Tim Baker: (M)Ocean at Burleigh Heads
Swellnet: How is (M)Ocean pronounced?
Tim Baker: It’s deliberately ambiguous - either motion or emotion - to reflect how we’ll explore the way surfing makes us feel; the emotions this motion in the ocean inspires. I tend to say emotion myself, but I’m a bit of an old hippy at heart.
(M)Ocean is part of the Bleach festival: what’s your role there and what past projects have you been involved in?
I guess I’m director but I have a really great and experienced team around me from Bleach who are used to producing big ambitious outdoor events, like Opera on the Beach at Greenmount last year.
It’s part of the Bleach at Burleigh event which has run for the past couple of years, staging big outdoor concerts with the likes of Ash Grunwald and Band of Frequencies previously. I’ve been involved in various projects each year of Bleach since it started in 2012 - they asked me to adapt a children’s book I wrote with photographer Ted Grambeau, called The Surfer and the Mermaid, into a children’s play in conjunction with Arts Centre Gold Coast, and that was an awesome experience, and it had two sold out two weeks runs here and a two week run at the Bondi Pavilion in Sydney with the Rock Surfers theatre company.
The following year Bleach asked me to come up with a concept for a guided coastal walk and so I ended up writing and presenting the Longest Wave, which referenced the wave Damon Harvey rode in 2002 from Snapper to North Kirra - probably the longest wave ever ridden in Australia - and used that as a device to tell stories from along that storied stretch of coast. Last year I presented an exhibition at Surfworld Gold Coast called Century of Surf, based on the book I wrote of the same name.
Can you provide a short description of how (M)Ocean will work?
We’ll have a band and stage set up on the point with the music directed out over the lineup and a group of around 20 surfers riding an historic quiver of boards, from solid Hawaiian timber slabs to 16 foot hollow ply toothpicks, balsa malibu, okapis, right through to modern high performance foam and fibreglass and everything in between. Surfboard collector Carl Tanner has very kindly opened up his collection to us to use on the day, including Michael Peterson’s original board from Morning of the Earth - which is slightly terrifying!
The idea is to present the history and evolution of wave riding in Australia and bring it to life for people, set to a live music soundtrack, so people can appreciate how these various craft move through the water and how wave riding has evolved from straight lines to the beach, to cornering or angling, to climbing and dropping, arcing and carving, to flying into the air and sliding on finless craft.
The various lines surfers take on the wave will inform the musical soundtrack. The musicians are all surfers and most of the surfers are musicians so hopefully they can anticipate what the other is going to do next and the whole thing starts to synchronise, a bit like a surf movie come to life. But I emphasise that this an experiment and we won’t know what happens until we try.
Did you take inspiration from other projects - Andrew Kidman’s live work for example?
The initial spark probably came from surfing at Bells around 15 years ago at the end of the day’s competition at the Rip Curl Pro, when they had a band playing on the beach and the experience of surfing in that natural amphitheatre setting to live music at volume was so powerful I thought it would be great to create that experience as a performance piece. Lots of people have been playing around this space: the Morning of the Earth screenings with the soundtrack performed live; the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert tours the Glide and the Reef, performing to Jon Frank’s surfing imagery; and Andrew’s film Spirit of Akasha with a live sound track at the Sydney Festival. Back in the day Paul Witzig screened Evolution at Sydney Uni with Tamam Shud performing the soundtrack live in the orchestra pit.
I have thought for a while that the clear next step in exploring this synergy between surfing and music is to bring live surfing and live music together. It’s also been informed by odd little moments in surf history - Phyllis O’Donnell reckons she won Australia’s first world surfing title at Manly in 1964 against the favourite Linda Benson because of the really bouncy music they were playing over the PA and if you go back and look at the footage you can see her doing little spinners on her board and looking for all the world like she is dancing.
