If you take a few moments to scroll through Albee Layer's Instagram account, you'll see plenty of photos and videos of the Maui native sticking airs that hurt your knees just to watch. Gravity-defying double oops, backside 720s, full-rotation Indy grabs and just about every other aerial persuasion you can think of abound. Ever since he upped the aerial ante with his winning video part in Taylor Steele's 2012 "Innersection" contest, Layer's been at the forefront of progression in surfing, steadily dropping edits featuring some of the most radical maneuvers ever done on a surfboard.
But if you continue scrolling through Layer's Instagram feed, you'll see posts of a different kind screenshots of rabble-rousing opinions he's written down on his iPhone Notes app about how surfing is "so far behind snowboarding" in terms of aerial maneuvers, how the WSL needs to improve their scoring system to foster progression or how 'CT judges "get way too excited about backside snaps." While his divisive views on surfing may have earned him a reputation as a troublemaker, Layer isn't pressing buttons just to press them. If you ask Layer, he'll tell you that his motivation is simple—he just loves surfing, and will do and say whatever he thinks it will take to make surfing's future more exciting than its present.
Last year you posted something on Instagram that read, "Do you think the WSL stifles progression or personalities more?" which sparked a few hot debates in the comment section. Are you surprised by the intensity of the reactions you get on social media?
Yeah, it's so funny. I post a surf photo and no one cares, but if I post a screenshot of my notes, people freak out. But recently it seems like people are having smart conversations about things in the comments rather just hating me or loving me. But yeah, everyone wants his or her opinion heard, I'm just lucky enough to have a platform to discuss mine.
Before your freesurfing career took off after winning "Innersection," you were a contest grom, right? Were you always critical of competitive surfing, even when you were part of that world?
Yeah, I've always been like this [laughs.] I competed through my entire childhood, and up until we were 12 or 13, John John [Florence] and I would always go back and forth trading wins in every NSSA event. I made it to the World Juniors a couple times, but I never did very well. I called it quits around 18 or 19 when my sponsor dropped me, and by that time I was burned out on contests. I basically felt the same way I do now about competition and judges. The competition format didn't suit the surfing I wanted to do at all and I lost to people who were less talented than me.
As soon as social media became a thing I was always complaining or ranting about something, but it wasn't until after the whole "Innersection" thing that I realized, 'Oh shit, people are listening to me now. I better tone it down.' I definitely had to learn how to voice my opinion without sounding like a dick. I realized that I'm not just talking with my friends anymore and that there are people listening to me who don't know me.
Clearly you pay very close attention to World Tour surfing and have strong feelings about it. Would you ever consider having a go at qualifying?
Probably not. I'd love to be on Tour but I just don't think I could do the 'QS and win it. But if they do a WSL air show tour—which, from what I understand, is going to happen—I would put all my focus into that. I feel like this generation of aerialists should feel obligated to get that up and running to prove the concept—if not for us, then for the future. It'll take a second to get rolling, but once we get used to the waves and format, it'll be a full-on, jam-session style contest with one guy doing something big and then another guy trying to go bigger. Progression happens a lot quicker when there's a collective group of people trying to outdo each other. And if we all worked hard to prove that this could be the most exciting part of our sport, then I think in a year or two, maybe some of the 'CT guys would go, 'F–k, maybe I'm better at that. Maybe that's where I should be.'
A lot of your posts are about aerial progression in surfing compared to other sports. What do you think surfing should be learning from skating and snowboarding?
I watch a lot of other action sports, probably even more than surfing, and surfing is comparatively the least progressive—and that's because of our competitive format. Progression is all about incentivizing the best people to push themselves, and surfers have no incentive to do that in the current contest format. If you look at snowboarding or skating, the guys who are doing the best tricks are the faces of those sports. Whereas in surfing, the biggest faces are the guys on Tour, and only two out of the 10 best 'CT guys can actually do airs that are new. Obviously it's not a lack of talent, it's just why would they even try to do them? To do those big airs—which is what we're talking about when we talk about progression—you risk your body. You need a reason to want to go big, and if you can get the highest possible score in a contest without doing that, why would you bother?
The judges should never, ever, ever give out a 10. No matter what. It's so stupid to tell someone his or her surfing can't be better. That's one of the things that has stifled progression more than anything. The 10th best surfer on Tour can do not-his-best surfing and get a perfect score. No other sport does that. Shaun White, for example, has only received two perfect scores in his whole life, and he's been the best in snowboarding for over 10 years. If surfers had to do something crazy like a double spin to get a 10, then those guys would learn that stuff in the offseason. Then when that moment came and they needed a high score, they'd actually try big airs. And as a fan, that'd be so much more fun to watch.
