How do you compare surfing and playing on stage? I get asked this so many times. I used to say its pretty much the same, but over the years I’ve found the differences and similarities have become more apparent to me. I love both, I will always be a bodyboarder, I will always love music. Both shape the person I am. It’s hard to give a short answer to a question that revolves around so much of my core being, so I figured I’d write out two different stories from my perspective. Hopefully it’s insightful.
I stand on the dune looking out as the swell throws itself up against the wall. The spray from the impact surges towards the top of the rocks and flies over into the relative calm of the river on the other side. The afternoon wind is already up, straight out of the east just as forecasted. The car park is empty, just as I expected. These are the days I love, the ones that give you that small window you can’t pick on a computer forecast. The ones that don’t warrant hours of driving for an over hyped few hours of crowd and the subsequent insta glory. Its not perfect, but thats what makes it fun. It’s a challenge.
I jump in next to the wall and let the surge drag me out into the line up, ducking my head to avoid the lines of the few fisherman still hoping to snag a bite in the brown, post flood waters. I get the usual “you must be mad to be surfing that shark pool” looks from them as a drive past but they don’t say anything. As I duck dive the last wave of the set I turn and start paddling. Always paddling. I want to stay in the sweet spot, the place I know has the best chance of throwing a proper slab and slingshot in amongst the wind and crosswaves. Always paddling. It’s like a treadmill. Don’t stop, even for a minute or you’ll fly off the back of the bank and then its a long paddle around the tip of the wall and back into the river. In all my years surfing here I haven’t had to make that paddle and I don’t plan on making today the first. So I paddle, and I wait. Something bumps my leg in the murk and I jerk away in reflex. A stick. Just a bit of debris. nothing to concern myself with, but it gives me that restless feeling in my gut. No one out. Run out tide. I definitely don’t want to make that paddle around the tip today so I dig deep while I wait for the gem. Time passes, waves roll by. I see a few slabs but not the one. Words flow in and out of my thoughts as I dig at the water. Phrases and patterns. Some of them stick, some of them move on. Always paddling.
A big south line hits the banks down the beach. Then another one. Here we go. One for for the wall, one for me. I make sure I’m still in contact with the bank as I paddle over the first one. I’ll let this one wedge and hope the next one lines up. As I push over the crest I already know the wait has been worth It. The first wave is already bouncing off the rocks as the second drains the water out from in front of me. Dig deep. I’ve waited this long, I don’t plan on missing it. A little piece of wash clips me at the top of the double up and gives me the last push I need and it begins. The swell hits the bank and begins to show its shape down the line. If I time it right I will get a decent ramp. I fade slightly on the descent and bank off the side wave as I bottom turn. The first choice presents itself, stall for the slab or aim straight for the bowl. I lean into my rail and aim straight up at the lip. I haven’t had a good bowl in months, I need the practice. The speed of the sidewave gives me a push and I accelerate straight at the lip as the board springs back from the weight of the bottom turn. Choice two. Invert or reverse? The wind catches the lip as I race towards it and I go for the safest projection, I don’t want to blow it so I draw the nose of my board up to ride over the last wind lump in the lip. I feel the board clear the lip and I extend and project back the way I came, tweaking my back hard and trying to gauge how high I am from the flats. Choice three. Land or bail? I hate bailing. I’d rather try and get fucked up than pull the pin so fuck it, here we go. I feel my legs come free of the lip and the arc of my flight tighten more than is stable. As I tweak my body back the way I came my legs continue their accent and I find myself heading straight down at flat water. This isn’t going to be good. I extend and brace for the impact. I hit like a rag doll onto concrete. I feel my elbow tear and my face impact with my board as my spine does its best to shoot through the top of my head. My board leaps from my grip and I am buried under a mountain of white water and shock. I feel the sand rushing beneath my back as I tumble over and over towards the shore. I let it take me. I am too done to fight it even if I could.
After what seems like a lifetime I surface and grab my board. My chin is burning and as I take my hand away from it I see blood. Must have smashed straight into my leash when I landed. I grab the next piece of white water and ride it back to the shore. I’m done. One wave is enough. I’m out of condition and out of practice. Best not push my luck. At least I got one bowl. Better than nothing, and it feels great to be back in the water after a month on the road. I grab an arm full of plastic debris from the high tide mark and head back to the car.
