chrome ball interview #55: karma tsocheff

chops sits down with the underground legend for conversation.  

Alright Karma, so talk a little about Karma Skateboards USA, your board company you started back in 2010. What’s going on with that? I see Richard Paez on the site right now…

Yeah, Richard’s down. I’ve been talking to his brother Jesse for a little bit also, sending him some boards and stuff. I like working with my friends on this type of thing but honestly, those guys are kinda far away from me now. I’m living in Dayton, Ohio currently and the company is still pretty small at this point, which makes it a little hard to give stuff away like that. But I’m taking baby steps with it. Just feeling my way around and having fun with it. People seem to be pretty into it out here.

What made you decide to start your own company?

I’ve actually wanted to do something like this for quite a while now. The thing was that I never knew what to call it. It wasn’t until a buddy finally told me to just use my name that it everything came together. Just use “Karma”, man. So I decided to go with that because I figured everybody knew it but I then I found that there is actually another “Karma Skateboards” out there. I don’t know how much they sell or anything but they’re out of England and they had the name first, which has definitely put a damper on things. They have the brand name and the domain name so I had to add the little “USA” onto ours, which still sucks because if you’re gonna look for Karma Skateboards on the internet, those guys show up first.

But who knows, man. I’m just doing it for fun. If people want to know and do the research, hopefully they’ll be able to figure it out.

I’ll admit that I was a little surprised to hear you weren’t on Consolidated anymore. You’d been there since the beginning, almost 20 years… What happened?

They’re just slow right now. There are some issues going on there… be it structurally or financially, I don’t really know. They still have the print shop and stuff but they don’t have any advertising dollars currently. They’re still out there selling boards and the print shop is still doing a lot by printing for stickers and shirts for people. But I’m not really sure what all is going on over there.

Things are still good between Consolidated and I, though. I’m actually working on a new board with those guys. I’ll always do stuff with them from time-to-time. I just wanted to do my own thing… even if it is at a snail’s pace.

So we’re gonna start seeing Karma diss-ads from Consolidated?

(laughs) no. But that would be funny! No, I talk to Leticia all the time… Actually maybe we should do some sort of Karma-bashing ad, utilize some fake drama! That might be a good thing. 

Fake beef can be huge! But I always figured you were a partner or something over there.

Yeah, I have a little piece of the company. Alan and I both do.

I wore a lot of hats over there actually. Just trying to help out where ever I could… working with the artists and trying to conceptualize ads and graphics on top of Alan and I being the team managers trying to keep the whole thing together on trips. Making sure everybody was happy and that they got to their proper destination... along with filming and everything else. I definitely recall spending money out of my own pocket to keep the Consolidated crew on the road. A lot of “sweat equity” went into that thing.

I remember Jake Phelps used to always tell me that 5% of nothing is still pretty good (laughs).  

Describe what it was like living in Visalia as an up-and-coming skateboarder back in the day? There was a pretty decent scene there with the Paez brothers and Tom Knox…

It really was a great place to grow up skateboarding, though. My homies and I were basically attacking this little town. Street skating through neighborhoods, jumping fences to skate a sick ass pool, skating another pool three houses down and then heading off to a ramp after that. It was ridiculous. So much stuff to skate, all the time… such a good scene because there wasn’t much else to do. I think we actually got a little spoiled and started taking it for granted after a while. But it was sick. There was Scott O’Bradovich, Mike Barlow and all the older dudes… let alone people like Bob Goodsby from Bob G Skateboards and fucking Tom Knox. Tom was a huge influence on me, for sure.  

I can see that. So how’d you end up getting hooked up with Red Dog for Dogtown all the way out in Visalia? Was that through a sponsor-me tape?

