James Kates Is Bodyboarding's Quiet Overachiever
James Kates is a consummate creator. Surfer, director, magazine publisher - he’s a sultan of style in the water and out, and the man behind some of the tightest bodyboarding fodder you’ve consumed over the past decade. Passing Through, The Four Winds, Home Brew - all James Kates joints. There’s a special kind of flow to the man’s work; a natural connection to the craft that just damn well looks good. Maybe it’s a rare angle of a heavily-documented wave. Or a drawn-out carve when everyone else would’ve kicked a perfect, lab-tested reverse. Or - in the case of this here interview - a raw, punchy rhythm underneath a song that might’ve traditionally called for a steady 4/4. That’s right. Along with his better-known pursuits, Kates is also a talented musician. You may as well rip up your New Year’s Resolutions list right now.
He’s currently part of two Australian bands that are no strangers to radio play – as drummer for south coast lo-fi group The Pinheads, and percussionist with acclaimed indie darlings, Shining Bird. Unsurprisingly, his career behind the drums started as organically as his other creative pursuits - so he explained to us when we caught up with him recently to chat about all things tunes, tonal projects and being one of our sport’s most underground slashies.
MM: How are things, Katesy?
JK: Been going around the carousel, mate.
You’re a filmmaker, a musician, a surfer, a publisher. How do you juggle it all?
Spare time? Nah, I always have something to work on. Lately I’ve been forming a bad habit of starting heaps of different shit and not finishing it - like this interview for example.
What about your music - how did you end up as the percussionist in Shining Bird and drummer in The Pinheads?
It all started as a bit of a laugh, really. The Bird Boys asked to come play percussion with them for their first ever gig at The Stoke Factory in Wollongong about 5 years ago, and it stemmed from there. I wasn’t particularly good at it; I just went along for the ride. The Pinheads started while I was directing the soundtrack for Passing Through. [Pinhead frontman] Jez Player dropped off a hot hit on a thumb drive they’d just recorded. I didn’t even know those guys made tunes at the time, but I got all amped up on the songs rawness and energy, so I frequently visited their 'Shed’ in Stanwell Park where I took to the drums because no one else did. I really had no idea what I was doing but we managed to get some songs together for the the Passing Through premiere in Sydney, which was one of our first shows. I put us as headlining act and It was one of the sloppiest, most absurd shows we ever played.
Shining Bird and The Pinheads juxtapose one another, how does it feel playing with such different bands?
It’s epic. I get to enjoy different ends of the musical spectrum, especially when we’re playing shows and you get exposed to a bunch of contrasting scenes and sounds. Shining Bird is so meticulously structured, it’s almost like re-creating a studio production. The final product of every song is polished and controlled - whereas The Pinheads are pretty much the opposite; loud, raw and spontaneous. It’s been really therapeutic having that release.
"It’s a weird feeling knowing you’ve brought a grown man to tears from your music"
You recently finished up a European tour with The Pinheads. Any crazy stories?
Too many, man. Actually, it’s a bit of a blur already. We did 25 shows in a row and 11,000 kilometres in a van.
Was it weird travelling through Europe when your focus wasn’t on waves?
It was totally sweet because your entire focus was on each day. It was very ‘in the moment’ and less stressful than chasing waves. I didn’t check the charts once but I managed to luck into a few pipes in Ireland after the tour.
What was the highlight of the trip?
We made a guy cry. That was pretty special. I think he was really drunk. Regardless, it’s a weird feeling knowing you’ve brought a grown man to tears from your music. Who can really say, maybe it was just because we sucked that hard.
Are you still publishing music on the LeBoogie Soundcloud?
I guess so. It still exists but most of my time goes into banging out tunes, film/editing work, doing stuff for DRAG and drinking coffee. I’m still psyched to use that as a platform to release music when it’s been made specifically for my video projects, though.
The Pinheads’ self-titled album scored promising reviews, and expectations are high for what’s around the corner. Should we be anxiously awaiting something wild?
I’m really pumped on the new album thus far. We recently recorded all the songs live in the shed, so it’s got a pretty primitive Rock ’n’ Roll sound. But we’ve explored some new realms in songwriting and tapping into different genres.
What keeps you going - is it just a ton of coffee each day, or is there more that motivates you?
I guess the idea that if you do what makes you happy and stick with something long enough, things will fall into place. And yeah, bulk brew.
You've had a prolific bodyboarding career, from repping Drag to owning Le Boogie. Are there any future plans for your bodyboarding?No serious boog aspirations at the moment. I’ll just surf, maybe make some more videos and have fun with it. I’ve seen a lot of people come in real hot on the boog scene with these grand plans, burn themselves out too early and forget the core reason why they started it. I’m definitely conscious of not doing that.
We love the way you ride a bodyboard. It seems like you have more fun than anyone and as a result, you seem to milk the most out of every wave. Is it something you’ve always been good at?
I don’t really know, I don’t like to think about it too much. I care way less about how I’m surfing lately than I used to. I still shit myself when it’s over 4ft. I think that’s how I got into filming as an excuse to avoid the big sessions. Ha!
What bodyboarders did you idolise as a kid? Have they influenced your current-day creative endeavours?
I was heavily influenced by all the Dapto boys growing up who were obsessed with No Friends and Chris Stroh videos. Ryan Hardy, Mitch Rawlins, Damian King and Ben Player were setting the benchmark and I don’t think many people have surpassed the talent of that generation since. They’re still freaks… except Kingy. Haha. I was super psyched on the tech scene when Visions came out and tried to cross my legs tight and all that, but eventually came to terms that it wasn’t really me. Now I’m all about smooth boys like Spencer Skipper, Garth McGregor, Chris James and obviously all the DRAG crew. But yeah too many to mention really.
If you were transported 10 years into the past, what would you tell your younger version?
Invest in Bitcoin. What a shit answer.
Any big plans for the future?
Mate! [Katesy says as he shakes his head in a, 'I've got way too much on' kind of way].