Words By Luke Kennedy
Click here to read about Matt Dee in Tracks mag.
Matt Dee began his surfing life under the most desperate of circumstances. Ninety nine percent of the time Victoria’s Port Philip Bay is a waveless expanse that offers pleasure to nautical enthusiasts and a supply route for much of Melbourne’s imported produce, but precious little for surfers. However, on the infrequent occasion a swell did whip up in the ’80s, Matt and a band of bay-surf diehards, including his older brother Jon, would hit it with the kind of zeal you’d expect from wave-lusting groms. “If it wasn’t a 20 knot sou’ wester it wasn’t on, reflects Matt, “But there were still about 15 of us with our own garage club-house and there were some good surfers too.” What they lacked in the way of waves they easily compensated for with passion, “We could recite the words to Big Wednesday word-for-word,” Matt insists, and proves it by dropping a few lines with flawless delivery.
In the Dee house, waves were not the only thing in short supply. “We didn’t have a lot of food really,” Matt says with the slight grimace of shame that poverty brings. At the time Aspendale, the suburb the family lived in, was the crime capital of Australia and a natural gathering point for families who knew all-too-well the meaning of the term skid row. The stifling urban setting, coupled with the pressures of being a single Mum raising three kids weighed heavily on Matt’s mum and at night her only way of finding release from the strain placed upon her was to lie in bed and scream, “Fuck The World”. Their mother’s ill-contented cursing was fully in earshot of her three children and as much as it made them despair, her wail against the injustices of the world became a kind of family mantra, a code by which the three underprivileged siblings would live by.
Surfing, rapidly became the primary source of escape from their troubles. Once old enough they joined the Eastern Boardriders Club, which was associated with the beaches on the Mornington Peninsular. “If we wanted to get to the beach we’d ring every name in the club, in the hope of getting a ride out,” recalls Matt. When those options were exhausted they’d resort to hitchhiking. “By the time I was 12, I was on the highway with my thumb out,” Matt continues. “If we went to Bells we’d just sleep in the bushes out at Birdrock… it was cold but it was worth it.”
With the home scene and waveless Port Philip Bay becoming increasingly less appealing, it wasn’t long before the teenage Matt gravitated to the south side of Sydney, where he qualified for homeless assistance from the government. He lived at a friend’s place, washed dishes at a chicken shop on weekends and picked up labouring work whenever he could. Although he was officially at school, his hitchhiking quests became increasingly adventurous. “I hitched to Byron a few times. I remember one time I stayed in a garage near Tallows and lived off of food stamps from St Vincent’s for six months.”
Fiercely independent and nomadically inclined, when Matt left school he made it his mission to find waves in hard to get to locations.
One trip to Indo in his early 20s almost cost him his life. Inspired by a rough map, drawn on the back of a beer coaster by a few Narrabeen boys, Matt and his mate, ‘Crazy Ray’, found their way to an isolated coastline in malaria-riddled southern Sumatra. They scored world-class waves for three weeks and lived like feral kings but things went awry when they stumbled into a civil war hot zone while making their exit via a town called Bengkulu.
Discovering they’d missed the last flight out for a few days, the two mates found a cabin and a few beers and kicked back to reflect on the good waves they’d had. When two locals girls approached and encouraged them to come back to their place, all Matt and Ray saw was much desired female company at the end of two long weeks in the jungle. When they walked through the door of the cabin their jungle-fever-fantasy took a dark turn.
In the room they were confronted by 10-12 men in military fatigues. “They circled us, frisked us down and then one of them overturned a mattress in front of everyone. Under the mattress was a bunch of guns – hand guns, machine guns and ammunition,” Matt told Waves Magazine back in 2009. What followed was one of the longest nights of their lives. The two knockabout surfers were treated like playthings in a demented game. They were stripped naked and made to dance with the girls at gunpoint, then watch on as several of the men engaged in intercourse with one of the girls. At daybreak they found themselves in choker holds being forcibly drugged.
