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WORLD EXCLUSIVE ANTHONY KIEDIS ON HIS LOVE OF SURFING
Interview and photos by Cory Scott.
When it comes to rock and roll stardom, it doesn’t come much bigger than Anthony Kiedis the lead singer of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, a true bona fide superstar whose accolades include seven Grammy Awards and having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Recently Anthony reunited his love of New Zealand and returned after a lengthy seven year hiatus. I was humbled to be asked to proudly show Anthony around an area that has a close place in my heart, Northland. Naturally, having never met the guy before and considering his status and the fact that this guy normally has paparazzi camped on his front lawn I had perceived a flamboyant outrageous rocker that had been portrayed by the mainstream media over the years. After ten days of living, eating, travelling, hanging and surfing together I experienced a man far from what I had expected. A man whom was deeply in touch with his health, his inner soul, one who was articulate, humble and appreciative of others around him, also a father with the deepest love and commitment to his son. During this time I also experienced a man whose inner self had been transformed once he found the love of surfing. The infectious excitement and sheer stoke on his face when pulling up to the waves or the subject of surfing arose could only be compared to that of a surf crazed grommet. To witness a man whom has experienced every pleasure the world can offer in his time to be taken over by the thrill of riding a wave, was something I wanted to know about. Much has been written about Anthony, the Chilli’s and his music over the years, that to delve into that subject would be a pointless exercise. Anthony has never opened up about his surfing in such a way and took time out to give me an insight into his life as a surfer in a world exclusive interview captured at the peaceful seaside village of Northlands Ahipara.
After everything you have seen, experienced, and through all your successes and fame, you only recently discovered the passion for surfing and it has you in its grasp, when did this come about?
Yeah it’s weird, I feel it was destined to be but it took so long to take. I tried it in 1990 and had absolutely zero aptitude, I couldn’t catch a wave, couldn’t paddle, and couldn’t even conceive what the ocean was trying to offer. It just didn’t click. And then I tried it about ten years later and same thing, I would get out there on this board and it was just one big hazy mystery, I could not gleam the concept of what it was to get into a wave. Eventually I moved to Malibu and this really cool Icelandic girl called Tota said, “Oh you have to go talk to my friend Takuji, he’s going to show you how to surf” and I was like, you know what I’ve tried it a bunch of times and it just doesn’t work for me, I’m not that guy! And she was persistent and said, “oh no, no, no, you gotta give it another try”. At the time we had these raging wild fires in Malibu and the whole of Southern California was kinda shut down and the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) was shut down and the waves were going off! Tak said, “come on down I’m going to show you how to surf”, and I was like, Oh but there’s fires, and he said, “just tell the authorities you live in the colony”. So I drove down and for five days straight he would paddle me out, and kinda push me into these rights. And something happened, something clicked, and I got that inexplicable feeling of energy coming from a long way away and offering itself to you. There is something kind of hard to explain about what happens when you get on a wave, you could be tired with zero energy, and you ride that wave and by the time the wave is finished you are not tired and you have tonnes of energy left. I couldn’t paddle to save my life, I’d ride a wave and then I’d paddle back like I had a motor on me. Something happens when all of that wave energy travels from the southern ocean all the way up to the northern pacific, it just releases, it’s like this invisible bouquet of energy that, I don’t know, gets you high! So that was it for me, I was sold and I didn’t put down the board, I started doing it every day. About a month into it I was at a party and I heard these people talking from the opposite side of the house and I looked over at them and thought, those people are talking about surfing I can tell by the tone of their voice, and I pushed my way through this crowded house and got to the other side and it was this red headed freak who was smiling so big, and I asked, are you guys talking about surfing?’ and his energy lifted and he proclaimed, ‘yeah I just learnt to surf last month, and I was out Zuma today and I caught these waves’. Immediately I said I learnt to surf last month as well, let’s go surf tomorrow, so that was my first experience with making a new surf friend and since then all of my social friendships have become based on surfing. Surfing turns out to be this great connective apparatus for me making new friends that care about similar things, and I’ve been surfing with that guy ever since. His name is Sage Vaughn and he’s a painter and he basically learnt to surf the same day I did and now all we do is make art and go surf!
I’m interested, you spoke of hearing this ‘Tone’, I have been around surfing most of my life, so I am obviously oblivious to what outsiders sense from surfers. How do you explain this tone that we surfers carry?
