chrome ball interview #43: tod swank

chops shares a cup of tea with justin lovely.

photo by J Grant Brittain

Alright Tod, so after two decades in nearly every role one could imagine within the industry: pro skater, artist, photographer, writer, ‘zine impresario and company owner, do you still see skateboarding in the same light? Is it still basically the same subculture at its core that it’s always been?

I don't think it's possible to see it in the same way. I'm 45 now. I don't have the same brain and set of eyes that I had when I was 18. Do I appreciate skateboarding as a culture and yet still, even a subculture? The same subculture? Yes and no. For younger generations, I’d expect it to be a different perspective but for those of us coming from the 80’s or even 90’s, that subculture is that much more amplified. You know how it is. Those damn kids!

But for me, personally, it’s more radical than ever.

So what made you start up the legendary Swank ‘zine back in the day? Had you always been involved with photography and writing? Was that project strictly for fun or was there a more serious point you were going for?

This was around right when Skateboarder turned into Action Now. Punk rock was exploding and it going was hand-in-hand with skateboarding. I’d just moved to San Diego and had no friends. I met this surfer kid in junior high whose Dad made furniture and he ended up making us decks. Mine was a rock. Almost an inch-thick with all vertical plys. But I got my hands on some Gullwing Phoenix trucks and some Bones wheels, went to Del Mar Skate Ranch with my Mom and J. Grant Brittain set that shit up for me. He tried to talk me out of the pizza grip in lieu of standard grip but I refused.

I started skating around the park… that surfer kid never came back but I kept going.

After Action Now took a hike, Grant and I became friends. We talked about doing a magazine for a bit. I still have the notes on that project but it didn’t happen. Too many people to deal with so I just forged on my own. I was already shooting pics and had sketched around since a small child. It just all came together.

Swank zine was for fun…. I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Who were some of your favorite skaters to shoot back in the day?

I shot vert because that’s what was going on and that’s what I skated. Jeff Phillips (RIP) was one on my favorites. Mike Smith is another one… just because he’s Mike Smith. Craig Johnson was always fun to shoot. Of course, guys like Cab, Hosoi, Miller, Jason Jessee, Steve Claar… the list goes on and on. I do remember the Shut Up and Skate in Texas contests being the best because they were just chaos. We drove out there six years straight.

Granted the photo equipment and methodology are primitive now in comparison but do you think this improvisational/experimental nature back then added to the experience?

It’s all about the composition and capturing the right moment. Sometimes that moment is right before or right after you expect it… and sometimes the mistake photos are the best ones. I still like raw, kinda messed-up photos.

Was there a zine that stood out as a particular favorite of yours?

Skate Fate, Skate Punk, Naughty Nomads, Skate and Mate, Contort, Karmaboarder, Tiki, 7 Zine, Powerhouse, Joke… there are way more. Most all of them were radical in their own way.

So what’s the current status of Swank zine? A possible comeback? It would be infinitely times easier nowadays with all this new technology.

Most likely no. I did do a Foundation zine once. The plan was to keep doing it and include it with boards. I pasted it up just like the old days: made some xeroxes, stapled them together and took them to a tradeshow. Good times. I’d like to make that happen again.

I’d like to get all past zines posted online for fun but I know that will never happen.

How about a book of zines… like GSD’s recent Skate Fate collection?

I have all the OG issues. The actual paste-ups. And one time, my friend, Mark Waters, made some new copies of all of them. I have all those, too. I still have all the zines from back in the 80’s that I got from all my zine friends as well… I really need to get those out.

But that will never happen, either.

I’d buy it. Now Skull Skates is one those classic companies that everybody knows but not much is actually known about. I remember you were on Sims for a minute, too… how did you get hooked-up to ride for the Skull? And what was your role over there? Just as a rider or would you help out with the art direction as well? It’s easy to see some similarities between Skull ads and some of the early F-Troop stuff.

I rode for Sims for a while. It was licensed by Brad Dorfman of Vision at that time and was a classic cool company. That’s how I met Steve Rocco actually. He had a pro model and was the TM for Vision/Sims. I remember he used to put Swank zine stickers on his board…

What happened was Brad ended up firing Steve after Rocco sent the entire team to a contest in Alabama. Steve had bought plane tickets for everyone, even the amateurs, and Dorfman flipped out. He fired Steve and went instead to try and bond with the teamriders but Steve ended up driving out there anyways… which I’m sure pissed Brad off even more. That was the beginning of SMA World Industries.