Why do you think WSL judges give out 10s more easily than other sports?
I think it's because they're scared of the viewership decreasing. Maybe they think no one is going to want to click on a heat where guys were scoring 4s. But that's a small hurdle to get over. We've just got to get accustomed to the fact that getting 5s or 6s would actually be a damn good heat. But also part of me thinks they don't want surfing to change because it's just been this way for so long. They understand turns and barrels. A lot of people tend to fear change and this is an example of that.
It seems like once the right artificial wave—one that's conducive to airs—is introduced to competition, that'll give competitors more opportunities to go big.
Yeah, wave pools are going to be what changes things. It'll be easier to come up with formats where the best guys are trying the best airs they can. But educating the judges will be the most important thing. It's a new part of the sport and the intricacies are hard to understand. With wave pools, you'll see the clear differences between various airs. If you have the same section over and over again, you can tell someone, 'Okay, that was better because of this.' Once you watch enough airs and compare them, then you start to understand the whole spectrum of airs and which ones are the hardest.
Outside of competition, how do you think wave pools will help with progression? Do you think average surfers will be able to push themselves in ways they wouldn't be able to in the ocean?
It'll be a while until Kelly's wave helps with progression, but once the American Wave Machines pools start popping up everywhere, the accessibility of waves and the fact that you're able to surf the same section over and over again will help surfers progress a lot. In the ocean, every session is different, but with wave pools, you can show up with a list of maneuvers to try until you start landing them all. Right now, in both Kelly's pool and Waco, you couldn't really do a trick that hasn't been done in the ocean. But the pools would allow almost every surfer to do the best air that they've ever done. Collectively, everyone will start reaching the current ceiling in aerial surfing and doing huge airs on a regular basis. That's where the real progression happens, because doing something once doesn't do much for progression. Once people start doing different airs consistently and with different flair, that's when good air surfing really starts to become the norm.
It seems like you find a lot of inspiration in snowboarding. What do you think surfers can learn from studying snowboarding?
Snowboarders have laid it all out for us already. Anytime I can't think of something new to try, I just watch snowboarding. Every trick we are ever going to do has already been done in snowboarding and skating.
What do you hope surfing looks like when you're 60?
When I was watching the Winter Olympics this year, I cried when Shaun White finished his run [laughs.] I want to see those moments in surfing—moments when it comes down the last wave and the best guy has to do his best in order to win. That's what I want to see. Making movies is still my biggest passion in surfing and I hope people continue to get more creative and make better content. But as far as competition goes, I hope that I can watch an event at Ho’okipa, or another good air wave, where it's the last stop on the air show tour and some kid does a double cork in his last heat to take the title. I hope in a couple years all the tricks Matt Meola and other guys and I are doing now will be common. I hope 720s will be the new 540s and alley-oop 360s become the new alley-oop. I think it'll take around a decade to get there, but it could take just a few years if the best surfers are incentivized to push themselves.
In your position, do you think it's important to be vocal about the ways you think surfing can improve even if it rubs some people the wrong way?
Absolutely. I wouldn't say these things if I didn't think it would have a positive effect. I don't kick and scream just to kick and scream. It's funny because people always think I have beef with the WSL, but that's not true. I just want them to grow so that the sport can grow. I talk to a lot of the guys inside the WSL and I get along fine with them and they have been making positive changes. I don't know if I've helped in any way, but it does feel like they've addressed some of the points I've brought up—like this year, how many 10s have the judges given? Not that many.
I will say that I do need to be smarter about how I vocalize my opinions, because I think people disagree with me just to disagree with me sometimes. I think I need to have smarter conversations instead of being so blunt. Take Christian Fletcher, for example. We all know he was way ahead of his time and was doing proper airs before anyone, but he is also the reason airs took—and are still taking—so long to catch on. It seemed like when people didn't understand what he was doing, he wasn't like, "Oh, let me show you how and why these airs are the future." It was more like, "Fuck these morons. They don't get it." Obviously it must have been frustrating to be written off so hard, but how he handled it might hold some blame on the sport being stagnant through the late '90s till now.
What do you think is right with surfing today?
[Laughs.] As much as I talk about how surfing can be better, I'm just zooming in on very little things that need to be fixed. But as a whole, surfing is pretty fucking rad. Surfing is the biggest it's ever been. I just want the spotlight to shine more on everything in surfing—not just one thing. There's a whole lot going on in surfing right now—I just feel like people only see a tiny portion of it.
[This interview originally appeared in the September Issue, on newsstands now. Subscribe to the print or digital versions here.]