chrome ball sits down with dune for conversation.
First off, stoked on the recent Jack Sabback acquisition. Didn't see that one coming at all. How'd that end up going down?
Basically through him and Clint hanging out in New York. They were friends and the team really dug him and we'd talked about him again when we wanted to expand the team with Antics.
I never would've thought about it but he totally fits the Stereo mold. I know he's been on Hi-Fi for a minute... have you guys had your eyes on him for a while?
His name has been tossed around for Stereo for a year or two actually and we've always liked his skating and felt it fit Stereo. Stoked it finally came together.
Sick. Alright, back to time-tested Transworldy-type intro… How’d you get into skating and what was your first board? I imagine your brother had a lot to do with introducing you to it…
Yeah, Rod worked at a shop called “Freestyle” at the mall so I definitely got turned on to skateboarding in the late-70’s through him. I remember him having Skateboarder magazines back then and some of the first Thrashers in the early 80’s.
My first real board was one I borrowed from him. It was a Sims Screamer that he eventually just ended up giving to me. I had my own typical yellow plastic chickenstick-style board also… just like that classic yellow plastic board that everybody had.
A banana board?
Yeah, a Freeformer. And I also had some 70’s board back then that I got off this dude that moved to New Jersey from California and it was like fiberglass with a surfer on the top with clear griptape. That was pretty tight. I thought I was all California’ed out. I was siked.
But the Sims Screamer, that was my first real board... followed by the Variflex Niner. All thanks to Rod.
Now I didn’t know this for the longest time but your brother is Rodney Smith, co-founder of Shut Skates. I guess you were pretty young but do you ever remember them going out on a roof top somewhere to shape boards?
Bruno Musso, Eli Gesner, and a lot of the original Shut guys started coming to Jersey to cut decks and go skating. I was probably 12 or so when they first started coming out, and they cut and stenciled all the decks in our basement.
With the Shut stuff, I was already a skater but I was still just the little dude. Like I wasn't allowed to handle the power tools… they were almost as big as me! (laughs) I didn’t get to go on a lot of the initial trips to NYC but I got to be a part of it eventually… I got to head out to contests and trips with all the boys.
I also met Mike V. through Rod also. That was how I was introduced to the industry.
I was just getting ready to ask how you met Mike V. So what was it like going into the city to skate back in the day? New York was so different back then.
Yeah, it was pretty wild. Just super sketchy, busy and hectic… but it was rad. We’d skate the Brooklyn Banks and that was like our skate mecca; the holy grail of skateboarding for that area. It was in the Powell videos and there were bank contests there on the weekend. Everybody went there.
Eventually I learned how to make my way to the Banks on my own and with my own little crew of buddies… it wasn’t that complicated. Take the train into the World Trade Center and it was a few blocks away from there. But that was our meeting spot for skating the City. Most times you never left that area because there were so many damn good spots right there.
When did you realize that Shut was more than just your brother and his friend Bruno’s pet project and was actually a bonafide east coast phenomenon?
There was just such a heavy vibe with Shut. I remember when the New York guys would come out to Jersey and skate. It’d be Mike Kepper, Sean Sheffey, Felix and Coco. Everyone was all hip-hopped out. Bruno would have a boombox blasting hip-hop music and the suburban kids would be scared to death. Shut was just the motliest, gnarliest crew... similar to the Baker/Deathwish van pulling up. It was just so different at the time and it was SO East coast. It stood out so much.
People were like “the Shut guys are here!” and people actually did get kind of afraid. It was funny. It was like the Shut guys are coming to a contest in Virginia, people had to hide their sisters and board their windows up (laughs). The van rolls up and out pops Sheffey… half the team is black, the other half is Puerto Rican. Everybody had crazy accents. There’s loud hip-hop music playing… it was crazy! (laughs). It was like bringing city culture to the suburbs on tour.
The West coast guys really thought Shut was sick, too. When I came out to California, I was only like 14-years old but Eric Dressen, Julien Stranger and Thiebaud would ask for Shut stickers. Shut was loud and proud and so East coast. Kinda thuggish for the time, and super progressive. There was nothing like Shut and there never had been anything like it before.
Now was it difficult to get on Shut due to being Rodney’s brother? Did you have something extra to prove?
