Will Conner - Musician, Activist, Entrepreneur
When did you get your first board?
The first surfboard that was all mine was given to me in Byron Bay by my Californian step dad, Jim Stephens, probably in 1976. It was an old 6’6” single fin that Jim re-sealed with resin used to fix holes in cars. It was a green color and somehow had sand in it, so it was really rough like sandpaper. I loved that board!
We lived at the Arts Factory just outside of the center of Byron, which eventually became a music venue and backpackers hostel. It was the original site for the now famous Blues Fest. Back then it was a little creative enclave of expats. My Dad was making his hats (BC Hats), Mum and Jim grew flowers, and Colin Heaney made trippy waterfall and mushroom candles. Lots of musicians and artists would come through and stay and get creative.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Thank you for asking that question, it feels good to re-live those moments!!
Freedom, awe and addicted for life! I think I started at Tallebudgera Creek on the Gold Coast, then graduated to an actual shore break at Tugun, then Wategos and finally The Pass in Byron Bay. I still remember my first tube at The Pass as a little guy, I got two tubes on one wave on the inside section, it was a probably more like two head dips but at that point it was the thrill of my life.
What do you think of the state of surfing today?
In my opinion, the larger brands making the equipment and clothing that call themselves “surf companies” need to get serious about how they affect our environment. They truly need to understand who the people are that make their products in the factories and private label their goods.
I really appreciate Kelly Slater’s efforts in that direction. His Outerknown brand may not be in the average surfer’s price range, but I hope the kids are paying attention to what he is actually doing with the company. I’m also a big fan of his traction pads made from algae.
I try to support small companies who care about how they affect the world. No product made comes without some environmental cost. Having my own company and spending years learning and making a commitment to becoming a responsible business has given me a hopeful view on the future of consumerism in general.
So what I mean is, if there is a tipping point of small businesses who decide to become responsible and consumers are taking notice by spending their hard earned dollar with those companies, the big guys will take notice and change their ways. I have already seen it happening but there is a long way to go.
How did your musical career and collaboration with Jack Johnson take shape?
Honestly I have never really considered music as my career. The reason is because I need it be absolutely no pressure…it needs to be a place I can escape to and just be creative.
When I was 35 I got a call from a Japanese record company who wanted to sign me and do a tour over there. I questioned them, “Hey guys, you know I’m 35 years old right?” My first two albums did really well over there and it was so much fun, but music “success” can be fleeting and it’s important to always remember to ride the wave while you can. When you take off its super powerful and exciting but as you move along it gets more mellow…not worse or better, just different. My point is, don’t take yourself too seriously and get caught up in the applause, money and adulation, all that stuff is fun but it’s not the important part. The important part is the music and the people you share it with.
I met Jack Johnson probably 16 years ago maybe more at the Blues Fest in Byron through another surfer, Chris Malloy, who I had met prior in Ventura, California. Jack and I kept in touch and we would surf when he came to Byron Bay and we ended up in a bunch of places around the world together. One particular trip in France he told me to show up at the place he was staying to go surfing with a few of his friends. Turns out it was Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian and Pat O’Connell. We all drove down the coast to a secret spot and I reverted to a super surf stoked grom around a bunch of my heroes.
A few years later in the UK he introduced me to Ben Stiller and the list goes on and on, but that is about as much name dropping I can do in one paragraph. Eventually Jack asked me to tour with him in Australia and that was such a gift. What an amazing experience! Luckily for me his fans are super stoked and friendly, so they made me feel very worthy of the honor.
Where has your career taken you?
Stinky back alley fish markets of Hong Kong, where I had to eat what they call “thousand year egg”. A cabin with rice paper walls looking at Mt. Fuji, Japan. A disco that was in a church where I found myself surrounded by people watching me attempt my break dance moves in Denver, Colorado. Helsinki, Finland where I had to eat Moose balls (not the actual balls but moose meat). A house made from a giant fallen log in Western Australia. Getting applauded by polite folk for going over the falls on a very cold large wave in Northern Scotland. Losing keys and having to sleep the night under the Malibu pier. I once found myself auditioning for a kung fu movie in China. It was been a wild ride so far.
What projects has your music opened up for you and how have they affected our oceans?
Dave Rastovich invited me to join him and a merry band of ocean goers on what was called the TransparentSea voyage.
We paddled in small sailing kayaks from Byron Bay to Bondi for 36 days, camping, sleeping on the beach, and surfing whenever possible. That was by far the most amazing and life giving adventure. Besides cleaning and documenting plastic pollution we were there to raise awareness about the Japanese government’s illegal whaling in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.
Amazing encounters with Humpback whales were countless along that magical and relatively unpopulated stretch of coast. Even in such remote areas we found tons of plastic that had washed up on the shores. That helped me realize I had to get rid of all single use plastic from my business.
A few years after that we followed the whale migration in a similar trip down the coast of California. Besides writing and recording one song per day we also had a very close encounter with a pod of Blue Whales.
What would you tell someone who wants to make a career in the surf or music industry?
Be yourself, don’t get discouraged by negative people, find a mentor and learn, don’t be afraid of hard work, follow your dreams and they will become reality as long as you never give up.
Where did you grow up and who did you look up to when you were a child?
Byron Bay was a totally different place when I was growing up. It was a really sleepy working class town mixed with surfers and hippies. Everyone was trying to be creative and live a different lifestyle to city folk who were stuck in 9-5 jobs.
My parents were a good mix of surfer, musician, entrepreneur, and hippy. An odd mix but it works for me. It gave me the confidence to appreciate and look up to guys like Gary Timperly who taught me about contest surfing and had more of an analytical approach to life. When I was older I eventually got to spend lots of time with George Greenough, who has been a big influence on me for sure.
Who inspires you today?
My kids! They are pure joy and laughter, I strive to be them.
What's the best way someone with a well known surfing profile can make a difference?
I’m not sure you have to be well known to make a real difference for good in life. It seems to me that collectively people doing small things together can make a huge difference. I guess someone well known could point those things out but it takes us all together to make a lasting difference, in my opinion.
What are your top 3 favorite surf destinations in the world?
A certain not so secret spot near Byron Bay
Matanzas Inlet St. Augustine, near where I live now
What meaning does surfing hold for you?
It’s a magical gift.
What’s next for you?
New album in 2017. Retrophonics studio was destroyed by hurricane Mathew so that is almost back together. I hope to finish the album soon, it’s always such a fun process with good friends.
Who has made the greatest impact on surfing?
So many people, but my favorite of those legends is George Greenough. He created the high impact ratio fin after catching a Tuna. He taught Bob McTavish and gave Nat Young his secret weapon to win the world title (the short board). Watch Plastic Fantastic, George was surfing like Kelly Slater on a spoon knee board 50 years ago while everyone else was struggling on long square boards.
Where can we find you online?
Posted by: Dan Stokes Roman, on January 24, 2017
Hayden Jackson - SEAduction Photography
Shannon Glasson - Ocean Photographer
James McMillan - Byron Bay Surf Festival Director
Shannon Hughes - WSL & ISA Commentator
Craig Sims - White Horses & Surfing Life Publisher
Luke Kennedy - Editor of Tracks Magazine
Simon ‘Swilly’ Williams - Surf Photographer
Jarra Campbell - the Bondi Alchemist
Greg Gordon - Owner of CR Surf
Shayne Nienaber - Surf Photographer