The worst was to follow. Matt and Ray, who was growing increasingly hysterical by this point, were loaded in to a van and taken to a clearing in the middle of nowhere. “We deadset thought this was it,” remembers Matt.
However, just after the two surfers had said what they thought were their final words to each other, some of the soldiers started arguing, and Matt saw a slim opportunity to negotiate their way out of the dire situation. “We’ll get you money, you can have all our stuff … we just want out,” Matt insisted. The line worked, they were granted a reprieve and loaded into the van and taken back to their cabin. While the soldiers rummaged through the invaluable camping gear, Matt took advantage of the situation. He stashed their passports and somehow convinced a passing kid to get them a bemo. When it arrived they bolted in and took off to a restaurant where they spent a day in hiding. Eventually they got a flight to Jakarta and ultimately arrived home with nothing but the clothes on their backs and horrors in their minds.
While their Indonesian experience would have been enough to turn some off travel to anywhere but places that presented themselves as glossy postcards, for Matt it had no such effect. “That’s when I started going to Central and South America. I did like to travel to really bad places,” he concedes. Although he suggests there are hundreds of stories about this chapter of his life, one in particular details how he almost spent the better part of his days on earth in an overcrowded Mexican prison.
Matt was camping at a left-hand point in southern Mexico, known as the Ranch. Once again the living conditions were pretty feral, and after a few weeks of austere living he and his mates were craving some city time. An Australian friend and two Americans piled into the car, to make the trek to town, but not before they removed anything that might have remotely resembled a marijuana seed from their hire car. They were anticipating a thorough examination from any one of the dubious Mexican law enforcement groups that thrived on extracting bribes from travellers.
While driving down a highway where everyone averages twenty or thirty kilometres above the official speed limit, Matt made the move to overtake a truck. However, when he pulled out he was confronted with a situation in which every decision was a bad one. Two trucks were coming towards him and a local had just made a dash across the road in front of them. Matt quivers as he recalls the impossible scenario. “I could go into the truck coming towards us and kill all of us or go into the truck I was overtaking and kill all of us. All I could do was just hold.”
With certain death for him and his friends constituting option one and two, Matt made the split second decision to take the third option and slammed straight into the pedestrian. “I swerved as much as I could but I hit him real hard.” The pedestrian died instantly and Matt was thrown straight in gaol. Once again the alternatives weren’t good. He faced either a manslaughter charge at the hands of the court or a lynching by the dead man’s family. Once in gaol, Matt was offered all kinds of deals to get him out but determining which ones were authentic was almost impossible. “I had no idea,” he recalls, “I was just like, let’s give someone some money and get out of here.” A member of the Australian consulate showed up to offer assistance but according to Matt his real saviour was the insurance representative from the hire car company. “The embassy guy – useless! The insurance guy – legend! I’d still be there if it wasn’t for him.” Although the accident had placed Matt in a situation with no real alternatives, he knew he’d be found guilty because technically he was speeding. “I should have done 20 years,” he admits, shaking his head at the thought. “In the end we got the right bribe.”
Matt was told by the guards at the gaol that he could leave for the night. They were fully aware that once he was out he wouldn’t be returning, but there was still a problem. The family of the deceased pedestrian were outside the gaol’s perimeter baying for Matt’s blood. They were aware that the gringo would work out how to bribe his way out and they were waiting. Matt stalled his escape for as long as possible in the hope that the vengeful family would be less vigilant in the early hours of the morning, but in the end he was left with no alternative but to make a run for it. “There was a full car chase through the city and we had to lose their tail,” remembers Matt. Eventually he made it to the airport and booked a one-way flight to Miami. “Customs didn’t want to let me in on a one-way ticket and they saw that I had been doing heaps of visa runs.” A few hours of negotiating later, Matt was walking free in Miami, already thinking of ways to repay his debt.
“Between the car company and the money I’d borrowed for the bribe, I owed 20 grand US.” At a time when the US dollar was twice the value of ours, returning to Australia would have basically meant doubling his debt. He married an American girl, mostly so he didn’t have to worry about a visa while he was working to pay back the money he owed. “She got an Aussie visa and I got an American visa,” explains Matt in a matter of fact tone.
