High in the Norwegian Mountains, February 2014

By Ken McKnight

Up next on Here and Now is a look at our friend, Australian Neil Pye. Neil is a dedicated mat aficionado and everything prone. He lives and mats on Australia’s East Coast and is the national distributor for 4th Gear Flyer Surf mats in the Land Down Under. A dedicated musical follower in all things Neil Young, Mr. Pye’s mantra is “All Neil All The Time.” A Man after my own heart I must say!

photo: Rhys Jones

When UKMS first approached Neil about this interview it was right after New Year’s while he was really high, in the mountains that is. Kind of a far cry from the beach but on a mission just the same. 

UKMS - Hey Now, What’s going on?

I understand your high in the mountains of Norway at your wife’s parent’s log cabin? That sounds unreal! How’s the skiing or are you snowboarding? Dude, that’s a far cry from riding your mat on the Gold Coast, Huh?

Are you missing the water and your mats?

Neil - Hey! Yes, high in the Norwegian mountains is one of my most favourite places in the world to be! Cabins are such a huge part of Norwegian culture; most families have one that they will retreat to throughout the year. Last night was New Years Eve. We celebrated by drinking Champagne on the roof of the cabin, watching fireworks and then jumped off into the snow below. We had to discourage my 83-year-old grandmother from following us in. Yes, cabin life here is all about family and cross country (Nordic, I think Americans call it) skiing! I’m a keen student of Nordic skiing. When we’re up here, I completely forget about the rest of the world, including the beach.

UKMS - Since I don’t know much about you personally or as a mat rider can you give me some background on yourself? Pretty much who is Neil Pye?

Neil - I have a fairly varied background, so I’ll stick to talking about surfing.

photo: Audi Pye

I’ve always been a bodysurfer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always spent as much time in the water as possible. Unfortunately, we didn’t live at the beach. As a teenager I played around with bodyboards, but would always end a session with a bodysurf. When I was 18 my parents moved us to the Sunshine Coast. My father won a surfboard from a flavoured milk company at this time and I had no job and no friends, so I taught myself to stand-up surf. From there the bug bit harder than ever. My first 6 boards were all single fin longboards. In the late 90s I used to surf Ti Tree Bay (a fabled Noosa point) mid-week with few others around. At this time, longboards and fishes had not completely caught on, and the weak peeling waves of Noosa were the domain of frustrated shortboarders trying to pump their way across the bays with little success. I was in love. Trimming longboards on perfect points was everything in my life. It continued like that for years.

As the masses became more aware of the joys of longboards/fishes, all the points became really clogged. As a result my boards became shorter so I could leave the points and find quiet beach breaks instead. About four years ago, I revisited Greenough’s  “Crystal Voyager.” I’ve always loved that film immensely. The ‘Echoes’ section touches something in everyone, surfer or not. Greenough is an artist, and I started thinking about his ever-present mat. That led me to Paul Gross and Fourth Gear Flyer.

photo: Audi Pye

UKMS - How has your 4th Gear Flyer business life been so far? How long have you been the distributor? Are you finding it easy to sell mats in Australia or are they literally selling themselves?

Neil - PG approached me about a year ago. I enjoy helping people discover the joys of riding a mat in the surf. They pretty much sell themselves, to be brutally honest! I just help with a few questions. Having said that, the mat riding community here is microscopic, so I’m not really run off my feet!  

UKMS - Living in the land of the eternal Sunshine Coast (Ha Ha!) and the perfect point setups do you think the learning curve is as steep as say California where the multitudes of stand up trendy hipsters look at mats as an oddity and not a legitimate wave riding vehicle? It is almost like surfers are afraid to try mat surfing especially the older guys. All I hear is “Oh, I haven’t seen one of those in years” or “I learned on one of them.”

Neil - It’s exactly the same here, mate! Most people I know think I’ve gone mad and given up surfing. They cannot understand that riding an inflatable raft IS surfing. It’s too far out for most. Even after they’ve witnessed you screaming across a wave at speed, the typical response is, “can you stand-up on that?” I think surfers are pretty alike wherever they come from in the world. We (my wife, Audi and I) surf mats wherever we go (Sri Lanka, Norway, Tasmania etc. etc.) and it’s fairly safe to say that mats are an oddity still.

