Most serious, heavy water surfers at some point have some kind of reckoning moment, a point where they’re forced to examine their lives, their risk appetites and in some cases their own mortality. A bad wipeout, a hold down, a broken leg or back. At the same time, they’re often forced to examine how they fit into wider society. The unique psychological wiring that allows them to stare down grotesque and dangerous surf, is not always suited to civilian life. Kerby Brown has had plenty of these reckonings. At 38, he’s spent almost two decades on the frontier, discovering and surfing slabs, mostly in his native Western Australia. For most of that time he’s done it off the grid and underground, but he’s now gone and made a big budget movie, Facing Monsters. Working with his brother Cortney, and good mate Rick Rifici, Kerb used the film to catalogue his reckonings and make sense of a life spent on the Western frontier. And then in the course of shooting the movie, Kerby went and had himself another reckoning. – Interview by Sean Doherty
SW: You’ve just flown the coop over east to launch the movie. After a couple of years locked down at home in the west, it must have felt like going overseas again.
To be honest I haven’t been travelling for years anyway. I tend to not leave WA much at the best of times, even before all this stuff. But yeah, it’s been weird times, hey. Weird to be back on a plane. We were staying at Kirra with the NSW border right there, and they had the border patrols and all that stuff going on. Where we live down here in WA, we’re just in this little bubble. You wouldn’t know anything has changed.
SW: Where exactly are you?
I’m down on the south coast. We’ve got a little joint that backs onto the reserve at the bottom of the mountain, just near the beach. It’s nice, this little hideaway.
SW: For the movie, Western Australia almost became like a closed shoot for the film with the lockdown.
It almost worked to our advantage because we could be even more under the radar than we usually are. Like, that’s how we like to roll anyway, but we could shoot the movie without many people knowing about it.
SW: You’re one of the more underground guys around. You’ve surfed off the grid for a decade or two now. Why do a film?
Yeah, good question. I guess it started with me and Rick [Rifici, filmmaker] having such a good relationship. We’ve been mates for years. He’s working in the film industry and is always booked out on big jobs, but he just loves shooting surfing. The opportunity to work alongside Rick was a big thing. I trust him 100 per cent and feel comfortable around him, especially doing the personal stuff. Doing the movie wasn’t a decision made lightly mate, by any means. It was a big call for me because I was super happy just laying low and surfing. Not having any eyes on me, and just doing my own thing. I felt really good doing that but then this opportunity came out of nowhere. Also, because it’s quite a personal story and my family are involved, Nicole, [Kerb’s wife] was a bit concerned about having the kids on camera and all of that, so it was a big call. But I guess I only ever wanted the movie to be super raw and honest, to give people an insight into our world. Hopefully people see my struggles and how the ocean’s helped me, and hopefully people can relate to that. If you can inspire just one person to follow their passion and put their energy into something rather than going down that destructive path I’ve been down, that’s something. Put your energy into something you love, get out in the ocean. Get out there and live life.
SW: It also feels like a frontier film in a lot of ways as well. It’s frontier surfing, but you also feel like the west itself is a character in the film. The film gives you a sense of the vastness of the place.
Yeah, well it’s hard to relay that sense. You know how big it is and just the scale of the waves and the coastline…
SW: … and the drives.
The drives, yeah. Everything’s such a long way. I live a 12-hour drive from my brother and my folks now.
SW: I was going to wind the clock back to the mid-2000s when slab surfing became a thing and all these new waves opened up, and you were at the front edge of that. It felt like every few months someone was finding something new. It must have been a crazy time to surf through.
Yeah, I guess it was. I started thinking beyond waves like Tombstones. I quickly realised what direction I wanted to go in… and it wasn’t chasing shitty waves around the world on the WQS. But I guess those early days we surfed so many of the waves up the coast like Gnaraloo, but then the jet skis opened up so many options. Once we got a taste for that, we were like… what else can we surf? “Let’s go and find some new waves to surf.” Always living in the moment. We had no money. Can we even afford to chase the next swell? That’s all we cared about at that point – getting money to get fuel to chase waves.
SW: Can you walk us through the first time you saw The Right?
We obviously had a tight group of mates down there at the time – Shanno [Chris Shanahan], Cale Grigson and Benny Rufus – which kind of opened that door for us to look around this coast. The Right… I definitely saw it from land first, but we were surfing a bunch of other slabs in the area for years before going out there. When we first came down, we were discovering all these other waves. We surfed a left slab that was pretty psycho, but we couldn’t have imagined there was something twice as big and crazy nearby. I guess it was a few years later that we ended up at The Right. I’m from up north and I hadn’t gone right a hell of a lot, so to pull up and see a wave below sea level bending back on itself – and it’s a right – that’s what sticks with me, thinking, fuck, how am I going to surf that on my backhand?
SW: Can you remember getting buckled there early on and getting a sense of the power of it?
Yeah, for sure. Hearing the stories of what goes down when you wipe out, lots of two-wave hold downs, and then the local boys showing me crazy footage of sessions they’d had by themselves with no one else around. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it, still to this day. Just the size, just the water in it. But I don’t know, I almost feel a lot safer out there than some of those waves that go up onto dry reef.
