From SW363, The Alex Knost Interview.
By Sean Doherty
Doug Lees sure has some front.
Our esteemed publisher is seated outside Byron’s Top Shop, about to wrap his head around a chilli chicken burger, when he senses a temporal presence seating itself next to him. He swings around and immediately recognises the magnificent head of hair and the stylish caboose that carries it around. How could you not? Doug, bald, is in awe. Of the hair mainly, but potentially of the suede jacket too. Doug recognises him from hundreds of impossibly cool surfing images. It can only be one person. “Alex Knost!” Bellows Doug in Alex’s face with a mouthful of flying chicken burger. “THE STYLE MASTER!!!” Deader than deadpan and without even looking at Doug, Alex replies, “That’s debatable.”
Alex is a little uncomfortable with the characterisation of being the most stylish man in surfing, but yet Al Knost might have the best surfing style of any man who has ever lived. Having grown up on longboards in Costa Mesa, California before evolving sideways onto single fins and assorted other spacecraft, Al appears to have been teleported from time a when style really mattered and the point of surfing was to be different to everyone else. Sadly, predictably, he’s become a polarising figure today, factions within surfing claiming the style trumps the substance and that his surfing is a contrived homage to surfing that’s already been done. But this would be missing the point of surfing… that there is no point. It’s an outlet as individual as Al. It’s a means, not an end.
SW caught up with Alex Knost on a farm at Bangalow, and what an hour it was. He’s been living in a plastic wigwam in Ellis Ericson and Beau Foster’s yard that has filled with water and empty wine bottles, while surfing The Pass and Tallows daily, on the run from judgement and generally breathing in the sublime anachronistic miasma that is Byron Bay today. For all the hullabaloo around him, Al may have the best read on surfing of anyone we’ve ever interviewed. Al’s a phenomenally interesting guy.
Here he is…
SW: Dude, I saw your big forehand floater out there today. I didn’t know you floated. [For the record it was a 20-foot long rooftop floater on a single-fin, which Al tried to land on dry sand, almost snapping both ankles in the process].
AK: [Laughing] It was probably someone else with the same haircut.
Do you enjoy letting loose?
I don’t know. I just rode longboards so exclusively for so long, I think it’s really hard for a lot of longboarders to travel, but for me I’m lucky in that I get to go on trips and I get to see a lot of different approaches and different equipment, going to Hawaii and getting to ride racier boards and being really inspired by a lot of freesurfers. I think riding the Bonzers has been really cool. I don’t know, I like the feeling of riding all of your surfboard and I think the Bonzer is pretty nice in that you can ride them really far up the board and also on the tail, and you can surf really erect on them, or get down with a really low centre of gravity.
You mentioned this morning a Bonzer that Bob McTavish shaped you on this trip and how it’s fundamentally different.
I just really like the way the Bonzers and the Campbell Brothers boards feel you can push on them a little more. There’s this guy named Russ Short who used to surf on them in the ‘70s and I liked the way he moved around the board. It’s comfortable for me scooting up the front. There’s always been a rich Aussie/American relationship with surfboard design and I like that. I have a lot of respect for that after trying to shape my own boards for a few years now, for the masters of that, whether it’s a progressive shortboard shaper who looks into performance design, or one of the original guys like Bob. There’s obviously craftsmanship, and there’s also experience. You could be a good builder and make a good board, and there are also people who are good shapers with a ton of experience. I watched Asher Pacey ride the first board he’d ever shaped, but he’d had so much experience riding waves that even thought the board he made was really crude and asymmetrical and had lumps in it, it worked because he had wave experience and knew how he wanted to surf.
The ideas behind it were solid.
Yeah. It’s cool to watch people shaping and riding their own boards. I watched Bryce Young surf a board that Ryan Burch had shaped for him at Angourie, and it was so cool to watch. Not only guys surfing such a small surfboard with such style, you know, it’s in his genes, but his approach… I don’t think he’s trying to be stylish, it’s in his blood, and he was able to draw longer lines on shorter boards.
