We customize our lives and the environment that surrounds us every day — from things as big as shaping our own boards to the smallest ones, like adding that little bit of extra milk to our coffee.
In our Custom Spotlight series, we’re exploring the process of some of our favorite artists, musicians, and creatives to learn how they see their world and to find out what drives them to get their hands dirty and bring their ideas to life. We also give them free reign to create their own custom, one-of-a-kind Birdwell gear, and to bring their unique vision of our California tradition into the world.
Much of musician, photographer, and surfer Matt Wignall’s life has been a long shot — one that, thankfully, is still paying off. Splitting time between Costa Rica and Long Beach, where he plays and records with bands like Cold War Kids, Deep Sea Diver and his latest project, WarGirl, Matt effortlessly unites unrelenting enthusiasm with a laid-back California cool that makes him a sought-after collaborator.
1) How did you get started?I have been making photographs and playing music since I was a kid. My dad taught me to play bluegrass on guitar and my uncle is a great landscape photographer in the classic west coast tradition. I was alway seeing books at his place from the Weston’s and Ansel Adams. It made an impression. I remember listening to The Ventures on vinyl and looking at an Ansel Adams book in probably 5th grade. I’m still more or less chasing both of those.
2) Tell us about your artistic process.I’ve been doing these things since I was a kid. So it's a very familiar place to access. I just jump in the car and drive for a coffee and think about lyrics or melodies on the drive, or I pick up a camera and just flick that switch. My left eye has the vibe. It sees the world in a unique way. It’s all just habits. I’ve never done anything else. I’ve been fortunate to have great clients who have hired me to do what I do over the years so I an more or less remain in the artistic haze. My wife accepts it and allows it because we make a living off me being creative. Without her I would be in jail for tax evasion, and not because I’m smart and finding loopholes. I would have just never done it.
3) Is your work a collaborative or solo process?It is usually collaborative at some point because I play in a band with other people, but when I’m actually working on an image or a song I typically step away and isolate myself. As I’ve become more successful with music I do less commercial photography so that is becoming more personal now which is what I’ve always wanted. It’s such a great escape to wander around nature or a city in the photographic mind set. I’ve always like exposing black and white film and seeing through that black and white mindset is magical.
4) Describe your workplace/studio.I have a space that started as a recording studio, and then absorbed my photography, and is now just an absolute disaster. I clean it and then the next day it’s a disaster again. It has its own life force that I have lost all control of. We just accept one another, and the space keeps delivering occasional popular songs and cool photos and videos and I don’t mess with it. We let each other be who we are.
5) Describe your ideal workplace/studio.I can’t stand my workspace. It is a train wreck. I can barely handle being in there. My ideal space is something like the living room of the Eames house. A little busy with books and plants and high ceilings but organized and respectable.
6) What does a working day look like for you?At least three days a week I get up, take my daughter to home day care, bring my notebook to Lord Windsor coffee in LB and listen to demos or mixes from my band (WARGIRL) I write some lyrics or fixate on a melody. I drink a Gibraltar or Cortado one finger down from the rim because I don’t like it too milky, but I don’t want a traditional macchiato. I call this a “Low Boy” cortado, closer to what you would get in Spain I suppose but with the more flavorful roasting style. When I get home I toss the notebook into my studio and get on the computer and start working on photos, or videos, or mixes which I do on an analog console. Depending on what is due I bounce around between mixing, and photo editing and video editing. Right now we have an EP releasing and we are working on a full length album so I am making music, and mixing, and making videos, and making photos and frantically trying to make all the deadlines. Yesterday we got a request for an instrumental of one of our songs for a Jose Cuervo commercial so I drop everything and get that done and send it out. The whole time this is happening I keep Binance open on screen and I’m day trading cryptocurrency. It appeals to my sense of soft anarchy and it’s more lucrative than my photography career used to be. I’ve grown weary of being so working class and always in debt like a typical dumb artist, so I’m really into crypto. Early adopters will make out like bandits. It’s inevitable. Decentralized currency takes power away from central banking and war monger governments.
7) Aritists/Musicians that inspire you ______.Oh man, that’s a huge question. In no particular order: The Modern Lovers, Fel Kuti, Iggy Pop, Sly Stone, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margarette Bourke-White, Mary Ellen Mark, Peter Beard, Arthur Tress, Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson, Ingmar Bergman, The Clash, and Sade is my jam when I’m in Costa Rica.
8) What does Southern California mean to you?The first thing to pop in my head was traffic and bad city planning. We don’t have a single train that goes to LAX. I love it here, I was born in Long Beach. I started surfing at 8 years old. I think of this place as home. I hate it and love it. I am endlessly inspired by winter weekday surf trips to my favorite breaks. Something about surfing has always reset me and brought balance to my life. Being from Long Beach is cool. It’s definitely a more working class town and that vibe has really colored our music and how I relate to the world.
9) How important is the outdoors/surf/beach to your work?I go to Costa Rica a few times a year. My best friend from high school lives down there. It’s become something I desperately need. Being there so much has hugely colored my music and photography. Everything is sort of falling apart there all the time, but it’s beautiful. Everything is about rugged individualism there. If you don’t have the fortitude to make it up as you go it tends to beat you down and eject you back to wherever you came from. It’s made my work more gritty and hand done. I always add some hand done element to everything I do. It takes it out of just being another piece of disposable digital information. I’m endlessly fascinated by all the hand done signs and homespun “architecture” down here.
10) Favorite beach/vacation spot and what it means to your art.Well, that would be Mal Pais as described above. It’s become the place I go to process everything I see and make. I can sit without chaos and just be alive. A lot of my output and vision comes from thinking about songs or photographs or America from that vantage point.
11) How important is a connection to the past/classics to your work?That is everything for me, I don’t see too much contemporary work that gets me excited. It’s not that there is none out there but everyone is so loud that I can’t find the things that matter. It cuts both ways, I like Instagram and social media, it’s fun to see what people do and to keep up with friends, but now every person in the world is a photographer, or a blogger or an artist. So there are so many of them I can’t find the ones I like. Does this make any sense to anyone? I can easily tackle the great artists of the past, as history has allowed the cream to rise to the top. I mean no real surprises there, my artistic and musical influences are the same as everyone else's I’m sure. I just listen to the B sides a little more.
12) Can you tell us one rule that governs yourself/your art?I’ve always chosen to be broke rather than do something that I see as meaningless. Creating something meaningful and having the freedom to surf if the waves are good, or drop everything and go to Europe or Central America if an opportunity pops up, spending time with my wife and daughter and friends, these are what I chase. So I live in a world of long shots. I call them lottery tickets. A band, music producing, a camera, a video, a cryptocurrency portfolio, we also run a CBD company, just all things that I’m interested in that employ creativity and allow me to live free. There is a difference between free and lazy I should add. I work really damn hard to not work.
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