New Age surfers, the Malloy brothers, open up on each other.
Evolutionary throw-aheads and emerging examples of a new breed of professional surfer, the Malloy brothers have long shunned surfing orthodoxy to do things their own way, from avoiding the pro circuit to becoming ambassadors for green brand Patagonia. In a candid roundtable chat, fuelled by Californian red and music, the Malloy trinity – Chris, Keith and Dan - open up on each other, the state of surf culture, the merits of durable threads and the urgent need to reinvent the way we grow our food.
Dan Malloy is singing beautifully and picking gently on his guitar. It’s a traditional English song – a lament whose author is lost to time. The original protagonist is the lonely wife of a whaleman from Hull, the home port of Brittanic hunters of the Leviathan. Shot through with nautical melancholy and displaced in time, the song Dan sings seems to fit the mood. There is something about being here in the hills of Lompoc, California, with the Malloy family, that transcends geography and history.
The Malloys are a family of surfers, filmmakers, musicians and ranchers, the current generation of which have been emblematic for close to two decades in the popular consciousness of surf culture. But for all that, each of the family members’ agile feet is placed firmly on the earth and in the here and now. They are good ol’ boys. Forget that saying as cliché. They really are good ol’ boys.
There are eight of us here as we jam late into the evening – Chris, Keith and Dan Malloy, Chris’s wife, Carla, and their two-year-old son, Lucas, youngest brother Dan’s girlfriend, Grace, and old friend of the family and cameraman Scott Soens. Before long we become lost in music and conversation, washed in warm candle light, each of us with a belly full of Coors Lite, Californian red, as well as barbecued beef straight off the ranch.
The land that extends to all points around us here in this century-old house is part of a rancho that sprawls some fifteen thousand acres around the southern extremity of the Los Padres National Forest. Governed by the same family for over two hundred years, the place is part of an America that existed before America was America. As such, it represents a state of being that is ebbing into memory and whose lifestyle you wouldn’t guess still exists.
I’ve come here to get to the bottom of the importance of being Malloy. Soon I’ll go to meet Yvon Chouinard, the boss of Patagonia. Recently, Chouinard and the Malloys began to work together to develop the ocean-borne side of one of the most progressive, influential and environmentally focused companies on the planet. Call the Malloys brand ambassadors. Call them evolutionary throw-aheads or as yet rare, emerging examples of a new breed of professional surfer. Call them the cutting edge of the outdoorsman as practical, proactive custodian of nature.
Whatever you choose to call them, the brothers Malloy are vastly experienced media practitioners in their own right. Chris is at the time we meet in the closing stages of post-production of his film 180 Degrees South, a piece that takes a body of work that includes Shelter and Thicker Than Water into newly broken, environmentally campaigning territory. After a long, hard-charging career as a free-range pro surfer who was only rarely expected to compete and be a poster child for board shorts, he has focused all his energies these last few months into creating something that transcends the surf film genre. Youngest brother Dan is, meanwhile, one of the most creatively oriented tube stylists, sensitive musicians and neophyte farmers ever to grace a sequence – and is perhaps about to enter a new family-focused, materially productive phase of his own. Middle brother Keith, well, Keith is just Keith – a down-to-earth physical phenomenon with an incredibly calm centre whose newly grounded life here in Coastal California, after years of industry-sponsored surf competition and travel, is about to take a turn to who-knows-where.
Through their work and their lifestyles, the Malloy brothers exist at the intersection of tradition and mythology – the twin legends of the west and the outdoorsman as unadorned Natural Man intersect wherever the boys have placed themselves. But having said that, attempting to define a single person in this hall-of-mirrors of the surf media is neigh-on impossible. Attempting to define three brothers is bound to fail. It’s a complex conundrum, and one to which I don’t believe we are equal. We decide, therefore, to let the Brothers Malloy speak for themselves. As Dan mentions over breakfast the following morning whilst we discuss the structure of this piece, “How do you describe what we did last night without making it sound cheesy?”
MALLOY ON MALLOY: Chris, Keith and Dan try to define each other and the surfing triptych they represent. Vital stats:
Chris – Older brother, filmmaker and surfer, age 37.
Keith – Middle brother, wave maestro, country music aficionado, age 35.
Dan – Younger brother, tube stylist, surfboard experimenter, age 31.
Chris on Dan: ”I think Dan has never really come to grips with how good a surfer he is, or what his contributions creatively are to the films that we have made. He’s too humble for his own good. He still pictures himself as a kid tagging along with his big brothers. And when we surf, he’s always the best guy on it. He carries some of the biggest waves, but in his head he’s always still the youngest brother. He was just a little kid when my sister, Mary, was born. She was born with Cerebral Palsy and was born blind and deaf. So when your younger sister is born like that you don’t really have time to worry about yourself because there’s somebody that’s in such greater need than you. If she had been this ‘normal’, whiny little girl, he would have competed and he’d probably beat up on her. But in the grand scheme of our family it’s never all been about Dan.”
