Inside Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater's Surfing Safari - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

Inside Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater’s Surfing Safari

Before singer-songwriter recorded upcoming LP, ‘All the Light Above It Too,’ he hit the waves with his surf-champ friend

Jack Johnson Surfing Adventure see photos 2017

Singer Jack Johnson and surf pro Kelly Slater talk about the last minute surfing safari they took while Johnson was recording his new album.

Todd Glaser

Jack Johnson was hard at work on All the Light Above It Too – his first album since 2013, due September 8th – when he got a phone call from an old friend. “He said he’d been watching a spot that, if the wind was going in the right direction and we got a good swell, could be pretty amazing,” the singer says. The buddy in question was 11-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater, who took Johnson to a stretch of reefs in the Marshall Islands – about 2,700 miles from the singer-songwriter’s home in Hawaii – where the water is so clear you can see 200 feet below the surface.

For Johnson, music has always been something for “when there’s no waves,” and he wrote many of his early songs on boats during surfing trips. These days, though, he’s usually too busy being a dad to manage spontaneous wave quests. “Most of his downtime between tours is at home with family,” says Slater, who met Johnson when they were teens, and calls the singer a “very good surfer.”

But when Johnson managed to get away this time, he brought a cigar-box ukulele with him, using it to write a breezy meditation on the familiar feeling you get when you see someone you know called “Sunsets for Somebody Else.” The song became a key track on his still-untitled seventh LP, which he recorded in the same garage home studio that birthed every album since his 2000 debut, Brushfire Fairytales. Johnson didn’t stray far from his signature island-tinged folk pop, but the recording process was hardly effortless: After trying his hand at playing all the instruments on every song, he realized he wasn’t up to the task. “It sounded like my band, but with some guy who couldn’t play the drums as good as my drummer,” he says.

His band and producer Robbie Lackritz helped him flesh out songs like “Big Sur,” a whimsically jazzy track about a camping trip, and “My Mind’s for Sale,” a relatively gentle Trump takedown (“I heard that six or seven words he likes to use are always in bad taste”). “It’s depressing to be part of a country with a leader pulling out of the Paris Agreement,” says Johnson, who often finds topical songs easier to write than personal ones. “But it’s also inspiring to hear a couple of days later that Hawaii’s gonna be the first state to adhere to the Paris Agreement.” 

Here is what Johnson and Slater had to say about their big surf trip.

Todd Glaser

Somebody Else’s Sunsets

“It was about a five-hour flight from Hawaii to where we went,” Johnson says. “I don’t know how secret we’re trying to keep the area.”

“It was in the Marshall Islands,” Slater says. “The trip was so last-minute because the storm that creates the swells for
this place are a little bit tricky to predict ahead of time. You really have to wait to two or three days prior to going to know if
the swell’s gonna come from the right direction and the wind’s gonna be from
the right direction, as well.”

“We flew Hawaiian Airlines, which I end up flying a lot because they’re in and out of Hawaii,” Johnson says. “The in-flight magazine is interesting because there’s always articles about different things in Hawaii, so a lot of times I’ll see somebody and I won’t know if it’s somebody I know or if it’s somebody I’ve just seen in a commercial or advertisements. There was a girl in one of the advertisements, for a hotel or something, and I wasn’t sure if I knew her. I talked to Kelly a little bit about the idea of ‘I know I’ve seen your face somewhere,’ and then that next line I came up with is ‘selling something, some big idea.’ It became the beginning of the new song, ‘Sunsets for Somebody Else,’ because you got these corporations with hotels, so the idea of selling something sacred popped into my mind.”

Todd Glaser

Traveling Light

“I have this really nice, square little ukelele that’s like a cigar-box shaped,” Johnson says. “That instrument is kind’ve a tradition in Hawaii. They used to make them back in the old days. A friend of mine in San Diego made me this one that fits in my backpack perfectly. It’s the size of a coffee-table book. Other than that, I just take a backpack. We were gone less than a week, so you really don’t need anything. I bring two pairs of trunks, and a couple of shirts. The nice thing is if you get dirty you can just sort of stick ’em in the salt water.”

