Joel Tudor: Unfiltered

The longboard icon speaks without inhibition about the state of surfing

Photo: Glaser

Joel Tudor has always been a polarizing figure in the surf world. Idolized by traditionalists for his grace, style, and equally fierce convictions, the 35-year-old San Diegan has assumed the role of tribal elder while still remaining the yardstick by which all other longboarders of the modern age are measured. And in a time where his genre's influence is felt everywhere--from foreign lineups to clips on Dane Reynolds' website--Tudor is as relevant now as he's ever been. Here he offers us his perspective.

Talk to me about the current state of longboarding.
It's awesome. There's been enough of a jump in the right direction and it's made the side that we all hated [high-performance longboarding] irrelevant--that side's finally disappearing. I was fighting a lonely battle for a long time. It's pretty cool that there's a whole group now, as opposed to one person. The weight is off my shoulders. The other day I had some kid that takes jiu-jitsu from me in the studio, and I put in Alex Knost's new movie and the kid was like, "He's the reason I started surfing." And I thought to myself, "That's pretty rad." And it's got to that point where there's an entirely different group that's capable of doing what needs to be done, which is just inspiring kids who want to ride logs to ride them correctly.

Do you think there's a place for competitive longboarding?
It's hard for me to write it off because it gave me legitimacy and enabled me to make a living. I don't agree with the ASP, but it is what it is. I mean, Al Knost or any one of these guys could enter and win if they wanted to. And it would probably legitimize them. They would only gain more credibility and be able to prolong the scam of making money for surfing your whole life. We're all trying to follow in the Dora footsteps of scamming, scamming, scamming, because at the end of the day, we are scamming. If you just go surfing and you collect a check, you're scamming society. It's true. You do whatever it takes, and if that means winning an ASP world title, then win it, but it's going to be a hard-fought battle. It took me seven years to convince them that I was good enough to win one. So a lot of people give up after a couple years. Do I think the way the ASP judges longboarding and the style of surfing they're rewarding is cool? No, not really, but that's another story. That's a broken record, i've been complaining about that shit forever.

What should the criteria be? What is good longboarding?
Come to one of my contests [the Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational series] and check it out. Basically I believe that longboarding should never be held in waves over head-high and if they are, certain specific requirements of equipment can be adapted. But as far as the real beauty of the art is concerned, it's an under head-high thing. And in that, you basically want to combine the surfing of Nat Young and David Nuuhiwa and put them both together. Maybe throw me in the mix. And you've got a pretty good format. I'm not trying to be egotistical, but that's just my opinion. That's the direction that it's going. When you go to my contests and sit back and watch them, it's awesome--it's hilarious, it's funny, and it makes surfing look fun.

That type of surfing seems to be making its way into performance shortboarding too.
For sure, if you look at the amount that Dane Reynolds is influenced by guys like Al Knost and other people--I mean if Dane goes surfing with Al, the next month Dane will come out with a video clip and he's surfing similar to Al. So it's just the evolution of how things are going; it's cool. And, why not? Dude, if Dane Reynolds is looking to longboarding for inspiration, that's sick.

Single-fin slab, San Diego. Photo: Ghiglia

Today, the "ride everything" mentality is more pervasive than it ever has been and that's been something you've been championing all your life.
Surfing is everything, it's not just one thing. And you can accomplish all of it; you don't have to ride one piece of equipment, which now everyone's kind of doing. I didn't have an ASP/NSSA upbringing. I didn't grow up with Ian [Cairns] and PT [Peter Townend] telling me what was cool. I grew up with Nat [Young] telling me what was cool.

And really, Nat's one of the founders of our counterculture. Nat was such a powerful figure for me. He rode everything. He would just critique the shit out of me if I did something wrong. And really, I couldn't say anything back to him because he was so legitimate. There was no backlashing the man. He pressed so many things on us that were so different, and that made us step outside of the box. I mean, yeah, we went to contests and all that, but he also lectured us about having manners, which is funny coming from him. But he'd also tell us crazy things, like telling us to take psychedelics. And we did. And those were experiences and times that were priceless. Because I wanted to experience the things that they experienced. I wanted to surf on acid, I wanted to do all these things. And I did, under his guidance. And I know parents are gonna freak out on this, and I hate to say it, but that's surf culture. It really is surf culture. I was under an elder, a chief. It was only natural to do that kind of stuff. And it molded me into who I am today. I wouldn't take any of it back.

