Chrome Ball sits down with Baaaarrr-ley for conversation.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to get more into the business side of skateboarding. I’m currently doing East Coast Retail Relations for Element which entails me helping to service shops from Maine to Puerto Rico. Whatever I can do.
But you’re still on your board, right?
Oh yeah, I’m just coming off an Achilles injury right now though. Appleyard came out here and I rolled my ankle pretty bad skating a mini-ramp. But I’m back. Taking baby steps and slowly trying to find my balance.
I know how that goes. So how’d you first get introduced to skating? What was your first board?
I first got introduced to skating when my friends and I were doing a paper route one day. My boy Mike and I found a skateboard in somebody’s trash! My aunt was into skating and we all used to watch her skate down the street. We always wanted to try it so once we found a board like that, it was on.
My first legit board was a Sims Kamikazee with Gullwing Pro 3’s and Sims Street Wheels. It was super fly.
Favorite old school skater? I can’t be the only one to think that an Eric Dressen influence is pretty obvious…
Yeah, Eric. I had so many of his boards growing up. I’d spend so much time rewinding his sections in the videos and putting them into the vault. Just his style and the tricks he does… he’s a classic.
The first time I saw Brian was at a carnival with a couple of his boys. I had on Vision Street Wear sneakers and we could both tell that each other skated. I remember wanting to meet them but I was pretty shy back then. We didn’t actually meet until a couple weeks later. My friend Jason and I were skating his ramp when Brian and his crew came walking up. They asked if they could skate and we all became friends instantly. There was really only a handful of us skaters back then so we all stuck together. About a year later, we let Brian join our crew Team 911. He was pretty hyped and it was dope having in the crew.
With the sticker under the truck? That’s sick. Now the first time I really heard of you was around ‘96 when you came out with both Underachievers and Welcome to Hell but you’d been sponsored for a while before that. Who were your first real sponsors back in the day? I know you rode for Entity early on…
I first got sponsored by my friend Tom who owned a company called Who Skates up in Maine. It was real small and I’d get a board every month or two but I was hyped. Later on, I ended up meeting Buster Halterman and he got me on Gullwing.
Entity was Gullwing’s board company so that’s kinda how that worked out. This was shortly after I moved out to California. After two years of college, I moved out to San Diego with my boys Judd (Hertzler) and Paul. We took a Greyhound bus all the way from Connecticut to SD and moved in with Andy McDonald.
My first week in Cali, I randomly ran into Oscar Jordan who rode for Entity at the time. Through him, I got acquainted with Steve Saiz and Ray Underhill who happened to be managing both companies back then (Gullwing & Entity). They sponsored me. It was unreal.
I don’t recall street skating with Andy at all actually! We skated tons of vert back in the day and when I first moved to SD but we didn’t go street skating too often. I was really surprised to see that in there. I’ve heard that Christian wrote that Check-Out on a napkin. That’s what he sent to Grant or Swift and I remember those guys saying that they had trouble reading it and that they had to rewrite it slightly.
But yeah, I used to skate with Andy quite a bit back in the day. We both grew up around the same place and were close to the same age. As he made his trek westward, he was one of my only friends that I could depend on. So once I was in California, we ended up getting a place together. I remember everyday being incredible after finally making it out there.
How’d you end up meeting Hosoi?
I met Christian when I was first starting to settle in out west. Steve Saiz sent me to Arizona for a demo. I was getting on the plane when I look up and see Hosoi, Dave Duncan and Eddie Reategui sitting next to me. It felt like a dream. We ended up talking for most of the flight. When we got off, they said, “You’re with us, man.” I spent the whole weekend in the VIP with them.
So what's the story behind your old nickname “Teff Dog”? What does that even mean?
Christian… skating Chicken’s pool. Reategui, Duncan, Patch, Kele Rosecrans and a few other regulars were there. Around this time, I had given up wearing pads… I never liked knee-sliding. I guess Christian found it funny how I was able to run out of all my tricks while bailing. He was like “You’re like Teflon, you just don’t stick! I’m calling you ‘Teflon Don.’”. Everyone was laughing and it just went on from there.
I owe that whole hook-up to Satva Leung and Jamie Thomas. I was riding for Think at the time and living with Satva, Welsh and Nikhil. Satva showed me the Heavy Metal video and it totally blew my mind. Josh’s part was so fresh. That video got me so hyped on Toy Machine.
Back then, Think just had so many amateurs that I started thinking that if I could get on something smaller, I’d have more of a chance to get noticed. So Satva showed some footage of mine to Jamie and I got on. I remember thinking around this time like I might be able to make a career out of this.
Gotta ask, did Ed ever barge the bathroom to snap a photo of you pissing? (laughs)
Yeah, he did actually.