Is style in your blood?
[Laughing] I don’t know.
Does that question make you awkward? Are people too fixated on your style?
I don’t consciously think about my style. I often think it looks really bad.
I don’t know. I don’t like my left arm when I see it in photos. I read something once that Craig Anderson said, which went like, if you have a good style it’s because you’re not thinking about it. It’s not reactionary to anything. It’s hard with this generation, it’s kind of weird, because I find myself trying to film for video parts and because for so long people were filming and putting out footage of me. I guess I have a reputation for being a novelty act, so whenever anyone films me, they’ll film me for an hour on one certain day and maybe the waves sucked and the board I had sucked, but it doesn’t really matter for them, let’s just put that out. And I’m okay with that, but it’s pretty cool to see freesurfers working on their video parts and putting out these incredible, mind blowing things that are interesting to watch. I don’t know where I’m getting at with this, but I start thinking about surfing good and I usually just crumble. When the waves are shitty you don’t think about it or you’re surfing with friends you don’t think about it you’re just hooting and having fun. You’re not consciously thinking about it, which is weird, because now I’m consciously working on getting better footage… [laughing] because there seems to be a backlash of opinions that fly around on the internet.
You read that stuff?
There’s nothing you can do about it. You could lock yourself in a room and never surf again and let it be. But I just I think at least people have an opinion, whether it’s flattering or not you just have to realise the world is full of opposition, which makes the world interesting to live in. I don’t listen to the albums or like the same artists as other people, which is cool. The world is open to interpretation, and that’s what makes it cool. [Al rolls a smoke as we move on].
How much different is the Byron surfing experience for you than surfing at home?
Well, the water’s warmer and there are more sharks. But it’s cool; the waves break really different compared to California, so it’s really nice to check out boards in different waves. It’s different the way the water moves up the face here, and there is a lot of spontaneity in the beachbreaks. The Californian coastline doesn’t have as many bays and tight coves as here, and I think it breaks up the swell, you know, whereas the waves have to get in between a lot of islands in California, so you’re either surfing really groomed pointbreaks or beachbreaks that are windswell-oriented with short energy when you’re riding them.
Is it good for your surfing being here?
Yeah, Byron is pretty crowded, but I like seeing the different approaches that some of the surfers here have riding different boards. I’m used to seeing the longboarding and the single-fin stuff, although in a weird way that resurgence is kind of incestuous, but I really like a lot of the shortboarders here and how they surf. The guys I surf with here – Ellis, Beau, Creed, Ozzie, Noa – there is some pretty creative surfing out here.
How’s life in the tent?
It’s good. Tent’s good. Little soggy a couple of days. It’s just nice to be here and not have to be driving around. The waves back home in California, I’ve been driving around so much between San Diego and Santa Cruz chasing surf. I live in Orange County, Costa Mesa, near Huntington. I drive around a lot, you want to get good waves and you look at Surfline and consistently think you’re in the wrong spot and freak out and go sit in traffic for three hours and all that stuff, so here I don’t have a car and no one wants to drive so you just hang around here, which has been nice. Takes the pain out of it.
Is it a different surfing experience to home?
I don’t know. It’s so funny, in the lineup wherever you are its grown-ups acting like little kids. I was paddle-battling this random guy this morning and he was paddle-battling me. And this guy burned me and I’m pretty sure he was wearing my Ruca model boardshort or something, which was ironic. Everything else goes out the window and everyone goes home and talks about it the whole day, which is cool. Goes to show how much people like surfing, which says something.
Why do you like surfing?
Aside from everything that has been said – you don’t have to answer a cell phone, you get to be in the ocean – it’s pretty much just the freest thing you can do. Apart from buying a surfboard there’s no admission. You could fly places and spend money that way I suppose, but Mother Nature or the ocean’s not charging you and the cyclone isn’t sending you an invoice. And it keeps you healthy. You could wake up in the morning and feel sick and have a cold and go surf and you’d be fine. You’re made of water, so it’s a no brainer.
