Getting to know…Tai Graham
Having grown up splitting his time between Bali and the Gold Coast, Tai Graham has long romanced with the island of the gods. Having experienced many firsts in Bali (not that first ya dirty devil) – his first surf, drink and bar experience, it seemed the island was destined to evoke some of Tai’s greatest passions.
Over a decade ago Tai decided to take the leap and move to Bali full time. ‘I was at a stage in my life where I was a little stuck, wasn’t sure in the clear direction of what I really wanted, what I wanted to go after, life lacked a little purpose you could say. I feel Bali always attracts people in that phase…I wanted to change what I was doing, make the most out of life. I wanted to be in a place that had pumping waves, amazing food, surrounded by good people, somewhere with opportunities minus that mundane feel. I wanted to wake up everyday pumped on life. Everything pointed to Bali, it was funny in a way, it had been so close to me for so long but I guess I never really looked at it from that perspective.’
Since making the move, Tai hasn’t looked back.
12 years on you’ll now find Tai waking up early, surfing some of Bali’s best breaks and running two of Bali’s hottest sunset spots, Single Fin and The Lawn Canggu. With a new venture well under way, Tai sat down with us to discuss all things surfing, business ventures and of course, the island paradise he calls home.
Mr Tai Graham, where are you and what are you doing right now?
Right now I’m home in Canggu, Bali. Usual start of the day consists of an early morning surf, little train and a morning hang with my family. Just got to my office space next to my house. We’re planning a new event, a pretty rad act that I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid actually.
As most know, you’re the man behind Single Fin, one of our favourite spots for a frothie and arguably one the best Sunday sessions on the island. What was the inspiration or motivation behind opening up your own space?
I’d just finished doing a rad little musicians arts bar in Seminyak called Black Dog when I got hit up by my now partner to do a bar in Uluwatu. I was super hesitant naturally as Ulu’s was a sleepy surf zone. Surf all day, then by about 7:30 it was lights out as everyone was tired from the day and getting ready to surf again. I’d always loved Ulu’s, it’s such a magical, iconic spot. Its pretty much on every surfers’ bucket list so as much as I was hesitant, I was kind of excited as well. I remember doing the site inspection, it was the conference room of the hotel at Blue Point, it never got used, was about 60m2. I asked if we could be a little deck, my partner said ‘you’re the bar guy do whatever you like’. I always like looking for the gaps in the market opposed to coming in as another me too. No one was doing Sunday Sessions in Bali. I thought to myself what a spot, people will love to see this, the sunset falling into the sea, surfers blobbing around the line up, fishing boats headed out for the night, mix that in with a little retail and we’re on. For the concept I really wanted it to represent Bali, celebrate the island and what it has to offer. The first surfers to surf Uluwatu back in the 70’s rode Single Fin surfboards, so I wanted to celebrate that era, my partner Pak Mangku Made Kasim was one of the first pro surfers in Bali and one of the first to surf Uluwatu. Our furniture was all old boat wood, the shop steered towards old school retro – we had the concept dialled down. Plus, it was super genuine to us, both being surfers. I think ultimately that’s why its done so well.
A man of many talents, you’re also a professional surfer. What is it about surfing that keeps you coming back to the board time and time again?
Getting barrelled haha!
But no, I love surfing, I’ve done it since I was a kid. I love the ocean and being out in nature. The unpredictability of it is probably what draws me back every time. One minute your creating your own lines on an empty wave, an empty canvas. You get to truly express yourself riding different types of equipment at different spots, I feel this side of it brings out the creative art form in us. I then love jumping on a plane, into a truck, driving through the jungle with a jet ski in tow and chase down those unknown spots, sleeping in the middle of nowhere bringing in your own food and being the full adventure man. It all comes down to preparation and planning, doing your research on the hearsay along with rolling the dice and hopefully finding the perfect uncrowded wave. Then I love the big shit, I love being scared out of my mind having that sick feeling in your stomach where you can’t sleep the night before, like getting ready for a big rugby game or a boxing fight. I love and hate that feeling. I think big wave surfing and big wave surfers have to have a combination of crazy and calculated. Some of my friends are way more on the crazy side haha.
I remember towing the guys into the Red Bull Cape Fear event, I’m the one saying “no wait, that’s a close out”, then they’re looking at me like, fuck it lets go. Ha – It’s good to be around those people sometimes, definitely helps when you need that little push. All your training and preparation comes into play in those moments, and then throw in a little mongrel to get yourself over the edge. Sometimes you’ve just got to give in to mother nature’s force and accept that you’re going to get the absolute crap beaten out of you. You come up gasping for air absolutely terrified but pumped at the same time. Or better still, you ride one of the biggest and scariest barrels of your life coming out unscathed. I like that side of surfing. I guess there’s so many fascists that all excite me, and that’s the key right? Staying excited.
You seem to have a knack for beach clubs. The Lawn Canggu is your most recent venue and is the talk of Bali. How did that come about?
The Lawn has been a real special one to me. Its funny how as you grow as a person what you do reflects that. I guess my wild party days downing the tequila shots slowed down and a more mature approach came about. Don’t get me wrong I definitely still know how to party!
What started off as a little VW Combi van with a few hammocks selling coconuts, mango juice a few beers and pop corn to what The Lawn is today has been a beautiful transition. I knew it had to be a more elevated offering to give a point of difference in Canggu. Old Man’s was next door, very similar demographic to Single Fin, young fun and ready to party. What was missing in Canggu was that more elevated, slightly sophisticated and on trend yet accessible offering. We were Canggu’s first beach club, in saying that we had to grow with the growth of Canggu as well, we couldn’t come in too flashy. Only now is there is a more consistent premium spender whereas prior it was the surfers and back packers looking for a fun time without diving too deep into the pocket. For the conceptualisation and design I took that role on myself. I’ve always loved the build and design side of things so this was a nice challenge, something I really enjoyed. My goal though was to really showcase Bali, in an elegant way, to feel like an elevated warung, use local materials in the build and make it feel like it belongs there.