But I was over the Dorfman after that. I think PD and I had exchanged zines before and that’s how we met. PD and Skull is raw unfabricated skateboarding and I was drawn to that DIY mentality. I made fliers and little ads for my stuff but we both captured that overdone xerox, cut-and-paste look.

Care to give a little background story on your old school doppelganger, the ever-mysterious teapot aficionado, Mr. Justin Lovely? Any idea what he’s up to these days?

I was late to that game. Different zine dudes and skaters already had their own little cartoon characters going with witty, snappy names. Justin was the dude I invented: The Adventures of Justin Lovely. Just Lovely… What kind of wack emo kid was I!?!

Justin went underground in the early nineties after feeling the pressure from the new hip kids. He couldn’t handle it. He went off the radar... just skating and travelling around the world in the most obscure places. Meeting people and having a good time.

Hey buddy, drop a postcard sometime! Slacker.

Where did the idea to start your own company come from? And when did Rocco get involved?

I was doing my thing at Skull but had a close eye on Steve Rocco. He was changing things. Changing the landscape of skateboarding from how we had known it. And Steve was helping other dudes start new brands: Blind, 101, Liberty...

I actually hit him up just to see if I could ride for him but I was 80’s vert dirt. He knew that and politely declined but then turned around and offered to help me start my own company! He said it was easy! Just make some letterhead and walla! You have a company!

I didn’t want to do it at first. I was scared. But I thought about it for a bit and ended up making some letterhead. I called him back and said, “Ok, let’s do it.”

The name came from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of books. I read them all. It was an adventure story from the future about using a type of mathematics called psychohistory to predict the movement of people masses and then putting into effect different events that slightly change the future for the better.

Pretty grandiose, eh?

Awesome. How was your business relationship with Rocco back then? I know you guys had several run-ins after you went independent but what was he like to deal with during these early years?

I wouldn’t be here today without the support and enthusiasm of Steve Rocco. He was cranking right from the start, I just tagged along. He’d offer his input whenever I asked but he was just so busy with his own stuff. Eventually it did get to a point where I pulled away with Steve’s best regards and went on my own. He gave me whatever inventory they had, which wasn’t much. It all fit in my Chevy Sprint. But he gave me a shop list and told me to give him a call if I had any questions.

The run-in’s we had later on were playful marketing jabs. Good times. It helped!

In my opinion, the moon and star is one of the best skateboard graphics of all-time. Do you happen to remember the first time you drew it or how it came about?

Yeah, it was a first-time drawing in a sketch book. I wanted something to represent space. The galaxies. A reminder to how significantly rare and precious our lives are here on planet Earth. How amazingly wondrous that it all is.

I know, I know… way too deep. Whatever. Still applies. Better make the most of it.

Love it. Now the first Foundation video, Glam Boys on Wheels, is one of those rare cinematic achievements that only come along once in a lifetime. So much fun. How long did it take make that thing? And what were you guys trying to put out there with that? Pretty sure half the skaters on there didn’t even ride for Foundation…

Yeah, that was a good time. We still had an all-vert team back then. I was still holding onto the past. Rocco was moving onto the future but I didn’t see it as clearly yet.

Glam Boys on Wheels: Too Cool to Skate was the skateboarding world I lived in. I think that was probably just all over one summer. Linda Vista Ramp with Peter Hewitt, Buena Vista Pool with a young Andy Roy, a bunch of different skateparks and partying. Reese Simpson stair-diving… it was mega awesome. That was skateboarding for me. Maybe the last hurrah of the 80’s vert legacy before street took over.

And we really did run out of gas at the end in that Dodge A100 camper van. We were on our way back to Cali and chunked out around 9PM in the middle of nowhere. We saw no cars around. Had no beer. No weed. Nothing. We finally got to sleep and there’s still nothing when we wake up the next morning. So we start pushing the van down the road. I thought it would make a great ending for the video so I shot it.

We pushed maybe twenty feet when this big motor home drove by and pulled over. This old dude and his wife came out with a gas can. They refused any cash for the gas and insisted on following us to the next gas station.

It was a beautiful, sunny day. Fucking awesome. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

photo by Mark Waters

So after Glam Boys, I remember being surprised by the sudden straight-forward nature of your next project, the Magic F. What brought about this more serious tone? And wasn’t this also around when you and Rocco parted ways?

Well, after Glam Boys came out, nothing happened and I knew I had to make some changes quick. I started to see the light on the direction of things. It wasn’t like I was giving up on vert skating, I was just embracing the idea that a kid could skate anywhere, whenever, wherever. No holds barred! It was fucking brilliant.

