I find Levi Prairie standing by the counter at Daydream Surf Shop in Costa Mesa. He’s excited, eyes wide and smiling, catching up with two friends, swapping bits of travel stories and swell discussion. Daydream seems like more of a clubhouse than a surf shop. Boards of various shapes and sizes line the walls, but the center leaves way for a few couches and tables for people to sit. The other end is built into a full-size coffee shop, with an open roll-up door at the back wall. It’s crowded for 11:15 AM on a Thursday. We shake hands, he introduces me to the group. We all talk for a minute and then break away to the coffee section. He orders an espresso shot with hot water and a small coffee to go. The barista asks what time his band (Distractor) is playing tonight. I order an Americano. We get our coffee and cruise out to the parking lot to see his van, an old white Chevy Express. He unlocks the door and clears some space in the back amongst paintings, surfboards, and plastic storage bins. We sit and stick our legs out of the open sliding door. I turn the tape recorder on...
A CONVERSATION WITH LEVI PRAIRIE
Growing up, were you always living around Costa Mesa?
I was born at Hoag and grew up on the East side of Costa Mesa. I went to, I think Kaiser Elementary and Newport Harbor High School… pretty much been here my whole life.
What was the family vibe like growing up?
Family was always together. Parents are still together. I have three older brothers and a younger sister.
So, you’re the youngest of the brother crew then?
For better or worse, yeah! It was cool though, all the boys surfed. My mom and sister didn’t surf much. They were dancers actually… I grew up as a dancer.
No way, like full tap shoes and everything?
Yeah, from about four to thirteen years old I was at dance lessons every day after school. Tap, Jazz, Ballet… fuckin’ Hip Hop. Everything! I didn’t really have much of a say in it cuz’ I was just a kid and my mom kinda made me do it. When I got older I just decided, I don’t want to do this anymore. It even got to the point where my mom was paying me to go, which was kinda cool.
Wow, she was into it.
Yeah, she loved it. And in retrospect, I’m kind of thankful. I think that’s where being into music and rhythms kind of stemmed from. So like, I hated it when I was younger but looking back, I’m thankful. It makes me think that stuff I’m not into now, I might get into later.
That would be insane, just full circle back to the tap room.
I know! I think about that every day. I actually have tap shoes right here… wait, they’re at the warehouse.
I guess that’s the punkiest thing you could do nowadays. Just full on tap dance.
I know, right! It’s pretty crazy.
So, you kept it in Costa Mesa for a while then?
I grew up on the East Side of Costa Mesa and moved to the West Side when I was eighteen. Then I moved to Blackies with like, this thirty-year-old girl I was dating. Crazy Jill! She’s actually in a mental asylum now for trying to run over an old lady with her car.
Wow, she was the real deal… committed to the name!
Yeah, she grew up in Hawaii. I don’t know why I’m getting on this talk, but she was gnarly. She would log Pipe. Kind of a charger. She was crazy!
What year is this? When did you turn eighteen?
I turned eighteen in 2009 after I graduated high school. I’m pretty sure on my birthday I moved out.
Just over the family thing?
I think I was just going through a time when I wanted some space from everyone.
Where were you at with surfing at this time? It’s 2009, what was the scene like at Blackies?
Yeah I mean, it was just a different generation. Alex (Knost) and Jared (Mell), they had been around for a bit. Robin Kegel. Those guys were ripping so hard back then. Those were the people I surfed with every day. But, I didn’t think about surfing as more than something I liked to do. You know? I didn’t think it would turn into anything.
You just liked being around?
Yeah, my brother was shaping boards. I think he had a lot to do with me staying in the scene. I just wanted to play music at that point. I was staying up every single night, all night just writing songs. You get those spurts of creativity. I just try not to force it. But sometimes, I totally try and force it. Like, I need to write something!
What band were you in at that time? When did music come into play?
I started playing guitar when I was fourteen. At fifteen, I started a band in high school called “Gantez Warrior.” We were a band from when I was fifteen until about twenty-one.
Wow, so you guys were around for a good couple years?
Yeah, and then from twenty-one to twenty-four we dropped the “Warrior” and were just called “Gantez.” Put together a new lineup of dudes. Then, I remember we played a show one night and I was just over it. Like, I’m not doing this anymore! I don’t know why.
I think it was more-- we were a drinking group that played shows sometimes. We just liked to party and it was kind of getting old.
So getting older, you just wanted to play more music?
I just wanted a change of pace. I’d been doing that band for almost ten years.
That’s a long time, especially starting so young.
But I loved it, I loved every second of it. We had a good run. We were nineteen and like, going to Japan and New York. Kind of tapped into the surf scene a bit and people wanted to bring us places. It was fun. Good experience.
So you were just surfing and playing music at this point… when did you start to notice like fuck, there are a lot of kids here right now with Craigslist longboards?
Yeah! Fuck, I don’t know. Like five or six years ago. 2013? There was a new generation of kids that I’d never met before but all of a sudden they were at Blackies. Now a lot of them are my close friends. I remember the first time I saw Grant Noble and Joey Bookout, who are two of my favorite surfers. I saw them at Blackies and was like, where the hell did these kids come from? And then they were there every day. So it was sick, made some new friends and the lineup just got that much better.
You weren’t bummed on the new faces at all?
