Russell Bierke and the age-old quandary of where to from here.
At precisely the same moment I’d agreed to dial up Russell Bierke for our scheduled chat, an email with a subject line of “Team Australia, Nazare Challenge” landed in my inbox.
“Oh my, what good timing,” I thought, simultaneously skimming the press release while punching in Russ’ number.
He picks up on the third ring and a quick back and forth ensues.
“Hey Russ, it’s me,”
Prior to the arrival of the “Team Australia” email, the primary purpose of our conversation was to be centred around Flow State, a wonderful 15minute biopic that examines Bierke’s firm grasp of heavy water barrels at various locales around Australia and abroad.
With the perfunctory line of questioning (Where was it filmed, how long, etc, etc) out of the way, conversation soon turned to the contents of the “Team Australia, Nazare Challenge” email, namely, the announcement that Mick Corbett and Ross Clarke Jones would represent Australia at it.
Naz, of course, remains as one of just two stops of the World Surf League’s truncated Big Wave World Tour and will only run as a Tow-In event.
As such, tow-in specialists had been rung in for the opening day of the two-month waiting period and while Clarke-Jones and Corbett are as wonderful a pairing as any prior to the swinging of the axe through the Big Wave World Tour, neither had been an active presence on it.
Confused? I sure was and peppered Bierke with a few questions to help explain.
Anthony: What was your reaction to the WSL’s decision to shrink the tour?
Bierke: I guess it was a shock and initially t felt unfortunate but, in the position I’m in, I’m hoping I’m better off than some guys who just solely chased the tour. I’m putting out edits and content, so I don’t or didn’t, really have to depend on the comps. Having said that, even when we were on the tour, with multiple events, there might be no swell for the year and you only got to surf in one event, so you weren’t making much cash out of it anyway, so you really have to get out there and promote yourself anyway.
Anthony: Were you surprised you didn’t get an invite to Nazare? From memory, you and Jamie Mitchell were the highest-ranked Australian’s on the BWWT prior to the chop?
Bierke: I do understand why they would include guys who were all about the tow at Nazare. They’re not necessarily the ones that will go out and chase a swell, but they just love towing it (Naz) when it’s massive. I personally don’t think the rush of towing out there is worth the potential beating you get out there when it all goes wrong. I just prefer big barrels and slabs rather than just sheer size.
Anthony: So, how will a BWWT world champ be crowned given there’s only this event and Jaws?
Bierke: They are not going to crown a world champion as such just off the Jaws event. The focus is going to shift more to the Big Wave Awards, which is great because they take into account free surf sessions from the entire year.
Anthony: You are part of the generation who are pretty switched on to social media which is where the WSL seems to want to push their big wave content, given you’ve already got a bit of a presence out there, do you think that puts you at an advantage?
Bierke: I think so, I mean, I hope it’s an advantage. I guess I’m lucky being younger and having grown up with Instagram and Facebook. It would be tough if you were in your thirties or forties and just getting your head around it.
Anthony: I guess this reinforces the fact the big wave surfing, and competing in them, isn’t all about the money hey?
Bierke: Yeah, it’s rare to make much in return. You really need a lot of money to begin with before you start to think about the prize money. A lot of guys that qualified for the tour, and this is what I did as well, chase every swell that breaks, be it Jaws or Mavericks or wherever else and then you send all your content off. After doing that for a couple of years, then you may have gotten an invite so you kind of had to lay out a lot of money just to get on the tour in the first place. Then, if you lost your first heat you’re only getting one and a half grand US, so you wanted to have good backing or other options to pursue it anyway.
Anthony: Koa Rothman and Nathan Florence in particular, seem to be taking that in a new direction with their YouTube channels, any plans for creating your own vlog?
Bierke: It’s pretty nuts what they are doing, and it’s taken it to a whole other level. I don’t really have any plans to do that although I wouldn’t say it’s off the table either, it’s just, it could be tough down here in Uludaulla to have someone following you around all day with a camera. (A scenario that triggers much laughter for both talent and interviewer.)
Anthony: How hard is it to be a free surfer in 2019? Back when that gig all started it seemed to be all about the talent jumping on a plane and going surfing, nowadays, there’s a lot more hustle to it, much of which I’m guessing you do yourself?
Bierke: There’s much more work going on behind the scenes than just going out surfing. There are so many surfers down here for example that have that ability to be on the world stage as a free surfer, but I know they’re just happy surfing at home without all that behind the scenes hustling. It’s hard to maintain that relevance in the surf world these days, you have to be constantly reinventing yourself. I’m lucky I have some good backing with O’Neill.
Anthony; How hands-on are you with the content you put out? This clip, for example, is 15minutes, which is rare these days.
Bierke: It varies a bit with I’m doing at the time but with this one (Flow State) I spent a few days in the editing bay with Andrew (producer Andrew Kaineder) Andrew’s one of the few surf photographers who’ve studied film, so he has a good concept of storyline. We went into the project with a few early ideas, but it did evolve as most projects do., Andrew certainly had a vision for it from the start. Everything is heading that way insofar as instant and fast click content, but I do like putting a bit of time into things and to create a piece that hopefully lasts a while on the internet was the goal. It’s a matter of striking a balance of both I suppose.
Anthony: And Brett Burcher (fellow south coast big wave dave) makes a bit of a cameo?
Bierke: Yeah, we wanted something that would help the clip flow a bit better between the scenes than a standard interview looking at the camera, so we have the scenes of Burch and I just chatting in the car about this and that.
Anthony: Which works well given the distances we travel for waves here in Australia.
Bierke: There is a lot of driving involved for sure. When you do some of those 24-hour car trips out into the desert you really learn a lot about whoever you’re in the car with. Some of the better conversations you’ll ever have happen on those drives.