Above the Electric Ballroom in Camden high street, in a dimly lit room, perched on the arm of a sofa opposite me was Nahko Bear.
Nahko gathered an online following that propelled his music across the globe. With his band and movement: Medicine for the People, they try to bring not only stories of their lives but a message of peace and family to the masses. Living in Hawaii Nahko is drawn to the ocean, and when he’s not touring or making music he’s charging waves.
His calm composure and peaceful vibe is comforting. Medicine for the People is about peace and unity, making the movement move. I’d come to talk to him about that, but I’d also come to talk to him about his love for the ocean and, of course, his passion for surfing.
So how are you finding the UK?
I love it here. It’s my second trip here now and I feel like it’s one of those places that you can’t go wrong, in certain parts. For at least what we’re doing, certainly it’s like any other place in the world and there’s always some weird places of course. But everywhere we’ve been so far we’ve been received with open arms.
It feels good that social media is such a powerful thing… I definitely swear by it in that way, because we didn’t come out here with a new record in August, we didn’t come out with a label, we just came out totally on our own and had this great experience. And here we are again a few months later, so it’s great.
Were you surprised at how big the reception is you got here?
I feel like I’m in a constant state of surprise, I like to live like that. I don’t want to be there like ‘oh yeah, of course’.
There’s certain things that are small and you’re like ‘oh yeah, of course’ but then within going to new places and having a good reception or whatever, I just love to sit in that, like right on – that’s so rad. I think that’s just how I am though.
A real optimist?
Yeah, I’m just like ‘DOPE!’ If people show up I’m stoked.
Do you feel like that’s going to burn out?
Its definitely in the back of my mind sometimes, I want to be able to think long term, but shit man the last record is still being discovered by people, and we’re still writing on it after three years, and I’ve done enough of my own research or just knowing how bands usually work, and they say every band’s different, but I try not to think about that.
I generally just think ‘just ride the wave’, right? Ride the wave, until you get spit out and if that’s the end of the set that’s the end of the set man.
Woah, that’s a double whammy, I like that. You can use that one.
So going back to when you were a kid, and every kid has that dream of what they want to do when they grow up. What was yours?
I at one point thought I was going to be a professional BMX racer.
Like a BMX biker. Not on a motorcycle, just a peddle bike. But I thought I was really good, I mean I was good enough, but I was like I’m so cool.
I wasn’t that good – but I thought I was amazing. And then, the other thing I thought I was going to do was be a professional classical pianist for like an orchestra. Because I was really into playing piano… I always wanted to be a falconer, like Mongolian.
I also always wanted to be a famous hip hop dancer…
I was really good at sports, so I always thought I’ll be the best at my sports. I’m pretty competitive.
Do you still feel like you’re quite competitive?
Not really, I quit playing sports because I hated getting yelled at, I was just like Okay, this is fucking dumb. But there’s definitely that side of me that’s disciplined, I love the discipline and the commitment to it. But, I’m super content with what I’m doing right now.
How did you originally get into surfing?
I’ve lived in Hawaii for about 10 years, and that was the main place I started surfing. I’d surfed in a couple places before that on the west coast of America – where I’m from. But I didn’t really ‘get into it – get into it’ until I moved to Hawaii. I didn’t grow up by the ocean, I grew up inland more in the valley – in the mountains in Oregon.
And so, swimming wasn’t my thing. In fact, I was so scared of the ocean when I first swam in Hawaii. We were like jumping in the water and being so scared, like: ‘oh my God this place is so big.’ The ocean’s so powerful and it demands so much respect.
Then I started surfing there, and it was like an immediate thing for me, I guess I was good at sports, the skill, the level that it takes to pay attention was something I thrived on, So I just fell in love with it there.
Do you feel like you’re drawn to the ocean?
There’s two things that I’m drawn to all around the world. It’s the ocean, which of course involves surfing, I don’t really go swimming anymore I just go surfing.
The other is horses. They follow me everywhere, the waves and the ponies. It’s kind of weird, although it’s not that weird for me.
What are your thoughts on protecting the oceans?
There’s so much that is happening to our waters. I feel like the changes that need to be made to protect and preserve our oceans are connected to changes that follow the interconnectedness of everything. Follow the ocean’s veins up the rivers, to where they come out of the mountains, to how the trees breath and recycle all that air, and how it all circulates in the atmosphere…it’s all the same.
It’s all connected, therefore to protect our ocean means to protect everything else it touches. To rein it in, we’ve got to start within our scale of thinking. We’ve got to educate ourselves about what kind of planet we’re going to leave our kids.
Is there a pro-surfer you’d love to have a session with?
Oh yeah everyone wants to surf with Kelly Slater. John John also… there are so many people out there from Hawaii, you see them all over the place.
Everybody’s out there right. But I’m terrible with names and I couldn’t name like five pro-surfers right now if I tried. I’m a fan of pro surfing, I’m a fan of MMA as well – my brothers a fighter – so I’ve always been into those things. But I suck at remembering names. I’m always like: oh, okay, yeah totally.
So, in that case I would love to surf with Donavon Frankenreiter, I’m a huge fan of Dave Rastovich and that whole Aussie crew as well.
Have you surfed with anyone you aspire to?
Yeah, no pro-surfers, but Xavier Rudd. Man, it’s hard on tour. You got buddies, you got musician friends that are just like oh yeah we surf, and it’s just hard to get out in the water sometimes.
But me and Xavers have had plenty of time to kick it, like proper time with his family and like in the water, so yeah.
Do you have a favourite break?
Yeah, it’s on the big Island in Hawaii and its called Honoli’i, it’s where I learned.
Do you live quite close to that then?