Hilarious. So did you have any idea at the time that Underachievers would go on to become this quintessential East Coast video? It must’ve been pretty rag-tag filming that thing…
I had no idea, I just hoped people would dig it. I’d just gotten on Toy Machine and I remember asking Ed to buy me a plane ticket back East so I could film. I told him that he should believe in me because I was gonna try hard and that the video was gonna turn out really cool. I somehow ended up convincing him.
The stuff I was involved with took about 3 months of consistent filming, staying in Boston and Philly mostly. It was such a good time.
How was it filming with Oyola and Matt Reason? Their outlook on skating is pretty rigid: no dog-piss leg, no “switch”, etc… Did their influence have any impact on you at the time?
Yeah, for sure. Just sitting on Ricky’s couch and listening to him talk about skating and his approach to it was inspiring. I was always more of a technical skater when I was younger but when I started spending more time Philly, I found my skating going in a different direction. I got more into just flowing down the street-type sessions. Doing basic tricks and more control-oriented stuff with speed. It felt similar to when I lived out in San Francisco… actually riding the board with the tricks becoming secondary.
He was just getting settled in Cali when we started Underachievers. I do remember bragging about him to everyone though. I told Muska about him for so long that when they finally met, they became friends instantly.
So what was the vibe like making Welcome to Hell compared to Underachievers? Two classics back-to-back, that's one hell of a year! Which part of yours do you prefer?
That’s a really hard question because they were both so much fun to make but I’d have to say the vibe for Underachievers would probably edge-out Hell just a little. It was much more free of expectation. I remember having more of an innocent approach to trying stuff. I was just getting to the stage where my confidence was expanding quickly. We’d find spots that nobody had ever skated and I felt that I had nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain so I went for it. I was trying to break the ice. Being totally scared for my life in a few cases but just being so thrilled every inch of the way. Like, “Oh man, I just knocked my tooth out! My Mom’s gonna kill me!” And just laughing about it because I was on the ride of my life.
Welcome to Hell was a roller coaster inferno on a skateboard. Everyone was gung-ho and to find myself in the mix with all that energy was all new to me. Everyone put it on the line. Muska doing 10 hard tricks in a row, first-try down every 12-stair rail we skated. Jamie knocking himself out a couple of times and having the heart to keep taking on bigger challenges. And of course, his direction! He understood every aspect of producing a mind-blowing video and was not afraid to demand it. He was so ahead of his time back then in skating and directing.
It was crazy how much emotion went into all of it. Everyone was paying the price but we were so deeply committed. We fed off one another.
I’m pretty sure we did that one for about a year. Probably have to check with Jamie on that. It’s hard for me to say but it doesn’t feel like it was as fast as Underachievers.
Do you think that same passion you spoke of during filming is what would later fuel the fiasco that went down at the premiere? You had to be pretty bummed about Chad leaving.
Oh yeah, it was terrible thing. Actually some pretty great things would turn out for some of us down the road from all of that, but at the time, we were all so let down. Each one of us had worked so hard. We all felt bad for Jamie, too. He was obviously disappointed.
I still remember Ed with his pen and paper. He sat in-front of the theater, writing everyone's name down and telling kids that he'd send them a free video. He did that for hours. Chad had already disappeared with his homies but ended up coming back after a few beers and there was this big blow-out. Chad’s departure was terrible for us but it became a new beginning for him. One that undoubtedly changed skateboarding.
Most definitely. So how’d the “Barley Grind” come about? Any idea who named it? And is it a double-edged sword having your name on a trick?
I don’t know who named it. It’s really an extension of what Mark Gonzales was doing with all those controlled tricks in Video Days… in the garage on the metal beam. That little section was so impressively innovative to me.
When I was living with Ed, I’d go skate the park in Huntington Beach every morning. I remember trying to learn all these different ledge tricks and it just came out of that. I don’t know at what point it became the “Barley grind” but I really enjoy doing them… the lock of a switch smith just feels so good.
That was me paying tribute to Fred and the Loud Ones. We grew up skating Fred’s skatepark back in the day, the Skate Hut. It was the sketchiest place ever but we loved it. First time we went, our Moms brought us and Fred is behind the counter with his big blonde dreads and his nose pierced in the middle. That was probably 1988.
That must’ve scared the shit of them! (laughs)
The Loud Ones was this legendary group of ripping skaters from all over the East Coast. A big, rowdy, lawless group who just loved skating loud. Every trick had to be loud, including 8-foot ear drum-shattering Madonnas. We would pad up and skate the Hut’s 13-foot vert ramp with these guys. At first, we kept our eyes on our shoelaces and didn’t speak a peep but over time, we became regulars and slowly fit into the chaos.
That’s probably one of my all-time favorite graphics. Fred lives a few streets down from me. He has a tattoo shop here in town.
