chrome ball interview #1: john drake

chrome ball sits down with the former alien pro for conversation.

Give us a little background, John. Where are you from? When did you start skating? What was your first board? All those good Transworldy-type interview questions…

Well, my parents moved around a lot growing up. I lived in Michigan, in between Detroit and Ann Arbor until I was about 3 or 4. We moved to Columbus Ohio and then my Dad found a job in the Southern Ohio area. I pretty much lived in Chesapeake, Ohio for 14 years.

I started skating in the summer between 7th and 8th grade in the mid 80's,.My first board was one I jacked from a friend until he hunted me down to get it back. After that, I convinced my pops to order me a cheap one from ValSurf... it was a semi-generic board but I was stoked. After he saw me riding that 24-7, he took me to a skateshop in Gallipolis, Ohio and got me a Vision Punkskulls complete with GullWings and yellow Rat Bones. I wanted the Gonz complete but it was too much loot. We were poor so I was happy with what I got. My next board was an Alva Fred Smith and it just kept going from there.

My first skateshoes were Vans Hi's in black with the blue skull and bones pattern on them. Crucial.

How did you get hooked up with sponsors back in the very Cali-centered skate world of the pre-internet late 80s / early 90s? Getting sponsors must’ve been twice as hard back then when transmitting from the middle of nowhere (Ohio)…

Like I said, I was poor and had no money for skate product so I would send sponsor-me tapes when I was really young to try and get hooked up. I didn't care what it was, I just wanted free stuff so I could skate all the time and not have to pay for it. I had some obscure sponsors send me stuff, like Joe Johnson and Kevin Staab's Electric Ocean clothing company, Kryptonics wheels, Triple X skateboards (Brand X), Gouge Clothing etc. I remember Mike Carroll and Brian Lotti being in my town for a demo and I was hanging out with them, skating this parking lot. They were asking why I skated the boards I was skating and I just told them because it was free and free is all I could afford.

I got hooked up with G&S because... well I don't really remember… I sent tapes in and I knew Chris Carter was from the area. Dyrdek and Heintzman weren't far away so they decided to hook a brother up. I had to be one of the first kids to send Etnies tapes right when they very first started. Pierre Andre liked me and sponsored me very early on. After I turned 16, I was getting hooked-up by meeting people that happened to come to Ohio for demos. I would drive all over Ohio to go see pros and skate with them. Greg Carroll saw me at a demo and hooked me up with Venture who I stayed with from then on.

What was the story behind Assault and how’d you get hooked up with them?

I went to go skate with Matt Hensley in this demo and he was there with this guy Ned Hadden. After the demo, Ned came up to me and was telling me how I ripped and that I should skate for Assault, his new company. He brought Matt over to convince me so I thought to myself, "If Matt Hensley says I should skate for this company then I'm going to do it." It really wasn't the best decision but I didn't know anything about it… all I knew was Hensley was someone I looked up to and Ned was his friend so I did it.

I remember both you and Aly Moore seemed like the real heavies for Assault. Ned Hadden was the company’s big pro but like you said, the only thing I remember about him was that he was friends with Matt Hensley… I don’t think I ever saw him skate. What was the story behind that guy?

Assault had some decent skaters, we did a little East Coast tour and had fun. Aly was mostly the artist doing all the artwork.

Ned was a strange cat. I skated with him a little bit. He was always down for skateboarding and hooking kids up. I didn't really know much about him but he wanted to sponsor me and seemed like a nice dude.

You got on Alien right after Memory Screen was released… what were the early days like at Alien? I think a lot of people are captivated by the mysterious nature of the early Workshop.

It's funny because at the time, Alien and Assault were in the same building as Cow Skates in Dayton. I would have been on Alien earlier but they didn't want to piss off Jimmy George, the owner of Cow Skates and part owner of Assault who was letting them rent the back end of his warehouse. They didn't want to steal me from Assault. I actually lived with Chris Carter while they were filming Memory Screen and used to see the edits and how Mike Hill made it when I was chilling at the crib. I was always with those guys skating and whatnot, it was strange because I was on Assault but I was really an Alien guy. I should've had a Memory Screen part... sucks the "business" side of it kept me from being on Alien earlier.

The atmosphere was dope, I used to hang and skate with Neil Blender a lot, who was really a huge influence on the whole early vibe of Alien. To me, he was Alien Workshop. I met him early on when he came to my little town in Ohio when I was on G&S Trucks, he actually filmed me for the G&S video Footage when I was like 15/16 years old. I have tons of respect for that dude.

