chrome ball sits down with willy for conversation.
Alright Willy, so we’ll start back at the beginning of all this. How did it all start for you? How were you first introduced to skateboarding and what was your first board? You know, typical interview intro stuff.
Basically I saw some older guys doing boardslides on a double-sided curb at this school I used to live by in Mira Mesa. I want to say they were older but there were probably just in Junior High. They were doing boardslides and I thought that was just the coolest thing ever and I wanted to do that. It was around that time a bunch of kids from around my neighborhood also started skating too so I got a board.
My first real board was a Christian Hosoi deck from when he was on Skull Skates. It was white and pink with Gullwing Super Pro 3s, Bones 3 wheels and NMB bearings. I had clear griptape with a Gullwing Zone sticker right in the center.
I remember the place where I bought it was like a toy store and they actually charged us to put the board together. There was actually a wait list for them to do it. So when my mom and I bought the board, I had to wait three more days until I was actually able to ride it.
That had to be torture.
Yeah but that’s how it was. I think they charged five bucks or something to put it together.
Aw man, that’s terrible. So who were some of your favorite pros early on? Growing up in the San Diego area, you must’ve been able to see a lot of them in-person pretty frequently.
For sure. Growing up around San Diego, I’d see a bunch of my favorite pros. Tony Hawk’s from here. I saw him a few times. Hosoi wasn’t from here but he was around a lot and was definitely one of my top guys. Steve Caballero also.
You probably grew up around a lot of future legends as well.
Exactly. The guys that were around my age from here were John Reeves, Kien Lieu, Matt Hensley, Jeremy Klein and, of course, one of my all-time favorites, Eric Koston.
You and Koston seemed pretty close back in the day, with him even exposing your beatbox prowess for his part in Next Generation.
Yeah, there was a time when he was living here in San Diego and we were skating a lot together. We’d always skate together with Brian Lotti and Tim Gavin.
That’s not a bad session at all.
It was always a treat skating with Lotti back then. He was always just light years ahead of everyone. The rest of us could barely understand what the hell he was doing but it was definitely inspiring. We knew we wanted to do what he was doing.
Now was Gordon and Smith your first sponsor?
Yeah, that was my first real sponsor. I was in the sixth or seventh grade.
My older buddy John had this big VHS camcorder. He would drive and we’d skate all the local spots that would later become pretty well-known, like School W and Webb Park. We would just go around filming and I remember we didn’t have a proper tape deck to edit on so everytime I would bail, he would have to rewind the tape back. I eventually did compile about two minutes of footage but the problem was I only had this one tape. That was it. So I really had to make it count.
At first, I thought about sending it to H-Street but then G&S came up. They were both local companies but G&S was just the next exit over off the freeway. And at the time, they still had Chris Miller and Neil Blender. So I ended up mailing it over there and a week later, Chris Carter and Mike Hill called me up wanting to go skate. We went to all the local spots as kinda like a try-out and I was put on flow, eventually working my way up to the real Am team.
My first ad was where I would later go to high school at but I wasn’t old enough yet.
Was this a Willy Grind?
No, it was a fakie nosegrind.
Okay, let’s get this straight for everybody: I didn’t invent the Willy Grind. Rob Dyrdek swears that I invented it but the person that invented it was Derek Williams. He rode for Santa Cruz and was a local over at McGill’s skatepark with Peter Hewitt, Jordan Richter, Matt Goldsby and those guys.
There’s a sequence in Transworld, it’s a How-To, and it’s Derek Williams showing how to do a Willy Grind. They called it a Willy Grind because his last name is Williams. But somehow over the years, I don’t know if Derek skates anymore, but that trick has gotten put on me.
If you look in any magazine or in any videos, I have never had any footage or photos of me doing a Willy grind.
So after two decades, the truth comes out.
Exactly. I actually asked Dave Swift a couple of months ago if we could do something in the Skateboard Mag so people would know that I didn’t invent it but it never happened.
Well, we’re gonna do it now, Willy.
