Three weeks before Andy died, I recorded this subdued and oddly morbid interview with Bruce Irons…
October 2010: High above the resort town of Las Playa Americas, in a hotel of three generously allocated stars, stands Mr Bruce Irons among a wreckage of remote control toys, five knives, as well as various Apple gadgetry. A pair of Dr Dre Monster Beats squeezes the gold of Mr Irons’ longer-than-ever hair. His eyes blaze with madness, his cheeks a furious dusky pink. A remote control helicopter fizzes past his face, thumbs working the rotor blade controls in a dexterous manner. The helicopter lands on a bedside table. Mr Irons places the remote control unit down and unstraps his Nixon watch.
“It’s called The Housing,” he says, biz-like. “It’s programmed with tide information for 200 beaches worldwide for the next 10 years, it’s got a wave counter and you can dive 300 feet and not blow it out. I noticed you’ve looking at it all trip. It’s yours.”
My pal Shinya, the designer of the magazine Stab, walks in. He is 24 years old and grew up with Mr Irons as his number one surf hero. His body visibly trembles when Bruce addresses him. “You look like you could do with a pair of shoes,” he says, then pauses. “But, wait. Will you wear ‘em?” Shinya shivers an anxious yes (Is it a joke? Will Mr Irons rescind the gift?) and receives a pair of black Nike low-tops.
“I’ll run in these,” says Shinya, the seizure of uneasiness gone as he swings the shoes over his bony little shoulder.
The next visitor, photographer Richard Freeman who came to shoot Bruce for a cover, is gifted a pair of noise-cancelling Bose headphones, with fresh batteries, a high-end device worth approximately $500 at retail. Later, Rich points out to me the significant wear on the foam of the ear cups and leaves the present hanging from a coat hook, its red diode winking in the darkness like an abandoned lighthouse.
In a pile on the room’s spare bed are gifts for his wife, his kid and for his friends. Kindness is an unexpected trademark of Mr Irons.
I spent five days with Bruce in Tenerife, a city in the Canary Islands, and the location for a Stab wave -pool shoot. Bruce flew for two days, from Kauai to LA, from LA to Chicago, from Chicago to Madrid, then Madrid to Tenerife. And, he arrived looking like he’d spent the entire time at a fitness camp. I never had Bruce figured out before this. I thought we’d be babysitting a 30-year-old prince. But, Bruce is a prince of the best sort. Lord, what a joy it was to shower in his bawdy stories.
On our last night in Tenerife, I found Bruce unexpectedly thoughtful. Place a microphone near his gums and his quotes are supersonic. But, at two am, as he sat under the yellow glow of a floor lamp, he reflected on ageing, the parabola of his life, the loss of a friend and the grief that follows. He spoke at length about his sometimes difficult, but always loving, relationship with his one-year-older brother; a brother who would not longer be around in a few weeks.
This interview begins just after midnight and concludes before three. Beer is served but drunk with little gusto as the interview descends into morbidity.
First of all, in between evening sessions at the pool and your regime of day sleeps, you’ve bled the island dry of its trinkets. Can you catalogue what you’ve bought here and their price tag?
I bought a gun with a flashlight and a laser beam on it, the gun was 10 bucks, maybe 15. I bought this little glow-in-the-dark swirly thing, I gave the chick four bucks. I bought some Nike shoes, they were about 80, 90 bucks. I bought five knives. They were a good price. Two were 15, a couple were 11, one was nine. I bought a remote-control helicopter in a briefcase, a travel case, that was 160 bucks. Woohoo! What else did I buy? Oh, I bought a little thing that can do your fucking nails, fucking tweezers, all sorts of fun. Five bucks. I bought some thermo underwear. That was probably 20 bucks. I bought my daughter an outfit, Nike, head to toe. Nice get up. I didn’t look at the fucken price, though. I figure it was about, let’s see the receipt (to another person in the room) hey get out my way, you’re running in circles… The baby’s outfit was fucking 80 bucks.
