Thomas Campbell is a filmmaker, photographer, book publisher, musician and artist. He’s also a board builder, skater, surfer and now has his own line of boardies. Vissla have just used some of his vibrant airbrush art from a quiver of Travis Reynolds surfboards. The weird thing about Thomas is, no one seems to ask him about the thing he loves most dearly, surfing.
Steve England caught up with him to find out more.
How did you find surfing?
I remember I was living in Dana Point, and I started off riding borrowed surfboards from two guys I saw down the beach. I’d skateboard down the beach on my way to work and I would just ask if I could borrow the longboard. I worked right in the sports fishing place cleaning the boats, so on the way down I’d stop at the beach see if they’d let me have go. These were the late ‘70s but I was drawn to the really much longer boards these guys had. Everyone else was kind of really in the mould of the short boarders, but my friends and I would just ride anything. So when the main beach blew out and we couldn’t shortboard we’d go down to the point and go longboarding. The waves were really uncrowded back then because they weren’t really considered good shortboard waves, and longboarding wasn’t really that popular. So we had lots of waves to ourselves. We were just shortboarding, longboarding, skim boarding or skateboarding, we’re just doing whatever there was to have fun. We’d all hang out together. We would ride anything but we were all really drawn to these big old heavy boards, at a time when no one else really bothered with them.
Have you got a most favourite surfboard ever, a little magic stick, that you’ve owned?
Yes I was in Morocco in about ‘93. I went to the same school as Vince De la Pena and he had an Al Merrick gun and I bought it off him. It wasn’t ideal for me, it was more a Pipe shape, a bit more for Hawaiian waves. Anyway I took it to Morocco, but while I was there I met a South African guy who had a Peter Daniels 7’3”. It was actually shaped for Tom Curren when he went on The Search in Mozambique, but I don’t think he got a chance to ride it because it didn’t get big enough. Merricks were like the crown jewel of surfboards at that time so I suckered him in and we traded boards. His Peter Daniels was one of the best boards I have ever ridden. It was so responsive, it was crazy, and we had a run of perfect waves. Five days of 20 foot and may be a little bit bigger. At that time nobody really surfed really big waves down there. So I got these five days of perfect big surf. I saw one other guy the whole time I was there, another surfer, but I never spoke to him. The waves were so good I only saw him in the water from a distance or when he was on land getting in or out of the waves. The surf was that good and big we never crossed paths even though we were sharing the same waves in the same sessions. I never spoke to him because we were never near each other. Those sessions are definitely the highlight of my surfing life.
The wave was like a chip in, so you could ride a board that big. I was getting in on like a six foot wave on top of a way bigger wave and then there were these big long walls. The memories are still resonating all this time later. It was a different time, a really wonderful time.
Have you ever had a really ugly surfboard that has gone really well?
In high school my friend David Laws had this big 10’4″ red longboard in the corner of his garage with no fin. It was just beat up, a weird shape, probably a backyard shape. So I was like, “Hey, what’s that? Can I have it or buy it?” Andy gave it to me and I stuck a fin in it and it was amazing. It was so good I rode it for years. It’s in the end of the Seedling…I loved it.. Anyway later when I met Joel Tudor in about ‘97 I was still riding that board – I had it from about ‘85-‘86 – and he just laughed. Then he let me try his boards which were far superior. I didn’t really know, I was just riding a surfboard I loved.
Until I met him I was never really involved in the longboard world. It didn’t seem very interesting to me. Longboarding and high-performance longboarding never seemed interesting to me. Like a longboard magazine was on the newsstand in the new store and I’d be like “Why would I want to read that?”. My friends and I were just riding old logs, and if we wanted to shred waves we would shortboard.
Have you still got that board or is it gone?
I think I burnt it. I think it’s in the surfboard burning in Sprout. It might have been in that pile of shitty surfboards. But that’s a pretty heinous thing to do, burning surfboards is a mortal sin.
It does show bit of a darkside.
It does that but also in an environmental way it’s not good. They burn one in the Innermost Limits of Pure Fun in daylight, and it … it’s not good.
Any other any boards you ever sold that you wished you’d kept forever?