I really loved the creative eruption that was also happening around this time, too. Just thinking about being the first person to do something that had never been done before ever! In the world, on this planet, in our solar system, in the fucking almighty universe! These creative kids were doing that on a daily basis. Never been done before: check.

I saw it for what it was and went with it. I axed the entire F Posse at the time and enlisted some up-and-coming street rippers: Ricky Higgins, Billy Bakker, Bobby Ferry and the unknown amazing talent, Joshua Zeus Beagle.

It was Bobby Ferry who introduced me to Josh. He was kinda quiet. Unassuming and shy but really funny and amazing on his skateboard. I swear I filmed his part in the shortest amount of time and he had the best and longest part. It was awesome.

I convinced Steve to bankroll the Magic F production. It didn’t cost much. The main cost was duplication. I filmed and edited it all myself but Steve didn’t pay me much because Foundation wasn’t making any money. The cover was a blank white sleeve because I had to.

My plan was to get it done and out. If it jump started our sales then maybe I’d hang in there with Rocco. If it didn’t, I would pull out and do Foundation in San Diego on my own and see what happened. I was driving up to WI once a week, 2-3 hours each way. I didn’t really feel comfortable up there... kinda like a bastard stepchild. It was probably just me because Steve always made me feel welcome. I was just a social idiot. But my trips were always unproductive and a waste of time. I started looking for a reason to go at it solo and I soon got it: Magic did nothing for sales.

I retreated to San Diego with Steve’s best wishes and that was that. But we did have something going for us: a ripping street team, a new video and the fact that I was painted into a corner. It was do or die. Foundation Super Co. - Serious for the 90’s! It was a joke but I meant it, too.

Were the mounting pressures of running Foundation what led you giving up your pro board around this time?

I wanted to focus on the up and-coming dudes. I was an old vert dude... at 22!?! But I always liked the back end anyways. I’d kinda freak out when people focused on me.

I’m better now…maybe, I guess… Shit.

One of the more infamous moves from this era: giving Dan Drehobl the boot via an ad. He said he had no idea it was coming until he saw it in Slap. Is that really how that went down?

Yeah, that was lame. We were late with an ad for Slap. Josh Beagle, Jason Masse (I think) and I were just fucking around and those guys said we should do that. I let it roll but I shouldn’t have. It was lame. Those dudes wanted Dan off because they didn’t think he was progressive enough.

Sorry for being a dick, Dan.

What about when you started using Rocco brand names and skaters in Foundation ads? I loved it. Hilarious… and really gutsy. Were you poking fun at Rocco’s success at the time or was there some other motivation we’re not aware of?

Free publicity. We needed all the help we could get and any publicity was good publicity. Foundation was unknown. We had to glean off the backs of the well-known in order to stay alive.

Cheap tactic? Yeah, but it was fun. I didn’t really know what we were doing.

But you had to know that Rocco was gonna get revenge. And he did just that by charging you for an ad featuring Richard Mulder before stealing your rider and taunting you with an ad featuring him in the same issue. Gnarly. Did you have any idea of how that issue of Big Brother was gonna go down? What was your reaction when you saw it? Did you even try thinking of a way to retaliate?

Is that what happened? I remember the ad. Same issue, eh?

I wasn’t bummed. I just thought, “Touché. Good job, Steve. And, by the way, thanks. Thanks for the publicity!”

I think my next ad I did in TWS on the back inside cover was just that: a thank you note to Steve. Literally, if Steve did not rally behind me, I would’ve never gone down this path. I have always appreciated that from him.

Do you miss those wreckless days when you could get away with stuff like that?

Totally. Good times.

It was really only Steve. He wasn’t afraid to piss people off. No one has repeated the all-out attack strategy at that level since.

Plus, nowadays I don’t really want to attack anyone. These people are my friends... though I do rally for the independents and would like to take market share from the corpos.

But you didn’t mention our mini-battle with Santa Cruz Skateboards when Jason Rothmeyer came and rode for the F. That was fun. Rich Novak wrote me that nice apology letter. I probably still have that somewhere.

That was a good one. But after all the turbulent events, what would you say is the biggest lesson you learned in business from Steve Rocco? Do you see him as this marketing genius or was he just the right guy at the right time?

I think Steve was just not afraid to take big risks. When he started, he did stuff he thought was funny and it went from there. He always told me to just make what the kids want. Don’t worry about making what the shops and distros want. Make what the kids want and everyone else will follow suit.

One thing you and I have talked about before is the claim that you attempted a power move during the inception of Chocolate by trying to block them from using Watson wood. For the record, what’s your side of the story?