No, that was completely word-of-mouth. This was back when Jim Muir moved Dogtown up to San Francisco in the late-Eighties because Fausto and those guys were looking to revamp the company up north. Jeff Klindt was still working at Thrasher Magazine back then and he was from Visalia. I actually knew him from way back when I first started skating. Jeff was the one who first told Jake Phelps about me doing madollie tailslide reverts on the Visalia YMCA vert ramp. Evidently nobody believed him but it ended up working out.

I remember I was skating that YMCA vert ramp one day with Tom Knox and Brett Fellows when this secretary from the YMCA comes out with this little slip of paper and gives it to me. It says, “James Muir” and has a phone number on it. I had no idea what it even was when Tom Knox sees it and goes, “What the fuck!?! Is that fucking Red Dog?”

I start tripping out, man. I call it and it’s fucking Red Dog, dude. He answers the phone in that big, burly voice of his like, “What’s up, Dog? I want to hook you up!”

So trippy!

“Your friends are telling me about you. You need some wood, kid? Some K-9 wheels? Some Dogbite Rip Grip? I can get you some Indys. I’m going to hook you up!”

I couldn’t even believe it was him. And for him to contact me through the Y, that’s so old school.

But he sent me some boards and a month later, calls again to buy me a bus ticket so I can come up for this big contest. I still remember it… it was the Redding Am Finals in November of ‘89, the year Justin Girard won.

Going to the City like that and meeting Red Dog for the first time was fucking crazy. Right away, we hopped in this van to go skating. Went by the mag and met all those dudes… skated the curb out front doing slappies and tailslides with MoFo shooting photos. Insane. I remember Red and MoFo saying, “This guy is in.”

It kept going from there. Good times. 

That particular wave of Dogtown was pretty heavy. Cardiel, Wade Speyer, JJ Rogers… no joke. Was that a close-knit team or was everyone a bit too spread out?

Oh man, I spent a lot of time with those dudes. It was a small window of time there but a lot of time within that timeframe. In a year or two, I was on the road with them pretty much constantly. Thrust onto tours, two-months at a time. Throw everybody in the van and these are the dudes.

I remember hearing crazy stories about you, Wade and Cardiel back then, barely out of high school and on the road. John throwing craze in the backseat.

Yeah, it was so gnarly. The first tour I went on was with Red Dog and JJ, which was gnarly enough. The next tour, those dudes decided to sit out so it became just Wade, Cardiel and I in the van with the credit card for two months. Hella craze, man. So much fun. Being young and shit. Stopping for hitchhikers and shit. We started picking up people along the way just for the fun of it… like picking up Al Partenan at the Turf with no money and nowhere to go. We didn’t even know what to do with him so we ended up taking him to Tampa for some reason. He just racked shit the whole way, feeding himself like that.

But yeah, Cardiel was just so crazy back then with the porno mags. Totally back there jacking to mags. He’d be like, “Hey dudes, look!”

We’d turn around and he’d be blowing a big load in the air. There’d be all these photos of naked women ripped out and lying all over the floor. Blowing loads on the pictures and just leaving them there. And he got crazier as the trip went on. 

So crazy. What were your first impressions of Cardiel back then?

Honestly, I used to trip out on everything back then. I saw skateboarding as my way out of my crazy home life so I took it all pretty serious. I was a bit more frazzled than Cardiel was. I was still trying to get a feel for everything where Cardiel was this ball of energy. Hyped on everything. Always going hella crazy, screaming to the point where it was almost abrasive. But he was so sick that you had to just go with him. Full-on energy. So fucking rad, man. I love that guy. He’s a brother, for sure.

What about the Dogtown video that came out at this point with Jake Rosenberg? I know it was a limited release. I honestly just saw it a few years ago online.

Honestly, I think they only made maybe 300 copies or so. Super-limited. But it was sick video… we all had 8-minute parts! And we filmed really quickly! I remember when him coming to Visalia to film for 2 or 3 days and then I filmed a couple of times in the City. I went out with Rosenberg a few more times after that and that was my part. That’s pretty how much how it went for everybody… It’s crazy that everybody had such long parts.

