Your first Momentum vid became a bit of a surprise hit. How'd you get into filmmaking in the first place?
Steele: I was lucky. I started really young [at 12 years old]. My friends and I would take turns videoing, so I was more someone wanting somebody to video me [surfing], and that was the easiest way -- if we all took turns. So I would edit my video stuff down, and I would edit theirs down and give it to 'em. Then I really wanted to make surf films a career, but never really thought it was possible -- until Momentum. I was making Momentum as this surf film, but not really expecting anybody to see it. I was just doing it because I enjoyed it, and I was going to college, not knowing what I was going to do after. Obviously, I wanted people to see it, but I didn't think that was going to happen.
It's been said that getting a strong section in one of your early vids could really impact a career. To what lengths would people go to ensure they looked good?
Steele: Yeah, going into our fourth video, we realized that the session looked better if it looked like it was all from one day. So, guys would wear the same outfit for the whole week at a spot. But where it went above and beyond was one of the surfers wore a full [bodysuit] the whole year. Some sessions were really warm water, and they were trying to play it cool, like they weren't [wearing] it for that reason. [Laughs]
The punk music pairings in your first films were groundbreaking at the time -- and many of the musicians cite your early vids as major fan-base amplifiers. How would you go about discovering those bands and picking the music you'd use?
Steele: Finding music back then was a different ballgame. I would go into record stores in Encinitas, where I grew up, and I'd look at the local bands. If their cover looked good, you'd buy it or ask for recommendations -- it was such a slow process to find [new] music. So I would just find these CDs and cassettes, and buy like 20 or 30 at a time and then play 'em.
My friend Greg Browning turned me on to Pennywise, and he said he knew them so that made me listen to them with a different ear. Because the biggest pain for a filmmaker is falling in love with a song, asking permission to use it, and then they say no. You've already gone down this deep road of discovery and connecting it to the footage and then you have to take it out. So the fact they were already a yes made me imagine them working.
Sprung Monkey, I remember I bought their cassette tape that was in the local band section, and I liked it. They only had three songs out at that time. So, it was really sort of raw, and looking back on it, I knew I needed to find a different way of making films than everybody else. Because I didn't have the quality that Jack McCoy or other [surf filmmakers] had. My quality matched that sort of punk-rock tone [of music].
Were there any bands you reached out to in those early days that broke your heart by saying no?
Steele: Yeah, there's one in probably every movie. One of the ones that still hurts to this day is I put [Rage Against the Machine's "Guerrilla Radio"] on Bruce Irons' section. It was amazing. But they said no.
How has your relationship with music changed?
Steele: Nowadays, it's beautiful that every song is at your fingertips online, and that's a huge blessing. But if I'm making a surf film, it's really tough to not get nostalgic: When I was doing Momentum, Pennywise and Kelly [Slater] were staying at my house and playing pool for dishes. It was like we were all one big team, working toward the greater good. The bigger answer is I'm just a different filmmaker than I was at that stage. Now when I use music, it's a tool for emotion. So it's not maybe as prevalent, and it's more a feeling that's in the background.
Who do you enjoy listening to now?
Steele: I know they're pretty popular, but I'm a fan of Portugal. The Man; they have that punk-rock aesthetic, but then they have sort of a pop side, too. They just change in style so much that it keeps me entertained; it's not one thing through the whole song. I also like Dope Lemon -- we're always playing that around the house, the Angus Stone side project -- and Kevin Morby, too.