Tim Baker, creative director, (m)Ocean

The ocean is life made visible in that you get to experience the play of energy, the peaks and troughs that life throws at you and you learn to roll with it … to be adaptable and … humble in the face of a greater power ...

Tim Baker is a busy man. He has authored multiple best-selling books including Bustin’ Down The Door, High Surf and Occy, and had work published in Rolling Stone, Sydney Morning Herald and playboy to name just a few. He previously helmed surfers bibles Tracks Magazine and Surfing Life and has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award. He also happens to be the mastermind behind the (m)Ocean event at this year’s Bleach* Festival. He recently caught up with The Weekend Edition Gold Coast at his office overlooking beautiful Currumbin Creek for a chat about the perks of being a surf writer, surfing as active meditation and what we can expect from his experimental performance art piece (m)Ocean.

We’re particularly excited about (m)Ocean, for those who may not have heard, can you tell us about the event?
Sure, I guess the short description is that it is presenting surfing as a performing art. People have been playing around with the synergy between surfing and music for a while now but no one has gone to the lengths that (m)Ocean is planning to. Music has always been really integral to surf movies and people have played live soundtracks to screenings of surf movies but we’re putting live surfing with live music. The hope is that you can get that symbiotic feedback loop happening between the surfing and the music. It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time and for a while I was almost waiting for someone else to do it, but this year all of the circumstances just arrived to allow me to do it and Bleach* Festival has been really supportive. It’s all happening which is really super exciting.

How did the idea to marry live surfing and live music come about?
The real starting point was having the experience of surfing a couple of times when there was live music being played on the beach, it wasn’t an event where the surfing was being presented with the music or anything, it just happened to be there. There was once down at Bells Beach at the Rip Curl Pro, at the end of the day’s competition they just had a band playing on the beach and the contest was over so you could go for a surf. Having that experience of being out in the water at a place like Bells that kind of has that natural amphitheatre geography and you’ve got these big cliffs around you and music booming out, it was a really powerful experience. It kind of just lodged in the back of my mind that it would be cool to do something like that. I also kept coming across little historical references that have encouraged me, like Australia’s first Women’s World Surfing Champion was a woman named Phyllis O-Donnell at the Manly world titles back in 1964. I’ve interviewed Phyllis, she’s quite elderly now, but she says she thought she won that event because they were playing some real bouncy music during the final and you can watch the old footage and she does look like she’s dancing on the wave. Jack Johnson the surfer/musician once said in an interview that when surfers go surfing what they’re really doing is dancing. A lot of surfers might not think of it that way but what are you doing other than moving your body in a way that feels most pleasing to you, and what is that if not a dance? So all these little signs along the way have encouraged me and the time has come to actually put it in action.

As with all experimental performance art, there’s an element of unknown, how do you see it all unfolding in your head?
It’s weird because we’re completely at the mercy of the elements so we don’t know whether it’s going to be one to two foot or eight to ten feet, it’s March, prime surf season so chances are we’ll get surf but it’s kind of like staging a concert and not knowing if you’re going to be in a little 50-seat hall or a 5000-seat auditorium. We’ll kind of know four or five days out what the conditions are likely to be but I guess I’m trying not to heap too many expectations on to it. I have been very upfront with everyone about it being an experiment, we don’t know what will happen so I don’t want to tell people it’s going to be this incredible thing. I guess in my mind’s eye I hope that we do get that synchronicity happening between the surfing and the music so the effect is kind of like watching a surf movie come to life. Just as an editor might sit in the edit suite trying to get that particular surfing manoeuvre to synchronise with an accent in the music, we’re using surfers who are also musicians and musicians who are also surfers so that they can anticipate what the other is likely to do next. The idea is that Shannon from the Band of Frequencies can be watching Dave Rastovich flying down the line on a wave and kind of know okay he’s about to do this enormous cutback so I’m going to play this wailing lead note. That’s the hope and it may happen a handful of times or the whole thing might start to gel but we won’t know until we do it.

Are there any dress rehearsals?
It’s kind of hard to do because you can’t really clear the water, it’s not like any other art form where you can just have a private performance space and practice. You can’t choreograph it because the ocean and every wave is different. Dave, Shannon and I have had a few meetings we’ve talked about putting a generator, a couple of amps and a drum kit on the back of a ute and driving down to Broken Head and just giving it a go. We may well do that if we can pull it off but it would be a very different thing on the day. Burleigh has this unique geography that kind of lends itself to this, I think whatever we did to prepare it’s just going to be an exploration and a discovery on the day.

