Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Erik “Smelly” Sandin would probably be on a stage in front of 5,000 raucous punk rockers right about now. While his storied career as the drummer for legendary punk rock band NOFX is well documented, less is known of his other passion: surfing. For thirteen years, Erik has been shaping surfboards, and with touring on hold, he has spent the last twelve months turning his surf passion into a full-time gig making boards under his own label – Pickle Stix. I spoke with Erik about the company, life during COVID, and the new NOFX record.
Going back to the beginning, what brought you into the world of surfing?
I was born and raised in Southern California. Surf and skate culture is what Southern California is all about. I was a kid in the seventies during the heyday of California Dreamin’ and surfing – the whole thing was part of my life. I grew up about an hour away from the beach, so the beach wasn’t my day to day thing but the culture was – the clothes, the style, the influence. Plus, being into sports like skating draws you into surfing. It kind of goes hand in hand. It’s maybe the same as if you were from Wyoming. Maybe you’d be into rodeo because it’s your influence.
You are involved in a few businesses. Where does Pickle Stix stand in the pantheon of companies you’re a part of?
Well, I don’t know man, I’m not involved in a whole lot of businesses. I am a part owner of a boxing gym, but with what’s going on right now the gym is shut down. But for surfing, surfing’s always been my passion. It’s music, surfing and motocross. I live fifteen minutes from Huntington Beach now in a coastal community and I’ve been surfing for thirty years, and thirteen years ago I began shaping surfboards, just fuckin’ around and exploring that world. I found that I really, really like it, so Pickle Stix now is my day to day thing and it has been for the last year. I’ve shaped a fuck-load of boards in the last year. I work eight hours a day at it, every day.
How many boards do you get through in a month?
I probably do somewhere between 20 and 40 boards a month.
How would you describe the know-how required to shape a surfboard? Is it something anyone can do or is the skill level required simply off the charts?
You have to have a general knowledge of how to use your hands with tools and seeing lines and stuff. It’s like you have to be somewhat tool-savvy and somewhat artist-savvy. But if you want to get into surfboarding shaping, all you need to do is buy a blank at a supply store and just go on YouTube and there are four-hundred-million tutorials that tell you how to do it. It’s just so damn cool to take raw material – a piece of foam – and turn it into something that you’re actually going to use. It’s not like you’re going to put it on a wall and stare at it. The feeling you get when you make a surfboard and it actually works is rad. It’s being physically, emotionally, and optically one with your art – that’s fucking awesome.
What can go wrong when shaping a surfboard?
You can fuck up a lot of shit. With a planer you can make a flat spot in the nose rocker and then that board is done. Or you can dig it. Or the rails can be too soft. Or it can have big wobbles in it because the blank is warped. There is a lot that can go wrong.
What unusual requests have you received?
How do I explain this… I had a 350-pound guy who had never surfed before but he didn’t want a 9’6” longboard, he wanted a skinny, short board. He’s a big dude. So we came up with I think an 8’4” – you know, a pretty big board. But he also wanted a blunt nose chopped straight across. It was all these things that were sort of counterintuitive to what he actually needed and I did my best with it and as it turns out it worked pretty fucking good. I’ve also had people that don’t know anything about surfboards tell me where to put fins. There have been a lot of odd requests from people that know a little bit about surfboards, but they want it their way. I’ve turned down requests too because I don’t want to be the guy that gives the person something that they don’t want.
Have you ever done a riverboard for someone?
I’ve never done a river surfing board. I’ve had requests. From what I’ve seen, there are two types of river surfing waves. There are the ones that kind of roll over on each other for which you’d want a board with a flattish rocker that can glide along, and there are some that blow up and have a tight pocket so you’d need a short board with a lot of nose rocker and a really pulled in tail to fit that tight little space. So yeah, I’ve never shaped a river surfing board but I’ve definitely looked at those waves and thought about what might work.
What type of board do you ride?
I ride what they would call a “big-guy short board.” It’s a seven-footer, nice and round. You know, I’m 54 years old. I need a little extra foam to get me in early in the paddle. I’m not riding the boards that I used to ride when I was younger. I’m a firm believer that 95 percent of people are on boards that are too small for them. If you can’t paddle in at a good speed and if you can’t get in early, you’re blowing it a lot of times just because you’re on the wrong choice of equipment.
Where do you ship your boards?
I mostly get U.S. requests. I’ve shipped to the east coast, to Northern California. I’ve even shipped to places like Minnesota. I’ve done some international orders too. Shipping is kind of expensive internationally – it’s like $500 or$600 bucks to ship a board. It’s ridiculous. I just did a board for a guy that lives in Nicaragua. He got it and loves it.
Do you often get NOFX-related artwork requests for your boards?