I can see a few more things on your bed. What’s that cube?
This thing, when your battery is dead on your phone, it gives it a burst of power for about a couple of phone calls, that was about 15 bucks. I bought some Dr Dre headphones that were well-overpriced at a whopping 300 dollars! And, um, oh I bought an iPad case for 15 bucks, an iPad screensdaver for 12 bucks,
And the cute little Monster speaker? God, my questions are so lame already! All I want to is roll in your bold consumerism!
Monster speaker! Don’t forget that! That was a walk-in 55 dollars! I bought another case for my iPad, that was 12 bucks, and some Nike socks ‘cause I didn’t have any socks. That’s it. I think we’re about down.
Tell me about your knives. Yesterday, you were at the pool with it clipped to the elastic of your waistband.
I like collecting knifes and I like having a knife. You always need a knife to do something. Cut a rope, cut a fish, fucken, knives come in handy. I always have a knife on my side. I like knives.
Are you a hunting man?
Well, no. I’m not going to call myself a hunter. Because, I’m not a fucking hunter. But, my friends are hunters and I go with them. Most of them don’t surf and they grew up hunting.
Have you ever killed a pig with your knives?
I’ve not knifed one, but I’ve shot ‘em. Yeah. I shot the pig for my wedding and for my daughter’s first birthday I shot the pig.
How do you do it?
You just come up and in between the eyes, point blank. My friend has a pig farm. He raises ‘em. But, I just went to Molokai and hunted deer. My friend lives there. We go fishing, then jump across the street and go fucking hunting deer, right there. In three days, they shot, like, 15. I got a couple. You see packs of 40 coming by and you’re, like…pow…pow… pow… pow… whereas the shit you see on TV, you sit for hours and you see like one deer. But, in Molokai, it’s packs of 40.
What’s it like to get one of the bastards in your sights an nail it?
Like I said, I’m no hunter. I suck shit. And on TV it looks all easy, but you stalk the thing all quiet, and when you see something, your heart’s all going, and to look through a scope and try to breathe steadily, it’s really hard. You have to be some semi-ninja, semi-jedi. And, I’m neither.
Do you think, wow, I’m about to end this animal’s life?
Well… no… I don’t. If you kill it and you eat it, it’s fine. So everything I kill I eat. Tuna are the most beautiful looking fish out there and we eat ‘em. Just don’t fucken take more than what you need. Killing animals? I’m fine with it as fine as long as you eat ‘em. What is this? Fucking Outdoor Hunters Magazine?
I want to know what it was like when you first starting getting attention, going from your idyllic poverty to pretty much instant wealth?
Here’s the background. My dad was a carpenter and my mom worked at a little shop in Hanalei. They’re divorced so we had that going, mom hates dad; dad hates mom That’s why we’d go to the beach and surf and surf as much as we could all day long, go home sleep and go to school. But, before we go into that other stuff, let me say: the good thing about that is our dad and our mom never pressured us into doing anything. We’d go to contests with our friends and that was our thing, we’d go there, my dad would work, my mom would work do her thing, we’d go to contests and surf and I’d watch their parents snap at them and I’d be like, God! I feel sorry for ‘em. So, not having my parents at my contests was a good thing.
Anyway, I’ll tell you from the beginning. Richard Woolcott (who would start Volcom) used to come to Kauai when I was younger and he’d come and hang out with Kaiborg, Chava (Greenlee), Kala Alexander and Woolly was Quiksilver and he took care after the boys. And, one time, I was fourth grade, I did my first 360 at Pine Trees and somehow he was there and I ran into him at the shower and I had already had a Quiksilver sticker on my board. Back then, you’d have as much stickers as you could put on your board. And, he was like, what’s up with this company, do you like it? And, I was, like, yeah, fuck, and he asked, do you want to ride for us? He gave me a pair of elastic shorts a bright pink shirt that were way too big. But, I was, like, woo-hoo, I’m sponsored!
