In the surfing world, Tom Curren is nothing short of a legend. The son of famed big-wave rider and board shaper Pat Curren, Tom grew up in and around Santa Barbara’s waters. For many reasons, he seemed destined to succeed. The ocean was his backyard; his father was his own private teacher. But after scoring three world championship titles—and a record-setting 33 additional championship wins — Curren has carved out a legacy that’s as much about destiny as it is about raw talent, drive, and heart. Ask his friends, and they’ll tell you the same. “Curren’s reputation as one of the greatest surfers in history is supported by his accomplishments as a competitor,” said surf writer Matt Warshaw. “But most surfers would define Curren as an artist first, and then as a world champion.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Curren would dabble in music. Even during his time on the professional circuit, he was adamant about playing, and helped form bands like Plankton and Skipping Urchins. After he left the competition ring in the mid 1990s, he also joined Jackson Browne’s touring band as a backing guitarist. This month, Curren released Summerland Road, a sweet and succinct four-song EP that doubles as his solo debut. (A full-length album is already slated for early next year.) Recorded with producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews, John Mayer), Summerland Road is a not-so-far cry from what we’ve come to expect from the “surf music” community. The songs are breezy, tinged with tropicalia, and largely guitar-driven. Still, Curren’s distinctive voice and adept playing style rise above the clichés, placing him alongside contemporaries (and friends) like Donavon Frankenreiter and Jack Johnson. This Friday, Curren and his band plug in at Muddy Waters Café for a show in support of Summerland Road. Below, we catch up with the famously reclusive songwriter to discuss surfing, music, and future plans.
What prompted you to head into the studio? Well, I had written a bunch of songs. A friend of mine helped me put them together along with another mutual friend who has been a huge part of this, as well. It was kind of just an opportunity that presented itself, and I thought it seemed worthwhile.
What is it about surfing that creates so much musical crossover? You know, I think it’s a luxury to be able to chase waves, and having that luxury kind of implies that you have the free space to pursue art. I also think travel has a lot to do with it. Like ’60s surf music — even though it has a specific sound and instrument, there’s pieces of rockabilly and Hawaiian music and Latin rhythms and Caribbean stuff [in there]. When you’re surfing, you’re traveling around, and you get to hear all these different styles of music. Surf guitar is really its own specific genre, but you can trace it to all kinds of things.
Do you find yourself thinking about songs while you’re on the water? Yeah, for sure. There’s a lot of time when you’re out there waiting for waves. During this process of compiling enough songs for an album, sometimes you have to look for that last little thing that has you stumped. It has to do with the meditative state of the ocean. It’s such a positive thing, and it nurtures everything in a way. Of course it’s different if you’re at Rincon in a combat zone. [Laughs.]
Do you prefer writing and recording to gigging? It’s kind of funny, you know. You work on these songs over and over and over, then you go record it and you play the songs over and over and over, then you find a band. … It’s a weird thing. The other side of that, though, is that once you do all those practices, it really starts to sound like music. And now, with the band, it’s really the best part of it. We’ve got all the parts running, and it’s really cool. It’s really rewarding to be all together in a band and be on point in that regard.
Tom Curren plays Muddy Waters Café (508 E. Haley St.) with opener Seth Pettersen this Friday, November 2, at 8 p.m. Call 966-9328 for info.