He spent the next two years judging surf contests and delivering boards for Local Motion, to repay his debt. “I was actually employed by the ASP, ” he suggests with a measure of pride.
When he returned home to Australia Matt was still shaken by what had happened in Mexico.His survival instinct had inspired the escape but the fact he’d unintentionally killed a man weighed heavily upon him. Matt eventually secured a position on the Waverley Council lifeguard team and re-established his presence in the Bronte community he’d become part of in his later adolescent years. Meanwhile, his mother’s “Fuck the World” mantra still resonated as a kind of personal creed. To Matt the three words were never used as an aggressive challenge or a mal-contented rage against the planet’s injustices. It was a classic case of turning a negative into a positive. FTW was a psychological weapon that helped him deal with adversity. His way of saying “fuck the world and the way it is, I’m still going to take it on and do my thing.” It was something that made him feel like he could overcome whatever challenge was thrown at him. That resolve was soon tested under the most difficult of circumstances.
While Matt had been roaming the world in search of adventure and waves, his older brother Jon had been leading his own full-blown surf/punk lifestyle. Jon, like Matt had embraced the FTW mantra but expressed it more directly by making clothes which featured the three-letter tag. “Amongst friends he was known as one of the loveliest guys you’ll ever meet but also one of the loosest,” recalls Matt. In the same way his good will knew no bounds, Jon lacked restraint with some of the more destructive aspects of his life. When Jon overdosed and died after little more than three decades on earth, Matt was shattered. “We had a traditional Irish send off with an open casket. I got so para’ I slept the night underneath my brother’s open coffin.” The coffin had been draped in the FTW branded clothes that Jon had made for himself and worn religiously. Reflecting on his brother is not easy for Matt but it’s also clear he has worked hard to come to peace with what happened. With a tear-choked grin he states. “If the rest of the world had his principles the world would be a more beautiful place. Although maybe they’d need a bit more of a work ethic.”
Matt coped with the death of his brother but his sister couldn’t. Already battling schizophrenia, the passing of her brother pushed her over the edge and she took her own life. In a short time frame Matt had lost the only two people in the world who really understood where he was coming from. By his own admission Matt had to summon every fibre of his will not to check himself out of the equation.
“There were a few dark days spent in a country house with a loaded shot-gun,” he concedes. “I was also doing my best to take myself out in ways that didn’t look like suicide, just so my Mum wouldn’t have to face that.”
By this stage the FTW concept had taken on an even greater significance. As a tribute to his brother and sister, Matt began permanently wearing clothes with the FTW acronym on them. “Even at weddings I’ve always got FTW on,” he insists. As part of his own way of dealing with what had transpired, he started making the FTW branded apparel and handing it out to some of his friends. There was never a profit motive for Matt; he basically just wanted to get the message out there. If anything the whole notion of a purely commercial endeavour contradicted what the three words represented to Matt. “I set it up to lose money… and making the gear put me in the hole heaps of times,” he admits. Most of Matt’s friends knew his back-story and were happy to rock the clothes in honour of what he’d been through.
It’s at this point that Matt’s FTW journey takes a strange twist that places him on a collision course with an individual whose history is in some ways as far removed from Matt’s as possibly imaginable and in other ways frighteningly similar.
In September of 2011, after winning a heat in the Quiksilver Pro, New York, Bobby Martinez had a very public dummy spit at the ASP. As Bobby told the world he “(didn’t) want to be part of this dumb fucking wannabe tennis tour,” he sported a cap, which featured the three letters that meant more to Matt Dee than anything else – FTW. Midway through the infamous interview he also made direct reference to his new sponsor – FTW. Matt got a text from one his friends straight away asking how he’d managed to get Bobby Martinez to wear his FTW gear, to which Matt replied, “It’s nothing to do with me mate.”
