Conner Coffin: Surfer Shares 15 Songs That Shaped His Life – Rolling Stone
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Pro Surfer Conner Coffin: My Life in 15 Songs

One of the highest-ranking American surfers takes us on a tour of the songs that became the soundtrack of his life

Conner Coffin in Saquarema, Brazil.Photograph by Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone

Conner Coffin in Saquarema, Brazil.

Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone

When surfing launches as an Olympic sport in Tokyo next summer, don’t be surprised if Conner Coffin is among those going for the gold. Mastering his style in the point breaks of his home area of Santa Barbara, California, Coffin has picked up where local surf legends like Bobby Martinez and Dane Reynolds left off, and his straight-on, confident style has made him one of the world’s top-rated athletes. Last year, he was the highest-ranking American surfer in the men’s division.

At 26, Coffin is also a music fan with a sense of history. Even though he was born three decades after the advent of “classic” rock, he’s an avid student of the genre and an accomplished guitarist, even releasing an EP, Conner Coffin & Friends, with renditions of standards by Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, John Prine, and the Band.

“Music definitely been a huge part of my life, and I always trip out on the people who don’t like music,” he says. “Like, how do you not like music that much?” Coffin takes us on a tour of the songs that became the soundtrack of his life.

The Allman Brothers Band, “Blue Sky”

The Allman Brothers are one of my all-time favorites; I can listen to Duane and Dickey Betts trade guitar solos forever. “Blue Sky” reminds me of being five years old and running around on the property I grew up on. In summer, I’d be outside all day, and I would garden with my mom and grandma and play in the creek with my brother and friends. So I relate the song to Santa Barbara and Carpenteria and the connection I have to those places and my friends. It has a beautiful, positive, uplifting vibe. When I get home from a long trip and get back in my truck, it’s one of those songs I turn up, and it always puts a huge smile on my face. I think of brotherhood, connections with friends and loved ones, and my connection to nature.

Eagles, “Hotel California”

When I was six or seven, we went on road trips with my dad and used to play this game driving in his truck. We’d put on the radio, and whatever song would come on, someone would get a point for guessing the artist, and two points for guessing the name of the song. “Hotel California” was always on the classic rock stations, so it reminds me of being a kid, my dad’s love of classic rock and driving with him up and down the coast, looking for waves. It encapsulates getting that time with my dad. The scenery around that album cover also reminds me of Mexico, which I associate with first learning to surf.

Metallica, “Jump in the Fire”

My friend J.P. was a surf champ and into playing guitar. He turned me on to Metallica when I was just hitting puberty, around 12 or 13. You start to have that angst as a teenage boy. You don’t really know what it is and you don’t know what to do with it. I just remember being pissed off and thinking, “What the fuck is wrong with me? Why am I angry?” So Metallica was something I gravitated to. It was probably some of the earliest true, heavy rock and roll I liked. I’d burned a CD copy of Kill ‘Em All and would listen to it in the morning, then most of the day and then again as I would fall asleep. The angst in that music encapsulated that point in my life. I love the riff and the raw, aggressive energy of “Jump in the Fire” on that album. It was exactly what I was feeling at the time. It made feel, “All right, let’s do this,” like I could do anything I wanted to.

Social Distortion, “Prison Bound”

Social D is another band I grew up listening to when I was a teenager, when I was into a lot of that heavier rock. Live at the Roxy [1988] was the first Social D album I ever heard, and it’s so good. I was totally into that whole punk rock scene for a while—Social D, Bad Religion, the Offspring–and I think “Prison Bound” was one of the first punk songs I heard. I was like, “Oh, this is rad,” and got super into it. It’s just a catchy song, and I love how outspoken Mike Ness is, how he wears his heart on his sleeve. I love the version of this song on the live album.

Pennywise, “Bro Hymn”

I first heard “Bro Hymn” when I was 13, and it reminds me of being in my mid-teens, figuring out how to drink beer, hanging out with girls and with my friends—just that good, clean American fun, as my great-grandpa called it. I have a vivid memory of being too young at a house party and moshing in someone’s kitchen to “Bro Hymn” with all my friends. It was just complete mayhem, but we were having so much fun, probably trashing some poor dude’s kitchen. I was just being a teenager, just being young and dumb and having a lot of fun. This song captures that feeling of friendship and brotherhood. The title is perfect.

Guns N’ Roses, “Nightrain

I loved listening to Guns N’ Roses growing up. They were another band my dad loved. I remember blaring a bunch of their songs when I was going to surf. Slash is one of my favorite guitar players, too; all his riffs are super cool. I love the whole Appetite for Destruction album, but “Nightrain” has that badass attitude. It gets me super fired up to go surfing. It’s still something I listen to a lot before going to my heats.

Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”

I heard this song so many times in the car with my dad. He would say, “This is what this song’s about.” His interpretation was that it was about this kid who wants to play with his dad, but his dad is always busy and doesn’t have time. All of the sudden, the son’s grown up, the dad’s older and he wants to hang out with his son, and his son’s too busy to do shit with his dad. He’s got his own home and a job. My dad always, “You’ve got to do the stuff you’ve got to do, but always make time for your family, your friends, and your loved ones.” When my brother and I were kids, my dad, who is a general contractor, was working his ass off. My mom told him, “Hey, if you don’t slow down and take time with your kids, they’re going to be all grown up before you realize it. You’re going to miss a lot of cool shit.” She really helped ground him and made him take time to hang out with us. So that song is very important to me, because it connected with my father, reminding him to take time to spend time with his family and his kids. He’s one of my best friends now.

