The last few years have seen a formerly low key surfing sub-culture emerge into the mainstream conscious.
It centres around a resurgence of classic single fin shapes and other ‘retro’ craft, DIY culture, and a traditionally inspired style of surfing. Its most prominent mainstream exhibition is Joel Tudor’s Duct Tape invitational competition, an inaugural get together which sees proponents from all over the world come together in a celebration of style and good times.
We invited Cornishman Mike Lay, a Duct Tape invitee himself, to catch up with Troy Elmore, who resides within the lifestyle’s heartland, to talk building boards and bikes, and how the surfers who occupy this alternative, inherently anti-establishment subcultural pocket fit within the traditional sponsorship model.
ML: Troy, can you tell me where you’re from and a little about your upbringing?
TE: Originally, I’m from Sacramento, which is in the middle of California, nowhere near the beach. When I was around eight years old, I moved to Huntington and started skateboarding and being around the beach, so naturally I got into surfing.
ML: Did your family surf at all? Or was it something you just got into through circumstance?
TE: My parents skated and surfed when they were young. They lived in San Diego, but my dad passed away when I was super young, so I didn’t really have someone like that to teach me to surf or anything. That’s why we moved from Sacramento. I had a babysitter when I was 10, and he gave me my first skateboard. It was really shitty, with chips and stuff out of it. He also gave me an old Lost… surf movie, so I think that was my first introduction. And I think I just begged my mom to take me surfing.
ML: Does skateboarding talk to your surfing? Or does surfing have any bearing on the way you skate?
TE: I would probably say surfing has a big influence on the way I skate. Because I don’t want to hurt myself, I tend to just cruise and try not to get super gnarly skating. It’s kind of hard for me to transfer my skating into my surfing because I’m not trying to do big airs or anything like that. But I’m still really inspired by skating and probably watch it way more than surfing.
ML: It seems like in surfing there’s a lot of focus on what you ride and how that affects who you are as a surfer, but skateboarding seems as though you can make it up as you go along.
TE: Totally. It seems like you can be more yourself. In surfing it’s almost like your one thing or the other: you’re either the contest robot, or just a dork. But I think with skateboarding you can be so many different things, and everyone backs each other much more.
ML: Did you ever think when you got given that skateboard and that surf movie as a kid that you could make a career out of it?
TE: Oh no, not at all. I had no idea what I wanted to be. Probably a cop, or a fireman, or something like a regular kid wants to be. I don’t know when it actually clicked in my head… I never really tripped out about what I was going to be, like everybody else. My mom was pretty supportive and never too hard on me about stuff and just let me go surfing and skateboarding, and it turned out good for me I guess.
ML: Well, that’s awesome. Tell me about when you started to be able to support yourself through your surfing, and how your relationship with Brixton developed.
TE: It happened kind of late for me. I was probably 20 or 21. I had surfed for other brands before, but no one really took me seriously or invested time and money in me. But I started surfing for Brixton, and I guess those guys saw something in me because they support me so much. I think I was the first person to surf for them because they were primarily just sponsoring skaters and musicians. I knew those guys through friends, and I saw what they were making and it all seemed really cool. Like they weren’t trying to blow themselves out or try and over-brand themselves. They just seemed like a classic brand. I hit them up and just asked them if they had any interest in sponsoring a surfer, and it just blossomed from then. Pretty dorky that I asked them, but I just thought they were super cool.
ML: Do you think it helps having a brand that comes from a more creative outsider place, rather than one of the big surf brands that try to sponsor someone who’s perceived as cool and can give them a different angle on the surf market?
TE: Oh yeah, a hundred percent for what I’m doing. I feel like my image – as lame as that sounds – would be completely different if I was with a brand that was more surfing orientated. I guess they like all the things that I do – skateboarding, motorcycles. That lifestyle.
ML: Being in England, I consumed a lot of my surf culture on the internet, because there were not many people riding longboards and different kind of boards here. I watched your clips when I was growing up and was really into the whole Cycle Zombies thing. Tell me a bit about how you got into riding motorbikes, how that crew got together, and what the whole idea was.
