chrome ball sits down with the chief for conversation.
Passion. You don’t skate the way you skate or achieve all you have in the business-sense by trying to remain cool and aloof. From essentially being homeless upon your California arrival to suffering permanent brain scarring from so many concussions… for good or bad, you obviously wear your heart on your sleeve and remain open and candid when speaking your mind publicly. Do you feel that this has made you an easy target at times?
I guess so. It has been the story of my life, it seems that my not-so-mellow approach to everything I’ve done has had the tendency to rub some people the wrong way.
Standard interview intro questions: how’d you first start skating and what was your first real set-up? Favorite pro growing up?
In ‘84 or ‘85, I found my sister’s old skateboard from the seventies in the attic. It was a fiberglass banana board and was the first skateboard I’d ever seen. I got my first real setup a year or two later, it was a Sims Superlight with Bennett trucks and OJ wheels. It was shaped like a bomb.
When I first started skating, I didn’t know there were pros or anything, but eventually I started to learn about everything and I liked all dudes that skated street. They just seemed cooler to me… Natas, Gonz, and Guerrero. That kinda changed through the years. I was really into Matt Hensley. I also liked all the dudes that went for it in the early nineties: Frankie Hill, Cardiel and Cory Chrysler. Also Markovich, he was from the south and every photo I saw of him fueled my fire to make something of myself.
I also grew up skating in the middle of nowhere… there were only a handful of skaters, everyone hated us and the only way that we could see skating was through two magazines that came out every month. What influence do you feel this had on your view and desire for skateboarding versus someone that grew up surrounded by skating in California? You’re still obviously very much a skate rat.
I think the fact that skateboarding was such a struggle growing up made it feel that much more special. I always wanted to be from somewhere else… but looking back, I wouldn’t trade the perspective of appreciation I grew up with for anything.
You famously drove cross-country in ’92 and were essentially homeless for 3 months…. even sleeping on the wave at EMB a few occasions. Who’s idea was this? How did you survive day-to-day?
Me, Sean Young and our buddy Hurley sat in a garage in Atlanta all summer dreaming about moving to California. We talked about how if things didn’t work out, we were gonna sleep at EMB. I was on flow for Real at the time and we saw the Real team in Texas on the way to California and it was pretty obvious right then that things weren’t gonna work out. At first, sleeping on the streets felt like a long camping trip in the city... but not knowing when the camping trip was gonna end got pretty harsh after a while.
Thiebaud was straight-up with me and told me things weren’t gonna work out, but he still helped us out with stuff to ride and sell. We also panhandled from the business people passing by EMB. Some days, we’d go without food all together. We had a few dollars in the bank, so if we didn’t eat for a day, we’d go to the bank the next day and take out ten bucks and eat at Carls Jr.
Favorite memory of Sean Young? And have you talked to him lately? More than a few of us are very curious of his current whereabouts…
Sean Young is a special cat, anyone who’s ever hung out with him knows that. Back in those days, he was carefree in everything he did and you couldn’t help but to want to feel that same way.
The night he bombed Gough Street in the rain stands out in my mind as a favorite. He was wasted and at about 3 or 4 in the morning, he said he wanted to go bomb hills. It was raining so we followed him around in the car. He bombed a couple of mellow hills and he said he wanted to go faster, so we took him to Gough. He started pushing at the top of the hill and kept pushing all the way down the first hill then bombed the next 3 hills. I didn’t think there was anyway he was gonna make it, but he obviously did.
Sean now lives in Atlanta and runs his own construction company. He tore his meniscus on each knee and never got them fixed, so he doesn’t skate anymore.
San Francisco is quite a leap from Alabama. Culture shock? Was it all you imagined when you got there? Who dealt the harshest vibes at EMB? Do you feel that outsider vibe you experienced then has been a recurring theme at times in your career?
Yeah, there was a lot to adjust to; the hustle of the city was crazy for us… fascinating, but crazy. It was also crazy to see that no one cared about homeless people, so being homeless felt like we were outcasts. I guess most people just assume you’re a drug addict when you’re homeless.
The scene at EMB was harsh, most of the locals were lame to everyone. Hard to say who was the lamest. At the time, hundreds of kids would come from the suburbs every weekend and they were there to be taken advantage of by the locals. I was like one of those kids from the ‘burbs except I had nothing to give and I never left.
I’ve always been fascinated by Experience. They could have really been something with so many good riders coming through their doors… why did it fail?
The dude Roger that owned it was, by definition, a slimeball. He’d scam anyone: team riders, magazines, manufacturers. It wasn’t long until he burned everyone and things just started to fall apart. I wanted it to work cause me, Sean Young, and Drake (Jones) all rode for it, but it was impossible with Roger running the show.