Do you like filming or have you always kinda looked at it as more like whatever? I ask because I’ve always seen these amazing photos of you over the years and a large portion of them never had any video footage to go along with it…

Yeah, sometimes it was just me and the photographer with nobody else around to hold the camera… whether it was a bust spot or we were on a trip or something.

It is what it is.

How did the decision to turn you pro at this point come about? I know you’d gotten some coverage with that Thrasher cover and some ads but looking back on it now, do you feel you were ready at that point to take the dip?

I don’t remember to be honest. It all happened around the same time. But yeah, nobody knew who I was at the time. Fausto decided that they could do whatever they wanted to because they had the mag… they felt they could turn me pro if they wanted to and they did.

I actually think Fausto wanted to turn me pro even earlier than that and I had to tell them no. I wanted to try and get out there a little bit first. From there, I went out on the road for a tour or two before basically coming home to say, “Fuck it, I’ll do it.”

What did I have to lose? I had a lot of coverage. Thought that maybe I could start making some money… even though that part didn’t really happen.

I didn’t think about it too much, though.  I wish I would’ve thought about it more, to be honest. I should’ve been smart like Phil Shao and gone to school at the same time.

Yeah, but that’s definitely not an easy thing to do. Phil was kind of the exception.

(laughs) Yes, in both regards: skating and with school.  

For sure. So how did SMA get into the picture? That was after Natas and Thiebaud left, correct?

Yeah, that came about through skating with Alan Peterson a bunch while he was still living in Fresno. He took me down to NHS and basically got me on the team.

This was when everyone was filming for Debunker. Julien was still on but he got kicked off shortly there after for not coming through with any footage for the video. He had one clip of him doing a frontside ollie over the rock in the very beginning and that was it. So Keenan kicked him off. I was so bummed on that.

Debunker was like your big coming out party. People really seemed to take notice.

I think so and I didn’t really film a super long time for that one either. Probably with Alan a couple times and then some more with Thomas Campbell. Thomas filmed that late shuv-it over the bar and all the super-8 footage. I remember even Keenan filmed some stuff. It was a privilege.

I was pleased with some of it but I can’t say I was pleased with all of it. I think it could’ve been better with the footage that I had and the editing but it was alright. A lot of people liked it. People in England for whatever reason would always come up to me and tell me how that was their favorite part. Crazy.

Skateboarding at that time was constantly trying to think of new shit and that’s where I was at as well. I was trying to learn the more technical stuff that was coming out but I also had roots. I could skate tranny and ollie high, too. 

Since there was such a short window in-between you’re getting on SMA and Consolidated getting started, were you brought onto the team knowing the whole time that those guys were getting ready to start something else?

No, they weren’t ready to leave at all. Everybody was psyched when I first got there. They had no plans of leaving whatsoever.

SMA was a fun time. I got a little money, got to go on some trips. Got to go check out how the wheels were made out in Pennsylvania was sick. That stuff was super fun but it didn’t last that long as skateboarding took the big nosedive right about then. It was really jamming when all of sudden, nosedive. Keenan was doing SMA and Birdo was running the wheel company at that point and things just got real slow. People started getting laid off. They let go of all the screenprinters and made all the guys who were running the team start screenprinting… which got everybody all butt-hurt. Everything got really lame, really quick.

I was always interested in doing something on our own so I put it in Keenan’s ear about wanting to do our own company. The idea started getting thrown around and it ended up happening. Pretty crazy.

It was irrational and we were all young and naïve but that’s probably the only reason that we got away with it. 

Give us your best Jason Jessee story.

Oh man…

To be honest, he was always pretty normal whenever we were hanging out… he’s just fun to be around. Like driving around in his big lowrider all slow and shit, almost like he’s waiting for someone to get all crazy and swerve around him just so he can catch up to them at the next light and scare the shit out of them. Which he did. He’d pull up behind them, get out of his car and go knock on their windows. People would freak out. I always liked that.   

