Sean Doherty Ventures Inside Mason Ho's Mind
SURFS LIKE JAZZ SOUNDS
I think I’ve got the wrong address when I turn up. I double-check the message, but yep, this is the house.
We’re in Jan Juc, just down the road from Bells, and I’ve pulled up in the shadows of the most expensive house in town, a $4 million dollar weekender. I knock, not sure what or who to expect, and wait a minute for the door to open. “Brah! Do you know how long it took me to get down here from upstairs?” It’s Michael Ho, in trackie pants, panting, holding the TV remote. “I should’ve taken the lift!” The house has a lift. Mason Ho files out soon after, followed by Seabass, then Dusty, then Kekoa Bacalso. It’s turned into the Hawaiian embassy. Mason had beaten the world champ at Bells the day before, and as I got there he was fighting every natural fibre in his body telling him to go surf Bird Rock, the fun little V-Land set-up straight across the road, and instead go out and surf high tide Bells to tune up, get ready for his next heat. “Gotta be all pro, brah,” he laments. “Dinner before dessert."
So why do we think Mason Ho is the world’s most intriguing surfer? Because he surfs like jazz sounds? Because he looks back into the tube at big Pipeline, grabbing his nuts? Because he holds a reverential line on the surfing and the surfers who’ve gone before him? Because he’s impish and offbeat and freestyled? Because he just makes us want to go surf?
All of those work, for sure.
But the real reason he’s sitting here, top of the list as the world’s most intriguing surfer, is because he’s also the world’s most intrigued surfer.
Mason gets lost in surfing. He’s been lost in there for 15 years and you’ll never get him out, and there’s a natural curiosity in him that lends itself to exploring something so bottomless and unfathomable. Get him started in a conversation on, say, channel bottoms, and he’ll start soloing about Al Byrne, and that’ll head him off into a riff about Bali, which will bring him to an Andy Irons movie section from Desert Point, which brings him to a story about the time Mason went to Desert Point (which we can’t retell here), which takes him down a rabbit hole about backhand tube riding, which will end in the story about his dad winning Pipe with a cast on his arm.
My nine-year-old daughter has tagged along for the interview, and she’s got a cast on her arm. She fractured it walking to church, her story is that God cursed her and didn’t want her there, my story something closer to an anti-Christ, Omen scenario. Anyway, she walks in and Mase gravitates straight toward her. The pair start talking about broken bones and God, but are soon talking about surfing, and when my daughter tells him she’s got a board but isn’t right into surfing yet, Mason is right there with her. “Don’t worry! I didn’t get right into surfing until I was 10 years old either. Just let it happen when it’s ready.”
He’s genuinely hanging off her every word, and I have to break him away to do the interview, which just leads us down several more rabbit holes. Mason Ho is the Inception of surfing interviews. “What was the question again?” That’s Mase, but he isn’t just intrigued about surfing, he’s intrigued about people, and there are some cool parallels there between he and Occ. Because just like Occ, Mason is out there every day, ready for the world to amaze him in some new and wondrous way.
SW: Most tour guys get to Bells and start bitching like old crones about the place – “It’s too cold, it’s too fat, it’s an old guys’ wave” – but that’s not you.
Mase: Not a chance. Before all this I was laying in my bed in a dark room trying to heal. I had this injury… I probably shouldn’t say where exactly. Then I had the Eddie and the Eddie made it a little worse, so I sat out for a while. So when I got here even though it was all cloudy and stuff, it was way better than my dark room.
You’ve cut clips to Hendrix before, how bad do you want to surf that first heat of the morning and have Hells Bells playing while you surf?
I think anyone would like to. I’m not like the most super into the whole competitive thing, trying to win the world title, but taking all the cool elements I wanna go out there and feel that AC/DC trip. But at the same time it’d almost be too gnarly. I’d get the chills.
You’re an AC/DC fan?
Oh yeah, when I was a kid that was all I listened to. As I got older I shifted more to funk rap, just those right ones, and then just reggae, more mellowed out. But when I was younger I loved AC/DC and all the rock, every day.
Do you surf with a song lodged in your head?
Not often. Sometimes when I get lucky and I’m at home and I’m driving with a good CD or your phone with the music you like. Then over here sometimes I’ll put earphones in, but then I’ve seen how it looks sometimes [on the broadcast] and I’d just rather take everyone’s little info [about the heat].