It’s a joy, it’s sort of this buzz and it’s also a very unique body language, you see people who are making these motions with their hands, I never knew there was a sign language to surfing, but everybody has it, everybody I’ve ever spoken to about waves sits there and they start curling their hands up and their other hand becomes this other kinda flowing symbol of either the surfboard itself or another part of the ocean. Once you’ve been on a wave or in a wave you just wanna express that with your hands, you wanna express that with your voice and it’s a language that only surfers seem to speak. Like I could do that same thing to a person that I hang out with that has never surfed, and zero computation, like what is this person talking about or what are they doing? They don’t really care, why should they? They don’t know! I never cared. My best mate Flea started surfing probably ten years before I did and he used to have that surf glow, and he would try and tell me, yeah I got up at five in the morning and went surfing, and I was like, “are you serious, what are you talking about?’ And now I’m the guy getting him up at five in the morning, and he’s like, “man just let me sleep a little bit.” AndI’m like, oh no I’m gone. You can’t really give it to someone that hasn’t surfed, but you can certainly share it with someone that does surf. People that don’t surf they don’t wanna hear about it, they’re like, doesn’t mean anything. I feel fortunate that I didn’t start surfing until I was 45 I think, ’cause I feel like I would have never got anything done in my life had I started surfing at a normal age of ten or whenever people start surfing. For me it was perfect, like the universe knew what it was doing, not letting me get into surfing till I’d already written enough music so that it made sense for me to start surfing, cause I can see myself making this surfing my whole thing, and I wouldn’t have had time to write songs.
Surfing is such an addictive force, and one which tends to consume the lives of most that get a grasp of it, how do you manage the addiction as a performing artist and keeping a balance between work and play?
Poorly! But on both accounts, when I go on tour I experience physical and mental anguish when I miss a swell. I was in Germany twice over the last two summers and both times California got its best swell of the year. So I’m in Dusseldorf or Frankfurt or Bielefeld or some crazy little German town, getting ready to do something beautiful, play music to people that care, and here I am on the computer looking at forecasts, going, it’s gonna be 10 feet at my home break and I won’t be there, and then I have to get all of the texts and emails from all my friends rubbing it in. So it’s very hard to manage, missing the swells hurts more than missing the work, cause work is very demanding and I have kind of 60 people depending on me for our touring operation and I’m loyal and beholden to making that happen. But it’s more about when I’m at home for periods of time, that I have to make sure that I have enough energy left over to write music and show up to rehearsals and do all that stuff. It’s a good balance right now, I can’t complain, except for missing swells!
After watching you this week, as you said it reminds me of when I was young having first discovered surfing, you are like a crazed frothing grommet, can you explain what surfing means to you and can it be compared at all to performing in front of a packed house?
Ha,ha,ha,ha, it’s so different from performing in anything. For me, surfing has nothing to do with performance, but in terms of the rush I get, it’s different you know. I’ve been playing music for a very long time, since 1983 and for sure that rush of playing music for a live audience is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever known! The very first show we ever played was such a stupid high, that we came back and did it again the next week, because we just had to have that feeling again. So that’s an addictive high, surfing is an addictive high, and both are quite wonderful because they don’t require putting anything in your body. The difference is one is kind of adulation from an admiring body of people and one is completely communicating with nature. Eventually you run the risk with performing for an audience that you need that audience to have that feeling, with surfing you don’t need an audience, you don’t need anything other than nature and nature will always be there. The audience may not always be there! Audiences can be fickle, they come and go. My band has been very fortunate that generation after generation of kids has followed us along the way, but with surfing you’re not dependent on the times – or shall I say the musical taste of the times. You don’t need an audience, just some wind, far away. So I think adulation can be unhealthy at times because if you get addicted to that adulation of other human beings it can twist you and shape you to do things that you really shouldn’t be doing and this surfing buzz is nothing like that! It doesn’t speak to your ego, an audience can speak to your ego, but the ocean will not speak to your ego in my experience. Like I said when I’m surfing I don’t feel like it’s a performance, I feel like it’s just being at one with my favourite thing in the world, which is nature. So there’s a big difference.
What about the risk element involved in surfing, does that ever enter into your mind that it could affect your performance on stage?
Before two days ago, no! I know that surfing involves getting hurt because I get hurt all the time, but I also have this kind of ignorance where I refuse to believe that I could ever get hurt bad enough so that I couldn’t do my job, because I never really have. You know I’ve been stitched up, had broken fingers and things like that which don’t really stop you doing your job as a singer. But then two days ago after being dragged over the rocks at Shippies, I realised WOW, I’m about to start a month long tour of New Zealand, Australia, and Africa, places where I really want to do my very best job as a musician, and I can barely walk after that injury. So I think next time if I was going to plan a surf trip, before a tour, it might be more of a beach break region and one where I couldn’t break my neck. Now I would think about it, before two days ago I had never thought about it, and now I kinda have to consider that I can’t surf heavy waves, before a tour.
So that alone is a learning process only you can go through for yourself?