I felt like the way for me to take advantage of what was going on at that time in my career was to stick with somebody that I could depend on as a filmer. And things were changing. Muska had gone over to Shorty’s and Jamie had started doing this little clothing brand called “Zero Division” which ended up becoming Zero.
The turning point for me was when Dan Wolfe got involved with Element. He talked to me about joining and I felt like I had to try it. Dan wrote me this amazing letter about what his vision was for us on Element and what he was hoping we could achieve. When I read it, I couldn’t sleep afterwards. I loved riding for Toy Machine and knew it was gonna be difficult to leave. It was definitely a hard decision.
Talk a little about that switch hardflip down the Santa Monica Triple Set. That has to be a highlight for you… that was just beastly.
I actually landed on it first-try but jumped off cause I couldn’t abosorb the impact. I ended up having to go back three or four separate times to get it. Each time I’d try it as many times as I could before getting completely wrecked. You can watch Dan’s Closure video and see all the times I came close.
A little bit. But everyone was down for me and I felt super-honored to ride for Tony . The big issue with me was that Birdhouse didn’t really have that one filmer or manager that was really amazing at the time. There just wasn’t that guy I needed.
So I ended up just kinda doing my thing. It was amazing being around Tony but he’s a really busy dude. I was hoping to bring more of an underground element to the brand but I ended up feeling a bit discouraged.
Things began to change for the better when Suski, Shetler and Westgate all joined the team. Seamus took over as team manager and things started to feel more directed. But Zoo York ended up presenting me with a great offer which I eventually took and moved back East.
Back home. Now you were on Zoo for a long time, being the face for just about all their different facets. And I know it was also around this time started up your skateshop, Fountain of Youth. Where was your head at this point?
Once again, this was an opportunity that was just thrown at me. I knew Zoo York was going on its third identity when I got on but I felt like the skating was gonna do the talking for us. I’d heard about the guys that were gonna be involved and I was really excited to be on the team with my friends.
There were always a lot of challenges that went on with riders leaving or getting the boot or whatever… but at this point, I was starting to settle down a bit. My life really started transforming in a short time. I bought a house and started rehabbing it… went way overbudget, in fact. I opened my shop. Jesse and I had our first daughter, Charlotte. My priorities were changing.
Yeah, eventually. At first, I was riding for Quiksilver and Zoo but was fired from Quik for not having one of their stickers on my board in an ad. I’d just gotten my first Zoo York ad where I was heelflipping these double rails. You could see that there wasn’t a Quiksilver sticker on my board but I know I had one on there… It doesn’t matter now but the bottom line is that it cost me my Quiksilver sponsorship because the sticker wasn’t there.
Do you think they photoshopped that Quiksilver sticker off your board?
I really don’t know... but I was bummed. Quiksilver always treated me really good. But after that, I rode for Zoo clothes. Down the road, they started doing Zoo footwear and they wanted me to ride for that also.
A lot of times when it comes to being sponsored by big brands, there are plenty of conflicts of interest that people don’t even realize. Most of those big names out there want you wearing their stuff from head-to-toe, which is pretty much why I put all my eggs in one basket with Zoo.
Understandable. Now be honest, did you ever get bummed at Ashton Kutcher rocking Zoo gear in ads while you’re out there busting your ass in the streets?
I don't even watch TV so I hadn't really heard of Ashton Kutcher at the time. But when I saw the ad with him in it, I just felt like, "man, homie don't skate." Somebody actually tried telling me that he did skate…
But it wasn't something that I wasted too much thought on. I’m sure Zoo York had their reasons. But I take skating pretty seriously. It’s my passion and I think it’s kinda wack when people make a ton of money off skateboarding and they don't have that same passion for it as I do.
That kinda stuff happens all the time in skateboarding. It’s like baseball or basketball, people get let go of when their contracts end. It's just a harsh part of the business and something most of us wish didn’t exist.
There's two sides of everything: there's the people that put their heart into riding for the team and then there's the people that are forced to run the business behind it. Sometimes the people doing the skating don't always win.
This had to be difficult for you to deal with as a long-time rider.
It probably just came down to money. Yes, it was tough for me. It was difficult feeling like I was standing on thin ice with the brand. It really affected some of the friendships that I had. But over time, those friendships have become strong again and everyone has seemed to find support and success in different avenues.
Well said. So what’s next for Donny Barley?
I'm just taking advantage of this opportunity I have with Element to learn as much as I can. You always know a bit about it when you're involved as an athlete or artist but once you step over to the business side, there's so much more to it than you realize.
The guys at Element are behind me with whatever I want to do. I’m happy with my position in the skate world. I feel like this is the time for me to help give back to skateboarding and support the new generations. Skateboarding has been real good to me and I’m dedicated for life.
Shout out to all my Fountain of Youth brothers!
Chrome Ball will return on Monday, July 18th.