HOW MATT BIOLOS BECAME THE SHAPER TO THE PROS AND THE AVERAGE JOES –
It's finals day of the 2013 US Open at Huntington Beach: tens of thousands of Californians swarm the pier and transform the beach into a swaying mass of colour and flesh, making the whole setting a feel like a scene from surfing's version of Gladiator. As Kolohe Andino and Brazilian Alejo Muniz paddle out for the final, Lost shaper Matt Biolis watches on from the comfort of the competitor's area like a Roman chancellor. For once he feels a little relaxed as today he has the designed the wave weapons for both surfers. Carissa Moore has already claimed victory in the women's event using one of Matt's fibreglass blades and it would seem there is now little left to do but witness events unfold and revel in the guaranteed glory. It's true that the odds were always in his favour though.
Such is Biolis's popularity at events held in Southern California that he had taken orders from over 20 of the top pros in the lead up to the contest. Prior to the event Matt Biolos had never even met Alejo Muniz. He was just an order form at the end of an email, another high-ranking pro, succumbing to the peer pressure to ride a Mayhem in Californian contests. Kolohe on the other hand is one of Biolos's favourite sons. Kolohe's dad, Dino, and Biolos go way back. Dino was one of the first guys to win contests on Matt's boards and Matt even goes so far as to call him a co-designer. If this were Formula One, Kolohe would be behind the wheel of a Ferrari and Matt 'Mayhem' Biolos would be the car's engineer – a tight-knit team with Dino delivering the motivational speech in the pits. Alejo by comparison is a veritable stranger, whose appearance on a Mayhem makes Matt feel more like a mercenary than a team player.
Out in the water the Brazilian Muniz shuts out the parochial crowd who are baying for his blood; Kolohe is a Californian golden child and they want to see him whip some South American ass. Spurred on by the animosity and transported by the Mayhem, which feels like a magic carpet beneath his feet, Alejo flies out of the blocks and 'Brother' Andino can't chase down the 8.46 he needs for victory. Matt Biolos temporarily basks in his double podium finish but it's not long before the inner conflict emerges. It doesn't help that Kolohe's teammate, Nat Young, is screaming in his ear, "Why'd you shape Alejo that fucking board?" almost as if Matt had performed some act of treason.
"Oh fuck, the wrong guy won," Matt begins to think, reflecting on his long-standing relationship with Kolohe and Dino. Sure the kudos and the bank account have been served well by making a lot of boards for the pros in the event, but to Matt it suddenly all feels like potluck, a crapshoot. The prolific shaper, whose stat sheet of occasional and full-time riders reads like a who's who of professional surfing (Taj Burrow, Julian Wilson, Mick Fanning, Nat Young, Chris Ward, Tyler Wright, Chris Davidson, Mason Ho, Carissa Moore and many more) finds himself at the crossroads and begins to wonder if perhaps there is not something more honourable and chivalrous in saying no …
“Christian would be like ‘do anything that’s goingtomakeeveryone angryaboutmyboards …iwantnakedpriests burning on a Cross’.”
Matt Biolos grew up in Southern California but surfing wasn't his first love. His family home in respectable Upland was right by the provocatively named 'Pipeline' skate park, which was a favourite amongst many of the world's best coping grinders when skate culture boomed in the '80s. At a time when surfing was pushing a fluoro-idealism with brands like Echo Beach, skate culture still had the scent of rebellion, remembers Matt. "You could tell that there were marketing people behind the surfing brands. You could tell that it was fed to you and designed. I liked the rawness of skate culture and punk rock." Punk rock was Matt's other teenage obsession. After the British scene imploded with bands like The Clash and the The Sex Pistols breaking up, a distinctly Californian punk scene was spawned in the early '80s. "That was the most influential thing to me. I was in junior high from '81-'87, which was the peak of California hard core (music). I think they influenced me more than surfers … everyone was air-brushing beautiful neon panels on their boards and I was drawing skulls from Corrosion of Conformity album covers." In the same way a teenage grom might have named his favourite surfers, Matt runs through a list of bands that defined his adolescence. "D.I., Social Distortion, Minor Threat, Bad Brains…"
Curiously, it was punk's self-sufficient credo that served as a catalyst for Matt's interest in shaping. "It was all about doing everything yourself. Design your own record cover, record your own music, put on your shows, make your own flyers… Do everything yourself from start to finish. Matt saw an obvious link between punk's D.I.Y approach and the surfboard industry. "I loved surfboards because they were handmade," he enthuses.
Armed with the first hunk of foam he'd ever given form to, 17-year-old Biolos rocked up to Herby Fletcher's San Clemente shaping bay to have it glassed and found his calling. "I saw that place and instantly I thought, 'this is what I want to do'."
Fletcher's shaping bay was a heady scene at the time. It was base camp for both Matt Archbold and Christian Fletcher who were the anti-hero astronauts at the forefront of surfing's space race. Biolos was initially employed to do artwork on the boards. While Archie wanted his wave-slayers covered in classic Americana – eagles, Star Spangled Banner, Indian Heads and Steve Tyler – Christian Fletcher saw Biolos' potential to make the fibreglass canvas into something a little more provocative. "Christian would be like, 'Do anything that's going to make everyone angry about my boards … I want naked priests burning on a cross'."
