A three-time World Champion, Tom Curren might be surfing’s ultimate enigma. Curren retired early from competitive surfing to focus on free surfing and playing music, and he’s also one of the only surfers Kelly Slater considers an idol. When Slater surpassed Curren’s then-World Record of 33 career victories on the World Tour, Kelly seemed to genuinely regret overtaking Curren’s feat.
“I honestly felt bad when I beat Tom’s contest record,” Slater told me during an interview a few years ago. “I mean it was an honor at the same time. I’d been tied with him for about a year and a half. Ironically, I beat it at Trestles where we both won our first professional event when we were both 18. There was sort of something perfect there. It’s kind of hard when you surpass an idol. I think that Tom could have won a few more world titles had he been focused in the right way and wanted it. I think he was battling with a few internal things, a few personal things. There were a lot of different things working against Tom at that time when he was really in his prime. Him and his wife went through a divorce, which is a really difficult thing obviously. Tom’s a true soul surfer. I think he battled himself with the corporate world, the corporate side of things. Getting paid to surf. It probably made it hard for him to be really balanced and centered knowing that he felt he wasn’t in the right place surfing pro contests.”
Last month Curren played an acoustic show in Northern California at The Old Princeton Landing, and luckily, I was able to catch up with Curren shortly before he played his set in front of a packed house. It was a privilege to interview one of surfing’s true soul surfers, Tom Curren.
You’re here in Northern California, home of famed big wave surf break Maverick’s. I believe you’ve surfed Maverick’s before, back in 1993. What was the experience like?
It wasn’t a big day. Fun though. I wish I had a better quiver. I’m working on it, though.
Would you ever surf Maverick’s again?
Yeah, I hope to. Of course, I say that now, and it’s flat when I’m here. (Laughs) Maybe next time, if I’m here and the waves are good I might change my mind. I hope to paddle out there again.
So many surfers look up to you. There are only a few surfers out there to this day who have so many admirers. Who did you admire? Who influenced you to become who you are today?
There are a lot of names that I could go on about. When I was really little, I was looking up to a lot of the guys in Hawaii. More recently, when I became more involved in competing, I was really watching guys like Mark Richards and the whole new Australian style. That sort of thing. Probably a bit of both.
How has your music evolved over the years from when you first started to now? Is it similar, or is it an evolving process?
I think it’s evolved a little bit. I’ve been trying to develop a different style of playing, playing a different tune. So that’s one thing that I think is a little different. Otherwise, it’s kind of the same idea. I’m working on songs, and trying to work on getting better at song writing. It’s just a really difficult challenge in a way, but in another way it’s something that I enjoy to do.
We’re hearing a lot about your kids possibly becoming the next generation of pro surfers. In your eyes, how are your kids doing as surfers?
I’m very happy with how they’re doing. Definitely very happy to be able to surf with them. Now it’s getting to the point where I’m keeping up with them instead of the other way around. It’s really been good, especially the last few years.
Let’s say in a hypothetical world you came back on the tour full-time. How well do you think you would do?
Mmmmm. Not so good, probably. I guess if it was the best waves that I could hope for. The waves would have to be a certain way. Even then, the guys would probably beat me nine times out of ten.
Most people would not agree with that. I think you’re being a little modest. You surfed Rockaway today?
Yeah, we went out there. Like I said, we came back from Hawaii, so the main problem was the water temperature. Other than that, it was pretty fun.
Where were you in Hawaii? Were you on the North Shore?
Yeah, North Shore.
Do you make a lot of trips out there?
Not really. We go once a year usually, but we haven’t gone the last few years. But we were there for a while.
You rolled in with your son, correct?
How did he like Rockaway?
He liked it. Thought it was really cold, though.
How much gear were you wearing?
Wetsuit, booties. That’s it. No hood. No gloves.
You seem to be the only guy Kelly Slater talks about in terms of looking up to someone. Do you guys have a close relationship?
No, not that close. But we do spend some time together. Pretty good quality time I suppose. Mostly we just talk about surfing and stuff. So it’s nothing beyond that, I guess. I’m gracious about it; it’s nice of him to say those things. He does have a lot of friends, and I’m lucky to be counted among them.
He admires you, and so does the rest of the surfing world. Northern California is honored to have you, thank you for a few minutes of your time Tom.