This interview is included in Taj. By Respondek, an independent photo essay. Get your hands on it here.
Respondek: So, I guess Taj is about 3 years older than you right? When did you first notice him as a surfer and what did you think at the time?
Fanning: That sounds about right, yeah it’s about 3 years. I think he was about 16, cause he was still sponsored by Quiksilver. He went on such a rampage, and then qualified for the World Tour! …and turned it down!! It was wild… no one thought you could even do that. He was the guy! He was lorded all around the world already, and he was only 17! I was like… is he crazy? In the end, he showed us it was a really smart decision. But it was messed up to me. Also, not long after, Sabotaj came out.
Respondek: Oh that’s right… did you love those movies?
Fanning: Oh yeah!!! Loved em!!! I remember watching Sabotaj, and it was the first time I was ever so, so super psyched to go surfing and try busting fins and stuff like that. I remember leaving my mate’s place and going fuck this, I’m going surfin’. I kept going back to that movie a lot and ran the tape over and over. I remember thinking, if he can do it, we all can.
Respondek: That’s sick. What about Taj as a surfer in general? And also, as a competitor in general?
Fanning: As a surfer in, you could see and feel the enjoyment he has when surfing, just by watching. As a competitor, when you could see and feel that enjoyment… you knew you were fucked.
Respondek: That’s insane, and when was the first time you came across Taj as a competitor?
Fanning: My first ever world tour wildcard was into the 1999 Coke Classic. I was only 16 or 17. I was just a little kid shitting myself. But then Taj went on to win the whole thing. It was radical how far ahead he already was at that time.
Respondek: It seemed to me like Taj and yourself were always kind of friends during your careers… but that you you became really good pals just in the last few years. Do you think this was due to a healthy rivalry in your earlier years, or was it something else?
Fanning: Oh yeah. 100% healthy rivalry. I mean early days it’s like, you’d have a beer together if ya in the same pub, but it wasn’t like I’m going around to his house to hang out. I think it was because we were both hungry for the same thing and winning. We were actually really distant in 2007 as he was my main rival for the world title that year.
Respondek: To me it seemed like when you both stopped caring as much about world titles and more about enjoying the good life, then you became better pals.
Fanning: Yeah that’s right. I actually looked to him a lot in those recent years. We actually sat down one year in J-bay and it turns out we were both feeling the same thing about the tour and life in general. And it just went on from there I think.
Respondek: Just turning now to the Taj retirement event in Fiji. I thought that was such an epic week and it was such a perfect send off for Taj. How do you think it came about to be so rad?
Fanning: Its funny… you never know how it’s gonna go down. But we were all on one little island in the tropics and we knew the surf was going to be flat for a week. So… TONIGHTS THE NIGHT!!
Respondek: Hahahah yes! I remember that was your catch phrase all week. To me it was such a special few days. You really took the reigns as the unofficial social director of good times over the next few days - making speeches, getting mohawk haircuts and doing Skulldrags.
Fanning: HAHA… Yeah… It was the perfect place, time, and group of people to do it. And these days, I think about those special moments, and I wanted him to be remembered and get what he deserved. Without Taj even knowing, he did so much for all of us by showing us, not only how to surf comps, but also to free surf, make movies, and just have fun. I think those few days was a good way for us all to say thanks. Also, I was in cruise mode too, so I wasn’t scared to lead the ceremonies at all HAHAHA!!
Respondek: Those haircuts though?
Fanning: Those haircuts were horrible. Haha. Mine looked like someone skinned a cat and stuck it to my head. It was funny… it’s not like we had a choice. We just started doing it. But, that’s the other side of Taj. He is so fun- loving and always seemed like he was having so much fun on tour, that in that last moment, everyone wanted to be a part of it. Everyone was there to witness one of the greats of professional surfing, but also one of the funnest guys to ever be on tour. And we were there to witness the last moments and ready to let our hair down… but in the way of cutting it all off. HAHAHAHA.
Respondek: We had an afternoon sitting around with all the boys and I snapped these images of you, Parko, Ottz and Taj drinking beer and talking shit and having so much fun. To me… this moment says it all.
Fanning: Yeah, it’s funny. All of our careers kind of happened at the same time, and we went through all the stages together. Being the groms and finding your feet, then hunting world titles, then not really caring and enjoying the time and friendships that you’ve built along the way. I think that’s what that arvo was - the older generation just sitting together and telling stories from over the years. It was nice to put all the competitive battles and bullshit behind us for a moment and just appreciate our mates. That’s really special. But mostly it’s just good comedy.
Respondek: I remember sitting next to you in the water for Taj’s last ever heat against John John. It was a pretty emotional moment… I had goose bumps. What were you thinking?
Fanning: I remember sitting in that moment and thinking, the way he went out was perfect for who he is, how he competed and how he surfed. It just goes to show the sort of surfer he is… and the sort of person he is too. And to lose with 18 points to the eventual world champ of that year is pretty cool. These days I always try to be there to make those big moments in life special. I was emotional at the end of it too, because you always enjoy watching ya friends surf, you never want it to end. But you understand when you see that it makes them happy. Also, he’ll be able to look back, and say yep, that was pretty sick.