How did surfing start for you?
My father and his friends always surfed. I started and I haven’t stopped. Anyone who surfs knows how addictive it is, because you’re never in control you always want a better wave or a longer tube or to stand on the nose longer. You never get to the end of surfing. You’re appreciative of what you get, but there’s always something more out there, you’re always chasing something, it’s so elusive. You can’t grab it and buy it and put it in a frame and put it on a shelf.
What’s gone wrong with surfing?
I don’t know; I still like it. I just remember at one point and maybe it’s because I’m older, but I remember being resentful with the industry and the self-gloss and the promotion and people posting photos of themselves on the internet, it all seemed very, I don’t know… egotistical. But I really like all of the younger friends I’ve made who surf because I think they all have a higher appreciation for past generations and the history of surfing. I think it’s in a really good place and I find it comforting and I find it exciting. I think it’s nice. I’m more grateful now than ever.
That connection back to the legendary figures, who are the ones who’ve been most influential on you?
Mark Martinson, he was a power surfer back in the ‘60s, a shaper, kind of a freethinking guy. Steve Krajewski who rode Craig Liddle surfboards, I really liked him. Russ Short… but so many people.
You paint from a wide palette of influences. Why?
I think I ended up in a time that was so segregated, you were into Joel Tudor or you were into Kelly Slater and from that it’s morphed into a wide appreciation of progressive things. I think progressive surfers have an appreciation of subtlety and acute adjustments and approaches.
Are surfers becoming more open minded today?
I think it’s just people adapting to their environment and dealing with the fact there are more people surfing these days. It makes for creativity. You’ve seen such trippy approaches over the past couple of years, I think that’s what gets me excited about other surfers and riding different boards, the same reason I like the Bonzers. You can do a bottom turn on the front half of the board or move around a pivot turn on the tail of the board, it’s so cool. In Hawaii this year I saw so much awesome surfing from people like Chris Ward to Mason Ho, Noa Deane, Gavin Beschen. There are all these different ways and I just dig it. I think it’s so cool and I get psyched. I think the only thing that plagues good surfers is getting bored, that’s when they turn to other things. I mean, it’s sad to see good surfers turn their backs on what made them and who they are.
Do you get bored easily with surfing? Do you need to be challenged and to be have it mixed up or can you just go surf?
I always find it challenging! That’s probably why it’s interesting to me. I don’t get bored surfing ever. I’m always excited. With surf forecasting it’s never right, so you’re always still chasing the unknown, which makes it good. The journey is lucrative, and you’re enjoying it as you go along. It’s cool.
I watched you surf Pipeline on single fins over the last few years on some solid days. You survived. You did good.
I’m consistently the worst surfer out there, and I don’t even go left. It’s crowded and there are a lot of intimidating people, but I like it. I don’t surf big waves. Nowadays big waves are so big, that’s such a huge term. Nathan Fletcher and Makua Rothman and Greg Long surf big waves. My waves aren’t even medium waves in Hawaii. I basically surf it when it’s flat! But everyone likes to get barrelled and I can’t really ride shortboards and I’m not comfortable on them and I don’t know how to use them so I like the way some of the Bonzers and single-fins surf those waves. The results are usually mixed but that’s the fun in it. I get excited to watch guys surf well out there though. I don’t surf it when it’s big, I go hide. I take closeouts on the small days.
Do you ever ride sporty shorties? Performance shortboards?
It’s fun every once in a while, but I feel like I have two left feet on them and I have trouble moving them down the line, but there have been a couple of boards I’ve really liked. I’ve ridden a couple of Ellis’s board but they’re not really… I don’t even know what conventional is anymore. I don’t know. I don’t differentiate between boards as much as other people do. I found, myself, I have blinders on to that a little. I don’t classify as much. I think I have a borderline autistic outlook on it. It cracks me up when I overhear people talking about how I’m riding this or that and what I’m surfing because I don’t even really feel like it’s a conscious thing. To be interested in something alternative. I just dig it… I’m trying to make it work and trying to feel good when I kick out. That’s what I’m chasing. I don’t have a mission statement. I’m not trying to invent anything. I’m just trying to go surfing like everyone else.