I think it was more me than anybody else. I always kinda had a slight chip on my shoulder about it. I always wanted to prove, partially to myself, that I could do my own thing. I think that’s only natural. I think at some point, you want to grow out of who you were influenced by. You want to grow out of the your dad's or your brother’s shadow.
But it wasn’t too bad. At first, I was just getting free boards but eventually got good enough to actually be a part of it.
How did you first meet J. Lee? I read somewhere that it was at some session with Ed, Gonz, Natas, and Mike V. Is that for real or just some Forrest Gump-type legend?
Yeah, yeah… I had a blessed entrance into the skateboard world by being down with Rod and eventually Mike V. I got the meet all the key guys before I even really knew what was happening.
I came out to California with Mike when I was 14 and we skated with Mark Gonzales. We skated by Natas’ house and somehow the session also hooked up with Neil Blender, Jason and Ed Templeton. Felix were there too. (laughs)
I couldn’t even believe it. I was just blown away.
Welcome to California! Now did Mike V eventually hook you up with World? What were those early days of World like?
Yeah, it was a pretty crazy thing, even before what Rodney Mullen did as far as building a whole team. We were just kinda like “Mike V’s guys” at first… me, Billy and Felix. It was actually up in the air if we were even officially on the team or just on flow for a while there. We went out to California and hung out with Mike and skated… and the next thing I knew, I was in Rubbish Heap. I just went for a couple days filming and when it came out, that’s when I realized I was on the team (laughs).
Speaking of Billy, did Rocco initially sponsor him seriously and it didn’t work out? …cause dude seemed destined to blow up for a while there. What happened with his section in Rubbish Heap?
I think the whole thing with Rubbish Heap is kind of a misrepresentation. He was sick. Coming where we were coming from, we barely filmed for that thing. Not in the way that Ron and Jeremy did… though we definitely didn’t have their ability on street back then. We skated totally different anyway, more East Coast all-around terrain. We were just Mike’s guys and we didn’t really set aside independent filming days, we just skated with Mike and were just kinda there when he was filming. It just sorta happened.
The next thing we know, there’s that funny video part in there. I think Jeremy Klein put it together… not positive on that… but it was sorta just like “haha, look at Billy screwing around.” But it didn’t get taken that way. It was more like people thought he really wasn’t that good. The fact is that Billy was an amazing skater on all-terrain.
Did Billy know they were gonna release his part like that?
I don’t think he cared at the time. Billy was a punk rock kid that just wasn’t really overly concerned. That was at the cusp of when videos started to matter so you were never really sure what was going to turn into what. Jeremy Klein was one of the people way ahead of his time as far as knowing what the effect of all this filming was gonna be.
Back then, some people never filmed and if you did, your whole part was filmed in literally a weekend. It just wasn’t as important… like in those early Santa Cruz videos, you went out and skated a curb one day and that was your part.
Rubbish Heap just happened to be a breakthrough street skating video that people did pay attention to. It was right at the birth of video getting to where people were either made or broke by their video part. So I don’t know if the part was deliberate either way. It just was what it was and it had a negative effect. And unfortunately Billy didn’t stick around and fix it. But he was an amazing skateboarder though… probably still is, wherever he is.
So how did World approach you to go pro? Cause it really wasn’t maybe 6 months after Rubbish Heap came out that you got a board…
Yeah, I think it was when Mike and somebody else quit… Steve didn’t really know what to do. Randy and I were in California at the time, just skating and staying in Huntington Beach, and Rocco came up to us and said, “Hey guys, its your turn. Take a stab at it.”
It was pretty unceremonious. At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it cause I really didn’t feel ready. But I thought about it for a while and realized that it just meant that I could stay in California and skate and not have to go back to New Jersey and work in McDonalds and go to college. So I did it.
How did you handle Rocco’s vendetta with Mike V after he left for New Deal?
I just stayed out of it. I never really understood Rocco’s thing. I knew that he ran people over, so to speak, and I just didn’t really know what to think of it. I was 17 years old and didn’t really know how to make sense of it. I didn’t get it.
Cause it got pretty gnarly there... With the “Chris Branaugh’s in, Mike V’s out” ad as well as the one with bald Jason eating that burger.
Yeah, it was rumored that Rocco turned Randy and me pro to spite Mike. Again, I just didn’t really know what the whole situation was. I never really fully understood Steve Rocco so I just said, “Whatever, man... I just want to ride my skateboard.”
