Culture Worrier – Lewis Samuels from postsurf.com
An interview with surfing's honest, articulate critic.
Interview By | Alex Dick-Read
In 2006 Lewis Samuels was a relatively unknown Northern Californian surfer. Then he got a gig with huge surf-forecasting website, Surfline as their in-house analyst of pro surfing's current Top 44 and he became both a hero and a hate figure.
Samuels' Surfline Power Rankings were perfectly timed for the web's rapid rise in surf cultural importance. His unabashed, brutal honesty about how the pros were faring (alongside a frightening penchant for consumption of competition statistics) made him instant enemies among the top-echelon pros and many of their sponsors. But web viewers loved it.
By 2009 his well-developed brand of merciless comment proved too much for the suits at Surfline who ditched him after a particularly bare-faced attack on the boss of a major surf brand and advertiser. So Samuels, now with a large web following and surf-world notoriety, went it alone.
He set up a daily blog, PostSurf: Unfiltered Thoughts on Surf Culture, and it grew beyond the bounds of reason. Rude, untrammeled by loyalties to sponsors, bosses, advertisers or bros, and always composed with Lewis' wicked talent with words, Post-Surf felt like a breath of fresh air in a stifled world of muted, multinational-corporate surf media.
Suddenly, somehow, he'd become one of the most important commentators in surfing. But of course, good things don't last for long. Samuels' wit soon got him in trouble again - this time with another major industry player (hey, he's not letting on. It's murky, ok?). Suddenly, shockingly, PostSurf was shut down. (You can see all the posts archived at www.postsurf.com)
Samuels has a day job, so he's returned to that for now, but he plans to keep writing, commenting and attempting to bring his own brand of hilarious and often uncomfortable commentary to surfing.
Meantime, we threw a few questions at him to get his take on the here and now in the surf world.
ADR: Is surf culture in 2009/10 a happy place?
LS: First off, I think it's important to distinguish between the pure surfing experience, and the culture that feeds off it. If you're a surfer and you tap into an uncrowded day of good waves, you're happy. I don't care what kind of surfer you are, or how long you've been doing it - the water is a happy place if you're scoring, and free from all the bullshit.
But once we start talking about surf culture, instead of surfing … that's where all the bullshit comes in. If you're a beginner, all the detritus just might go over your head - except for the crowds. Crowds can make surf culture an unhappy place for anyone.
But there are other things degrading surfing, beyond obvious pressures like overcrowding and pollution. For me, the big issues are the crass commercialism of surfing, and the mainstreaming of a once proudly counter-culture pursuit. They go hand in hand - surfing is being sanitized so it can be sold to the masses.
So I think surf culture is still a happy place for some beginners, who might not know better. But for the hardcore surfer, who's been participating for long enough to remember a different time, the culture surrounding surfing is actually detrimental to the experience of surfing.
That said, there's no point in going around whining about how it used to be. All we have is how it is now, and how it will be.
What was PostSurf.com and why did you stop doing it?
PostSurf was a blog that I used to self-publish my perspective on surf culture. The surf industry is not my world - I grew up in an area of Northern California that has traditionally been left out of surf culture. But over the last few years I became involved in writing about surfing for mainstream publications, and in many ways I was disheartened by the experience.
So I started PostSurf to try to shake things up a little bit. I hoped to change the way average, everyday surfers viewed the surf industry, and change the way the surf industry viewed itself - if only incrementally.
My approach wasn't to speak earnestly about these topics. Instead, PostSurf was an ironic, abrasive mess. I wanted to get a reaction out of people. I approached it at times like an experiment, a crusade, and an art project. I know these all sound like ridiculously pretentious goals, on a certain level, and plenty of people who read PostSurf probably only interacted with it on the surface level - they thought I was some cynical bastard dead-set on mercilessly mocking nice industry people. And that was part of it.
But in the end I wanted to create a document that helped detail where surf culture is in 2009, and maybe wake people up in the process. Going back to your first question, the picture that emerged on PostSurf suggested that surf culture is at times alternately laughable, fascinating, and tragic.
