Bruce Irons: The Elements Of Style
Decoding the surfing genome with Bruce Irons
When Bruce Irons and Saxon Boucher first crossed paths, Bruce was a 10-year-old mini grom staying in Encinitas with older brother Andy for NSSA Nationals. According to Bruce, Saxon was “a gnarly-guy pro surfer from La Jolla, and he had a six-pack too.” As Saxon remembers it, “I was older than Bruce and Andy, but I already looked up to them as far as the way they surfed. Bruce was just a little punk, but he had style so far beyond his years.” Bruce, of course, went on to become a style messiah for an entire generation of surfers, and today he’s back in Saxon’s neighborhood, living just down the road from the SURFING office in Carlsbad, CA, where Sax now works as a senior sales exec. When Saxon recently discovered a goldmine of Bruce photos in our office, he invited Bruce over to check them out. The photos — some new, some old, all epic — spawned conversation about everything from John John’s new movie to that time Bruce rolled a Toyota Hilux filled with Dane Reynolds, Ry Craike and a terrified cameraman into some godforsaken West Oz shorebreak. But eventually the discussion always returned to one key subject: style. –Leo Maxam
Saxon Boucher: When you look at photos of yourself surfing do you like them or are you critical of your surfing?
Bruce Irons: I’m very critical of myself. I’m always wishing I was like someone else. I don’t think of myself as the style guy. I think I’m a kook most of the time. I’m my own worst critic.
That’s funny, because the entire surfing world looks at you like a style icon.
I don’t feel like that. I’ve just always done whatever felt right. Where I grew up, people would tease you if you surfed a certain way, so you wanted to make sure you weren’t looking like a kook. I grew up with Kamalei [Alexander] and Reef [McIntosh] and [Dustin] Barca and we were really hard on each other. Now that I’m older I look back and I’m like, wow, were we friends, guys? It was almost like you wanted to see the other guy’s misery. We were always pushing each other, trying to outdo each other. And especially with an older brother, I always had to keep up. Reef and my brother were always going off to surf big waves and I would tag along and try to act like I wasn’t scared.
So do you think the teasing and the tough love actually helped make you guys more stylish surfers?
We teased each other bad. I remember Kamalei used to surf with his ass popped out really bad when we were younger and we used to tease the f–k out of him. And now look at Kamalei — he has a really nice style. Barca too. He used to have this funny style and we’d tease him too. Your friends are your biggest critics and there was a lot of tough love. You definitely don’t want to show weakness or any sign of feelings, because if you do you’re gonna get all your waves taken away and you’re gonna be a little punk.
Remember any good nicknames?
Kamalei was Hershey Squirt, Fat Head. I had a bunch of nicknames: Egghead, Alien Head. I used to tease my brother that he looked like Mr. Ed because of his teeth. But that’s the way you had to be. You have to be really strong and act like nothing fazes you. In a way it’s a good thing, but now that I’m older I’m comfortable with who I am and expressing my feelings and I don’t care about the consequences.
When Pipe is 10 to 12 feet and teasing the second reef, do you even have time to think about how you’re positioning your body or is that all just instinctual and natural?
I don’t ever think about my body position or anything. I just try to make it. On a bigger backside drop where you’re taking off really late, I’m just trying not to get pitched out. I’m underneath the lip and I almost try and become part of the wall; be really little and fall into it on my shoulder and hopefully I’m part of that transition and it all plays out. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I made this one. I think my tail dropped out on this one.
How do you get so good at that?
Growing up in your environment. We surfed this left on Kauai. It never got bigger than 4 or 5 feet, but it had this north bowl on it and it was dry reef and it was almost like a mini Teahupo’o. And I think that’s where me and my brother fine-tuned our backside barrel riding, learning how to take off late and steep and pigdog. And we transferred that to everywhere else.
Do you feel responsible for influencing all the guys today who go for it backside on big, heavy waves?
No, I don’t ever feel like that. That’s really flattering and cool, but I don’t ever feel like that. In my mind I still feel like I’m being influenced by everyone today.
I think a lot of the guys doing well on the tour nowadays in heavy barrels would say that it’s from watching you. Back in the day there weren’t a lot of people riding the barrel backside. Kelly was always really good, but no one was really taking off late and steep and knifing it and dragging their butt until you and your brother really showed what was possible.
Nowadays everyone’s doing it. Nowadays on tour, everybody surfs gnarly everywhere. Before, it wasn’t like everyone could surf big backside barrels. That’s why they originally made it man on man heats at Pipeline, because there were a lot of heats where guys were kind of blowing it, not going for it. But now, everyone’s gnarly and everyone goes for it.
Do you think either you or Andy would have been as good as surfers if you didn’t have each other to feed off of?