You’ve been surfing heats at Bells but you’re staying across the road from Bird Rock, which is like a Victorian Velzyland. I’m presuming that isn’t an accident.
Bird Rock it definitely is my vibe, I’d like to think so, but I’m always surfing Bells because, I dunno… it’s fun to go and try and get a couple of those turns. I been sneaking some fun sessions out here though, but when the contest’s on at Bells I try and not surf anywhere else. Everywhere else is like dessert before dinner. You got to eat your dinner.
You just beat the world champ.
That was cool, anytime making a heat is like one of the best feelings cause that’s all you want to do… in front of all the business, and all your friends and family and everything. You want to do good and as soon as I got home everyone’s stoked that you’ve done good. What I want to do, I want to make everyone all stoked, so I’m going to try and get through some heats. But it was cool. It was cool to beat Adriano but I try and not think about it too much.
Adriano is the man with the plan and surfs really structured, and people believe you’re the total opposite of that. Is that true though? I stood with your dad yesterday during your heat and even if you didn’t have a plan, he definitely did.
Yeah, it’s really weird cause when I was younger I was so into competing. I loved it, but when I went straight in and started to try and qualify, I was against gnarly guys who were way older than me who’d already been doing it for years and you get humbled pretty quick. But I used to have a plan. I used to be super into being The Plan Guy, but I lost so many times when I was younger doing that I almost got over being the Plan Guy. I was the Plan Kid at the time, not the Plan Guy. So I kinda lost the whole… I went, I’m gonna try this and then I’m gonna try this, and then I tried fully not caring and I’d do pretty good but that only goes well for so long. Then you go, hey, I wanna try and plan again. Now I found just stick to the basics of the contest rules, then there’s a few little old school ones that no one latches onto, then it makes you really gnarly as a competitor. If you’re not the best surfer you can still get away with beating a world champ or whatever.
The last time you and Adriano met was at Pipe last year and, dude…
How was the pressure of paddling out knowing that you’d decide the world title?
That was a weird one, because I feel like I should have felt the pressure more. Something about pressure, I just love shining it. The pressure… there’s something about it. And when people go, “Is he feeling the pressure?” I don’t even know about it. I don’t even care. Something about the pressure, but it’s almost bad for me. I feel like there’s a happy medium and I should feel some of the pressure, but it’s so fun just blocking it all out. I don’t know. Like the Adriano one at home I felt no pressure. Everyone was telling me, saying you’re going to win and do good, but I can never get high or low from anyone telling me stuff. I think the guy upstairs had it all already figured out. It just happened like that and I wasn’t bummed or whatever.
You were also trying to win the Pipe Masters.
I know, and I wasn’t trying to think of that the whole entire thing.
Was Pops holding it together?
Totally. He was all stoked. We were all on a happy little cloud for a while.
You mightn’t have been feeling the pressure but we were sitting on the beach under a tent in Mick’s camp, and that’s where all the pressure was.
Wanting it soooo bad!
We’re sitting there talking, is Mase really serious or not serious with this?
Oh, I was dead serious.
And I’m sitting there with Duncan Campbell and he goes, “the only thing he was serious about was blowing up my letterbox! He did it every Halloween for years!” Yep, yep, yep. Duncan said that? Ha! Yep. There were four or five mailboxes I’d blow up every… single… Halloween, no matter whaaaaat! And I never knew it was even wrong. I didn’t get it, and to be honest it was my Dad’s fault, because he liked to do it and he did it one year and I saw it and went, okay, mailboxes blown up every year, religion. So we blow up everyone’s mailboxes and then the next day I’d be like, hey, we’re cool, right? My Dad was doing it.
Were you a naughty kid?
Oh my god. I was pretty gnarly. I remember though when you’re naughty with manners, it’s almost the worst. Any adults I’m like, “Uncle? Aunty?” every time with the big smile. I felt like I was on such good terms with the parents and I’d be nice with them, then nice with the naughtiness, and when they’d be away I’d be breaking the drywall.
Lucky you’re a responsible adult now.
