014 and I was in Australia, we were in Foster between contests—me, [Dylan] Goodale, [Michael] Dunphy, [Evan and Eric] Geiselman, and we had this trip that right in the middle of, I got a call from Chad Wells…
There’s already been a lot going on at the company, with layoffs and budgets and whatnot, but he just called and said, “Hey, you got a minute? You might want to sit down…” And once someone says that, you know what’s about to happen.
I was just, like, “Fuck, really? That's it.” Wellsy, a longtime friend and team manager said, “if I didnt tell you I wouldn’t have a job” I thought well at least he’s honest.
I don’t think a lot of surfers understand the job insecurity of sponsorships like that.
Yeah, no cut. No payout just your done.
But looking back, those were the best eight years growing up in the surf world. So many grom trips with the Young Guns series watching the elders go off and making custom winter suits for New York winters something that never happened in the past.
That was pretty special time to be on that team, too: Kelly, Dane, Craig, Marzo, Jeremy.
Yeah, the first trips I did with Marzo I felt like I learned something new every time I surfed with him. The kid’s a freak I just felt like I picked up so much from being in the water with him.
So how did the Volcom thing happen?
Well, like two days after I got that call, [Dan Terry] a friend who had worked for Volcom for years called me up and just said, “Don’t. Talk. To. Fucking. Anybody. Don’t do anything.” I’d had a great relationship with Volcom for years knowing everyone through the VQS comps, I got calls from Billy Hume, Brad Dougherty, I just started talking to the guys that I’d known from Volcom for years.
There were some talks with other companies, Talked to that skate brand LRG, who were wanting to do a surf program and wanted me to be the head of it. It was a shit ton less money, but total freedom to do what I wanted.
But in the back of my mind, I always knew Volcom was going to be who I was riding for, if any of the major surf brands. Just the relationships I had with everybody there, and on the team, and the house in Hawaii being where it is, I’d spent a bunch of winters next door, and had spent plenty of time with that crew.
What was it about that team that made you so sure it was the right fit?
Well, every brand is getting more corporate by the day, but Volcom always felt like they held on to their family feel, the way they run their program, they had more freedom to do what they wanted to.
Were the Volcom films pretty pivotal to you? I feel like those films—Magnaplasm, Computer Body—and the …Lost Films, were the ones that for our generation felt like what we wanted surfing to be.
Totally, I was just going to say that, those were the movies we watched a thousand times. I loved that …Lost Across America had clips from Lido and a couple other places in New York along with a Flip cameo heard round the world. The …Lost videos and the Volcom videos were 100 percent the best ones, coming up at the time for me.
So you moved into the Volcom House, how did that feel?
It’s definitely a lot mellower, but I remember being at the Quik house and watching through the fence some guy get just knocked the fuck out, like five feet away from me. But I was just going from house to house, back then, I was cool with a lot of those guys.
Did you have to start in The Dungeon, or did you get a spot in the house straight away?
I got lucky because there wasn’t that many people in the house, so I stayed upstairs at the Small House, I kinda got a head start just because I’d already spent a few nights there before when I was on Quik and just didn’t make it home. But I’d had a few Dungeon experiences, before I moved in. I got a spot in the loft above one of the beds. There were scribbles from everyone up there, from Chava to Bruce... if those walls could talk...
Who were the guys on the team that made you feel part of the family?
I was friends with Tom Dosland for a while, so I was always chillen with him around the house. Tai and Kaimana had respect for the East Coast and I didnt ever want to let that down, and honestly, it wasn’t that big of a change, everyone was really cool, we’d been chilling for a few years.
How do you feel like Hawaii has shaped your profile? Coming from the East Coast, there’s always been a handful of guys who have had a crack at Pipe.
I mean, Pipe just sort of came out of nowhere for me. When I first came to Hawaii, I didn’t know what a big wave was. I think I came over the first time with a couple 5’1”s and some 5’4”’s—just tiny little boards—and [Danny] Fuller and [Mark] Healy and Reef were like, “What are you going to do with those?!” But I didn’t know shit about ordering big boards. The next year they tipped me on what I should be riding (6’8 - 6’10) and I did. I was told paddling out with Reef that big days making normal good days seem less intimidating. I got pounded and thought, “Ah, this ain’t that bad.” I knew how to get barreled from home, so it was just sort of a natural progression from there, a bigger version of what I loved at home.
Short interval punchy beach breaks, man. Best training ground ever.
It gets you to love barrels, it’s punchy enough to feel that real power, and that sort of just grew as I went bigger and bigger, and Pipe was just a bigger version of that feeling.
What was your first big moment with Volcom?
I had a part in Psychic Migrations, which was sort of my first real video part. We filmed it in Central America, at this left slab on the Caribbean side. Darren Crawford swam, and RT [Ryan Thomas] was shooting land, with Nate Leal.
