Alternate Universe

Dion Agius and Warren Smith discuss existence outside the competitive realm

Photo: Maassen

Warren Smith and Dion Agius wander a career path less traveled. Between shared passions for surfing, photography, music, and art, they want to change the mold of the viable pro surfer by pursuing those interests outside of just surf. Proxy Noise is their love child. What started as a photo blog from the streets of New York has turned into a monthly online magazine with photography, writing, and surfing. In their opinion, the surf world lost the color it once had, and points scored in a jersey shouldn't supersede the rebellious creativity that surfing was founded upon. --Todd Prodanovich

W: You're a professional freesurfer, but not many people know that you actually had like a pretty good contest career as a junior. I didn't even know this. Your dad told me.

D: Yeah, the juniors are so big in Australia and all of my friends were some of the best surfers, so I just kind of snuck into that group. I competed for ages and did the junior series. I finished when I was like 21. Ben Dunn won that last year, Wilko got second, and I got third. Then I went onto the 'QS and did that for a year. And that was when I started riding for Globe and they said I didn't have to do the 'QS anymore because I had a horrible year. I just got my ass kicked.

W: Which of the two worlds is more fulfilling as a human?

D: This one. Just freesurfing--because I just wasn't very competitive. After that year, I was pretty down on the whole competition thing because it was so hard and I didn't think I was good enough. I just get to travel around and explore the world. I feel like a lot of people save their whole lives to do that. Did you ever compete?

W: We had no competition circuit at all in my town. There's a big thing on the East Coast called ESA, and then there's NSSA. But the toilet bowl that I grew up in we had neither. When we first got ESA, I was maybe 17 years old, and we all were so excited to enter this contest and compete against each other. It was very different from what I experienced when I moved to California and did a few contests--where you don't know who you're surfing against and you're supposed to like hate them and out-perform them--I loathed it.

D: How old were you then?

W: I must have been 21 when I moved to California from Panama City, on the Gulf Coast.

D: Were you sponsored?

W: I had no sponsors until I was like 23. I had a pretty lucky break and a really unique situation to be out chasing my surf career at that late of an age. I just went to Lowers every day and started filming with some of the kids that I met there. I ended up making like a kind of "sponsor me" video like skateboarder kids do. I've always been into skateboarding so I kind of borrowed that format. I worked on this video for a few years and kept refining it and making it better and adding clips and making it interesting in the way that I was okay with. At first I was flailing, because I was literally a nobody. I got a deal with this startup company called American, and they paid me barely enough money so I could quit delivering pizzas. I moved out of my house, because I couldn't afford it and went homeless and lived out of my car for maybe four months and collected a couple paychecks here and there. I lived a totally different version of the dream and it was pretty amazing.

D: How do you feel about that, thinking about what you went through, when you hear about Owen Wright or someone who's younger making bazillions of dollars? Does that seem unbelievable? Do you think that could happen now?

W: That's an example of being a product of one's environment. I mean, I didn't grow up where kids are watched since they're 10 and groomed to be surf stars. I just chased that dream the only way I knew how. It's a lot different for those guys. I'm not saying they don't work hard--they are obviously incredibly talented and work really hard to get where they're going--but there's more of a format to discover those kids in the environment they grew up in. I had my first photo in a magazine, I think, when I was like 24. Dudes are like done and retired by that age sometimes.

D: You remember what that first photo was?

W: Oh yeah, of course. I was freaking out when I saw it. The company I was riding for then was totally out of business, I had no sponsor, but I was still the happiest. Do you remember your first photo?

D: It was seriously just bigger than a postage stamp. I got a bunch of mags and cut 'em all out and stuck 'em all over everything. I was so excited. I couldn't believe it. I thought I was famous. Now it's fun being on the other side of a lens on occasion.

Warren Smith, enjoying the winds of change in Byron Bay. Photo: Maassen

W: Yeah. I guess that's kind of where Proxy Noise came from.

D: That and trying to find a way to document our time in New York.

W: And not get totally fired. New York was so inspiring. Every day you could fill up your camera with photos.

D: I didn't even realize it until the other day, but Proxy Noise has had like 60,000 views.

