Steve Zeldin is a surf media legend. In the year 2001, instead of the world ending with a space baby or Y2K fallout, Steve created the best surf publication of all time:Water Magazine. Water was an honest and refreshing take on modern surf culture at the time, and in my opinion, it elevated surfing to a new creative aesthetic and changed the surf media game forever. Before Water Mag, Steve was a jack-of-all-trades at Surfing, then Publisher/Editor-In-Chief at Transworld Surf. Now he is backing the latest in surf media gems, What Youth and its new sister pub, Here With. Needless to say, his professional career has centered around documenting our beloved sport and the beautiful lifestyle that surrounds it. This is an interview with the surf interview master.
How did you get started with surf journalism in the first place?
I’ve always loved to read; I loved magazines and books. After graduating with a degree in English, I met a guy named Ali Baba and we started this magazine right out of college called Beach Happy. We were just trying to combine our love of crafting a story with going surfing. So we whipped up this zine that lasted all summer until I got sucked back into the graduate program at USC. When I got done with the program, Ali Baba and I went out to Europe to follow the Grateful Dead. In between the shows we’d go surf. We went to Sweden, Belgium, Spain—all over the place.
We came back talking about the magazine and how I was going to fit in, but the same synergy didn’t exist. So I branched off and did another surf zine called International Surf Megazine—with an “e” for “mega” (I don’t know why, another play on words). It was funny because now me and my boy Ali Baba went from like best friends to now being in like competition with each other. So that was fun. I think it almost came to throwing blows at an ASR show. We actually came to wrestling in the aisles with piles of magazines in our arms. This guy was 6’ 5” and I had no business getting into it with him, but I probably had a few beers in me, so what the fuck. But we ended up as friends in the long run.
So then you went to Surfing, then helped start Transworld Surf. How did Water come about?
My friend Preston Murray was looking at Surfer’s Journal one day and he was like, “Man, we could do a magazine like this, but for short boarding. Actually, we could even make it better than this.” He’s always been a real confident guy. We decided, “Ok, here we go again.” And a new magazine was born. We started Water out of a house in Newport and that lasted about three to four years. There were not too many ads, great editorial, quality paper and a real keen sense of images that make you want to go surfing. There were always party pictures that would go right into a massive interview—we’d have huge 20 – 30 page interviews.
I started writing this one interview with Rob Machado even before Water. He was just getting ready to quit the tour while he was right up there ranked at the top. I was talking to the mags, trying to get them to run the article saying, “I’ve got this big piece on Rob” and they were saying, “Ok yeah, we can give you like 3-4 pages.” I was like, “This thing’s gonna be more like 40 pages” and they couldn’t even understand what I was saying. It was kinda funny. That piece on Rob in issue no. 1 ended up setting the tone for these long interviews that I ended up doing in the next seven to eight years of issues down the line. Those really became my banner pieces and I would end up hanging with each guy for a while to get his story.
I remember Kelly’s birthday one year. He, Keith Malloy and I decided we would just go to Vegas for a few days to do this piece on Kelly and run tape on and off, just have fun. And that was great. We got to show the world a side of these surfers that they don’t normally see. It’s always hard to get to know the guy when the questions are all the same. Like, “What kind of board are you riding? Tell me about your relationship with your shaper?” They don’t even know what they’re riding half the time, which is funny. They just know if they rip or not on their boards, which has always been a joke within the shaping community.
That Kelly Slater interview was life changing for me. Just getting to know more of his personality than ever before and revealing what a thoughtful and smart guy he is was very cool. Do you have a favorite interview?
Yeah, Kelly was definitely one of my favorites. Tom Curren was the most interesting interview I ever did though and here’s why: I would ask Tom a question and he would just wait about 10 seconds before he’d answer. He wasn’t in a hurry at all. I was thinking, “Should I ask him a different question or something?” After 10 seconds or so, he’d go into his response. He’s a really thoughtful guy, deep thinker a very intelligent guy. As an interviewee, he knew to give me info that was really deep and was in no rush to give me an answer.
How do you usually interview someone?
My first question would always be, “What did you have for breakfast?” It would kind of catch people off guard, in a way that was fun and was a real icebreaker. I think what happens in surfing is that people are always asking these typical questions about boards and stuff. I always liked to find ways into peoples’ heads that would enable them to speak freely. “Tell me what you would be doing if you weren’t a pro surfer” or have them describe themselves in three words. Not the typical surf questions of travels and successes.
Any particularly memorable adventures in surf publishing?
So many… during my International Surf days, I connected with a guy named Ithaka Darin Pappas, who was a hip-hop writer and performer—also a photographer and an accomplished surfer from LA. I ended up meeting him at one of his shows in Portugal, where he was living at the time. I was coming back from Morocco around the year 2000 and I called him up to ask him how the surf was in Portugal; he told me to come on over and to open for him when he was playing a show at the World’s Fair. So that was pretty radical; there must have been about 5,000 people in the audience there at the Sony stage at the World’s Fair in Lisbon. I was wearing this black velvet suit I had made in Marrakech, up on stage playing solo guitar, it was a trip.
We ended up partying all night in Lisbon, and when we came out of the bars, it was starting to get light out and Ithaka said, “You know, there’s no wind right now, we should probably go to Coxos,” which is a pretty famous wave up on the central part of Portugal. So we drove out there with a couple girls in the car, went and got our surf stuff and headed up the coast. We ended up having this amazing day. It was probably six to eight foot, perfect Coxos and one of the local guys there was getting married, so there were like 20 – 30 guys that would have been dominating the lineup all gone at this wedding, so we just absolutely scored. That was one of the best surfing/rock & roll experiences of my entire life.
Amazing. How do you feel about all the online content out there and the current state of surf media?
The surf media platform has changed so radically in the last five to seven years or so. Right after I had sold Water and Foam to Surfline, all of a sudden print was not even in demand anymore, everything was online. These days I’m an owner in the What Youth project and those guys are really after my own heart. I love their thinking; they go after the unlikely heroes that live in surfing territories, but don’t have the same outlook as guys on the tour.
Overall, I have gotten to a point where there is so much media out there that it’s hard to keep up with all of it. The internet is a beautiful resource, there’s a lot of good stuff out there and there’s a lot of fluff too. You’ve got to be discerning and you have to have a lot of time. I’d rather be out surfing than sitting at home reading about it personally.
This article originally appeared on Indoek.com as part of their infamous Surf Shacks series. Check out their site for the full interview and more photos on Instagram @Indoek #SurfShacks