Interview by Mary Mills
Gene Cooper is a California surfer / shaper who is best known for his Cooperfish surfboard line that are based on his admiration for traditional shapes. His most recent project has been a modern take on the old school girlie calendar. Gene talks to us about his craft and his inspirations.
What was your life like growing up?
Great! I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and Newport Beach. I started working for my dad, who’s an old school master carpenter, at a young age. I got a very early introduction to hammers, Skil saws, tape measures, planers, etc. I think that’s how he kept me out of his hair on the job; he’d just give me some tools and an all day project. He used to tell me I was a “fusser”. He recognized at an early age that I’d never be a production guy. Many of my boyhood memories are of the job site.
When did you get your first surfboard?
1966—an 8’6″ Greg Noll film productions board. Within a year, I cut it down to 6’6″ when I saw the first of the shorter boards in Surfer Mag.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
The fin was in the sand by the time I stood up, so it was kind of felt like standing on the beach.
When did you start shaping and what prompted you to do so?
I started stripping down old boards, reshaping, and glassing soon after I started surfing. I’m guilty of making lots of really bad boards out of really good ones, but at least they were usually beat before I got to them. I got more serious around ’73 when a friend showed me a board he’d built in his garage. He was super talented and led me down the right path.
What we’re you riding in the 70’s and 80’s before longboards came back?
Longboards never went away for me and my friends. We made them or rode the old ones and those were cheap. Also “eggs” or what they call “hulls” now.
So when did you start the Cooperfish label?
1991 or so, but it was just a new banner to make the same boards I’d been building “one at a time” for a long time. Having a label raised the bar for me because my name was on it.
Did you work in shops or surfboard factories before that?
Yes—California Foam in the Valley from ’75 until starting my fire department gig in ’78. Lloyd, the owner, claimed he raised his fire insurance the day I got that job.
You are neither a full-time shaper nor a backyard shaper. How would you label what you are (as a shaper)?
I’ve had a factory for years so that kills the backyard label. I recently retired from the LAFD after 32 years, and I’m done making and marketing the calendar. So I guess I’m now officially a full-time board builder.
How did you come up with the idea for a Cooperfish calendar?
Going into fabricators’ factories as a kid with my dad, there was always a cheesy calendar or two on the wall. They were part of the ambiance of the gritty environment and part of the great experience of going to these places. That was a time when people just went to their jobs to work and it was before all the workplace sensitivity lawsuit junk that we live with today—a much better era in my opinion. When I opened my factory, I put calendars up but the only thing available was cookie cutter, thin paper, thoughtless, lifeless, “Printed in China” calendars. Also, they never had any surfboards in them—just cars. I figured we could put some quality back into cheesecake, so I talked my commercial photographer friend, Michael Moore, into tackling it with me and we went for it. It turned out to be a long process. I think we killed it; this calendar represents a better time to me.
Do any of the models in the calendar actually surf?
The models don’t surf and there’s no tide chart. It’s pretty arty. I think that with the photographs that Mike took we could have left the calendar part off and most guys wouldn’t have noticed.
Can you tell us anything about the Blackboard model you’ve worked on with Mike Black?
I’ve known Mike for a long time. He’s a good friend and one of surfing’s characters in a classic sense. When he gets into something it’s all or nothing, and Mike’s into riding pigs right now. We’re doing the model and I want to keep it true to the heritage of the design. At the same time, I want to put my sensibilities into the shape. That’s an element that I try to include in every model so I feel comfortable putting my label on it. We’re still making prototypes, and working with materials and design. The development process is my favorite part of making boards and I’m committed to make a better, yet traditional pig, for Mike. I can’t wait to make one for myself. Mike’s enthusiasm is catching.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
George Greenough and Nat Young. I started surfing right when that thing hit and it was a big influence—all the experimentation. And Greg Liddle; he totally refined a single idea. It wasn’t that popular outside of Malibu and Rincon back then, but now his design is considered its own genre within surfing.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out and why?
Home. I’ve had my best days about 100 yards from a warm shower.
Who/what inspires you?
My friends and customers. Also, my association with The Surfing Heritage Foundation inspires me because it reminds me of the high standards that the board builders of the past held. Go visit them or another surf museum if you haven’t recently. All the elements of craftsmanship and design can be found there. There’s also plenty from the old crew at the functions they have and they’re happy to share stories. Surfing’s heritage is inspiring.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Balance … but I haven’t mastered it yet.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
What are you most proud of?
Proud to be a part of surfing. Proud of my years on the fire department. I’d be really proud if they’d put me on that Shapers Tree. What do I have to do to get on that thing?
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing ruined my life. Do you know how successful I’d be now if I never surfed?
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
Surf schools are shaping the path. They should teach etiquette and manners first.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
A 9’7″ Rick Noserider that I gave to Chris Vail when he graduated from high school. I like traveling in Southern California surfing along the way.
What’s your favorite meal?
Chicken and waffles at JD’s BBQ in Oxnard. Weekends only.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
DK, Tom Waits, Rev. Gary Davis, Hank III, Louis Jordan, Dean Martin, Wayne The Train, O’Jays, George Jones, Sinatra, Ramones, lots more.
What causes/organizations do you support?
Veterans Adaptive Surf Camp out of the Westwood VA and The Surfing Heritage Foundation.
What are you most grateful for?
Being born and raised in a good place during good times.
What’s next for Gene Cooper?
Twelve eBay auctions—one for each calendar board each month and I’m looking forward to that starting up. First one’s January 7th through January 17th. We’re also planning a release party for the Blackboard at the Surfing Heritage Gallery on February 21st and that coincides with close of the February calendar board’s auction.
Also, I’ve got a bunch of board orders I’m filling and that keeps me busy, but my long term plan is to stop coming up with crazy ideas so I can go back to being a full-time surfer.
Find out more about Gene Cooper and Cooperfish here.