Jack Johnson

First comes the drum beat. Then Garrett Dutton, better known as G. Love, says he has his man, Jack Johnson, in the studio today and they just got off the surf.

The duo kicks into “Rodeo Clowns,” the one hit from G. Love & Special Sauce’s Philadelphonic. It is a Jack Johnson tune – one of the few guest writers for Dutton. Who is this dude? Is he a producer? A contracted songwriter? With the song getting airplay up and down the California coast, major labels suddenly put this guy – whoever he is – on their radar screens.

The truth is already in the song. The two really did just get off the surf. Johnson played the song for Dutton after they rode the waves in San Diego. G. Love liked the song so much, they went into the studio the next day and recorded it just for fun.

Now, after touring with Ben Harper, Johnson is traveling in a rented Fun Mover from Cruise America, having fun and selling out 500 to 1,000 seaters – 4,000 in So. Cal. He has sold more than 70,000 units of his debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, without the benefit of national airplay, according to his agent, Tom Chauncey of Partisan Arts. He was recently featured in Time and GQ magazines. A spring tour is scheduled to start in February.

This former “unknown” is the same Jack Johnson who is a legend in the surfing community. His father, Jeff Johnson, is without question the biggest name in the sport’s history, and Jack has directed some of the most popular surf films of the last decade.

There may never be another HotStar story quite like this.

“I could trace everything back to surfing, all the nice things that have happened,” Johnson told POLLSTAR. That includes a fortuitous friendship with Harper’s manager, J.P. Plunier.

“J.P., he’s just a surfer, so he and I knew each other for a long time,” Johnson said. “When I used to make the surf films, he would come in and sit in the editing bay with me. He just liked to watch the footage when I came back from a new trip. He didn’t know I did music for, like, the first year I knew him. … I finally gave him a little four-track tape. We started talking about trying to start a label that I could put it out on.”

Just like that. The Dutton connection was the same way – G. Love’s music was featured in Johnson’s movies and the guitarist wanted to meet the filmmaker. If they hadn’t gone surfing that day, maybe Johnson would still be concentrating on cinema and playing at San Diego coffeehouses.

Johnson and his best friend-turned-manager, Emmett Malloy, met during shooting of a film featuring Malloy’s cousins who are also surfers. Malloy has gone on to direct Blink-182’s latest videos including “Rock Star” and Lit’s upcoming “Lipstick and Bruises.” He talked to POLLSTAR from the set of his latest film, Spyglass Entertainment’s “Out Cold,” due November 21st, which he directed with his cousin Brendan.

Jack Johnson

Malloy’s management career began when Johnson had lots of free time during his film “Thicker Than Water.” Johnson would play his songs during filming breaks. His friends were blown away.

“I just kind of jumped on board as his manager because, well, who else was it going to be?” Malloy said. “I wanted to make sure this got dealt with properly so I took it upon myself. He’s just a real fragile guy … If it’s not fun for him, he doesn’t want to be a part of it.”

It was probably a foregone conclusion that Johnson would be the first signing to Plunier’s Enjoy Records and tour with Harper. (“Those guys took care of us,” Johnson said. “They’d let us put all of our gear on their semi and let us share all the food at the gigs.”) That, in turn, got Johnson introduced to Chauncey, who books Harper.

Before that, Malloy and Johnson went from office to office to hear what the majors had to offer.

Where others would relish the dream of watching labels get into a bidding war, the surfers didn’t think they were serious about signing. Johnson likened it to “Good Will Hunting” where Ben Affleck pretends to be a manager for Matt Damon.

“We’d go into these meetings and neither one of us knew anything about the music industry,” he said. “We’d just go in and sit there and talk to people. It was all just kind of fun.”

He continued, “Ask me anything about surfing; that’s what I’ve been doing since I was 4. The music world has never been something I was involved with so, suddenly, to be approached by such big companies and stuff, it was like, I dunno. We weren’t friends the day before, you know?”

Ultimately, Johnson didn’t feel comfortable starting off a new career without knowing more about it. The two decided to take it slow, go with a friend they trusted – Plunier – and help build his indie.

There was no reason to change their surf-bred instincts after years of marketing their films.

“We had an audience. Our films do really well in that world,” Malloy said. “So, we were on all the Web sites, we were in stores where we sell our videos and we ran a really nice profile on Jack and his music in Surfer magazine. The music had already been in our movies and there was an audience jonesing for this album.”