Are you happy?
Yeah, fuck! I’ve checked out different things and met different people and been blown away by the surfing of some people who I’m lucky enough to call friends and contemporaries, people I look up to. There are a long laundry list of people who I like to paddle out with and watch surf. Yeah, I’m grateful for it.
Have you ever possessed a competitive mindset with your surfing, and if you did, did it kill your vibe?
Of course I did. I think maybe up till this year… I think this year was the first year I suddenly didn’t have this thing about wanting to outsurf somebody else. But I get it, you want to go out there and surf your best and if you make money you can spend it on cool things surfboards and guitars and nice wine, buy your sister something. Those Joel Tudor contests I did when I was young were fun, but you’re still trying to win. I remember doing the NSSA contests on longboards as a kid, but you’re kinda brainwashed in the same way you’re brainwashed at school to get good grades by being told that if you don’t get good grades you won’t get a good job, so you’re always taught to look at something one way. You’re always told to give it your best, which is part of being human. And I remember being really young and watching Joel Tudor lose heats to surfers who aren’t as good as him and it kinda pissed me off. Like, he’s the best guy, how the fuck are these other guys winning?! You kind of want to challenge that false authority that made that happen, and the dictation that this guy is better than that guy. You’re like, fuck you! There’s that angst side of it. But now I feel like the boards I ride and what I find exciting and how I want to surf…
… There’s not really a division for it.
Exactly. I don’t fall into a judged category. Even in a longboard contest I’m riding a narrower board or a thinner board, and people are getting judged on long nose rides. I do a lot on a wave, but I feel if I surfed as good as I possibly could in a heats I’d still lose. And I’m okay with that.
The forehand layback has become your trademark. Where did that come from?
I don’t think I’m the only guy. I told a magazine once that I saw Dave Rastovich do it and it was in this tiny little barrel at The Pass and I remember someone coming up to me and yelling, “He’s not the first person to do it! Haven’t you ever seen footage of Derek Hynd or Tom Curren!” I went, “Whoah, sorry, didn’t mean to piss you off.” I know other guys have done it. I just have flat-rockered boards that are fast and hard to stall, and between me surfing faster boards and [starts chuckling] surfing smaller tubes, it’s kinda like…
A logical extension.
And it’s fun. I didn’t invent it. It’s on the record here.
You got a moment in the past year where you’ve been utterly lost in surfing?
I’ve been up to Rincon a couple of times lately, and I’ve had a fun a couple of days at Swamis. In the past months I’ve also had two really nice boards – this Campbell brothers 7’0” Bonzer that’s based off a Russ Short model, just narrower, and this eight-foot Barry Kanaiapuni-inspired model. I took a template off an eight-foot BK Sunset gun two years ago and I’ve been riding that in California, and I think those two boards have helped me find new places to surf on a wave, and new places to surf on a board. Those days at Rincon were great cause I always like being in the water next to Dane. It’s such a cool, unique, ferocious approach. And he genuinely really likes surfing. And surfing with Ellis is cool. I guess over the past couple of years it’s become really hard for longboarders to go on trips and have the support to do that. They reach their twenties and can’t travel and have to get real jobs, so these days I go on a lot of trips with shortboarders. There was a period I was dragging a longboard around with these guys and paddling my longboard out in closeout becahbreaks, because that’s what they surfed. Fuck, I thought, I have to adapt to these other waves or I won’t be having much fun! It’s been cool in the past couple of years, seeing where modern surfing is going. I’m pretty humbled and pretty stoked on what’s happening with it.
What have you been reading lately?