Dan on Chris: “Chris is the most creative and the most motivated of us all. He’s kind of a leader. If it weren’t for Chris, I’d have dug a lot more ditches in my life. I mean that literally as well as figuratively. I think that’s true for Keith, too. Chris helped us figure out a way that we could make a living through surfing. I think that figuring out the things you want to do is a great place to put your creative energies. Being creative doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be an artist putting on art shows. Figuring out the things that you really want to do, and figuring out how to work with people whilst keeping the vision true and consistent, that can be as creative as anything else.”
Keith on Chris: ”Chris has been addicted to doing creative things since he was a kid. Whether it was telling a crazy story or dressing up like Evil Knievel. We got our first VHS video camera one Christmas in the eighties, and Chris just played with it until it broke a couple years later. He’s just had that creative thing ingrained in him from day one.”
Chris on Keith: “I admire Keith because he’s no bullshit, and Keith doesn’t really care if you like him or if you don’t. If you piss Keith off, he’s probably never going to forgive you. It’s just how he is, and I wish I could be more like that. He doesn’t spend a lot of time brooding about this or about that, he just does it – and he’s just very consistent with how he lives his life, you know, he just does what he does.”
Chris on Dan: ”Dan grew up surfing with people like Kelly Slater and Rob Machado. So while he’s made these huge achievements in surfing, he’s never seen himself as a big success. With peers like that, he’s been made to feel humble in the water. You know, he’s never once in his life said, ‘I made it’. Sometimes you are defined by the people around you. You know, Dan’s sitting there jamming with Jack Johnson, these two nobodies in terms of music. Turn around a few months later and Jack is one of the biggest artists in the world, and Kelly meanwhile has got nine world titles. In that situation you don’t say, ‘I’m the man’, you say, ‘I’m nothing’.”
Keith on Dan: ”Dan’s the type of guy, when you talk about sessions on some sick wave on a trip somewhere, and you’re like, ‘How was it?’ and he’s like, ‘You know, got a couple, had fun’. That’s his version of the story. Then you see the footage and it’s 8-10ft, there’s ten-second barrels! He always understates everything.”
MALLOY ON SURF CULTURE AND AMERICA
The surfer for the new millennium will be less branded contest machine and more freethinking guardian of the natural world.
Chris: “There’s a phase change in surfing, and I think it’s about getting back to a more kind of holistic way of looking at what we do rather than seeing surfing as a kind of jungle gym. It started a long time ago, and about twenty years ago was the height of the madness. I feel that now surfing is getting to a place where the like–minded people are embracing it. If you took America in the twenties and thirties and forties, and it was such a great, natural place to be. By the fifties, mainstream America started to become packaged and big industry started to take over agriculture and the pastoral way of life, and the libertarian way of life that existed here was taken over by big industry. You had these kids coming up that were strong and full of this pioneering spirit. If you’re a west coast American, you’re a pioneer. Your family came from their homeland and they got to the east coast. They wanted to keep moving. They got to the mid-west, and they wanted to keep moving. The people who ended up here in California, we finally got to the edge of the continent. We have that pioneering DNA.”
Dan: “Being able to work in the surf industry at all was a long shot for us. Even though we grew up in Southern California, we felt way removed from that surf industry bubble. I almost think that’s why we dove in headfirst like we did. When we were younger we were dying to be sponsored and be pro surfers – the whole thing. We would look through magazines and believe every last word they said and watch videos almost religiously. We were pretty much enthralled by it. It was kind of funny growing up with two brothers who surfed. It’s good etiquette to show up anywhere round here to go surfing with two people or less. From Malibu south you can do anything you want pretty much, but north of Malibu it’s a different story. So we were breaking the rules just by going surfing with our brothers. But our parents raised us to have a lot of respect for anybody older than us, so if the older guys were worth respecting at all, we tried not to step on anybody’s toes.”
Keith: ”Surfing-wise I have been blessed. I’ve been able to travel so much and surf so many incredible waves. But I have to say I don’t have the urge that I used to, to travel and to do those things. I still love big surf, but the void that travel and exploration filled doesn’t seem to be there anymore.”