Totally. It sounds like everyone’s the same; they learn a bunch and get a little bit of the street knowledge to stay out of trouble and go do what you love, especially what it’s something as nice as surfing.
The Hawaiian winter just past has been so big, so good, and so relentless, has it changed the way you look at surfing entirely?
Totally. It’s been so cool. I feel like now my small-wave game is gonna be so good after this winter. I’ve been waiting to get some good, bombing surf back-to-back, just because I’ve surfed small waves all my life. I’ve chased them and tried to tune up my small-wave surfing so much, and to get some good big surf under the belt feels so good. Okay, that whole big-wave surf thing is good, now it’s get back to what I need to do to get on tour pretty much. Go win some heats. I feel the El Niño, the big-wave winter is going to help my small-wave game. Like now I’m all excited when I see my squash-tails and stuff. Looking at ‘em like a whole new world. There was a point last year where every single one of my boards looked the same even though they weren’t and I’d be like, err, [pretending to flick between them] but now I pick one up and go, oh my god, how’s this one! How’s this curve right here! And I go ride it on a small wave and go, whoooo. I just connected the dots, did three little turns. I see the clip and it’s like, whoa, I’m stoked.
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Your small-wave surfing feels alive again.
So alive. I can’t wait now to go surf some contests and do some small-wave trips.
What was the best thing you saw this Hawaiian winter?
[Thinking…] That’s a crazy question. Best thing I saw? Man, I mean, probably just paddling out at the Eddie, and it’s not the best thing I saw, but easily the gnarliest thing I saw and the thing that awakened pieces of my mind I didn’t even know were there, was probably Clyde Aikau.
When I paddled out for my first heat they were all sitting in the lineup at Waimea, and I was waiting for my heat so I’m thinking, it ain’t my heat, I don’t need to sit in here. I thought every wave was going to break on the fourth reef, I’m going to go sit a mile out. I’m hanging a mile out I’m not going to get caught inside before my heat, so I went literally almost… as far out as you could go, 80 yards from the pack, a hundred yards, into the channel and out. These huge lines come in and I’m like, whoa, how’s everyone just hanging in there! And I’m feeling the ocean and I know nothing is going to break out here, but what in the world? I’m looking at the bay and I’m looking like I’m already at Alligators and it looks like the bay is waaaay back in there, and then I’m looking out and this jet ski is coming in and he’s like, “They’re coming! They’re coming!” And I’m like, what is he talking about? Is there bigger waves coming? And I’m paddling out more and I’m paddling and everyone, the guys are still hanging inside. Makua Rothman’s kinda running beside me and all of a sudden I see the waves breaking. But back to the deal: Clyde was in on the peak! He’s in that first heat with John John and he’s in the pit, and I remember this wave broke and I almost got caught inside and I was stroking 100 yards outside everyone, 130 yards, and the thing, I barely got under it. It was the biggest wave I’ve ever seen in my whole life and the whole thing was already breaking, reeling, and I barely got off the edge of it and I remember Makua yelling at me, “You’re already caught inside!” and I’m like, “I am not getting caught inside by this fucking wave!” We both barely made it, but everyone else got mowed and Uncle Clyde got mowed and I’m thinking if Uncle Clyde could handle that, I don’t know, I could at least act like I could handle it. I’ll go sit in the pit. And I know I’ll take off on that wave. Something about the taking off, I’ve already convinced myself I’ll take off on anything. Since I was a kid I was looking down from a building going, “Oh, this is a wave!”
My tutu [grandma] lives on the 19th storey and I’m all comfy up there like, ahhh, so I’m all ready for this, the whole drop thing, 50-foot, whatever, I’ll go. I’m sure all the big-wave surfers know this – even though I’m not a big-wave surfer – the whole deal of position and watching it come and turning around and being in position, that’s the real nuts part.
Being in the sweet spot.
I remember Uncle Clyde doing that, and I’m like, okay, I’m going to sit on the inside. I’m not going to wait for this wave out here. But the gnarly part is… you asked what was the best thing I saw all winter was, and the best thing I saw all winter was Uncle Clyde getting cleaned out and then sitting straight back in the pit again. The next heat I had my heat with him, he’d already had the IV in him, and he did the same thing and the biggest set of the day came in and I barely got out of there. I got my biggest wave of the contest and I ate it, and he got cleaned up again and that wave was waaaaay bigger. The next wave was way bigger but it was too big for the place, it cleaned everyone out, but after that he went and sat deeper than everyone… again. Something about that had me in chills all winter. Something about that was gnarly. After I got worked I was trying to breathe and feel my neck and I know I’ll go for another one, but if another closeout comes in, what’s going to happen? Then I look over at Clyde and he’s ready to go again.
