Rob Machado: An Exclusive Interview

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Rob Machado is in a very select company of surfers.  One one hand, you can call him one of the greatest competitive surfers ever for his numerous accomplishments, including finishing in the top three of the ASP World Tour rankings twice in his career (in 1995, Machado narrowly avoided winning the World Title, losing out to Kelly Slater in the finals of the Pipeline Masters in a close finish that saw Machado giving Slater a high five at the end of the wave, possibly giving up priority and the World Title for the sake of sharing a moment with his close friend).  On the other hand, you can say Machado is currently the most popular free surfer in the world, with throngs of fans showing their support by watching his surf films and supporting his philanthropic involvements.  It is these achievements that helped Machado gain induction into the Surfer's Hall of Fame in 2000.

On top of all his surfing exploits, Machado is also making a name for himself as a talented musician.  Machado is currently capitalizing on his popularity as both a surfer and musician by doing what few before him have done: Touring the country with his band, Melali Sessions Band, to perform as the live soundtrack for his new surf movie Melali: The Drifter Sessions.

It is in this setting, backstage at Slim's shortly before Melali Sessions Band was to take the stage, that I was able to sit down with Machado for an extensive interview covering everything from finishing a close second to his good friend Slater in the 1995 World Title race, to his feelings behind being denied an injury wildcard in 2002 by his peers, and how he balances his surfing and music careers.

Cyrus: I’m here with Rob Machado, one of the greatest surfers in the world.

Machado: That’s generous.

Cyrus: It’s pretty honest, but thank you for being humble. So you’re touring the country doing a bunch of shows with your band, Melali Sessions Band, and you’re promoting a movie called Melali: The Drifter Sessions which, if I’m not mistaken, is outtakes from The Drifter, which you released two years ago.

Machado: Yeah, exactly.

Cyrus: So far, how’s the tour going?

Machado: It’s been great. We’re only three shows in. We started in San Diego, kind of just down the street from my house, which was awesome, and then Orange County and Santa Barbara. The shows have been really good so far. It seems like every night we gel a little bit better and get more familiar with the tunes. It’s been really fun.

Cyrus: How long has your band been together now?

Machado: (Laughs) That’s tricky, because everyone is kind of a musician in their own right. I put this project in John Swift’s lap to take charge, and he gathered all of these musicians together. Everyone is a musician in their own right, playing different gigs and their own gigs, so we kind of pulled ourselves together to make this band. I don’t even know if you’d call us a band. We are, but . . .

Cyrus: So this is your first tour together then?

Machado: Yeah, we’ve only played a handful of shows before this.

Cyrus: Wow.

Machado: It’s been great.

Cyrus: So the chemistry’s solid?

Machado: Yeah. We’ve all know each other for quite a period of time, so it was just a matter of finally committing to getting together and playing music.

Cyrus: The premise for your shows on this tour is pretty unique. On one hand, people are coming to see the movie, and on the other hand, people are coming to listen to your music. This has happened, correct me if I’m wrong, once before. I think Tom Curren did a tour similar to this.

Machado: Really?

Cyrus: I was going to ask if that was your inspiration, but I suppose not. How did you guys come up with the premise?

Machado: I’ve never heard of Tom doing it, but I could imagine him doing it. Before that, maybe Five Summer Stories is the last I’ve heard of it happening. The band actually played on stage while the movie was playing and tried to recreate the soundtrack. That was the concept going into making the movie. We pulled together all these sessions we had during The Drifter filming all the stuff that had gotten left out. We starting putting them together and were like, “Wow, we have all these really cool sessions.” Then it was like, “Oh, let’s make a movie.” And then, “What about music?” Music is a big deal, and there’s always money involved. So I just said, “I’d rather spend the money on pulling a group of incredible musicians together to create our own soundtrack together,” which could lead to what we’re doing. Being able to play on stage while the movie is playing and recreate that soundtrack.

Cyrus: It seems very vintage. It’s something I could see happening in the sixties or seventies, which is badass. I try to do as much research as possible before I do interviews, and in this day and age Wikipedia is the first place you go. There wasn’t a lot on your page, but one thing that stuck out to me was that it said you were born in Sydney, Australia.

