Kemp Aaberg
and the Rise of California Surfing: Conclusion

Kemp now resides in the hills overlooking Santa Barbara, an accomplished Spanish classical guitar soloist and respected Rincon local. Thanks to Kemp for revealing these many insights into the phenomenal rise of California surfing. Many thanks to longtime friend and Rincon local Dave Dahlquist for allowing us to use his Carpenteria workshop for this December 2001 interview.


"I'm gonna start a class in beginning flamenco". So that the very, very beginning concepts of the guitar can be related to substantial knowledge about how to strum "Soliares" or how to do a "Resciotto" or what the structure of "Seviannas" is ..."

WC: Both you and your brother are accomplished musicians.

KA: That's a matter of opinion. He (Denny) can perform in public with bands.

WC: You play serious flamenco guitar don't you?

KA: Yeah. My brother (Denny) plays popular music and plays for surf movies and he plays at longboard contests during their evening parties. All that, I don't do at all. I basically study classical guitar, play written music and play Scarlotti.

WC: You've been doing that for thirty or forty years right?

KA: Yeah, I love it. Its self entertainment and keeps me busy and out of the 'pool halls'.

WC: And you can read all those complicated scores?

KA: Yep. Read the music. And then I play also some flamenco which is related to it but its a different type of music. Its more a lot of strumming, its very rhythmic. But to me its fascinating. And between the two sports, God I wish I was like Greenough because nothin is more fun to me than surfing and then playing the "geetar". Its really fun.

"It's the perfect thing to do for a traveling surfer."

WC: I love that Spanish style ... the compositions are so beautiful.

KA: They're so beautiful. The music has just hooked me but in the classical realm, you need about two or three lifetimes to eat up what the repertoire is. There's like all this baroque music which is just unbelievable and it goes all the way through into the 1900's. And classical guitars are playing ragtime, "Maple Leaf Rag", "The Entertainer", all those popular ones by Scott Joplin. And then all of the eras represent a giant repertoire like of the early Spanish Renaissance music, which I like a lot and most people just go, "Whow ... what do you like about that?".

WC: Have you ever made a CD?

KA: Never made a CD.

WC: Have you and your brother ever thought of getting together and doing a project together?

KA: Not really. We have fun sometimes. He plays a bit of classical and sometimes we work on songs.

WC: I'm thinking of groups that combined acoustic and electric, "Pentangle" with John Renborn Bert Jansch. They combined blues and jazz with English folk and had an incredible sound.

KA: The thing I'm doing now, which I like, is I'm going to start in Santa Barbara. And I want to start the very, very beginners flamenco class. So that a guy that doesn't know what a "resciotto" is, or doesn't know what. In fact, I just wrote an article which I should send you. Its called, "How to speak Flamenco". Its a fun little thing, its about my first experience running into it. But the thing is I see, when I first ran into it, I went, "Boy, that's faxcinating! But it looks so "hairy" ... like the hell could you ever do it, its really complex, my God! If someone in Santa Barbara would clue into me, "I'm gonna start a class in beginning flamenco". So that the very, very beginning concepts of the guitar can be related to substantial knowledge about how to strum "Soliares" or how to do a "Resciotto" or what the structure of "Seviannas" is ... You know what I mean? These are songs. So I'm kind of stoked on it. I want to see how many people will surface when I advertise that. I used to do a class at the YMCA in classical. People really liked that. I was surprised at how many people said, "Oh, I'll read music!". A lot of people don't want it, they just want a scales training and a pick.

"I lived on the isle of Mull for a while in a trailer. I was alone there. And I was studying these Lute pieces. I can't say I ever got bored. There were tons of days of just wind blowing across the heather. And I'd just sit in this trailer, just plunk away...and its so involving and so much fun."

WC: I got a book by "Noad".

KA: You know Frederick Noad, I dearly liked that man, he was fabulous. He lived nearby here. He lived in Ojai, which is just over the hill. He published all of the great learning books. He even had a TV program too on instructional classical. Unfortunately, he has died within the last two months.

WC: I started and could see that even the simple written melodies could really draw you in.