Anyways, I rode for Quksilver for a couple of years and then when I was 13, Danny Kwock brought me into his office. I was in California doing amateur contests and he brings me into his office and he tells me, and I’m not even listening, I’m 13 years old, but I did catch the line, “Oh yeah, if another company comes along your way, if you get a better offer, you should take it. We’ll always be family here.” I was thinking, you’re Quiksilver! What do you mean?
Two weeks later, Richard Woolcott (who’d left Quiksilver to start Volcom) calls my house and offers me this HUGE deal and I’m fucken 13 years old! It was fucking big! And my dad was, like, “Volcom who? This radical fucken company? These fucken crazy fucken punks at Volcom with their ads flipping people off?” But, the money was too good and we didn’t have any money at home so we had to take it. But the funny thing was, two weeks after I had the talk with Danny Kwock telling me that if a better offer comes along I should take it, what do you know, Richard Woolcott calls. And, it didn’t make sense to me until Volcom went public and so and so made a shitload of money and had to step away from Quiksilver and I started thinking, hmmmm wow, this guy delivered me to Volcom. Which, to me, isn’t a bad thing because, you know, I’m very happy how everything turned out BUT do you think he owes me some money? This is all hypothetical, of course.
Two thousand and four was an interesting year for you. You’d qualified, you were at your peak, and your contract was up. You had a fantastic opportunity to sign what could’ve been a milestone contract with an opposition company…
I knew I was going to stay with ‘em because the relationship that I have with Richard Woolcott and Troy Eckert, to me, it’s not a company. Richard’s like a father; Troy’s like a brother to me. So, 2004, the contracts are coming, I’m in the WCT, and I wasn’t just gonna let them expect that they had it. I had a sit-down with Bob McKnight and Strider (Wasilewski) from Quiksilver. They were in my mind because at that time, Quslilver was big. They were 1.3 billion dollars so it was lavishing and crip and big. But, I knew what I had at Volcom was way deeper than that. I’ve been there since the beginning and I knew I was going to be with them for the rest of my life but… ha!… I was fucking with them. Bob knew. He said, “I know in the back of your head you already have your decision made but, hey, we’d love you to blah blah.”
I let Volcom sweat the whole year until New Year’s and I went out to dinner – me, Borg, Dave Riddel and Troy and Woolly. And, they thought we were just going out to dinner. I just told ‘em, “Are we going to do this forever or are we just fucking around?” And, they weren’t expecting it. And I said, “Well, I come as a package deal.” I told ‘em, “I will sign the fucking thing tonight BUT I’m bringing Borg and Riddel with me. Borg’s my guru and Riddel’s been like another father to me. He’s my comfort zone. Riddel’s been taking care of me and my brother since we were 12 years old.” Back when I rode for Quiksilver which is now Volcom. And they said, “No worries.” And here we are, six years later and I just re-did the thing with ‘em, a 10-year contract.
Did they cut you a little piece off when Volcom went public?
Everyone thinks that I got handed the whole fucking shebang-shebang. But, it was in my contract that if they ever did go public I had the option to get x amount of shares which I bought. Volcom! They’ve taken care of me since I was 14. They will care of me, I’m pretty sure, until the day I die.
Who attaches more importance to money? You or your brother?
Who gets weirder over money? My brother! My brother! That’s who he is. He’s a real competitive, jealous person. And, yeah, he wants to make the most, be the best… and that’s the reason for his competitive success. He wants to take whatever the person in the water has, contracts, or heats. That’s where me and my brother are completely different because I’ve never been the fucken contest fucken world champion. To me, I’m fucking thrilled with everything I’ve got. There was a point in high school where I was just partying with the boys. And, my real friends, the ones that cared, told me, get your shit together. We’ll always be here. You have a chance to go and fucken do shit that none of us can even imagine. We’ll always be here.
What emotions did you attach to his world title wins?