“When I started riding longboards and twin fins and stuff like that, people just looked at me like I was an idiot, and I still feel like people do that. They’re so closed-minded; they give you the dirtiest look because you’re catching waves and having fun.”
TE: I met Scotty and Turkey when I was around 12 years old. I just met them at the beach, and to be honest they’re the ones who got me into riding different boards and looking at surfing in a different way. Before them, I was just like any other kid in Huntington Beach. I just rode a shortboard and wanted to hit the lip a million times before I got to the sand.
I remember the first time I asked Turkey if I could try his longboard, and he was like, “Yeah, for sure!” I was like, “Okay, if a big wave comes I’m giving it back. I don’t want to have to duck dive this thing.” I remember specifically that conversation going down and him laughing at me. I caught a couple waves on it, and it felt super natural and fun. After that, all I wanted to do was ride longboards and twin fins, and I just never wanted to be a shortboarder dude.
They also had motorcycles and scooters and stuff which I liked because my dad and my grandpa had both ridden Harley’s. My grandpa was a cop in the ‘60s, and I have a picture of him on his police bike. Turkey and Scotty built bikes at a really young age with their dads, and I would always tell them about my dad and my grandpa. I used to ride on the back of their Harley’s but my mom would never let me get one. So I got a stupid moped for about 400 bucks from Scotty and it was the biggest pile of crap. I rode that around with a skateboard helmet thinking I was really badass. I didn’t get my first proper bike till I was 19. It was a Triumph 500 which I built with Turkey.
ML: How do surf culture and motorcycle culture mesh?
TE: I feel like they don’t at all for most people. Most motorcycle guys think we’re like surf dorks or something that are playing dress up riding motorcycles. But they’re doing the same thing – playing dress up, trying to be like some vintage biker, when really they’re just some rich guy in jeans and a vest. I’m just into old motorcycles, working on things, and I feel like it’s definitely become a scene now.
ML: There doesn’t need to be a connection, it can just be two things that you’re into.
TE: I mean there is a connection for me because I get the same feeling from making surfboards. I like to work on things and build things. It’s like a creative, artistic outlet for me. I’m not very artistic with a pencil and a piece of paper, but for me it’s like that feeling.
ML: What came first for you? Was it working on the motorcycles or building boards?
TE: It was definitely working on motorcycles first. I was sponsored, so I got surfboards for free and didn’t ever really think about it. I got so much enjoyment out of working on my motorcycle. That’s pretty much all I would do every day once I finished surfing. I used to think shaping was the worst thing in the world; I’d look at it and think, ‘Man, that’s the last thing I want to do. That sucks.’ But I remember one time it was raining for a couple weeks straight and I was super bored and my friend had a shaping room in his garage, and so I thought I’d just give it a go.
I shaped a board in this kid’s garage and it was the biggest piece of crap ever, but after it was done I rode it and I just got the best feeling riding it. You’d look at it and think it’s not even going to make it down the face of the wave, but it felt like the best board I’d ever ridden. I look at it the same as working on bikes: you’re working on something and riding it, and it’s really about making something your own. It’s such a personal thing – you can do it however you want. There’s not really a right or wrong.
ML: Shaping boards in the genre you do – with longboards, mid-lengths, and fishes – I’ve heard people say that the ‘retro movement’ of surfing might not be good for innovation and development within board design. I just wondered, from your perspective, how taking shapes from a historical aesthetic also sits with being innovative?
TE: I mean I just shaped those boards at first because that’s what I’m into riding. I’m honestly just mostly really into riding twin fins. They feel so skatey and they fly down the line, but there was a point where I wanted to go fast and do a huge turn and not just loop out or anything, so I started playing with shortboard contours and the bottom. I don’t think it’s being primitive shaping boards like that. You look at Ryan Burch and his boards are so traditional in their outline, but they’re totally current.