Now the first real video I remember both you and Sean being in was the Spitfire video… Granted any video part involves some real pressure but I can imagine this one being doubly so as you’d just gotten off the streets not too long beforehand. Were you happy with the end result (except maybe for that weird visor)?
We always filmed, even when we were homeless, so there wasn’t any pressure. We were just out skating and if we got stuff than cool, if not, whatever. I found the Michelob visor at Union Square and I wore it just to be an asshole because everyone hated it.
After the Experience burnout, you headed head down south and hooked up with Invisible… which really seemed like a good fit at the time. Then all of a sudden, it was over. What happened? How were you approached to join Toy? Weren’t you and Ed the only pros at the time?
I knew the days were numbered at Experience so I started filming a sponsor-me video for Black Label. I had one done and somehow Laban saw it and approached me to ride for a new company he was starting called “invisible”. It seemed like a good opportunity so I took it. I moved to San Diego when my lease was up and I had a lot of fun down here, so I stayed. Invisible ended for me on tour. I got into some weird beef with John Reeves and it was real lame and there wasn’t an end in sight, so I split.
I didn’t know what I was gonna do after I quit Invisible. I had a few offers, but none of them felt right. Then Ed called me from tour and said, “Our team just fell apart and I’d like you to ride for Toy Machine and help me rebuild the team.” I saw that as a huge opportunity so I said yes almost immediately.
Your time on Toy Machine could almost be seen as company owner training. Managing the team, directing the videos, etc… was there ever any static regarding your elevated role? Did you and Ed have similar philosophies on how things should be run?
Yeah, creative direction was really natural for Ed but team management wasn’t, so we made a good team. There was never any static because basically he asked to help with the team and help make the videos. It was an awesome time. I learned so much from Ed, Tod and everyone at Tum Yeto.
Its come to light in Brian Anderson’s Epicly Later’d series that you were the only opposition to his getting on the team initially… why? Care to give your side of the story?
Like the rest of the team, I was blown away by Brian. But those guys wanted to put him on the first night we met him. It was like try-outs or something, it felt strange. So I suggested that we skate with the dude more and get to know him. He sent us some more footage and came down to visit and he was super cool, so everything kinda just happened naturally from there.
Favorite Muska story?
Probably how he became “The Muska”…
We were on a Tum Yeto tour in 1995 and Muska raged and got wasted every night. He was probably 16 or 17 at the time and one night we were at a pizza place and he got pretty drunk and asked the Tum Yeto TM Mike Ballard to slap him. I think it was supposed to be a show of toughness, but Ballard’s huge and his hand is huge. So needless to say, you wouldn’t want that dude to slap you. Muska kept pushing and Ballard kept saying no.
Eventually Ballard slapped him and Chad freaked out. It was like the slap immediately sobered him up. He was screaming about how we had to take him to the airport cause he was leaving the tour.
No one took him serious, so he went to the van fuming. He was still pumped up when everyone was ready to go. We got in the van and he started yelling the same thing over and over to Ballard. “Ballard motherf*cker, if you ever hit me again, I”ll bust a bottle over your head! I’ll rip your ear off! Nobody can fade ‘The Muska.’” Eventually, he passed out and slept it off. From that day on, we all referred to him as ‘The Muska’.
Do you look upon Welcome to Hell the same way you do as the Zero and Fallen videos? Definitely a bonafide classic. How long did it take to make that video?
Welcome to Hell was different than all the other videos I’ve been a part of because I was doing everything for the first time. We filmed for a little under 2 years and I felt like I was finding my groove, tapping into my potential and what I was capable of. Ever since then, I’ve just been trying to maintain and reinvent myself. I guess that’s the story of getting old.
Requisite Leap of Faith question: Not to downplay the enormity of that gap, but do you feel the most important thing to its legend is that it got blocked before anybody could really do it? Skateboarding’s always had its share of “indomitable” gaps that always seem to get blasted a few years later… I mean some kid kickflipped El Toro out of nowhere... but the Leap never got that because it was taken out so early. Do you feel like the Leap would have been claimed pretty commonly by now? Are there gaps that people skate currently you feel are just as large as the Leap?
I think some of the infamy behind the Leap Of Faith is because that dude Richard King tried it and broke his legs. Comparing it to what people are doing now, I think some of the stuff Sheckler has kickflipped seems to be almost as big as the Leap. I don’t know if it’d ever be common, but I think if it was still around, Sheckler could do it.
Go-to warm-up tricks down rails? What’s your process? Do you suffer from “the madness”?