Although Matt wasn't initially employed as a shaper it was the kind of environment in which learning occurred by osmosis. "Dino Andino was there, the McNaulty family, the Paskowitz's and of course Herby. This whole community of really creative people. And I was the outsider with this kind of dirty, little punk rock, hard-core kind of thing." Matt was handling boards from all around the world, including those of Nev Hyman. "I remember them being really refined and beautiful," recalls Matt.
Over a decade later, Nev of course would go on to develop Firewire and sign Taj to ride his innovative design for several years, only to have Biolos, the one-time punk kid from the Fletcher factory, poach his prized team rider.
When Biolos started making boards his first real hit of exposure came when Strider Wasilewski took a quiver of his boards to Hawaii in the early '90s and scored a couple of mag spreads at big Pipe, however the emergence of Lost as a top-flight brand was really hitched to the meteoric rise of Chris Ward. "We discovered Chris Ward at 14 years old, surfing down at the pier (Oceanside Pier, San Clemente) and
“HE WAS 14 AND SURFING 8-10 FOOT LOG CABINS AND THENWE’DTAKEHIMTO PORTO ESCONDIDO AND IT WAS JUST UNCANNY.”
my business partner said, 'this kid's the one'. He's going to put us on the map. He started hanging out at our house and I started making boards for him. As soon as we got Chris on our program, Corey and Shea Lopez wanted to live on our couch all summer because they wanted to be next to him. They're like 'this kid's the future. We want to explode with him'." Matt still sounds a little awestruck when he talks about what it was like to witness Wardo as a teenage prodigy. "He was 14 and surfing 8-10 foot Log Cabins and then we'd take him to Puerto Escondido and it was just uncanny."
Riding Biolos's boards, Ward became both an aerial virtuoso and a Backdoor Pipe specialist. With his trademark misanthropic scowl and unique, slightly unorthodox attack, he also developed a cult following amongst surfers looking for an alternative guru when much of pro surfing was making a quick-march towards the mainstream. Wardo went big in every direction of his life and through the mid '90s he helped the Lost label become a kind of insignia for disaffected youth. Even after a career of rolled rental cars, court appearances, drunken volatility and WCT failure, Ward's enigmatic cult status has endured and Biolos has been there with him for the entire ride. When asked if he's got any good Wardo stories, Biolos replies coyly, "Everyone's got one Wardo story but I've got one for everybody."
Once Wardo blew up there was a queue of rippers who became happily 'Lost'. A glance at the Lost website's official team rider list indicates that in addition to the front-line crew like Kolohe, Wardo, the Ho's and Carissa there's a litany of lesser known Californian pros rocking Mayhems. Interest from top-flight, international surfers with a penchant for picking and choosing different shapers came about largely because of the inclusion of Trestles on the CT and WQS circuit. Trestles has always been Biolos's major testing ground and by 2011 there was a major swing towards Mayhems when the tour rolled into San Clemente for the Hurley Pro. That year over a quarter of the top 34 chased up Matt for a board and DHD devotee, Mick Fanning, famously rode a creased Kolohe Andino Mayhem to the quarter-finals. Mick was never going to sacrifice a 15-year relationship with Darren Handley but the brief liaison inspired Matt to express a certain professional envy in regards to Mick's design knowledge. "I always tell Darren Handley that he's a cheater because Mick Fanning is by far and away the best. Mick's incredible. He's so articulate about boards. You don't even understand what you have there. He is the ultimate professional that I've had the honour of working with. It's an unfair advantage to have that guy." At the time of writing one of Mick's Instagram posts indicated he had just received a new batch of Mayhems in the lead up to Bells. It seems that the world champion has every intention of continuing an affair with Matt Biolos while dating Darren Handley.
Although Matt readily admits that shapers are also complicit in the creation of a culture that allows pro surfers to chop and change boards, he feels that the surfers are the ones who are really driving it. "It's kind of like all the surfers are working us against each other. One surfer will get boards from like six or seven shapers." The current scene obviously creates a certain inner conflict for Biolos; part of him definitely hankers for the kind of camaraderie and conviction of purpose that a Formula One team might experience – a situation where there is unquestioned loyalty to one shaper.
Although Mick may be two-timing, Matt suggests that he and Darren Handley are good friends and that he is more inclined to identify with shapers from Australia. "Darren and I have a great relationship … Jason Stevens and I are not chums or anything but I think there's a mutual respect … I aligned myself with all the young Australian shapers in the 2000s. I feel like there's a lot more going on here at a high level than in California, but like the surfers there's a competitiveness to it for sure."
