Jack Johnson has an unusual relationship with his audience: When he’s on tour, fans often give him tips about local spots where he can surf, even when he’s hundreds of miles from the ocean. “I’ve found inland rivers to surf in Washington and Oregon,” he says, “but I can’t tell you about them, because people have sworn me to secrecy.” The 38-year-old Johnson, who’s sold more than 19 million albums, grew up on Oahu and began surfing with his dad when he was five. Aside from touring behind ‘From Here to Now to You,’ his sixth and latest album, Johnson spends his days coaching his kids’ soccer games, working with the environmental Kokua Hawaii Foundation he created, and gardening – not a typical rock-star hobby.
On your new album, there’s a song called “Tape Deck” that seems autobiographical.
It’s the story of my high school punk-rock band. We played a lot of Minor Threat songs, and also Fugazi, Suicidal Tendencies, Descendents, Bad Religion – stuff like that. The band name would change from month to month. We were Stony Dog Fish for a while, and then we became Limber Chicken.
Sounds more like the names of jam bands.
It’s true – we were probably the most unpunk punk rockers you ever saw. We were surf kids, still wearing flip-flops – slippers, we call them here – and boardshorts. Fugazi had great lyrics, like “You are not what you own,” and I was heavily influenced by them and by Minor Threat.
Did punk rock’s DIY ethos influence you?
Yeah. In fact, when L.A. record producers first heard my music, they asked to speak with my manager. So I asked my friend Emmett – a surf-film editor – to pretend to be my manager. He read this book ‘How To Be a Music Manager’ and then just stood there through the entire interview with this producer who had worked with artists like Céline Dion and Michael Jackson. Emmett is still my manager.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you get back to Hawaii?
The first thing I do – even before I walk into the house – is spend a half hour checking out my garden. I grow taro, spinach, kale, eggplants, peppers, and a lot of different herbs. My recording studio is a quick bike ride away, and it has a garden with chickens and eggs. When we’re recording, the band can pull plants and make a salad.
Is it fair to say that you love surfing more than you love music?
Yeah, that’s probably accurate. Surfing is more ingrained in who I am. It’s what my family does together. The waves are a social place where we meet up with friends, and where I go to visit my father, who’s passed on. Whenever I go out on the ocean, I feel like he’s still with us. And he still is, in certain ways.
What was a defining moment of your surf career?
At 17, I’d made the trial finals of the biggest surf event there is, the Pipeline Masters, which was a really big deal. I was feeling invincible. A week later, Kelly Slater and I were surfing together on the Pipeline, which is a very extreme wave. The sun had set, and as a wave came, Kelly said, “You won’t go,” which is a thing our friends say to dare one another. I rode the wave for a while and jumped off, as I’d done a million times before, but it was low tide, and I dove straight into a coral head. I knocked out my front teeth and needed 150 stitches in my face. I ran up the beach to my house, and a family friend was sitting on the front porch – he happened to be a paramedic. I had blood gushing from my head down to my feet, and he braced my mom. I was always a mama’s boy, and I kept telling her, “It’s OK.”
What’d your dad say?
“Chicks dig scars. Don’t worry about it.”