To put a NOFX kind of thing on the board is maybe twenty percent [of requests]. I started advertising at first with NOFX and in the last nine months, my customers were 99 percent NOFX fans that actually surf. But in the last couple months, I’ve gotten people that have no idea I’m in NOFX. My Instagram page got kind of big and I don’t really put band stuff on there. Recently, I got orders from two people that came up to me after and went, “Wait a minute, aren’t you the guy in NOFX?” That actually made me feel really good because they weren’t just buying a board because I’m a guy in a band – they actually wanted one of my boards.
You once told us your best surf story where you described a trip to Indonesia and an admiration for the villagers who seemingly “longed for less.” What did you mean by that?
The trip was magical. We pulled in on a boat into this little village and the people were herding buffalo on the beach. They had on grass hats and weren’t wearing much and spoke a dialect that not a lot of Indonesian people know because it was their own little community. We get caught up in the wants and the hustle and bustle but I’ve always been attracted to the simpler side of life. In 1989 I went to Costa Rica for the first time and it was just me and a surfboard and a bunch of acid [laughs]. It was the same vibe. It was a small village and I was drinking a beer, sitting on the beach, and there were two little kids butt naked playing in a creek that was running into the water. I was like “fuck man,” just the simplicity and calm of checking out from the madness of this world. It sounds like hippy bullshit, but that vibe has always attracted me.
That type of simplicity must be hard to achieve when you’re on the road playing music…
Living anywhere in the United States outside of a farm makes [that simplicity] impossible for any of us to experience. I live in Los Angeles and it’s completely unobtainable unless I was literally willing to move some place else.
You’re fortunate to have Pickle Stix to help bring in some income while the pandemic puts touring on hold. What has been your experience during this time around musicians from bands that aren’t as recognizable?
It’s fucked up, man, a lot of people are struggling. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t financially or emotionally prepared for this forced early retirement that’s been put on us indefinitely. It’s not just band guys. It goes to the crew guys, the bus drivers, the bus driving companies, the lighting companies, the 60-year-old dude that works at the night club pushing equipment all day. Everyone is having to adapt or suffer or both. If you’re a smaller band that only did tours here and there, maybe you had a day job anyway and you’re okay. But full-time bands got really screwed. I don’t know about other people, but I know that I have to stay busy and I have to participate actively in my family. That’s why I decided to expand my board making thing, and it’s been an incredible experience.
Right, so on the opposite end, for people that are homebodies and have still been able to make ends meet, the pandemic has probably been okay. Is there any element to being at home that you’ve actually enjoyed?
I still love touring. Travelling is in my blood. I haven’t been on an airplane in two years, which has never happened. I feel like I’m missing an appendage. I don’t miss the crowds and the hustle and bustle and all of that, but I miss doing what I do. When I’m on the road, I’m on the road. When I get home, I’m kind of a homebody. I do my little my routine – I wake up, I check the surf, I go surf, I shape my surfboards, clean the house, take a nap, then start the next day over. I travel so much that being home is kind of like my vacation almost. Now that I’ve been home for an extend period of time, I’m ready to get back on the road.
Has NOFX talked about tours going forward?
Yeah, every Monday we have a Zoom band meeting with our manager. We’re talking about Australia and in September Europe might open up. But we heard that six months ago, you know? The reality is nobody fucking knows, and when stuff does open up what does that mean? I’m going to guess it’s less than fifty-fifty I get to tour and play live music this year. Who is going to want to take the risk of putting 5,000 people in a venue and then being liable if there’s another outbreak? A friend of mine was in a meeting with Live Nation the other day and this is just hearsay, but apparently they are going to make everyone do a disclaimer that says that if they get sick, it’s not Live Nation’s fault. But then that puts the liability on the venue. So if there is a lawsuit and it becomes a class action lawsuit, a lot of people aren’t going to want to be held liable for anything. Everybody is going to be too shy to put on shows. That’s the vibe.
I’d be remiss not to ask you about the new NOFX album, Single Album, that just came out. Simple question, what’s your favorite song from it?
I’d have to say “The Big Drag.” It’s just so unique and the lyrics are dark and heavy. It’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done. It’s a pretty punk way to open up the record with a long, slow, heavy song like that then have the record kick off after that. I’d say that one – or the last song called “The Last Resort” is my favorite.
“Doors and Fours” is one of my favorites. It brings me back to your book (NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories) in a way.
Oh yeah! That’s another good one that’s kind of dark. It tells a story with our friends. With the way records are made, there are peaks and valleys when you’re listening from beginning to end. If you have a fast song and the next song is slow and dark, they complement each other. When you’re only listening to one song here and one song there by streaming, you’re not really getting any context. You’re not getting the journey of the “book,” so to speak. You’re just reading the chapter out of context. Maybe that’s why “Doors and Fours” didn’t get much attention.