Rolling Stones, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”

I love the Stones, and that’s my favorite Stones song. I first saw them when I was 18; my mom and dad bought us tickets for the Staples Center for my dad’s 50th birthday. I’d already liked the Stones before that and I’d read Keith’s book. But I remember sitting there, watching them and thinking they looked like they were having so much fun. They’re running around like teenagers, and were just fucking cool. That was the moment when I really wanted to learn how to play guitar well, and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is the quintessential rock and roll song. It’s Keith Richards, in a nutshell: just the open G tuning, the riff, and everything is just badass. What I really love is its simplicity. It’s not a complicated, intricate riff; it’s about soul, feel, and attitude. Keith’s less-is-more attitude has always been something I really dug. It’s like he’s saying, “Hey, you don’t need to say a lot. If you mean it, and you stand by it, it’s going to mean more than if you’re out there, blabbing around.”

Grateful Dead, “I Know You Rider”

When I was around 19 or 20, I’d gone through the early-to-mid teenage angsty stage and was starting to grow up. A friend of mine played in a band that covered a lot of Dead songs. I heard them play one night, and I was like, “What song was that?” And he was like, “Oh, that’s a Grateful Dead song.” I said, “No way. Which one?” And it was “I Know You Rider.” When I was a kid, people would say, “Oh, do you like the Dead?” And I was like, “No. I don’t get it.” But after I heard my friend play “I Know You Rider,” I went and listened to the version on the Sunshine Daydream album, from Veneta, Oregon, in 1972, and I was like, “Oh, I love this.” I liked the spontaneity, the improvisation, the creativity–just the free spirit of it. That was my entryway into the Dead. I was trying to become more Zen and doing yoga and meditating. I was trying to find a more stable place to compete from, and that was when I started listening to more mellow music like this.

Ryan Adams, “Magnolia Mountain”

This reminds me of the first major relationship I was in and that feeling of breaking up and dealing with my first heartache and all of the feelings and emotions that came with it. This song really resonates with that, when I was going through that time in my life. It pulls on those strings. The whole Cold Roses album is great, and later, when I was trying to write songs and becoming enamored with people who can write really great songs, I really gravitated towards Ryan Adams’ songwriting.

Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”

I’ve always liked Bob Dylan; his music dates back to those early days listening to music with my dad. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been attempting to write songs, and I got more into his music. I love the poetry and beauty of his songs. They have such simple chord progressions, and he rambles on and tells these beautiful stories. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a coming-of-age story I can easily connect with, along with the anti-war message: “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” He was sending a message through music, and he also opened the door for me to folk and country. I’m not listening to Metallica day in and day out anymore. I’m more in that Americana realm, and Dylan’s music probably turned me on to appreciating that genre.

Jimi Hendrix, “Bold as Love”

I’m a big Hendrix fan. If you play guitar, you just are. I love the creativity he poured into his music. It sounds so different, even to this day, just super cosmic and far out. He was on a whole different wavelength than everyone at the time, and I really loved what he stood for, which was basically love and peace. It seemed like he just went on his emotion, passion, and creativity. He poured his heart and soul out when he performed. I love the whole Axis: Bold as Love album, but “Bold as Love” has that cosmic, spacey, trippy feel that the album encapsulates.

Fleetwood Mac, “Gold Dust Woman”

Every time I hear Fleetwood Mac, it makes me think of girls, ladies, and women and just their whole trip, the mystery around them, in my life. The title alone of “Gold Dust Women” is so mysterious. I loved the old Fleetwood Mac when Peter Green was in the band. That’s some of my favorite blues guitar playing, starting with his tone. At first, I didn’t even know that was a thing: I was like, “What do you mean, Fleetwood Mac without Stevie Nicks? I didn’t even know that existed.” But I gravitate more toward the later Fleetwood Mac. I love Lindsey Buckingham’s fingerpicking guitar, and I love all that Stevie Nicks stuff. That’s just classic, classic rock.

Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

That song was written around the time of Vietnam. I gravitate toward that type of music so much more because, in the Sixties and Seventies, a lot of music was written with a message behind it. There was a lot to talk about, and a lot of the musicians were trying to say how they felt about certain things and encourage the rest of the people in the country and the world to speak out against some of those things. “For What It’s Worth” seems like it talks directly to that. To this day, it gives me a feeling of hope that we’re doing better things for our country, not killing people for no reason and trying to take care of the environment and create a more peaceful country and world, instead of an angrier one. For me, the point of music, in a lot of ways, is to tell a story that encourages and inspires people to wake the fuck up.

Neil Young, “Old Man”

Ever since I was a little kid, I always greatly admired and had tons of respect for my elders. To me, they hold so much of the knowledge and wisdom, and I’ve always loved to sit and talk, and especially listen, to people with great stories. I never graduated college, but through my travels and my joy for learning from people, I feel like I’ve obtained an education I couldn’t have any other way. “Old Man” reminds me of this respect and connection I have to my elders and resonates with my own feeling of being an old soul.

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