UKMS - How excited are mat surfers in Oz to learn about the rest of the mat world? Do they care? Is the Social Media a big part of it? 

Neil - I’m not sure that I’m qualified to speak for all Aussie mat riders! Personally, I’ve always been into surf history and looking to the ‘traditional’ surf cultures (Hawaii, California) for inspiration. I used to use Social Media a bit to stay connected with what other mat riders were doing or saying, but I’ve lost interest. I’m happier just doing my own thing. 

Surfing in Norway. photo: Rhys Jones

UKMS – The Prono Paradiso meet seemed pretty cool? Was that your idea? The video was done really well. Do you have any ideas for another meeting like that?

Neil - Thanks! We had a blast! My good friend Rhys Jones did the video. I converted him to mat riding a few years back. Mat riding and bodysurfing is a huge inspiration for us and we wanted to share a bit of that with others. I was blown away with how many wave riders turned up and from where some of the people had blown in from! I’ve thought about hosting more events like PP, but they’re only thoughts at the moment. I love ‘party waves’ while riding mats and I’d like to connect with more mat riders at times, so I’d like an all-mat surf day but I don’t think there’s enough mat riders around.

UKMS – Do you ride all those other surf vehicles as well as mat?

Neil - Yes. On certain days a Paipo is the best vehicle, and on others a bodybash with a handplane is the only thing! At Prono Paradiso I wanted to get more people on mats. Everyone had a go, but mats are fairly difficult to fathom if you’re coming from a rigid board of any kind.

photo: Rhys Jones

UKMS - How do the crowds handle mats in the Aussie lineups? Are mats taken seriously?

Neil - Sometimes. Initially, no. Like anywhere else, if you can prove that you’ve got ‘it’(whatever that is!), then you’re left alone to have your waves.

UKMS - How long have you been riding mats?

Neil - Not long, only about four years. Like most mat riders, I feel like I’ve got lots to learn. The ocean is a great teacher. I’m humbled every time I climb onto a surfmat.

UKMS – How hard was it for you to ride a mat initially? Did you get the “Magic” right out of the gate or was there a steep learning curve?

 Neil - The first wave I caught on a mat was a revelation! I’ll never forget it. I had no clue what I was doing, but I really liked the new feelings that I was experiencing.

photo: Keith Davis

UKMS - Can you tell us more about those first feelings? Were they like the first time you ever rode a wave? What happened that night afterwards in your head? 

Neil - It was totally identical to that first-ever unbroken wave on a surfboard! Blew my mind! Completely different, yet spookily similar.

It wasn’t just that night; it was the next year or so. My brain was just exploding with the question of, “how do these things do it?” After a while you just accept that they ride waves really bloody well and after that, it’s not as special any more. I’d love to go back there again.

From there the curiosity about how to make this ‘thing’ work was almost unbearable! The next couple of months were probably the most exciting of my entire surf ‘career’, and all of it was in mediocre, sloppy 1-3ft waves.

photo: Audi Pye

UKMS – Where did you learn your technique? Was there an Obi-Wan mentor or just trial and error?

Neil - Lots of Trial and error, mainly. My wife and I swapped notes during and after surf sessions. During our first couple of months we did have a few chance encounters with Warren Pfeiffer. I believe that we both learnt a lot from sharing some waves with him. Our minimal style was probably shaped there and then.

UKMS - Where was that at and what happened?

Neil - We ran into him in 2010 at spot XXX. The mat world is so tiny that I knew who he was as soon as we met him. We shared some fun waves. He showed us how to properly execute party waves!

photo: Neil Pye

UKMS - What is it that you love about riding a surf mat?

Neil - Everything! Flex is the main thing, I guess. Flex in surfboards really excites me also, and I don’t think that that has been explored anywhere near enough, but no board can ever come close to surfmat flex…obviously! Birds, fish and cetaceans derive all their speed and maneuverability from flex. It stands to reason that surfmats are the most incredible surf vehicles on offer.

UKMS – Where exactly is home for you and how often are you in the water? Are you a solo session mat rider or are there other mat surfers in your immediate area? Does your wife ride a mat?