W: I had no idea. I guess it's kind of like a "thing" people look at. Outside of it being like whatever it was for us in New York, it's just a thing for us to funnel our passions into, just something that isn't surf related. Surfing, for me, is fulfilling but it doesn't fulfill every aspect of my life. I'm obviously interested in other things. So whether it's skateboarding or listening to music or writing or photography or whatever, Proxy Noise is one of those channels.

D: And it's rewarding. This is the first time that I've gotten to be involved with something that I'm so happy about, and that I'm so proud of. That's something I haven't had in such a long time. It definitely gives you respect for how hard it must be to put out a magazine.

W: Or be like, a real photographer. But yeah, that's probably why we get along so well. We have those similar interests that we want to pursue outside of surfing. I mean it just speaks to the heart of being a human. A lot of the surf community doesn't want those sort of artistic itches to be scratched, which is bizarre because to ride a wave is a creative form in itself. It sounds cliché and silly, but surfing can be an art for people and if you look at surfing like that, you're gonna have other creative interests.

D: The web has given everyone the opportunity to showcase their interests to the world, no matter what it is. There's this crazy saturation of content and you almost have to be really careful. You don't want to get caught up in just trying to constantly release stuff just to satisfy everyone's need for content daily. You need to focus on releasing something of quality. I kind of found myself doing that as well, with surfing and the website or whatever, because there's so much going down that you want to put up to stay relevant, but now it's getting to a point where you almost want to be putting up less stuff.

W: I like that the margins that are making pro surfing accessible are definitely widening and broadening. People are more accepting and liberated and those are great tendencies, but I still kind of think there's sort of that jock side to it.

D: Aqua jock.

W: That's a good one. It's still very prevalent and dominant. To me, it seems like the disenfranchised sides of surfing should still be widening, but then you've got Nike coming in, and I'm sure this stuff won't make the mag, but like Nike coming in and naming all their boardshorts after their gym shorts, or their basketball shorts. That's defacing our culture. They're taking our sport and lumping it in with all the other action sports and giving it one identity and stripping the natural tendencies of surfing to exist on its own. And we're allowing it to happen and probably applauding it. When I see Alex Knost getting to be a pro surfer, that's so rad. I love it. And then in the same magazine there's like a two-page spread of a Nike logo. Just a Nike logo, like a Nike stamp on our sport. I'm not angry at people for accepting those checks or whatever--everyone's gotta eat, you dangle carrots in front of someone and they're gonna chase it. But it's hard to gauge if the margins are broadening just because that's a trend right now. Companies want a certain image because they see a dollar sign on it and think it's marketable. But then at the same time, the Nikes and energy drinks and stuff probably just see dollar signs on an untapped market, and that's not just in surfing.

D: But there will always be personality. I mean, it's always been there. It's hard for me because I wasn't really even surfing back in the old days. But you hear about guys like Bunker Spreckels. He inherited millions of dollars from his family or whatever and lived the most lavish lifestyle. Like he'd go to South Africa for an event and hire three Mercedes Benzes with drivers and they'd go hunting and shit and he'd wear a fur coat to the contest. There's a rad photo of him standing at the beach in a fur coat holding a shotgun with two chicks.

W: That's awesome.

D: But I don't really know much about all that stuff. It seems like back then, that was the culture--it wasn't marketing or the brands pushing them. But then it did get that whole surf jock contest thing going, which put a lid on the surf personalities. And the ones who did get through--the Ozzies and the Alex Knosts, and I guess Machado or something--I think the brands started to see the value in that. It doesn't have to be all about contests, which is amazing.

W: There's value in that.

When not gracing the pages of our magazine, Dion spends time editing his own in the form of Proxy Noise. Photo: Maassen

D: Like I'm pretty sure that Dane is gonna quit the Tour, or he's quit already and he's not gonna go back to it. I think that could be a huge factor to what happens in the next few years. I think it will give legitimacy to freesurfing. Especially when it's someone who's probably the most exciting surfer on Tour. And then to just up and leave and go back to freesurfing and just having fun--I think that that opens up the doors for a lot of kids to be able to do that. They won't get forced to do contests. Can you picture there ever not being a World Tour? I don't see it disappearing completely. There's too much support from the biggest brands in the industry. That's their whole deal. And those guys are the best in the world, but fuck, for me personally, it's really boring to watch. But obviously with Dane leaving, the legitimacy of the whole thing gets pretty tainted pretty quickly. It's a pretty big deal. It's kind of like how skaters have been doing it. You know the skate world a lot better than I do.