One that definitely sticks out is when he and Scott Bourne quit Consolidated. And I’ll be honest, I was bummed on him at the time but now I think it’s hilarious. Scott had been in Paris for six months so when he returned, he was like a new man.  He came into the office to have a talk with Birdo about things and he just kept on saying, “I don’t know, man. Things seem different here. I don’t know, man.”

I was just standing there watching it all go down and things actually started to get heated. Scott and Birdo even ended up getting in each other’s faces screaming and shit. I remember Latecia being super-bummed but Jason is totally egging it on. And the more heated it gets, the more riled up Jason gets. He keeps on screaming, “Yeah! Yeah! I’m gonna quit, too!”

Scott is just pissed at this point. “What the fuck is going on with this place!?!”

This is when I notice that Jason is actually filming all of this go down. Somehow in the middle of all this shit, he thought to grab the camcorder and start filming everything. And I’m the only person that realizes this. Birdo and Scott have no idea, they’re standing there screaming at each other.  Laticia’s super bummed. Scott punches a hole in the wall… We had worked so hard for all those years to finally get the team where we wanted it to be and the whole thing is now starting to fall apart… and it really did fall apart. Meanwhile, there’s Jason egging the whole thing on with a camcorder.

It was so fucked... but I’d love to see the footage. It’s gotta be hilarious. 

What about Corey Chrysler? That’s another interesting case. Such a gnarly dude, on and off his board.  

Yeah, Corey is still around Santa Cruz. He’s a tattoo artist and he works out and shit… he’s super big and ripped now. Remember that Consolidated ad where his face was all chewed up by that police dog? Seems like ever since he got attacked by that dog, he’s been traumatized. Straight up.

I remember right after that happened, I let him come and stay with me when I was living with Wade Speyer in Concord. I honestly didn’t even realize how crazy he was back then. I just knew that we had an open room and he needed a place to get off dope. I didn’t know the full extent of how he was. He came and stayed at the house with a bunch of his Brewer homies. That was his gang, the Brewers… TBK, Trouble’s Back Klan and the Golden Circle Brewers, that was Corey Chrysler lingo. You’ll still talk to dudes from Sata Cruz who speak that lingo.

But yeah, it was crazy. He’d stay in his room with door closed, trying to kick dope. Just trying to blast it out. He’d have his homies in there with the tattoo gun going. It would be 3 in the morning and you’d still hear that buzz. They’re all drunk with Suicidal Tendencies on the boombox playing it end-to-end. Buzzzz…

Corey had his fucking broken down ’64 Impala out back. It was hella crazy. But Wade was just over it. I remember him looking at me and saying, “Who is this fucking dude!?!”

Wade and Corey would always get in each other’s face… I think they did finally get in a fight once and with it being Wade’s house, that was it. But Corey’s a homie for life. 

Elaborate on your fascination with Crispin Glover movies? 

Rubin and Ed, man. That’s movie is the best. It’s just so fucked up, man.

It basically started out just as a Visalia thing. We all got into River’s Edge, which how we learned about Crispin and then started getting into his other movies from there. We realized that he was this weird obscure Hollywood actor. Just cool and interesting. I saw him do some readings before… old out of print books where’d he get the copyright and cross out the shit he didn’t like and read what he wanted to. Got him to sign my board, too. Totally trippy.

Jason Jessee actually got me Crispin Glover’s phone number once a few years ago. He got it from Dave Carnie when he interviewed Krispin for Big Brother. Jason comes up to me one day and says, “Hey Karma, I got Crispin Glover’s phone number. Want to call him?”

I couldn’t believe it but Jason keeps insisting. “Call him! Call him!”

He seemed serious enough so I grab the phone and I’m getting ready to dial when Jason looks at me and goes, “Say your Mark Mothersbaugh. The dude from DEVO, say you’re him.”

