It had come to this. There I was, seated at a table beside Jack Johnson at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, and I was singing to him. Beyonce. Drunk in Love. The queen of all that is holy in pop culture had taken hold of our table and conversation. Just moments earlier, I asked Jack what he thought of Beyonce’s “surfboardt.” He immediately deadpanned, “Who? What?”
I should have seen that coming.
My face wrinkled into disbelief. His face unchanged. He clearly had no idea what I was talking about, and I quickly understood what must happen.
I closed my eyes. Kinda. Then I mustered some uncomfortable, half-ass swag that starkly contrasted the marine exhibits around us. “Mah surfboardt.” Pause. “Mah surfboardt.” Pause. Now my neck was in it. “Grainin’ on that wood. Grainin’ grainin’ on that wood.”
He was a sport, quickly transitioning the conversation into something about Sheryl Crow, Don Ho, and Q-Tip. And that’s how I always imagined my first conversation with Jack Johnson would go.
The occasion that enabled that exchange was just as serendipitous. Jack and his family were in town to celebrate World Water Day with students from high schools around the world, including his alma mater, Kahuku High School, and Algalita, a marine research institute based in Long Beach. All attendees were learning about issues near and dear to our oceans at the 2014 Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions Summit. It was the perfect World Water Day.
And it ended with a surprise performance by Jack Johnson. He owed me one.
So how did you get involved in this gathering of students and environmentalists?
We’re part of this event in two different ways. We have two different non-profit groups. One is called the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, and it’s based in Hawaii. We do environmental education in the schools for kids. It could be anything from school gardens, getting them on field trips, recycling programs, trying to get locally grown food in the cafeteria, and things like that. The other is the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, and we give grants to groups to help them do what they do all around the world where we tour. This was one of the things that Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation helped to fund.
It must feel pretty awesome to get kids from your high school over here to be part of it.
It feels really good to be able to do this. It’s kind of a by-product of getting to do the music, and it all grew into something where I think my wife felt like her job was making sure my ego didn’t grow too much – trying to shine the spotlight off of me and put it on things like this.
That’s interesting you say that. Because I think one of the most distinct qualities of your identity as an artist and apparent in your music is a level of humility. Almost everything about your approach seems very understated.
Well, I mean, I just kinda do what I do. It’s nothing very fancy. It’s just fun. It’s acoustic guitar. It was always a hobby. A lot of people think I’m trying to be overly humble when I say this, but this is one place where people understand. Surfing has always been first in my life, you know? Other people sometimes don’t understand that and think I’m just kind of making up a story, but music is just a hobby for when the waves were flat for me growing up. Or at night time on the North Shore of Oahu there wasn’t always a lot to do, so a lot of my friends would get together and we’d play music. And it was something that brought me and my friends together. It was something I did around the house with my grandma sitting on one side and my niece and nephew, so it was very family-oriented. It was always just a hobby.
Then we had a chance to open for Ben Harper on this one tour, and then it turned into something that was feeling more and more like a career, I just tried to keep in my mind that it was still just a hobby. I think that a lot of times, if you have the luck that something like this gets going, you can forget what it is that you were getting into it for. And for me what connects with people are just simple stories about a relationship. Whether it’s between a father and a child, a husband and a wife, or a couple of friends – the songs are just simple folk songs, you know?
So I’ve always tried to keep surfing first, and that’s just kept it where the songs are pretty simple. On the other side, I get critics all the time. “Don’t you want to change what you’re doing? Don’t you want to reinvent your whole deal?” This and that, and it’s just like, “That just sounds like too much work.” (Laughs.) You know? I just want to surf and keep making albums once I have enough songs. And just keep it what it was. And that’s why it feels understated. It’s a lot of acoustic guitar and simple chords.
Yeah, it can’t still feel like a hobby any more. Right?
We just got back from South America, and it was crazy down there. The fans are so passionate, and we play to a lot of people, and it can get crazy. Sometimes it’s hard to say it’s just a hobby, but we try to keep it that way as much as we can.
whre you able to get waves on that trip? What was the last trip you took where you really got good waves?
Yeah, I actually got to surf a lot there.
The best session I had was on one of those waves, the Flowrider in Santiago. I met these kids at this restaurant and they were really young and they ran all these skateparks around town, and one had a connection with the Flowrider, this big barreling left one. We got to go ride that. That was really fun. We were getting barreled.
I surfed in Lima. We got good waves. Overhead surf in Punta Rocas in Lima and then Praihina in Rio. I had a board with me the whole time, and it was fun.
Say we put together a little surfing musician heat with you, Brandon Boyd, Jon Foreman, Donavon Frankenreiter…How does this play out?
Throw G. Love in there too. He’s pretty good. He can surf, man. He’s got a cruise style. He’s a good surfer. I was surprised when I surfed the first time. But he can go.
So are you smoking them or what?
Well, not Donavon. Donavon might take me out. I haven’t seen him lately, but, growing up, he was a good surfer. I haven’t seen the other guys surf.
Do you have a favorite guitar solo?
Yeah, I’d put Third Stone from the Sun. The Jimi Hendrix one. It starts out as more of a riff, a melody line. (He hums it.) Then he goes pretty nuts in that song too. That one I’d put up there. I remember one of the first trips I did down to Indonesia, I had my Walkman. It was still cassettes then. I had my little yellow water-resistant Walkman. You were probably too young to remember that.
