chrome ball interview #120: kelly bird

swisher and bird sit down for some conversation.

photo: niko

So tell me about growing up in Houston as a skateboarder in the mid-80s? Were you always focused on street, even back then?

Yeah, Houston definitely was not a hotbed for street skating back then, I can tell you that much.

But the way it all started for me is basically how it went for a lot of kids back then, the quintessential story of a friend coming back from his California vacation with a skateboard. This new thing that all the kids in our apartment complex had to try for themselves. Bombing down the hill at the football stadium across the street, that sorta thing. And shortly after that, a shop opened up nearby called California Dreamin’… which, how amazing is that? But that became our hangout, right around the time those first Powell videos were coming out. I just found myself there all the time, becoming more and more immersed in it.   

Cut to figuring out that the Skatepark of Houston exists. It was on the total opposite side of town but things really seemed to be happening over there. Obviously, the whole Texas scene was based around vert… and I tried that for a minute but figured out pretty quickly that I was never going to cut it on the Kahuna. And that crew of dudes at SPOH was so gnarly anyway. I couldn’t mess with Texas. I’ll just stick to launch ramps. (laughs)

Street skating was still so new at the time, it felt like I could evolve as it evolved, in addition to being way more accessible.

Did you have a lot of contact with that Texans vert crew back then?

It’s not like I was hanging out with them or anything, but I’d always see them at the park. There were the O.G. dudes, like Todd Prince, Craig Johnson, Ken Fillion and those guys. But the guy that always stood out to me was Brian Pennington, who was a bit after those guys, closer to my age. To this day, he’s one of the most naturally-gifted skaters I’ve ever seen. If he would’ve skated street, he’d be legendary… not that he isn’t already, but you know, we’d be romancing him a lot more. But every time he showed up at the park, he was unbelievable. It was my first experience watching someone completely invent skateboarding as they went along.

Was it weird being a street skater at such a vert-heavy park? 

I remember when the Skatepark of Houston finally got a “street section”… it consisted of a 10-foot roll-in going straight to a launch ramp. A couple of parking blocks, that was it. And this was at a park that had literally every size mini-ramp imaginable, not to mention the little bowl and that infamous vert ramp. All of this stuff to skate and here I am, driving all the way across town to roll into a launch ramp.

I’m sure it was confusing to people. We definitely got fucked with, but it was all in good fun. Believe me, I would’ve much rather been doing the shit those vert dudes were doing. (laughs)

So piecing together a timeline… you started riding for Circle-A and move to Laguna Beach with Bob Schmelzer? How does that even happen?

Yeah, I got on Circle-A through this kid named Jamar from Phoenix. His mom lived in Houston and he started coming out for summers. He was friends with Gavin, Schnurr and Colvin. That whole crew. So when he’d come in, I’d always link up with him because he seemed up on all the newest shit that was happening. He was getting Circle-A boards through Schmelzer… and I can’t remember if I put together a sponsor-me tape or if he just put in a word for me, but somehow the connection was made.

The dude who backed Circle-A had a shop in Laguna and Bob had moved down there from San Jose to be more in the mix. I think that I’d just finished my second year at University and was talking to Bob on the phone one day when he threw it out there one day for me to come out.  

“Fuck it, I’ll go down and hang out for the summer.”

So I’m skating for Circle-A, but they’re not really paying me anything. Getting paid as a sponsored am wasn’t even a thing back then, so I got a job at the Ralph’s next to our apartment and that became my thing: skating at night and whenever I wasn’t working. Because Schmelzer and I were dead broke, man. There wasn’t a piece of furniture in that whole place. But I didn’t care, I was just happy to be in California.

That’s also when I started skating a lot with Ronnie Bertino and Adam McNatt.

Yeah, I was about to bring them up as this is where I get tripped up on things. Because it seems like, all of a sudden, you’re pro for New School?

Yeah, I can’t really keep track of it all either.

I know things got kinda weird with the Schmelzer apartment. I lost my job at Ralph’s after the manager told me to spit out my gum… I just walked out the door and never came back. So I ended up going back to Texas for a bit and whatever happened between me and Circle-A went down, which I honestly can’t even remember what but I think it was amicable. (laughs)

Like I said, I was down with Ronnie and Adam, who at this time, were just incredible. Again, skateboarding being invented right in-front of me every day. But they were on Alva and through those guys, I meet TA and John Fallahee. Alva started sending me packages while I was back in Texas until I eventually came back out to California and worked in their warehouse.

Shortly afterwards, Alva becomes New School, but Adam and Ronnie both leave at the same time. I stuck around and we made that “No Pools In This One” video and another promo for them… next thing I know, I’m talking to Fallahee about board graphics. I’m not even sure how it happened. He must’ve just thought it up one day, like, “Hey, let’s give you a board!”

“Uhhh… cool!”

That’s seriously how it went. No Ronnie, no Adam, no Pat Brennan… making me the only “new” dude left that was in the streets for “New School”, I guess. But I was hyped.