It was pretty surreal to see myself in a surf video after watching everyone I looked up to.
That movie came out at the absolute height of the Web Clip era, and reminded people how good a surf film could be—I mean, RT’s a genius.
Yeah, that’s sort of how everyone felt. Everything I heard was that it was a refreshing take on a real surf movie. Web clips had taken over, and finally someone put a real movie out, the soundtrack was awesome.
That was sort of the last team movie that had that impact. How were the premieres?
The premiere in Orange County was insane. They did it at this massive theater, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of people. We had a hotel next door, and there must have been 60 people in the hotel room after, just raging. Everyone was there, from Mitch [Coleborn] to Gavin [Beschen], the Hawaiian guys, Tom Dosland, it was such a fun night.
If you want to get nostalgic about it, that was the shit. That was as good as winning a contest, but you get to do it together. It was such a cool experience, getting to be in a Volcom video that’ll be there forever.
So when did you decide to move to The City?
Well, I was sort of couch surfing in the City, staying with a friend on the Upper West Side when I was there, and that became more and more frequent. I had a little money to do it, so I just went for it. It made my whole program a lot better. I mean, at the beginning I was partying a lot, there was always something to do, but I also got into a routine of riding a bike all over the city, and just taking care of myself. I was getting hurt a lot on trips, and I was going into the city for physical therapy and all that, so moving there just made sense at the time.
But The City had everything at your fingertips, and I just thought, This is the way to live. You meet new and different types of people, who have such different opportunities in whatever scene they were a part of, in every direction. That can be overwhelming, or fuel to your fire.
I’m always trying to make sense of New York to people who have never lived there, just the fact that most people who are there are trying to make it, or are ambitious or super creative, in whatever discipline or creative field, and that’s a really inspiring part of that place. Just the cream. I felt like any night you walked into Max Fish or something you were going to meet someone completely surprising.
Yeah, you encounter completely Other Worlds. A lot of guys I knew started coming over when they were older, and we were able to open their eyes to shit they’d never imagined, whether it’s the touristy shit or just going to some crazy party in the Lower East Side, seeing more girls than you could ever imagine… It was new to me at first, and then it became new again, with all those guys, all over again.
And everyone interacts, you know? You might all be part of different worlds, but you’re a part of that world together. Everyone’s down to see what everyone else is up to.
What did the heads there think of your lifestyle, living there in the LES and traveling the world as a pro surfer?
I mean, people thought it was interesting, but that’s part of New York, you never know what you’re going to get when you meet someone, so it was never that big of a deal. Everyone’s doing something different. I was meeting new people all the time, friends of friends. I mean, this dude Mateo I became friends with rented me a place in Brooklyn for six months paying pennies to the dollar he was amped on surfing, and he came from a completely different world, he was Biggie’s right hand man, and he opened my eyes up to a lot of the music world in the City. When Prodigy died we were at Frank’s Chop Shop they had a little smoke session in the back and they were all tripping out on us because we both surfed. It was super random, but that was my introductory to another world.
When I would come back from a trip, I’d spend like three days at the Russian Bath House, just doing ice baths and sitting in the sauna, walking up to the roof to smoke spliffs, and there’s just such a crazy variety of people, just 60 year olds that have been coming forever, Polo players from the college, just everyone. You could just chill and meet people, hear some philosophical shit, talk about anything. That’s one of my favorite places on the planet.
So what’s next for you, Bal?
I’ve had kind of a funny past year and a half. As much as I was up, there was a lot of time I was laying down. I had hip surgery, and couldn’t walk for like four weeks, and that was the beginning of a four and a half stretch of no surfing, lots of rehab.
But this year I got lucky enough to get an invite into the Puerto event in memory of Oscar, and I didn’t even know if my hip worked, and somehow I ended up just getting barreled all event and somehow won that thing. Puerto is just a much bigger version of home so that mentality got me going.
But as far as what I’m doing, after I (somehow) made the final at the Volcom [Pipe Pro], my friend and I were already planning on doing a longer sort of “home” piece, just portraying where I grew up, and, I don’t know, a more personal piece. So after that Volcom event, we just went, Alright let’s make a movie. Like, a proper profile film.
Hopefully, by next year I’ll have some premiere dates set.
What would you say to a kid growing up in Long Island wanting to get a piece of the life you’ve built for yourself.
Be hungry. There’s a lot of guys who take it too slow.
You feel like that’s a New York attitude?
I guess you could say New York, but I like to think it’s just East Coast mentality. The East Coast gets good waves more often than out west just nothing inbetween.
There’s definitely kids getting amped. I see a new little kid from the East Coast every year in Hawaii, and every time I see a kid from the East Coast at Pipe I just get so psyched. That’s where I was, and what I hope for everyone from the East Coast that wants to turn heads.