KA: You know what it was for me a lot, its the perfect thing to do for a traveling surfer that was a positive and progressive use of time. It exercised the mind and was also intrinsically valuable. Like you can't go buy this chunk of knowledge that I might sit here with right now. You have to struggle through it and go through it for a long time. So like when I was traveling I'd be in Western Australia let's say and be camped out somewhere ... and every place blows out and you aren't gonna sit there ... Reading books is fine. And I never was much of a like, "find out where the nearest pub" was. But to like sit there, in a van on the beach or in a chair, and to be reading beautiful music and then coordinating your hands to get better and better. All of a sudden you become totally rapt in it, and you can forget about, you know, the time it takes for the waves to come up again. And yet you're involved in a craft like your (Dave's) woodwork. You know how it is to get, "Wow, this cut's gotta be just right. And that will fit just with this and ah! I've got an idea for this". Its a craft. And its an assembly of pitches and rhythm and I loved it as a way to complement surf surfari, basically, or surf adventure. I mean, I do it at home now. But what I'm saying is that when you're on the road and you have no place to go and you're camping ... and stuff like that. Or you're a gypsy or transient. The guitar becomes something that fills in all the time. You aren't just out there ... you know. ... I lived on the isle of Mull for a while in a trailer. I was alone there. And I was studying these Lute pieces. I can't say I ever got bored. There were tons of days of just wind blowing across the heather. And I'd just sit in this trailer, just plunk away .. .and its so involving and so much fun. Its a real personal therapy. Music therapy for yourself. That's the way it got me going.

WC: Has anybody focused on you about your classical guitar playing?

KA: The only article I've had ever done was by Russ Spencer, who's a local here in Santa Barbara. And he did a profile for Surfer's Journal. That was a while back.

WC: Denny did the soundtrack for "Innermost Limits of Pure Fun" ?

KA: Yeah, he has songs on there. One of them he sang the other night which I thought was kind of cute. A real cute little tune that he made up the lyrics to ... and we were at a Christmas get together the other night, a dinner party, and he played the song called, "Crumple Car." It's really cute, "Rambling down the road in an old VW Bus" like you're bouncing along a dirt road. You'll hear it on "The Innermost Limits" if you see it. But it is cute. I thought, Wow! here he is alive singing this gol danged song that he made up in the sixties. I thought it was corn ball at the time. but now, "Its really a classic!" Innermost Limits" is kind of fun. It shows really the primordial "stoke" of surfing. If you watch it, Greenough edits it like ... picking the film off the floor and connecting it to the next one on the table like this. So basically when you're watching it, you're jerked from Hawaii, to Australia and up and down. And there's no sense at all. But the subject material is so interesting to watch historically. And it gives you that feeling of really being stoked on surfing. And that thing of going to the beach, having the waves there and getting out and like ... Bob McTavish type enthusiasm of ripping waves ... the feeling of "sliding".

"I think he (George Greenough) was thinking very creatively....closer to the element...what is it like when these "crystal shingles" come pouring over you."

WC: The thing I liked about Greenough's photography was the water...the water textures and patterns of movement as seen through a wide angle "fish eye" lens.....That point of view was totally original in surfing. Bruce Brown, Greg McGillvery, Dan Merkel adopted it much later. Greenough invented that and you see derivatives of the technique right up to the present day - on Surfer Magazine covers - Aicher comes to mind .

KA: You know what, I have to say that, "He was thinking." Because everyone else was just tripod and Greenough is not a standup surfer, he was a kneeboarder basically. And he saw and said, "Hey, I've got to get that on film." I think he was thinking very creatively ... closer to the element ... what is it like when these "crystal shingles" come pouring over you.

WC: And the whitewater hits and all the bubbles go off! That photography inspired Pink Floyd. They were so inspired by that photography that they wrote music for "Echoes", his next movie. Those shots of being in the tube and seeing this little piece of daylight and then coming out of it.

WC: We got to see him at a very private session. We had a pass to the Ranch.

