Brad Gerlach: The Coolest Guy in the Room | The quote machine’s unedited, full-length interview
No matter the party, Brad Gerlach is always the coolest guy in the room.
Sure, he surfs. In fact he was formerly ranked #1 in the world and finished 2nd on the ASP World Tour, before abruptly leaving the tour to explore his artistic side. He pioneered many big waves, winning $68K for a 68-foot ‘XXL Wave of the Winter’ in the process (gave half to his tow partner). Recognized as one of the most stylish surfers of all time both in and out of the water he’s had coverage both surfing nude and dressing eclectic. He’s started a clothing brand, a competitive surf format (National Surf League), and coaches and consults some of the world’s best young talent (Connor Coffin, +). But Gerr is more than just a one-dimensional surfer. His outside passions for music, art, fashion, and life have always kept him one step ahead and a rebellious grom at heart. When given the soapbox, his natural charisma could entertain even his more fierce rivals…
Note: This interview originally ran in LATER. magazine on real life pages. But due to space constraints we had to edit Ger down to a few choice quotes. Here is his talk in almost its entirety with too many pull quotes to even pull quote.
All photos by Mark McInnis.
Board Rap: What role does music play in your life these days?
Brad Gerlach: It’s my distraction. My art that takes me away from any sort of work. It’s interesting, because of my surfing fame I suppose, how I have a lot of people know about me, but don’t know my music. I haven’t released anything I’ve just been playing a long time. So I’ve been playing in a couple bands and I’ve been doing a lot of writing and my own stuff. I’m working right now on half a dozen songs that I can perform. It’s a two-piece, my friend and I, so we’re developing a sound that isn’t just folk, acoustic style of music. I like to write really beautiful melodies and then he likes to do more art noise and avant-garde stuff. Which I like as well because I don’t like it to be too straight forward yet I like an underlying beautiful melody. The long-winded answer is I’m really passionate about music and try to work on it everyday. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. I just want to play and perform a little bit. It’s like that saying, “If you build it they will come.” So once I throw it out there maybe people will say, ‘Hey you should play this thing.’ I wouldn’t be too excited about playing big venues or anything. Not now. I don’t care about the fame from music I just want to perform and put my songs out there. It’s pure fun for me and that’s all I care about. The music.
BR: At one point you were second in the world and just walked away to pursue the artistic side of surfing and other interests. Most surfers get on the tour and surf competitively their entire lives before retiring into obscurity where you’ve done countless different things. Does having passions outside of surfing allow you to keep that flame?
Ger: For sure. Yeah I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how Kelly does it. I don’t know how these guys stay on there going around the world. I was only 26 when I stopped and I was already burnt. Is this an exciting group? This sounds really fucked because it kinda passes judgment on the other guys I was competing with, but they had single-minded focus on the sport. I love those guys, but a bunch of them from way back are like my college buddies. Basically I wanted to go into the Andy Warhol world or really into the art world. I wanted to be around people. That person’s so weird, I wanna meet that person. Art was just such a draw for me and I did start playing music and I wanted to go that direction.
How did you get back into the surf world after music?
Back then though you could smoke in venues. I was in this band, started out looking good. It was tough because the other guys were…. It was hard because I didn’t really want to be in this thing. People were showing up late and I thought, “This sucks.” I was waiting around. With surfing I could just grab my board and go. One of the guys ended up quitting the band and I was standing on this crossroad, either get another drummer and keep going with this band or take this opportunity to go back into surfing. I was standing their teetering. I wasn’t feeling fit, not surfing that much. I was looking at playing venues full of smoke with lots of drinking. And I was thinking that’s a really hard road over there. Then I’d look at surfing and see sunshine and health and waking up earlier. It was this whole other thing. I thought, I need to go back in this direction. I’m gonna end up killing myself if I take the other direction. And that was 20 years ago. I remember seeing a photo almost like that (his big wave shot) of Peter Mel at Mavericks when towing was first starting. And I thought, ‘What the fuck? I would never do that. That looks so fucking scary forget about it.’ And then…. Haha. I was so serious when I looked at that photo. If I looked at that photo and someone told me, “That’s gonna be you in a couple years.” I’d say, “When did I decide to do that. Shit!” That was so scary and yet that moment right there (towing into the 68-ft Ride of the Year) was not scary for me. I was completely focused. In fact I was riding a new set of fins and I was kinda punching my board in there a bit more to see if the fins were holding. I was in such a confident space. I didn’t know that wave was behind me. It’s funny because Greg Long and Rusty were on the board where they took the photo and I kicked out of the wave and they said, ‘You don’t even want to know what was behind you.’ I’m all “Really? I thought I could have been a little bit deeper.’ They’re like, “No way!”