Did it take much convincing to get Band of Frequencies and Kim Churchill involved?
Not really. I’ve known Shannon and OJ from Band of Frequencies for quite a while and they’re really keen surfers. I’ve been watching them exploring the synergies between surfing and music too so they were just a natural choice. I knew they’d get it straight away and as soon as I had explained the concept to them they said that they’re in. I think we were really lucky to get Kim Churchill on the accent. He has kind of become pretty big news, even just since we booked him, he was in Triple J Hottest 100 and has this really successful national tour happening so I think we were really lucky to get him when we did. Again, he’s a surfer and he was pretty stoked to be involved.

Are there any other events at Bleach* Festival that you’re personally looking forward to?
There are heaps! It’s hard to almost narrow it down. There’s a local crew who have all had our own projects in development in parallel and a lot of us have been part of these young professional development workshops that the Arts and culture unit of council have been running and then a mentorship program that sort of ran off the back of that. We’re really fortunate on the Gold Coast at the moment that there is all of this nurturing going on for people like myself. We’re being mentored and encouraged along the track. People like THE FARM, who are doing a performance called TIDE in Currumbin Estuary. From one of these weekend workshops and hearing him explain his concept to seeing it as part of the festival is really exciting and Kate McDonald is doing The Inaugural Annual Dance Affair and she’s been through that same process to. We’ve got this great dynamic on the Gold Coast now where there is all of this development for arts and culture going on and we have this annual showcase in Bleach* where we get to try out our ideas. It’s pretty ideal. Because I’m a Currumbin local all the stuff that happens around here with Bleach* Boulevard and The Toolona Street Festival with Karl S Williams who is really great local talent. Having Clare Bowditch come to town is also pretty awesome. I could go through the whole program.

What inspires you creatively?
Largely the ocean. I find there’s nothing like getting in the ocean of a morning and coming to work. I always say when you’ve been surfing, for the rest of the day you have salt water dripping out your sinuses, it’s just this weird thing that happens when you spend a lot of time in the water and so if I am at my computer and I’ve got salt water dripping out my sinuses I feel like I’m in a really good space to channel the energy of the ocean into my work. Being in an environment like this overlooking Currumbin Creek, we’ve got a standup paddleboard rack in the office so you can go for a paddle at lunch time. It’s always been the ocean. At the moment it feels like a really inspiring time on the Gold Coast, we’re part of this moment in time for the city as it grows and evolves and to be part of that is really inspiring too.

What are the perks of being a surf writer?
I’ve been really fortunate to do a lot of amazing travel and to blur the line between work and play. Which seems quite miraculous sometimes since I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne. I discovered surfing as a kid and I remember thinking how on earth could I keep this going living so far from the beach but I found a way. I get to travel and in 2011 I was able to take my family around Australia for eight months and write a book about it. I had done a lot of international travel and once kids came along I tried to limit the amount of time I spent away and that round Australia trip was an exercise in trying to take the family on the road with me. To be able to have an idea, a bit like (m)Ocean, and put it into action and see it come to fruition is pretty amazing. I can also justify going for a surf as field research.

You have what most surfers would call the best job in the world, how did it all begin for you?
It’s funny, I visit schools sometimes and the surf writing thing, particularly on the coast, is a good way of getting reluctant readers reading. I really like the idea of getting kids turned on to the power of story and reading and writing. It started for me in my HSC year 12 English exam. I was on a full maths and science path through high school and I was going to study forestry or agricultural science. In my English exam there was a general essay topic, early morning experiences and as a surfer I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I wrote this surf rave about getting up in the morning, checking the surf and going for a surf and at the time I thought it was probably too stream of consciousness and perhaps it’s not what you’re supposed to do in this high-pressure exam environment when your whole academic future is on the line but I got my results back and got 100% for English. While I’d done well in maths and science and could have gone on to study what I had selected, there was something about that English mark that seemed unignorable. It just felt like I had to follow that so I put in a change of preference and studied journalism and did a cadetship at the old Melbourne Sun. After a couple of years Tracks Magazine advertised for a associate editor and I got that job and then long story short, I got poached by the opposition to work for Surfing Life so I moved up here and have been here ever since.

You’ve surfed some of the best breaks in the world, any favourites?
Lots, and too many to list! I have a really favourite spot in Indonesia around the Mentawi Islands, a place called lances right in front of a little village called Katiet, it feels like the middle of nowhere. It’s an incredible wave and to see the way surfing culture has taken root there is pretty awesome. Local kids are out surfing and it’s given rise to accommodation, businesses and local opportunities. Currumbin Alley is my favourite local spot and Angourie on the north coast of New South Wales is probably my favourite wave on the east coast.