And Fat Albert? I always heard you inherited that graphic…

No way, that was definitely my deal! That wasn’t inherited at all, I actually asked for that. Because I was super into that cartoon as a kid. Fat Albert was my go-to Saturday morning back then… even though, Bill Cosby ended up kinda fucking that one up now.

One of the industry’s most infamous darkmen, how were your dealings with Fallahee?

To me, he’s just the ultimate hustler. Even to this day, he’s still making it work. Nothing stands in his way. I mean, he’s definitely a funny dude. I realize he’s done his fair share of slick shit, but he looks after his people, too. He had dudes in that warehouse who’d been in and out of trouble, dealing with all kinds of substance abuse issues. He always gave them another chance.

Funny story: Thomas Morgan, Bokma, Weiss and I all stayed at his house one time on a trip out to California. Four dirts showing up in the middle of the night, but he hooked it up. Here he had a wife and kids, living in a nice place in San Clemente. He could’ve easily told us to beat it, but testimony to his character, he was cool about it. He let us stay for a while… until Bokma and Weiss passed out in his van one night and freaked out his kid the next morning on the way to school! (laughs)

But that trip was crazy. We eventually ended up at that famous Powell contest when Mark did all that stuff on the wall and Plan B had just started. This is when I had a chance encounter with Salman that led to my getting on Real.

Yeah, you ran into him, right?

Yeah, we slammed into each other during practice.

I still remember walking into that contest and Sheffey has on one of my Fat Albert shirts. Honestly, that could’ve been the pinnacle of my entire “career” and I would’ve been completely happy. It’s still so surreal to me.

But yeah, I was skating around and ended up colliding with Salman. I might’ve weighed 135-140 pounds at the time… and he was already a pretty big dude. He was coming back down from the vert wall and totally leveled me. I thought he was gonna snap on me, too, but he was super cool about it. We even ended up exchanging info afterwards, staying in touch.  

But how did that translate into riding for Real?

So the Salman connection was made. And because I had gone on that California journey with Bokma, Weiss and Thomas Morgan, I’m talking to them all the time as well. Not too long after that trip, Salman ends up going to Toronto for a demo, and even though I was back in Texas, I still figured out a way to drive up there to check it all out. That’s when the Real conversation with Salman really picked up.

Funny sidebar to that, prior to Toronto, I actually drove to New Jersey first and met up with Freddy Gall, who was 12-years-old at the time and also riding for New School. A friend and I actually stayed with Freddy and his Mom at Freddy’s Grandmother’s house for a bit. Taking the train into New York City for the first time with Freddy and his Mom, another extremely surreal experience. Freddy’s Mom is legendary. She obviously wasn’t going to let him go into the city by himself at age 12, so she grabbed a 6-pack and rolled with us. It was incredible.

But yeah, I ended up staying in Toronto for a while afterwards in a friend’s basement because the skatepark up there was so sick, which is really when I filmed my “Get on Real” tape… even though I already had a board out on New School at the time. My tape was almost all skatepark shit but I sent it to Deluxe anyway. They were into it and wanted me to come out for a bit. That was the process at that time, you had to go do the whole road show with the team. So yeah, it took a while.

I still remember calling Fallahee before I went out there, thanking him for everything, which is kinda crazy as I literally had no guarantee from Real whatsoever. If Real hadn’t worked out, that would’ve probably been it for me.

So I go out and stay with Salman at his parents’ house in San Jose for a few weeks before we head up to SF. This is when the whole Embarcadero thing was starting to go crazy. That whole crew was already down there… and even though most of them were only, like, 12-years-old, I was still definitely nervous. (laughs)

Although it was intimidating, but I feel like being with Salman helped me a get pass on shit. I connected with James pretty quickly, too, which clearly had its advantages. But I’ve always been able to get along with people, for the most part, so that helped. I just wasn’t down there being a kook.  

To your credit, you’ve bounced around through almost every scene over the years.

Well, I don’t want to big up this at all, but something that also comes into play here is that I wanted to have fun off my board, too. I was never just skate, skate, skate. Yeah, I’d skate but I also wanted to get into other things as well, which made me a part of more things whenever we weren’t skating. But that can go both ways, too, because as much as social drinking can break down barriers, it also doesn’t help your skating much when you’re up against dudes who only skate 24-7.

The classic downfall. But it seemed like once you hit SF, you were getting a ton of coverage.

Yeah, once they made the decision to give me a shot, I had to step up. And being in San Francisco anyway, there was no shortage of motivation back then. 

One thing that played into this as well was that we’d started moving towards making the first Real Video. There was a tour that Salman, Tony Fergusson and I went on with Dave Metty filming, which was really the precursor for that video. One of those early trips that would go-on to become the quintessential Real set-up. Just a bunch of dudes in the van, going cross-country for 30 days. Do a demo for a little gas money, pizza, some Cokes and hopefully a place to crash for the night before heading off to the next stop. It was phenomenal. Just call ahead to the next shop, let them know who all was coming through and give them the spiel. Figure it out as you go. All bets are off.