Was it just the raddest day to be involved with?
A hundred and 10 per cent the raddest day. It’s not even a question or an argument. You can’t even question how sick that day was. And I had my injury so I was, like, laying in my Dad’s van, so I didn’t get to watch anything before, then my Dad would come in and go, “It’s your heat,” and I’d get out of the van and a couple of my friends would be trying to get me into my inflatable vest. I was like, “Does it look right?” But it’s such a good time, then after the heats I felt better and got to enjoy it and had a beer and hang. Then it was back to bed for three weeks or whatever it was.
I saw you a couple of weeks before the Eddie and you were telling me about getting cut in half by the lip of a 30-footer on the first day they didn’t run the Eddie. Is that where the injury happened? What did happen?
It blew my guts out my back. I’ll never forget. That actually brings me to a whole… it might not even be a question. I don’t know if I should even be talking about it, you know, with Owen and everyone. That wipeout, it was nothing close to what Owen’s got, but after that wipeout I had something where I couldn’t keep talking, I’d be talking and my brain would just stop, and if I kept talking I’d feel like I was blacking out. Okay, I think I’ve had this before, it’s just from getting worked.
I didn’t go to sleep that day, cause I’ve heard things after gnarly wipeouts, but I went to bed that night and I woke up the next morning and every time I got up my brain, the back of my head would burn and my eyes, and every time I’d go to pee or walk out in the living room it’d burn and I’d have to go back in my room. I’d have it all dark and I’d instantly feel better. Something about the dark room. And I had it for two days and I was like, whoa, this is nuts! The burning, just waiting for it to go away, and it was gnarly. The Volcom contest at Pipe was the fourth day, and that day I woke up and walked out to pee and I was waiting to feel the burn and it didn’t burn. It wasn’t there. I thought, what was that? Was that similar to what Owen had? I just wish the best for him. I really do.
Pretty much everywhere you go, Pops has been there before and he’s done something, surfed something, won something. How much of that history do you take on, especially at a place like Bells where he goes way back?
Oh, it’s awesome for me. That’s like bonus energy when I get to go places and I hear Dad’s been there, and Dad’s made heats, done this, done that. So cool. It’s like an extra little jolt. And same with my uncle Derek, too. They’ve both covered a few places I love, and when I’m going somewhere they’ve gone I go check in with my Uncle Derek or talk with Dad a little bit about it. It’s always sick going places where they’ve really made some tracks.
Talking surfing with the three of you guys – your dad, you and Coco – you all talk surfing in a different way, almost in different languages, but it all seems to make sense to each other.
It’s so funny. Surf communication. I got fully scolded by Coco the other day for my [post-heat] interviews. I’ve already caught myself 10 times doing what she told me not to do.
Start the answer with the question. It’s all supposed to help the answer, but I forget the answer then I forget the question too. I’m sorry.
Where do the answers come from? People are eating your interviews up.
It comes from deep. That’s why I got scolded. Coco told me, “There’s this guy rolling his eyes behind you!” and I’m like, “Hello! I do not care about the guy rolling his eyes behind me. I’m sorry, cause I care what you think – you’re my sister and I don’t want to embarrass you – so I’ll try and answer the question.” I can’t even listen to myself though.
Do you watch much of yourself surfing? It’s one of those things you’re into or you’re not.
I think you should be totally into watching yourself surf, otherwise you must not be ripping. I just like to watch good surfing. I don’t surf good all the time, but sometimes I get a good one and I like to watch. But I like watching myself surf, by myself. Once someone comes in the room I start backstepping – okay, it’s weird now. But I don’t like watching myself on film not surfing. If I was watching this interview I’d kinda cringe.
How does somewhere as intense as the North Shore produce someone as free-spirited as you?