Todd Glaser

Friends for Life

“Kelly and I met when we were teenagers,” Johnson says. “He was a couple years older than me. We all knew about Kelly before we met him because it became pretty evident that he’d become the next world champion. He just had a way about him when he surfed with the things he could do on the waves and the way he carried himself. We just met through friends in common and we just became better and better friends. We started playing guitar at the same time. The guy who taught me to play, one of my dad’s best friends, taught Kelly and I chords right around the same time.”

“I became very close with Jack’s family,” Slater says. “We used to laugh about it because when he was away at college in the mid Nineties, I was staying in his room with his parents. They were upstairs and I was downstairs in Jack’s room for a number of different winters.”

Todd Glaser

The Need to Surf

“Surfing was always kinda the first thing in my life and music is secondary,” Johnson says. “I don’t mean to say music means less to me. When I go on tour it’s definitely, it takes all the energy to do it and we’re not around waves all the time and I love it. But when I go home, I usually put the guitar in the closet for a few weeks. I don’t need to play all the time like I need to surf. I don’t feel like myself if I don’t surf.”

Todd Glaser

Riding the Waves

“Jack’s a great surfer,” Slater says. “He was probably never gonna be, like, world-pro level, but he could have had a living surfing. He could have turned pro and done some events. He’s not a radical, flashy guy. He’s just a good, clean surfer with a really nice style. And he likes powerful waves. He likes going fast. He’s a powerful surfer, so he likes the wave that kind of pushes back and has some energy to it. I think people don’t have an understanding of how good Jack is as a surfer. He’s not, like, some guy who surfs on the side for pastime. He’s pretty serious about surfing.”

Todd Glaser

Let It Bleed

“I slammed my hips so bad,” Johnson says. “I thought I was paralyzed for a second, I slammed it so hard, and then I could swim again. It was so much pain that I was on the little dinghy that they were shooting photos from, laying in the boat. Eventually, I came in and watched Kelly just completely get barreled across the point, and my leg started feeling a little better. Every time I saw another wave, I’d try and stand up to see if I could put any weight on it and I couldn’t really but I just kept thinking, ‘I’m never gonna see waves like this without any other humans on it ever again, so I gotta get out there.’ So I went out to surf for about another two hours after I hit my leg. The next day I literally couldn’t walk, I was limping so bad.”

Todd Glaser

Sidelined on the Dinghy

“I’ve gotten a lot of injuries over the years,” Johnson says. “There have been a lot of different sprains and dislocations of shoulders and stitches and stuff like that. I got one really bad accident when I was about 17; I knocked some teeth out and got a lot of stitches through my lip and on my forehead or anything. That kept me out of the water for a while. I never really worry about these injuries affecting my musical career. Surfing to me is really what’s more important anyways than the music. Music’s always sort’ve been for when there’s no waves or nighttime.”

Todd Glaser

Good Friends and a Bottle of Beer

“Jack’s circle of friends are people that he’s had around him most of his life,” Slater says of his friendship with the singer. “I think Jack really likes the fact that our group of surf friends has been real tight forever, since we were teenagers. And, you know, all of us pushed Jack really hard to put his own music out before he was confident enough to do so. We all had recordings of Jack’s in the late Nineties into around 2000. I think people like to stay friends with the people who can keep them level and grounded. And I think Jack has a good group of friends around him that does makes him feel normal. I think it’s probably refreshing for him to just be who he was before he did all of what he’s done.”

Todd Glaser

Just Keep Swimming

“I can hold my breath underwater for probably three-and-a-half minutes underwater,” Johnson says. “The visibility was so amazing there,” Johnson says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You could see your friend from like a hundred yards away. It was wild.”

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.