So funny.

According to Megan at Girl/Chocolate, I shut them down from getting boards made at Watson. But the only thing I said to Charlie when he asked me about it was that I was concerned about his capacity. We were doing a shitload of boards and Charlie had other customers as well.

Maybe he told Megan that I flipped out when I heard. In the end, it was Charlie’s decision. It was his business. Sorry Megan and Rick.

I make a good person to throw under the bus as I’m sure we’ll see in this next question, too. Wahoo.

What’s the story behind the "Sorry for Being a Dick" ad? Did Toy really make that without your knowledge? And what do you think of that term “Getting Swanked”? We’ve touched on a few things from the past where people have been upset with you but is this all just part of running companies in an unorthodox industry for 20 years?

Leo wanted to ride for Toy but he didn’t like me because of the way I reacted when he quit Foundation. I was pissed and bummed when he left because Leo is one of my favorite dudes.

Anyways, Ed came up with the idea to do an apology ad… that I was sorry for being a dick. And I said that I’d do it. I don’t like when my emotions get out of control. I can admit to that. But at the same time, that’s who I am. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I get happy. I get mad. I get sad. It’s all there.

I’m stoked Leo is on Toy Machine and recently back on Pig Wheels. He’s always been one of my favorite skateboarders.

I remember once at an industry summit in Mexico, I was hanging out with Bob Denike from NHS. I got into a bitch session about all my complaining employees, teamriders and customers… even though it was probably just a couple of people giving me hell.

Bob looked at me and said, “You’re the owner. You’re the bad guy.”

That went a long way for me. It comes with the territory. You have a target on you and you just have to accept it and not let it phase you. Do what you feel is right and just keep doing it.

Your partnership with Ed is legendary. Why do you think it’s been able to work so well? There has to be a ton of mutual respect there. Do you basically just steer clear and let him do his thing?

Ed is rad. I guess we just fit well. He’s a smart dude and I have much respect for him. I’ve always tried to let him do what he wants, within reason, and just give him feedback. There was a point when he had other people doing art for Toy Machine but fans and customers wanted Ed so we told him about it and he made it happen. Made a big difference.

I want to see Toy Machine be as successful as Ed would like to see it but I also want Ed to be able to continue with his art career. For his career to grow and expand and for him to not have to worry about Toy Machine.

Thanks for being there, Ed.

Was it difficult for you to stand by Duffel early on in his career after some controversial remarks got him in hot water? It’s definitely been interesting to watch him grow-up and mature over the years… he really is an amazing skater.

Corey will be 10 years on Foundation this summer. He’s always been a rad dude and a gnarly skater but he really has come into his own in the last couple years. He continues to push himself to extremes on and off the board.

I actually owe him a huge gratitude for backing Foundation all these years. He’s been approached so many times by other companies but always stuck by the F.

Thanks to you as well, Corey. Keep on killing it!

Foundation is now over 20 years deep. Is this the same company to you that it’s always been? It does seem to have changed a bit in tone…

If you mean Foundation as opposed to Tum Yeto, it’s not the same.

In those first years, all I did was Foundation. As we grew and added brands, my responsibilities changed and I was maybe trying to please too many people. Foundation suffered as a brand with no clear direction. It’s my fault. I let too many cooks in the kitchen which diluted Foundation’s identity.

Plus, my concepts were not the best for brand penetration. I liked to change and mix it up. I liked different artists. I always wanted it to be different. My motto was consistently inconsistent. We all know that doesn’t work. You have to do the same thing over and over and mash it into the brains of people out there. We all know it’s true. It’s the only way to penetrate where the big money is.

I failed. Though in a weird way, I like that Foundation is the bastard stepchild skateboard company. I like what’s been going on over the past couple years, look and feel-wise. I am trying to expand on that.

My favorite era was that early 90’s time. The friends, the team, the art, the operation… all learning and growing. But now is awesome, too.

Thirty years of skateboarding family and friends. That rules.

You’re responsible for so many classic graphics: the teapots, the birds, adventure today, etc. How often do you get around to doing that kinda stuff these days?

Thanks, I appreciate that.... but I’m a hack.

I did a new graphic for Corey Duffel recently, FTW Skull and Wings, that was based on a belt buckle he was having made. That came easy. I’d love to do more but cannot seem to make it happen. I have a hard time getting in the groove.

I’d love to see some new stuff. So if you could choose one ex-teamrider to have back on the Foundation squad, who would it be? Heath? Brad Staba perhaps?

Justin Strubing. He killed it. An amazing skateboarder and a good guy. And Heath, of course. I met him when he was just a kid. Sharp dude.