My approach all depends on the rail. If it’s skateable frontside, I’ll start with a frontside boardslide cause you can get into those with the least effort and you can lean back and run your hand down the rail. If the rails only backside and it’s grindable, I’ll start with a backside grind because it’s the easiest to get out of if it goes wrong.
If I feel real good, then I don’t really have much madness. But if I’m struggling, every little thing throws me off: cars, birds, people watching, whatever…
How’d you get the nickname “the Chief”?
I don’t know exactly how it came about but one day in ‘97 or 98, I picked up Ellington, Elissa and Greco to go skating and they were all excited with this new nickname they had for me. They called me “Chief” every chance they got and that’s the way it was from then on.
Who came up with the insane idea of shooting your ’95 pro spotlight in one day? Quite the feat. Do you know if this has this been done since? Ever brought up the idea to any of your riders?
I used to hang out at Transworld all the time and I asked 'em if I could try to shoot an interview. They told me that most interviews took about 6 months and I was shocked. I thought you could shoot an interview in a week or even a few days. Then I pitched them the idea of doing a whole interview in one day. They all thought it was impossible but were down to give it a shot. So, we did and it worked out.
I haven’t thought to try it again, but anyone that’s motivated enough and around good spots could do it.
I remember reading in that interview that two of your biggest influences in skating were Kris Markovich and Chico Brenes… I don’t think the Kris part of that answer needs any explanation but throwing Chico’s name in there did kinda surprise me a bit... nothing against Cheeks, just unexpected I thought. Could you elaborate on that a little?
Markovich was definitely an influence, but I was more into Chico because of the way he skated. I liked his Love Child part and he was one of the only dudes that was cool at EMB. I also wanted to let people know that I appreciated dudes that skated different from me and I always thought Chico was tight.
How did you get so damn good at skating barefoot?
When I was a kid, I grew up in the country and was barefoot a lot. I guess my feet just got tough. Anyone can skate barefoot though, it just comes down to if you’re willing to endure the pain.
You’ve spoken several times of particularly successful trip you had to Philadelphia in the mid-90s where you stayed with Ricky Oyola while filming with Dan Wolfe. What did you think of the very-DIY Philly scene then? Was it a different kind of street skating than what you were used to? And was there ever any thought of moving East at that point?
Sometimes the east coast vibe was a little over the top… they had a lot of rules and they were really caught up with what they were doing as if everything sucked, but they had so much passion and they skated all day. They were motivated and I loved being around it… skating through the city a block or two behind Ricky. Good times.
Tell us something we don’t know about Tom Penny. You’ve prided yourself on a having a real work ethic in skateboarding …do you find yourself frustrated with Tom’s lack of productivity after his initial detonation in Southern California in the mid-90’s or is that just Tom being Tom? Why do you think he went underground?
Tom killed it in mid 90’s and never really acknowledged it… so when everyone started treating him like a superstar, it seemed like he got spun out. I think it’s kinda sick that he just disappeared to France in his prime… it’s part of the legend of Tom Penny. But I guess it’s only human nature to want more from really talented people than they’re capable to give.
What’s your direction and aim behind Zero? When did you feel it was time to move Zero on to becoming a full-on board company? Was it just a natural progression for you?
I started Zero as a little t-shirt company with hopes of it becoming something bigger. We sold a few shirts here and there and I asked Tod if he was cool with me making a few boards. He said yeah and we made a few small runs. They sold, but it was obvious if it was gonna happen, we were gonna have to get focused and go for it.
So Tod asked me to write a business plan and if it was convincing enough, he'd back it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I wrote a few pages breaking down why I wanted to start a company and what was going to be the mission and gave it to Tod. After a week or so, he told me he was down. So I started building a team and Matt Mumford was the first pro. Then I told Ed I was leaving Toy… that was hard.
The basic mission behind Zero was to put together a group of like-minded people with heart and a passion for skateboarding and make it happen on a shoestring budget. I wanted the aesthetic to be simple with a rock & roll vibe.
Each of your video parts are taken on with the utmost seriousness… your style of skating does not allow a lack of focus. Which one of your parts are you most proud of… and is there one looking back on that you think could’ve been a little better?
I think they all could have been better, but there’s always a deadline that you eventually have to surrender to. If it was up to me, I’d film my whole career and put out one video part at the end. Though I will say that focus used to come very natural for me, but now I have a very difficult time staying focused… mostly because I have so much going on in my life and in my early parts, all I had to think about was skating. I guess that’s why my career has slowed down a bit. I’m eaten up with responsibility that I’ve brought upon myself.