Winston finding some shade. Ironically during Tropical Cyclone Winston. photo: Mike Egan
I stand behind the monitor desk at the left of back stage as the crowd raise their voices to the last strains of Bohemian Rhapsody. Its amazing how loud a few thousand people can be when they sing together. One minute, then it’s go time. The Kabuki banner at the front of the stage is illuminated in red from in front, effectively hiding the last minute adjustments happening on the stage behind it. Small things that make a big difference. Stage towels, water bottle, pyro jet angles, monitor settings. Everything is double checked. Then we wait. As the Queen dips down, so does the lights and the crowd surges. I walk onto the stage behind the curtain and stand on my marker to the left of the drums. I breathe in. The intro rolls, the crowd sings, and I breathe. My last free breath for an hour and a half. The beat kicks,I scream and the Kabuki drops. All hell breaks loose.
From this point on every breath I take is with a purpose. It is timed and measured as much as any instrument. I still have yet to count or calculate how many breaths I actually get during each set, but I know it will be very similar each night. For every note, every line, every scream, there has to be a breathe, and they only fit in between the words. time is regulated to the beat, so I inhale upon cue and spit my energy with the oxygen it gives me. Always Breathing. It’s funny how the one thing you never notice, the thing you never even think about has now become the key to everything I do. No breath, no voice. So I focus and I work. There is no chance to rest. No space to steal an extra break. I have played these songs so many times now my body knows when to work, when to rest. When to draw deep and how much air to give on every sound that comes out of me. One fuck up will resonate though the entire song. Missed breath cannot be regained on the next line, so I focus and I hit everything the way it has to be. Calculated rage. Calculated emotion. Calculated interaction.
I learned long ago that if I can’t count on extra oxygen for energy, I need to find it from somewhere else. The crowd. The faces. The voices. The madness I witness night after night has become my true fuel. Every night is a test. I stand on stage behind the fire and survey the scene unfolding in front of me. Is this as loud as we can get? Is this as crazy as THEY can get? There is one way to find out and that is to push. I give myself one goal every time I walk out. Make the time we have together as highly charged, as crazy and as positive as possible. Every show could be the last time I get to do this and I want my memory to be of chances taken, not of laziness. So I push them. I yell. I demand. I incite. Jump, scream, push, yell, sing. Whatever it takes to create an atmosphere that removes everything that has been holding us all back and forces us to simply live in the moment of chaos that is surrounding us. The moment we are creating. It might sound stupid but night after night it works. It works for me and it works for them. I see the same release, the same reckless abandon in the faces screaming back at me as I feel in my mind. Thats the goal. So I breathe, and I scream.
Halfway through the night I fuck up and hyperventilate, causing my vision to go black and my mind to go blank. I feel my voice continue, I don’t know how, but my head is light and I plant myself so I don’t fall headfirst off the stage. This generally happens when I get really worked up. Its scary but it happens a lot so I’ve learned to deal with it. It’s another reminder to focus. No one else notices. Two songs later I lose it again, hyper extending my microphone arm. As I punch the air in excitement the weight of the mic carries my forearm past the point of comfort and i feel my elbow strains in complaint. It’s a regular injury. Not quit tennis elbow but it hurts all the same. I turn my back for a second and allow myself to wince as I flex it out. As the final song of the night draws to a close and the sparks rain down from the lighting truss I feel the embers scalding my bare skin and starting little fires in my hair. I grit my teeth and bear it. It will hurt after the show but I know it will look great so I deal with it. The song ends and I thank the crowd. Every night I thank them for sharing their time with us, for sharing their energy. Every night I mean it. The flames roar and I collapse onto the stage as it falls into darkness. Thats it. I’m done. No more energy to give. I inhale my first free breath. The first I don’t have to think about, I grab my water bottle and towel and slide off into the darkness.
And just like that the tour has begun. It always takes some getting used to. First night always has some hiccups, but I’m conditioned and practiced. I will analyse every little detail of the night a little later, but for now I find my way to our dressing room and relish the silence as i close the door behind me.
Parkway Drive – Vice Grip
Words: Winston McCall
Tour photos: Kirsten Otto