Salman was in another world at this point, skating-wise. So good to the point where you just felt the need to sit down and watch at times. I think this tour is also when he started dabbling more into religion. I remember him getting a tattoo in Chicago that had some religious stuff going on. He was also super into the Rollins Band, too, which is kind of an ironic juxtaposition, if you think about it. But he played that fucking album nonstop. If he was in shotgun, it was Rollins Band. If not that, then Metty was playing the first Pearl Jam album. Tony and I were all hip-hop back then, so we were losing our minds in the backseat.

But yeah, we filmed that whole tour, which kicked everything off for the video. There were a few more trips after that, but that was my main one for the part. I filmed for maybe a year on that video, if that.

Did you choose the Steppenwolf song?

No, that was either Tommy or Jim, but they blessed me with that one. I could’ve got stuck with some crazy disco shit for the rest of my life. (laughs)

I remember Andrew Reynolds once telling me that he almost used the same song for one of his parts. He said it in a way which made it seem like he really heavily considered it, but then called it off at the last minute because of the Real Video… Dude, you should’ve used it! That would’ve been one of the greatest things to ever happen to me! (laughs)

Did you know all that extra stuff was going to be in there, too? Like the Oaktown slap and the 360s?

That Oaktown bit came from us fucking around in some tradeshow booth. Jordan Richter was messing around on the carpet with a deck and ended up winging it into my face. We just happened to be filming.

But no, we didn’t get to see our parts at all during editing. I had no idea how it was gonna look until I saw the finished product. That was Jim, Tommy and Metty doing their thing in Abracadabra Studios.

Where’d the idea for your recently reissued Screaming for Vengeance graphic come from?

That was mine. Not that I was super into Judas Priest, though I did listen to them at times. I just remember seeing that cover one day and thinking it would be an awesome graphic.

Graphics back then were always so random because the turnover was psycho. It felt like every week, you had to come up with a new idea. After a while, everybody started going to book stores and picking up books just to rip off ideas from.

But do you remember my bong graphic? They only made hats and stickers out of it, just a bong that said “Bird”. I’ve never been much of a weed guy but people still ask about that one to this day… and the boards never even came out! It actually goes back to the Rollins album we were just talking about. I had an idea based off its title “Part Animal, Part Machine”… mine was going to be a 2-board graphic called “Party Animal, Party Machine”. One board being a bong and the other being a keg.

Kickflip Noseslide, Mini Hubba... blame the paper.

That’s amazing!

Yeah, I shouldn’t have backed out of that one. They actually mocked it up and everything, I just got all nervous about people interpreting it as me being some party shitbag. But the hats and stickers were already made so those got out. I remember going to Sacto around that time and people were repping that stuff pretty hard. I blew it on that one. But I might’ve had to start smoking weed, which I’ve always sucked at, so it’s definitely for the better.

How was life as a successful pro in 1993, with skateboarding being so small?

It’s not like I was balling but I had a few good royalty checks over the years that got me through. I was essentially living the gypsy life until the Alien House. Before that, I just stayed at Klindt’s house, so it’s not like I was paying any rent.

You didn’t really need much money to make it seem like you were living back then. You don’t need a car in SF. You’re going to Copeland’s for shoes, Macy’s for Tommy Hilfiger or Nautica shit. That and some shitty fast food was pretty much it. In hindsight, it seems pretty harsh but at the time, I was living the dream. I remember opening up my Wells Fargo checking account at the end of Market Street by Embarcadero with a $3,000 check, like, “I’m here! Let’s fucking do this!”

Well, a local Portland business owner likes to tell the story of a young Kelly Bird rabbit-punching Matt Field while on tour…

(laughs) Micke’s favorite story. I swear to God, every time someone new rolls into Cat’s Paw and I’m there, he has to tell that story.

Is that your best tour story?

(laughs) I don’t even think it’s all that good, but Micke sure loves it!

So the tour was me, Joey Bast, Drake, Coco, Matt Rodriguez and obviously Micke. It was one of those tours where a few of us were on the whole trip with other guys flying in and out. I was one of the guys on the whole thing and you know how it is, everyone likes to establish their own little space in the van for all your bullshit. It becomes your home, you know?

What happened was that Field came onto the tour and sits right in my space that I’d been calling home for the past few weeks.

“Hey man, that’s my spot.”

I still remember him looking at me and saying, “Nope. Not moving.”

And he wasn’t gonna move. So I don’t exactly remember how the rest of it went down, Micke clearly remembers this way better than I do. But to hear him tell it, there were words and I definitely put a pillow over Field’s head and rabbit-punched him a few times. (laughs)

It wasn’t a big deal. More comical than anything, just being young. Matt’s a great dude and still out there doing his thing. Nothing but respect to him.

What’s the story behind that Venture ad with you, Carroll, Jovontae and Kelch?

That was total happenstance. Greg Carroll just happened to have a Venture ad due that day and needed something. So he rolls on down to Embarcadero to see who’s there. Oh, and James has his hot rod there, too! Great!

