Story provided by Surfing World Magazine - Issue 370 Out Now
A beer, a rollie and a chat at The Rails with Duncan McNicol
Duncan McNicol rolls into the Railway Hotel, half an hour late. It’s Thursday afternoon and the dusty Byron Bay pub is filled with lost souls from all over the world drinking alongside the ghosts of old Byron. Duncan orders a beer then walks over to smoke a rollie with a whip-thin old “parkie” who has a teardrop tattoo rolling down his cheek and his worldly possessions in a swag of plastic bags. The pair share a joke as Duncan tokes the skinny cigarette. They talk like old mates. They might be. The “parkie” lives in the park. Dunc once lived in his van.
All arms and legs and hair and dressed head-to-toe in rock star black, Duncan struts over, seemingly stuck in character from Nix Nic Nooley, the zero-budget cult surf film he recently starred in. The Rails is his regular. “I’m definitely not going to the Top Pub.” He ponders that for a second while he takes another sip. “Fuck the Top Pub. I’m even off the Northern. You get kicked out for not even being that pissed. I guess that’s the thing with living in a small place though; everyone knows you… especially the security guards.”
There is of course, an infamous social gravity to this town that’s hard to escape. “I travel a lot between Bali and Byron and it’s kind of heavy. You get to Bali and see someone and go, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages!’ and you smash beers. Then you get back to Byron and go, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages, let’s smash beers!’ You’re always leaving or you’re always arriving and it’s easy to get caught in that pattern. The place is dangerous that way. Every weekend there’s a party or some shit, but I guess everyone’s in the same boat. No one’s really doing that much serious shit. It’s all fun. Even the serious stuff isn’t serious, and everyone’s got a lot of spare time to have some fun.”
Duncan’s late because he’s been looking at a warehouse for lease out in the industrial estate and was caught in the predictable Shirley Street afternoon traffic jam on the way back into town. He tells me he’s starting a recycled shoe business and is looking for space to work out of.
He’s also looking for somewhere to live.
The town’s creative legion has wrestled with these twin problems ever since Byron became a satellite suburb of Sydney and real estate prices went through the roof. Many have solved the problem by simply living in their factories, killing two birds with one stone and contravening several council by-laws in the process. Duncan tells me he and his girlfriend are currently living with seven New Zealanders but are getting kicked out of the house soon, and with the rental market in Byron white hot, he might be sleeping rough in his Toyota Camry for a while. Unless of course…
“You’re, ahhh… not going to live in the factory, are you?” I ask out of curiosity. He breaks eye contact and chuckles into his beer, a cartoon snigger that hints there’s several other levels on the joke you’re not getting. It’s a laugh regularly aimed more at himself than anyone else. For while others expend valuable cosmic energy bitching and moaning about the real world taking over Byron, Dunc sees the reality of this surreal town. “People see Byron as paradise and the prices go up. That’s just the way it is. It’s twice as expensive as any other small town on the coast but if it was cheap it’d be a shithole.”
Duncan arrived in the alt-universe of Byron five years ago, moving up from Caves Beach, just south of Newcastle. It’s a well-travelled and hardly original migration path, but the past couple of years have seen a bunch of pro surf types going all 2481, everyone from Matt Wilko to Wade Goodall to Duncan’s Nic Nix Nooley crew of Creed McTaggart, Beau Foster, Ellis Ericson and Toby Cregan. “Seems to be the thing to do,” he laughs.
It’s late spring, the waves are onshore chum, and the whole shark vibe is keeping people out of the water. Duncan didn’t surf this morning; instead he’d sat at home and “sketched out a sketchy business idea with a mate. It’s actually a really good idea”, he sniggers again, thinking I’d assume it was another dream headed for the Byron scrapheap. “But I’m not going to tell you what it is. I don’t want someone stealing it. Everyone has all this free time to think up stupid ideas, put ‘Byron’ in the name and make themselves a bit of money. But I started my shoe business because I was bored more than anything. I’d surf twice a day and I’d be sitting at home going, ‘Shit, what do I do?’ I might as well start a business and see what happens. I don’t care if I fail. It’s just something to do.”
When I ask where he’s going in life he replies, “I’m working towards not working for other people. I’m happy surfing but I don’t make very much money. I can cruise on that but it’s not a career I’m going to pursue very long. I just want to have something behind me so I’m not starting from nothing every time. I’m never going to get paid much to go surfing.”
“I’m working towards not working for other people."
Duncan McNicol is not a pro surfer. He makes that distinction clear. Pro surfing is what pro surfers do. He’s far from serious about his surfing career, which, he points out, isn’t even a career. He’s building a career out of not having a career. God bless surfing. “I joke around because heaps of my friends are pro surfers and when I’m hanging out and they’re getting interviewed and shit I go, ‘Hey, I’m Duncan and I’m a pro surfer,’ even though I know I’m not a pro surfer.” I ask if he’s not a pro surfer, then what is he? Semi-pro? The anti-pro? A dude in a van? “I’m just lucky,” comes the reply.
In a previous life, Duncan was a sponsored grom and very much on the way to being pro. “I used to ride for Billabong, then I rode for Insight before they went south, then some other suss American company I can’t remember, and then I finally got sponsored by Afends. Pretty sure that’s it. I can’t remember.” He’s only been to Hawaii once, he was 17 staying on his own at a backpacker’s, drinking Red Bull for breakfast, eating noodles for lunch and surfing four times a day while sponsored grommets were sitting on the lounges of expensive rentals at Off The Wall watching cable, living on company dime, and surfing only when they were well and ready. “I guess all those pro surfer guys know they’re lucky but I’m not always sure they know exactly how lucky they are compared to guys who work six day labouring jobs.”
