Wheels and Waves festival is always a trip.
Existing as unlikely bedfellows for seven years now, this fusion of two wheel transport and wave riding attracts such a varied, interesting and vibrant crowd it’s as difficult to work out where to look as it is to place yourself amongst the bustling crowds. Set between the well-trodden Southern France surf trail and the winding roads of the Pyrenees, Wheels and Waves lives in the perfect destination to cater for a multi-sourced party of petrol heads, artists, musicians, skaters, mechanics, surfers and all their lifestyle crossovers. It’s one of those events where you’re sure you’ve missed something. You’re certain the place to be is just out of sight. And that’s why we keep coming back, we want to see it all, from the misty peaks of Jaizkibel to the midnight Biarritz burnouts, the wool-suited belly boarders and the leash-less logs, the big names and the newcomers. With this in mind, we set ourselves a simple objective. Find the most interesting folk we can.
Close to the beach, but tucked away near the furthest reaches the village, we’re drawn to a man studiously pouring over a half painted surfboard. The last few centimetres of a smouldering cigar looks right at home, protruding from a decades worth of facial hair that dangles down to the shortboard he’s working on.
Mike and his wife Courtenay have flown from their home in California to showcase their clothing brand. Mike was originally from Huntington Beach and grew up surfing, skating and playing in a punk band. He’s enjoyed a long and varied artistic career, which began airbrushing surfboards and went on to include stints painting sets for Disney film premieres and decorating mansions in Palm Springs.
Courtenay, who hails from Texas, had been working as a fashion photographer and DJing clubs in California when she first met Mike, 14 years ago. After spending some time in Italy, Mike had dabbled in designing surf-wear which mixed the sensibilities of Italian style with California culture, however, the more Mike dabbled, the more he figured he wanted to design something a little higher end. ‘We wanted to start a brand that kept what was cool about California and we wanted to make cool outfits for men who’ve been in punk rock bands, that are now in their 40’s and 50s.’ explained Courtenay. ‘They don’t want to look like little kids, but they don’t want to look like assholes either. These guys are in their 40’s, and they’re movers and shakers and important people, and there are no brands that are really trying to service that. Krammer and Stoudt is fancy shit, kind of expensive, all made in New York.’
The more we spoke to them, the more interesting their story became, so we decided to hit record and go right back to the beginning.
WL: What was it like growing up in the epicentre of the western surfing world?
M: Where I lived In Huntington we used to have the world championship in the 70’s. All the kids used to ride our bikes up to the pier and sit in the surf theatre that showed surf movies during the event. All our idols would be there, and they’d all sit in the very back of the cinema, drinking and smoking weed and we’d be sitting there saying ‘oh there’s so and so’. I grew up around guys like David Nuuhiwa- we used to see him pull up in this old antique Jaguar and in the winter he’d be wearing this big fur coat and he had this crazy hair with these big bell bottom jeans. That was the fashion I experienced from other human beings as a kid. There was this other guy called Greg Clemens, he was a really good surfer, and he used to drive down the main street really slow with the stereo speakers from his house in the back of his truck playing fucking loud, wearing a cowboy hat. He was just this weird drugged out dude- I grew up around a lot of characters, it was pretty neat.
WL: Where did you surf?
M: I surfed a place called Brookhurst Street in Huntington Beach, which was just south of the pier, and I used to surf with everyone from my high school. We’d go every morning before school and if it was good we didn’t go to school. If we went to school, we’d watch the flags all day to see if it was blowing offshore or if it was glassy, and if it was we’d split after lunch. It wasn’t like a cool thing to do, it was more like if you were a surfer the cops hassled you.
WL: And what were the people like you grew up surfing with?
M: Oh man, to me it seemed like it was a lot of kids who had problems. Lots of drug addicts and alcoholics. There were a few who weren’t but the good surfers were all hardcore druggies and partiers and way out there.
WL: And did you skate too?
M: Yeah, the first time I rode a skateboard I was probably six years old, it was this metal frame thing of with roller skate wheels in on it, and there’s this film somewhere on Super 8 of me going down this hill outside our house, toothless. Then I had the clay wheeled boards and I was around when it went to urethane wheels. We used to skate the river beds, and Tony Alva and some of those kids would be there. I didn’t really hang out with them or anything, but we were about the same age. They were just other kids, we all just kind of looked at each other and never said anything, we’d just try and do something radical and then just stand back, and then they’d try to do something radical.
WL: Where are the guys you grew up with now?
M: I’m still in touch with a good friend of mine from back then called Scott Waring and he’s doing good. His son is [QS grinder] Chris Waring. The guy that used to make my boards, that I rode for, he’s still around somewhere. But, one guy I know went crazy and he went to Vegas and the cops tasered him to death. A lot of the people I grew up with have died or committed suicide. It was a lot harder lifestyle, harder drugs.