There we go. We’ll put it up on Chrome Ball: I did not invent the Willy grind.
So watching Footage, it seems pretty obvious that the split within the G&S camp was inevitable… but at the time, it was shocking. Did you know anything about the Alien Workshop project being in the works? Were you ever asked to join?
For sure, Mike Hill and Chris Carter and the rest of that original team offered me to ride for Alien Workshop. Definitely. But at the time, I was young and the thought of starting a new company seemed pretty scary to me because I was seeing companies going out of business left and right. They sent me some boards. They weren’t even officially “Alien Workshop” decks yet, just the boards they were planning on using.
I remember settting those boards up and riding them. No actual graphics on them, just this weird drawing. But while I was making the decision, I found myself walking through the G&S warehouse for something and just started to feel that they were the more stable company. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that at the time G&S was starting to go bad as well.
Did you find that with those Alien guys leaving, the situation at G&S worked more to your advantage? That the team was smaller giving you more of an opportunity to shine?
Yeah, looking back on it now, it was definitely a good opportunity for me. But at the time, it was just skating. I didn’t really think about it too much.
Talk a little about Stun. You’d been in videos prior to that but that video really was your break-out vehicle. Was it always intended for you to have the spotlight in that one?
Yeah, John Hogan was the team manager at the time and he was in charge of how the film was gonna turn out. I remember when Winona Ryders came out, both John and Markovich were starting to talk to me about turning pro soon and I was definitely okay with that. I was placing well in the amateur contests during this time, placing first in the amateur finals in Georgia that year. But the whole time with that video, again, I was just skating. I really didn’t care what was going on. I had tunnel-vision.
I know a couple years later, Markovich admitted that he was kinda bummed about that video. He had just turned pro the year before the video and was bummed that I got last part. I guess I was definitely more highlighted in the video but it was hard to tell at the time. Things were so different back then. There were no video premieres or Youtube. I honestly didn’t know how it was perceived. It just came out. But G&S turned me pro so I guess it worked.
Did you like acting as the kidnap victim/Clockwork Orange ripper?
I didn’t mind. I just went along for the ride and did it. I do remember when the guy went to kidnap me in the video, I was trying to act or whatever and he ended up standing on my hand. He was wearing boots and it hurt so bad but I held it in. I didn’t yell. We were filming in this big mall in downtown San Diego and I really wanted it to look like a real kidnapping so I didn’t shout. That was the extent of my acting.
Good job, Willy. So how did the opportunity for Birdhouse come along? Did you know Tony at all before joining?
I’d seen Tony a few times before. The first time I remember was at this demo and he was just ripping. Animal Chin had just come out and I got his autograph and hung it out on my wall. I remember just sitting there watching him skate. He launched off a four-foot tall quarterpipe that was totally not meant to be launching off of. Incredible. And I also remember him trying to fakie 540’s off of the actual launch ramp. I couldn’t believe it. But of course, it’s Tony Hawk. He can do 540’s on mini-ramps. That’s what he does.
The first time I actually talked to Tony was at School W. with Steve Sherman and Shawn Mortimer. He was out there shooting a photo for an ad. At first, he was trying to ollie over the fence there years before anybody had done it. He was actually trying it at a different part which was way harder… before we found the better bump to do it on near the balance beam. He ended up doing a 5-0 grind on a handrail that was in a Tracker Aggro ad.
I had just been watching up to that point but after he got the photo and was all done, I started skating. I guess he was watching and ended up talking to me about riding for Powell-Peralta. He gave me his card and I couldn’t believe Tony Hawk was asking me to ride for Powell. But I was still content with G&S.
I didn’t really see him again until a few years later, after I had turned pro. I saw him at that Houston contest that they used to have.
Shut up and Skate.
Yeah, that was one of my first pro contests. I remember seeing Tony there and actually meeting Jeremy Klein for the first time… he probably thought I was an idiot but whatever. But it was right after that when I got the call. Tony told me that he was thinking about leaving Powell to start a new company and that he wanted me to ride for him. I was shocked. First, I find out that Tony is leaving Powell and then he wants me to ride for his new company!? I couldn’t believe it.
