Interview with Sal Masekela

Sal at Sundance

Unless you have been hiding out under a rock or perhaps don’t have a television odds are you know who Sal Masekela is, if not let me help you out, he’s the face of modern day action sports. The former ESPN X Games announcer, host of the Red Bull Signature Series, actor, musician and surfer.

Sal Masekela Interview

Mountain Weekly News: I kind of think of you as the Peter Pan of action sports – you’re always flying around going somewhere. You get to go to all these amazing places and have the opportunity to participate in such fun activities. Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet?

Sal Masekela: I love Peter Pan, I suppose I never thought of it that way, but when I stop and think about it, that’s pretty on point. There’s some places that I definitely want to go. I haven’t been to Chile or Korea. And I haven’t been down to South America yet either. So the idea of maybe being able to do a 2 for 1 trip – which whenever I’ve read articles or spoken with people who have been doing that, it sounds kind of fun. That’s something I really want to do. I want to do 2 for 1 South America. [surf+snow]

MWN: I recently saw footage of you surfing at Trestles, and I was pretty floored. You were ripping out there! So when the original Point Break came out, as a surfer that grew up in Southern California, how did you feel that that movie portrayed surfing? And then moving forward to the new Point Break, how do you feel that those two movies are going to compare to one another?

Sal Masekela: When Point Break first came out all we could think about was how Johnny Utah was walking around holding his board tail first… after our initial anger with all the little things that the got wrong. I loved the movie – all of it. All the cliche stuff, all the cheesy stuff, and all the classic surfing. I love the movie! I’ve loved the movie more and more over time. There’s a comedy called Point Break Live. They do a live performance of Point Break, and they pick someone from the audience to be Johnny Utah, and it’s insane. It’s amazing. They’re just spraying water everywhere, people wailing… they’ll do the skydiving scene, and I went. And I got paid to be Johnny Utah… six or seven years ago. But when I heard that they were doing a second one, I initially thought, “Oooh, that’s a bad idea.” …a tired idea…Hollywood…we’re not going to make anything new. We’re just gonna keep remaking…just seems to be the nature of our deal right now – just remakes and regurgitation. So I was a little leery. And then I saw the people that they had hired on. I heard the premise of how they were using action sports. And that part to me sounded cool. It sounded progressive. It sounded like, “Oh, OK.” Where at first it sounded like… people were superimposed on other people’s bodies – kind of average surfing. They want to take this to the next level of showcasing action sport as a whole.

MWN: For sure during the press conference in Las Vegas I was pumped. It was hard to contain myself. I emailed Warner Brothers and said, “I just hope you’re ready.” This is going to be a major event for the Action Sports community. I have been religiously telling everyone I know that can surf, skate, or do any action sports just wait till you see what’s about to come down the pipeline.

Sal Masekela: Hollywood in the past has tended to really get action sports wrong all the time, you learn to have no expectations… You just expect, “Well, ok, well…they had good intentions. We hoped it was going to be good, but… Hollywood is going to be Hollywood and it’s probably not going to be that good. And you just learn to accept that they’re never really going to get this culture right… for me, other than Point Break 2015 which I thought got it perfectly right… the first time in a real feature film where I was like, “Wow, they get it!” And… the director[Ericson Core ]… his whole mindset was like, “How do I learn from these guys?” as opposed to just telling them what to do.

MWN: Obviously, some of the footage in the new Point Break film pushes the limits of physical boundaries, speaking of which I saw a clip of you riding on top of the Peak to Peak Gondola in Whistler, and I thought to myself, “I don’t care how much money NBC or Red Bull or anybody paid me, I would never even attempt that.” So is there anything that scares you in the action sports world or in life in general.

Sal Masekela: I have jumped out of a plane with someone else, but I’m scared to solo. But I think I’m only scared because I’ve not done the work and learned the process of what it takes to skydive solo, so it’s something that I’d like to overcome. I don’t think it’s rational to be scared of something just to be scared of something. You need to find out how something works and then work with all the parameters around it and how you can do it safely. There are a few things that scared the mess out of me. Jumping out of planes is one of them. I don’t enjoy surfing on really, really, really big waves. Triple overhead is where I’m sure I’ve had enough. And the idea of guys being excited to go bigger – I’m humbled by that. Yeah, I don’t enjoy – I have a fear of really, really, really big waves… like the 20-foot range… what else? I’m scared of avalanches… I like to take calculated risks… training hard enough so that if things go bad, you’ll still be ok at whatever it is you’re doing. But the idea of just blindly saying, “Yeah, I wanna get on a dirt bike and jump across some stuff.” – but I don’t have the skills to do. No, I’m afraid of anything I don’t have the skills for.

MWN: If you study the sport and you pay attention to what you’re about to do. I think then, obviously, that makes it easier both mentally and physically. Especially when sitting out in the lineup surfing, all of sudden a closeout set comes in, and you better be comfortable holding your breath.