WL: Do you think the sport attracted people who had underlying problems already, or do you think they got into the surf lifestyle and that’s what sent them down a bad route?
M: I think they had problems at home. In the 70’s divorce became this huge fad, everyone’s parents seemed to be getting divorced, my mum had gotten divorced and when I was 14 and I used to just take off on my bicycle and come home at night and I think a lot of kids were like that. They just didn’t like home life too much, they’d just go down the beach. Of course, some people had really cool parents who smoked weed and stuff, but that was a whole other crowd, I didn’t really mix with them.
WL: Was it difficult not to get into trouble, was it hard not to be partying all the time and get into drugs if that was the dominant culture?
M: I think so, the 70’s was a drug culture, like the 60’s was, there was a lot of stories about the drugs coming into Newport Beach on big yachts and being distributed in that area, where the wealthy people lived
WL: How did you avoid it?
M: I was pretty involved in it, it seemed normal to all of us, you know, just some people were crazier than others. The guys I hung out with were a lot crazier than me, it’s just my character or whatever, I was kind of more of a quiet guy.
WL: Have you been into art from a young age?
M: Yea, I used to kind of escape with the art, I took art every year in high school my teacher put my paintings in exhibitions and stuff. My step dad was Jewish, so I was Bar Mitzvahed when I was 13, and at my Bar Mitzvah I’d drawn pictures of the Bible and stuff and I had to give a little talk with my pictures and one of his relatives bought them and that was the first time I sold art.
WL: How did you get into painting surfboards for a living straight out of school?
M: There was a sign outside a shop in downtown Huntington Beach that had this airbrushed wave with a cloud and a sunset and I always used to look at it and think that’s so cool. My mum was working so hard, that’s one of the reasons, I was out and about so much as a kid because she was really stressed. She was a single mum, supporting me and my brother and my sister. But she bought me a little air compressor, and I used to go home after school every day and practice spray painting. I started doing boards in my garage at home and eventually, I got a job at a surf factory.
WL: And then after that, you started working at Disney, what happened there?
M: Well, they started cutting budgets, so the projects got less interesting, I think I’d just turned 40, and I thought if I stay here any longer I’m going to be a lifer, so I decided to get out.
WL: And what did you do after that?
M: I quit working for a while and was on unemployment, so I didn’t really work at all. I was living up in Burbank, I ran into someone who was building these big homes in Palm Springs and he said I want you to paint my house, so I spent two years doing all kinds of crazy stuff on the inside of this guy’s house, after that, I got a painting contract.
WL: How did you get from that onto starting the brand?
M: Courtenay was doing model test shoots, and one day she said ‘why don’t you bring some of your own clothes and style the guys’
C: He had all kinds of cool vintage shit. Afterwards, I told him that people do styling for a living and he said ‘you’re fucking kidding right?’ I said no I’m totally serious! Then he started saying things like ‘maybe I’ll learn how to sew and make myself a jacket.’ I was just like Mike you can draw and I know these people who run this clothing factory, so I made him do a whole book full of drawings and we took it to the factory, and they said we can start whenever you want. Later they took us to the textile show and showed us how to source the fabric.
We started with low-end surf wear, but he’s an artist so instantly his mind went straight to ‘I want to be fucking Gucci’, you know if I’m going to be a clothing designer I want to do something really fucking cool. And then it was just a matter of finding the balance between what’s authentic to him and his life experience and what’s appropriate for us to present, and that’s been an ever evolving process.
WL: Is seems there’s always that difficulty with artists who are designing clothes because you want to make art that expresses yourself but is also something someone wants to buy.
M: It’s really really tough to bridge that together, it’s probably the most difficult thing actually, and I feel like we’re still pretty tame. We want to make a brand that will attract the cool arty kind of weird dude from his clique, and then from the other clique over there and then eventually, he’ll bring his crew.
WL: What do you think about the changes that have occurred in surfing since the 60’s?
M: I’m going to sound like an old man
C: Don’t be too nasty.
M: I started surfing Pro contests when I was 19, I surfed a hand full of contests and I could sense some sort of commercial thing happening in the background because I had a couple of different sponsors.
WL: Do you think surf culture in California has lost something because it’s not as rough around the edges as it once was?
M: I don’t know, you used to be able to tell people’s style out in the water a lot more when people were riding single fins, and it took a different kind of body movement to turn them. I don’t really see style in surfing as much as I used to, it seems like it’s tricks. Thrusters seem like they don’t really carve as well to me, they just kind of pivot, I think when it’s harder to turn a board it brings more out of you, more spirit, more energy.
WL: I guess that’s why things like this have become so popular, people are getting back on single fins now and experiencing exactly that.
M: The vibe here takes back to high school, I like that.
C: Yea he’s been like a little kid the whole time here, you know, this is a really good feeling.