I don’t read much, but I was reading this biography on Norman Mailer that I left that at home. And I recently got Kim Gordon’s book, Girl In A Band. Aside from who she is [the bass player from Sonic Youth], she’s got great stories and has infiltrated many movements. It’s written really well and it’s really inspiring. I got the Mike Kelly book, Catholic Tastes – thank you to my sister – and that book’s pretty far out. Then in Lismore I got Andy Warhol’s A To B and Back Again.
Is that a memoir?
In a trippy way it is. I like it because I like the deconstruction. I think… I don’t know if it’s an age thing or not, but you live your life and in different points in everything there is appreciation and angst about where you are and you’re thinking, should I follow this rule? Do I follow this formula for life? Or do I become the antithesis of that formula? In anything you do you yourself ask that question. Whether it’s surfing or art or music. Do I make a radio hit or do I write a punk rock song? Lately I’ve been realising that when you dissect something, there’s a freedom to it, and reading the Norman Mailer book, who’s obviously a nut but also a novelist, then you have Kim Gordon who is this person who dissected what it is to be a pop icon or an artist or a punk rocker or a “No Waver”, and here she has gone and written this conventional book about this person who’s done that. Those books have had this weird parallel to the past couple of years of my life, being a surfer and being interested in music and being, like, this vessel for a marketplace. No matter how bizarre or intangible surfing is, how you can ever put it on a shelf, but here I am, this vessel for something that other people go out and buy and put on their shelf. It’s this weird intersection, then you realise there’s the natural co-existence and you can’t really resent natural occurrences. Does that make sense?
Do you feel there’s an iconic status forming around what you do whether you like it or not?
I don’t know if I have that status, but I think there’s comfort in knowing that it’s wise to be conscious about what you’re doing, but also to take the responsibility that nothing really matters. Everyone is going to end up in the dirt and everyone is… I dunno. Just do what you feel satisfied doing and what makes you inspired, and if it inspires other people along that way, that’s great.
You’re not buying into that whole icon thing?
No… I dunno. [Giggling] Can we start the whole interview over again? I’m pretty content with things and I look forward to the freedom I have. Wisdom comes with experience, and it’s healthy to romanticise the inevitable.
If your surfing was a style of music, what would it be? Punk? Jazz? Zappa?
That’s hard. That’s a question for somebody else. That’s like hearing your own voice on a message machine and it doesn’t sound like you. I have, like, dysmorphia issues with that.
When you watch your own footage what do you see?
Lately I’ve been watching it more, you got to keep an eye on what’s out there…
And what your left arm been doing?
[Laughing] Yeah, fuck that thing! What do I think about my surfing? Some stuff I like, some I don’t. I can’t really endorse myself. I’ll endorse other surfers.
How’s the band going? [Al plays in Tomorrow’s Tulips with Ford Archbold]
Band’s cool. I like it. Ford’s a great guy to be in a band with, and we get to see other parts of the world that aren’t on the coast. That’s healthy too. You realise there are bubbles and politics and factions in other areas outside of surfing. If you don’t take the politics in surfing seriously and take it all as phoney and media-oriented, and obviously I’ve been around it long enough to understand it, so when I get to the music thing and here it all is again you don’t have to take it seriously. And the music thing is nice because you don’t make money at all, so as soon as you’re okay with failure then you can really enjoy yourself. You’re not worried so much about an audience; you’re worried more about what’s going on inside you, and that can relate back to surfing. So, like, fuck it. That’s liberating in the same way that certain surfers don’t do contests anymore and don’t have to worry about their repertoire being understood or judged and someone else dictating whether they’re successful or not.
But aren’t you judged heavily anyway? Society just doing its thing?
Yeah, but that’s anything. If you think about whatever music a teenager listens to their parents won’t like it. ‘What’s that shit you’re listening to?’ ‘Fuck you, dad!’ And you’re not going to play Sonic Youth for a contemporary country audience. It’s liberating and it’s healthy to be okay with being different. That’s where you’re supposed to be, right.