Sal Masekela: Whenever I am in those situations, I’m scared for a little bit and then… I’m like, “OK, here’s what you need to do to survive this situation, and apply the training accordingly!” And if you can manage to not freak …freak out…it’s what makes these sports so special…Here’s an analogy, almost a mile in the air on top of a gondola, scared the mess out of you, but then I walked up to the guy who’s been working up there for thirty years, and I said, “Do you walk on top of this thing?” And he says, “Yeah, all the time. Someone’s gotta fix it.”[laughter]… I get the feeling that I’m going to be ok… It was kind of cool. It was weird but the idea that a helicopter now was going to fly a dozen yards away… that kind of overcame the fear I had…” whoa, I’ve never done this before.” and “You’re going to shoot this amazing shot.” And to this day, it’s the best shot I’ve ever been able to shoot as far as standing up… something. It’s the first shot on my reel.

MWN: Survival at its finest! What sort of advice would you give somebody that wants to have a career in either the media side of action sports or as an up-and-coming athlete.

Sal Masekela: You have to have a passion. And you have to love this stuff like nothing else. Because if you’re in it with the idea of, “Oh, I want to become famous.” or “I want to be rich.” neither of those things are going to happen. You need to approach this thing with a passion… I’m not going to be truly happy as a person doing anything else. And I think if you can operate from that place – this is what makes me happy and gives me a sense of self – what I need to fuel my existence, then you’re going to be willing to do the hard work (and it’s a lot of hard work whether you want to look at it from the media or the athlete side) – and do the hard work with a sense of joy… but you have to immerse yourself 100% in it. I get a lot of people who come up to me all the time and say, “Hey man, I want to do what you do. What do I need to do?” And I say, “Well, what are you doing now?” And they say, “Well I have a job…and I’m just a fan. I watch action sports on tv and I’m a fan.” And I say, “That’s it? You watch action sports on tv, but you want to do what I do?… They generate conversation all the time…”Well, you know what I mean. I go once in a while, but I feel like I know the sport.” I’m sorry. You’re not going to do what I do if that’s your mindset – that you… I’m very, very lucky. If you look at most people in my position in sports in general – A: usually people were professional athletes first and earned a great deal of respect as a result and so people are going to listen to them, but that wasn’t my route. However, I inserted myself as deeply as I could into the culture and worked in the industry and gained the respect of the athletes over time as somebody who was passionate about it and knew the sport and wanted to communicate the truth about it. But after a while, I was able to get the opportunity to do what I do… if it’s truly what makes you happy, you’ve got to be passionate and you’ve got to just immerse yourself, throw yourself into it a thousand percent and prove that that’s what you love.

Sal "working" during the Red Bull Ultra Natural

Sal “working” during the Red Bull Ultra Natural

MWN: For sure! And when I saw the Point Break film it came off very authentic and I told Erickson [Director] the same, as with your life in general – just hearing what you just said. You’re not out there trying to sell something that’s not real. You’re not saying, “Hey, I just watch action sports.” You are an actual participant, and then this is what you wanted to do in life and you continued. It’s so rad. and honestly – personally it’s really inspiring to see what you’ve done and I’m sure there are lots of other people out there who have watched you, anyone, that’s in their 20s or 30s or 40s, if they’ve participated in action sports, they know who you are, and they know how hard you’ve worked to get to where you are. And now I see that you’re linking up with the VICE news. And one of the things I really respect about VICE is their willingness to talk about things that other media outlets aren’t wanting to take one. And I’m wondering, “What’s it like working for a company like that after coming from some of the past outlets you’ve worked for?”

Sal Masekela: Well, firstly, I love what I get to do at Red Bull with the events because we’re able to really showcase the events in the places where they actually have them with a hardcore community of action sports fans at the event. Conversely, with VICE, what I love is that now I get to tell the story of a character or a… or something that’s happening in this sport in a way. I’m immersed in it. I’m a part of the story. And the only thing that I’m holding to is the truth of the story. The truth of the story is the only thing that’s motivating this thing that we’re doing. And that’s a really cool thing to be able to do – to not have an agenda – to not be – at certain times and in certain places I’ve been unable to tell all of the story because someone was going to be ticked off – the network or the sponsors or something like that – some other agenda. My favorite part about this show that I’m working on is that the only agenda we have is making sure that it’s accurate – making sure that we’re telling everything that needs to be told to make this story…may not even care or have ever cared before about the subject matter but can’t help but be caught up in the story and the character. And that’s fun – a lot of fun…

MWN: Since you grew up in Southern California, what kind of music did you listen to? Did you grow up in Carlsbad? Is that correct?

Sal Masekela: I grew up on the East Coast in New York most of my life… and then moved to Carlsbad when I was sixteen, so I was a child of Hip-Hop, Jazz. My Dad’s [Hugh Masekela] a Jazz musician, a world-class Jazz musician, and trumpet player… singer. So I grew up… on the road with him… I played music growing up in high school. I sang in the choir in Junior High and High School. And then the… and moving to Carlsbad – it wasn’t a place where there were opportunities… arts… I did a little bit of theater in Carlsbad and… the way kids were ostracized… on their own island. It was hilarious. Where I was from if you did theater you were the cool kids. And surfing, obviously… it didn’t really make any sense. Surfers were cooler than the football players… And there was also this music, when I started surfing and fell in love immediately… life changing. My favorite thing about what I discovered with surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding was all the stuff that came with it – how you dressed, new friends’ words, and music. It was a whole other world. There was all this alternative music I had never heard before, so I started listening to the music that was in the movies and in the videos at the time. I didn’t hear The Clash until I moved. All this new, rich, very, very expressive music that came from a whole other place than anything I’d ever experienced before.