“Hey, stand in front of James’ car and hold these trucks.”

That’s really how it went down. We all rode for Venture and just happened to be there that day. I look like I’m 12 years old in that photo.

I always loved that Droors ad of yours… the Best Way To Prevent Aids.

You know how I talked earlier about us going into the bookstore for graphics? Ken was doing that same thing for ads. Just flipping through different art books and recreating the photos he liked but with skateboarding in them. That’s basically how Ken and Niko came up with most of their shit. 

When it came time to do mine, there wasn’t really any concept attached to it up front like that. So we literally just walked around downtown San Diego one night, trying to figure something out. Ken happened to see that sign and threw it out there.

“Hey, why don’t you just go up there and stand on that sign?”

That was pretty much it. I was always stoked to have a Droors ad but that one kinda felt like an outlier compared to the other ones.

I thought it was cool.

Thanks, but I think people just thought it was weird. Everybody would always ask me what it meant… I just started making up shit after a while. It really just came down to needing an ad again.

“Go stand on that thing and try to look cool!”

We didn’t even set up lights, just firing off from the street!

So in your never-ending travels, you go up to Vancouver for a sec before heading down to San Diego and the Alien house? Is that right?

Vancouver was a quick one, actually. I couldn’t live there for longer than 6 months at a time because of visa stuff, which ended up becoming too much of a problem. But yeah, that scene was amazing. I’ve always loved Canada, too, so I went up and stayed with Colin and Moses to be part of it. It was a lot of fun, but honestly, it didn’t end up being that great for my skating. That was an era of my life where I actually did smoke a lot of weed, which as I previously mentioned, I suck at. Easily the most unproductive 8 months of my life. (laughs)

The Alien thing came about through Droors. Rob, John Drake and I all got along really well and it became one of those things where I just had to get down to San Diego for some reason. That became the Alien House.

You were in the basement?

No, Rob and I actually had the rooms upstairs, it was Drake and Pitre who shared the basement. Jamie Thomas lived down the street. And by that point, Jamie had discovered Kalis on an Invisible trip and he was out staying with Jamie… which, again, coming down to us being the ones doing fun shit at night, Kalis soon found himself over at our house all the time. The Alien House was definitely the party magnet back then. Lots of good stories in those walls.

Describe an average day at the Alien House.

The typical day was waking up around 11 o’clock or so. Sit around for a bit before skating down to Pacific Drive. Mess around with some flatground in-front of the shop for a while and then hit the boardwalk. Head over to Garnett and eat something there. If we’re feeling good, get in Rob’s car and head over to Serra or somewhere Downtown. Mostly Serra. Try to film a few things… maybe. After that, head on over to PB Bar and Grill or some other terrible bar. Play some pool and drink. End up back at our house until 2 or 3 in the morning and crash. That’s pretty much how it went.

If we left PB, we were having a great day. We mostly just skated around our little zone… a lot of Ingraham Bump, a lot of PB Middle School…


… a lot of Wendy’s.

That era was probably the most I ever weighed, because we ate that shit at least once every day. But we thought we were killing it because we got the chicken sandwich instead of the cheeseburger. We got baked potatoes and salads… nevermind the fact that we’re drowning the shit in butter and ranch dressing. And all the beer on top of that? It was, for sure, the most unhealthy I’ve ever been.

Did the opportunity of riding for Alien ever come up?

It never really did. For one, I was way down for Real because of the opportunity they’d given me and I think the guys respected that. When a brand like Real gives you the nod, you want to honor that. I know how it is where dudes get around their friends and want to be part of whatever they’re doing, but that was never my deal.

Plus, you gotta remember that I was probably considered pretty old by then. I was 23 or 24… they’re looking at guys like Lennie and Kalis. They’re still teenagers. And it’s not like I was some big-time pro. My jumping to Alien would’ve hardly been some major acquisition for them.

I always loved Carter, though. I remember Rob and Chris sitting on the phone for hours, almost every day. The banter that would come out of those conversations was incredible. Pekins and hip-kits… the lingo was amazing. And I always thought it was rad that Rob could have that close of a relationship with the head of a brand like that.

But no, there was never really any heavy consideration. Honestly, I felt close enough to it anyway, I didn’t need an Alien board with my name on it. I basically had the best of both worlds in that I could be in the Alien mix but still ride for Real, too. 

Give us your best Alien House story.

Okay, so all four of us are heading home for Christmas, right? And it’s not like it ever really gets cold in PB… low 60s/high 50s at most. Well, Pitre and Drake had their own shower in the basement and something must’ve happened as they were heading out to the airport. Because, for whatever reason, the hot water didn’t get turned off all the way before we left. So for two weeks, we had hot water running in the basement. No ventilation. All the doors and windows closed. And don’t ask me how we didn’t run out of hot water for those two weeks, we must’ve had the best water heater in all of Pacific Beach. But yeah, hot water running the entire time we were gone.