Matt returns to the car-racing analogy to illustrate the scene. "The tour has become like a Formula One Series without the driver loyalty, but instead of Ferrari, McClaren, Williams and Red Bull you've got DHD, JS, Channel Islands and Mayhem." He hammers home the point by drawing attention to the fact that in 2012 and 2013 only one WCT victory on the men's tour was secured on a board other than the four brands referenced above. (John John Florence won the Billabong Rio Pro in 2012 riding a board made by his long-standing shaper, John Pyzel.) That's 19 out of 20 results at the elite level, split between four shapers. It's a fairly significant statistic when you consider how many shapers there are around the world.
If the men's tour remains a cut-throat scene with loyalty a frequent last-place finisher in the battle for defining values, Matt was much happier with the way he handled a complicated scenario on the girls tour. Tyler Wright and Carissa Moore spent most of 2013 locked in a monumental battle for the title. In Brazil Tyler whipped out a Mayhem, won the event, and shot to the lead in the title race. Matt had randomly made Tyler the board eight months earlier but never heard anything back. Carissa on the other hand was an official Mayhem team rider who had been working closely with Matt for three years. When Tyler's manager approached Matt to make some more boards after her success in Brazil, Matt was faced with an ethical dilemma. "Do I make boards for both of these girls and watch them battle it out? Or do I want to be like a team player or a martyr almost?"
Matt called up Carissa and let her know that he was one hundred percent committed to her quest for a second world title. "We're going to win or lose this together," he assured her. The second call to Tyler's manager was a little tougher… "I think Tyler is great and I really appreciate somebody winning on my board but I really don't want to do this mid season. Why don't you guys come back and talk to me at the end of the season?"
Matt didn't make any boards for Tyler and Carissa went on to win the world title. However, when the season ended Tyler was straight on the phone to Matt, adamant that she wanted to work with him. Under the auspices of a more formal arrangement, Matt was happy to work with Tyler. Tyler stayed at Matt's house with his fam- ily, went surfing and snow boarding with him and worked on a quiver of boards. After enjoying the experience of making boards in a nurturing rather than opportunistic environment, Matt was left asking himself another big question. "Do I have the balls to do this with the guys … to only work with guys who are all in?"
If Matt must partake in a Game of Thrones-like battle with his contemporaries, he seeks counsel and friendship from an unlikely shaping source – Mark Richards. The relationship between the punk-inspired Californian and the statesman-like MR seems an unlikely one but Matt can't speak highly enough of the four-time world champion. Prior to the interview Matt had just returned from a snowboarding trip with MR at Mammoth Mountain in California. He has featured MR and his boards in his cult-followed Lost movies (most notably Chris Ward's mind-blowing section from 5'5"Redux, riding an MR single fin) and acknowledges him as a major influence for the shorter, wider, thicker models he has had so much success with amongst everyday surfers and the public. "I remember seeing Mark Richards boards that were all old and dusty hanging in shops and thinking, 'Well that looks interesting'. Why is nobody making those any more?"
It was thunderbolts of inspiration like this that helped Matt develop the other side of his business. While he may be the darling shaper of surfing's elite, his other real success has been in making fun boards that helped average Jimmy and Jenny take their performance to new levels. Look around a lineup almost anywhere in the world and you are likely to see someone rockin' a Lost model.
As Matt explains, "The work I do with high level athletes is very difficult and hard on the ego. You have to be very humble and take a lot of hits and roll with the punches. There's really only half a dozen guys working with these surfers and anyone who's in that game knows that it's not easy. I love working with the top level athletes and it's really hard and it's challenging and it's really rewarding of course … particularly when someone wins a contest or puts on a show on one of your boards. However I split my time between the work I do with the high level athletes and the work I do with me and all my friends at Trestles, and the boards that we want to ride and the way that we want to have fun with alternative equipment that's
shorter or wider or has different bottom curves. And I think that's driven my business and my brand as much as the work we've done with the athletes … I come from more of a realistic background. I was never one of the best surfers in town and I never had a body where I was a ripper and I was just good at everything and I've always understood that most people don't operate at that level."
Biolos's success with shapes which are designed to deliver punters more fun than they've ever had on a board gives him an added level of security in the market place, and means he is less dependent on volatile elite performers. "In the end you want to see guys win contests on your boards, but I think what separates us and keeps my business on an even keel is that it's not based around whether I have five guys riding my boards in the contest. I could walk away from it or I could have a cold spell. We have a great foundation and we make fun creative boards and we do a lot of things."
While Biolos would love to see one of the men win a world title on his boards, he isn't hung up on the ambition. "It's something I'd like to see happen before I burn out on this whole thing, but it's not something that I need. At some point I'm going to figure out a way to disappear to the mountains and chop wood and fish."
For now the most popular shaper in surfing is intent on preserving the integrity of his brand, and while the punk kid who showed up at Herby Fletcher's shaping bay almost 30 years ago may have mellowed a little, he stresses that his core values remain the same. "I don't need to be called a punk. I'm a 45-year-old family man. But the ethics are still, 'do it yourself', remain independent and be creative. You gotta stay vital."
Chris Ward was the wunderkind who helped put Lost boards and Biolos's career on a vertical trajectory. ||
Taj Burrow relying on a Mayhem to help with his quest for a world title. ||