Yeah I live quite close to it, I live about a mile and a half – it’s super dope. I used to walk there all the time before I had a car. And then my other favourite break is in Los Angeles, it’s County Lines, just before Ventura. It’s a place called ‘the staircase’, just before County Lines.
Usually pretty empty, goes both ways.
Also in Puerto Rico, a place called Isabela, and it’s just north-east of San Juan… I went there and surfed there for a couple of days a couple of years ago, and there’s like nobody there – it’s awesome.
Oh, there’s one in Alaska, it’s on this island it’s called Sitka, this island in south-east Alaska. It only happens like a couple times out of the year right, and it’s on a volcano – and it’s just long left, super glassy. You can surf it with a Kayak, there’s otters in the water, it’s pretty cool. Fucking cold.
And in Ulu, Uluwatu, in Bali. it’s insane. Scary as fuck
So, obviously you’ve done a lot of travelling around the world. Is there any countries you want to surf?
Yes. I want to surf the Philippines – my dad’s from there – and I don’t know if I want to surf in Ireland… is it Scotland? Or where is it?
Both are good, Scotland’s more glassy because it’s reefed.
I’ve seen great footage of it, but it looks so cold.
I’ve surfed in Costa Rica, but I want to surf in Belize, and I’ve never surfed Mexico before, kind of a no brainer.
That surprises me.
I know right. Before I started heavily touring I was about to quit the band. Not quit the band but put it on hiatus and drive my dog and my van down to Mexico, like everybody does.
Margaret River Also! By the way, one of the other really rad places I surfed before. I love that place, I think I’ve only surfed it a couple of times but damn! It’s amazing.
So you’re all about unity and bringing people together, what are your thoughts on localism?
Well, I’m definitely not a fan of it. I think that the ocean is everyone’s to share. It’s tough, surfing’s such an ego-sport, it takes the best of the best in certain places to survive and to work with mother nature that’s unlike any other, right.
So I understand it, I think there’s a lot of places where it’s not called for. I think there’s a lot of places where you should allow everyone to evolve in different stages of how to surf, in order to practice and learn. But then there’s other times when it’s probably needed.
Some people do go out in places where they’re not capable of being out with other people. It’s a hard one. I don’t think in any kind of sport it’s necessary to go to certain degrees that certain men go to when it comes to being exclusive about their break. We all have fights to worries and we all have experiences with people who are just mean.
If you don’t have a reason to be mean – it’s like you should never have a reason to be mean in the water, unless someones being mean to you on purpose.
Surfing’s such a beautiful sport, like shut the fuck up. Don’t be so fucking mean, lets just all have a good time. So what? We accidentally knocked into each other.
But then again, in certain circumstances, I’m saying, it is life and death. And somebody messes up it can be a mistake, but if they continually do it then maybe they don’t belong there.
It’s a tough one, because there are places that are very sacred to certain people, and I’m not talking about Jaws, I’m talking about places in the middle of nowhere that are very local still.
And yet, who’s to say there are places that are being popularised by westerners wanting to make movies, or go to that last break that’s never been discovered. It’s the common thing, colonialism is your first step to remembering about always wanting to discover the last thing right? And conquer it, and document it.
Obviously, you’re constantly evolving as a person and as a group, so how would you describe the Medicine’s Manifesto at the moment?
It’s amazing dude, I’m in the most happiest place in my life right now because we’ve done so much good work together in like the last four months, to really really bring all the pieces together.
There’s a lot of maturity that has happened in the last four months. We’ve had a lot of clarity around what our mission is, I’ve had a lot of clarity around what my vision is. Which helps everyone understand where we’re going and why we’re doing it.
We recorded a record in October, and we’re putting it out this spring. It’s a really big chapter in our story and my story in particular of course because they’re stories of my life. Really bringing this year into a place of giving the world the best of what we have got. And offering people something a bit unique
How come you waited three years?
Almost four dude. Three and a half, something like that. Timing man, gotta wait for that perfect set, you can’t just jump on every wave and it shows up right. Plus the songs weren’t ready yet and also, I wasn’t ready. Timing is everything.
So I get the impression that you’re somebody who’s really about words and their meanings. Going back quite a few years I noticed that in your song Vultures of Culture, there’s an old version where you say ‘Fuck the Government that puts the people in poverty’, but then in a later version you changed it to ‘Forgive the Government… How come you made this change?
That’s good, I like that you noticed that. Well, in that time of life…
I still stand by that correction in the sense of: it’s the easiest thing – and this is how I feel about a lot of like how you manoeuvre around protesting too – Is it’s so easy to say fuck you the hardest thing is to say I forgive you.
And so being able to compassionately move into a time and space of recognising our political systems and recognising how they’ve been built, recognising the people in power, and yeah a lot of them are fucking assholes not looking out for the best interest of our people.
But, the hardest thing to be, as a peaceful warrior, is to be courageous in your way of being compassionate with understanding the human condition, and saying damn that person’s fucked up but I have compassion for them, because I know they’re just a human being, and yeah they’ve done a lot of fucked up things in their life, and yeah, they’re fucking us over, but I forgive you
I forgive you because you don’t know what you’re doing. There’s more power in forgiveness than there is in anger and that’s really hard to understand.
So what about your ‘fuck Tony Abbott’ shirt?
Oh, I still stand by that too! See that’s the thing, with certain things…
Life’s a contradiction
Yeah dude, fully. I’ll be the first person that recognises shit in my life that’s a whole contradiction. We all have it, I’m not perfect either.
Nahko Bear and Medicine for the People have just begun their latest tour, which will see them trek across Europe, back to the states, then over to Australasia, and back to the states again. Not only are they trekking their way across the globe but their new album is expected to drop in April.
You can find out more at: www.nahko.com