I have grown to understand that you need a balance of design, function and flow to make a great space. Too much flair and no flow and you loose the feel. I think the art is creating that balance where a space feels good, you celebrate the right parts, there’s things in spaces for a reason and it looks good. Ultimately making sure you create the right vibe you’re going after.
The Lawn Canggu recently won Best Sunset Venue in Bali at a prestigious awards night, congratulations!
We’re super proud for sure – plenty of blood sweat, tears and no sleep all pays off. We have a great team, we’ve all evolved and learned a lot. Understanding who we are as a brand and what we stand for is a big one. I think some people get caught up in trying to please everyone and do everything. Its nice when you have a clear vision for something, you stay true to it and things pay off. Our goal was always to be the best sunset venue in Canggu, so to get recognised for it is cool.
I guess you have to really believe in what you do and that’s got to translate down to your staff as well. Richard Branson says, the most important people in your business are your staff, not your customer. Make your staff believe in what it is they do and why they’re doing it and that will translate across to your customer. I truly believe in that philosophy. Winning awards are a testament to all the hard work the entire team puts in. I’m very stoked and very honoured to have such good people around me.
We’ve heard about another new venture your involved in with a farm to fork concept, care to elaborate there?
Yeah, I’ve always been interested in the whole farm to fork concept. We’ve just opened up a neat little space in the rice fields where we grow all our own vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices. We have a little pen for our chickens that lay eggs daily so we’re trying incorporate home grown produce into the menu, try and be as sustainable as we can. The venue is called Parachute, has this big beautiful old military cargo parachute with bougainvillea everywhere. It’s definitely outside the box for me though, I’m a beach guy so it’s been fun learning new things. It’s a great space for the family, we do permaculture classes for kids and adults, and farm tours. Just to try educate people on how things could possibly be done back at the home.
If you weren’t living in Bali, surfing and running multiple businesses, what would you be doing?
I have no idea to be honest I never really think about it. I just count myself very fortunate to be doing what I love. I honesty wake up every day being super grateful about that.
What or who is your biggest inspiration?
Honestly, I truly admire people who just give things a go. I have so many people out there that I look up to and get inspired by. My wife Helle, bringing the miracle of our baby boy into this world. Along with all the hard work she puts into her own business Faithfull The Brand, all while being a mum and being my rock. All my friends that are truly giving it a hard-honest crack and putting in the work, I take my hat off to those people. It takes balls to get off the easy train and put yourself out there. There are guys like one of my business partners Ronald Akili, owner of potato head that I really admire. Not just playing the game but changing it. His push in the green direction while tying in a local and modern artesian approach is very original and very influential. Doing things with purpose and creating a positive impact really resinates with me. He’s a game changer. I think we all should be looking at what kind of difference we can make and how we can positively impact others. There’re other young guys out there like Kai Suteja who’s been doing some super cool and original themed events. He’s pretty much never done any of it before and just wanted to have some fun, I like that. I think when money isn’t the driving force, when you really want to have fun, when your passionate about things and youhave some purpose – things tend to work best.
What are the advantages and disadvantage to living in Bali?
Obviously, the creative freedom you have here. I love how creative people can get here. I love the culture. I think it’s amazing how developed Bali is becoming but it still has to adhere to their traditional customs, they still shut down roads for ceremonial processions or even shut down the entire island for Nyepi. It’s truly unique compared to other places out there in the world. The pollution really bums me out though. From paradise into a dump site with a couple rain falls. I have faith though that this will get tackled on a global scale, will probably come at the 11th hour or in the expense of others but I think we’ll get there eventually.
Favourite break on the island?
Ooooh tough question. The best ones you have to keep under your sleeve, don’t you? Haha. But I really love Ulu’s, 2ft to 20ft so many faces, tubes, turns it’s got it all.
What advice would you give to someone looking for a change and thinking of moving to Bali?
I would just say have an open mind, be ready for some cultural differences and try make a positive impact where you can. It’s such a beautiful place with amazing people everywhere. There are areas where people are easily taken advantage of so treat it like your home and look out for your neighbour. But like anywhere it’s what you make of it. Have some fun, help others where you can and look after the place. It’s a great place to be.
What’s next in the pipeline for you? (excuse the pun)
I have a few things I’m working on. I would love to get into the boutique hotel world, maybe combine that with beach lounges. I just love creating experience-based concepts. I love music and bringing people together by the ocean, so something along those lines. Keep facing west. I’m also trying best to educate myself in the tech world. Make sure I don’t get left behind there. As scary as some people see it’s the reality of where things are headed. Let’s see what aspects I can incorporate into the beach- lifestyle world, see what positive changes we can come up with as clever humans. If we can put people on the moon there’s a whole list of exciting things we can get up too.
If you could time warp yourself to any point in history when would it be and who would you hang out with?
I’d love to jam with Jimi Hendrix. Let’s take it back to Woodstock, sitting on the drums while Jimi is doing one of his 20 mins lead solos. I’d love to sit in the room with Steve Jobs when everyone was telling him no and he had to convince everyone to believe in him. And I’d love to be in Indo in the early 70’s with Jerry Lopez getting the most perfect waves known to man with not a soul around.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite place on earth?
Bali & Burleigh Heads
One thing you can't live without?
My family and my surfboards – cool to have two?
What's on your Spotify playlist right now?
City life or Beach vibes?
Is that a trick question?