Yeah, yeah, that was weird, you know I’ve gotten cuts from fins and all kinds of weird or odd little injuries, but it just seems like a small price to pay for surfing. But getting my pubic bone separated by a giant rock was a whole new level of pain and discomfort that could really mess up the first couple of shows on the tour. I literally got rolled over the rocks and probably did ten flips bouncing off the rocks which were covered in mussels. Like the worst kind of car crash over reef that you could imagine, and for a moment there I wasn’t even going to take my board, as I stood up and realised that my pubic patch was full of blood and my suit was torn, my head was bleeding, and I was like – I don’t even wanna see that surfboard again. I’m gonna walk away, whoever wants that board can rescue it off the beach someday, and then I got five steps away and looked back and realised the board wasn’t that badly damaged and ran down and got my board. I was thinking I don’t care if I ever surf again, went to the hospital, got the X-rays and then a thought came over me, when I realised that it’s really gonna suck if tomorrows a great glassy day. So yeah, it took me about three hours to start regretting that I couldn’t surf the next day. It’s like anything, you get in a fight with ya girl and you’re like “I’m over this girl, gotta move on” and then three hours later your like “ahhh maybe we’ll reconcile, haha”.
Being at one with the environment as a surfer, does that inspire any music?
It does, it totally does! But I don’t think it’s ever inspired music that’s made it to tape, but that’s ok. On a good day when I paddle out and it’s just magic out there, I will always start singing whatever comes to my head. The very first day of our trip here when we went to that magical spot on the East Coast, when I got out there I just started singing the coolest little song that popped into my head out of nowhere. I think for about 30 minutes I sung away, and thought this would actually be a really good song, but by the time I paddled in I completely forgot it, but that’s ok, it was meant for that moment and that happens to me a lot when I paddle out on a sunny day and I’m catching waves, I have to sing! I’m sure other people can relate to that. But I think, like you said the frothing grommet, surfing keeps your energy clean and strong and that will always translate into the art that you make and just as a human being. It might not be a literal influence, or a literal inspiration, I’m not inspired to go home and write songs about waves or things like that, it just fills your heart with a positive feeling which will always translate to working hard or wanting to do your best at whatever you do. And to me that’s music. I’m not quite ready to go down the track of that Beach Boys theme.
You were last in New Zealand around seven years ago, you didn’t surf back then, but on this trip you have taken in the Far North, surfed many different spots and taken in the famous scenic beauty this region is renowned for. Now have the waves, the people and the experience in general been?
Incredible! You know you always hear about this Aloha spirit coming out of Hawaii, which sometimes you get and sometimes you don’t when you’re in Hawaii. It’s a great concept and I think Aloha should be a worldwide, I love the idea of Aloha and its only my perspective and my experience and I don’t claim to have ever been a native islander but I think people should accept people from other places with Aloha, wherever it is, whether it is Iceland, Finland or Russia, the Caribbean or Hawaii. I love that concept of you’re visiting so you’re welcome and we’ll show you the place. You know I feel so happy to show people around when they come to California; I wanna share the beauty of California and coming to New Zealand I feel like that aloha spirit is as strong as I’ve ever felt it. Everybody that we’ve met on this trip, they couldn’t be more generous or thoughtful or patient, bringing food over every night, showing us the best spots to catch the food and showing us the best spots for waves. Nobody’s tripping and been possessive, like this is my place you better watch out, you know. It’s been the opposite, and that’s pretty amazing, especially in this era that we are living in. And for the Maori culture to be so recognised and strong but still very embracing, and like I said these are just my experiences. People of all races in New Zealand have been wildly generous with their time and their local knowledge.
During your stay you met many personal challenges in the surfing sense, you surfed in front of rocks for the first time, also rode what you described as the biggest wave you have taken off on and unbeknown to you at the time also surfed at the mouth of a shark infested harbour. Does all this provide a sense of achievement or even excitement?
It’s all excitement, the only thing that was a painful challenge was the rocks and getting washed over those twice. Once I surfed into the rocks and the other I was trying to get out and was annihilated by a set wave which was really horrifying. Getting in and out of the water was tough at that spot. As for the shark infested harbour mouth. I’m glad that I didn’t really know about it until afterwards. I love sharks with all my heart and I support them and protect them and recognise that we should stop taking any sharks out of the ocean at all, they keep the entire world spinning as far as I’m concerned, so I have a pretty good relationship with sharks but also a healthy respect. When I was – I think 11 years old – someone gave me a novel by Peter Benchley called ‘Jaws’ well before the movie came out. I read it and it messed with me really bad and probably for the next ten years even getting in swimming pools was disconcerting. But now, surfing is a weird thing, it makes you less fearful of everything, it builds your strength to be comfortable in nature even when there are these incredibly powerful animals around you. I certainly don’t ever wanna get bitten, I’m a father and I want to be an able footed father for a long time to come, but the way I see it the odds are really in your favour. That’s the other thing if there’s good waves, nobody wants to get out of the water. I never understood that before, I used to hear about people scoring good waves and seeing a shark and staying in the water and I was like, are you kidding? And now I have the thought, oh well if it’s not a big one I guess we can stay out.