So how many people thought that wig was your real hair in 2 World Industries Men? That seemed like a fun project.
Pretty much everybody. Pretty funny, I was just randomly filming with Spike and we went into a Walgreens or something and I just put the wig on and continued filming that day.
Spike and I conceptualized that video and I drew the titles with him and came up with the intro ideas... It was a super fun little project for me and the first time I got to be creative like that.
Throughout the early 90s, World seemed to only get bigger and bigger, with another new company every other month. What was it that made you decide it was time to leave?
It was just a natural progression. I came into that realm through Mike and our approach to skateboarding was different then World’s was in the early 90’s. We got lucky enough to go to California and get sponsored, we skated transition, vert and street... but at our core, we weren’t really on the cusp of what was going in the L.A. street skating scene at that time. It actually wasn't until when Stereo began to flourish that I feel I actually came into my own as a street skater. We were more old school in approach... and once it switched direction with all these new guys on the team every other week and people turning pro all the time... because I knew the agenda at World was going super tech, I just knew my days were numbered.
Sure enough at one point, Rodney had kicked me off for a matter of days, but then Steve heard we got another offer to start a new brand with Brad Dorfman and he called me back in to tell me he really wanted me to stay on and to ignore Rodney. That was a very classic Steve move.
Jason was already feeling kinda weird cause Mark had left and they were starting to do all these weird things with Blind… like ads dissing Mark and stuff. They tried to give him Gonz’s share in the company and have him “replace” the Gonz, but you can’t replace the Gonz and Jason knew it. I think he just didn’t feel right about what they had planned. He had also had that run-in with Steve over the famous Satan graphic that was originally for Jason... when Jason didn’t want it, Steve tried to bride him with 10K just to take it and Jason turned it down again just out of principal for Steve trying to buy him and make him do something he didn’t want to creatively do... which is really respectable and rad. I think those type of things lead to the departure on his end.
What were you and Jason aiming for with Blue? And would it had differed all that much from what Stereo would later become?
Blue was like an amateur stab at Stereo. We wanted to do something retro-based and use old album cover graphics. It had a lot of the same inspirations as Stereo, we just hadn’t found the right frame of reference. We needed an art director and we needed someone with more of a marketing vision then we had at the time. I mean, at the time, I was 18 and Jason was 20. We just didn’t have the direction… but we knew what we wanted and we knew where we wanted to go with it.
By the time Stereo started with Jeff Klindt and Tommy Guerrero and our artist friends that got involved and pitched in, we started to formulate the idea behind Stereo. It took flushing it out. It took a few other people to get involved to help with the direction.
How did the opportunity for Stereo come up? And how come Kareem and Steven Cales didn’t follow with you guys?
Man, you do your research! (laughs). You’re exploring caverns of my mind that I didn’t even know existed anymore! This is like an acid flashback! (laughs)
Well, my roommate at the time was friends with Jim Thiebaud. Her name is Alexandra Pelosi and she’s the daughter of the politician…
Yeah. She was friends with Jim from the San Francisco punk rock scene and Jim would always tell her to tell me "whats up" and whatnot. Later, we went skating a couple of times when they came to LA on early Real trips. Jim knew we were doing Blue and thought that was cool... I don’t even really remember how it actually happened but he basically asked us if we’d be interested in doing something with Deluxe. Jason and I just lit up… like “oh fuck!” Next thing we know, we’re driving up to San Francisco and we’re meeting with Jim, Tommy and Jeff Klindt and that’s when things really started to click.
As much as Brad was a nice guy… I never had a bad experience with him personally and I think he meant well, he just didn’t get it creatively. And he didn’t have people in place that did either. So when we met with the Deluxe guys, it all started to formulate.
As far as Kareem and Steven Cales goes, Kareem just wanted to get back on World and I’m not exactly sure with Steven. He’d come back-and-forth from New York and sometimes I wouldn’t see him for months. There was no real falling-out… it was just everyone kinda moving on.
Stereo stands out today as one of the sole vanguards of style during a time when it really wasn’t fashionable to do so… the majority of companies seemed more concerned with landing tricks at-any-cost at the time. You and Jason have always had impeccable styles... what made you guys decide to put this style agenda at the forefront of your company?