Any secret local spots you can divulge?
There aren’t too many secrets left on the Gold Coast, it’s so well trodden. I guess these days I tend to sneak around to find a little beach break somewhere rather than joining the crowds on the points. I feel like you’ve really got to be in the right headspace to tackle the points when they are busy and I guess a lot of times for me it’s about bobbing around out in the ocean somewhere where the waves maybe aren’t as perfect but you have a bit of space.

Surfers often talk about that feeling you get when you’re riding a wave as an almost spiritual experience, how would you describe it?
I’m a great believe in that. I’ve heard it described as a kind of active meditation and I reckon that’s really true because the point of meditation is to try and still the conscious mind, you can sit on a cushion and focus on your breath and try and clear your mind or you can go surfing. There is something about the complexity of that activity that forces you to banish all conscious thought because you’ve got to be completely present in the moment to be able to read what the wave is doing. I love that about surfing. They say that it’s impossible to be riding a wave and thinking about the telephone bill you haven’t paid or the chores that are waiting for you at home because you have to be completely present in the moment. So whatever is going on for you in your life, it’s just this really reliable thing you can come back to. You just paddle out, catch a wave and instantly achieve that state of no mind that yogis practice for years to achieve.

You’ve already achieved some pretty amazing things in your career, what has been your proudest moment?
Having kids and a family is definitely the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. Being about to take the family round Australia and do that on the back of my writing is probably my proudest career achievement. To show the kids the country and for storytelling to be the means in which I was able to support that feels pretty amazing. I’m almost a bit incredulous in myself from this kid who grew up in Melbourne wondering how I was going to keep surfing to being able to travel the country with my family and be able to surf all of these amazing waves that I’ve wanted to get to all my life.

Do you have any advice for people who might be into surfing and want to make a career of it?
If someone is interested in writing I would say read veraciously, read widely, read really great writing and try and work out what it is about it that makes it great. As far as surfing goes, I guess being able to look beyond the performance and competitive aspect of it and be able to almost see it as a spiritual practice more akin to a yoga or martial arts allows you to enjoy your surfing life all throughout your life rather than having this performance peak sometime in your thirties and then feel like your powers are declining when you get older, which is the trajectory most professional surfers take. I think the ocean is kind of life made visible in that you get to experience the play of energy and the peaks and troughs that life throws at you and you learn to roll with it and flow with it. Take the good with the bad and learn to be adaptable and flexible and kind of humble in the face of a greater power. I think if you’re open to it, surfing and the ocean can be really rich in life lessons. It feels like the best teacher in the world, if you’re cocky it will slap you down, if you’re down and out it will lift you up. All throughout my life I’ve felt it’s dealt me what I’ve needed at different times in my life.

What’s next for Tim Baker?
I am trying to be increasingly idealistic with my work. A lot of times having a family you just get into provider mode and you get really pragmatic about what you need to do to put food on the table and pay the bills. I saw this cartoon the other day that really spoke to me, I can’t even remember where I saw it but it was a guy that was getting up on stage with a guitar and said to the crowd, ‘This song is about putting your dreams on hold and doing what ever it takes to pay the bills.’ Which no one has ever written a song about but it’s something that we can all get trapped in. I have been doing that a bit because you do have to keep generating income but at some point you go what about that thing that I really wanted to do, whether it was the round Australia trip or this m(Ocean) project. More and more I want to go for gold and shoot for those really ambitious, idealistic projects and try not to be scared off by fear of failure or the pressure of turning a buck.

How do you like to start your weekend?
With a surf, the Sydney Morning Herald and a coffee. If I can get in the water with the kids, loll around the house reading the paper and having a leisurely breakfast, it’s a pretty perfect start to the weekend.

Only a Gold Coast local would know … That Sunhouse Surf Shop & Cafe in Coolangatta is a hub of Gold Coast surf culture. They have heaps of vintage boards, a great little cafe, and a band set up permanently in the shop so anyone can come in and jam any time. They also have art exhibitions, band nights and even table tennis tournaments. It’s run by a bunch of switched on young guys just really making a go of creating a very community-focused hub, which I think is great. 

Perk up … The Salt Mill in Currumbin.
Relax … The banks at Currumbin Creek under the shade of a sprawling Fig Tree.
Indulge … The Fish House in Burleigh Heads.
Dine … Loren in Tugun.
Be inspired … Out in the ocean. This whole strip from the Valley to the Alley is really special.  


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