Jack Bessant grew up picking strawberries from fields in the lee of Cheddar Gorge before going on to form the platinum-selling rock outfit Reef.
When he’s not touring with the band, he records and performs as a solo artist and chases every opportunity to swim in or slide on the ocean. A tour date in Plymouth prevented us from meeting up for a surf at Saunton Sands or a dip at Marine Lake in Weston Bay, so we sit down in a converted stone barn on the Somerset farm where his family has been for going on four generations.
It’s safe to say your early years were spent relatively far from the ocean, is that right?
My first four years were in this farmhouse here and then my parents built a bungalow, which is further up. That’s where I spent all my youth. And then when I did all my Reef stuff I thought about buying a place in London but I didn’t, I saved my money and moved back. That view here is wild. It’s got that feeling of wildness and it’s quiet. I’m super lucky. I never for one minute think I’m not lucky. It’s such a wicked place.
When you surf you’re one of those people who looks like they were born in the sea. When did you start flowing with the ocean?
We were a full-on working farm so we’d only have a week off a year. We would go to Bournemouth once a year. It was a lovely holiday. My dad would take big tractor innertubes down, blow them up and then we would just surf them. I knew then I loved being in the sea.
When did you make the transition from Cheddar tractor wheels to surfboards then?
It wasn’t till I learned to drive. That was it – freedom. Obviously not being tied to the farm and work, I was able to go surf a lot from age 17. My dad let me have an old Morris Oxford with the bat wings on it. Me and Gary Stringer – the lead singer of Reef – we had many surf trips in that. That was the time of thrusters, so I rode a second-hand thruster. The first place I surfed was Combesgate. I loved it there.
What’s a classic road trip memory you have from that era?
My first move from Cheddar was to Newquay. Me and Gary, we loved surfing so we moved there with intention of doing music for the summer. I can picture now driving that Morris Oxford and going, “Yes! I’m leaving home.” This is what you’ve got to remember isn’t it? How lovely and fresh it is when you drive to a coastal town like that, and you just see the sea for the first time and it’s so sparkly. I went, “That’s it, I’ve landed.” I can just see that now, the simplicity and the excitement.
Did the summer live up to that initial sight of light dancing on the blue water?
It was a great summer. We lived on Pentire headland and we had three, four different jobs, me and Gary. We worked on a farm, chambermaiding, bar work at hotel and we had a gig at the Bowgie Inn every Tuesday.
When you later went on to form Reef, how did the surf-centric name of the band come about?
We weren’t Reef initially. We had a few different names – Naked, Stone Monkey. Because me and Gary both wore Reef flip-flops, we both sort of looked down and thought, “Ah Reef’s a good name!” They did actually try and sue us. As time went on, we were selling t-shirts and they started selling t-shirts so they took us to court. But they never won. So we started wearing Rainbow sandals after that!
How did you keep surfing when you moved to London and Reef started to take off?
Low Pressure had a surf shop in London. There were all these dudes at that surf shop that were these lovely creative people. We’d skate and we’d talk surfing and we’d go surfing. They were really cool characters. I had an Escort van and I would just drive and go surfing because I loved it so much. I knew then maybe that it was good for my sanity. It felt great.
Fast-forward to nowadays, was that part of the motivation to convert the Mercedes Transporter campervan that you’ve got now?
It’s good with the music, especially my solo stuff, because I can just pack a minimal amount of gear and choose interesting gigs. It’s brilliant to utilise the van, just brewing up tea and not having to be in a hotel and all that. Friends of ours have got a yard where they do up coaches and buses and things. I went to a woodyard on top of the gorge and got these offcut bits of oak, so they’ve clad it inside. The van is ace.
You’ve also got a 1972 Airstream Land Yacht. How did that road trip classic come into your life?
Reef did ten years, right? We got signed and then we were on fire. At the end of it, we just had to have a break. So when we came back, I just went surfing all the time. I was surfing so much I actually started to feel like a sea creature, which I really loved. The band called it quits and I just thought, “I want to buy an Airstream.” I was jamming with some rockers, having such a blast, drinking cider and letting loose. One of the dudes I was jamming with knew someone who was importing Airstreams, so I contacted this guy and it just worked out. I drove it down to near Sandymouth in Cornwall and lived in it after Reef.
Reef has been touring a lot in recent years and North Devon’s Amy Newton is now part of your lineup. Was the proximity to Amy’s Saunton Road Studios a factor in taking a house near Saunton Sands, or was it more about the proximity to the surf?
Surf! Mate, it was all about the surf. You know yourself, the feeling after you’ve been in the sea, it stays with you doesn’t it? If you get that sea hit for a couple of days after you just feel so much better about life.
To get that sea hit, what do you ride?
I have a green 8’6 Blacker Pocket Rocket for bigger days when I don’t want to snap a longboard, a 9’6 triple stringer Blacker log that I snapped at Putsborough – it’s repaired but nearly dead – and a Hap Jacobs’ 9’6 Purpus, which is cool.
What’s your latest board acquisition?
I’m so lucky. I was umming and ahhing about getting a new longboard. I wanted to get like a ten-footer, and my friend Eric Davies said he had one I could have. It’s an old Beach Beat shaped by Chops. It was beaten up a little bit. It had Jimi Hendrix on the bottom. He’s not on there anymore but it has the spirit of Jimi! I’ve made it into a single-fin, and Brad Rochfort down in Newquay sorted me out with a squirrel tail fin.
You collaborated with Eric on putting your “Surfin’ Safari Blues” together with some cine footage of his 1975 Morocco surf trip – how did that unfold?
Just from hanging out in Saunton Road Studios. There was a  mountaineering film of Eric’s playing, and I just thought, “I wonder if he’d let me use his films with my music.” The surf film is cool isn’t it? Those were iconic boards that they were messing about with.
So iconic! So of their era. Your solo music has a rootsy road trip vibe that suits them so well. Where are a few of the memorable places you road tripped to between Reef tour dates?
Margaret River in Western Australia, Strandhill and Easkey in Ireland, San Onofre and Malibu in California. Mate, I’ve been so lucky.
What are some examples of the ocean and road trips in your solo work?
I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Easkey Britton’s Ebb and Flow. She talks about being in the water and singing to the sea. I’m always singing when I’m in the water. I’ve been singing “Rolling” from my first album and it just suits the sea so well. Then “Stack Up the Beers” is such a travel song! It’s about getting in the van with no ties to anything and just enjoying nature and freedom.
Reef is touring throughout the summer. Dates here.
With music by Jack Bessant, Road Trip to Morocco 1975 and The Road to India are on YouTube. View here.
Jack plays live at The Wave in Bristol on Saturday 3 June at 7pm with free entry. Directions here.
Jack plays live at Saunton Road Studios Saturday 10 June. Check Instagram for details.
Jack’s summer road trip playlist for Longboarder Magazine