But it was also around this time that Rocco, Mike Ternasky and Rodney Mullen were coming around, trying to court me into going with one of their companies.
Yeah, I always wondered if they ever approached you.
Yeah, they did. I went out to dinner with them. It was all three of those dudes and that tall model chick that Rodney used to date. She was with us. We all had dinner and they offered me a new car and all this money to ride for them.
Tony and Per Welinder, on the other hand, came over to dinner at my house. My mom made them dinner and they talked to both of us about what their plans were. I just had a better feeling about Birdhouse.
If memory serves me correctly, Rocco was offering me three grand a month and a brand new car where Tony could only afford twelve hundred dollars and a used Honda Accord. But I went with Birdhouse.
And you’re still riding for them twenty years later. Feasters is really the one that silenced any non-believers left in Stun’s wake. Such a classic part. Was there any extra pressure in filming for that since Birdhouse was still so young? I know Tony was really struggling financially at the time.
After Stun, I just started going out to film with my friends and ended up just having a stockpile of footage. I even had footage from that contest where I met Tony at, that ended up being in Feasters even though I was still riding for G&S at the time. Luckily Tom Drake, the team manager for G&S after John Hogan, ended up letting me use it since he, too, would come over to Birdhouse.
I didn’t even know Tony was going to want to do a video like that right away. It just worked out. I already had a quarter of my footage ready for the video. And on top of all that footage, Birdhouse ended up filming for that entire summer, too.
It was cool because on the weekends, Tony would drive over in his Lexus and pick me up at my Mom and Dad’s house. We’d go skate his mini-ramp and then go street skating with Jeremy Klien. Sometimes Dan Rogers would roll with us before he even rode for Birdhouse. We’d roll in a big posse. Occasionally Rob Dyrdek and Scott Conklin would be around, too. Steve Berra. It was a lot of fun.
But as far as pressure, I didn’t feel any. We were just skating and having fun.
I didn’t think about until years later but we were actually doing it totally backwards. I’d go there with a photographer and shoot the photo and then realize we didn’t film it so I’d go back and do the trick again. Retarded. Now we go film with two different cameramen and a photographer. It’s a whole ordeal.
Is Feasters your favorite part?
Feasters is definitely one of my favorites. Tony was just around more. Riley wasn’t born yet and he had more free time to just go out and skate. It was always so much fun back then.
I always dug your Ravers part as well. What do you think of all this early-90’s stuff coming back into style? Are you currently dusting off the old nollie front-foot flips again? I remember you having those out of noseslides and nosegrinds…
Yeah, my feet were much faster then.
It’s funny that you bring that up. P-Rod just came out with a part a few months ago with a lot of late flips in it, right? My friend Brian Young, former Blockhead rider that helped start 16 skateboards, he messaged me on Facebook when that came out telling me that P-Rod was stealing all of my tricks. (laughs)
He is doing them way better than how I did them though. That guy is incredible. But for sure, the kids are doing late flips now. Little do they realize that guys like Koston and myself were doing them before these kids were probably even born. Kinda funny.
Yeah, you brought up Riley not even being born a minute ago and look at him now. He’s blowing up these days.
I know. It’s really awesome to see.
Along these same lines, what do you think of all these big-budget contests that are going down now? You used to kill contests back in the day for just a fraction of the winnings in 2011.
Yeah, for like two hundred dollars.
But that’s the way skateboarding was then. There were actually some contests that I won and never even got paid for. For the younger guys out there now doing the contests, it’s definitely a blessing for them. I’m really hyped that skateboarding has gone such a long way. And the level of skating is just incredible, there’s no way I could go out there now and compete with those guys. What my generation was doing when we were pushing skateboarding was hard for us, but those are like warm-up tricks for kids nowadays.
The So-Cal version of Salman’s armcast is definitely your kneebrace. What’s going on there? You’ve worn that thing forever...
