People warned me I was crazy. Maybe I should have listened. To gather together the entire Webber clan and attempt to interview them sounds - with the invaluable benefit of hindsight - like madness.
But the untold story of their extraordinary childhood in Sydney's eastern suburbs, their raucous surf adventures in ever widening orbits, and their amazing, divergent yet intertwined paths since, is irresistible. From the early '70s scene at Bondi, to early surf trips to Angourie, Lord Howe and Grajagan, and an ever-expanding catalogue of stunning creative endeavours, the Webber brothers' story practically mirrors the evolution of Australian surf culture.
If you could harness the combined creative energy of the Webbers you could light up a small city. To witness a gathering of all six of the surfing siblings is a rare and hilarious event.
The venue is eldest brother John's historic Angourie beach house, built by Tracks co-founder John Witzig. The dilapidated timber structure nestles in the coastal scrub like an overgrown kid's cubbyhouse, and the Webbers infect it with a fitting boyish, mischievous energy. The walls reek with surfing history, from the snapshots of memorable days at the Point thumbtacked to bare wooden beams, to the mass of old surfboards stuck at odd angles in the branches of the paperbarks in the backyard.
To see them together, it's hard to believe they're related - such are the vast physical and lifestyle differences between them - but there's a warmth underpinned with simmering tensions only brothers can generate.
There's John, 44, the elder, the environmental architect, who's led the spectacularly successful re-vegetation of Angourie foreshore through the local Dunecare group, ridding it of the accursed, introduced Bitou bush and cramming it full of native trees. There's Greg, 43, the shaper to the stars - from Barton Lynch to Shane Herring to Taj Burrow - with that cheeky chipped tooth grin, and as many outlandish and complex theories on life and the universe as you have time to sit through. There's Monty, 41, the bearded, avant-garde surf film maker, with a maniacal thirst for creative adventure, like a surfing cinematic Hunter S. Thompson. Then there's Dan, 38, the unknown Webber, the Clark Kent, mild-mannered, immaculately groomed, be-spectacled, polite, well-spoken, a linguist by training, but who transforms Superman-style into the fearless "Barometer" in heavy waves, sent out first to see if it's rideable. Then there's the two youngsters, Will, 33, and Ben, 31, always spoken of together, like the flowerpot men, who could have been perpetually trapped in the shadows of their larger than life brethren. Yet they are arguably the most accomplished surfers of the lot, at least competitively. Separated by five years from their next oldest brother, they were born into a different era, after the hippy idealism and carefree adventure gave way to serious pro career ambitions. Will collected a swag of respectable placings in the old APSA events, and Ben notched up an Aussie title, and they both gave the pro tour a nudge, before the domestic circuit collapsed under them. Like a whole generation of aspiring Australian pro surfers, they were left without a stepping stone to the big league, and wound up shaping, as if joining the family business. They've dabbled in an impressive string of enterprises since - surf shops, wax, hard core metal bands. Will's touring seriously with latest band Toe 2 Toe. Ben's dossing down temporarily in the shack out the front of John's place and working hard to support two young daughters.
The brothers are excited. We've had a surf out the Point in abysmal, howling southerly lumps. A mass of sausages and a carton of throwdowns have been purchased, and it's barely midday when the first twist top illicits that familiar "kkssshhhhhhhhhhhh."
"Thanks for this. We haven't had a beer together for ages." says Will keenly. By the time the sun goes down, it will become clear why.
SW: How did the shaping thing start?
Mont: It came from Dad: "Be involved, don't kind of sit back and go to a shop and buy your board. Can't you make them?"
Dan: It was Christmas Day, on the front veranda, and there was a big box of coolites. Dad also bought the equipment to shape boards, the planer. Greg used to wear this Makita cap a lot. When you buy a Makita tool you get it, red and yellow ...
Greg: I saw a couple of guys with them and wondered if they shaped. ...