So when we all get back and go to open the door, our basement is a giant steam room. The entire carpet is completely covered in mold. Fucking stalactites of mold growing off the ceiling. It’s all over the walls, the furniture, everything. Easily the most bizarre Twilight Zone experience I’ve ever seen.

But we just rode it out, man! Wipe everything down, all good. Don’t worry about it, we’ll live here for another year. No problem. I mean, the mold in those walls had to be psycho. God only knows what we were breathing in.

What was your experience like with one Lennie Kirk?

We always got along okay, for the most part. He was obviously just a kid who had a lot of angst. And being around Weiss couldn’t have helped his situation at all… he’d discovered Lennie on a Change trip in North Carolina and brought him to San Diego, but Bill was one of the gnarliest dudes back then. He fucked with people constantly. So adding that to Lennie’s mindset couldn’t have been very beneficial. Because it was pretty obvious to everyone that Lennie had been through a lot already… and this was before his experience with religion. There was always a feeling that he could snap at any moment.

But Lennie and Josh were always in the middle of something sketchy. That’s part of the reason why they had to leave San Diego when they did, because of some shit at a house party. Afterwards, someone told Dyrdek that the kids had to go, something along those lines. That if they didn’t leave San Diego, something bad was going to happen. It was serious.

What happened at the party?

I honestly can’t remember exactly... I want to say someone got shot with a BB gun? Some sketchy shit like that which never leads to anything good. (laughs)

Not that I ever felt sketched out by Lennie, I just knew that there was always potential for shit to get weird whenever he was around. He was only 16,  which is pretty normal. You just had to stay on your toes.

Pitre wasn’t skating much by this point, was he?

No, the Alien House is basically where he started his music career. He bought a bass guitar and just sat in the basement, playing it all day. It was obvious that his passion had transferred over to music, and that’s what he did. Smoking, eating Wendy’s and playing bass.

How was Nonfiction for you?

It was definitely short and sweet but I liked what was in there. I wasn’t mad at it.

I just feel like I’d gotten to a point where I kinda stalled out on skating. Plus, being down in San Diego, I felt a little detached from everything going on back in San Francisco. I mean, if you look at my footage in that video, it’s almost all in San Diego with maybe a handful of tours.

I just wasn’t applying myself at the level I should’ve been. And the level of turnaround for pros back then was insane anyway, so it wasn’t a big surprise. A company can only push out so many boards per month and Real had a whole new crop of dudes coming onto the scene.

I was back living in SF and actually at Deluxe when I got the “retirement” talk. Jim and Jeff called me into the office.

“Okay, we want to do your last board.”

“You know what? No last board. I don’t want that. Let’s just call it for what it is and keep it moving.”

Totally amicable. I was already thinking about life after being a pro anyway. I realized that I didn’t have what it took to hang around and juice it... and I wasn’t about to go ride for some whatevs company for $500 a month.

So how did you fall into the team manager role at DC?

So I was obviously friends with Ken and Damon through Droors. Back when DC first started out through Etnies, they were sending Scott Johnston, Huf and I shoes to test up in SF. They were smart about that because they didn’t want to be perceived as just a San Diego brand. They wanted a bigger presence.

Cut to the end of ’95 with the doors on my professional skating career closing, I was doing some writing for Slap. I got some money through that but it was obviously going to be a grind long-term. Coincidentally, the girl I was dating at the time, she had lived in SD and was also friends with Ken and Damon. At some point, Ken hit her up about me possibly wanting to move back down to San Diego for a role at DC, since it was growing so quickly.

Honestly, that was one of the most pivotal moments in my life. What I was able to pick up and learn from those guys at that time of absolute exponential growth at Droors/DC was incredible.

Bird standing-in for Carl Shipman and his necklace. '98 Photoshop styles. 

Loosely based on the Gumball 3000, the DC Supertours revolutionized modern skate demos. What was the thinking there?

A large part of DC was taking inspiration from what the bigger brands were doing in other sports. How they approached product and events, how they built their team. Love it or hate it, DC was Ken borrowing a lot of different aspects from traditional sports and brands, putting it through the skateboarding lens. Clearly, DC had the best team, let’s approach it the way these other organizations utilize their superstars.

Obviously, the way that Powell had done tours with the Bones Brigade was always very buttoned-up and professional, but that had fallen by the wayside a bit. Tours had become the complete opposite of that. Demos had devolved into a pretty questionable scenario with maybe 1 or 2 guys out of 10 actually skating, so the Supertour was sort of revisiting that old model. A more polished presentation that cut through everything, basically to where all the other brands started going back toward that buttoned-up approach as well. It was gangbusters, though, and honestly, skateboarding needed that at the time.

So what happened with you and DC? And how does Lakai figure into all this?

So I remember going to a contest in Switzerland with Dyrdek and literally every single kid was wearing DCs. I’m talking thousands and thousands of kids. It was so definitive. I feel like that was the key moment where everyone realized just how insane DC had gotten… and I also think seeing that was, at least, part of the reason why guys like Rick and Mike started to consider riding for them.

