Three-time ASP World Champion Tom Curren (USA) is competing in the ASP's inaugural Heritage Series heat against Mark Occhilupo (AUS) during the 2014 J-Bay Open. After the event, he'll return stateside for an East Coast tour as a burgeoning musician. He spoke with the ASP about his early experiences at J-Bay, his take on competing against Occy, and his approach to music.
During the early years of your career you boycotted events in South Africa in protest of apartheid there. What was that time like?
I first came in 1981, with the NSSA [National Scholastic Surfing Association]. And then I came here in 1983, which was my first or second year on the Tour. We went to Durban, there wasn’t an event yet here at J-Bay. I went there for a few years.
And then what changed was that it was during the apartheid era, there was so much going on. The ANC [African National Congress] was requesting that anybody considering traveling to South Africa would consider boycotting the event. The boycott was initiated by Tom Carroll. He spearheaded that movement within the surfing tour. With the advice of family, and the league, we decided to do that. That was in 1986, or so.
Was there a specific event that you were boycotting?
There were two events, I think, that were in Durban. They were part of the Tour at the time, they were rated events. So it was a tough decision. During that time I did some training and lower-rated events. It worked out in the end, because I ended up winning the Title that year.
It was kind of like being put on the spot, like, 'what do you think about apartheid?' And, of course, we don’t really think too much about politics, but we got so much support for doing that, for standing up and supporting the anti-apartheid movement, and saying that in so many words. Rather than saying, 'we don’t know,' or the opposite argument would have been, 'it doesn’t make any difference.' But in fact, it does.
After taking a break from events in South Africa, you returned when the politics there began to change. Did it feel like a different place?
It was the early ‘90s when Mandela was released from prison [in 1991], and it was a really good vibe. A lot of optimism and excitement. It was also a very uncertain time as well, such a big transition.
What did it look like on the ground at the time, from your view as a competitive surfer? What had changed, in terms of your personal experience?
I came here in 1981, I was about 17 at the time, and I was in Durban. If you don’t want to know about politics and you’re at the beach in Durban, you can miss all that. The waves are great, there’s a good event going on, you might see a band at night, and maybe it’s a multi-racial band. And then you have people working at the house, for very little money. So you have a privileged experience. Over the few years before the boycott I started to look into the political situation.
I started hearing about the efforts of a lot of musicians that were doing events, making songs about certain things that had happened in South Africa and bringing attention to it, I was moved by the whole injustice of it. It was hard to just go and enjoy the fruits of the lifestyle and turn a blind eye to what was institutionalized [racism]. [The boycott] was something I wanted to do.
Turning to surfing, a lot of competitors struggle at J-Bay. What allowed you to adapt to it, seemingly so easily? What’s been different about your approach?
You could use a little slang, and say it’s like Rincon on steroids. The familiarity I have with a wave like Rincon [a point break in Santa Barbara, CA], I rode those waves early on, so it was an easy transition. It just flowed better, overall.
It’s also the excitement of being on a wave that good. Your senses are really sharp because you have this heightened sense of perception when the waves are so good.
How would you describe the differences between Rincon and J-Bay? What is it that make the wave in South Africa so special?
We have a few waves near where I live in Santa Barbara that do this -- on the good days they could be world-class.
To riff on what you were saying earlier, it sounds like it’s a matter of degrees, J-Bay can be better in increments.
The best waves in the  event so far have probably been a five-out-of-10 for Jeffreys Bay. So when it’s really a 10-out-of-10 it’s mind-boggling. And when it’s a five-out-of-five, it’s really good, too. With the level of the [ASP WCT] guys surfing now, it’s a good matchup between the guys competing and the wave itself.
You have a heat coming up yourself. It’s a friendly one, but what’s been your approach to competing against Occy all these years?
My approach is to take no prisoners. But at the same time, we spend time together surfing and just hanging out. It would be wrong for me to go anything less than 100 percent.
It’s a privilege to be able to surf out here with Occy. He’s one of the greats out here. He’s almost like a local here because he’s spent so much time at this spot. It’s a place where he’s done some of his very best surfing. It’s a great canvas for him.
How would you describe the psychology of surfing against each other?
I just want to be sure that I’m able to give it everything I have. When it comes down to a paddle battle, or to get position, I’ll keep that in mind as well. But mostly I’m thinking about how to maximize the 30 or 40 minutes that we have. It’s more of a celebration.