Will: I was spewing, I bought my first planer and didn't get one. ...
John: He loved the Makita cap so much, once I opened the door to his bedroom and he had his box of special magazines and he was naked except for his Makita cap (laughter).
Mont: One of the early experiences for me was seeing Endless Summer. I think we were already going down to North Bondi, the family end, with the bad boys down south, the no man's land of South Bondi, walking down with their malibus. They always had the cool chicks . . . and Dad bought a malibu once, when we were visiting our Grandparents on the Central Coast. Five pounds it cost him, a big old heavy thing, and John and Greg took it out on Wamberal shorey and it wasn't long after that John and Greg went: "You know what we've got to do, we've got to cut this down and reshape it." I mean really, thinking back (to Greg) you started out shaping coolites. I remember what he did to mine.
Greg: I shaped it upside down by mistake.
Mont: The irony was that board went better.
Dan: That's how you make progress in surfboard design.
Mont: His was beautiful like a finished thing. We always sold our boards at a profit.
Greg: I sold it to a friend who became a kneeboarder because it was so short.
Mont: And John's ding repair business, very industrious. Mum and Dad always encouraged us, with buying tools and things, a business idea or if you were going to embark on some little project he'd always be 100% behind it, and they started doing ding repairs. I remember John and Greg doing it out the back. I never really liked the resin and all of that, I had nothing to do with any of the surfboard production. And I remember a couple of years ago going through some stuff and finding John's ding repair book, and it was amazing, like there was, fin job, 80 cents, snapped board $1.25, onion rings, 28c, because he invented a way of fixing onion rings.
John: We were too young to move down the south end, which was the big guys' domain, so we were riding coolites up north, these corky things that were dogs to ride. So: "Okay, let's make ourselves a board."
Greg: That's a pretty cool thing. There are thousands upon thousands who will take that product out of the shop and ride it and accept that someone else has made it, and that's the way it's designed. We've been inherently tuned by the parents somehow to modify and vary and sculpt and alter.
Mont: You can't take Greg anywhere. I tried to have a game of golf with him and I said: "Just hit the fucking ball." And he's looking at the club going: "I can fucking re-design this." John is much more survivalist, like, he'd love nothing more than to be thrown out into the outback. You've got a couple of things, how can you survive? He'd have a little toilet set up somewhere. Greg and John both became obsessed with the surfboard thing. That was fascinating for me because I never touched foam, and these guys were cutting down mals and reshaping them. I remember one time, we took the first board that John made, it was a very short board.
Greg: We stripped a mal and it snapped as we were stripping the glass off.
Mont: So, then it ended up being like 4'8", a tiny little thing, but they sprayed it, two really young guys, and wrote Webber Surfboards on it and it smudged. John wouldn't take it down to the surf shop, he had too much pride for that, but he sent Greg and me down, and we were like 12 and 14.
Greg: Robert Conneely Surf Designs.
Mont: And we went in and Greg showed it to them and they sort of laughed at us. I'll never forget the bus ride home. Greg just looked at them and he was furious.
Greg: I though they were kind of fucked in a way because we were obviously kids and it was a good effort. It was a scaled down beautiful little surfboard, completely unsaleable, but they did say one thing. They laughed about it and can you remember the phrase? They said, "You never know, one day you might be shaper to the . . ." Remember the phrase? ". . . shaper to the stars." And that's pretty funny because you end up being that.
Mont: I was like, what a bunch of dickheads. I'd thought those guys were legends. Greg was like. "I'll show you." (laughter) Then Greg went off into the stratosphere. He was making boards and he went down to G & S in Cronulla. It was probably 1980. Greg took off and he'd just been making boards out the back.
Will: John gave up shaping early because he thought Greg was better.
Greg: That's a critical moment.
Will: That's a real critical moment because they could both be in the same place now. John was an equally fine craftsman and I think, he'll have to tell you, but the same with Dad and Mum with sculpture. Dad was a sculptor and handed it over to Mum and I think John did a similar thing with Greg.