My brother won the world title and I was very proud of him. I was, like, fuck, this is the guy I’m surfing with every day and he’s winning the world title? What the fuck? So at that time, I was, I can do it, I can fucken do it! I WILL WIN THE FUCKEN WORLD TITLE! That’s what I thought. Fuck, I’m not going to lie, I might’ve had big dreams, expectations, but I cracked under pressure. Fuck! I got so fucken nervous. I was never nervous… ever! But, god, you know, all of a sudden I’m in my heat just… (choking sound)… I was out there surfing to impress the surfers on tour not the judges. I was going out there trying to do a hundred and fifty per cent on my first turns… blowing the fucking board to fucking space… ‘cause I was worried that I didn’t want to surf like a kook. I didn’t want the competitors to think, god, what the fuck is this guy doing on the tour? And outside, I had crowd anxiety. I couldn’t handle the pressure. I would, like, lock up and surf like a fucking kook, a robot, I hated it. I barely fucking made the first year by the hairs of my chinny-chin-chin. But, the next year I found that, ok, I belong here. But, fuck, I still couldn’t, I just didn’t like the way I was surfing. I couldn’t get this fucking glitch out of my head, like, fucking three to the beach. I felt like I had a stick up my ass. I felt like I was still a stiff robot. I did not like what I was seeing. Even when I made it clear in my head I wasn’t going to do the tour the next year and I was out there with nothing to lose, I still didn’t like the way I was surfing. It was fucking weird. I looked like a stif fucking robot trying to do… cutbacks.
Tell me about the most intense fight you’ve had with your brother. Was it the night before The Eddie, the year you won?
Oh, no, no. That was just a typical fucking fight. Him saying some stupid things he shouldn’t be saying to certain people and I was not happy with it. This was in the daytime. And, I was screaming shit at him. Everything you could think of to get him to come out of the house to fucking attack me. And, I said the perfect things and he came flying out and fucking tried to karate kick me. He kinda got me and then we started swinging… some guys grabbing me… and then he got me a couple of times and gave me a black eye and a bloody lip. I think I barely got him. But, fuck, that was a good reason I won the Eddie because I had so much rage in-fucking-side of me. And, I don’t want to use the word hate, but I was very, very upset with him. He was in the heat before me and it was the pulse of the contest and he was… it was 25 feet… and he was getting big waves, probably the biggest waves of his life and I was just… screaming… paddling out, looking at the sky yelling… YOU CANNOT!… because he has won everything. I was, like, he’s not going to win THE FUCKING EDDIE AIKAU! I fucking wanted it really badly. Winning the Eddie Aikau, that contest, I think it picks a person. There’s so much energy in that thing. The winner is already set in stone. It might’ve been for someone else that year, but I wanted it so bad I took that energy, I got those waves, the biggest waves of my life, and, you know… I won. And, a big part of it was how I was feeling. The depth of feeling inside me. Everything was in fucking fifth gear.
Did that intense feeling disappear once you’d won, once you’d beaten your brother?
No! Actually, it did about a couple of hours later, but I had a black eye when I was on stage and, fuck, I was jumping up and down on the stage like a little girl but, uh, he went to shake my hand and I fucking walked right by him on stage. And, I went back to my house, he came over with a bottle of champagne, we went upstairs and talked. I told him, fuck, you can’t do that. You can’t act like that. We hugged and that was that. We got in a fight in Fiji three years ago and I realised after that fight that it’s not cool. I punched him and cut his eye, he broke my surfboards afterwards. It didn’t feel good punching him even though he’s punched me hundreds of times. I realised, fuck, I’m punching my own blood. I told myself, I’m never going to let it get to that point again. I will fucken walk away. I’ll be the bigger man. Even though I don’t want to. Like, just recently, we got into a fucking fist-fight and it’s hard to be the bigger man, I’ll tell you that. It sucks! It sucks having to be the bigger man and you’re the younger brother. But, if it stops the way I feel afterward because, fuck, he’s my brother, I’ll suck it up. If he wasn’t around I don’t know what I’d do.
