Gorging at Macaronis: Dion’s origins on his paternal side go back to island of Malta, where Paul the Prisoner famously saved his Roman soldier captors from shipwreck and serpent bite in a bay now named after him. Here, Dion deftly keeps the vessel from foundering, and avoids snakes of a different kind at a bay named after the worst pasta shape.
The Man From The Year 2000
Interview by Jed Smith
Photography by DJ Struntz
Dion Agius was the first truly modern surfer. Now, at 28 years old, he confronts the brave new world he helped create.
Dion has just exited the shower and is dressed in nothing more than a bath towel when he hears me knocking at the door. The layout of the house is strange in that the bathroom opens right onto the front door which is made out of transparent glass. Dion peers out into the darkness and jolts with shock as my bearded long-haired face comes into focus. "Jesus! I was thinking what the hell is that?" he says, as opens the door. Dion is in the town of Forster on the NSW mid-north coast for a Monster Energy Drink trip. Also here is Californian Nate Tyler, Australian Chippa Wilson and young South African Brendon Gibbens. It's an obscure blob of coastal suburbia home to a half-dozen picturesque beach breaks and favoured by international pro surfers because of its wedge ramps and translucent blue water. Dion apologises for not being able to offer me a bed inside the house. It's full but he suggests I drag a mattress from my car and sleep in the garage. I decline. I'm fine in my van. He offers me a beer, which I accept, and we shoot the breeze a bit while resting on a car bonnet in the drive. We talk about Kelly Slater's decision to quit Quiksilver after 23 years of service. Dion already has a good theory for why. He thinks Kelly is going to sign with Vissla - an obscure brand that's just landed with a splash in surfing buying up ad space in every major publication the world over. "They're going absolutely ham at the moment," he says. "He probably just went to them and was like, alright, I want fifty percent, let's do this."
No one understands the mechanics of the surf industry, and the manoeuvrings of those within it, better than him. He's made a career out of it. Visit his house in Byron Bay and you'll find a bunch of marketing literature buried among his many books, the products of which can be seen in the handsome livelihood he's fashioned from the unlikely combination of skills: surfing, creative enterprise and media savvy.
It’s such a fucked up time to be young person, isn’t it? Nothing is new or sincere, every trend is an ironic aping of a scene long past, and a once nuanced and diverse youth culture is now merely a meek global homogeny of selfies. Even once-beautiful surf heroes grew mullah beards and moved to New York to renounce the littoral zone and pretend to be artists. Still, every now and again they escape from themselves, France.
At 21, Dion's talent was undeniable. At a time when aerials were just entering the age of the full-rotation, he was stomping 360 degree air reverses and full-rote alley oops with a regularity that few could match. It was progressive surfing but one that hadn't yet earned a spot in the competitive arena. Try as he might Dion simply couldn't get scored on the World Qualifying Series leaving his career on the scrap heap before it had even begun.
As a teenager growing up on the Gold Coast Dion had become close with a talented young filmmaker (and pretty handy surfer) by the name of Kai Neville. Long before Kai had put together such modern classics as Stranger Than Fiction, the Modern Collective and Lost Atlas, he'd spent his days chasing the Gold Coast's megastars around - Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, Dean Morrison, Josh Kerr- and attempting to shoot them, without their permission. Accompanying him on many of these missions was Dion, himself an avid cinematographer with ambitions of one day becoming a filmmaker. Together the pair produced a series of well received films for Australian Surfing Life Magazine and later a number of bootleg tapes for a Japanese publication. With his surf career hanging in the balance Dion even considered giving it up to concentrate on a career as a filmmaker. But before he did he put in one last pitch to his sponsor Globe telling them why they should keep paying him. As a teenager Dion had idolised Ozzie Wright, the famous Australian surfer, musician, artist and fashion designer who is largely credited with being the first surfer to successfully make a career out nothing more than being himself. Dion's other muse was fellow Globe team rider and former World Champion, CJ Hobgood, whose advice during this period in Dion's career would prove pivotal. "He just told me no one is going to do it for you. You've gotta promote yourself," recalls Dion of the conversation.
Yep he’s a pretty decent surfer, but imagine how good he’d be if the cunt could only carve or go right...
France is a curious country, where staunch secularism is at the heart of public life, and yet where statues of Christ on crosses loom with sinister regularity in every village. The Big Guy is easily deceived by eating songbirds under tablecloths, and yet here, we see Him conspicuously privy to Dion’s passerine tail waft.
As a child Dion had grown up on a 100 acre property in coastal Tasmania (the island off the southern tip of Australia). He lived there until the age of 13 in what amounted to one of the most isolated upbringings imaginable. He was also an avid bodyboarder as a kid though his father Mario, a second generation Maltese immigrant, was a surfer and adamant his son learned to stand up.