Mont: He did the same with surfing films as well. He did all these surfing films and he gave Greg the shaping and he gave me the surfing films in a way.
John: Any of my girlfriends, I'd hand on. (laughter) I think I might have shaped a few duds and didn't handle that very well, whereas Greg would go, "Oh well, the fucking guy's an idiot, if he can't ride that I can't help that."
Will: I think John was as good, possibly better.
Greg: I think there was a precision of John's in general that would have been a very, very good if not equally or better shaper. I was just a bit looser. The only thing I had was the looseness and John had the precision and I was a bit greedy and wanted to do every single board that came in. Every custom order that came in, I was: "I'll shape it, I'll shape it."
John: You were just a better shaper.
Greg: You reckon? I made a board, another one of those weird flukes, it was meant to be 6'4" and it turned out 5'10". I chose the wrong blank and took the appropriate inches off the end and made a stinger swallowtail single fin like Mark Lydell and Buttons used to ride and the guy was a very talented surfer and he went mental on it. So it was a dumb mistake but he claimed the board and went and told one of the guys at G & S: "This guy could be okay."
Dan: And then there was the time you made a board for Greg Day and accidentally slammed it into the ceiling of the shaping bay and broke the nose off it.
Greg: Is this the only way I've created anything? (laughter)
Mont: Remember when you left that board in front of the heater and it turned into a banana? (laughter)
Greg: Don't tell anyone. (much laughter)
Mont: There's the joke that Mum actually did everything and we're totally talentless. I even pushed it to the limit when I claimed to someone that Mum actually shaped the board that Barton won the world title on. He went: "You're fucking joking, unbelievable".
Will: So many things that happened were Sunday night about 10 o'clock, and I'd go: "I'm thinking about making surfboard wax." I think I was 13. And Mum went: "Alright." So, we went down the back to these guys' rooms that had been changed into a studio and we had a bell that we used for the mould. Ten o'clock Sunday night was when projects got done, and we made up the first bunch of wax and called it "Dinosaur Wax" and Dean Cook was doing airs with it. It was the first sticky wax. They were going: "It sticks you to your board."
Will: I sold a box and then I'd get the money for another box and I got it up to 17 boxes and then someone took it and sold it and didn't pay me, took my whole business, 17 boxes, took the whole thing and never paid me. I saw him down the beach and said, "Can you pay me?" and he went, "Look grommet, I've got Rip Curl, Oakley, Quiksilver breathing down my neck, go away ..."
Mont: I always thought if we had a card between us it could just be - "ideas men". ... We're very inspired by different things.
Greg: It's the work thing we have an issue with.
Ben: Opportunities that you miss out on, ideas that mum had given me when I was a young surfer competing, I used to hang out with her at night before going to bed and chat about contests or what went wrong, and mum used to be out at the contest site filming Will and I ... She would end up with wind blistered lips. And I remember one time, she says, why don't you when you go up on the top of the lip spin it right around? Or hit the whitewater and tail slide it, like a reverse. It was when Slater was probably just tapping into it, like 12 or something, and I was going, "Yeah, it sounds really good," and she'd go, "Just dream about it and put it in your mind and I reckon you can do it," and I thought about it and I dreamt about it but it never came naturally. One thing we've never done is anything that we're uncomfortable with ... I wasn't comfortable with the idea, maybe my brain didn't have the capacity. Mum's guidance was incredible, but I never took it on.
Greg: We're happy to do well and if it makes money that's a bonus, but only if it's easy. Who can be fucked working really hard to be successful?
Will: I remember these heats we'd have with Davo at back beach when we were just starting to surf good and we were doing the first lookback reo's, and I'd get five waves and surf as good as I could and I'd come in and Davo would go, "What are you doing?" and I'd go, "I'm too excited to continue ..."
Greg: That's a great philosophy of life. ...