Matt already had vague recollections of an article in Transworld Surf, which referenced a guy called Bobby Vaughn who had plans for his own version of FTW, but now that the issue was being thrown squarely in his face, Matt felt compelled to act. Initially his main concern was that the American brand would misrepresent everything the
acronym meant to him.
“I didn’t want to be associated with something aggressive and I wanted to pull the pin on my thing all together, so that it wasn’t tainted.” But Matt decided to do a little research into this guy Bobby Vaughn, who was fronting the FTW brand in America.
Bobby Vaughn began his life as an orphan and after growing up in California with foster parents, Vaughn enjoyed a brief stint as a pro surfer. However, after a somewhat volatile adolescence, he channelled his energy towards the rag trade and ultimately became famous for being the cofounder of multimillion dollar label Von Dutch. For a brief period in the early 2000s Von Dutch was the darling brand of the US celebrity scene. Justin Timberlake, Tommy Lee, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Snoop Dog were amongst those who momentarily embraced the label. Meanwhile, as the cash rolled in, Bobby Vaughn became the orphan kid who made good – well, temporarily at least. After a falling out with his partner Bobby lost millions and decided that it would be a good time to join the navy seals. However, the court case against his former Von Dutch partner eventually impeded his training and he was forced to pull out of the rigorous training program. After securing his share of the settlement, he elected to work on his own label. Life had thrown Bobby more than a few curve balls and he felt that the sentiment of the acronym FTW perfectly captured the essence of what he was all about.
Just when it seemed Bobby was becoming the master of his own destiny, his best friend Mark Rivas got out of prison and came knocking on his door for a place to stay. Although Mark was mentally unstable, Bobby welcomed him into his home. However, one night Mark flipped out and, according to Bobby, tried to kill him. The details of the incident are complex but ultimately in the scuffle that ensued between the two friends, Bobby ended up shooting his friend dead. A jury later found him not guilty of first-degree murder, suggesting he had acted in self defence. He was however, found guilty of being in possession of an unregistered handgun. The finding meant he could be released from prison, where he’d spent the entire period awaiting trial, but would be on probation for five years.
“I realised Bobby had a pretty interesting story, so I decided to contact him,” suggests Matt. By the time Matt asked a New York-based friend to contact Bobby on his behalf, Vaughn had an FTW office in NY City and a clubhouse at nearby Rockaway beach.
Once it was clear that Bobby was open to discussion, Matt sent an email through which outlined his own back-story and take on FTW. It wasn’t long before the two were communicating regularly and organising a New York rendezvous. Below is a transcript of one of their early text message exchanges...
Vaughn: Just go with what u have but make sure they explain how I started FTW in 2003 and was blowing it up. (Had Snoop Dog wearing on album cover, ads in Transworld Surf with Christian Fletcher and Jay Adams, etc. LAPD framed me for murder partially cuz FTW was my brand and image! Thanks, FTW
Vaughn: Had to fight murder from LA county and they set bail at 5 million dollars! I had to leave and lose everything to fight trial. FTW was stopped until re-launched in 2006 when moved to NYC.
Vaughn: Also the shooting was with my best friend I grew up with named Mark Rivas. We were involved in a murder at 17 together. He did it and got convicted of first degree murder. He did 7 yrs cuz sentenced as a juvenile.
Vaughn: I took care of him after released from prison and he then tried to kill me drunk and on drugs on night of Feb 4th 2005. Killed him in self-defense after he stabbed me in struggle over gun.
Vaughn: The murder case when young was why I went to Hawaii at 17 yrs old and he ran to Mexico for 8 mths then turned self in.
Earlier this year Matt flew to New York, to meet with Bobby and determine if they shared enough common interest to work together on FTW. Like everything else that had occurred in their lives it didn’t exactly go smoothly.
When Matt flew in via Florida two of his friends, Liam Taylor and Mark Potocki, were already at New York’s airport with the FTW entourage. Liam, a professional filmmaker, recognized the opportunity for a compelling documentary and was equipped with a camera. Matt was greeted with a bottle of open Jack Daniel’s and a Coke cup half filled with coffee and by the time they all drove away in the two sleek European cars Bobby and his friends had arrived in, they were skulling straight from the bottle. “It was pretty loose from the outset,” insists Matt. From the airport they went directly to the FTW office in the heart of NY, where Matt took one look around at the fit out and thought, “We’re the underground, scabby little brother, the Aussie knockabouts.”