I will never forget that big left I got, it’s emblazoned in my memory. Going down that face and bottom turning as hard as I could at that speed and had no idea what form that wave was going to take after it broke, I just didn’t know. I dropped in and it just walled up in front of me, and I’ll never forget that wave, ever!
So with that one wave injecting such a rush of thrill and achievement, is chasing bigger waves something you want to pursue to keep that thrill alive?
I don’t mind going bigger, but like I said I’m a dad and I never want to put myself in a position where I can’t be a dad. So that’s kind of my barometer, I like big waves, I also like small waves. I love small waves, I adore them. I would love to go big, small, big, small, ’cause it’s two totally different things. The first day we surfed here, those little waves were so gorgeous and perfect and fun, and you can do your turns or whatever you want to do. Big waves are like, can I make this wave? Can I stay alive on this wave? So, I really adore both and I’ve never had an overwhelming fear of big waves considering my level of ability and how late in life I started surfing, they just seem fun and great, but I would never want to put myself in a position of not coming up because I appreciate being a father too much! But if I’m there and I trust the people I’m with and I think I can survive this, then yeah I’ll go for it. The other thing is I’m not the guy that trains all day, and prepares myself to actually handle big waves, my idea of big waves are those the size of one or two storey house, once they get to the three to four stories, forget it!
On your first day here over on the East Coast I witnessed you take a walk along the beach and pick up any rubbish that you could find, I would like to use you as an example to show to our people that if Anthony Kiedis can go to the effort and care for an environment, then it should be good enough for others to follow suit, and also from the bottom of my heart, thank you!
Honestly I don’t do that for anybody else but myself, it’s my way of showing respect to something that I admire so much and definitely not about getting any sort of accolades. My son and I do that and it’s just for us to do our bit. Dropping or ignoring rubbish is a bad habit to get into and it’s an easy habit to change and once you start it becomes a new habit, it’s just an ever so slight adjustment in the mind-set. Most people just aren’t brought up that way and it takes someone to say ‘hey it’s a good idea to keep it clean’.
From here you continue on tour do the surfboards travel with you?
They will, we have a nice three or four day break in Australia where my friends Mushegain and Flea will hopefully get out provided there’s swell, which it seems there might be as it seems the Southern Ocean is awake in this off season, so yeah we’ll keep surfing. In South Africa I have a three day window, which normally I would try and got get a little surf, but at the same time I’m with my boy, so I feel like it’s my duty to show him some of the wildlife there so we will probably take a little safari during that time off there. Maybe I’ll go for a dawny one morning if there’s time. But I really have to keep my eye on the prize when touring, which is being fresh and energised for the show, more than anything else. I’ve had friends surf through a wedding and I think I could do that, but I wouldn’t surf through a show. We had two shows recently in LA and for the first show we had swell and I got up at 5AM and did a dawny and I tried to go home and nap for a bit, but I was so excited about doing the show that I couldn’t nap and I was tired for that first show. I did a good show but I was tired, I didn’t have everything in my tank that I should have. The next day there was still swell but I didn’t get up and go surf and that night my show was better, so I realised that surfing on a show day is not the best idea. As much as I love the feeling of surfing. I hate the feeling of not doing my best at a show. And when I have a bad feeling it takes a long time to go away and you have to go and do a good show to get that feeling of a not so good show go away.
After 30 years of being one of the greatest acts in music on this planet, this professionalism and desire to perform at your best is inspiring, is that something unique to this band or do others hold similar values?
Well for me I give it 100% and every show is a new buzz. As far as other bands I have no idea, you’d have to ask them, I just don’t know. It’s always been the nature of our beast. Flea and I have been at this together for so long and he and I have a very kind of brotherly relationship. It’s not even a competition anymore, when we were kids it was a competition, like who could be the greatest at anything and everything, like brothers. And over the years it’s become more like, I’m gonna push you to become your greatest and you’re gonna push me to be mine, and it transforms from this brotherly competitive thing more to this friendly competitive thing where we sup-port each other and try to pull each other into the next level. That’s part of the chemistry that has kept us alive and caring as much as we do almost 30 years on.
What do the next 30 years hold in store, after touring has stopped?
I don’t foresee myself stopping touring or performing anytime soon. The thing about surfing is a feel like it gives me a definite and positive path for the next 30 years. I know for sure at the bottom of my heart that I want to surf for the next 30 years, and that’s a good thing. It’s gonna force me to stay mentally and physically healthy and strong to be able to do that, but I want to be that old geezer getting up and getting his wave every day, and I know for sure that I wanna surf until the day I die – that’s the goal!
Well I wish you all the best, good luck for the tour and like you say, may those waves pump for you for the rest of your life.
Thank you man, it’s been a pleasure.