“There are so many old, crusty, has-been rippers that I surf with every day, and they don’t wave at me, and they don’t say hi. They just know me as the dork that likes coming out on the twin fin.”
ML: I guess it comes down to that need in surfing to put people in categories. The dominant form at the moment is shortboarding, and it’s easy for people to dismiss other forms, but also there’s a big resurgence in people riding twin fins. Is that an exciting thing for you?
TE: For sure. When I started riding longboards and twin fins and stuff like that, people just looked at me like I was an idiot, and I still feel like people do that. They’re so closed-minded; they give you the dirtiest look because you’re catching waves and having fun. But I feel like a lot of people are being more open-minded and having multiple shapes and riding them on the correct day, and really that is because of Joel [Tudor]. But the current twinny movement is all Ryan Burch.
Even though people have been doing it forever, hats off to Ryan. He really brought it to the mainstream shortboard people with that Volcom part.
ML: It was shocking to them!
TE: Yeah! I surf the 56 district of Newport, which is kind of on the other side to where all the Newport shortboard shredders surf. There are so many old, crusty, has-been rippers that I surf with every day, and they don’t wave at me, and they don’t say hi. They just know me as the dork that likes coming out on the twin fin.
I’m not aggressive at all. I sit further out than them and am just super patient and just wait for the best wave, and they get so bitter when I’m passing them. I feel like those guys are never going to get it.
ML: Are they enjoying themselves, those guys?
TE: It doesn’t look like it. They get in so many arguments out there because they can’t catch waves, or they aren’t getting enough waves, or they’re getting burned or something. I just keep my mouth shut and never get near those guys or burn them, but they just give you the worst look because I’m having fun on something different.
I’m not still trying to make the tour like they are, because they can’t just have fun and enjoy themselves.
ML: Do you think it’s too simple to say that people who ride twin fins or longboards have more fun than people who ride shortboards? As a general statement, is that too much, or is it fair enough?
TE: No, I think that’s spot on. I know that’s what did it for me when I was younger, riding longboards and twin fins because I had fun and it felt good. It’s not all too serious.
I saw these kids who grew up with coaches and did training to help their surfing. They would do push-ups on the beach and go running, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but I just never had the urge to do that, and it just didn’t seem like they were having as much fun. Some guy asked me if I wanted to join some surfing training thing, and I gave it a shot. I went, and a lot of my friends were there, and I thought cool. But then this guy was being so serious asking me these questions about winning and stuff, and I just couldn’t relate. I felt so out of place, and I was just like man, I never want to do that again.
ML: And what did the coach make of you?
TE: He didn’t know what was wrong with me. He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t get super jacked and do some push-ups or something.
ML: Where do you see the Duct Tape competitions coming in with that? Are they bringing competitiveness to longboarding? Or are they just a platform to show a wider audience what we’re doing?
TE: I definitely see it as a platform to showcase traditional longboarding and show people there’s a different face of surfing, but I still think it’s competitive.
ML: Do you think surfing still has an anti-establishment underground thing going on?
TE: I think it’s still happening; I think it’s always going to be out there. For the most part, people just see what surfing is through contests and marketing, but there’s always going to be the underground, open-minded surfers.
ML: From my perspective, it seems like it’s growing the anti-establishment longboarding scene. Do you think it can grow and get legitimacy within the public eye and still retain its soul?
TE: I think so. It’s hard because you almost want to be the anti-establishment soul dude and not be branded, but if you want to make a living surfing, you’ve got to meet in the middle somewhere. But it’s cool because brands do want to market it and have dudes like Alex Knost and Harrison Roach. It’s definitely a hip thing right now, but I still think there’s a fine line between being a sell out and being the ultimate, core underground surfer dude, and I think everyone tries not to pass that line.
ML: Thanks Troy. Hit me up if you ever come to England and we’ll go for a surf.
Photos:@jackbelli // Brixton
This article was originally published in Wavelength issue 246. Be the first to get our articles in print and online by subscribing here.