Alex Knost. All photos: Ellis
Alex Knost. All photos: Ellis

Adrift with the Vanguard: Alex Knost

On surfing, shaping and perceiving without barriers

Last summer, filmmaker Thomas Campbell invited a group of surfers to join him on an Indonesian boat trip to gather footage for his upcoming film. Campbell has always documented surfers who draw idiosyncratic lines and who have an openness to experiment with a wide range of surf craft. For this trip, Campbell called up a freewheeling cadre of characters: Alex Knost, Craig Anderson, Ryan Burch, Jared Mell, Ozzie Wright and Bryce Young. Each of these surfers has carved a unique path through surfing, and some have left indelible imprints on the surf world at large.

Over the span of ten days, the crew bounced between perfect reef breaks, swapping boards (many of them handshaped by the surfers themselves) and drawing inspiration from each other’s distinctive approaches to riding waves. For the next week, we'll feature conversations with each surfer, offering a glimpse into the minds of an eccentric cast who have gravitated toward obscure lines and modes of thinking, defining surfing’s modern counter-culture in the process.

Today we’re featuring our conversation with the ever-stylish Alex Knost:

How different do lineups look around Newport now compared to when you started surfing, in terms of what people are riding and exploring?

I was so young that I didn't have any visibility--everything just seemed natural, and quite comfortable. What's a lineup? It's a reincarnation of past generations. Blackies has the same hotbed of talent now as it did long before, and 56th Street and River Jetties are much the same. Only difference now is there is no segregation. Acceptance is something that mirrors oneself.

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You're one of the only people who rides alternative shapes to surf Slater's pool. What kind of board was that and how did it suit the wave? Do you think those designs are more versatile than people give them credit for?

The wave is its own medium, as is the board I rode. The plane I flew in on was tiny and only could accommodate one board of mine, so I took a versatile board I shaped with Malcolm Campbell--it's 6’9″ but 18″ wide. I never look at boards or waves or approaches as anything but an option. Point being, the common misconception about any board but the standard thruster is that it is a compromise. When in fact, a standard thruster compromises the individuality of a wave. The contemporary thruster is developed to surf a variety of conditions the same way. Bonzers accentuate and explore the variations of endless conditions.

After that clip was released, a lot of people thought it was the best thing they'd seen from the pool. But there were some haters in the comment sections as well. Why do you think people are especially critical of you compared to other surfers?

Boredom. Insecurity. General confusion. The media creates this void, and the void is the ultimate form. It's a shame that commercial publications and media outlets lazily create corners to place variation. You shouldn't feel like an outcast on the playground. Hazing is something the media exacerbates. Nobody would flinch at something unless they're preprogrammed to do so.

Last time we talked, you said you'd been on this Barry Kanaiaupuni kick, making boards inspired by what he was riding in the '70s. What drew you to that era of board design and those specific shapes? An aesthetic? A feeling?

Purely a kinship. A familiar comfort, like what you wear, eat or how you style your hair. Taste. Yeah, taste. Mark Martinson was a huge inspiration for me at a young age because of his bottom turn--the same "f–k off" bottom turn that BK perfected. However, it wasn't till later that I was forced to recognize that BK, prior to his shortboard revelation, was considered one of the best longboarders undocumented. But I can't explain what drew me in. In hindsight perhaps there is a parallel.

Knost’s first appearance in a Thomas Campbell film was 2004’s “Sprout,” where his elegant-yet-frenzied style cast him as a man apart. Here, we see that same distinct form on display in Indo.

What got you into shaping? For someone who can get boards from the best craftsmen, it seems like it'd be tough to commit to riding your own boards while you learn the craft.

Quite the opposite. It's one of the few art forms, sports, or whatever you consider, where you can approach it in a bohemian sense, much like blending colors or word play, poetry and art.

A lot of people would argue that riding boards based on 40-year-old designs is a regression. What would you say to that?

I wouldn't say anything, really. People just do or buy what they are sold in surfing. It's convenient for the average person. Ironically enough, I perceive convenience in commercialization as regression. If the top three surfboard manufacturers, in terms of production, were to produce and promote a certain type of design, that is and will be the norm.

In surfing, the word "progression" has become attached to everything happening above the lip. What does progression mean to you in the context of alternative boards and approaches?

Maneuvers are just explorations in repetition, for competition. It can be judged. A progression would be to consider the variety of stimulation.

With the current media landscape, it seems like it's never been harder to cut through the white noise and really impact people through surfing and surf films. What do you think it takes to affect people on a visceral level today?

I'm not sure I agree with that. Jay Davies film "Native" is visceral. Ozzie's "156 Tricks" was instrumental because it was completely him. And through social media people do have the ability to demonstrate their desire. Look at Dane Reynolds releasing his own movies, acquiring his own brand, working with friends like Craig Anderson and being able to surpass filtered media.

Past or present, no surfer on earth has likely racked up as much cheater-five tube time as Knost.

What type of surfing affects you in a visceral way today?

I'm really into Nancy Kerrigan, seriously. What about her? It's like the most graceful momentum-based performance. Something that is completely in the moment, yet well-practiced. Elegant. Also, Mark Gonzales, Andrew Doheny and all the Hawaiians, like Mason Ho, Dustin Barca and Bruce Irons. That's good shit.

When you're working on a film with someone like Thomas Campbell, where you know it has the potential to be an impactful piece of art in the surf world, does that affect the way you surf? Do you feel like you need to approach things differently or make a statement with your surfing

I just try to be myself. That's the best thing I can do.

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