Alien was really tiny back then and all us younger guys were just having fun with it. We skated constantly and partied like madmen. Those early days will always be thought of fondly. Alien stayed really small until Rob and I moved to California. After that, they just grew and grew and everytime I'd come back to Ohio to visit the warehouse, you could see how much bigger they'd gotten. Right after we moved to SD and started getting a lot of coverage and doing all the b.s., the checks kept getting bigger and things were changing.

Going back a little to the G&S Footage video… in retrospect, this can easily be seen as the jumping-off point for Alien. Was it pretty well-known that those guys were gonna leave after that video was done?

Honestly, I don't know, I was only 16-years-old when that video came out. I can't even remember but yeah, I think they were getting sick of G&S and all the people involved. Mike Hill was the art director for G&S at the time and I think he just wanted to do his own thing with Blender, most artists are like that. I know Carter and Hill hated the Cali scene and most of the people out there involved in it.

Most of my footage didn't even make it in that video and all my footage that did end up in there was filmed by Blender on a Super 8 cam. All the regular video footage didn't get used for some reason, I think Blender wanted to keep it stylistically the same film-wise for my part. Whatever, I was bummed about not having better footie but I was really happy at the same time that I was in a damn video. Thanks Neil and Hill.

Favorite Blender stories? I guess you had to be around when he skated Falcon in Footage (4:58)?

I'm the one that took Blender to Falcon. That's when he was in Ohio to film me and I wanted to take him to that place in WV and trip him out. If you look in Footage, I'm the guy in the background when he's skating. No specific stories, but Neil is an amazing artist, musician, skater, and person. He's funny as hell to be around and he influenced skateboarding more than anyone else along with Gonz... especially when it comes to the art, lifestyle, and graphics. So many people wanted to be and still want to be an original person like he is but it's contrived. If you are not like that, you never will be. Skating with him was fun and inspiring. Even when he wasn't skating that much, he'd get on a board and I'd be captivated… not many people can do that.

Honestly, to tell specific stories about him would just ruin it. He's not the type of person to really like that shit with people talking about him and fanning out over him. I will say this though: all the people out there that think they are original, you aren't. Neil is. He sells his paintings on eBay and I suggest you try to buy one, just type in Heated Wheel and they should come up. I just talked to him recently and he's not skating much, mostly surfing and skimboarding but he picks up the board every now and then.

I always heard that Mark Heintzman was supposed to join Workshop but never did. Any truth to that?

Mark was friends with all those guys as well and being a Dayton guy, you would have thought so but I don't know. I think he was doing good and getting decent money on G&S at the time compared to how small Alien was in the beginning. He had a house to pay for and the early Alien checks wouldn't have cut it. He's a great dude, I lived with him for a while also... which is strange because when I was a kid, we didn't like each other but we eventually became really good friends. I really don't know though. That's something you'd have to ask Carter and Hill.

The move was inevitable but when did John Drake finally set up a residence in California? What was that final thing that made you go and uproot from Ohio?

Well, Dyrdek and I used to drive out to Cali and stay for a while so we could skate. A couple times we would stay with Dave Swift, one of the nicest guys in skateboarding. One of those times, his girlfriend and now wife had some friends, these 3 girls that were about to get an apartment. One of them being Tim Brauch's sister, Kristy, and they were looking for roommates. We got hooked up with them and Dyrdek and I decided that when we got back home to Ohio, we would pack up our stuff and move out to SD and in with them. I think this was early 1992. So that's what we did.

It was a natural thing to do if you skated and wanted good weather year round with the possibility of getting any coverage. We were the only pros on the team to move out there and Alien needed that to grow and become a more popular company. Plus we needed it too because there were no photographers in Ohio. It's not exactly the mecca for skateboarding.

Speaking of Kristy and Tim Brauch: R.I.P. Tim. You couldn't have ever met a nicer person than that guy.

Gotta ask, you and Dyrdek seemed inseparable for years… what do you think of the whole Rob phenomenon? Do you ever get tired of telling people you are Dyrdek’s pre-Big Black roommate?

Rob's the same person he was when he was 14, he's just doing his thing. He's always been very business-minded and looked at skating in that fashion, which was smart because look where he is now. He's never changed, he didn't just turn into what you see. I never looked at skating that way and one way isn't better than the other, we both just stayed true to who we are.

He's in control of his own situation, it's not like some business kook that doesn't skate is standing over him controlling everything. I think anyone that knows about skateboarding also knows I was Rob's pre-Big Black roommate so I don't really feel the need to tell anyone. Fantasy Factory is actually pretty funny and looks like a fun place to skate and hang out. I'm glad it's him rather than someone else… I mean look at Sheckler's teen drama show, it's just mad corny.