And surf culture now?
It's a different time. I mean the kids these days think it's normal to take a filmer to the beach and make a video about yourself and put it up on the Internet. For some reason it is just completely cool to blow your own horn in 2012. Like there's nothing wrong with being an egomaniac and basing your entire existence from sunup to sundown on producing yourself as a cool person. In my day, if you did that, you were done. My car would still be getting destroyed every time I parked it in the lot. Today, it's all about yourself and how to make yourself seem cool. How much talent you have doesn't seem to matter. It's cool to film and make videos and all that shit, but not if that's your sole purpose for surfing. If you can't go to the beach and have fun without a filmer, well something's wrong.

You're not really getting everything that surfing has to offer.
There's something really natural about getting into your car and not contacting anybody and just disappearing and finding a wave and just surfing. That lonely aspect is an escape and a cancellation of all the shit that you deal with on a day-to-day basis. And sometimes it's just cool to leave the documenter or photographer behind and not spend the rest of the day editing your clips to get it up by that night. I think we're just spending too much time making ourselves look cool. I mean I'm not gonna knock it, it's how we make a living, and I get it, but there's just something kinda tacky about it. I like the old Greg Weaver theory or even Denjiro Sato, who I got to work with when I was a kid, they would show up and film you and you wouldn't know. And they would do it on purpose, because I think that element of not knowing a filmer is around makes you surf that much better. And that's why the best surf sessions are not on film. Because you don't have the pressure of performing. Natural is better than posed.

As someone who comes from a skate background what are your thoughts on aerial surfing?
I'm so sick of watching the same rotation air, it's about as lame as noseriding on every wave--it gets monotonous and old. You've got to break up the routine. Everyone can do the same air and they do it on every wave. You're watering down a trick that's cool. You're taking the technical aspect out of it 'cause you're doing them every wave. And then it really comes down to who has the best style when they do it. Overall, I think that a lot of aerial surfers would really benefit from studying skateboarding a little more. If you look at how much skateboarding was influenced by surfing--with the current state of airs, it would only make sense if these guys took some time and learned a little bit from skateboarding. I mean, there are some crazy airs. I watch everything--that Matt Meola Innersection thing was incredible. That stuff's cool. I don't necessarily like the style of certain things, and I think that's where skateboarding would probably fix the kinks. Some of these guys could actually benefit from taking a little bit of time and rolling around on four-wheels.

What's it going to take to change course? What's going to slow the onslaught of air reverses?
Cancel your Facebook.

Cancel your facebook? That's it? Stop watching two-minute clips on the internet?
Well the Internet has changed everything. It kind of waters down certain things, because everybody can see something and copy it immediately. Before, you had a long window of originality before someone could get to it. In this day and age, you have about 20 seconds before somebody sees it and they're like, "I want to do that too." And then it's a fight for who did it first.

Who's getting it right?
I think Ryan Burch embodies the future of surfing. Burch's approach applies to every surfer. He embodies what we're all about, he makes his own equipment, he's fascinated by different things, he moves from one board to another. We need more free-thinkers in our next and current generations. Ryan is an example of what it will take for us to get to the next level of the sport. Simon Anderson had the sense to make three fins the same size and the only way he did that was because he was designing his own equipment. Ryan embodies a change in surfing in that direction. We need more free-thinkers who aren't 50 years old.

In your opinion, what is the cutting edge of performance surfing right now?
I look forward to going to Hawaii every year because for me, the proof is in the pudding. I get to go and see all the hype. And I'm a pretty astute critic. I believe you have to surf big waves as well as you surf small waves. I came from that generation. I think that's super important. What's blowing me away is the level of tube-riding. Airs I could give two shits about. But the level of tube-riding when you go and you sit at Pipeline and you watch, every year the bar is getting higher. John John is leading that charge. I used to say that Tom Carroll bought the blueprints of the reef at Pipeline from Dane Kealoha, Kelly took the blueprints from Tom Carroll, and now it seems like Jamie [O'Brien] and John John got the blueprints of the reef too. John John is probably the best surfer in the world today--he's on that level of being able to ride a 10-foot wave like a 2-foot wave. He schools Dane Reynolds in that aspect, hands down.