The photo above it I was 23 and I was pretty cocky and thinking, “I’m better than the rest of the field.” I just had ADD and the contest thing was really tough for me. I hated sitting and waiting. I wanted to ride a bunch of waves. The heats were short. I wasn’t really cut out to be a competitor. Although if I was able to coach my 23-year old self now I could coach myself the way I know that I am as a person, which is not so tactical but just cultivating the intuitive, the feel. That’s what I do with my students a lot. So they don’t get too heady. They’re more feeling the ocean. That’s what it takes. You have to be in the feel and you have to be able to have a sixth sense if there’s going to be a better one behind it or if it’s a one wave set. Or if you can predict where you think the wave is going to be. Not even think. If you can feel where the wave is going to be you can move towards it then you can take off from the right spot. You know that’s how you win. But you can’t teach someone to think it, the oceans mystical. You just don’t know. That’s how I would have coached my old self. At that age I was certainly better than… most the guys were competition tactician guys and I was more a performance guy. Throwing my board around and they were like machines.
Is that why you quit?
That’s part of the reason why I quit too. I’m not a machine. This isn’t for me. This isn’t my ultimate platform. So I started making music because that’s what I’d probably end up going into (music) if I didn’t surf. Therefore I didn’t want to be a professional surfer because I was already kind of going into that direction. So I thought, use it as a performance because it’s not judged. Sure people have judgment, but you’re not getting a 6.5 or whatever. So I took it that direction and I got good feedback on my voice and my presence and all that. So maybe I’ll do this, but I’m glad that I’m doing this right now. I’m glad I choose the path that I did. It does set me up to be a really good teacher.
Do you think having the art and fashion influences helped give you that confidence to think you’re better? All the other guys have on their brain is surfing where you were combining all these other worlds.
It’s not so much an ‘I’m better’ thing it’s just a different color or different… I mean I think I have a lot of depth through all my travels and adversities and ups and downs. I’m my own man. I work for myself. I’ve figured out a way to make money without getting a job, going and working for somebody. And then my surfing is more of an expression of how I feel. I don’t really have to surf all that much and I don’t really have a lot of remorse like, ‘Oh I missed that swell.’ They’ll be another one. I’m happy to ride a waist high wave. I get joy out of it. I think it’s a depth thing. How I think of my surfing and my life in an artistic… my surfing is part of my art and that’s kind of everything that I’ve done all the travels and influences I’ve had shine through in my surfing. I can’t get too far away from surfing otherwise I’m rusty. But I didn’t trip on it too hard.
Any other hobbies you’ve been working on?
I’m working on paintings. So I’m going to use this little spot in my yard there to paint. That’s my next thing. Between that and music those are my outlets. Surfing changes all the time. It depends on what boards you’re riding or who you’re with. Coaching is weird work because ‘coach’ has a bit of a whistle to it. It’s not really all coach it’s a little bit teaching and life mentoring. I ask my students how they feel. It’s not like I’m only saying, “Ok you do this and you do that.” They’re teaching me about themselves at the same time. How they feel. I’d rather teach than surf myself, which is cool because I remember being younger and seeing some guys that were coaching and I thought, “How does he just stand on the beach? Doesn’t he wanna get out there. That’s a sucky job. I couldn’t do it.”
Now I have so much fun watching. You look at perceived potential. Watching the body language you can tell if they’ve got a lot of coordination.
My biggest passion is helping. When they’re open to it. When they want the info. That’s how I was when I was a kid. “I want the info. What do you think I oughta do?” I was really interested in how can I be better. How do I beat that other kid?
You had a lot of outside influence as well right?
My dad was a diver. He started coaching me at 17. So I had already been top amateur guy and then he started coaching me. He didn’t know shit. But he basically was like, “There’s something wrong with the way you’re moving.” And I was like, “What do you know. You don’t even surf.”
“I can see it,” All super confident.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t look right. Your arms are going all over the place. Your stopping, you’re starting. It looks fucked.”
And I was like, “Really?” We finally got a video and he said, “That’s what I’m talking about right there. That looks amazing.”
‘That does look good.’ I thought. I gotta remember that. I would have a memory and be like, “I can’t wait to watch that one turn.” And then it would look all stiff and I thought it’d look good because I was all, “UGHHHH.” But then he’d say “That’s what I trying to say. That looks fucked.” He’s a genius with movement.