I think my Dad and my Uncle Derek made a force field around me, kinda caged me off so I could express a little more. I probably would’ve got beat up a little more as a kid. I was a little lippy and I’m trying to go all the good waves, but at home sometimes they don’t even have to hit you, you just get a look from one of your heroes or a couple of words from one of them and I can see it shaking. But I see a lot of people like me from the North Shore, I’m just a product of the neighbourhood, everyone’s like me, but sometimes people get shaken up by other people and they’ll end up not doing it, and sometimes you’ll be doing something, so good that maybe someone’s like, we’ll rouse you for it then all of a sudden you’re not doing it because of something your hero says and it changes your behaviour. You’re a little more like… eeeeeeee [cowering] like when a dog gets hit. So I’m lucky to have my family and stuff so I never really got beat, so I got to get out there and enjoy it more. I still got some cracks and when I got hit eventually I actually got stoked on it, I was in the club! Woohoo! And then they’re like, “That guy would’ve mauled you if your Dad wasn’t Mike Ho!”
You grew up in the middle of the Irons era, what influence did that pair have on you?
Thank god for the Irons blood. They’re like everything, still are for sure. Growing up everything was my Dad’s era – my Dad and my Uncle Derek – but I was more like my Dad. So I was like Dad, MR, Robbie Page and Tom Carroll and all these super sick guys, Uncle Barton Lynch, Al Byrne, and that was like all the guys I liked to name a few. A couple in Uncle Derek’s era for sure, but I liked more of my Dad’s era for some reason. But I wasn’t really that into surfing as I was telling your daughter until I was about 10, and that was already, like, Slater and he was the man and I’d see him around when I was causing trouble at the ASP banquets at Turtle Bay, asking every pro for money to go to the arcade. I remember anyone who’d give me money would be one of my favourites, and I wouldn’t even watch his surfing, but as a person. I went through phases and I was like, “Kelly gave me a huge bundle!” and all I know was I like Kelly because, “Look at his bundle of ones he gave me!” Then my friend Cru Surratt would be like, “Well, Barton Lynch is probably the gnarliest guy of the whole night, look at this!” We’d have all our money, and… I already forgot the question…
Andy and Bruce.
Oh yeah, Andy and Bruce for me were everything because when I got right into surfing when I was 9, 10, they were like the coolest thing ever. They were late teens by then and I got to see them come up and do their thing right when I was taking in a bunch of surfing. I remember seeing Andy and Bruce at all the Pipe Masters and I got stories from them there every year, a weird, gnarly story every year. Something about them would draw me to them, and I was just trouble… well not trouble but I was going to make a little scene wherever I went. I dropped chicken on Andy’s board when he was getting ready one time and he wanted to kill me! I was like, “It’s good luck! Shoyu chicken grease!” He’s in a jersey going, “Fwoaarrrr!” and I’m like, “I’ll come dry it off!” But Andy was always so cool to me. He’d be like, “Are you shaving or something?”
And I’d be like, “Err, no.”
And he’d go, “Good, don’t shave. It’s coming in already. I remember shaving when I was young and I shaved too early and now I’ve got to shave every day.”
I was just like, “Okay, okay, okay,” taking in all this stuff. He went out for his heat and I went straight home and shaved. I had no hair at all but I was like, Andy did it. Boom! And I had a moustache within a few weeks and now I’m fully screwed.
But to see Andy and Bruce, that was gnarly. Andy started to win World Titles and I was getting older, 17, 18 and at a house party and it’d be pitch black out and Andy’s right there, I see him, and I’d be there in awe thinking, ohhhhhhh, Andy, the man. Suddenly he’d be like, “What’s up Mase!” It’d be dark and I’d be like, how can he even see me?! And I’d be like, Andy, whaaaaaat! As I got older I caught on the drift that coming up to him and making a big scene was not the cool thing to do because when I was little that was my big thing. I’d tell my friends, “Brah, my dad’s Mike Ho. I’m going to tackle Slater right now. Yeah!” I’d say to my friends, “You want me to just stick him right now?” And my friends would be, “Fuck yeah! Stick that guy, brah!” He was like the best at the time and the most targeted guy, but he was so cool about it. I wonder if he still remembers that? I’d tackle the daylights out of him and I’d only get his ankles. If I tried to tackle him anywhere above his knees I’d dead end, hit the ground, then he’d just stuff my face in the sand. Sometimes bury my head. One time I remember at the Eddie he tried to bury my head before his heat. Then one time at Pipe I think I ran up to him and tried to stick him and didn’t get him down – I only could get him down when no one was looking.