That was the mission statement of Stereo, just the simplicity and style of it. It was partially conscious and it also just kinda happened. Skateboarding was heading in this very technical direction and graphics were getting really cartoony. The whole Stereo thing was demonstrating that we weren’t even running in the same race, that we were doing our own thing. Simple graphics. Nice clean tricks. Still shots in the ads where how the photo looks is just as important as the trick. It was definitely a conscious thing but it was also just a reaction to where skateboarding was at that time.
So many things go into making a classic skate video… much more than just tricks. Obviously the skating in A Visual Sound is incredible but there’s also Tobin and Ari’s involvement, the editing, Ululation, all the super 8 stuff… What is your favorite aspect of that video?
My favorite aspect is Ethan's part because it came together so organically and he had just gotten on the team. We had went to Germany and hung out with him and he was just ripping. I remember us thinking that this kid was so Stereo, it hurt. We had to get him on the team.
Ethan was on a trip out to California, Tobin and Thomas Campbell had basically kidnapped him and brought him to California and he was just making his way up to San Francisco from Southern California. Somehow he came into Deluxe and we talked to him. He literally had 4 or 5 days to film his part… so we gave Tobin a bunch of super-8 film and told him to just go with it. We kinda explained the vibe of the video and that’s what they came back with was his part.
It was like a really talented musician with an album already recorded and done and you add in a sick, magical genius guitar player that just plays over everything at the end and it’s just mindblowing. He got it so much. That’s what made the part so rad and raw. He really got what the Stereo vision was and totally embodied it. It’s a perfect encapsulation of a moment in time.
One thing I always wondered… what happened with Rick Ibaseta and Stereo? He was in that one Visual Sound ad….
That was a long time ago but if I remember correctly, there was just a lot going on at the time. Stereo was at a pretty crucial moment then and Rick just wanted to do Rick. He didn’t really want to enter contests or go on tour and if I recall correctly, this wasn’t jiving with the powers that be. I think it was more that he wanted to do things in his own way and at his own pace, which we respected but there was a lot of pressure at the time for anybody that got on the team.
Who do you wish would've had a part in A Visual Sound more: Paulo or Lavar?
Both of them really, but Paulo had the most complete part. It was really rad stuff: the switch ollie over the picnic table at Lockwood which was his first ad, nollie nose wheelies on picnic tables, switch backside 180 over benches in lines. Just stuff that had never been seen or done before. I'm pretty sure most of it ended up in his Chocolate part though.
This has to be brought up all the time… Where is Mike Daher and how come he’s not on Stereo Classics?
(laughs) I think Mike is in San Francisco. If you can get a hold of him, we’d proudly give him a Classics board.
The Stereo East division was something I was always stoked on… and then it just kinda fizzled. Ryan Hickey and Bobby Puleo are definitely some of the east coast’s favorite names… what happened with that? I heard there was beef at the time between Bobby and Ethan.
Nah… I don’t think so about the beef. No.
Originally in the ads and stuff, “Stereo East” was just something we used as a tagline. Just text for the ad, with the whole Blue Note vibe… Like if you’re doing an Ethan Fowler ad and you want it to match this Thelonious Monk album cover, what words can you use besides just Ethan's name? You just add in text.
So we were just fishing for that originally and then we started talking about a whole East Coast Division but it never really materialized. It kinda moved onto the whole Metropolitan thing and we settled on that. We just didn’t have the resources to do like another whole division.
You obviously had a lot of fun making Tincan Folklore and as a result, it has a much more personal feel. What kinda vibe were you trying to accomplish with that one?
Jason and I stayed for a week editing A Visual Sound and pouring weeks through the Super 8 and photos, so I knew how things worked from that experience. As far as Tincan, I was making a bunch of 4 track music at the time and I wanted it to be a raw sort of ‘4-track” version of a Visual Sound. The look and feel I was going for was that I wanted the video to feel like it was put together with masking tape... just raw and homemade.
Any chance some of those 4-track jams could ever get posted up as an MP3 somewhere? That “Wizard of Oz” jam from Ethan’s part always gets me hyped.
Yeah, totally. We are planning on doing that. I have a shoebox full of the original tapes.
Good. I know Stereo ended up changing its look a little towards the late ‘90s with a bit of a more cartoony feel. When was it decided to switch it up a bit and why?
Yeah, Anti-Hero had started and Deluxe itself had taken on a different type of direction… Spitfire was really taking off and Deluxe just really wanted to change things up a bit with Stereo and chase a younger demographic. Jeff Klindt (R.I.P.) put me on the phone with the distributors and they all basically told me that the whole jazz thing just wasn’t working.