That’s my dad there. After diving he used to jump out of this balloon into this tiny little thing he’d call the sponge. My mom was a pro water-skier. Evel Knievel was really happening at the time so he jumped on the Americana to get embraced.
Can you think back to any travels or live bands that helped shape your views away from surfing back in the day?
Seeing Jane’s Addiction live was really inspiring. Perry is such an artist. He’s such a weirdo. A good weirdo and he surfed. I thought, ‘That looks exciting. It looks new. It looks like it has no rules.’ I didn’t like rules. I feel like rules belittle your intelligence. Part of the reason why I love surfing is because it doesn’t have those rules. And then you start surfing in contests. I had difficulty in the amateur ranks with being on the National team. There were all these rules again. And I thought, ‘I didn’t get into this to be told what to do.’
And that’s definitely my style as a coach. I don’t tell my students what to do. I suggest things and then I ask them questions. Does that feel like something that’s right?
So, I think probably that seeing Jane’s Addiction in 1988-89 right in that zone.
What about with worldwide travels that didn’t involve surfing?
I had a pretty incredible time in London in ‘87. Dropped a pretty good hit with my friend and explored London. Went to the Tate museum. Got on one of those double-decker buses and went around the city and just tripped out. Ended up meeting this really cute black girl. She took us the next day to this Knotting hill Gate Festival. It was all African, Caribbean, music people, speakers on the streets. People were rapping outside their apartments and the whole thing was fucking awesome. I was thinking, “I don’t know what the rest of those monkey’s are doing on the Tour. They’re probably listening to their fucking Walkman getting all bummed out because the waves are shitty.” And my buddy and I are on acid with these two super hot black chicks in London and we’re walking around seeing people MC’ing and rapping and all the Dub and the whole passion around music and street art and everything. At the end of the day before we were at the Tate seeing art from centuries past as well as modern art. The whole thing was just a visual smorgasbord that screamed, ‘NO RULES.’ Coming out of all that and then going back to the contest where the music sucked. They didn’t have the current music going on, they had some horseshit going on. Talking about surfing like, ‘Oh look at the length of ride.’ It’s better now because it’s two waves and there’s more time. It’s more performance based than it ever was. But there’s still a lot of boring shit in there.
I’d have to say. I was lucky to be good enough to be out on the Tour and then taking advantage of being abroad. I was always interested in getting away from it as far as I could to find art and find influences; weird people that don’t surf and all that stuff and absorbing it.
It’s funny because Matt Hoy, I told him at a weird party, I don’t know how exactly I told him, ‘Expand your horizons man. Go Inland!’
That’s one of those things where I’ll see him today and he’ll be, “Expand your horizons man. Go Inland!”
You gotta get away from the beach. Especially back then. Now that’s why I like living in Venice. People who surf here are more creative. It’s a lot more serious down in Orange County or Encinitas. It’s more pro surfer world. It felt really stifling down there. I wore a pink wetsuit out at Swami’s once and everyone’s like ‘Whoa whoa,’ and I shut everyone up on the first wave like, ‘Fuck you!’
That was maybe ‘93. And then people were like, ‘Well you’re the only one that can wear that shit.’ I thought, ‘Why does everything have to be so black?’
Although now I like to wear muted colors, but that’s just my mood; more of a gentleman now and I express myself differently. Just getting away from the beach I knew there was gold. I always thought the more I can absorb that stuff the more I can bring it into my surfing in some way and make it more interesting to watch. Also my dad was really good about that. He knew how to make me surf without being a machine. Had to be expressive. You can’t telegraph what you’re going to do. If you know what the person is going to do then, well you might as well just look at your watch. To make someone go ‘WHOA!’ you have to do something that’s unpredictable and I know how to train that.
What surfer needs it out there?
Simpo doesn’t have a burning desire. He has a desire, but not a burning desire. I think Simpo with a little bit of help should be in the Top 5. He’s so good, but he looks a little lackluster. He needs an inspiration. I don’t think people know how important it is. I wouldn’t have been as good without my dad. No way. What he has given me, I wouldn’t be as good of a teach either. I take what he has, which is aesthetic, style, beauty, power, spontaneity, and then I have the kung fu background so it’s proper movement and technique. And then also I have the experience with the competition. So I have those 3 elements that I can break down. Then I also have a ton of experience with designing and building surfboards and innovating in that department. So I’m really well rounded. But I don’t think people know how much someone can make a difference.
Mark McInnis also has some beauty photos over on his page.