What was your approach like when you were on Tour?
My strategy was pretty much to surf over my head. The level of the guys who were on the Tour, in so many ways they had advantages over what I was doing, and the only way I could keep the pace was to surf over my head, [out of my comfort zone].
You do that for a while, and then you’re able to get to that place, to the level of guys like Taj [Burrow] and Occy. I would try things that I didn’t really want to do because they were a little bit more risky -- not so much the technical side, but paddling harder, turning hard, overdoing it.
Taking the Heritage heat as a chance to look back at your career, do you feel that you’ve changed as a person since your competitive days? What’s different when you get in the water now than when you were on Tour -- apart from no longer competing for points?
There are plenty of differences. We did a boat trip last year, it was way different than it used to be. We had a karaoke night, that sort of thing -– I would never have done that before, never ever. [Occy’s] like my little brother at times, but at the same time we’re not going to play patty cake in the water. Hopefully it’ll be a good counterpoint to what’s going on at the rest of the event.
After J-Bay, you’re hitting the road for a summer music tour. Are there any cities that you’re especially excited to play in?
I like the Northeast. I like Asbury Park [in New Jersey]. We played there last year with Donovan. The East Coast is really good because they don’t get a lot of surf, so whenever the waves are good the vibes are good, and that’s infectious. It rekindles the stoke.
Does what you do in the water inform what you do on stage, or how you think about music?
Music started for me as a way to have something to do while waiting for waves on the road. When I first came here, I was here for a while. I was by myself, too. It was the middle of winter, and the nights are long. So I’d take the guitar, come up with ideas for songs, and it just kind of developed from that.
I do think that sometimes where you’re out in the water and you’ve been working on a song you have time to think about phrases. Being in the water tends to be a place where those ideas that are locked up can sometimes flow to the surface. I try to do a lot of different stuff when it when it comes to songs. Some stuff that’s basic and traditional, arrangement-wise, and some stuff that I try to innovate. It is work -- it’s hard -- and when it’s going good it’s very rewarding.
And when it’s not going well? What happens then?
I try to come up with concepts before I come up with a line or a couplet. You can come up with a melody first and then the words to go with it. Then you match the words with the sound and you have a more riffy vibe.
Or you can approach from the opposite end, with an idea of a storyline, and then go from the other end of the process and work back and find a melody at the end of the process. It seems like the best way to do it is when it’s natural.
It sounds like it’s instinctive for you.
When it’s working, it’s great. You get this kind of creative moment, a period where things are happening creatively. And sometimes it’s just not there. And I think also places can inspire you -- Africa in particular is very inspiring.
Are there any storylines or themes that inspired the music that you'll be playing on tour this summer?
Without getting too specific, I have some new songs I’m working on, partly talking about people getting involved in their projects and living in a one-dimensional world. They get so caught up that you lose perspective. It's kind of a male thing, I guess? I don’t mean it in a chauvinistic way, but it’s a guy thing -— when he goes to the garage, his man-cave. It’s not a theme that runs through all of it, just part of it.
I hope that doesn’t sound too specific [laughs].
What model of guitar or other instruments are you playing, and what model of surfboard? You were on an alaia Thursday at J-Bay.
I’ve got a couple of big boards that seem to work good out here. They’re both round pins, one is a flatter, thicker board. It’s a little bit more of an old school shape. It’s pretty fast, with three fins. The other is a more modern style shape, with a bit more rocker, it’s got quite a lot of concave, a little bit longer.
And then I have that alaia. I’ve been using it for the smaller days. It has a carbon fiber strip down the middle so it won’t break, and it’s kind of heavy.
As for guitar: I’m playing a strat right now, but I want to play a 12-string. The 12-string I have is always falling apart, so maybe I’ll get something a little more solid. I’ve been playing the keys too.
Catch him live at the following tour stops (partial list):
July 25 - Santa Ana, CA, Observatory
July 26 - Valley Center, CA, Harrah's Rincon
August 2 - Nantucket, MA, Cisco Brewery
August 4 - Wellfleet, MA, The Beachcomber
August 7 - New York, NY, The Bowery Ballroom
August 9 - Asbury Park, NJ, Stone Pony
August 10 - Montauk, NY, Surf Lodge
August 11 - Amagansett, NY, Stephen Talkhouse
August 14 - Washington, DC, The Hamilton
August 15 - Richmond, VA, Capital Ale House