Well, he said reached a point in his career where he might feel fulfilled, and he had gotten so many perfect waves that maybe he’d let the kids have it.
He’s different from me, because I’ve gotten to ride this music thing so much, that for me I could not tour again and be totally happy. Every time I finish a tour, it’s been so crazy, that I just think like, “I don’t think I’ll do that again.” Then I get home and forget all the crazy parts and I just remember the fun parts where I get to surf on the days off or when the shows are real fun. The traveling can get crazy. But, yeah, for me, it’s surfing. Hands down. I mean, I’ll go months without playing music. When I get home I tend to put the guitar away and just live and surf again and be dad and kind of get back to living a normal life. And then, as a by-product of that, I have more to write about, because the songs are just about life experiences. And also I don’t really try to write songs ever. Every once in a while they just come again, and when I have enough, I put together an album. I know I can go without the music. Again, it feels like a hobby that I’m lucky enough to goof around with all the time.
But the surfing, I get super cranky. My wife will tell you, if I go two weeks on a tour without surfing, I just start questioning everything, like “What the hell are we doing out here? This is so crayz.” I gotta surf, man. It’s in my blood, and I can do it ever since before I can remember, and if I don’t, I just start getting out of shape, and it’s like I never think about it as working out, but then when you get my age and all the sudden you go on tour for three weeks and you’re just eating every day and not surfing and start gaining weight. I don’t know how to go to the gym. I don’t know any other way to stay in shape, so the surfing, just by accident you stay in shape. It keeps your life good. So, the guitar, I mean, I love it. But if I played too much guitar, I’d just start getting weird pains in my arm and neck and stuff ’cause you’re hunched over and everything. It’s good, but the surfing is pretty healthy life, and it’s what I do with my kids and my family and all my brothers at home. My whole social scene is kinda based on surfing; that’s just the time you get to go hang with your friends for an hour and talk story out in the water. That’s kind of our guys’ hang out club pretty much. It’s out in the water. In the lineup.
Right on. Bringing it back to why we’re here today, it seems like there are a couple ways you can approach enacting change with political and environmental issues. You can battle the adult world of bureaucracy and authorities. Or you can capture the imagination and attention of kids to make change. Do you think one approach is better than another?
I think a balance is great. I’ve found that I’m more effective with inspiring kids by playing music in classrooms and events like this, but they’re both so important. There’s a lot of irresponsible development that can happen, and you need people opposing that stuff.
I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve been there holding signs and protesting things I don’t believe in, and it’s really important to do that – to stop the things you don’t want to see. But say you stop that thing, then you can wait around for the next thing you don’t like – or you can try to start building the thing you want to see. That’s something I’ve learned in my life is that there are three areas in the world of environmental stewardship.
There are the warriors who need to be out there opposing the irresponsible development. Or if some new bill gets passed that’s ridiculous. You need people trying to tear down the things that are wrong in the world. But you also need the people building up the things that are right. And you also need the weavers. The people who are trying to connect. And I see all three of those areas as being really effective, and people kind of find where they fit in. For me, the building is where I feel really good. That’s where I’m able to help.
What I’ve tried to do is put my name on the cause of labeling GMOs on the national level. We have played several times at Farm Aid, raising money for, and supporting family farms. One of the big things that they are pushing for is labeling GMOs. Also going back to the idea of building on the positive. There’s a certain amount of agricultural land in hawaii, and a lot of it is getting taken up by GMOs, but if there’s nothing else happening on that land, it’s going to get re-zoned for development or different things. If it’s not GMOs, what’s it going to be?
Something else needs to be developed on the positive side, so I’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into organic farming in Hawaii. There’s a group called Ma’o Farms that’s trying to expand. They’re the biggest organic farm on Oahu, and they’re trying to start a second location that will be out on the North Shore. So we’ve been trying to help them spread the word with that project. It’s the same landowners (Kamehameha) that lease to many of the GMO farms, that would be leasing to Ma’o Farms. So it’d be good to see the land owners do more with organic farms and natural farms. I’m pro-organic farming, I’m definitely not in support of GMOs at all.
That’s great. Transitioning back to some pop culture. So what do you think of Beyonce’s surfboardt?
Surfboardt..Beyonce has a song where she talks about surfboardting.
I don’t know. What is it?
You’ve never heard it?
No. Is it happenin’? Is it cheesy? What is it?
(I’m shocked. I quickly do my best impression of Beyonce grainin’ on that wood.)
My surfboard. Got it. Is that the hook?
Well, it’s part of it. Not exactly the hook, but an important part of the song. It’s funny.
That’s cool. There’s another one that’s funny. Sheryl Crow has a song that has my name on it. Talking about kicking back at a BBQ and putting on some Jack Johnson music. Surfing. It was funny. She said I’m the new Don Ho. Haha. That cracked me up.
If you were to do a collaboration with a hip hop artist, who would it be?
Probably from my era, Q-Tip from Tribe Called Quest. That’s kinda like my favorite MC. It’s sort of that time, to me, that golden era of hip hop. With Pharcyde and that album, and Tribe Called Quest. Yeah, that’d be pretty fun to get to do.
Solid choice. What’s next for you after this?
We go home to Hawaii tomorrow. We just got back from South America, Then to Australia in a couple weeks, then in May we’ll be doing a North America tour. Doing the East Coast, then back here in August. Kind of a month on and a month off. And get back in to surfing every day. I’m trying to get my balance back.