Well that started off as a little kid in the Phillipines before I started skating. We lived on a military base there and I was playing with a bouncey ball. The ball went down this very steep hill and I went running after it, which I shouldn’t have done. At the bottom, someone broken glass and I ended up falling on it and having to get stitches.
Later, after we’d moved to San Diego and I had picked up skateboarding, I ended up hurting it again. My buddy had a mini-ramp in his backyard and because I was a super skinny kid, I’d use elbow pads on my knees instead of proper knees pads. Turns out the elbow pad had a crack in it. I was doing a backside air and bailed, landing on my knees which I had done many times. But the part where it was cracked cut my knee open again where I’d cut it prior. I had to get stitches again. Eventually, I just felt that I need to wear a knee brace or something for at least a little protection because me knee is still sensitive there. It was just thrashed. That’s why I always wear that knee brace.
Many see The End as the beginning of this modern day phenomenon known as the Mega-Video, elevating skate videos from bro-cam affairs to huge full-on productions. Was that a fun project to work on… with the large crews and fancy cameras?
I actually felt like it was kind of a headache working with the film because you weren’t able to see the footage after you filmed it. Jamie Mosberg did a great job but at times when you watch the video, you can’t help but think some of the angles are questionable. But it is what it is and worked out the way it did.
Looking back on it now though, I would’ve preferred to have worked with just a regular video camera.
And with the hype surrounding people like Reynolds, Heath, Klein and Berra, it kinda fueled everybody to push themselves. I mean watching Heath and Jeremy’s part in that one never gets old. It’s so cool. Especially for people like myself that came from that era of launch ramps. It was awesome to see. So unique. Just like Frankie Hill’s part in Ban This. Using a jump ramp to hit rails and stuff like that. Incredible.
I remember there were a few tricks in there that I really had to go after, that I ended up having to go back and get. The kickflip into the bank was really scary. I went there twice to do that. I’m sure now with today’s kids, it's nothing but back then it was scary. That lipslide on the ledge between the rail was the last trick that I filmed. I had to go back for that one, too. You can see me smiling in the footage because I’d finally made it.
Who came up with your foodfight intro?
The thing with that was that I originally had a different idea for my intro and it never materialized. I wanted to do some kind of B-Boy breakdancing thing at first because before I got into skateboarding, I was really into that. I used to dance… as odd as that sounds. And I’m still into it. I don’t dance anymore but I love watching it. It’s sick.
But with the food fight thing, the way they got me was that I had just won one of those Vans Triple Crown contests. J Strickland and all the guys were like “Oh yeah, we’re gonna go get some fish tacos and celebrate your win, man! You gotta be there.”
I remember going and sitting there, wondering why there were all these big-ass bowls of food around. We normally just get our own individual food. I remember Tony talking to everyone about how I had just won this contest when all of a sudden Boom! The food hit me.
So sick. Now I’ve interviewed a few people that were involved with The End and they have basically said the aftermath of that video really served to breakdown the Birdhouse team. That the weight of that accomplishment was too heavy to deal with once it was all over and they didn’t really know where to go. Would you agree with that?
Well, the video was super successful when it came out but I think it might’ve had more to do with Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
I remember as far back as around the time when Ravers came out, Tony was talking about wanting to produce some type of video game. And when The End came out, Tony’s first game was just about to come out, maybe 6 months left. Tony was talking about how he wanted us to be a part of it.
But when the time came for the game to come out, Klein, Steve Berra, Heath and myself weren’t in it. I was pretty bummed to not have been a part of it because Tony did say something about it. I never brought up to him though but it would’ve been nice.
Birdhouse was so strong at the time. Every skateshop you’d go to, you would see a bunch of Birdhouse decks. But I think if Tony brought on the whole team… like you see with the Girl/Chocolate family, they look after each other. Those guys are like a whole clan. Maybe business-wise it was smarter for Tony to get Muska and Kareem Campbell but I think it would’ve made Birdhouse a bit stronger to have the whole family be a part of it. It is what it is.