I remember reading an interview once where Kareem Campbell called you the most underrated skateboarder he knew… and he’s hardly the only one to hold this belief. How do you feel when someone describes you as “underrated” or “underground”? And who do you feel is the most “underrated” skater of the 1990s?

I never really felt underrated amongst other pros and that's really all I cared about. Kareem and I used to chill and skate so I was glad he thought that. I was never an attention hog or was on any kind of gimmick. I could have taken photos everyday if I wanted and been in the magazines 5 times each issue, I was close with the photogs but that's not what I wanted. I consciously made the decision to keep my shit underground and do shit on my own terms. I remember opening up Transworld and Willy Santos would be in there like 20 times and it was just overkill. Willy was a friend but that is not what I wanted for me. I wasn't feeling that, which in the long run was probably a bad decision, but I would be sick of myself. I don't like the spotlight. I just wanted to skate and be left alone most of the time. My biggest mistake was probably not putting more footie out there but it is what it is. I feel I got the respect from my peers and that's really what mattered to me.

Most underrated skater of the 90's, hmmm... that's a hard question because usually most of the people I hung out with knew that these people were really good. I'm going to just say my homies Ronnie Bertino and Scott Conklin off the top of my head. Two good friends that deserved more than they got. Also, another homie that everyone needs to still pay homage to is Sean Sheffey. Loved that guy on and off a skateboard. I have some good stories about Shef, haha.

I guess it all depends on who you talk to, who is in the know. I don't know what the average person in Nebraska thinks about whoever but all pro skateboarders know who has a good style... even though that person may not get as much coverage or by companies in tons of ads and whatnot.

What was the craziest thing you ever saw Bo Turner do?

Bringing a loaded gun to a contest when we were 18. Beating the shit out of numerous people. Jumping out of a window and smashing Kristy Brauch's Integra and messing up her sunroof. Destroying people's houses. Intimidating people. There are a million things, most are just a blur. Lots of really crazy things I can't even tell you about because they would sound made up.

A few years ago, Skateboarder ran an article where Bo (in typical fashion) said some pretty harsh things about several of his former Alien-brethren from back in the day. Care to set it straight?

It's just Bo being Bo. I don't know what the beef with Kalis is about really. I found it pretty funny knowing he's serious, but at the same time, he's just being entertaining. He just lets that shit fly out for people to enjoy. If you never spent time with him, it may read different but he's a good guy. He just likes to mess with people. A lot of what he says is true and some of it is his opinion. Fortunately he had nothing bad to say about me, he just said he hated hip hop. He wasn't being true to himself. I was always true to myself, and yes, I knew how to use my turntables. Hip Hop was something I fell in love with before I even started skating or knew what a skateboard was, so it was never a trend I was following.

Many see Timecode as the least “Alien Workshoppy” of the Alien videos. Was there a conscious effort to move away a bit from the early aesthetic and come with more of a straight-forward approach? How long did you film for Timecode?

At that point, I don't even know what was going on back in Ohio. I think Hill was just busy and didn't have the time and energy to put the creative juices into it. Dyrdek and I used to film like crazy and had some really good footage. We always begged the Workshop to put out our footie ala “Tim and Henry” because we were the only ones filming on the team. We had tons of sick shit but the footie never got used and they never wanted to put it out like that. By the time it rolled around to film for Timecode, I just wasn't filming very much. All my footie in Timecode is pretty much random whatevs, and never represented my skateboarding. I don't even think I flipped my board in that part. Now I look back and I wish I would have put forth some effort to film. I was skating but the camera never got broke out.

Talk a little about Lennie Kirk. What was the early buzz around Alien as he started gathering clips for his legendary part? What was he like back then? Were you able to witness his personality transformations firsthand? 

Lennie was this kid who ran away from home in NC with at tattoo of the word “Ignorant” spelled wrong on his arm in big black letters. He showed up at my house with Bill Weiss, who was staying with me, so we let Lennie stay, too. He was skating for the company Weiss was involved with, but after skating with him a bunch, I called up Chris Carter telling him that we needed to put Lennie on the team and that's how he got on. He was kind of sketchy but he could do some insane shit. He's always been crazy, off his rocker, however you want to put it. I saw everything that happened to him firsthand and his change over to being ultra-religious. We were close but after that happened, it was hard to be around him and listen to him preach to you constantly. He was a different person.

His video part was good but back then, I didn't really fan out on my friends' parts. I didn't think about it too much. To me, anyone on Alien could have had that legendary part but he just put forth the effort to film and make it happen. What can I say... I don't really know what happened in the end with him and Alien. He turned kind of psycho and demanding… a religious freak. I think Carter had enough and let him go. After that, we lost touch but I still got love for him and all the old Alien guys.