Machado: That’s true.

Cyrus: But everyone knows you as the San Diego Cardiff guy. Were you just born there or do you have roots in Australia? Where did you grow up?

Machado: My parents lived in Australia for fifteen years, and at the end of that stint I was born. I moved back here when I was three or four. I still have an Australian passport, which comes in handy.

Cyrus: So are you a duel citizen?

Machado: Yeah.

Cyrus: That means you have all the perks for traveling, right?

Machado: Yeah, it’s great. I use both passports, depending on where I’m going.

Cyrus: Are your parents surfers? Did they get you into the water?

Machado: Yeah, my dad’s a surfer. My mom, no. My mom’s British. The water’s got to be like 82 before she gets in.

Cyrus: (Laughs) That’s like most girls, actually.

Machado: (Laughing) Yeah, they like to be warm.

Cyrus: And you’ve ended up becoming one of the greatest surfers in the world on the competitive side. You finished in the top three twice, which is remarkable. But then you’ve also created this whole career strictly free surfing, doing movies and stuff like that. How did you become talented? What do you credit for that? Is it just endless hours when you were a kid? Was there an inspiration? What do you credit for becoming one of the greatest surfers today?

Machado: Gosh, that’s a tough question. For me, it was just being passionate about something. Falling in love with doing it, and just doing it because you love to do it. I remember running down the beach every single day to go surfing because I just wanted to get better and experience more. Different waves, different boards, everything. And then it just evolved. I’m really stoked. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world.

Cyrus: Absolutely. You wouldn’t get too many arguments with that. How old were you when you started surfing?

Machado: My parents had me down at the beach when I was a little kid, but they told me I was scared to death of the water when I was really little. My memories are from when I was six or seven, just starting to body surf and play in the little white water. I started boogie boarding when I was eight or nine and started surfing when I was ten.

Cyrus: Some would say that’s kind of old to get started, considering how talented you are. That’s pretty nuts.

Machado: Yeah, it’s crazy, but I stem learning about the ocean and waves back to when I was three or four, when I was a freaked out little kid. Just the concept of the ocean, what it’s doing and what it is and waves. That’s kind of half the battle.

Cyrus: So it’s safe to say you’ve been a waterman almost your whole life?

Machado: That’s a bold word to use, but that’s always been a goal in my life. To become that.

Cyrus: Fair enough. Would you call Melali a sequel to The Drifter, or is it its own film?

Machado: No, it’s definitely not a sequel. It’s kind of an offshoot. I had all of these amazing surfers come down and hang out. Dane (Reynolds), Kalani (Robb), Mike Losness, Dan Malloy, Kelly (Slater). They just didn’t fit into The Drifter. It was hard to tie other surfers in, and there wasn’t a lot of surfing in The Drifter. So we were left with all this extra footage, and it would have been a shame to have it go to waste. Their time, their efforts and all of this beautiful footage would have been left on the floor.

Cyrus: So is it safe to say Melali is more like your stereotypical surf film?

Machado: Yeah, it is more like a surf movie. It’s sessions with guys set to music. There’s no real talking. There’s no storyline. It’s just, “Here’s some cool shit.”

Cyrus: (Laughing) Absolutely. Are you the lead guitarist for Melali Sessions Band?

Machado: No, I just play electric guitar and acoustic guitar.

Cyrus: Are there vocals in your band, or is it mostly just jam sessions?

Machado: Yeah, there are vocals. John and Todd (Hannigan) sing, and we kind of back them up.

Cyrus: Have you been a musician for a long time, or did you get into this late?

Machado: I started playing guitar when I was fifteen or sixteen. Actually me and John started around the exact same time. We’ve been friends for a long time.

Cyrus: Oh, so that’s instant chemistry right there.

Machado: Yeah, it’s cool. We’ve known each other forever.

Cyrus: If you don’t mind, I want to shift to surfing for just a few minutes. In your competitive days, you were phenomenal. Anyone who has followed surfing for a long time knows how well you did. What were the injuries that derailed you? Is it safe to say that injuries took you off the tour?

Machado: That was kind of an interesting year. It was 2001. My wife was pregnant and there were some complications with the pregnancy. That caused me to miss an event. I broke my hand, which caused me to miss an event.

