[Editor’s Note: Last Friday, John Severson passed away at his home in Maui at the age of 83. He was a longtime friend for many at TSJ and will be deeply missed. This interview originally appeared in Volume 24.4.]
At 81, powerhouse creative-and-surf-culture paterfamilias, John Severson, is on the same program he’s pursued since he sold his brainchild, Surfer magazine, in 1971. The surf movies, books, magazines, and, by extrapolation, digital media we use for entertainment and information all trace their lineage to his drafting table. We’ve been overdue for a visit. Well-placed in his oceanfront home on Maui, John continues to paint versions of our collective life in watercolor. These works are vended around the world via his website and a string of galleries. Nothing if not accommodating, Severson shared a few minutes for a short telephone interview. —Scott Hulet
Scott Hulet: John, can we begin by agreeing that you invented surf media?
John Severson: Boy, I hate to lay claim to anything for sure, but there were no other magazines going. There had been a few stabs at it, Doc Ball’s book and some other things, but I think we were the first ones that stood up and stayed up.
SH: Do you remember when the first competitor appeared on your radar?
JS: I think it was Surf Illustrated if I’m not mistaken. They were two or three years [after us]. John Van Hamersveld was looking for a job and he did the first couple of issues of Surf Illustrated. It was tasty but they probably just didn’t have enough money.
SH: Shortly after that, by the late 60s, there were seven, eight, nine, ten of them…
JS: No, no—by the mid 60s, worldwide, there were 10. After Surf Guide, there was Petersen’s Surfing, and then a couple of Australian magazines. The first Aussie magazine, the Australian Surfer, they copied Surfer exactly—layout, the crop of the pictures. It just floored me. I though it was the biggest act of plagiarism I’d ever seen. [Chuckling.] But you can never catch the Aussies. They ran a photo of Midget Farrelly doing an “insepia.” We wondered, “What is that?” Then Brad Barrett [Surfer art director at the time] ferreted it out. He found a poster we had of Renny Yater squatting in a tube, and in the caption it said “in sepia.” We had printed it in sepia tones. The Aussies thought that was the name of the maneuver, so Midget must have also been doing an “insepia.” But I kept my head down. I had a talk with the staff—I think this was shortly after I got an ulcer—and told them, “We’re not going to worry about these [other titles] coming at us or behind us or on top of us. Let’s just make the best magazine we can.”
SH: You sold Surfer in ’71. Within 10 years, there were some 50 international surf magazines. Did you monitor that growth or were you in a different headspace?
JS: No, I just got deeply into [the act of] surfing, regained my comfort and style, got loose with new boards. I was on top of surfing Honolua. It was hard to follow surf media, you had to go seek it out. Sometimes I got Surfer in the mail, depending on the staff, if they kept me on the comp list. It was off and on. Now they have me on the masthead as Founder, and I get the magazine. It’s very respectful, and I think the current crew is doing a heck of a job.
SH: In 2015 a measurable component of the surf world still gets its information from print surf magazines…
JS: They must be old farts.
SH: Well, the velocity of surf information now is near-instantaneous. There’s no micro-niche of surf interest that isn’t covered online.
JS: Yes, and they bombard me via email. If there’s an online magazine for skateboarders who surf and fly fish, I’ll get the message. It’s not overwhelming if you know where the delete button is.
SH: What do you find noteworthy in surfing or surf culture these days?
JS: Well [sucking in a breath], I understand aerials, and completing aerials makes them a worthwhile maneuver. For years, most of the guys crashed and burned. Now they’re so athletic that they’re like gymnasts. It’s amazing. But for me, I don’t think that leaving the wave is as much fun as, say, a beautiful carve and being with the wave. That’s old school, I’ll cop to that…
SH: Do you currently follow surf media?
JS: Nathan Howe, my granddaughter’s boyfriend—they run a gallery, Puka Puka—and they have Facebook and Instagram pages that sell my new book, Surf. Other than that, I like to look at how the weather is moving. The Oahu surf report, coastal reports, a few cams…but since my legs gave out on me, I’m not chasing the surf quite as much.
SH: Some of my older cronies are evolving toward prone solutions as they age.
JS: Well, we go out the way we came in. Sucking our thumbs and on our tummies.