I think his part made an impact because of his wild style and just going for it, the locations it was filmed in SF, and he was a kid out of nowhere. He was an interesting person and that only fed the flames. It was the right time for him to be filming because he was young, hungry, skated constantly, and wasn't jaded or changed yet.

Josh Kalis has mentioned several times in interviews that his joining the Sovereign Sect started out as a joke at the old Alien house. When did this joke become serious? 
He was skating for Toy Machine and staying with Jamie Thomas, who lived like two houses down the street from us. He started coming over and hanging out and we liked his skating so we kept messing with him, telling him that he was on the Workshop until it finally hit him that we wanted him to skate for Alien. We messed with him so much and he didn't know whether to take us serious or not. Rob and I both called Alien and were talking to them about putting Josh on. Finally, one day he was just like, “I'm on the Workshop…? ok, I guess I'm on the Workshop then.”

I think he was stoked because he fit in with us and liked what we had going. Good times....whattup JK.

How did it end with Alien? Did you try for any other sponsors?

At that time (‘98), Carter told me I needed to get more coverage. So the next few months, I had some editorial sequences in Big Brother, an ad and some other stuff in Transworld, and an editorial photo in Strength Magazine, who I was working on an interview with. At the same time, they were trying to film for the next Alien video and I was just in extreme pain. My knee was buckling and giving me tons of troubles. I was trying to take a break and heal up or decide what to do about surgery.

Carter called me during that time and gave me the axe. On one hand, I was ok with it because I didn't know if I'd be able to really skate 100% again... but on the other hand, I felt he could have given me some time to get my knee straight and see what happened.
Carter and Hill both did a lot for me and I'll always have love for them, but if Rob and I hadn't moved to California, who knows what would have happened with Alien. We gave them a long-term company to work with and profit from. We made Alien a popular company that other skaters wanted to be a part of. We were the only ones on the team that moved to Cali, got coverage, and went to all the contests. And that's no slight on the other OG Alien guys. They were all amazing skaters but they stayed back East where there were, no magazines or photogs.

It's all good, though. The only thing I wish is that they would hire some of their ex-skaters to work for them. They have never hired one of us for a TM or the art department or anything... maybe Burton will make it happen. I'm sure Conklin, Thomas Morgan, or others would love to do that. I know Thomas is skating again better than ever and who's better to represent your company than someone who was pro for you and knows skateboarding and the company inside and out? It only makes sense. It's what most companies do.

I never wanted to really skate for anyone else so I just decided to go to college and skate for myself.

Skateboarding is a much different animal than it used to be… with reality shows, huge endorsement deals and a severe lack of its original outsider-status. Did you ever think you’d see the day where the Xenia mothership would’ve been bought by Burton? Have you seen Mindfield? Any thoughts?

Alien started out as a more artistic endeavor with what I thought were some core beliefs and ways to do things. It happens with a lot of great things... that once the public latches on to it and it keeps getting bigger, things totally change whether you like it or not. It doesn't always happen this way, but 90% of the time, money changes people into being just businessmen looking to make more money. Money is great but when you compromise your art to make more money, the brand just gets watered down. Alien is still a dope company because of it's past, but it's not the same. It's much more corporate style, but when compared with every company in the industry, I'll still take Alien, Girl, and Krooked over pretty much everyone.

Yeah I saw Mindfield. Greg Hunt did an amazing job and I liked everyone's part for different reasons. Tyler Bledsoe and Mikey Taylor's were probably my favorite though.

Do you still skate?

Yeah, I still shred it up when I can. My body hasn't held up that great but I have fun and can still do the damn thang. I have always kept up with skating, it will always be a huge part of me.

All-time favorite video part? Favorite board graphic? Any ads or articles that stick out in your mind?

My all-time fave video part would be any old part from Gonz, Blender, or Natas. Ads or articles, again anything with Gonz, Blender, or Natas. The rest are just a blur. Favorite board graphic would be the first Vision Gonz board, most of Gonz graphics actually... the Blender coffee break, faces, or his other one with the center graphic of a male figure holding a dog. My fave board graphics of mine were usually done by Blender, some by Hill. Blender's pro spotlight in Transworld was the best one ever.

There were lots of skaters pro and friends alike that influenced me, it was usually a combination of their personality and who they were along with their skateboarding skills. All of them will always hold a certain place in my mind and will never be forgotten. The greatest thing about being a pro or sponsored is being able to travel and meet so many great skateboarders. Anyone who I have ever met, skated with, or hung out with... everyone touches your life in different ways and it's a joy to look back on all the experiences I've had. Thanks everyone.