When Dion did eventually arrive in the world of high profile professional surfing the wide-eyed naivety of his rural upbringing was still very much in tact. It gave him a unique perspective of this strange new world, which, when combined with his filmmaking skills, his learnings from the original 'personality pro' Ozzie Wright and the advice of the straight shooting CJ Hobgood, gave him a zany idea. What if he was to make a video diary of his experiences as a young, travelling, professional surfer?
Since those early seminal films like Morning of the Earth and Crystal Voyager Dion felt the surfing world had been left rather thin in terms of showing people what it was really like
to be a big-time surfer. By giving the world unadulterated access into his life he'd be giving the world a window into professional surfing post the year 2000. Globe agreed and Dion.TV was born - the first ever blog produced and run by a pro surfer. Part travelogue, part hi-fi surfing showcase and part reality TV show, Dion.TV was a huge hit with surf fans. Today his idea has been replicated thousands of times over, with everyone Dane Reynolds to Mick Fanning running their own little media channels. Dion no longer does. The internet has changed, he says, and unless you can produce A-grade content for free people don't really want to know about it. "I just changed the way I was thinking about online content. We were putting out non-stop clips and content and putting it together so quick and I just stopped caring about it and I think other people did too. I look around now and I think people really want good quality stuff for free online. And there's not many people doing that," he says. Instead he focuses everything into producing just three or four pieces of well thought out content each year. Some of that work has gone onto become modern surf culture classics, stuff like his Electric Blue Abu Dhabi wave pool experiment (directed by Joe G) and his Wes Anderson-esque Mexico surrealism clip (also directed by Joe G). On top of he independently produced and funded the film, Nti Sheeto (feat. Creed Mctaggart and Ozzie Wright among others) and landed a lusciously curated section in Globe's latest film Year Zero. With nothing more than a fresh perspective on surfing and some good old fashioned go-get Dion has turned his humble talents into a bankable career. More importantly, as he turns 28, what he calls the "career graveyard" for free surfers, his is looking as healthy as ever.
Fortunately, Dion’s surf skills pay bills. Because he probably wouldn’t get much work as a babysitter, based on his contemporary look.
When I wake in the morning it's to Dion's rings wrapping on my van window. He peers inside and yells out my name, recoiling as the stench of man and mouldy wetsuit springs back at him. Dion's ready for a coffee and we make for the nearest cafe. He didn't sleep well last night. He'd nodded off wearing a set of headphones and woke up with them tangled in his beard. He then made the mistake of checking his phone where he saw an email from the distributor of his sunglasses brand Epohke, which he co-owns with Kai Neville and pro surfer Mitch Coleborn. It was bad news, something about a hold up at the factory.
"I woke up feeling shit, read a shit email and went back to sleep with all this shit in my head," he says. He's drawn a line in the sand because of it. "I'm making a rule: I have to have had a coffee before I plug this USB into my brain," says Dion, adding, "There's something wrong with a world when you're boss knows he can reach you at any time, any where in the world. You're just so constantly plugged in, it's not normal."
Dion is a busy man these days. Along with the sunglasses brand, he's got a number of film projects on the boil, and recently agreed to put out a signature line of clothing with Globe. That last challenge he accepted with some trepidation. "It's a sketchy thing as a pro surfer putting your name on something because if you're just sponsored then it's like, okay, we pay Dion X amount to move product.' But if your name's on it they can see more or less exactly how much you're worth," he says.
Dion concedes his enthusiasm for creative enterprises does run the risk of turning him into a "jack of all trades, master of nothing." Though it doesn't appear to be harming him at the moment. The clothing line is running out the door, the sunglass label is chugging along and he's getting more invitations than ever to appear in surf films, among them an upcoming Kai Neville feature as well as a Globe concept film to be directed by Joe G.
So it comes as some surprise then when his credit card is declined at breakfast. "Maybe I'm broke!" he laughs, before giving the card another swipe and the payment goes through.
When Dion eventually arrived on the Gold Coast from Tasmania he was immediately enrolled in Australia's premiere high performance surfing academy - the same one that's produced Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning among others and which was then run by Mick's current coach, Phil Mcnamara. It was here he first fell under the corrupting influence of Paul Fisher, the renowned Gold Coast wild man who would introduce this quiet kid from Tasmania to the world of partying, boozing and women. It's remained his achilles heal to this day.
"Some of the worst decisions I've made in my life have been when I've either been drunk or hungover,"
Just recently Dion stood his father up after they'd made plans to go surfing at Stradbroke Island together. Surfing with his dad is something he rarely gets the chance to do these days due to his demanding travel commitments but after getting talked into a few beers at the pub with Creed Mctaggart he ended up chasing "some house party, which turned into six or so more drinks" and slept through his alarm. He woke at 10 am to a dozen missed calls and the realisation he'd just stood his father up.
"We never get to surf together anymore," he laments. "I was like, fuck, I'm 28, I can't still be doing shit like this. I was so depressed."