I read an interview with Jack Johnson once where he said something like “what are we doing as surfers as other than moving our bodies in a way that feels most pleasing to us and what is that if not dancing?” Or words to that effect. Tom Curren once said he wished surfers could command a fee to put on a performance like other performing artists rather than relying on sponsorship from surf companies, to be paid to present their art. I think the battle waged by people like Rabbit and Ian Cairns to have surfing taken seriously as a sport has largely been won and maybe the next step in that process is for surfing to be recognised as an art form.
Describe to the readers the setup. Which way will the stage face?
Burleigh’s really geographically ideal. The band will be set up on the flat section of the point near the shed, in front of rock break, oriented diagonally so that they are facing both the ocean and the grassy slope that extends up the headland. The crowd can sit on that grassy slope and look down at the band and the surf at the same time.
What musicians will be on stage?
The Band of Frequencies who have done a lot of surf movie soundtracks and are great at improvising and keen surfers themselves, good mates of Dave Rastovich, who often plays percussion with them too. Shannon Carroll their front man and OJ their bass player are more or less our musical directors, conceiving a soundtrack to suit the occasion, but it will be largely improvisational. There’ll be a series of guests like local surfer/musos Jamie Kasdaglis and hopefully Neal Purchase Jnr, Rusty Miller, a great Hawaiian surfer/musician Leah Dawson. Some are yet to be confirmed.
You say they’ll be improvising, will they be taking their cues from the surf on offer or the surfing action?
Both. Shannon and I have talked about the ocean as the conductor, so I imagine the band taking their cues from the rhythms of the ocean and swell in the moment initially and then responding to the surfing as it ramps up. I have a sense of the thing building gradually to a bit of a crescendo as the wave riding moves through the historic phases and grows more sophisticated and gymnastic. The surfers in turn will hopefully be responding to the music in subtle ways, that a symbiotic feedback loop starts to develop, but again we won’t know until we try.
I remember Owl Chapman telling a story about how he would meditate on the beach at Sunset until he had synchronised his heart beat to the rhythm of the ocean and then he could paddle out and go a whole session without getting his hair wet because he was in synch with the sea. That’s kind of what we’re shooting for.
The Burleigh locals haven’t always been the most welcoming, what’s the chances of hearing the band play the Rocky soundtrack during the gig?
Ha, ha. Maybe Eye of the Tiger. Nah the Burleigh locals have been super supportive. The first person I went to speak to about this was Peter Harris, who’s pretty much the mayor of Burleigh, and then the Burleigh Boardriders, and they have been awesome. We’ll involve a few of their best juniors in the event to give them a chance to display their talents. The event is also dedicated to the memory of a much loved Burleigh local and dear friend to many, Denis Callinan, who started SAND - Surfers Against Nature’s Destruction - and he was like a goodwill ambassador of Aloha out at the point. If he detected tension in the lineup he’d just start introducing the protagonists to each other and diffusing the situation. When he passed away a lot of the Burleigh Crew made it known that they wanted to honour Denis’s legacy and maintain a better vibe in the water, which has really come to pass. The Boardriders are much more about nurturing the next generation these days than being heavies out in the surf. Like any crowded lineup you still get your moments but the vibe is much mellower these days.
You're leaving yourself at the mercy of the Queensland elements. Will it be a potshot or have you aimed for a weather-friendly window?
Well, March on the Gold Coast you’d have to be very unlucky for it to be flat. There’s a cyclone bearing down on us as I speak. Too much surf might be our bigger concern. But it’s low tide at 3 pm when we start, with the tide coming in on Rock Break at Burleigh you’d have to be stiff for there to be no kind of wave to ride - in which case it will be an outdoor concert with an historic quiver of surfboards on exhibit! It’s a roll of the dice but hopefully the gods will smile on us. I was a bit inspired too by Rab’s original Kirra Pro’s where it was a three day event that took three days to run and he just rolled the dice on it. If you were going to be put off by those issues you’d never try but I figure it’s worth a crack.