In terms of why I stopped, it's best if I don't go into all the details. Suffice to say, it's something I had to do; our actions have consequences, and I knew that when I started the site. But in the aftermath, I feel like I did what I set out to do. The landscape has changed … if only a little.
PostSurf was popular with movers, shakers and lonely misanthropes, but how far did it reach into the surf world? How many people went there on a busy day? (I'm curious about how 'popular' translates into numbers in our micro cult.)
In terms of pure numbers, I suppose the project did better than I ever expected it to do. Surfing is a micro cult, compared to other more general online pursuits, like Googling Britney Spears. But I was getting hundreds of thousands of views a month, 30,000 unique viewers or something, which is better than many surf mags. But what was more interesting to me was how many of the readers worked in the surf industry. I got letters from nearly every editor at every major magazine. I'd get emails from world champions I'd never met before. I got letters from CEOs and letters from the wives of the people I wrote about. Some people loved it, and some people were very, very upset.
Before PostSurf you did the Power Rankings for Surfline.com in which you summed up the performance of each Top 44 surfer in each event, with brutal honesty. PostSurf did something similar for the wider surfing world. Why did this brutal honesty seem so refreshing?
I think the only reason the honesty seemed refreshing to readers is because they're used to reading surf magazines that are 90% marketing drivel. The articles are aspirational at best, advertorial at worst. Everything is positive, and writers very rarely commit to an opinion. So when people read my stuff, they tend to respond more viscerally to the strong perspectives. I think often my writing seems more interesting than it actually is, just because of how different my approach is. In other industries, it's old hat. But the surf world has insulated itself from criticism in a self-congratulatory bubble.
Do you agree that the 'culture' around the widely enjoyed act of riding waves has been distorted over the years by vested interests? Who, what, why?
Surfing has been commoditized. It's been sold like a product, and the people who sold surfing are ironically some of the people who loved it most. It's kind of a tragic story, really, going back to the guys like Bruce Brown and Hobie Alter. Bruce wanted to document the magic of surfing, so he made these movies. And guys like Hobie wanted better equipment, so they started making boards, and the boards and movies got better, and people wanted to buy them, so these guys turned their passions into businesses. That was the beginning of it.
Now surf brands are publicly traded companies. Their goal is profit, just like any other company. So it's not about surfing - it's about profiting off surfing. In order to make more profit, these companies have to do one of two things - encourage more people to surf, or encourage existing surfers to buy more products that they don't need. In my opinion, neither of these outcomes are remotely positive for surfing as a whole.
Do you really need this year's new high-tech boardshorts? Or new, tighter jeans? Surf media is largely a marketing tool controlled by the surf brands, whose only purpose is to convince you that if you love surfing, you need to buy their shit products. And most of the products are shit. The clothes are obviously totally unnecessary. The boards and wetsuits are tools, but even then, planned obsolescence is an issue. It's taken decades for surfers to ask the simple, obvious question, "Why should my wetsuit and board barely last one season?"
As for the idea that we need to increase the number of surfers in the world … I personally don't subscribe to that belief. There are enough surfers already. It's easy to discount my perspective as selfish - but waves are a limited resource. Teaching someone to surf, sharing that experience with them - it's a great gift. You're letting them in on a secret. That's how it used to be. If you really liked someone, and they really expressed interest, you'd loan them some old equipment and help them learn. But now brands and media are trying to create as many surfers in the world as possible simply so they can create more consumers. The end result is more consumption and a degraded surfing experience for everyone because of the negative effects associated with over-crowding.
Millions of people around the world love to ride waves. Most don't pay any attention to the babble spawned by the industry and media. Does the babble matter?