The Peter Daniels was the one. But I had no money at all. I think I sold my board and my tent to buy food. It was creased in the middle on one of those five amazing days and I fixed it, but I just had to sell. I just had no money. But that was a really good board. You could really lay down a bottom turn on those waves. I could lay down my bottom turn and be dragging my forearm and hand in the wave laying out flat, I’d never been up to do that like that since.
Have you been on the road much when you had no money at all?
I had nothing forever. I mean I was just out there. I went to Morocco a lot and travelled everywhere but I didn’t have money. I’d have to sell everything almost always while I was there. I just get there and surf until my money ran out. Then I’d have to phone my mum to wire out the last 60 bucks that were in my bank account…
“What, you are in Africa and you need $60?”
“Yeah that’s fine.”
Do you think that experience made you appreciate everything more than later generations for whom travel is now easier through improved infrastructure and paths more beaten?
I don’t think you can make a generalisation about what people take from travel and what the kids are doing now. I think some may be real privileged, but I think is a lot of kids are struggling.
I think you learn on the road and become really self-sufficient and you have to adapt. I didn’t speak French or Arabic really… I went to 55-56 countries around that time and I did a lot on a shoestring… but everyone is different. I don’t really like to draw lines across everything. Every person is different and has different drives. My horoscope says “you’ll be the person that goes off the cliff and people will follow you”. But I didn’t really travel with people. I just wanted to go away with nothing and move and travel as I felt fit. Some people are not very comfortable living with nothing, living without money. I could move with what ever was happening, but I felt some people might been uncomfortable with a living at a lower level, and then there may be tension, they’d be scared or whatever. It was hard. It was six years on the road hitchhiking across Europe, America, Africa and all over. It’s not for everyone but that was my thing, and I think I’ve learnt a lot. Everyone has a different edges and boundaries. I don’t wanna be one of those people who say “do what I do,” because that’s pretty insensitive to the diversity of human experience.
What inspired you to hit the road?
Initially I think it’s because I came from a very large family. I have five sisters. And we weren’t particularly well off. So we didn’t go anywhere. My parents couldn’t afford to take us anywhere, and I think that they just didn’t wanna do it either. I don’t know what the scenario was. We just didn’t go anywhere. The furthest we went with the family was like four hours away. Also where I grew up was quite rural. There wasn’t that much there at all and people were pretty down to earth. I liked it that way. But when I was in my mid-teens all the land movers came in and they started developing the area. It became built up and this pervasive 90210 kind of culture started growing. And I was like “Yuck! This is not what I’m used to used to. This is not what I like. I am fu**king out of here.”
I wanted to go somewhere I really liked it, where it was more mellow and people were more connected. So I moved to Santa Cruz, which at the time was ideal, and I really liked it and I used it as a base… I was doing shitty jobs and was also working for a skate magazine when I was like 17 and eventually got to travel working for them. I just wanted to explore different cultures to get an idea about what I wanted my life to be. Because the more places I’ve visited the more I saw how different people lived and the different levels of happiness or enjoyment in their lives, or sadness, so I could look at life with that perspective. I want to see the juxtaposition to the 90210 culture so I could create my own life going forward.
I read that there’s soundtrack in somebody’s head that brings back memories from special times, do you have one?
I spent almost a year in Morocco. In total I’ve been there 11 times or something. One time I went to the mountains. I’d been there a few months surfing, and I sold my boards so I could go to the mountains to paint. I swindled this hotel to let me stay in a room if I painted them a mural. I bullshitted them that I was a really famous artist, which wasn’t true at all, but they let me stay in the room for a month. I painted them a mural. Anyway I stayed in the room painting, and I got friendly with this English guy who turned up. He would come and hang out with me whilst painting and he let me borrow this tape. One side was Alice Coltrane “Journey in Satchidananda”, on the other was African Head Charge. I just super duper fell in love with this tape. Alice Coltrane tracks were just so were my head and my heart was at that time and I loved it so much. It was pretty transformative. When I was leaving the guy came back and said I had got to give that tape back. I said “Know what dude, I’m sorry, but you can not have that tape..”
I tried to give him a nice sized piece of art for it, but he was pretty pissed off. I guess my art didn’t have a lot of pull at that time, anyway I kept the tape.