WC: In the winter of '69-'70. He had the camera on his back and had a whole routine choreographed, but on one wave, a "macker", the curtain came down and he didn't come out and it knocked the film off the camera and he had to come in out of the water. And then we were talking to him on the beach ..."The Mad Scientist" with that long blond hair ... pure intelligence ...

KA: He is a real doubt about it. And his ... ahhh ..."unique situation" is what created him. His mother and dad had a beautiful house on Miraposa Lane in Montecito and he do you put it?

WC: A "Trust funder"...but one who put his privileged circumstance to good use.

KA: But how many guys do you know that are just amped out of their gourds ... have unlimited funds behind em and go play hopity - skipity - go luckity and have a good time...without any restriction like him? ... He could have boats to go around the Islands in (Channel Islands), he could experiment ... be barefooted at all times... never comb his hair if he ever wanted to ... ah Fly to Australia. Any of us that want to go on a trip are going, "God, I can't leave because I'll have to dump this job and then when I leave, I'll just be scraping around...

WC: We're "Working Class"!

KA: All your fantasies are crushed by economic obligations ... realities.

DD: He was the icon for unlimited freedom for me.

"The hell with school! the hell with this! the hell with that....I just want to get out there and see the world and ride waves."

KA: But when you're just a young guy, its terrible. What is it, "things are wasted on the youth". But when you're a young guy, your impulses are like, " The hell with school! the hell with this! the hell with that ... I just want to get out there and see the world and ride waves. I wanna go to Western Australia, I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do that. And boy, the possibility of doing that sometimes really hard to pull off. Or you have to really work your ass off in areas that are really a hassle. I did it... so I can talk a lot about it ... That would be a long talk.

WC: You're surf travels?

DD: Did you sacrifice your early education to do that?

KA: I sacrificed a lot of practical years of getting organized ... just chasing around and living in a VW Van and putting up scaffold in Germany and working in a brickyard in Australia with all the "Brickies". I could go on and on, the whole nine yards. But I know what its like to do it WITHOUT the support that Greenough had. Greenough was what you dreamed about. He was a walking "Dream Guy" cause he could just go out and do this non paying frivolous behavior involvement with his surfing and he was in there early enough also to have the fun and creativity of being unique and new and awesome and plus he's really contributed a lot to it.

WC: That's the thing, he contributed a tremendous amount of work; in radical surfing technique and photography.

KA: He brought surfers closer to the wave. In fact his kneeboarding probably influenced to a great degree, on how guys are handling short boards. Getting sucked in that tube and working those little turns.

WC: Nobody knew that you could hand that far back and still come out.

KA: Yeah, why do you need ten feet of board?

WC: The way he was doing "figure eights" on those big Rincon waves. At that time, who would have thought about that. Bouncing off the soup..."rocket turns."

KA: The 360 (turn) was a move that was speculated on very early on, and we really came to the conclusion, I mean me and my peers, that it was impossible ... Hah! Hah! Now they DO the impossible. Its an equipment issue.

"... we really came to the conclusion, I mean me and my peers, that it (the 360 turn) was impossible...Hah! Hah! Now they DO the impossible."

WC: Its equipment and technique. The grommets of today look at Kelly Slater and go, "Oh that's where you start!"

KA: Denny and I were talking the other day about surfing and what you can do and really for comfort ability in the water, all of the niceties of riding a longboard is just so damn much easier. And that's why we stick into it, cause we're basically "Over the hill". These kids are so hot.

WC: I was just looking at this book, with Dora hanging five (a Leroy Grannis shot). It looks like there's no board there, like he's standing on the water ... it's just such a beautiful shot.

KA: Longboarding can be very beautiful, with trim control ... agile moves ... relaxation.

DD: It's a different statement. I look at guys out there ripping. I remember being out there in the water one day with my son, just a beautiful day, and these guys were just ripping it. I was out there on a longboard and they were hooting me. It's just a different approach, different artistry, different generation.

WC: I mean the idea is just that you're standing up ... You're "walking on water". As long as you can do that.

KA: You know what I think my next move is ... is to go down to Rincon, not San Onofre...and get a little card table and a chair, with a phone on the table and just sit there. Offer as much "leadership" as I possibly can.