But if they couldn’t match the Americans for money they could certainly go harder on a night out.
Bobby and the boys were clearly intent on delivering their new Aussie friends a little red carpet treatment and whisked them straight to a hip new bar/restaurant in Chinatown. “It was in this dirty little alley and you walked down these black stairs and inside it was just the schmickest joint ever,” recalls Matt. However, being impressed with the décor wasn’t going to prevent the Aussie contingent from getting a little raucous.
“The shots were just rolling like you wouldn’t fucking believe. It all gets a bit hazy for me from there,” indicates Matt. He does however remember his friend Mark throwing his phone and smashing it and also pretending to be thrown down the stairs by a giant black bouncer. Meanwhile Liam kept the cameras rolling. “We were a bit too loose for a fancy restaurant like that,” admits Matt. When the bill showed up Matt feigned interest in helping out but after learning it was $1500, he decided it was probably better to accept the Americans’ offer to pay. They all piled back into the cars but the comfortable leather interiors did nothing to settle anyone down. When Matt and Mark started rumbling in the back seat, Bobby finally snapped. Concerned that the behaviour of his Australian associates may jeopardise his probation conditions, he stopped the car and threw Matt, Mark and Liam on the street, with all their gear. While Mark quickly disappeared on foot in to the streets of New York, Matt and Liam were left with no phone, no keys to their apartment and no real idea where they were. Eventually they found the place they were staying at and were forced to break in.
When Matt woke the next morning his first thought was, “We’ve flown halfway around the world and fucked it on the first night. So much for this FTW amalgamation, it’s over.” He was also disappointed that they’d made a mockery of the hospitality they’d been shown. He went straight to a phone shop, bought another cell and called Bobby. Matt was relieved when he realised Bobby had obviously seen past the frivolities of the previous night. “We spent $1500 on shots, what did you expect to happen? FTW baby,” came the enthusiastic response at the other end of the phone. But while Bobby was willing to look past the antics of his new
Australian friends, he was a little harder on himself and hasn’t had a drink since.?
Matt and Bobby spent the next three weeks in New York, talking about their respective pasts, forming a friendship and trying to work out how they could make the whole FTW deal work.
When Matt put it to Bobby, as to what would happen if the whole FTW thing lost its real meaning, Bobby came straight back, “Well, if that happened I’d have to cut my face off because I have it tattooed on my cheek.” To which Matt responded by pulling down his bottom lip, where the same three letters are tattooed, and stating, “And I’d have to cut off this.”
By the time Matt returned to Australia they had begun working out an arrangement. Although the legal details are still being finalised the plan is for Bobby and his partner Chris to head up the US division of FTW, while Matt retains creative control in Australia. Matt is adamant that a percentage of any profits in Australia will go directly to charity. “I already do work with a schizophrenia-related charity but that’s too specific. I want something that has a more general impact. I’m even talking to lawyers about setting up an actual FTW charity that is linked to other more established charity groups.”
For now Matt has much to look forward to. The first range of gear shouldn’t be far away and he has already assembled a team of surfers, which includes a poor man’s Bobby Martinez – John “Bones” Dwyer – a girthy, gung-ho natural footer who looks a little like Bobby with a few extra kgs thrown in. While the lawyers finalise the details on the FTW deal he is still working on the beach and moonlighting as a professional mentor. “A chick just dropped 1500 Euro in my account, for online work,” he chuckles. His website is aptly titled goodtimescoaching.com. A paragraph of the site reads, “Matt Dee’s approach to life coaching is unique, in that he will focus on good times, having fun and achieving happiness by throwing caution to the wind.” Normally the term Life Coach makes me dry reach but when reflecting on the life Matt Dee has led, I can’t help but think he is perfectly qualified for the job… X