Alice Coltrane tracks are still just as impactful today, I was just into it so much at that time of my life, that period her music making was so extraordinary beautiful.
What’s interesting in the surfing world right now to you?
Being in the water. There is nothing that new or that interesting to me right now, specifically in design or not having fins in your foamy board or whatever. I think the main thing is enjoying yourself and have a good time.
Are you still as stoked now as you were back when first started?
Yeah, I don’t know if I’m stoked as I ever was, but I still love surfing. I just came back from Mexico with my family, my wife and I got some very good waves with her father and stepmother and it was great. I would say that I’ve been in to design of surfboards for so long, and designing different things with different people, and getting my boards really dialled that I’m a bit lost when I don’t have my own boards. But we had fun, surfing and travelling.
Ok so as an educated observer of surfing, name your favourite surfer under the following categories.
Dane Reynolds. He’s the gnarliest ever as far as putting everything into every f**king turn, every f**king time. Everything, and always. If he can’t put everything on the line he doesn’t do it. I’ve seen it in person and it is true. It is crazy. He’s definitely, definitely one of my favourite surfers ever. He’s really exciting
Can I give two? Tudor definitely longboarding and other things, and then I’ll probably say Curren.
One thing I think about Curren is that I think he was into reality. I think why he is so popular is that people can look at all Curren’s surfing and they can say “I know I can’t do that but I’m going to try.” It is the most appealing and accessible kind of surfing that you could try. You won’t look like that and you wouldn’t do that, but you could try to do it. But with Kelly and forward of Kelly, you look at them and say “I can’t do that and I’m probably not going to try” Unless you the 5% of the one percent of competitive high-level surfers, then it may be realistic, but not for other people. I’m huge Tom fan though.
Knost. Alex Knost. He’s really free and really expressive. And one of my favourite surfers of all time. He’s really free at every aspect of his life. He’s probably one of the most confident people I’ve ever met, but not in a cocky way. He’s confident and present. Whatever he’s doing there’s not a lot of self-doubt, so he’s really close to the moment, and moving with it. And he’s very spontaneous, organic and creative, whether making music, making surfboards surfing or arts, skateboarding, whatever he is doing creatively. It’s pretty wild. I know a lot of creative people but I don’t know any like him.
I think Kelly is also interesting. Alex is a performer but Kelly is so intelligent that he has manifested himself into what he thinks is going to be the most exciting surfer for people to watch. So he’s really a performer. While the rest of people are just surfing he’s on such a higher level, especially during his competitive peak performance time period. Like when he is surfing Chopes, every other person surfing that contest is paddling as hard as they can to get into the wave perfectly to do what they want to do. But not Kelly. Kelly is not paddling hard enough on purpose almost all the time because he knows when he drops out of the wave, through the air and sticks that crazy drop and dramatically pulls in and gets a crazy tube and comes out… he knows is going to get a 10. So he’s performing. He’s not just doing anything he has to do to get through the heat. And you know what he has thought of all of that.
I think is so much more to his game and why he won all of those titles, and it’s not purely just surfing.
Alex, Kelly and Rasta because you just never know what they going to do next, and that’s what I like. Personally my favourite surfers are the ones you don’t know what’s going to happen because they’re just moving with what’s happening and that creates opportunities.
guess I say Phil Edwards and Mickey Dora. When I look at the footage I think they are kind of like the cornerstones of style. At least in my life, in my knowledge as far back as it goes. Because before then there’s not much documentation. I always liked that style of Henson, Fry, and Farrelly. I just really like Phil Edwards upright style. It is very unique and in a moment with the equipment.
So to round up I’d just like you to finish the following “Surfing is…
“ A sensational experience. I think it’s weird it’s called a ‘sport’, because it’s more like dancing. You’re dancing and you’re moving, and I don’t know, it’s surreal. I mean what other people want to do, enter competitions or whatever, is fine but it’s really this thing where we have these surfaces that are meeting each other and you are playing with them and on them, and it’s a dance. You’re doing this weird f**king dance on the planet. You are looking for those sensations to riding certain boards on certain waves and you try to tap into those moments and sensations they give you a good feeling. It’s sensational.
Photos: Courtesy Vissla