Matt Warshaw is a former pro surfer from the Zephyr team of Dog Town & Z Boys fame, Editor of Surfer Magazine 1984-90, the author of several books including The History of Surfing, Above The Roar and Photo/Stoner and currently the man behind the greatest website in our sport (and arguably, up there with any website in any sport), The Encyclopedia of Surfing.
We caught up with Matt in his Seattle home during April’s full moon to consider surf tinged things past, present and future.
You were a pro surfer in Southern California many moons ago, but safe to say a fairly geeky one?
I grew up in the South Bay region of LA and competed with a bit of success, I got to 43 in the world. But I was the guy under the umbrella reading a book between heats, I liked school, I got good grades. When I was 21 or 22 I could already see that my surfing would only get me so far. I quickly realised that there were so few writers at that time, so I really quickly got a job at Surfer Mag and dug my claws into that. With that job I could still surf, so that was my hustle, not to have to get a 9-5.
Tell us how EoS works…
We made a decision two years ago to become a subscription only, 3 bucks/month site. I wanted the price to be so low that it’s painless, so that it didn’t exclude anyone. When the site went up I never wanted to have any advertising, we purposely designed it to not be able to serve ads, to be a purely viewer supported thing. And that’s been tough.
We almost went off the cliff a couple years ago, I had a big Save EoS fundraiser which brought in a lot of money, but it also brought in a lot of people who said, ‘Under no circumstance can this thing be allowed to go under.’ We had people who gave substantial amounts, a thousand, five thousand bucks, and called and said ‘There’s more where that came from, if you ever need it’.
We needed 30k, and we got 60. It was enough to let me know that it can carry on as a small niche thing to support a couple of people.
Demand must be sky high at the moment…?
A few weeks back when this Corona all kicked in, with staying home, unemployment, the economic downturn, I was prepared for there to be a lot of unsubscribes. But I didn’t want to lose anybody, it didn’t seem fair, so I said if anybody can’t afford it, I’ll carry it. I’m happy to let them have a free sub for a while.
I put that in the Sunday Joint (EoS newsletter) a few weeks ago, and just a single person took me up. But we got like ten subs, then another 12 the next week, we’re getting a bump that I really didn’t foresee. I guess there’s not a lot else to do; plus it’s a comfort site, familiar people and places. Since we can’t surf, it’s nice to think about what it was like when we could, the site helps people remember that.
What content works, in terms of hits?
I quit tracking which pages are doing well a while ago, I didn’t want to be lead by that, chasing what gets clicks. It’s all valuable, some topics may be popular, some things won’t get much traffic, but need to be there if I want to believe in the site as being comprehensive. I mean, it still has huge holes in it. But people seem to respond when I’m not expecting. A few weeks ago I put up an old newsreel of the Severn Bore, from ’67 I think. It was just a great little mood piece, no famous surfers, a guy with a cigarette in his mouth and a beavertail, walking down with muddy feet to surf this bizarre wave in England, and it got a really big response.
As newsletters go, The Sunday Joint, rather than most websites’ ‘This is the crap we need you to click on’, is more about stuff you’re actually into; a cult newsletter, if such a thing existed…
It’s my connection to people, really. The Joint’s been longer, more serious, and getting a really good response, there’s a bit of a community thing happening with EoS and The Joint and readers, a bit different from what’s happening at Surfline, BeachGrit or Inertia. Instead of the Joint being the byproduct of a research site, an archive, it’s almost like in the last year or so, the site has become the supporting thing for The Joint. It’s completely flipped, to where it’s like now I’m producing a weekly online zine, which happens to have this huge website that nicely supports it.
“I’ve got a really long list of complaints about the WSL and an equally long list of fixes, which to my mind are really obvious”
What else do read in surfing? Do you watch the event broadcasts?
I love watching CT events, so glad that has evolved the way it has. I’ve got a really long list of complaints about the WSL and an equally long list of fixes, which to my mind are really obvious. The whole thing is really frustrating in a conceptual sense, but streaming a contest so we can all watch it at the same time, is the greatest thing that has ever happened to competitive surfing.
I usually have the volume off and have something else going, but to see all the misfires, the waves that are just 4’s, the pros make really smart small decisions or really dumb small decisions, to follow along the way you follow a baseball match… the more you know about it, the more interesting it is to watch.
Any clip, anything curated, I don’t have any interest in in anymore. But when BeachGrit opens up a comments thread during events, that’s really enjoyable, and we’re all throwing remarks out on to the thread, it’s like sitting in a bar yelling, trying to get off the funny line, get upvoted.
All the people bashing Joey Turpel & Martin Potter – me among them – it’s easy to bash but what a hard job that must be for hours and hours at a time talking about nothing, basically. But that said, they’re clearly not doing the most fundamental homeworky things… but I don’t want to get into that.
“I do love BeachGrit’s Derek Rielly and Charlie Smith… There’s not a huge amount of range, but I’ll read almost anything they write, coz they’re just so good at putting words together”
So it’s muted Pottz & Turps or The Grit?
I don’t check in much with other sites, I do love Derek Reilly and Charlie Smith, they’re both, in their own way, really talented writers. There’s not a huge amount of range, but you have to judge a writer by what they’re trying to do. I do think maybe the tone has been really off since the virus has been around, but hey it’s a satire site. I’ve already got in trouble with them coz I got so pissed off with how many shark stories they’re running. But I’ll read almost anything they write, coz they’re just so good at putting words together.
These are uncertain, unprecedented times, but where does surfing’s preeminent historian see things going in the near future?
I don’t want to sound flippant, or making light of all the things to do with the current situation, a million dead or whatever the number is, but just looking at our surfing world, well it wouldn’t be a bad thing if all of the wavepool projects around the world crater.
I mean, surfing is so good, without any kind of support. It doesn’t need to be pulled in any direction, augmented, fixed or tweaked. All you really need is a board, and enough time to do it. Those things by themselves are hard, finding a good board, man, that’s a job in itself.
“If all those wave pools were filled back in, if the WSL went out of business, it wouldn’t bother me. That’s not being nostalgic, it’s just seeing the sport in its natural state”
Then setting up a life where you can go out and do it. The struggle of how to put just those small number of components together is more than enough. Trying to read weather, it’s like chess, an infinite number of outcomes. Fifty years into my surf life, I’m still working on that.
But there’s a great strength in that, that it isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be perfect, everyday, you’re not supposed to buy perfect surf… It works fine when the good moments are rare, elusive.
The things you have when you do score, are hard won and I think it should be that way, that’s what sets it apart. So if we came out and all those pools were filled back in, even if the WSL went out of business, it wouldn’t bother me. To me, that’s not being nostalgic, it’s just seeing the sport in its natural state.
Surfing is rarely as good as you want it to be, and trying to make it everything you want it to be as often as you can, that’s plenty. The elements we inherited as surfers, being in an environment that’s incredible, plus all the mindfucks of just trying to get a board that works, and maybe hardest of all, finding the time. Putting that together, you’ve got something that’ll last you forever, a life’s work. That’s enough to make me think that this is the most perfect waste of time, ever.
Wanna know why Matt rates post war Malibu and early 70’s Queensland as his favourite surfing periods? Read Warshaw’s Golden Years
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