Following the release of several high profile video parts, including a section in the Modern Collective alongside the biggest names of the time, Dane Reynolds, Jordy Smith, Dusty Payne and Mitch Coleborn, Dion went AWOL from surfing. Over a period spanning about two years, he spent time living in a loft in New York, did a stint in Stockholm, moved to Bondi, and basically avoided the surf scene and surfing in general. He also partied a lot. "My surfing definitely suffered," he admits today, though he refuses see it as a detriment to his career.
"You're opening your mind and experiencing so many things you don't usually get to experience. In surfing, the places you generally go aren't places like Stockholm or New York and there is so much inspiration there and so many creative people and that stuff can help you exponentially to explore other avenues and see what other people are doing in other cultures or aspects of similar sub-cultures, and then bringing them back into our sport, because if you look within the sport there is a lot of inspiration and stuff like that, but only to a certain extent. When you start to look outside it and get influenced by all these other things the opportunities are just endless for the things that can be done. All those experiences definitely helped that happen for sure," he says.
The time spent outside surfing, he says, has given him a fresh perspective on what he does. It's as if it gave him the chance to float above it and look down on it rather than exist within it. And if there is one thing that has defined his career so far it's been his continued ability to convey a side of surf culture that is at once familiar but also brimming with the colour, excitement and technological abundance that characterises this modern age.
After breakfast, while chattering along a dusty backroad in my van looking for waves, Dion rather abruptly asks me whether I have a philosophy. "You know, like words to live by?"
I do and tell him before asking what his is.
Dion ponders for moment, looking out the window, before answering. "I just think that there are enough opportunities in the world that if you're motivated and not lazy, you can do what you want to do. You can make it happen," he says.
Skate-informed tech ain't all tweaked elevation. Backside board slide at Yo Yo’s in Sumbawa.
Dion is ecstatic with where surfing finds itself today. As a teenager it was the World Tour or nothing for pro surfers. Ozzie Wright and Rasta were the whacky outliers in that equation but for the most part surfing had forgotten its roots.
"It's come full circle," says Dion. "It's back to what it was like in the sixties and seventies. There's just so much self-expression going on in surfing right now. It's great,"
That also brings with it some problems, however. Namely that there's no real set way in which to make a career as a surfer these days. "There is no path for us so you have to either be surfing as good as Dane Reynolds and rely solely on that or yeah, reinvent yourself and stay busy," he says.
As we pull up at the wave, a surly sun-beaten worker confronts us for driving too fast. "It's a country town!" he reprimands us.
Dion is in the passenger seat and cops the brunt of the anger, though apologises profusely and expertly defuses the situation.
The day before he'd arrived at the same spot to the same man digging a hole in the midday heat. He'd felt guilty that here he was making good money by simply going surfing while other people slaved for their earnings. But he also sees it as a choice and says that no matter the outcome he always choose uncertainty and freedom over the drudgery of a nine to five routine. "It's easy for me to say because I'm in a privileged position but fuck this working towards retirement bullshit. I wanna live my life in reverse. I couldn't be happier being this age and having so many different opportunities and the freedom to pursue them all," he says.
We arrive at the picturesque beach to a waist-high right-hand wedge bouncing off a cliff. Nate Tyler, Brendon Gibbens and Chippa Wilson take a peak up the beach while Dion opts to paddle out alone and surf a different peak. He catches less than a handful of waves and is the first to return to shore.
Regarding the task of putting together a section for Kai Neville's next hi-fi blockbuster, Dion admits he's got his work cut out for him.
"It's gonna take me seven years to make a section as good as those guys,"
he says. Instead he's planning to talk to Kai about putting together a more mood-soaked mind expanding collection of clips, an idea he's not sure whether his old friend is gonna go for.
For all the glitz and glamour and entrepreneurial savvy that surrounds Dion, it's easy to forget he was once one of the most progressive surfers in the world. He's comfortable with admitting that's no longer the case, that a new generation of of surfers - the John John's, Medina's, Matt Meola's - have usurped him.
Back at the house, Dion's head returns to the screen of his Macbook as he sends out email after email ensuring his game of spinning plates will continue. When he comes up for air it's the early afternoon and he joins me on the verandah for a cup of tea. That inferno of an Australian sun has faded and hits our backs like a soothing balm. A light sea breeze ruffles the trees and out of the silence Dion confides in me that he's missing home at the moment. It's been months since he's done a good stint at his cottage in Byron Bay and he can't even remember the last time he did a load of washing or ate from his own fridge. He might enjoy the freedom of the roaming itinerant but he's also concerned this luxuriant life he's led might have made it impossible for him to deal with life's harsher realities. "I just don't even know anymore. I feel like my head and my brain has just been so desensitised, like I've just turned into some soulless creature who doesn't even know what he wants," he says. Routine is something he's sure he'll want at some point. He just hopes he'll be able to recognise that point when it comes. "I don't wanna wake up when I'm 35 or 40 and still be like: 'I'm living the dream' and still be partying. Then I wake up one day and just go, 'Fuck, I'm a scumbag. I'm a soulless scumbag,'" he says.