Cyrus: How did you do that?

Machado: It was the stupidest thing. It was a two-foot day. The best wave of the day came in, and my buddy was like, “I’m going right!” and I was like, “Cool, I’ll go left.” I went to paddle behind him to go left and my finger snagged on his wetsuit, then hit his board and folded my hand under and broke it. That put me out for a few events. Then some dudes flew airplanes into buildings and that canceled the whole second half of the year, and then my daughter was born right before the last event in November, so I missed that one. At the end of the year there were only five events, and I surfed in one.

Cyrus: Wow, and that was the year where CJ Hobgood won the World Title, right?

Machado: Yeah. It was a super strange year. I applied for an injury wild card and they didn’t give it to me.

Cyrus: What? Why would they not give it to you? That’s insane. Did that upset you?

Machado: Yeah, I was pretty bummed out for a while.

Cyrus: But it kind of worked out in the end, right?

Machado: Yeah, it was a blessing in disguise. I was super bummed at first. I felt like I was betrayed, because it’s the surfers who vote on it.

Cyrus: Really?

Machado: That was the year Kelly decided to come back on tour. There are only two wild cards, and they gave one to him.

Cyrus: Who did they give the other one to?

Machado: I think Shane Dorian got it.

Cyrus: That’s pretty solid company.

Machado: Yeah. It felt weird right then. I didn’t know what to do. And then Gotcha went bankrupt and I didn’t have a sponsor. It was a really interesting time. Fast forward six months, Hurley comes along and says, “Hey, we want to sponsor you.” And I’m like, “Really? What do you want me to do?” And they say, “Just go have fun.” I didn’t really know what that was. I was so focused on being on tour. It took me a little while to figure it out.

I started going on trips with Thomas Campbell and working on projects with the Malloys. Then it all started to make sense. And I was like, “Wow. Now I can do all of these things I’ve been thinking about doing, like riding different boards and experimenting with different things.” When you’re on tour, you don’t have time to do that.

Cyrus: The whole year’s planned out, right?

Machado: The whole year’s planned out, you’re constantly trying to stay healthy, trying to stay fit, trying to keep your boards super dialed-in. It’s a constant evolution. You’re always getting new boards to go here and there. You can’t go spend a month riding a single-fin or twin-fin. They don’t want to see that on tour. They want to see high-performance ripping and you have to be constantly fine-tuning your game. It’s a full time gig.

Cyrus: Was there any resentment toward your peers shortly after that happened?

Machado: Yeah, I was totally bummed out. They gave me a wild card to another event, and I just remember walking around, looking at everyone. I couldn’t really look anyone in the eye and people couldn’t look me in the eye.

Cyrus: I don’t blame you.

Machado: There was just weirdness. My dad told me at the time, “Don’t worry, something good will come out of this.” And I was like, “What good could come out of this?” But now I see it.

Cyrus: That’s amazing.

Machado: I have no resentment anymore, of course.

Cyrus: Yeah, because there’s no way you’re going back on the 'QS, so it did work out in the end. You’re doing exactly what you love.

Machado: Yeah. Now I get to do projects like this. This was something I dreamed about. Even when we were making The Drifter, I knew there would be this movie. I knew we were going to have so much stuff and that we’d take it, pull together some incredible musicians, make music and play it while showing the film.

Cyrus: How do you feel about people putting labels on you? The label I hear the most is “soul surfer.” A lot of people consider you the epitome of that. Do you agree, or do you just disregard labels?

Machado: That’s a tough one. I’m fortunate enough to get paid for what I do. I work for Hurley, I work for Reef; I work for these incredible companies that let me be who I am, which is amazing. I couldn’t ask for anything better. But if you’re getting paid to do something, does that take away from being a soul surfer? The bottom line for me is that I go surfing, I love to go surfing and I love going out and sharing waves with people and seeing people get good waves and be stoked. That’s what it’s all about. When you started surfing, to go on a little road trip with a car full of your friends and drive down the beach and find some little 4-6 foot peak, little barrels or something, that’s the best thing in the world.

Cyrus: Ever.

