Music News & Reviews

Hawaiian native Makua Rothman to bring laid-back sound to 805 Beach Festival

Makua Rothman
Makua Rothman

‘I thought I would never be able to sing again.” That was the first thing that flashed through professional surfer Makua Rothman’s mind when he smashed face-first into a reef at the brutal surf break off the shore of Teahupo’o, Tahiti.

The May 2013 impact “peeled my face like an orange,” he said, stripping skin from lower lip to chin to expose his teeth and jawbone. Fortunately, he had a topnotch plastic surgeon on hand to patch him up.

“He said, ‘I’ll make you a good kisser. Don’t worry. The girls will be happy,’” Rothman recalled.

Rothman, 30, made a full recovery — and retained his light, sweet tenor. Now the Hawaii native is touring in support of his debut album “Sound Wave,” performing laid-back, pop-inflected reggae-rock songs that recall his heritage.

“I have such a blessed life,” said Rothman, who performs Saturday at the second annual 805 Beach Festival in Avila Beach. Other highlights of the event, hosted by Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, include music by Malibu reggae artist Cisco Adler; BMX, inline skating and skateboarding stunt demonstrations; and games such as bocce ball and ladder golf.

Rothman will return to the Central Coast for an Aug. 31 concert at Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles featuring performances by electronica trio Beats Antique, reggae artist Matisyahu and Grammy Award-winning multicultural act Ozomatli.

Raised on the North Shore of Oahu, Rothman grew up immersed in traditional Hawaiian culture. His father, “Fast Eddie” Rothman, co-founded the surf club Hui O He’e Nalu, famous for its territorial stance toward natives’ place in the lineup, and his grandmother, Angie Grace Costa, helped popularize hula dance on the mainland.

“Whenever the whole family got together, my mom and my grandma would be dancing and my grandpa would be playing (ukulele),” Makua Rothman said, so he and his brothers joined in. “It was only right for us to be beating on the drum or strumming on the ukulele.”

Rothman took to surfing as naturally as music, overcoming childhood asthma and a bulky frame to transition to tow-in surfing at age 13.

At age 18, he won the top spot at the 2003 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards for riding a 66-foot wave at the treacherous North Shore break known as Jaws. (He received $66,000 in prize money — $1,000 for each foot.) Soon the surfer was plying monster waves around the world on the international circuit, winning the O’Neill World Cup of Surfing in 2007.

Despite his place in the surfing spotlight, however, Rothman said he never dreamed of performing on stage.

“The reason I didn’t think of being a professional musician was it was just part of my life,” he said. “I surfed and I played music. I actually didn’t think of it as a job.”

So who gave the surfer that crucial push to give music a try? Rothman credits his trainer, Robert “Rob” Garcia, with encouraging him to finally step into the studio.

“Without him, I wouldn’t have a record,” said Rothman, who released his first EP, “Makanale Road,” in December 2012. “He’s been like a mentor, like a second dad to me.”

“Sound Wave,” which was released by Hawaiian record label Mountain Apple Company in December 2013, finds Rothman singing and strumming his ukulele on 12 tracks including love ballads, aloha anthems and party jams.

The surfer worked closely with musician, songwriter and producer John “Feldy” Feldmann, best known as the lead singer of punk/ska band Goldfinger. At one point, he lived in Feldmann’s Malibu house.

The toughest part of the process, Rothman said, was spending a month stuck in a recording booth. “I’m like a fish. If my gills don’t get wet, I just dry out,” he joked.

“The ocean is the most powerful thing on earth. It can cleanse anything,” he added. “I can go underwater and really cleanse my mind, come back to the beach and head into the studio.”

In “Sound Wave,” Rothman celebrates the island lifestyle in songs such as “Lovely,” “Fight the Sun” and “The Nite B4.”

The latter describes the hard-partying lifestyle he’s given up since the births of his 3-year-old son and month-old daughter. “Everybody in the world can relate to waking up drunk from the night before,” he said with a laugh.

Not all of Rothman’s subject matter is sunny, however. “One Voice” offers a sincere plea for an end to war, while “Desperation Blues” was inspired in part by the time Rothman and his mother spent living in a tent on the beach while his father was in jail.

The lush standard “Ulili E” features a posthumous duet with Hawaii’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who found fame after his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” was released in 1993. Rothman, who used to visit the singer as a kid after surf sessions, knew him as “Uncle Iz.”

“I didn’t realize how special he was until he passed away” in 1997, Rothman said, adding that Kamakawiwo’ole taught him to “be humble and play hard and always remember to be proud to be Hawaiian.” “I like to try and take his message of living, being and sharing aloha.”