Cut to Rick getting on DC, his first shoe comes out and does really well. And Rick does really well off that first shoe, too. That was, for sure, a motivator for Mike, who gets on the team shortly after that. His first shoe comes out, and while it does well, it doesn’t quite sell the way Rick’s first one does.

At this time, there was no minimum salary for riders with footwear. You could kill it if you had a successful shoe, but you could also go a whole year and barely make anything if your shoe didn’t do well.

Around this time, there was also an attempt to get Koston on DC. He obviously didn’t do it, but what happened as a result of the talks was SoleTech giving Eric a minimum salary guarantee, which was a first. All of a sudden, a light goes off, because dudes now realize that they could actually have a stable income. No more leaving it to chance every month, there was now precedent for garnering a sizeable, steady paycheck.

So while Eric didn’t go to DC, what it did do was put the minimum salary idea in the rest of the dudes’ heads. It got around and guys like Danny and Colin were into it.

“That’s exactly what we’ve been asking for all this time, and now you can’t say that it’s unprecedented anymore.”

The argument was always that while their specific shoe might not have been selling, the line as a whole was selling because of equity the team brought to the brand. So even if the Boxer, the Clocker and the Plug didn’t have their names on them, the team was a big reason why those shoes were selling. Totally valid argument.

It got really tense, because there was a lot of money floating around. Those dudes were a lot of the brand equity but there was still that pay rift. Finally, we all had this big meeting at Ken’s house with pay being one of the big subjects… but dudes still weren’t ready to budge on guaranteed salaries. And to me, that’s when the seed was planted for Rick and Mike to start their own shoe brand. Not that they left that meeting wanting to quit, but they were no longer closed off to the idea anymore.

Through the Girl connection, Tim eventually floats the idea of starting something, just hypothetically. But as it became more apparent that the guarantee conversation wasn’t going anywhere, I think those guys started talking more, which inevitably became, “Alright, let’s do it.”

So for the last year or so leading up to this, I’d been staying up to LA almost every weekend, hanging out with the dudes up there more. Obviously, I was a big fan of Mike and Rick’s, but when they reached out to Ken and Damon about officially leaving, my assumption has always been that DC thought I was privy to more information than I was actually letting on. I think my expiry clock sorta started ticking at that point. I was down to ride it out at DC, but in hindsight, my attitude was such that it wouldn’t have lasted regardless. I was bummed about Rick and Mike leaving and that was that.

My official departure from DC came as a result of Ken asking me to write a weekly team update for the CFO and the rest of the employees. Basically, I was supposed to let everyone know about everything going on with the team on a regular basis. A totally reasonable ask, in retrospect, but at the time, I felt like, “Fuck that. This is a skateboard brand. Everyone should know what’s going on with this team without me having to tell them every week.”

So stupid, but that was my attitude. A total dipshit, way too harsh with my opinion. And that was it for me. Ken hit me up the next day, like, “Hey dude, we gotta talk. This is your last check. You’re out.”

Since they probably thought that I was going to follow Mike and Rick anyway, I doubt they saw it being as harsh as it really was. And while I did eventually find my way over there, that was never the original plan… Although, I did make it easy for DC to show me the door.

What’s the difference between building a brand vs building a team?

Well, it used to be that a skateboarding brand always started with the team. Because you used to be able to get away with subpar product a bit more if you had the right guys in place. The right team gave you a longer learning curve for getting the product right. But that’s not the case anymore. You can’t slow roll your product at all these days, no matter how good your team is.  

Because, let’s face it, those first couple rounds of Lakai were pretty bad.

Yeah, there was clearly a lot to learn. Hardly any of that early stuff was actually skateable in hindsight, but dudes somehow made it work. Our thinking was to get the right team together first and then figure out the product as we went along. That was “Skate Brand 101” up until the mid 2000s.

Orion Trucks.


Anyone almost on Lakai?

You have to remember that Lakai had already started before I was hired. So I was picking up a lot of these conversations after coming onboard.

They were definitely hot on Stevie Williams. Ironically, before I left DC, I specifically remember showing Robbie McKinley’s Listen part and Stevie’s Creedo part to Ken and Damon in an effort to get them both on the official team, but there was some hesitation. The Stevie story is well-chronicled... Josh and Rob both wanted him on the Workshop but there was uncertainty, which was also floating around DC at the time. Ken was into the idea, but it wasn’t something that was on a fast-track.

The whole DC thing was sparked after Stevie came to hang out with us at the Kalis commercial shoot in New York. We’d already been flowing him stuff and he just looked so sick in that shit, man. The problem was that the team was already so stacked. They just wanted to wait and see how everything played out. But when the Workshop thing didn’t happen, Stevie was seen hanging out in LA, wearing DVS a lot. So because of that, I thought DC was gonna lose him, which is why I was doing what I could to keep him around.