I didn’t even really think about why I should say that, I’m just going with it now. Fuck it. So I call the number and Crispin answers the phone in that classic voice of his, “Helllooooo?” Totally him.

Fuck! I’m so nervous. What do I do? “Hey Crispin, this is Mark Mothersbaugh.”

“Do I know you?”

I didn’t know what to do so I start rattling off the number I dialed and he goes, “Yes, that’s the number that you called… but that’s not this number.” And then he hangs up. (laughs)

Yeah, it was pretty freaky. Jason was fucking going hysterical. I think he might’ve called him one more time after that but we didn’t wear it out. We just cherished the number. Crispin Glover’s phone number. 

So amazing, man. So switching up topics a bit, how much of a voice did you have as a rider in Consolidated’s politics? The Nike debate is one thing but I remember you guys having beef with Plan B back in the day…

Really? I don’t even remember that.

Yeah, I remember you guys running ads where you changed their logo into a frowny face. And you guys had beef with Chad Muska and Bo Turner as well, if I remember correctly.

I don’t remember the Plan B stuff at all but I definitely remember the Alien Workshop beef. We had a graphic where this white trash dude was punching out an alien and that bruiser guy from Florida from Alien got super bummed about it. Bo Turner got all butt-hurt about it. He actually called Consolidated and talked to Jason Jessee about it.

“What’s up with that board? What’s up with that graphic? You guys are dogging out Alien Workshop!”

But Jason was so funny about it. “What? You guys invented aliens? That’s crazy. What are you even talking about, man? Are you kidding me?”

That’s when we did that “Bo Knows” Consolidated ad and that whole series of board graphics playing the whole thing up. We did all kinds of shit on that one.

We finally saw Bo at the tradeshow a couple years later. I remember telling Jason, “Oh man, this guy’s gonna beat us up.”

Bo walks up to us and says, “It’s all good, man. I understand, its just business.”

Too funny. He still seemed like he wanted to hit us, though.

But I don’t remember the Plan B shit at all. 

Did you feel the politics of Consolidated ever served to alienate you from the industry? How did you think the industry as a whole reacted to the often text-heavy approach that the Cube was putting out there?

Yeah, a little bit. People used to hate on those text ads at first but they ended up working in the end because we stuck with them for so long. If you’re a small company and you’re wanting to advertise in Thrasher Magazine, the feeling is that you’re gonna need a full page for a year but it’s not worth your time to do it for just a year. You basically have to do it for 2 or 3 years. Once you start doing those type of ads for that long, people start to get the fact that this is what your company is about. That is your plan and that you’re trying to inform and get skateparks built.  It takes a while for it to stick.  That was the Consolidated way of doing things.

Phelps used to always call us the Consolidated Conspiracy. That we were a “Conspiracy Company”. Whatever.

We did skate ads, too. The way I like to see it is how Stacy and Stecyk did things in the beginning of Powell. Just doing things different. We weren’t nearly as cool as what they did but at least we were different from the status quo in that regard. 

Interesting parallel. And I always loved the blanket stuff… so much fun. Now while all-terrain skating is pretty common nowadays, it was definitely not that way back in the 90’s. Were you ever vibed by other pros for wanting to skate pools or ramps?

No, I don’t think I was ever vibed for that. But I saw it going around, how everything got so lame and cliquey but I didn’t give a fuck. I just love skating. I look up to people that skate everything and that’s what I want to do. I’ve always had different things to skate around me growing up, why wouldn’t I skate those things? It’s second nature.

But in the 90’s, you go to a demo and everybody would be wearing a white t-shirt with a blank board. You’d try to give someone a sticker and they’d refuse it like they’re too cool. Fucking crazy. And it was like that for a little while there. Skateboarding was going through a weird identity-crisis of sorts. So stand-offish.

Do you ever feel like you were a bit ahead of your time in that respect? That had you come up later, your career would’ve been more lucrative?