No way, I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for him. Because I was just doing whatever he was doing. And I was just trying to impress him. I’m sure it was the same way for him. We were trying to outdo each other and one up each other, but we were also trying to get a complement from one another, which was very hard to get in the same room.
As surf fans, this is the shit we remember forever: you pulling into the shorebreak during the Eddie. What goes through your mind when you do something like that?
I was still in my first heat. That was the biggest wave I’d ever paddled into, so I was still tripping on that. That was a really heavy event. The day before, me and my brother got into this really heavy fight, like a fistfight. I think I had a black eye on stage during the awards. But if it wasn’t for that, I swear I wouldn’t have won that contest. My brother was in the heat before me and he was world champion and was winning everything at that time — but I got an Eddie invite before him — so I was determined not to let him win.
It’s almost like there’s no one else in the contest at that point.
F–k no. I was just screaming, just psyching, “He’s not beating me!” I willed that f–king thing. Right before this, Flea got that wave where he jumped over the falls. You can only get four or five waves max in a heat and this was my last one. Kelly was right there too and that’s another reason I was probably going. I remembered watching videos of Michael Ho going into the shorebreak at Waimea and I was just trying to ride the wave as far as I could because I knew I had to go in, and get as close as I could so I didn’t have to paddle. And then I could hear the announcer and see all the people and I thought, aw shit I’m gonna make it, I have to pull in now. I never got barreled on a 10-foot board in shorebreak before. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was just a crowd pleaser, but I ended up just getting washed up the beach no problem.
How about style in heavy waves and how style plays into that?
You’re scared thinking about it. You’re scared talking about it. But once you’re there in the moment, like that Code Red swell, I remember after that wipeout happened I wanted a bigger one. Thinking about it, you get anxiety and get scared. But when you put me in that moment, I start feeding off that energy and want bigger and more. Contests never did that for me. I was always so in my head in contests. I would get more pumped up surfing with my friends when the waves are big. That’s when you want it.
You just got back from surfing a big swell at Pascuales.
F–k yeah, I almost drowned there two weeks ago. It was like 30 feet. That was the biggest I’ve seen it and surfed it. On this last trip I seen some waves break so far out to sea. So heavy. That wave is more powerful than any wave in the world. Just as powerful as Pipeline if not more.
Is it as rewarding?
F–k, you know. I don’t care. I’ve paddled enough. I like it. Paddling is good everywhere else, but this wave is meant for step offs. It’s a beachbreak, it shifts around, you couldn’t get a lot of these waves paddling. And if you had a really big board, get in late. But with a ski you can get all over the place. I had a 9’0” down there and Shane came down and Shane didn’t even paddle once. I’m like Shane are we gonna paddle? And he wasn’t doing it. So I’m like, f–k it, I’m not doing it.
You’ve always been known for launching on huge sections. Are airs in larger surf the future?
I’ve never even seen Filipe Toledo surf, but I heard he went down to Pascuales and was doing double rotations. He went down there just to do airs and I heard he was gnarly. He was doing 540s and shit. You go to Pascuales and you get too much speed and it’s scary. The sections are so big. You’re going so fast and it’s so much power. You do an air whether you want to or not. The board spins the guys are doing now, I can’t even comprehend. A lot of them grow up skating too, and I think that’s a big help.
What about the new guys you see surf. What’s your impression of their style?
I just went on a trip with John John to West Oz and he’s the gnarliest guy I’ve seen in a long, long time. The shit that he does on waves that you wouldn’t even want to surf — Boogie board slabby wedge waves. And the success rate of his tricks. Just whipping tail into the flats and he jrides out of it. Backflips like it was nothing.
So John John was pushing you?
Oh, yeah, the shit he does is definitely inspiring. To see what he does on a normal basis. That is the progression of surfing right there. I went on a surf trip with him five or six years ago to Indo, he was 15 or 16, just starting to come into his own. But to see how he is now, he’s gonna be a world champion. He was so consistent when I surfed with him in WA. I think he’s just starting to become confident in his decisions and sticking with them. I was telling him, “You’re the guy. Don’t get it twisted; everyone is gunning for you.”
Like you, John has a unique style all his own.
For sure, and I like surfing with that type of energy. Anything is possible — backflip above the lip like it’s nothing. Dangling arms, no big deal. I used to give him shit for it. Because when he was trying to qualify I thought it looked too lazy. I was like, f–k, you gotta be more amped. But you know what, I was wrong, he stuck to it, that’s his trip and I like it. It’s unorthodox, and you never know what he’s gonna do and that’s cool. I wish I could be his age again.
[Laughter] Welcome to the club.
Stay tuned for the full sit-down interview with Bruce, coming later this week.
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