“I’ve had heaps of jobs here,” says Dunc when I ask where he’s worked. “I’ve dish-pigged and done some labouring. I was a muffin deliveryman. I used to deliver them to the cafés in Byron every morning from five am. It was sick. Everyone is friendly and girls are giving me free coffees and I’m just dragging it out taking as much time as I can. Then I had a job picking blueberries out at Newrybar. Four of us used to drive out in a little Charade all dressed as rock stars in leather jackets, black jeans and make up. We made a game out of it. Basically I’ve worked every job apart from serious ones.”
Duncan’s current sponsor, Afends, is a Byron label that began as a backyard start-up printing T-shirts and has now broken big, a little Byron idea that blew up, their success fuelling a hundred other creative start-ups in town, everything from felt hats to recycled shoes. “It’s gnarly how well they’ve done,” offers Dunc. “They send me on trips. It’s super easy. I don’t feel like I’m a team rider. I’ve had other sponsors where I’ve had to book appointments to go and see them and it’s heaps professional when you’re not really doing anything professional at all, which is super lame. I just roll in and see the guys. It’s sick.”
Duncan’s Nix Nic Nooley section opens up with his character from the future mocking the real Duncan who’s living in his van picking his nose and eating cheese from an old Big Mac carton. “Dude, how’s this guy living in his car? Fuck, that’s disgusting.”
It was, of course, art parodying life. “I did a year and a half living in my van,” he offers. “My panel van was sick. It had a shark jaw painted on the side. I’d bought it off this old dude who used to tow heavy shit around so he’d put all this fucked up shit in the engine, ran it off LPG, full kitted it up so you could do wild burn outs, but I tried to get it registered and they said, ‘Nah, you can’t, it’s got this weird intercooler, it’s got this and it’s got that.’ It wasn’t street legal. It was going to cost $1500 to get it through rego and I was leaving for Bali the next day, so I sold it to the wreckers for 50 bucks. I kinda blew it.”
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Van life is very different to house life. There is no lounge. No TV. No house. You’re forced to improvise and live light. “I’m pretty easy going, so living in the van didn’t worry me so much. It was pretty cool actually, except for when it rained. I think it was 2013 when I moved into my car and there were these huge storms that January. Of the first 50 days of the year, 30 rained. That was pretty annoying, but I didn’t care. You get used to it. We had a little gas cooker and a Maccas tray for a chopping board and we ate spaghettis and curries and chilli con carne and shit. We were frothing. When I wasn’t set up it was a mission, but you get an act quickly.”
The thing with van life is that you have to get out and enjoy the day, you have no choice. Dunc recalls his van years were good for his surfing, and actually enlightening on several levels. “My brother was doing it too so we’d hang out and surf so much together because there was nothing else to do. You can’t sit in there and watch TV. You’d surf, talk to randoms. No option but to talk to someone. Read a book, go surfing, or… that’s pretty much it. When it was raining here I actually spent a lot of time in the public library. My brother is a teacher here in Byron and he’s really smart, got all these uni degrees, and he was actually a teacher at Byron High while he was living in his car. Anyway, we’d go to the library together and read. I’d tend to do week-long blocks of learning about a subject. One week would be dinosaurs, the next would be astronomy. It was sick.”
Living the van life also allowed Duncan to see how the other half live in Byron, the crew living rough in the parks, the ones tourist families in matching micro-stripe designer wear quickly walk past without making eye contact, ushering their kids away for safety.
“I lived in my car for ages and was right amongst it and became good mates with the real sussos and the parkies. There’s this community down there who all know each other. You’d hang down The Wreck at six in the morning with the same crew, having a yarn, a ciggie and a coffee. We actually made a movie two years ago with some of the homeless people, got ’em telling their stories. We had a screening on a DVD player in one of their cars. There were ten homeless people in a van – one guy was a heroin addict, one guy was crazy, there was a mystic lady – all watching themselves in this little movie we made. One guy was the full heroin addict back then but after we did the movie he got off the sauce and cleaned his act up.”
When I ask him about Byron’s status as the people watching capital of Australia he laughs that self-mocking laugh again. “I love it. Fuck yeah, mainly because I know people are probably watching me.” The McNicol brothers are both naturals in front of the camera. You might remember Duncan’s brother Angus from a few years back on breakfast TV rescuing a French tourist from drowning at Kirra. The interview was a classic and went viral, the network inviting him down to the studio the following day.
Duncan meanwhile starred in Nix Nic Nooley, both in the water and out.
“It all started one day in my panel van when I said to the boys, ‘You know, I’d be the sickest actor.’ I was taking the piss obviously, then Tobes pulls out his camera, hits record, and goes, ‘Okay then, act.’” Duncan’s character in the movie – a surfer from the year 2879 – looked remarkably similar to the guy sitting in front of me drinking a beer, just covered in aluminium foil. It’s the kind of performance we haven’t seen in surf movies since The Wiz went to Pipeline.
Duncan’s surfing is equally animated.
Most filmmakers throw a goofy trick wave into a guy’s edit to loosen things up a little, show a dimension beyond pure aggro shred, but Dunc’s section in Nix Nic is comprised solely of goofy tricks – kick flips and dinkie airs, switch ripping and shove-its – all of it to the appropriately titled calypso track, Fruits and Vegetables. “I think my section was funny because I was just doing bunny hops. It was a joke song with joke surfing. I was the joke section.”
He drifts away in laughter that eventually tails off. “I don’t know if anyone else found it funny, but I did.”
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