I'd actually disagree that most wave-riders don't pay attention to the surf industry or media. I applaud the surfers who manage to ignore it completely, but I fear that in developed nations, there are less of these "industry innocent" surfers than you think there are. Almost everyone is influenced by the surf-industrial complex, either because they visit a surf shop or they buy a magazine. If not, they experience the effects indirectly through overcrowding and the flood of new beginners. So the babble is going to trickle down and affect your experience, unless you're one of those lucky few surfers who lives in a distant outpost, some nook where surfing hasn't caught on yet. You could argue that those surfers are more in tune with what surfing actually is than pro surfers are.
Is there an environmental crisis? Should surfers just shut up about it, or should we encourage each other to give a shit?
Yes, of course there is an environmental crisis - it's been escalating since the industrial revolution. And of course surfers should give a shit instead of shutting up about it. On PostSurf, I mocked the concept of green marketing, and I think some readers mistook this for an indictment of environmentalism. But that wasn't my point. What I wanted to convey was simply that buying useless surf clothes labelled as "green" does not make you an environmentalist. The "green" surfer is the guy wearing his Katin Trunks made twenty years ago - not the guy with five pairs of Billabong's Eco Boardshort. The "green" surfer is an activist, not a consumer of green products. I'm dismayed that surf brands are using environmentalism as a marketing tool, instead of using their truckloads of money to address the real issues. As a surfer, if you want to change things, become an activist. And more importantly, do not under any circumstances believe you are important enough to have more than two kids. That's perhaps the biggest contribution you can make - don't procreate. If you want cleaner water, or if you want to prevent catastrophic climate changes, consider lobbying the Catholic Church and other organized religions to stop encouraging morons to not use birth control. Overpopulation is the scariest environmental issue.
The best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun. Discuss.
That's what I've heard. I suppose the whole concept of the "best" surfer is pretty silly in the end. I can tell you this much: being a skilled surfer has absolutely no correlation to being a good human being. Often the two traits seem to work against one another. And skilled surfers don't have more fun than unskilled surfers. In terms of fun, it's really hard to beat those first few years of surfing, when you move from kook to competent. It's so fun when you get to experience those pivotal surfing moments like getting barreled for the first time.
Are you the sort to ride an alaia, funky retro fish etc. and simply enjoy the glide? Or are you an air man who enjoys a good nose-pick between bouts of sectional abuse?
Every board has its day. If I lived in a zone where the waves were small and weak all the time, I'd probably ride fish or even longboards more than I do. But I'm fortunate enough to have access to fairly powerful waves on a regular basis, so I enjoy riding standard shortboards, especially when the waves are good and there are barrels. I gravitate towards boards that are small enough to be maneuverable, whether they're 5'3" fish or 5'10" thrusters.
Is there a division emerging in the surf world between these two sorts?
There is a bit of a division emerging in the attitudes of groms. It used to seem like most kids wanted to ride high-performance shortboards. Now lots of younger surfers seem to be riding almost anti-performance boards - boards like hulls or alais that are more about a feeling, that "glide" proponents talk about. Calling those boards anti-performance might be an overstatement - more accurately they're boards that do a couple things really well, but are horrible in all sorts of other situations. That's why people stopped riding them in previous eras. It's great to occasionally ride boards like that to get a feel for our design roots. But riding some of those retro boards in good waves while refusing to ride thrusters is even dumber than riding a tiny little wafer-thin thruster in mushy 1ft waves.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Bolinas, which is a little beach town north of San Francisco. It's an odd little place - you could charitably describe it as having character. In the late '60s it was flooded with hippies who made their way up from the Haight in SF. Bolinas has a reputation for being an artist's enclave, and a xenophobic, unfriendly place. It's changed a lot, but the best thing about it is that it was never developed - no condos, no malls, no chain stores. Like the rest of Northern California, it bears very little resemblance to Southern California. The water is cold year-round, there's plenty of swell, yet the waves are usually either bad or challenging, and sharks are an issue.
Which surf spot is closest to your heart?
My best memories are from left points in Indo or South America, and from extremely fickle, sharky places near home. And when I say sharky and fickle, I mean it - five of my friends have been attacked by great white sharks over the last decade or so, and I was there in the water next to them on two of those occasions.