Cut to Lakai, with us being part of DVS, Stevie on Lakai seemed like a lock… but then, as chess matches go, DC flipped the switch on him. They knew Lakai was going to go after him so that’s when they finally decided to make it nice for both him and Robbie. Lakai was the conduit for all that, no question. Whatever, it worked out great for Stevie, and that’s what really matters. We weren’t in any position to do all that for him back then anyway.

Colin was an early conversation, too. Because, like I said, there was some turmoil there over that lack of a guarantee. But again, right as Lakai started, DC decided to figure out the minimum payment thing.

AVE was even part of the Lakai conversation at first, too. Because he was in the DC mix but, again, not on any fast-track for a shoe. I remember going to Highland Grounds to talk to him about Lakai, which was one of the first meetings I ever had in a team-building capacity. I’m fairly certain DC saw our interest there as well.

I definitely called Jamie Thomas, too. He was an early conversation but it never really went anywhere.

So yeah, it is what it is. Everything happens for a reason, and it all worked out well for those dudes anyway. But I can say this with a fair amount of certainty, if Lakai had never happened, all those trajectories would have looked pretty different. 

What was your reaction to finding out the title of Yeah Right?

(laughs) That was Dimitry. It came about during that whole campus-era, so it’s a little hazy. There was a trip to Vegas and shortly after that is when I feel like it kinda became a thing. I can still hear Dimitry imitating me say it to this day. But to be totally honest with you, it took me a minute to connect all the dots. Because there is something about in the credits but I don’t think that was in there at the premiere. I didn’t see it anyway. I mean, the fact that I have some kind of association with one of the most iconic Girl videos by virtue of being annoying, it’s another one of those surreal things for me. It still trips me out.  

As brand manager, describe your personal Fully Flared experience. What was the hardest part of making that for you on the inside?

Well, I was the one managing the budget. Ty and Rick were the guys out there, keeping dudes engaged and making sure that the project was going to be the best it could be. I was only trying to make it work from a financial standpoint, which was hard for me because I also understood what we had to put out. It wasn’t like I could just crunch some numbers and call it, you know? Especially by the time that it was supposed to come out, with the expectation that had built up. I understood why we needed to wait and try to meet that expectation… but it was still my job to try keeping things on some kind of timeline and budget.

Having to keep going back to the guys running Podium from 2005 to 2007 about a video that we started in 2003, that was never fun. I mean, the first year was a slow roll, as is typically the case. We went on some trips that second year. The third year was when we were trying to turn the corner and get it all ready to come out, but this whole confluence of factors happened. With Guy and Koston getting on the team, not only did they need parts but now because of them, the expectation skyrocketed to another level.  

When Yeah Right! came out in 2003, it was a huge success for Girl. Accordingly, I think the owners of DVS thought that Skate More would do similar numbers and help them recoup that investment with profit. Unfortunately, around that time was when filesharing was starting to affect skate videos. So because of that, I believe they thought Skate More underperformed. It still did well, it just didn’t generate a bunch of revenue in itself, which then began to affect their spending outlook on Fully Flared. 

Those last two years were stressful for everyone. Personally, I knew why we were prolonging the video but I also had to deal with all the questions from the inside, all the people wondering what the fuck we were even doing. After a while, it was basically just trying to keep the Podium dudes from pulling the plug on it. And to be totally honest, Girl funded most of the travel for that last year because the Podium guys were done with it.

We all worked so hard, man. Shooting that intro together was cool, that was the start of everything easing back, but I still had to put together the majority of the premiere on my own. And even then, at the premiere, the culmination of everything where it should’ve been this big release, I still didn’t really enjoy it the way I should’ve. I was just so drained by everything. I think I might’ve had one drink at the afterparty and bailed. It wasn’t until we did all the premieres in Europe, Canada and Japan that it all sorta sunk in and felt good.

Would you go on those filming trips? How gnarly were those things from the perspective of someone outside the “tricks” pressure cooker?

I went on a few… but those Motel 6 trips? Where dudes would be out until 3 in the morning, sleeping until checkout and then drive a bunch? No way. I knew I couldn’t hang with that shit.

The gnarliest I ever saw it get was on a Europe trip in Spain. It’s that footage where Marc is wearing the pink Rick James shirt with the glove on? That stuff jogs some of the darker memories. Because Marc was such a workhorse. He had been all-in from the beginning, which, by that point, was 5 years. He was just in tatters, man. Running on fumes. He was not at his best on a personal level and it was hard to see. He was clearly not happy but he was there, doing it, because that’s who he is. That’s what he does. But it sucked to see someone you respect seem so unhappy doing the thing they’ve always loved. And he was doing things you typically turn to in order to get through not being happy, which doesn’t help anything either. It was just a dark period. Maybe I took it harder than I should’ve, maybe I felt somewhat responsible in a way… that I should’ve done more. I don’t know.

It was difficult for me because I had to play it both ways with the position I was in. You always have a certain level of responsibility to those who are signing your checks. I always wanted to be responsible and keep everything on the rails… but this is skateboarding. Nobody wants Dad. Skateboarding hates Dad. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of riffs for someone in the position I was in.  