Chris: “In the fifties, when things started to change, there were some people who weren’t going to settle for a nine-to-five job because they still had that pioneer spirit. The only place the cops, the government and society couldn’t get to them was on the giant walls of El Capitan and the impact zone of Waimea Bay. They wanted to live on their own terms, they wanted to be free, they wanted to use their hands, they wanted to use their minds – they didn’t want to jump into the machine that America had become. Surfing and climbing was a way to express that desire for freedom in nature. The early part of the last century was a really golden period. The generations that followed became more compartmentalised and more focused on the act of surfing itself and less on being independent. So by the early nineties you had climbers and surfers that couldn’t tell you one plant species, they couldn’t hunt, they couldn’t fish, they couldn’t grow, they couldn’t build their own stuff. They couldn’t do anything but surf or climb. I think that we now find a group of people that are saying to themselves that surfing and climbing have become technically too specialised, and too competition-oriented rather than experience-oriented. You’ve got surfers and climbers that spend half the day on computers. They go to gyms, they go to shrinks, they do all this stuff so they can be the best climber in the world or the best surfer in the world – while in the process the essence of climbing and surfing, the natural communion with nature if you like, is gone.”
Dan: “Growing up watching Chris work, I was really interested in working on films and in photography, and that’s how I got to work with Thomas Campbell. All our projects are pretty intimate. Though they might have a big impact, they are small in feel. You might be surfing in the film but you’re also the camera assistant. I remember when I was working on /Sprout/ with Thomas I would get a real long wave, then run up the beach and Thomas would tell me what kind of film he needed, so I’d run out, grab a bunch of 16mm film, bring it to him, and then run back down to the shore break.”
Chris: “People are starting to realise that surfing and climbing are ways of thinking, ways of being. Also, of course, the places in the ocean and in the mountains where surfing and climbing can give you these beautiful experiences are disappearing or being ruined. People are beginning to understand that if you want to protect something, you have to love it. And to love something you have to really know something. What we’re realising is that we as surfers and climbers should be at the forefront of expressing this love and this desire to protect. We’re not tree huggers, but you’ve got to be responsible for what you’re doing. It’s not a hippy manifesto, it’s about respecting the land that we live on and not ruining it with industrialised agriculture, for example. We have to be at least mindful and understanding of the impact of what we’re doing. Within surfing itself, things have been fragmenting. You’re either a retro surfer, you’re an aerial surfer, a stand-up paddle surfer and so on. But I think there’s a rising awareness that it’s all part of one beautiful thing. People are tired of being in a clique. It’s all about just being there.”
MALLOY ON PATAGONIA
Durable goods in a throwaway world.
Dan: “The relationship with Patagonia has been an important part of the process of getting back to what we truly believe in. I attribute it to the people that I get to work with and spending time with Yvon [Chouinard] and the other Patagonia people. I consider these people lifetime friends. They emphasise family and being outside and surfing and climbing and doing good work. And then on top of it getting to be involved with the process of making gear that you can be proud of is a really big deal to me.”
Chris: “We like to work with people who share the same vision and enable us to disseminate that vision through films, through books, through making gear you can be proud of – through whatever means comes to hand. I truly feel that with Patagonia we are doing it in a really genuine way. We’re making stuff that somebody can have for a lifetime. We’re giving a lot of the profit back to save the wild places. What I pray is that the other big companies don’t jump onto this movement as the next fashion, like they do for everything, and turn it into a parody of itself.”
MALLOY ON THE FUTURE
The age of free-range surfing has truly arrived.
Dan: “I can see us getting further into farming. Relatively speaking, I don’t know shit about it. When you grow up close to something you almost want to get super far away form it. Though we always lived on the ranch, mostly what my Dad did was underground pipeline construction. So he’s learning a lot too, about ranching and farming. Every year I get more interested in it and want to learn more. Grace is really, really into it, too. She has a solid foundation of knowledge, and I think if we stay focused enough we could learn a lot in the future here and possibly do something in farming that’s viable. There’s a lifetime of things to learn, but in an ideal world one day we’d like to have a small farm, perhaps part of the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture], perhaps with an educational programme for local schools, and some sort of residential programme, some sort of deal where you trade teaching people how to work for food and board. It’s more difficult to work in agriculture where you can be proud of the things you produce, so you have to be creative. I’d also love to continue working for Patagonia, alongside that, because we can share similar ideals and develop together.”
Keith: ”I think Dan and Chris are more alike in what motivates and excites them. I think I’m a little different from those guys. I’m actually at a point where I’m trying to figure out what the next thing is that I’m really going to dig deep into, you know. I don’t quite yet know what it is.”
Dan: “I love playing music with my brothers as well as a bunch of friends up in Ojai, and Grace is learning to play the fiddle now, too. It’s like I was saying before about the sort of creativity I learnt from Chris. Trying to figure out a way to make a living doing all those things together would be a dream come true.”
Chris: “If you’re lucky, you realise you just are who you are, and just meant to be where you’re meant to be, that home is home.”