Tim Baker’s credentials are substantial. He came to live and work on the Gold Coast in 1991 for Australian Surfing Life and by coincidence we met in a café in the old Burleigh Theatre Arcade which is where ASL had their offices.
This was after a stint as Editor at Tracks magazine. He wrote Rabbit Bartholomew’s biography Busting down the door in 1996 and has been a freelance writer ever since.
He’s modest too. “I’ve written eight or nine books,” he said. But wow, those books point to surf credentials the rest of us can only imagine: Australia’s Century of Surf as well as biographies of Occy, Mick Fanning and Simon Anderson. He also wrote Surfari – a book about a trip with his family around Australia and also a children’s book The Surfer and the Mermaid.
You’d think he had reached his zenith but it seems Tim Baker is far from done when it comes to surf culture.
“I feel like I’ve sort of had a good ten years of being really possessed with pragmatic provider instincts and I’ve come out of that and am a bit more idealistic and feel I can do the real dream projects,” he said. “And this project is part of that.”
The project he’s referring to is (m)Ocean: a unique celebration of surf and music that will take place at one of the most-loved beaches in Australia: Burleigh.
“I want it to be open to interpretation, but I say em-ocean,” Tim said. “The ‘m’ stands for music and it’s a celebration about how surfing makes us feel.”
He reflects on a bunch of performances over recent years that have provided a catalyst for this work, and have involved musicians and surfers collaborating.
“Richard Tognetti (Director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra) is a surfer and a friend of mine,” he said of the violinist who was creative director for The Reef, which was a performance piece that intersected music and nature focused on the rugged landscapes of northern Western Australia.
“There was Musica Surfica, which similarly explored that synergy between music and surfing. And another friend of mine, Andrew Kidman made the film Spirit of Akasha and performed the soundtrack live at the Sydney Opera House.”
“The logical step is to have live music and live surfing coincide, and to explore that symbiotic feedback loop that will hopefully happen. So that’s the kernel of the idea,” Tim said.
This isn’t Tim’s first involvement with Bleach. Since its inception he’s had a creative project included. First there was a theatrical production of his children’s book The Surfer and the Mermaid.
“I’d never done anything like that before… so all of a sudden I’m in a theatre developing a children’s play,” Tim said. And then the following year he conceived and designed a guided coastal walk around the longest wave concept.
“That’s a reference to this one wave that Damon Harvey rode from Snapper to North Kirra in 2002 when the super bank was at its zenith. He was the only one to do it. I’m confident saying it’s the longest wave ever ridden in Australia.”
“We used that as a tool for telling a lot of stories that happened along that stretch of coast,” Tim said. “And then the last Bleach I did an exhibition at Surf World.”
“Then this year, well I felt really fortunate that I could explain my project as succinctly as: I want to present surfing as a performing art,” Tim said.
Tim participated in a weekend workshop with Melbourne artist David Pledger through YARN: he had to develop his project and pitch it as well as gather feedback and input on how to develop it further.
“David is also about the interface of sport and art. At the end of the workshop, we were encouraged to apply for these Uber mentorships and David made it known that he wanted to mentor me for this project and he’s been my mentor ever since,” he said.
On the surface it seems like a big transition to make. From writer to creative director for something that’s never been done before.
“I have moments where I wake up in the middle of the night and go “oh fuck, what have I done” but then in the light of a new day it’s really exciting. I know all the people I want to involve in the project. I have a producer. Asho (Graham Ashton) is our musical director. I have all these really accomplished people around me.”
“Surfing’s true spirit is wild and free and creative,” Tim said. “I’ve always felt that the competitive model sells it short. Competitive sport is the ill-fitting suit that surfing puts on to make itself respectable. It’s what it wears to see the bank manager to go and get a loan.”
“For a kid growing up in Melbourne, I fell in love with surfing and got to go and work for Tracks and got to go to all these big surfing contests… I was really disappointed in them, I found them tedious. I loved watching surfing, but the competitive model… for some people that’s what it is. For others, it’s something else.”
“I’ve never surfed a contest heat in my life. Because I’m not very good,” he laughs and goes on to tell me about other surfers who feel the same way. Jack Johnson who likens surfing to dancing and the first ever world surfing champion Phyllis O’Donnell who said she had won competitions because she could hear music from the shore and it helped her move on the wave.
“This terrain is crying out for exploration,” Tim said. “But this is an experiment – we don’t know what will happen and we won’t know until we do it.”
So picture this. Burleigh headland in autumn, right in front of the rock break where waves break closest to shore. A nice, gently sloping grassy hill with a stage set for bands. You’re in the crowd but you only have to move your head 30 degrees from band to waves and back again.
That’s what Tim has in mind for (m)ocean which will come to life as part of this year’s Bleach festival. The opening act, Band of Frequencies have a long association with surfing and music and have experimented with the connection between the two.
“Dave Rastovich is an occasional percussionist with Band of Frequencies too,” Tim said. “They completely get it and are improvisational – they all surf, so they can respond to the surf and the surfing.”
As well as exploring surfing as art, there’s a historical element to this event too. Tim explains that it’s the centenary of Duke Kahanamoku’s visit to Australia where he gave surfriding displays at Freshwater and Dee Why in Sydney but was here primarily to swim as an Olympic swimming champion.
“There’s always been a local folklore that he surfed at Coolangatta,” Tim said. “I wanted to mark that centenary so we’re using a historical quiver of surboards from local collector Carl Tanner. His boards make up 90% of the collection in SurfWorld.”
“We’re going to have surfers riding everything from the original solid timber planks that Duke would have ridden 100 years ago through to the first balsa Malibu boards and the first fiberglass boards. The concept is to bring surf history to life before people’s eyes so they can watch how these different craft move through the water.”
As Tim curated the event he searched for surfers who have both a creative and musical mindset. Surfers who are musicians and musicians who are surfers; so they can read eachother’s art and respond to it.
Dave Rastovich, Asher Pacey and Leah Dawson from Hawaii are all on board. There’s two former Stubby’s Classic champions: Rabbit Bartholomew and Peter Harris and the event has the blessing of Burleigh Boardriders as well as local surf clubs.
“The other theme for me is that I really want to present a cooperative model of surfing rather than a competitive one,” Tim said. “Surf is so crowded and there’s all this talk of surf strategies and plans and this is about trying to create a more harmonious surfing environment through art rather than regulation.”
On the day, Band of Frequences will perform for 90 minutes through the designated performance piece. And then Kim Churchill will play a 50 minute set after, at which point the public will be invited to surf and experience surfing to live music.
“We’re not getting any authority to clear the water. We’re just relying on the surf community to help us out and clear the rock break for an hour and a half. We’re hoping people will recognize the unique opportunity to enjoy the spectacle. And then afterwards they get to surf to Kim Churchill playing live.”
Who doesn’t want to be a part of that?
“I’ve been to places in the world where it’s crowded in the surf but it operates more harmoniously. So we’d really like to give people a homeopathic dose of surfing harmony,” Tim said.
(m)ocean takes place as part of Bleach* at Burleigh Headland on Saturday 21 March from 3.30 – 6.30pm.