SW: Once you’ve surfed waves like these, how do you go back and surf a three-foot beachie?
I do find it hard to surf with a crowd more than anything. I guess I went through phases, but the more I wanted to surf those heavier waves, the less interested I was in all the other ones to the point where the last three or four years, I’ve barely chased swells up north to Gnaraloo. Just the crowd, not wanting to sit amongst other people. I’ve become so used to being removed from that and having no one around.
SW: I like the quote in the film there where you’re talking about your wipeouts, and how you really get to know yourself. What have you learned?
Well, I guess I’ve never really trained much compared to a lot of guys, and I’ve probably never been as prepared as I should be physically, but I feel like I’ve always handled extreme wipeouts mentally. That’s got me through because they’re terrifying. I’ve always figured out to just surrender and let go and relax in heavy circumstances.
SW: Well, it’s worked. You’re still here.
Yeah. I mean, The Right’s another ballgame, because quite often you feel like you’re going to drown because it just holds you down for so long. That’s different again, and my mind has definitely shifted. A two-wave hold down before I would’ve just worried about getting myself to the top. But now if I’m held under for a couple of waves, I’m thinking about my family at home. You try not to have those thoughts, but they do creep in when you’re stuck in that black hole down there.
SW: The sequence in the film where you’re standing on a granite mountain and explaining, well, this is basically what we’re surfing over, gives a real primal sense of what you’re doing out there. Surfing over a big rock in a big ocean.
I always trip out on it. Those big granite boulders are all around here. One thing with the film is we wanted to explain to people who can’t relate to the slabs. It’s exactly how they are. Some of the waves you pull up to just literally are just that, a granite mountain underwater, and the whole ocean is bending around them, horseshoeing around both sides.
SW: Are you paddle surfing anything big?
Barely. I guess once I moved down the south coast, there’s not many good paddle waves down here. Obviously up at Gnaraloo there’s a couple of spots I really want to paddle but again, I’m just not interested to go anywhere where there’s crowds. But yeah, even day-to-day surfing, like once I was down here, I wasn’t even doing that a lot. But I’m fine with that. I’ve almost lost interest a little bit for everyday surfing. I get more satisfaction out of taking my grom for a surf. I never felt like I needed to surf a two-foot beachie just for the sake of it. I was happy just cruising.
SW: The movie is also a buddy film with you and Clarry [brother, Cortney]. You two have been inseparable since I’ve ever known you both. It’s not Kerby or Cortney, it’s “The Browns” because where one of you is, the other isn’t far away. How has that dynamic changed over the years?
Yeah, we’re still as close for sure, but it’s really tough not seeing him all the time. We’ve taken different directions. I was working up north, offshore and he was working on cray boats. But yeah, it’s super tough not having him around, hardly surfing at all together for a few years and living so far apart now. We used to surf every day together. Luckily for me I’ve had like Shanno down here, and he’s been like…
SW: … a missing Brown brother.
Yeah, pretty much. And all the boys here like Benny and Cale, they’ve all been amazing. But yeah, it’s definitely been hard not having Corts around. I miss him.
SW: I like the line in the film when Clarry says, “If anyone’s going to tow him into those waves it’s gonna be me.” He knows you’re gonna do it anyway, but he wants to be there to look out for you.
Yeah, for sure. It’s a tough thing to even ask him, especially after all that’s happened recently. I feel better when he’s out there.
SW: I want to talk about the years when you moved to Perth and you bottomed out… did that feel like the point where your old freewheeling life was coming to an end?
Yeah, I guess so. It just felt… it was just a big point of change in my life. I don’t know what to do with myself here. I was over the tour. I knew what I wanted to do, which was chase these heavy waves but there was no support there. I was also living in the city for the first time, and I was just kind of lost… and that spiralled down into a bit of a dark hole, really. Being from the country and living in a city just didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what I was doing at that point and not really having much self-worth at that point in my life. I still had that passion and fire to want to surf these crazy waves, but I was kind of in just in no man’s land. I was in Perth, my brother was up north, I had no money to go to the places I wanted to go and that’s when I guess out of frustration I just started drinking and going out. Just drowning my sorrows. And that kind of ended up being a continuous thing, living in the city with no way to get out of it. It just spiralled into a very unhealthy, dark place where something had to give.
SW: And that was when your son Phoenix, showed up? His birth pulled you out of it?
A hundred per cent, yeah. As soon as he was born, we moved straight to Kalbarri and that was our fresh start. It pulled me out of the head space I was in, and completely opened up my mind to life. It forced me to get my shit together and be a better person. That was the start of a beautiful thing.
SW: Another interesting sequence in the film is you talking about working out on the gas rigs, and that was when you realised that structured society wasn’t for you.