You’ve talked about your first knee blow-out being a humbling experience. Would you say the same thing about the Slap message board fiasco? Was it difficult to see that some people saw you in such a way that you didn’t feel was accurate? Are you gonna have to discuss the Leap of Faith alongside Chris Cole’s wardrobe until the end of time? You’ve always been open and definitely not afraid of a public confrontation in order give your side of the story… which even your biggest detractor has to respect.
I don’t think I could compare my first knee blow-out to the message board debacle. Blowing-out my knee merely gave me the perspective that my career would end some day and at the time, I thought it was going to be sooner than later.
The message board battle catapulted me into the information age. I’d never dealt with the hostile environment of the message board community and I didn’t know the first thing about how it worked. I spent about 8 hours a day on the messageboard for over a month. I wouldn’t go to sleep at night until every claim was addressed and no one else was posting. It was like I spent a month at a self-realization temple dealing with a whole lot of hate and false rumors. I think it was more comparable to the way I felt upon arriving at EMB. Obviously more extreme, but similarly it taught me a great deal of humility.
Was there one thing specifically brought up that you felt you would take on the chin as “that was wrong of me”? And on the flipside, was there something that you will go to the grave saying that is just not true?
There was a ton of each, so it’s hard to pick just one.
How much does context play into this? I can’t imagine the “permission to rip, soldier” bit being said with the utmost seriousness…
Context isn’t even an issue with that one, it was absolutely fabricated. I’m not sure where it came from or who made it up, but I’d love to hear from the dude that said he heard it go down.
I remember some particularly heated discussions about your motivation techniques regarding your riders, things that are actually pretty typical of many a team manager/business owner... Stacey Peralta, Rocco, Mike Ternasky... but there’s never been an avenue for these methods to be discussed before in front of so many people. Did you feel a bit vicitimized by the internet on these points? Bribing riders for tricks has always been pretty commonplace... we all remember J Lee's bennihana schtick and Kareem's hundred dollar ender in New World Order... Stacy even tried to bribe Lance into trying the Gonz gap in Chin! But were there trick lists?
Everyone responds to encouragement differently, so you can’t use any one motivational technique for everyone. Some riders like to set their sights on long-term goals and some dudes would love a steak dinner. I try to only bring out bribes when the occasion calls for it, like if someone’s real close to making their trick and they’re starting to doubt themselves or if someone wants to try a trick and they just need another reason to get sparked.
With trick lists, I’ve always made trick lists for myself just to help me stay on task… at first mentally, then I started jotting things down. Most of the time, they’re just trick ideas or sometimes I write down spots with no particular tricks. It’s just a way for me to remember things that I want to do.
The only time I’ve ever made lists for team riders is in the final stages of filming when they’re trying to figure out what else they need to get to finish their parts. Usually it’s as simple as how many lines and singles they need, sometimes it’s a list of things that they’re good at, but don’t have yet. They always ask for the list, it’s not something I've ever given out like homework.
Carnie's claim about the photoshopped flair... I hate to bring up old beef and I realize that you've probably already discussed this at length elsewhere, but for the life of me I can't find it.
This is another one that is 100% made up and has never happened. Carnie or whoever says this is true is seriously tripping.
You’ve spoken a good bit about your need for control. Has there ever been a point to where it became too much for you? That you became so obsessed over relatively minor details that you found yourself missing out on the real fruits of your success?
I work on lightening up everyday, but it’s hard because I also think my obsessiveness has been a key factor in anything I’ve accomplished. Fact is, I have to start letting go if I want to have a life worth living.
If you could have one former Zero rider back, who would it be?
It would probably be Ellington, mainly because we’re the closest of all the ex-Zero riders. We’re way better friends now than we ever were when he rode for Zero.
Top 5 all-time favorite styles in skateboarding?
John Cardiel - He went all out, all the time. His energy is pure inspiration
Sean Young - Carefree and so rad with a big smile
Drake Jones - Always proper and buttery smooth
Donny Barley/Mike Maldonado - Couldn’t pick one of the two. They’re both powerful with sick styles.
Sean Sheffey - circa Life video cause he ruled
The Lion on my ribs is probably the best one I have, but I like some of my more ghetto ones better because of what was going on that the time I got ‘em.
What's next for Jamie Thomas?
Skating wise: I want to film for the new Zero video while working on a few interviews for mags, and film some stuff for the Berrics.
Family: Travel and spend time with my wife and kids, just try to be the best dad/husband I can be.
Business: Keep grinding it out trying to make it work in these times. I also look forward to integrating some new brands into Black Box and working with everyone involved.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank all the EMB heads for the hate, it gave me humility and the drive to navigate my own path. I’d like to thank everyone at all the mags that ever gave me a chance, skateshops everywhere and everyone who ever got my back or supported me in anyway. Peace!
special thanks to jamie and jon constantino