Yeah, but I had it pretty good. I can’t complain. I’d got to go all over the place just to skate. But I know what you’re talking about. I’m not really sure though.

It all has to do with timing. Taking a left or right turn when you’re supposed to. Skater of the Year would’ve been cool but I’m not sure if I was ever in that caliber. Maybe there was a time if I would’ve gotten my head out of my ass a little bit that I maybe could’ve had a little more. But it’s all good. 

Have to ask what made you stay at Consolidated for so long? Have to ask since Andy Roy made the move from Consolidated to Anti-Hero… was that offer ever made to you? Especially as a member of the Hellride Crew...

Yeah, Tommy wanted to put me on Anti-Hero at one point. We used to live in the same neighborhood and I already rode for 40’s and Spitfire for a long time. We talked about it a few times. He talked to Julien and everybody was into it. They really wanted to do it but I declined. I probably should’ve done it. That would’ve been a good move.

In retrospect, it probably would’ve been good to get with a NHS or something like that if you’re trying to have some kind of life after skating. To have some kind of longevity.

Maybe a year or so before I moved out of the City, right about when my son was being born, Mic-E offered me the Team Manager job for Spitfire. He told me that I’d make more money than I’d ever made and travel more... and I know that I would’ve but I essentially had just done that for the last 20 years. I know it would’ve been a lot easier this time but I just didn’t want to tote a bunch of dudes around. I want to be around my kid.

So yeah, I missed a few opportunities, for sure, but it’s alright.  It would’ve been cool to be down with those cats but I’m with my son now and it’s all good.  

One word that seems to come up repeatedly when people mention your name is the term “underrated”. It’s an odd question but do you feel you are underrated at all by the skateboarding public? Do you feel that your skating was as appreciated at the time like it should’ve been?

I don’t know. I maybe could’ve got more coverage from mags other than Thrasher. And I think being part of a small independent company can hold you back a little bit in a sense.

But maybe the problem wasn’t as much public perception as it was with me. I’m a low-key dude, that might’ve played into it. Maybe I was the one keeping myself down, blowing it at the most crucial moment? Like making it into the finals at some contest and then blowing it. Overthinking it. Little things like that. My brain would always get the best of me.

My prime came when I was 28, right when my mind started coming together. I was getting my brain together while my physicality was still there. When you’re young, your body is good but your mind is not focused. You’re not mature in a sense. 

An interesting take, for sure, but I can’t help but feel your legendary status is undeniable, man. Alright Karma, so wrapping this up: what is coming up next for you and Karma Skateboards USA?

Just making more boards and getting a little more tech-smart. Gotta get the proper tools for graphic design and all that type of thing. That’s my plan right now. Just keep skating, have fun and hopefully not get hurt.

special thanks to julie and karma for taking the time. 

support this dude

the chrome ball incident will return on monday.


jaybird said...

so rAd! the last 2 posts have been amazing. i used to love consolidated skateboards

Ryan Todd said...

Huge Karma fan since the 90s. Thanks for this!

"What? You guys invented aliens. That's crazy!" HAHA

Unknown said...

My second board was a Karma Consolidated deck. Always been so hyped on Karma.

Justin said...

That was a really good interview. Always been stoked on Karma.

tank said...

Thank you CBI. This interview just made my day.

Karma is a legend for sure. Consolidated was a much needed part of skateboarding in the 90s. They talked a lot of shit, but what else do you want from skateboarding? Tea parties and sowing circles?

Keith said...

amazing! Thanks for that!

Paul said...

Rad stories!!!

Jules said...

Thanks Eric -- it's awesome!

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid Karma threw a t-shirt at me after a demo and it actually kind of knocked the wind out of me. I was psyched!

Anonymous said...

This is a great article!

Corey Shaun said...

Great Read, MUCH LOVE Karma ! ! !

Carmen M. Clark said...

yeah Karma! great article. keep up the good work -bro

Francisco said...

REally good interview!!!