I reckon it’s a combination of things. Growing up where I did was one. Then Dad always encouraged me to do the contests because he knew I probably wouldn’t fit into the workforce. Dad’s a musician, he used to shape boards, and he found out about crayfishing and came over here because of the lifestyle. You work on the ocean, you do your season, and then you go up to Indo and surf. So that kind of mindset from him has always probably been instilled in me and he’s not the parent to say, “Go get a trade at a young age.” He used to get super frustrated because he wanted me to dedicate to surfing and contests, and if I wasn’t going to do that, he said, “Knuckle down at school and do something else,” but I never took anything too serious. I always hated school. I don’t know why, but just conforming to rules, it’s something I’ve always struggled with. And then the contests really, really made me understand that. Like, this is a format, this is a heat, we’re going to score you, you got a time limit. I hated that; it just didn’t feel right, especially with surfing. And I guess through that period I was just trying to figure out what I can do. I just didn’t feel like I had a place. It took a lot of years from that young age to figure out what I was really passionate about, which was surfing these kind of waves. I found my place of comfort in the ocean. I knew this is where I was meant to be, especially in these remote locations, chasing heavy slabs of water, removed from everyday society. There’s no one around, no rules out there, no boundaries, no one can say you can’t do this and that… it’s a real sense of freedom. Just you in amongst the raw elements, trying to synchronise with one of nature’s most powerful forces.
SW: How did you go working on the rigs?
I ended up on supply vessels going out to the rigs. It was something I could do although I didn’t have any job experience. Like, get into this industry, make really good money, and have time. I could support my family and still have time to do something that I love, so it was kind of a sacrifice, one for the other I guess. But yeah, I struggled with working in that industry, and it didn’t sit right with me at all, but I just gritted my teeth and got on with it so I could have the time at home with my family, and the freedom to actually do what I wanted for once.
SW: How much different is life down south for you now? It looks like a very different coast to where you grew up.
Yeah, it’s a different world. Like it’s similar in the fact both are small towns, beautiful places, but it’s like, scenery wise, coast wise, totally different. It’s really rugged and raw here, and really untouched.
SW: You fly over it on the day flight from Perth heading east and you look down and it’s this wild coast with islands and huge sand dunes everywhere but nobody around. People over east don’t even think about this coast.
I think that’s what I really enjoy about it. There’s always somewhere here I haven’t been. Up north, it’s amazing, I love the place, but you just get to a point where you feel like you’ve seen a lot of it. I don’t know, it’s just newer down here and it’s just different, and the oceans just so much more alive.
SW: I’m trying to imagine East Coast Kerby Brown and I’m having trouble. I can only imagine you coming from the west.
I was over in Noosa recently and that coast is so beautiful, and it just seems so much more friendly. There’s beautiful, nice running righthand points and just a different energy.
SW: It’s not trying to kill you.
Yeah. That’s why I love it down here now. It’s just so raw and extreme and it’s just on another level, the ocean around here. But yeah, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
SW: Punters who see the movie but haven’t followed your story might go, well he’s got this big film crew following him around, this must be his life… but your surfing life for years has been the opposite. Surfing with nobody around.
I guess we’re just purely doing it because we love it, and most of the time you’re not thinking about what you can get out of it. Shooting it has never been a focus. We’ve only ever done it just because we love it and it doesn’t matter if there’s someone there shooting or not, you know?
SW: How are the old bones going?
[Laughs] They’re fucked.
SW: You’ve been pretty banged up over the years.
Yeah, I feel a lot older than I am. I’m pretty sore. I’ve racked up a lot of injuries. I was at the hospital last year and the doctor was going through my medical record, he had it up on the screen, a list of all the surgeries and bones and injuries and all the doctors’ reports. You almost forget. But it just comes with the territory, I guess.
Do you reckon there’s been an element of self-destruction in how you’ve lived and surfed?
Yeah, I guess it maybe was like that before the kids. I probably didn’t care as much. Had a more reckless attitude. Bit like, “I’m here. I’ll kind of take anything that comes, whether I can make it or not.” I was always trying to be calculated, but I was probably a bit looser before I had the kids on my mind. Some people might look at it as if it’s reckless or whatever, but I’m still trusting in my ability, and you’re always trying to make the wave, you know? But that’s the thing I guess with these waves, as well. You don’t really know what they’re going to do until you’re on them, and some of the time that’s too late. It takes a long time to build up knowledge of which ones you can ride and which ones you can’t. It’s taken a lifetime of doing it. But yeah, forever learning, as you can see in the film, that’s the beauty. That’s what’s so cool about it, I think.
Well, I suppose that’s the essence of the whole thing. There’s a quote in the movie where you go, “It’s a way to live completely.” You’ve got to kind of surf on the edge and live on that edge to do it completely.
For me, that’s the pinnacle. That feeling of synching with a natural force like that, something so powerful, and to feel that and be in amongst that energy, there’s no other feeling I’ve had like it. For me, that’s where I’m meant to be, especially having this place in my backyard. There are crazy waves there for the taking, but you’ve really got to want them. But for me, yeah, I’ve totally been dedicated to that, and it’s kind of been something that’s almost – apart from the kids – has been all-consuming.