Anything else you want to add?

Thanks to Christopher Lusher at the HillbillyMag for getting me back into photography. Jason Searcy, I still know you cheated. Kelly Bird, thanks for sending me Lakais still. Tony Heitz and Don Pendleton, thanks for the interview shouts, here's yours back. All my friends in Ohio, California, Florida, Canada, and North Carolina, and everywhere else… keep skating, stay up and don't let the man bring you down.


chops said...

big thanks to john drake for doing this.

sorry john, my iguanazines are missing in action... still got that copy of "in your face" though.

big up to don pendleton too while we're at it.

shinebox said...

Damn. Fucking sick! And, I wish I still had my copy of Timecode......Hurricane Katrina took it. Great interview.

Anonymous said...

Just full of surprises, aren't we?

I want to know if Lennie picked out his music in Timecode or if Hill and Carter did?

Fantastic interview.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding, Chops, really. More like this.

Anonymous said...

This was great. John actually had my favorite part in Timecode, I ordered it for christmas the year it came out, because I was amped on Kalis. Drake killed it though, his line where he swerves around and does the front blunt is just oozing with flavor. He is one of those skaters that just stood out, how relaxed he was and comfortable looking. Okay, I'll get off his nuts now, but damn, sick.

Anonymous said...

Chrome Ball just went next level.

jamesinger said...

really nice work! I am very impressed with the depth of this interview.

Keith said...

You're killing it E!

Always liked John Drake ever since I first saw him in Footage. There's something about the way... i dunno... he's not speed checking, but he wobbles on his trucks sometimes between tricks, like balance check. Awesome.

I still don't know what trick is going down in that check out.

word verification is fatee

brainwashvictim said...

Pop shove it late flip in the Check Out.

Kind of reminds me of those old TWS retrospectives. Good nerdy content.

I always thought Scott Ricks was the "talent" in Assault. He had the distinction of being the only street pro in the early '90s who didn't (or couldn't?) ollie.

Carryout said...

great interview. thank you.

Aullidos del viento said...

nice article man,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview. I'd love to see more of that kind of thing for this blog. This is the first sight I go to everyday.

K said...

Chops, you just reminded me that I need to return my friend's copy of "Time Code." Do you think he'll be mad that it's ten years late?

(dude still has my copy of Transworld's "Greatest Hits)

Old School Sammy said...


All I can honestly say....

tomasakidiaz said...

I've followed your blogspot for quite some time and was excited to finally read an interview. Great complimentary content to the already invaluable the hi res scans you've made. Ill way to recall the past and illicit real and expanded responses and opinions. It would be rad if other (former) Pro's would take a nod from John Drake and let Chops have a crack at interviewing them!

justin said...

This is a really cool interview. Good end to the week with the Drake Jones' post, too. Thanks for doing this.

lucien cockerham said...

This is really rad. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Prelude to a Blender interview?
Eh, one can hope -- that would be amazing.

White Ninja said...


White Ninja said...

Great job Chromey. Ive been reading since around post 150. Always entertaining and brings back great memories. Im 31, still push around on occasion and always have fun with it. You hit a new mark today, something you are going to have to work for if your gonna top it.

Anonymous said...

you sir are the MAN!

i had timecode when i was a kid and i must say that front blunt line was super duty tough work. Cheers to John Drake the king of what? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zd_pkb5tkn8

Memphis is Rad but SF is best said...

EXCELLENT JOB, CHOPS! this got me stoked! now all we need is a Sean Young interview hehehe.

smorales said...

Oh man, flood gates opened.

Anonymous said...

Out the 2010 gate proper! You should take advantage of Kalis since he seems to want to interact lately. Your time and effort (for free) is much appreciated.

Nobjockey said...

Dope. I really enjoyed that. He is a smart guy. More interviews with like minded humans plzkthnx.

Coals to Newcastle said...

It seems like professional skateboarders (who are really good) really make an impression on young kids. For example, when I was growing up, Andy Howell was a legend in the state of Georgia- it was like he was on a different wavelength than everyone else. For people who were around, (at least some) former pros will always be *that* guy, no matter what they do for the rest of their life.

Old School Sammy said...

Count me 12000% in on a Blender Interview if at all possible. Neil has always been an elusive sort, but it would be awesome to do an in-depth catch-up kind of thing with him....

Anonymous said...

much props! i grew up watching drake, early on he was always smooth and packed loads of style not too many people could pull that off back then.

how to kickflip said...

great post man took me a while to read it! this guy just oozes cool

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