We tried something new with the direction and we just went with it. None of us were really too into it. It was an experiment that kinda backfired.
When did you decide that the initial first-run of Stereo was over?
I didn’t really decide it, Deluxe did. But it was just the market at the time. The timing was just off. In the late 90’s, everything was just Shorty’s and loud graphics… just totally in your face. We were just a victim of the times. People just weren’t feeling it. The climate had changed.
How difficult was it starting Stereo back up a second time, with its legacy to consider and an entirely different playing field 10 years after starting it from scratch back in ’93?
As cliché as it sounds, I don’t really live in the world to look for reactions. I just do what I want to do and carefully choose what I think is right at the time. Some of that has to do with people’s opinions, what I’ve heard or what I think of people’s opinions. But in general, I don’t really do things for that reason.
You’d have to ask the people out there. But that also depends on who you ask. If you ask a skateboarder who is like 23 or older, they probably loved Stereo coming back. But if you ask a kid who's 12 and is a huge fan of Almost, it probably went clear over his head! He probably didn’t even know Stereo even came back! (laughs)
Its all relative. With Stereo, its always been left of center so it really just depends on who you talk to.
We are working more toward a balance. And I think these days, thanks to the Berrics and all the web videos, and our graphics being really bold and classic... and just the unique timeless vibe of Stereo, it can actually be loved by a 12-year-old , a 23-year-old, and a 35-year-old. That’s the goal anyway.
Gotta ask since you’ve known him forever… throughout all the crazy twists of Mike V’s career, was there ever a point where you thought that the dude had lost his mind?
(laughs) No man. Mike’s always been Mike. You gotta give him credit. He’s always been into his own thing and he’s always been on his own. He’s really driven, dedicated and stubborn… in a good way. The fact that he’s still jumping in a van and driving around cross country for a month and a half doing demos is just insane.
And with Bill Danforth nonetheless.
How many 40-year-olds can do that? Maybe Tony Hawk. There’s just not that many people that have that kind of dedication. I totally respect with him for that.
The creative stuff with whatever he’s got going on and the side projects he’s doing, like the hockey, it all doesn’t matter cause when he steps on a skateboard, he kicks fucking ass. I don’t think it really matters if he plays hockey, wants to wrestle or whatever the hell he wants to do. He’s one of the most rippingest skateboarders of our time.
So how were you first introduced to Blue Note and the graphic design work of Reid Miles? Who are some of the other notables you draw upon for your own artwork?
With the Blue Note stuff, I always had an awareness of it cause my dad was a jazz musician. I grew up around it. And around the time we were doing Blue, my friend Eli at X-Large handed us this compilation book Blue Note had just put out of all their albums. We’d already been buying quarter albums at the thrift store to reference for ads and graphics but when we saw this book, it was like “oh my god, here is our design bible.” It was the outline of what our aesthetic was.
Art is something I’ve been into since I was a kid and back in the day, and my favorites growing up were Picasso and Tolousse Le Trec.
As far as my own art and influences, I just try to draw in my own style. That’s all I’ve ever done in everything I’ve chosen to do, even with skateboarding. I’ve never tried to be technically the best, just to do everything in my own way. Same goes with art.
But its funny, man… I find influences everywhere. There’s so many amazing things out there. I could go on for days with that one so I just not even go there.
How would you define style?
Sick. Alright Chris, anything else you’d like to add? What’s up next for Stereo?
We just announced that we’re going to be distributed by Antics so that takes a lot of the pressure off of us. This allows Jason and I to free up and hang out with the skaters more and focus on the creative stuff...
Jason’s actually back skating again... and skating really well. Its pretty rad, man. He’s totally back in and his son also skates so that’s really exciting.
We’re basically doing a fourth relaunch of Stereo. This is our fourth go-round (Deluxe, Giant, Independent Stereo and now Antics). We’re doing some new stuff with the team. There’s gonna be a couple new guys getting on in the next few months... This is an exciting time for us. I’m proud of where we’re at now, and I’m proud of where we’ve been, even the bumps in the road. Because without mistakes and problems, you can’t appreciate the good times.
special thanks to chris, mackenzie eisenhour, isaac mckay-randozzi, benjamin derberdt and stereo.