Neil - We live in Brisbane at the moment. We’re trying to relocate back to the beach soon! I work part-time so I can surf at least once a week. Beach time is important to me, so I prioritize it. I have lived at both the Sunshine and Gold Coasts over the years.  When I surfed boards, I was mostly a solo sessionist. Since mats have come along I’m trying to drag people into the water with me! Sharing a wave on a surfmat is an incredible gift.

UKMS - From Spirit Matters you were quoted,

"I was completely consumed by the way it (a mat from Dale Solomonson) made me feel when skimming across wave faces. I named (that mat) "Cinnamon Girl," )being a Neil Young fan), because "I could be happy for the rest of my life with the Cinnamon Girl....

...I decided to try making my own mats. Graeme Webster helped me. He trusted me with "The Knowledge." 

UKMS - Did you make that mat? Was there more then one? How was that process? How did it ride? And did anyone else ride it?

Neil - I recreated Cinnamon Girl after being inspired by Dale’s mat. I loved the Neumatic dearly, but it didn’t live too long and we all know how hard it is to get a new Neumatic! So I made my own. Amazing mat that. I’ve made five mats now. Couple of failures along the way, but on the whole I love my mats more than any other. I guess that’s because I made them for me and refined them as I’ve felt like trying something different. The maiden voyage on my Cinnamon Girl II was like that first ever wave, where everything just clicks perfectly into place. Stoked!

photo: Neil Pye

photo: Neil Pye

On the process of making mats…it’s very trying on your patience. Anyone who’s made one with homemade tools knows what I mean. Time consuming and very labour-intensive. I don’t need to plug Fourth Gear Flyer surfmats to anyone here, but they are an absolute bargain for the amount of work that goes into them! And the hours refinement etc etc…and I haven’t yet worn out a 4GF, unlike my own creations!

UKMS - Talking about Neil Young..... You told me you were at his Psychedelic Pill concert in 2013 with Crazy Horse. How was that? Where was the concert, how were your seats? You also said that during the song, "Like a Hurricane," something special happened. Tell us about that.

Neil - We could’ve seen Neil Young and Crazy Horse in Brisbane, but the venue he played in here is a total shithole, in my opinion, and can make good artists sound shitty.

So, we flew to Geelong, Victoria and saw them in a winery that had a natural amphitheatre. So, no need for seats![

Mind blowing concert! The rainy weather that day only added to the charm of the venue, and during “Like a Hurricane” the rain and wind intensified so dramatically that we did think that we might all get, “blown away”!! The way that it all came together felt like we, the crazed audience, and NY + Crazy Horse were all feeding off the incredible energy that the storm was creating! Maybe I drank too much red wine that evening…it was good times either way.

UKMS - On the subject of music, do you cue up any special music before a mat session? And if so, what are you listening too? Okay what is in your tape deck right this second?

Neil - I’m almost always listening to music. Neil Young features highly. At the moment I’m listening to lots of Nile Rodgers’ various collaborations. I dance to electronic dance music when I’m making surfmats or cooking in the kitchen.

UKMS - Have you named all your mats?

Neil - I’ve named all of my mats after Neil Young songs. He’s got so many songs that I’m bound to never run out!

photo: Neil Pye

UKMS - Who are some of the others that you mat with, if there are any?

Neil - My wife, Audi, my cousin Joe, Rhys Jones (the guy who made the Prono Paradiso vid) and a selection of random people that don’t often surf but love saltwater.

UKMS - What’s your typical wave like there and what about the super days? Or maybe you don’t want to disclose too many of those?

photo: Neil Pye

Neil - Typical waves for us are pretty average; 1-3 foot closeouts are typical. There are lots of good waves around also, but there are just too many people around.

As far as super days are concerned, they are few and far between. But, when I get the chance I do relish it. In 2010 (I know, long time ago), we had a long weekend of incredible 6ft top-to-bottom barreling crystal cylinders. After those four days, everything has felt fairly pedestrian…but fun all the same. That’s the beauty of surfmats, as we know…they are awesome fun whenever you take them out, regardless of wave size and shape.

UKMS - What inspires you to mat?

Neil - Having fun in the ocean with friends.

UKMS - How has mat surfing changed your ocean life or has it?

photo: Audi Pye

Neil - It has freed me from being concerned with about what others think. Riding a mat confirms your place as an outsider so why try and fit in with the other surfers in the water. Do your own thing! If all the surfers are huddled together on the best bank along the beach, move along and find your own.