It depends, mostly on my attitude that day. Cuz sometimes I’m just over everyone and then some days I’m like, friends! But a little bit has to do with who it is. If you’re a cool person, you’re a cool person.
Do you have that primal personality that only comes out in the water?
Fuck, I’ve never even thought of it like that! It’s so true. Everyone is always hootin’ and hollerin’. Who knows? Sometimes in the water, I just want to sit and breathe. You know? Take some time to not think about anything.
You slow down a little bit?
If I paddle out super hyper, it’s sometimes my most productive time cuz’ I just think about stuff. Get some thoughts going and start singing something. Then just repeat it a hundred times and when I get out of the water I have a new song.
Yeah, just let the words out.
Exactly! It’s almost a form of yoga or meditation when you just zone out. Everyone’s got their thing. I got lucky enough to find surfing.
You dig the physical aspect of it?
One hundred percent. If I didn’t surf, short of playing drums, I really wouldn’t get any exercise. Besides like, I do yoga occasionally. Not as much as I used to but, that’s basically my only form of exercise. So I kind of have to do it to stay healthy.
For sure. And all the trips have been epic!
(On Music and Vinyl)
When you get into records it’s kind of a weird thing. You start to value music differently.
Exactly! You have to take care of it. Not only for the dollar value but, just hearing those things. It totally transports you to another zone.
So what was the first record you bought, do you remember?
Shoot, I don’t remember. The first records I was listening to were my mom’s records. This one that stands out was called “Funny Bone Favorites.” It was this collection of old-school silly songs. But it was at a time when silly songs were so fucking cool. I don’t really know how to describe it. Like Ray Stevens, “Ahab the Arab.” What’s that other one? “Harry the Hairy Ape!” It’s this song about an ape escaping the zoo and hiding in the bushes to scare people when they walk by. That’s the whole premise of the song and it’s so good.
That’s awesome you were just taking in that stuff!
Yeah, then I started listening to a bunch of surf stuff. I found an iPod on my grandma’s front lawn. I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s house. I found this iPod and she was like, you have to put a sign up but if no one claims it, you can have it. I don’t think I ever put the sign up. A week later I went over to the neighbor’s and he had iTunes. I just put a bunch of music from his computer on there. I remember hearing The Cramps and Devo and like, a bunch of techno stuff. From then on that was all I listened to. I have a Cramps tattoo!
So you were stoked on that eighties stuff?
Yeah! I heard, “Off the Bone,” first. I will still buy every Devo and Cramps record if I don’t have it.
Totally. I remember buying, “Songs the Lord Taught Us,” when I was a freshman in high school and just thinking, this band is on one! Then you read about them and it gets even better.
Live performances, everything was just so cool! And when they played at the mental asylum. Insane. Wasn’t the drummer’s name Nick Knox?
(On Surfing Contests)
So what about the Duct Tape? Was this the first time (2018) you competed?
Yeah, that was the first! I got into the Duct Tape from this online video contest. It was called One Wave, One Fin. You just had to ride a single fin board on one wave. That was that. I went out there and had a blast! The experience was cool. I don’t think I belong in surf contests, to be honest, but it was the best experience.
What’s the format over there?
It’s super loose. You can snake each other. You can get a bonus per heat for sharing waves. The best shared wave from each heat gets five-hundred bucks. And for like three heats no one shared waves, so it just added up. Alex (Knost) and Tyler Warren each made like $1500 off of one wave. That’s pretty good! The competition was so gnarly.
Do you know Andy (Neiblas)?
Yeah, I love his surfing! I was blown away watching him and Alex (Knost) in the final. Those guys really stole the show.
That’s Awesome! I used to see him around when I worked in the Dana Point Harbor. He would cruise into this little liquor store at the fuel dock.
Like down by Doheny? I’ve been in there before! I probably saw you too. But Andy is such an epic kid. Nicest guy in the world. He has great taste in music. If you party with him, let him control what comes on. He’s one of those guys!
So how’d you do in the contest?
Dead last. Deeeaaaadddd last. I’ve surfed in two contests recently. The first one, I didn’t get dead last. But I almost wanted to. I got like, 64th out of 70 people.
Was it fun though?
I had a blast! One-hundred percent. The atmosphere’s always fun. It’s just a bunch of surfers. Especially in longboard culture, everyone’s just having a good time. I’ve had two epic experiences surfing in contests!
How’s the crowd? Is it weird thinking about the entertainment factor?
The crowd during a contest is definitely a factor in psyching me out. Cuz like, I’m not used to looking at the beach and seeing all those people. I think it takes a special person to be able to handle that kind of thing. Practice for sure too. There’s a difference between someone that’s good at surfing contests and not good at surfing contests. I know a lot of really amazing surfers that could care less. But I like their surfing better than any contest surfing. That being said, someone like Andy (Neiblas) kind of transcends. Cuz’ he’s got one of the best styles. He’s captain entertainment!
So are you over contests then?
No, if I ever got invited to one I would go. I’m not over it. I’ll try my hardest but I don’t know if I’ll be winning contests any time soon.
Do you have something with O’Neill where you have to surf contests?
No, not at all. O’Neill made it possible for me with traveling and stuff. I don’t think I would have been able to go (To the Duct Tape) without O’Neill. They’ve never said anything like, you have to surf contests. No pressure which is cool.
Yeah, it’s kind of nice having someone in your corner.
For sure. And all the trips have been epic!