Years later, I got offered to be in a game called Grind Session. And when I got that offer, I actually asked Tony if I was going to be in his next game and he never really gave me a straight answer so I just took what I could get with Grind Session. But I’m pretty sure Steve Berra and Heath were bummed that they weren’t part of the game.
I never even took the game into consideration but that does make sense. That game was huge when it came out.
Those guys definitely got paid, especially for those first couple ones. I was hearing through the grapevine these insane amounts they were making off that and I thought it was awesome for them but at the same time… ya know? And with The End coming out, you’d think Tony would’ve hooked us all up. Why not? But I’m sure Tony was just thinking of the big picture.
So how’d you start Willy’s Workshop? Is it something that you’ve always wanted to do since you were a kid?
Yeah, I remember when I was a kid, even before I started skating, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Being in skateboarding, a shop just seemed like it was the thing to do. I knew that I wasn’t gonna be skating professionally forever and owning a business would be something to fall back on. I’d worked at a skateshop for years prior whenever I wasn’t traveling so a shop seemed like the right move. I was partners my buddy Mike in a small shop in Coronado before I opened up the first Willy’s Workshop with my wife Shalihe. That was just over 11 years ago.
So rad, Willy. Keep up the good work, man. So as we look back through all the ups-and-downs, from the The End and back to The Beginning, what has made you stay with Birdhouse Projects for two decades now?
It’s my home. Birdhouse has always been there for me. Sure, I’ve thought about riding for different companies before but I’ve just always been happy where I’m at.
Other than Rocco, nobody ever tried to swipe you up?
I know after the first few years of Birdhouse, Tom Drake, the team manager of Birdhouse who was also at G&S back in the day, was thinking about what would happen if we left to start a new company with the World camp. It never happened but Tom did eventually leave and start 23 skateboards with Sal Barbier and Jason Dill.
It’s hard to picture you anywhere else. Now you’ve seen more than your fair share of riders come through the Birdhouse ranks. If you could have one rider back on the team, who would it be?
Or Ryan Fabry even. I’m not sure if people even remember he rode for us. He had a pro deck that came out for Birdhouse and everything but it just didn’t work out.
I’d love to see Ocean back in the mix.
Yeah, Ocean was sick. Ocean and Mark Wyndham used to cruise over to my house when I’d get home from high school and pick me up. It was awesome skating with those guys. I definitely miss Ocean.
I remember seeing footage of him for an IPath promo a few years ago and was blown away. I was so siked to see that footage.
Give us your best Jeremy Klein story.
Oh gosh… there’s just so many.
The one that comes to mind, I wasn’t there for but he told me what happened. It’s a crazy story because to this day, he’s still into eating candy. Like he won’t eat a proper lunch or dinner, just candy. So I guess one time, he’d eaten so much candy that he had the hardest time taking a shit. It just wouldn’t come out. He told me that he went over top of his sink counter and got his toothbrush to try and chisel his shit out of his ass because it was so hard. Eventually he did finally get it out and he said he just grabbed the shit and looked down upon like as if he had conquered it. Proud to have finally gotten it out of his ass.
Hilarious. I gotta interview that guy. Last question. For you personally… which is better: Webb Park or the Beatles?
Oh man. For me personally? Cause the Beatles contributed so much to life as we know it. But then again, Webb Park was the spot. This is a tough one….
I gotta say the Beatles… but Webb Park was really awesome. I really did love that spot.
Alright Willy, anything you’d like to add?
Well, we’re working on a new Birdhouse video right now so we’ll see how that turns out in the next year or two.
I’m just happy to be alive and well. My family is awesome. Skateboarding is awesome and I hope to keep pushing my skateboarding as far as I can.
I’m grateful to my sponsors, especially Birdhouse and Tony Hawk for having my back. I’m going to be turning 36 in October.This year is the 20th anniversary of Birdhouse and I definitely never thought that I would still be skateboarding professionally in 2011 and beyond. It keeps me young.