UKMS - Are you into the mat history at all?

Neil - Kinda. As I said, I’m into surf history.

UKMS - Have you ridden any of the older type canvas mats? I think mats were pretty much invented by an Australian, in the 1930’s, and I think the Redback’s. LiLos, Merriman’s and Rip Curl’s were right there on the cusp of mat history.. Do you have any old mats from days gone by? Do you know much about the history of mats and mat making in Australia?

Neil - I haven’t ridden any vintage mats. That’s probably my only gripe with surfmats, that is, they don’t age particularly well. I’ve seen plenty of older mats, but no one wants to let you ride them! I love that about well-crafted wooden surfboards, they take a proper beating for decades and then you can pass them onto your grandkids!

UKMS - Has Paul filled in many of the historical blanks on mats as a background?

Neil - Yes, definitely. It’s an interesting sphere with colourful characters, that’s for sure.

photo: Audi Pye

UKMS - What is your go-to mat currently? What’s in your quiver?

Neil - OK, it’s a big quiver, but I predominantly rotate about three mats, one for small stuff (4GF Omni), one for larger, low tide sucky stuff (4GF Lotus) and one experimental mat that I’ve made myself.

UKMS - How often to you go to other mats to try them?

Neil - Always. All mats are very different. When you vary a mat’s dimensions by a few fractions of an inch, you’re going to get a completely different ride.

UKMS - How are your inflation rates these days? What is normal and comfortable to you and how often do you adjust inflation?

Neil - Magic towel is the default setting mostly, but depends on the mat and conditions, obviously. I love those sessions where your air plug comes loose and lots of critical air is lost, but the mat just keeps gliding! Makes me think, “Jeez, I thought I had this mat deflated already?” Think again.

photo: Rhys Jones

UKMS – What type fins are you using and why? Have you tried a lot of different fins?

Neil - New Duckfeet. Simply the best compromise of comfort and power.

I guess I have only tried about four types of fins, so not many really when you compare with how many PG or GG would’ve experimented with over the years.

About three years ago, I did the whole UDT thing. I worked those fins so hard with seemingly innumerous tools, so that I could get the flex just so and I still felt like my ankles were going to dislocate when a wave broke awkwardly. Then, the NEW Duckfeet came along and they’re perfect out of the box for me!

photo: Audi Pye

UKMS - You have been lucky to travel around in mat friendly places. Tell me a little about your travels in the past five years both in and out of Australia.

Neil - We’ve been to Sri Lanka three times since 2011. Wicked destination. Small waves, but there’s something to ride everyday and plenty of turtles!

In Australia, I’ve been to Tasmania a lot. I’ve always had a mat with me and have found some very quiet and cold spots to enjoy a few waves.

UKMS – Maybe take us through your dream mat wave?

Neil - Peeling point break over volcanic rock with a few faster, walled-up sections. Crystal clear water with tons of aquatic life to admire.

UKMS - Do you find it difficult to tell others that don’t mat what this bag of air is all about and why it is so much fun?

Neil - Yes and no. I feel like I can explain it, but I can see they don’t really get it. Only a Matrider knows the feeling.

 Neil & Audi photo: Neil Pye

UKMS – Have you gotten up to Byron Bay much to surf with Greenough and that group of mat riders?

Neil - I get to BB a bit. We’ve surfed with Boyd K. and look forward to more sessions with him. We’ve been in the water with GG, but I couldn’t say we’ve surfed together. I respect his desire for privacy and distance. I wouldn’t want people coming up to me all the time and expecting conversation or surfing together. I’ve never understood people that want autographs or to meet ‘famous’ figures. Star fuckers.

If I did ever have a chance to talk to GG, I would probably only need one word…”Thanks!”

UKMS - What’s next for Neil Pye? Where do you see yourself in the next two years with your personal mat surfing?

Neil - Learning more, riding more and trying more designs. I’d like to combine more trekking in remote areas with surfing mats on empty beaches.

UKMS - And if you had a crystal ball what would the Future of mat riding look like?

Neil - Smiley! Less bullshit and more smiling at each other.

UKMS – Sounds great Neil. Many thanks for taking the time.