I see Brad every so often at shows and he’s funny as shit. Skate Mental is on my tops list. I had baby Zoe back in October and he just had a baby girl, too. I saw him around that time and he told me that having girls was our punishment for being something crude about woman. The guy is relentless.

I am thankful for all the guys and girls that backed the F in the past but I’m hyped on the team of the future, too. WTF! came out at the end of last year and everyone killed it in my book. All those guys pulled that shit together quick.

I do want to ask you about one last thing, though, as a way of giving you equal time on the subject: I interviewed Omar Salazar not too long ago and he was quite vocal about feeling mistreated while on Foundation. He basically stated that he was pressured into skating a certain way and that he was forced into filming for Nervous Breakdown while injured under threat of getting kicked off when he ended up getting kicked off anyway. Out of fairness to you, is there anything you’d like to say in response to all this?

Oh, we are going to wrap with more controversy, eh? Ha! Oh well.

I never knew that Omar was bummed on whatever happened. I remember him being a ripping young dude and I was stoked he was on the team. I know that he was hurt for a while and I don’t remember seeing him much… I mean I was running Tum Yeto and we didn’t necessarily have a TM. I think Beagle may have been growing into that role around then.

I don’t know what type of skating we would pressure on anyone. All teams have a certain aspect about them and that usually attracts other dudes in the same strain. There may have been pressure to film for a part. What else is new? There was probably more to that than I can remember. That was over ten years ago. Next time I see Omar I will ask him about it all.

I wish Omar was on the team now, though. I was siked when he came up as he got older. He’s a gnarly rider of the board with a great style.

Alright Tod, I can’t thank you enough for doing this. As we bring this to a close, what would you say has been the best thing about being in skateboarding for so long.

The best thing is this worldwide skateboarding community that I’ve been around for 30 years. All of my friends… it's so cool. I feel grateful to be part of this movement.

special thanks to Tod for taking the time to answer everything I threw at him. a truly amazing dude.

and big up to Alyasha for the assist.

the chrome ball incident will be back on June 5th. 

adventure today.


Sonny said...

Man, these just keep getting better.
It would be rad to see all the interviews collected into a book.

Chrome Ball Super Fan said...


Would have loved to see some questions about working at TWS.

Tod, if you see this please release the Swank zines in a collection.

Anonymous said...

Being Isaac Asimov fan myself,I always wondered did Tod Swank named Foundation Super Co. after Isaac's books. Now I know :).
Good interview.

Paul said...

Can't say it enough, best site for the erudite skateboard audience with some history in their background.
Truly amazing!

Justin said...

This awesome. It really fills in the stories behind a lot of tales that are floating around in skateboard history. I've always been a fan of Swank and how he does things.

-kw said...

NIce one.

Kris Gurley said...

I back Sonny's comment 110%. A nice coffee table sized collection of CBI's interviews complete with full page spreads of all the old ads and editorial pics used in the actual posts.

Are you hearing us Chops?

Sean said...


Keith said...

Thanks for the interview Eric and Tod.

It's always cool to get the perspective of someones who's gone through the ranks.

My local shop was told they were getting Video Days in and we rushed over to watch it and someone pulled a switcheroo and it was Glam Boys on Wheels. Needless to say, it was disappointing for a teenager back then who was expecting one the best videos of all time.

I had a circle F board with bump concave. That bump concave stuff was terrible! Not that it was foundations fault... lots of world boards had it for a year or so.

Anonymous said...

one of your best yet. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Whats the deal on that newer Marquise Preston grafitti ad riffing on Stevie Williams 411 checkout. "Where you like skating at Ni**a?" Like a joke about Corey Duffel saying the N-word and now you have a black rider?

Anonymous said...

10 years of Corey Duffel is nothing to be proud of.

Brendan said...

Another banger!
How I miss the days of Rocco,stolen team riders,full on company wars,screen printed graphics that were (sometimes stolen) works of art...And Justin Lovely!

Anonymous said...

i remember in the early 90s calling tum yeto's 1-800 number from a pay phone at one of our skate spots and talking to tod and ed, and i remember tod emailing me when my family only had one email address. my dad, "who is this tod guy and why is emailing you and cussing?" "uhhhh, cause i asked for free stickers." #90sskateboarding

The Chez said...

Very well played Chops. I don't think you asked a single stock question. Tod Swank is definitely one of the most versatile people in the industry having seen every side of the game. It's cool that they're still rocking after all these years and doin their thing.

Unknown said...

who do those five swank zine issues belong to?