Matt Parker is a wizard with foam and glass. Dissatisfied with the oft-vanilla aesthetics of surfboard design, Parker founded his own shaping label, Album Surf, to shake up surf culture’s status quo. You won’t find any standard off-white shortboards in his shop: asymmetric tails, artistic collaborations, and unexpected fin placements are the name of Parker’s game.
CONVICTS caught up with Parker in his Oceanside, California factory and got his word on design, the advantages of being an outsider, and the unique escape afforded by a day in the waves.
Hey man, how’s it going. To start can you tell us who you are?
I’m Matt Parker from Album Surfboards and we are at my factory in Oceanside, California.
How’d you end up here?
I grew up surfing. I love to surf. I grew up a little bit inland-not right at the beach-so surfing was always a little bit slightly out of reach. I was alway really fascinated with surfing and surf boards in particular, with the mystery of how it was put together, how the foam was shaped, how was it wrapped in glass. How are the fins on it? I was really intrigued by that.
How did you end up shaping boards?
So I went to school for design and that led me to wonder ‘How can I make a board myself? What would I do?’ I was always really fascinated by the colours and also the aesthetic of boards. So I made myself a board and it at least floated. I could catch a wave on it. Then I just kept making more boards. I would make a board and sell the board in order to get the money to buy plank and materials to make another board and that would just cycle through. Eventually, you know, I’m seven thousand something boards later over the last fifteen, sixteen years. I love to do it now and I get to make all different kinds of boards for all sorts of people.
So like the feeling for like shaping that surfboard and you said 3,000 later, what still excites you about coming into the shaping bit?
It’s really limitless. There’s all sorts of standard board shapes that you’re used to seeing: a short board, a fish, a long board. But to me, you never really hit your peak potential of how good you could get at surfing or what’s possible surfing. So I want to try unique shapes and make boards that do this or that a little bit better.
Do you see the limitlessness of board design reflected in the act of surfing itself?
There are unlimited variables in the ocean too. You can design a board for a wave that you surf all the time. You know the wave, how it breaks and still the ocean will always surprise you: there will always be different kinds of swell angles and sizes and intervals. The actual experience of surfing and riding a wave is always different and it’s always unique. You go out thinking that you know what something is going to do and it’s a totally different experience. So that taught me to be open minded, that there is no hard-and-fast way to do it.
How is shaping surfboards different from other creative endeavours?
Talk a little bit about the fundamentals of shaping boards.
There are no shortcuts, you just can’t snap your fingers and have a board be done. Like with anything in life, the reps are important. There’re a lot of repetitive strokes and motions as you refine the board down to a super crisp finish and get it as perfect as you can with your hands. Staying with it, learning the art of being efficient in those movements and having patience through the repetitiveness of it-that has application in life too. When you’re trying to be who you are and make yourself the best version of yourself, there’s a lot of refining and staying at it and not giving up when you screw something up.
That’s interesting because your boards are so unique. Talk a bit about what inspires you to create such unorthodox boards?
I like impracticality. In life there are plenty of areas where you have to be practical. You should be able to do something weird and loud and different because it’s just a surfboard. Design wise, I always thought surfing and surf boards were a little bit stale and a little bit expected in how they looked. You see boards from different labels and they have a very similar appearance. I always thought it doesn’t have to be that way because it’s only a surfboard. Surfing is ridiculous when you really think about it: you are trying to ride a piece of foam and slide on water. There should be more freedom of expression, you should be able to craft boards that look unexpected or have different designs.
Talk about the experimentation process.
Well, we live in a really cool time where anything goes. It really allows for all sorts of experimentation, I can take a performance short board but shape an asymmetrical tail and bottom contour and try a totally different fin set up. You can take theories from the past-like a twin fin-and you add modern elements to it and really push to see where that design has potential. You can draw from all these different elements and all these different areas and make whatever you want to make and surf it however you want to surf it and it’s all good. It’s all fun.
Did you ever have to buck convention and say ‘This is how I want to shape a board?’
I never felt that there was a limitation or road block that I couldn’t get past. Maybe if I worked for somebody else, but since I started the label myself and did it for myself, I never felt like there were any road signs saying ‘Don’t go down that path’ or ‘Don’t try that.’
What’s the most rewarding aspect of board shaping?
It’s hard work. You’re not making a lot of money. But the stoke factor has two sides. When somebody comes to pick up a board they’ve waited on for years and they’re so stoked to pick it up: that feels really good. Then the feedback you get when somebody has an experience that they haven’t had on a surfboard before-that’s also really exciting. Plus, I make boards for people that surf around me, so I get to see the boards out in the water and that’s really cool. When you’ve been surfing with someone for five or ten years and know what they are capable of, then you make a board that’s specially customised for them, and see their surfing improve, that’s totally unreal.
Talk about the act of surfing itself. What does that do for your headspace?
It’s definitely the one place in the world where you can actually escape. Nowadays you’re getting pinged and texted and direct messaged constantly. Someone’s always trying to get a hold of you and when you go out in the water, there’s none of that. It’s a total escape. It’s such a good reset to leave everything on the beach and go out in the water and just have fun and catch waves and go fast. Feel what the different boards are doing. That’s my escape.
So on the flip side of that coin, how has technology impacted Album Surf?
In the past, it would’ve been so much more difficult to grow a brand or to grow an audience, so communication is the biggest factor. I can finish a board that I’m really excited about and post it out there and spread the stoke and good vibes to all those people. Then you’re able to interact and get feedback and communicate with people all the time so that’s really cool.
Talk about your collaborations. How do those come about?
I am an appreciator of art and design, obviously, and especially from people that are really talented. So like with Chris Burkard, we had mutual friends and I always appreciated his aesthetic and his adventurous mindset and his background in surfing, so that collaboration seemed to make sense. Since we have our own factory, it’s easy for us to partner up and collaborate with people that are creating something really, really cool and apply that to a surfboard. It’s a fun way to create something that could be surfed but could be appreciated as art, which is a rewarding and a worthwhile venture.
Talk a bit about the surf culture in Southern California.
The thing that will never go away in surf culture is that people will always love to surf. No matter what trends or industries come and go, people will always find a way to surf. And so that life blood will always exist. Like I said I grew up a little bit inland and felt like an outsider, so I’ve approached Album Surfboards in a similar way. I do my thing on my own track and if it intersects with something that is happening in surf culture, cool. But if not, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing regardless. I can draw elements from surf culture and participate, but I also just have the vision to grow my brand the way I want to. The times we live in now offer a little bit more freedom because you can create your own self sustaining thing.
Right on man, and best of luck with Album Surf.