It’s Saturday morning and Aussie surfing champ Matt Wilkinson, fondly known as Wilko, is perched on a camping chair next to his caravan at Reflections Clarkes Beach, a stone’s throw from Byron’s main strip.
He’s on a staycation with his wife and baby girl for a week, a small change from his usual abode in the hinterland nook Federal.
He’s relaxed as. The plan for the day (after chatting with us) is to take his hot pink custom Vallkree for a spin to check the surf… and not much else.
After a lucrative career catching waves around the world, you’d think that the borders starting to open again would see Wilko at the international departures terminal donning a sombrero and a swag faster than you could say ‘dos cervezas por favor’.
On the contrary, Wilko tells us he feels free right where he is.
What does freedom mean to you?
Freedom has evolved in my mind. It has changed over the years. I used to travel the world pretty much non stop and then in the last couple of years I’ve found myself in the one spot and have just figured out what freedom is to me, which is now just being able to go down to the beach and free my mind and free my thoughts and do the things that I love, which is hanging with my family, surf and appreciating nature.
A few years ago I would have said that freedom is being able to travel the world and see all these different things, but I’ve realised that you can stay in the one spot and be that free.
There are so many things to see and learn and love right on your doorstep.
You’ve done professional surfing and now we’ve seen you co-create some epic short films, you host surf retreats and you’ve just released your debut single as a singer. Has this been from being in one spot and being able to experiment creatively with all of these different things?
Being a pro surfer pretty much my whole life, my goal was always to improve at surfing and get the best contest results I could. Now being off tour, I’ve found that I really enjoy coming up with ideas and bringing them to life, whether it’s doing the surf camps or doing short films or bringing out a song. Also with our property, we’ve got a restaurant on site. Being able to have an idea with all the stuff that I’ve seen and learned from travelling, I’m trying to bring little pieces of that home that other people can experience.
It’s films that I love. I work with my friend Adam who is a filmer and we both love those 80s and 90s comedies that are pretty simple and filmed in a classic way. We come up with the idea and that’s what we find funny so we try to stay as true to that as we can and put our own little spin on it. It’s what we find funny.
You must have fun making them as well.
Yeah, it’s a problem!
It’s fun filming, coming up with a concept and start filming something and it grows legs, changes and goes off in its own direction. Sometimes we get to the end and go “oh my god, that makes no sense”, while other times we go “holy shit, this is brilliant!”
People might like it, they might not, But everything we put out, we think it’s pretty classic so, it’s good fun doing it.
While I was on tour and had all the sponsor obligations, there were a lot of rules, companies shaping our profile, our brand. Whereas now, I’m completely free to do whatever I want, however I want. So it’s good fun to be able to have that creative freedom, to think of something and try and bring it to life.
Was surfing an outlet for freedom for you? Has it stopped or does it continue without the obligation?
Being on tour and having a lot of sponsor obligations was definitely a bit restricting, but the surfing aspect was always so free and a really good way to express myself. The judges always want to see something, but it’s always your interpretation and how you want to surf a wave.
I don’t think the freedom in the ocean ever got taken away, but surfing was definitely a job and you had to treat it like that to be successful. You still feel so free out in the ocean and it never becomes a chore. It’s always something I really love. If it ever did become a chore I wouldn’t do it. I think that would happen a long time before you went on tour or become a world surfer because you’ve got to put so many hours into it and love it so much to get to that point and I don't think anyone can ever take that away from you.
Does some of that creativity go away when you become a professional surfer compared to if you did it just as a hobby?
For me, that decision had to be made really early. 12 years old and competing, then doing bigger events and had sponsors from that young age. There was never a question in my mind whether I wanted to be a pro surfer or not. At that stage, being to professional events and watching the older guys doing their thing. It was all I ever strived to do. I had one goal as a little kid. Obviously it comes with the perks but it does become a lot of hard work. You learn that with any job, no matter how much you love it, you need to put in some hard yards. I think surfing, because it is controlled by the ocean, it’s a lot freer than being a swimmer or a gymnast. Most other things have different boundaries, while surfing has a moving canvas the whole time, you’re always out there learning something new which is a lot of fun.
Given how you’ve grown up, you were talented, fell into it, and that path was clear from a young age and you’ve worked hard for it. Would you say freedom involves sacrifice and hard work to get?
Definitely. I don’t think you can find freedom without working hard and without knowing what not benign free feels like. For me, I would surf every morning before school and after school, regardless if the waves were terrible or if it was pissing down with rain. I’d put those hours in that I didn’t want to, so I could travel the world and surf perfect waves and be free by unlocking those doors with that hard work. And that’s the same with any profession. You put in the hours of the stuff you don’t like so you can enjoy the good times and the free times.
World Surf League has described you as “pro surfing's most colorful free-spirited character”. It’s not just about surfing. Your humour comes across in your music video. There’s a tinge of humour in everything you do. So, who is Wilko? Is that how you perceive yourself?
We’re getting deep now! I’d say that’s a fair way to describe me. I find myself as a pretty easy going and fun-loving person. As a kid, I looked up to all the guys on tour because it looked like so much fun and I was like “if I can do that with my life, that’s the coolest thing ever!”.
I didn’t go there and take it as seriously as some people, but I worked as hard as I had to to live the life I wanted to life and enjoy every minute of it without loosing the reason why I was there which was to have fun and live the life that I had seen the older surfers doing. I always wanted to bring that fun with me wherever I went.
I love making other people happy, I’m a people person and enjoy entertaining people, a bit of the class clown, in a classy class clown sorta way.
You’ve always gotta keep it classy.
Haha. I’m a dickhead.
Hey, if you’re calling yourself a dickhead it's ok, right?
You can call me that.
Could you say that your idea of freedom is to have fun? Is that what it’s all about at the end of the day or it there more to it?
That's a good way to sum it up. I always wanted to live a fun life and bring happiness to other people and freedom, to me, is having fun and making people happy.
A bit of a pivot question. I didn’t realise that was you in that shark video where the shark swiped your board. Did you even realise the shark was there?
No, when the shark turned around I heard this plonking noise. It sounded close to me, this weird noise. I looked back, didn’t see anything and just had this creepy feeling. It wasn’t until the drone flew back and I heard the speaker say “shark spotted, return to shore” and I said, “I wonder where that was?” It wasn’t until I watched the footage and I was like “holy shit”. It was a weird feeling.
I then read that you were considering taking up golf and sticking to shories, because now you’re a dad. Have you taken up golf yet?
Yeah, I’ve taken up golf and I’m not very good at it.
What does freedom mean in that sense, now that you’re a dad. Freedom to go out and do things, has that changed?
It’s definitely changed my outlook and now I realise that my job is to bring up this little girl and give her all the freedoms that I had and make her life as fun and exciting as it could possibly be.
It changes the decisions I make. It makes me be a little smarter and take a few less risks, which I’m happy to do now. I’ve lived a free life, doing all the exciting and dumb shit I’ve always wanted to do and I’m happy to chill out a little bit and not surf before the sun comes up on my own when the water’s murky and all the silly things I used to do.
Pass down the fun to the next generation.
Exactly. She’s small enough that all I do is pull faces all day and that makes her happy. Not too tough a job at the moment.
I bet you won’t be too happy if she starts surfing before the sun comes up and does all the stupid shit that you did when you were a kid?
Nah, I’ll take her out on those days. I’ll surf with her.
What would you tell others on their own search for freedom or haven’t found freedom yet?
Do the things that make you happy and that you’re passionate about. Put in the work in other areas to open up those freedoms to do those things you love, then spend any time you can doing the things you love.
Peace man. Be free, everybody!
I should go down to the drum circle.