Are you happy with your role as an iconoclastic cultural commentator, or has this just been the proverbial 15 minutes of fame?
I work under the assumption that nothing in life lasts forever. The whole concept of "my role" is pretty ridiculous, really. I take what I say far less seriously than other people seem to, these days. I wouldn't mind if things went back to the way they used to be. I'm saying the same shit I was saying when I was 19 - the only difference is now, instead of just my friends laughing and rolling their eyes, there's a wider audience of readers listening.
Any brief thoughts on politics and surfing? Is there a place for political propaganda in the surf media? Can the surf media NOT to be political and if so, which direction would you prefer it to swing?
For me it's less about politics, and more about honesty. One of the banes of surf journalism is the intellectual dishonesty inherent in a lot of articles. What I mean by that is many writers feel a need to oversimplify concepts, dumb things down for their audience, pander to the lowest common denominator. It's justified as "writing for our target demographic" - stupid teenage boys. What you end up with is closer to ad copywriting - all the captions sound like every other caption, all the travel stories sound like every other travel story ... surf writing has become its own shitty genre.
One of the hallmarks of the genre is ignoring the world around you to tell a simplified story about surfing. To me that's dishonest because we're not going for straightforward, proper New York Times journalism. Most people are writing a shitty redux of New Journalism, using techniques Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion pioneered 35 years ago. But to do that correctly, you have to be transparent, and put things in context.
This is where politics come in. If your political views affect your perspective on a story, then include it in the story. Present your opinions honestly. And if politics in general affect surfing, in terms of managing our environment, then write about it. If we're getting sick from the water, and politicians make the decisions that determine water quality, how can you ignore that? It's irresponsible. But many surf mags try to stay neutral when it comes to politics, in order to appeal to a wider base. For instance, during the 2008 election in the US, many mags didn't want to get involved. They wanted to pretend that they were neutral sources of unbiased information. To me, that's ridiculous. We're not CNN or the New York Times. Just come out and say what your beliefs are, and either readers will agree with you, or they won't.
What's next for you, for us?
I'm going to keep writing. But I'm going to concentrate on writing longer pieces that give me a bit more space to delve into the meat of things. That's the thing about writing for the web - viewers have short attention spans, so you often only get to hint at the bigger issues. In the coming year, I'm going to do some more in-depth pieces for the magazines. I have strong opinions about the current state of surf media, but I also have a sense of humor, and the concept of working in the industry I condemned makes me laugh. Some might see it as hypocritical, but I plan on indicting on the surf industry from the inside out. I find the concept of indirectly getting paid by advertisers to work against their best interests amusingly ironic.
I'm also looking forward to surfing this winter and doing a few good trips with old friends. At this point in my life, I'm much more interested in surfing than I am in writing about surfing.
What's next for us? I'll be optimistic for a change and declare that economic turmoil will contribute to a mini-apocalypse for the surf industry. Companies will collapse into themselves like dying suns. Magazines will become dangerously thin and then irrelevant, like bulimic reality TV stars. Surf Hipster culture will take over, embracing do-it-yourself ethics. Backyard shapers, off-brand clothing, independent surf films and alternative surf media will become the norm. And then, just like that, something else will become popular, and surfing will become tragically unhip, like roller-blading.
Would you still surf if people perceived you as being lamer than a roller-blader? I would. But lots of other people wouldn't. Which would be fine with me.
The Surfer's Path is unique in the surf media world. Not only is it the first truly 'green' surf magazine - printed on 100% post consumer recycled paper with non-GMO soy based inks - it also offers a more eclectic angle at the surfing world than any other magazine. There's a strong travel focus, profiles of unusual characters and stories from all walks of surfing life, as well as it's hugely influential stance on environmental issues affecting surfers. The photos and stories come from the best in the business, from all around the world. Where ever you are on the path, it offers inspiration, vision, entertainment, and of course, 100% no nonsense stoke!
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