Machado: Right? Everybody thinks about that. That’s like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you know? And that’s what I get to do constantly. Go on that little search. I think that’s what being a soul surfer is all about. That you never forget true love for surfing and just being in the ocean. You talked about being a waterman. I’ve been finding how many different ways I can play in the ocean lately. I’ve been paddling canoes. I’ve done a couple of channel crossings, paddle boarding, stand up paddling and riding alaias, anything I can do to feel something different out in the ocean and learn more about it, because it’s a constant learning process.

Cyrus: And The Drifter caught a lot of that too. A lot of your essence, I guess you could say. Taylor Steele did a great job with that. I know it’s been sixteen years now, but regarding the whole high five thing with Slater, which some say possibly could have cost the World Title. Do you think it did cost the title, and if so do you have any regrets?

Machado: It’s something that wasn’t even a conscious thought. I remember sitting out there in the water with Kelly, and I actually turned and looked at the beach and was like, “Can you believe this, man? We’re actually out here. We’re surfing 8-10 foot Pipe, and there are thousands of people on the beach watching us. This is crazy!” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, uh-huh .”

Cyrus: (Laughing) Right.

Machado: I guess at that point for me, I didn’t know it, but that was where it kind of shifted. It was a big shift for me. When that happened, I came out of the tube and wasn’t thinking of a World Title or kicking out and getting priority. I was like, “There’s my friend. His arm’s up.” You know? He was stoked, and I was stoked and it goes back to surfing the 4-6 foot beach break with a couple of friends. That’s what you would do.

And that’s where my head space was. Honestly, I don’t think it would have mattered at that time. Kelly, he’s amazing. Look what he’s gone on to do since then. And he could continue to do that. He’s one of the best athletes ever to step foot on the planet.

Cyrus: If not the best.

Machado: It was just very obvious at that stage. It wouldn’t have mattered, honestly.

Cyrus: And you guys are good friends. I know he’s an amazing golfer. And you golf. You have that charity tournament every year.

Machado: Yeah.

Cyrus: And he’s starting to do the AT&T Pro-Am. He’s been doing that for a few years now. Have you been invited to that? And if not, is that something you’re looking forward to possibly down the road?

Machado: No, I got into golf for a while, and I kind of don’t play that much anymore. My golf tournament in a weird way kind of makes fun of golf a bit. We incorporate tennis and lacrosse and baseball. Any way possible you can incorporate other sports, we do. The less golf played, the better. I’m like, “Come play!” And people say, “Yeah, but I don’t play golf.” And I’m like, “Even better. You could actually be very beneficial to your team.” So we try to keep it loose. But Kelly is really good. I went out and watched him at the AT&T this year. They didn’t do that well, but it was cool. The weather was flawless, and it was fun to check it all out.

Cyrus: I’ve hung out with him there a couple of times. The cougars are always on the prowl in Monterrey. You have to be careful.

Machado: (Laughing) Yeah, it’s strange.

Cyrus: I have to ask you this because your hair is insane. It’s crazier than it has ever been. When was the last time you cut it, and when do you plan on cutting it, if ever?

Machado: That’s a good question. When I started filming The Drifter, that was it. I told myself I wasn’t going to cut my hair for a while, and it’s kind of been growing since then, which was probably late 2007. I’ve washed it a few times since.

Cyrus: (Laughing) Three-and-a-half years.

Machado: Maybe. It’s been awhile since I’ve washed it, but it’s good. As long as I’m in the ocean, you know, it hangs in there. I cut a few chunks off with a knife at one point.

Cyrus: Did you really?

Machado: I just kind of got frustrated.

Cyrus: Are you a religious guy?

Machado: No, I’m not.

Cyrus: Your hair’s amazing. I love it.

Machado: Thanks. It’s kind of crazy. It’s hard to surf in.

Cyrus: What’s the website for your golf tournament if people want to donate?

Machado: You can go to RobMachadoFoundation.org

Cyrus: Your main sponsors are Hurley, Reef and Nixon.  Anything I'm missing?

Machado: Hurley, Reef, Nixon, Dragon, Channel Islands.

Cyrus: Rock it tonight. Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

Machado: Alright.

Writer Mia Sullivan contributed to this story.