Tudor, poised and opinionated. Photo: Glaser

You're a world longboard champion and more recently, a world jiu-jitsu champion. Why jiu-jitsu?
I got sick of getting f--ked with. My whole life I got f--ked with for riding different equipment. And that's basically what it came down to. I got really, really sick of getting my ass kicked. In my lifetime, i've gone through a lot for riding a longboard and you can really only put up with so much of it. So I looked for a martial art that was most efficient at kicking everyone's ass. My teacher was pretty funny, the first time I walked in he was convinced I'd never come back because skinny, wiry, vegetarian guys aren't really sort of the status quo for the sport. But I got hooked. I feel like as surfers we have such an advantage on so many people. A lot of times when I'd step on the mats and I'd be looking at a guy who was a famous fighter and I'd realize yeah, he's covered head to toe in tattoos and he's got 20 pounds on me but you know what, he can't swim. We have such a mental advantage on so many people because of these environments we put ourselves in. Most people would panic or shit themselves if a bunch of water fell on top of them. And our flexibility and our timing, it's just next-level. We really are elite athletes who don't have to train very hard to attain a high level of mastery. I was also fascinated by the history. I had the same sort of affection for it that I have for surfing. Martial arts is an infinite well that you can study your entire life. I never graduated school, I dropped out at 15. I never graduated from anything. Except for maybe the school of Nat Young.

But you're a scholar of surfing.
I'm a student of surfing. You've got to understand, I met Craig Stecyk in a parking lot when I was 11. And he attached himself to me my entire life after that. I also had all these other people around me that were so eccentric and weird. And I think they attached themselves to me because they saw me attaching myself to something that was disappearing. They felt they had a responsibility to guide me in my efforts. The only subject I liked in school was history--I hated the rest of it. History became fascinating to me because I just enjoyed that Marcus Garvey quote, "No tree can grow without its roots." That's the story of my life; I always wanted to know the foundation. I think my book [Surf Book, 2005] speaks volumes for the amount of knowledge I attained at such a young age. At a period in my life when most people today are worried about putting their own clips up on the Internet, I made a book about all the people that had given to our spiritual activity that's changed so many peoples' lives. I felt a responsibility to pass on the knowledge they had given me. It's rad to have all this knowledge. I get to share it with my kids and I hope they carry on the tradition, 'cause somebody's got to carry it.

Are your kids going to be pro surfers?
You want your kids to surf and do all these different things, but surfing happens. And talent with surfing happens naturally, it's not just something that can be forced. Even for all the parents that are on the beach at Lowers with video cameras, sending all their videos to the magazines, hoping that their kid makes millions of dollars, that's not the angle. All of us fell into these amazing situations to make a living with surfing; it was never on purpose. Money was never a reason for surfing, and it was never a reason to surf really well. You were rewarded for your talent. And I think people need to focus on that again and have the love for the activity as opposed to loving the activity to get to the paycheck.

So do you think as a culture we've lost sight of what surfing really is?
We haven't lost sight. I think we get a little jaded. I think those of us that are over-informed need to remember that we're over-informed. But I think we've all gotten so obsessed with chasing the buck and attempting to make ourselves different from everyone else that we sort of lost sight of how cool the whole activity is. As a whole, not just one little thing. And we also need to maybe take a step back for a second and appreciate it for what it is. You know what I mean? It's rad, all categories. Bodyboarding's rad, bodyboarders are rad--that shit's hard as can be. You don't believe me? Take a bodyboard out to Pipeline sometime. Bodysurfing has become a little bit trendy, with some people trying to attach themselves to the bodysurf culture, but bodysurfing's still rad, it's cool as can be. Chicks surfing is f--king awesome. I can't explain to you how much better that is. They've given light to the entire activity, it's great. When you get old, people that are older than you are cool. Because all the things you're going against--your body falling apart, arthritis, neck issues, back issues--if you really dedicate yourself and do it your whole life, even if you're not good, you're f--king cool. As I'm getting older, I'm realizing how cool all of it is. When you're younger, you have attitude and an opinion on this and on that, but when you're older you realize that doesn't matter, you definitely get some perspective. I'm just sitting back and appreciating all of it.