Mont: It's pretty easy to have a party every night if you're happy about the way things are going. I've seen Ben exploding out of himself, going, "What are we meant to do? How can it be this much fun? How come we're allowed to have this much fun?" I don't know, what's everyone else doing? Get a case then? That's the obvious conclusion.
Mont: We all spent time there.
Dan: I didn't know anything about Indonesia before we went there, and I remember when we paddled out at Ulu together for the first time and, fuck, we were grinning from ear to ear just because it was like the biggest triumph to have the experience of paddling out at Ulu. I didn't know shit about Bali when I first went. I just got dragged along by Mont. My world was a couple of hundred kilometres or something ... We were over there and we decided to go to G-land and I remember we bumped into Ant Corrigan and he said it doesn't work at under eight foot, and I hadn't surfed anything over six foot and I was shitting myself...
Mont: It's such a lie too ...
Dan: He told us to talk to Bobby Radiasa and so there we are, off to G-land. But I wasn't surfing, I cut myself badly down the very end of Ulu.
Mont: We took him over as cameraman ... It was an unreal trip, that one.
Greg: Out of all the film I've seen of G-land I think two of the best waves out of three or four, these two (indicates Mont and Dan) have caught ... There's one of Dan, this thing just funnels, like a four to five foot wave.
Dan: Ah, I pike it though ...
Greg: How's the peel line, you guys? It's like five times the height. The peel line's really long ...
Will: Dan used to be called the barometer.
Dan: Because I couldn't see clearly, I've got this eyesight problem.
Mont: They'd send him out to see if it was rideable.
Will: The Newcastle boys would go, "Where's the barometer? Where's Dan Webber?"
Greg: That's not us being polite, Tim.
Will: I've seen Dan on film ... But, eh? How big was that wave? 12 foot? Nah, bigger.
Dan: It was giant.
Will: We got the boat out. I said, I just want to get out there, so we got dropped off out the back. These things, you didn't know whether to look at them, or ... I tried to catch the second one, which was bigger, but you couldn't catch it in a million years. I don't know where we were.
Dan: This wave was so big, it didn't know we were there. We were irrelevant... (hysterical laughter and shrieking)
Will: It was like Sunset ... It was massive. We jumped off the boat and went, "Where are we?" And these big things appear.
Dan: I reckon we were just inside the Bomby.
Will: I would say the waves could have been 15 foot, I couldn't say. Same as the waves in Sumbawa I saw. I don't know. I don't know, but bigger than 12 foot ...
Mont: No one's even mentioning the volume.
Will: We were just inside the Bomby. We went, what do we do? Do we duck dive. And it's foam for eight foot and the rest of it was wave and it went like this (growls). What do we do? I'm going to catch the biggest wave I've ever seen. And it just went, whooo ... (laughter) .... It was like Sunset when we first surfed it .... Im out with Owl Champman and that and a wave comes, and it was a west peak and it was like the devil, a whole football field, and you're paddling, you're like a leaf in a fucking washing machine.
Mont: But you've got to deep stroke and breathe and keep a head on ...
Will: I don't know if it was bigger than 12 foot but it was massive. They were black, and they had eight foot of white water at the top and rolling . . . Mont got the longest barrel, which was in "Surf Into Summer". I've seen this guy turn up and show this film to me, he's made this film about G-Land, and it's Ben. They called him the Tube Jew. Ben takes off at Lipthrowers which is mid tide, the whole section, and he gets five tubes on one wave. He goes one…, down, two…, down, three…, down, pumps up, sets up, four…, comes down, last one, pulls in five…, at the back of Speedies, comes out and that's where the name Tube Jew comes from. And in '88 I was in fear of the reef. All I could see was reef. I couldn't see wave. I didn't understand reef. And Mont was taking off into close outs and I was going, "The guy's psycho, he's fucking crazy." Then I saw him get three barrels. And Ben went over and just Tube Jewed Ulu.