W: Well, I guess it all comes from a more liberated mindset that exists in the skate community. They've always been accepting of their skaters being personalities and having other interests and being rad dudes and not just being able to nail a trick every single time. They reward style and encourage that. It's almost as if they encourage creativity in skateboarding. I mean, I'm sure if you ask pro skaters their idea would be much different--they'd have their discrepancies and problems with the industry or whatever. But yeah, I think that model was borrowed from skateboarding. I don't know what that's a testament to, if it's a testament to good intentions or whatnot, but it definitely seems to be going that way now in surfing.

D: It's the streets versus the beach.

W: Yeah I've thought about that. Those kids just grow up in the streets. But if you go back far enough, the beach was like the forefront of rebellion. I don't know where we lost that somewhere along the way, but the surfing lifestyle and surfers and what they are and who they are is like the epitome of f–king rad. I don't know where it got lost, but it's seriously the coolest thing you could do. It's like the dream for everyone. That's radder than skateboarding.

D: But it seems like as far as being cultured, and those guys becoming photographers and all that, that happens so much in skate.

W: It's relevant in surfing as well. You just don't see it as much. It's not covered by the media for whatever reason. Those dudes all exist in surfing too. Those rad people who have other interests and go from surfing into art or photography or writing or music. There's so many of those dudes in surfing, but they're not center stage like they would be in skateboarding, or not held in such high regard with such respect. I don't know why that is though, because there's gotta be the same percentage of surfers that are into that stuff.

D: I just think it's different growing up if you're a kid living on the beach at Huntington as opposed to a kid growing in the streets in New York or something. You're obviously gonna pick up on a lot more of that stuff. The beach hasn't been exposed to the same culture as the streets. I've never been a skater living in New York, but I can only imagine how fucking rad it must be. Just cruising around the city and stopping in little bars and you've got your friends and your friend is a photographer and then next thing you know they're both taking photos. I don't know if that's just my dreamy view of it.

W: But there are little enclaves. Like Venice is totally accepting of that world. But Malibu is the weirdest place ever. San Fran has a really accepting surf culture. There're a lot of rad places that are liberated surf zones. But yeah, then you take something like Huntington where there's a logo on everything and it's crammed down your throat and it's, "Join the NSSA. Wear these shorts." I mean, why isn't it cooler? The fashion world is in love with surfing. They're not in love with the athletes and stuff but with the idea of surfing and what it embraces, which has always been f–king rad. That lifestyle of just hanging out on the beach in trunks and bikinis and grabbing a board and running around. I don't know where it got lost. The actual idea of riding a wave is so cool. It's bizarre. I've tried to pinpoint where this all went wrong. Because there was that age where everyone was rebellious. You look back at old photos of dudes and they've got like, you know, leather jackets and long hair and no shirts on and boardshorts up to their knees and they look rad. They look like rock stars.

D: That's what they were.

W: My idea, my own little world of what I think happened, is that somewhere along the way surfing realized that it could be massive. And it realized that it could be selling a dream across America. And we've got to get business managers and people with degrees and people who went to school for marketing involved in this sport. And then you've got the '80s and '90s where it did like an incredible 180 and it went clean cut as hell. And we've got to figure out how to sell shit to everyone. We're not gonna do that with rebels, we're gonna do that with clean-cut dudes whose job it is to sell shit. That's my assessment of where surfing kind of cleaned itself up, and naturally there's a reaction to that and that's probably what we're seeing now. This whole subculture of kids saying, "That's not for me. I'm gonna do something else with surfing that relates to me in other ways than scoring a point or putting on a jersey." Because at the heart of it, it's a self-indulgent, subjective, creative outlet--riding a wave. For me anyway. So it's very hard to turn that into a sport. There's no line to cross, no ball to put in a hoop to score. How do you figure out who's better--Chippa Wilson or Joel Parkinson? I don't know how you're supposed to take those two and put them in contests and figure out who's better. How do you put a number on it?

D: Do you think we could be approaching a surfing Renaissance?

W: I don't know. There's probably too much money involved now to allow that to happen. I mean, if they can put a logo on the Renaissance then that'll happen. But if the renaissance is all about not having a logo on it, then it probably won't make it.

For more interviews with your favorite surfers, check out our November issue on newsstands now.