Why do you think so many people are into you and your surfing?
I’m sure if I even thought about it, it’d be not that cool if I said it. But why are people into my surfing? I have no clue why to be honest. Maybe I almost get barrelled sometimes.
I’m looking at guys like you and Occ and Curren and the common thing I see is that you’re doing your own thing and you don’t seem too affected by everything that goes on around you. You’re guys who get lost in your surfing.
Totally! Yeah! I feel there are a few of us around who are like that. Like Bass [Sebastian Zietz] right there, he’s one of them. My Dad told me that right before those heats the other day, “You guys are all artists, so you go out there and do your art and do your painting, and if you do good art and finish your painting by the time the clock stops your art is usually pretty nice. Watch other guys for an idea but don’t let it seep in. Do your own art.” Whatever, it’s hard to explain. But do whatever you do out there, just be yourself out there. And it’s like art, people don’t like this guy but they like this other guy.
The past couple of years have been big ones for you. Do you think you’ve grown up as a result? Have you been forced to take life more seriously?
I’d like to think I’ve grown up for sure, but keep a bit of the young stuff, take that with you as long as you can and be yourself. I know you have to grow up in the game of life, in the game of surf, and I feel that like once you do that you grow up and it’s on.
Has surfing ever not been fun for you?
The only time it’s not fun is when you’re injured. That sucks, but that’s another part of the growing up. You start doing all those things to stop that, stretching, eating good.
I overheard you the other day down at Bells saying the contests force you to put some structure in your life.
Exactly. I remember saying that when I was 17, even younger, someone wanted me to not worry about the contests and I’m like, you don’t even understand where my brain’s at. This contest thing I put it waaaay up there so I’ve got some bumper rails for life. It makes me wanna wake up at dark and getting a surf in, coming in, trying another board and people are driving by going, “What’s he doing?” If I was only freesurfng I’d see that junk little wave and go, no, I’m going to get my sleep-in and eat, hang out with this chick or with my friends and go surf when the waves are good. But something about the World Champ lifestyle, wake up and surf something early, then suddenly you’re eating breakfast by eight in the morning and you’ve already tried two boards, swapped some fins, and your friends rock up yawning, going, “Let’s go for a surf,” and I’m like, “Let’s do it. I’m on number two.” I’ve waxed them. Then there are lots of nights I could go out and I just don’t, cause I know the waves are going to be good. Lately I haven’t been doing that one though, just riding a bigger board the next morning when you’re hungover.
You seem to be having a good time with life, but what brings you down? What worries you?
When my family is bummed out, for sure, but that’s not too often. We know how to be happy and stuff, just sometimes you see a little thing or whatever – Grandma, Coco, Mum, Dad, one of my friends – whenever I see one of my friends bummed out or one of my friends hurt, like Owen. The Owen thing really bums me out. I don’t even know how to express it. I know he’s going to be okay, he’s so solid in the head and surfing is literally like a bicycle, you come back shrapping, right boards, right mind, it’s all good. But stuff like that, injuries to people, not seeing people at their best. And seeing people really rude to you and going down that dark path, I feel bummed for them sometimes, cause they know I ain’t gonna be fazed by that.
How would you describe surfing to a blind man who’d never seen it?
Oh wow. Man, that’s a funny one. If you really think about it I could tell them so many different things. I was surfing before I was even living. I was doing it in my Dad’s nuts before I was born. I came out and I’m still doing it and I jump in the water and it feels so much more right. And something about the paddling, the paddling and the breathing and covering this distance, then you catch a wave and you ride it and it gets better and better all the time. And it’s like time travelling in a weird way. Like a type of time travel. I feel like I’ve been out for five minutes and I come in and someone, they’re like, “You’ve lost your mind, you were just out there for two-and-a-half hours straight!” It’s like a weird hypnotising trip, surfing. I don’t know what I’d tell a blind guy though. I definitely wouldn’t tell him about the trip in my Dad’s nuts. My Dad did it, I’m doing it, I love it.
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