Mont: The funny thing is that fade, it's really similar to Dan's fade but it's different. Ben goes along and gets tubed and as soon as he comes out he goes, "Okay, well obviously, I've got to go right for a second, come around . . ."
Ben: Because I'm out.
Mont: Then goes along in the tube for a while, straight back down. It's amazing to watch, you've never seen anyone so Jewish about getting tubed.
Ben: That's why you pay to go there.
Mont: G-Land at that stage when Dan and I first went, there were more people taking care of us than there were being taken care of. There were eight of us, and there were 12 guys looking after us. We were having fun with them and you had that whole fucking reef. It was like being the most privileged surfers in time. You had the fucking joint to yourself. We didn't bother naming sections, but at that stage surfing right from the top of Kongs down past Speedies there were sometimes three or four guys down that whole thing, and you're looking for your brother out there.
Dan: It doesn't turn on all the time, but I reckon in those early days we just lucked on big time, really.
Will: Someone said the other day: "You can go to G-Land, you can get it flat." And I said: "What? Never. I'll bet a fucking million bucks if I go back it'll be breaking."
Ben: Talking about the competitiveness, with that five barrel wave that I got at G-Land, I remember paddling into it, it was a similar section to Monty's barrel in Surf into Summer. I looked at it and went: "Right, this is Monty's wave, I've got one, I've got to hunt that wave out." I took off and I had extreme pressure on myself to outdo Monty's wave. I was stressing, going, this has got to be it ... Will took off on a wave at Speedies, the second wave in a set so it was whitewash through the barrel. Wilba takes off and you're back in the black hole.
Will: It was a mind hole, and I just went down and went into it and went, Oh fuck I've made it, and just went like that (sideways) and went, Oh, I've got no control ... And I went over, and if I could grab your body and slam you on to a coral head, bang, mate, I nearly died. Bang, and just went, no good, no good, no good, no good. And what was pushed in got pushed out ... I felt all my organs, got up, floated around for a while .... and got washed in and took an hour to get up. I walked passed this chick, covered in blood, and walked up and she goes, "Ay, good waves out there, ay?" I'm just going, (blows a raspberry) walking like an insect. Got into Bobby's camp, and this nurse went, "Stop, stay still, stay still." Nyoman got me into a room ... made me piss into a cup, put me in a room and gone, "Look, we think he's got a ruptured spleen, he's probably got 24 hours to live." I said to Ben, "I need some liquids, can you go and get me a Fanta?" Ben walks over and goes, "What's going on?" They go, we've got to get him out, we've got to get a helicopter." And Ben goes "Do you want a beer?"
As the sun goes down...
And on it goes. I'm trying to get away before dark for the long drive home, but as the stories and beers keep flowing it's looking increasingly unlikely. I've uncorked the bottle and let the genie out, and there's no putting it back in.
Finally, around dusk, I manage to slink off. Just as well. Days later I hear the evening deteriorates into one of those messy family affairs, like Christmas dinners, where long simmering tensions finally boil over. There's a bit of a fracture in the family for a while and the whole idea of this story seems shot to pieces. Greg's been talking about banding the brothers together into a solid, creative co-operative to market all their various endeavours, but that's looking even more far-fetched than ever.
But like most good family tiffs, it blows over, and the brothers get in touch and let me know the story's still a goer. I'm glad. A harrowing day of interviewing and a week of transcribing and editing ought to amount to something. And it's too good a tale. It might not altogether make sense in places, but try to imagine the six brothers sitting around the old shack in the front yard of the Angourie beach house, sucking stubbies, screeching and heckling and reminiscing, the whole chaotic thing underpinned by a warmth and brotherly pride that's truly moving.
Eight months later, Greg's moved down to Sydney, Will's off on tour, John's invented a new fin, and Dan's trying to rally the troops to get the photos together for this article. If it's all come together in front of you, it's a miracle.