Who’s your one closest, most trustworthy friend?
Shit. You guys are not going to know him.
It don’t matter.
It’s hard to find. Now that I’m getting older and had a kid I look at my life. You start to wonder, who are your real friends? Who is your friend because they’re you’re friend? Or, who’s your friend with their hand out? A lot of people, where I live, there’s a lot of negativity. It’s weird. A lot of people, they’d rather see you fall than rise. Instead of working together, they like to work against each other. I’m not saying that about everybody, but there’s a lot of people. Especially in my situation, a lot of people hate, hate, HATE the fact I came from nothing have a lot of things and live life not really caring what they think.
Have you ever wanted to die?
Yeah. But, that’s hypothetically speaking. And, if anyone out there says that they’ve never wanted to die is full of shit. But, not since I’ve had a child. I actually try to take care of myself these days. I’m not as reckless, careless because me imagining my daughter growing up without me, her father, to take care of her, fuck, that scares me.
When’s the time you’ve been most grief stricken?
Oh fuck! My friend Ronnie-Boy, fuck, shot himself two years ago. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. It’s still hard for me to deal with. It’s very sad. Yeah. Someone that you never think would do that but is crazy enough so when you hear it… I did have a dream about him. He’s doing good.
What was the dream?
It’s weird ‘cause he was a crazy, crazy guy but he was for real. He was one of my best friends. Someone who said they’d die for you and who would actually die for you. And, I was waiting for this dream because I’d hear people say, oh, I had a dream, but a lot of those people who say that, they’re just full of fucking shit. So, I was, like, WHERE THE FUCK IS MY DREAM? I was waiting for, like, a year-and-a-half and any chance that something was coming I’d get really excited and wake up and be, like, awwww fuck! So, when I finally let go of it, he was in my dream. I’ve had two. I just had one two weeks ago. The first one was, I was down at Pine Trees, me, my friend David, he was another one of Ronnie-Boy’s really good friends. Ronnie Boy was a nuts Hawaiian hunter, scrapper, tough as nails, but a really fucking sincere person. Big fucking heart. And, he did not care what you were. I was a little white haole surfer and he was a fucking nuts Moke hunter trapper guy. But, we were best friends. He wishes he grew up surfing because his dad made him hunt. So, in my dream, I came back from Molokai and I was telling him, “I just shot some fucking deer, you’d be so proud of me.” And, he was, like, “No way, Red!” ‘cause he used to call me Little Red, “You did it, you shot some!” And, in my dream, I said, “Where the fuck were you?” And he was real mellow, usually he was high strung. My friend Dave had his back turned to him. It was weird. The three of us were fucking real when we were together. But, he wasn’t looking at him. And, I was thinking, fuck, why? It took me a long time to process it. I woke up and I was, like, fuck, I thought he was still around and I realised it was a dream and, fuck, I started crying.
(Bruce talks about Ronnie-Boy at length and a few more dream guest appearances as well as the arrival at Ronnie-Boy’s house of a spiritualist who presented his mom with her favourite chocolates and flowers, a gift, she said, from her son.)
You got something else for me? You’ve been uncharacteristically reflective tonight…
You’re supposed to tell me what to say. Shit, I miss my wife and daughter.
How about you tell me how you feel about getting older?
You know, my brother’s kinda going through that right now (Andy’s 32, one year older than Bruce). I think he’s maybe just starting to accept it a little bit. But, me? I always thought I was the shit, I was the young guy, until two years ago when I had my 10-year (high school) reunion and I didn’t go. In your mind, you think you’re always going to be the shit. But, then you have guys like Dane Reynolds arrive. It’s hard at first. Like, fuck, FUCK THESE GUYS! First instinct, fuck them, fuck that, fuck everybody. It’s an easy thing to do. Fuck this. But, uh, I just said, you know what? Fuck being jealous and fuck being angry. I was a cocky FUCK growing up. I still am.