MWN: I love that you got a taste to a lot of this new music through the videos and through the culture because that’s truly how my peers and I got introduced to the surf punk-rock and a lot of the rock-n-roll and a lot of the music that we would have never had access to.

Sal Masekela: If it weren’t for those videos, I never would have listened to… any of those bands. None of that would have happened without the videos.

MWN: And speaking of your Dad, obviously, he’s got some serious musical chops. Do you remember what the first instrument was that you learned to play?

Sal Masekela: Yeah… when I was 7. And I was pumped!… trumpet… saxaphone… 5th grade – end of 4th grade… brass band. He was ok with that.

MWN: Do you find it hard to get asked the stereotype of being the X-Games dude as a musician? Is that something that you’ve felt as a barrier or do you feel that that helped bring fans in?

Sal Masekela: It was probably the thing that kept me from making music sooner. Or I should say making music for people to hear. I was making music the whole time, but that was my thing. It was my own space… I did with my friends… But when it came time to… do it out in the world, that was the first thing I thought about – “Alright, I’m gonna get raked over the coals. Everyone’s gonna think that I’m trying to do something to be famous – because that’s what a lot of people do.” So I made a conscious decision from the very beginning to not put the album out as Tom A. but to be labeled as ALEKESAM [Masekela backwards]. And the reason why I did that was – I knew that most people who were getting into the music that I was doing… wouldn’t even know who I was. And if they did, I didn’t want that to get in the way of people connecting with the music, so the thing was kind of an experiment… Let’s take me 100% out of this. I’m not gonna put my face on the album cover, on the art, or anything. All people are going to know is that its ALEKESAM. I’m not going to say who I am… the group. We’re just gonna put it out like this and see what happens. And the best thing that happened was that the music resonated with people who are into music. And they didn’t care who it was… They liked music. And we’ve got a song on one of the final episodes of Entourage – the final season – on that first album. And that was so crazy – when we got the call. It came – the supervisor from HBO sent me an email. He said, “I love this music… incredible… Entourage.” I was like, “Whoa, this is crazy!” We started to get into the radio play on… KCRW… a cool… site. And that was such a huge victory for me as an artist because – like I said – and it’s a good question that you asked. I was petrified that no one was going to give me a shot because I’m me… the guy that comes from X-Games, but even worse, I’m me, son of one of the most legendary trumpet players – musicians – in the world! It’s horrible. I mean, no one’s going to give you a shot! But that worked. It gave me confidence. The funny thing is that the action sports world – when it did find out that I’d made a record – most people didn’t care. People talked crap on the internet, but it was usually people who hadn’t heard it. But it wasn’t like the magazines did reviews of the album. Only one magazine out of all the action sports publications did a review – and it was… No one else cared, talked about it, or anything. And again, I kind of… at first… my feelings were a little hurt… they didn’t even talk about it. But then I was grateful for it. I said, “I’m better off because it’s not about me. It’s about the music.” So it gives me really great confidence moving forward. I’m almost finished with my second album. And we just put out a single three or four months ago and that ended up being the… song for the season premiere of… two months ago, which was incredible.

MWN: When’s Coffee and Gold [Album] hitting the stores?

Sal Masekela: Well, that’s a good question [Laughter]. It’s like the opening of a new restaurant. It’s like, “Well, I think it’s gonna open next month…” That’s sort of what it’s like with a record – especially when you have as many jobs as I do. But I’d say the way things have been going the last couple months, the full-length album will be out by the Fall. I’ll put out another single in the next couple of weeks or month. But I think the album will be out by the Fall.

MWN: Solid! Sal I appreciate you chatting with me, I totally respect what you’re doing in the industry. You’re authentic. It’s fun watching what you’ve created. Keep it up, And I look forward to seeing the next chapter of Sal because I remember as a grom watching the X-Games and being so stoked and having somebody like yourself as the face of action sports. And obviously, we’ve seen as they’ve tried to bring new announcers on – it’s not just that easy. You can’t just put a face in there. You have to actually be able to talk the talk and walk the walk. And so again, truly I just want to say thank you for what you do.

Sal Masekela: I’m humbled by that, and I really appreciate it. I’m motivated by the same things as you which is the reason why you’re stoked to be in the position you are – to be one of the people who is sort of trumpeting the message of this lifestyle and culture. You get to do that as a job. And that’s the same thing that motivates me, man. Thank you.

Sal Masekela

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About the Author

Mike Hardaker
Mike Hardaker grew up surfing and snowboarding in Orange County and followed his love of surfing to Hawaii before eventually moving to the mountains to concentrate on snowboarding. When not on a board, Mike worked for Snowboarder and later oversaw TGR's online publication. He went on to found Mountain Weekly News where he is still CEO and Editor in Chief.

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