Who’s idea was it to have that countdown on the site?

That was my doing. When we made the decision that November 17th was our date, I went in the next morning and hit up the guy doing our web stuff.

“Alright, dude. Let’s do a clock. Countdown to November 17th. Let’s get it up there.”

I was just hyped to finally have a date, that this whole thing was going to be done. I didn’t realize what a thing that it ended up becoming with the dudes until later.

What happened with DGar and Lakai?

Fuck, man, I wish that we could’ve had Garcia in there. But I think he was able to figure out early on what Fully Flared was about to become and didn’t want anything to do with it. He was already broadening his horizons outside of skateboarding with music anyway. The last thing he needed was some insane video project.

The other thing was that old cart-and-horse conversation that seemingly everyone has to have with getting a shoe. He wanted a shoe but we wanted to see how his video part turned out first... but he didn’t want to film a part to maybe get a shoe, he wants a shoe in order to film a video part. It’s a very common conversation and never an easy one because both sides make sense. And to his point, if he had to cut through everything that was swirling around that video to potentially get a shoe, that’s a pretty difficult proposition. If that’s what it took to maybe get a shoe on Lakai, why not do something with SoleTech that feels good enough and call it a day? Good for him.

Could you see the rider exodus coming after the video?

I’ll be honest, that stuff hurt. Because it’s hard not to personalize things after you’ve been through a journey like that. You want to reap the benefits collectively, not just as people but as a brand as well.

In hindsight, that video probably came out at the most inopportune time, with the financial market tanking and everything. But moments are fleeting and you have to capitalize on things where you can, so I don’t blame dudes. But I knew that there would never be another moment like that for Lakai. If that video would’ve come out in 2002, we would’ve been in a completely different position. Unfortunately, the biggest opportunity to catapult the brand came right as the biggest global financial crisis of our lifetime was starting to happen. The cracks at Podium were growing into fissures.

At the end of the day, we were never going to be big enough to do right by all our riders. Our payroll was already lopsided as shit, and to keep adding more and more salaries? We would’ve been able to do nothing more than pay our skaters, and even that would’ve been a stretch. I wish Lakai was in more of a position to reap the rewards of all the hard work that was put into Fully Flared, but it just wasn’t going to happen in that moment.

As much as money was the reason for people leaving, it also came down to the fact that everybody on that team should’ve had a pro shoe, by industry standards. Our product line just wasn’t big enough. There wasn’t enough capacity in shops. So, by that measure, I understood why people left for an immediate opportunity elsewhere. And if that’s part of Fully Flared’s legacy, that it facilitated opportunities for those dudes, I’m okay with that.

What role did Podium’s business woes play into all this? It seemed like they basically fell apart right after the video came out.  
Obviously, that probably didn’t help matters much either.

The thing is that there was never a down quarter prior to the financial collapse. And not just at Podium, but skateboarding, in general. The graph only went up. Active shops were opening everywhere… a lot of brands didn’t know what a rainy day looked like. They weren’t prepared for any bumps in the road and set up their infrastructure accordingly, entirely dependent on another quarter of growth. So when shit goes exponentially backwards that quickly, there was too much weight at the top. You can’t pivot quickly enough because there are too many pieces entirely dependent on a number that just isn’t there anymore. In come the banks, stressing you on the loan covenants, and at that point, it all becomes a house of cards. Another victim of the infinite growth paradigm.

But you’d gone on record a few times about Nike in the Lakai days, and not in the most favorable light. How much flack did you catch for making the switch and how do you look at those previous statements now?

I did. It just got to a point where I was taking things way too personally… which is pretty silly, in hindsight, because Lakai was never even my brand. I just had these emotional attachments to everything that definitely became unhealthy over the years. But when you hear enough times that “big time” is the best move for another dude to make, in the back of your head, you start to wonder why it’s not the best move for you to make as well.

So when the opportunity did present itself to me, I looked at it through the same lens. What’s the best thing for me at this point in my life? And that was it. Of course, I took flack for it and I understand why, but I’m still doing fun stuff for skateboarding with so many of the best skaters in the game. That’s really all that matters to me. The rest is just noise.

How do you react when people try to throw those previous statements in your face?

To be honest, that barely ever happens. Most people were congratulative.

Look, when Nike got into skateboarding this third time, they clearly figured out the right way to go about it. Obviously, their product is incredible, but also the level of service that they were bringing to their riders, compared to any other skate brand, was undeniable. For those who want to knock Nike, skateboarding had 30 years to figure out how to treat these dudes like professionals. But we didn’t do it. So you can’t be mad at a brand that comes in with an elevated sense of how professional skateboarders should be treated.

The other thing is this, and it’s comparable to what drives politics in a lot of the world right now, but I don’t want to be part of that cranky group of people who think skateboarding was only great during a certain time period that they, themselves, say was “the greatest”. Because that’s bullshit. Everything evolves, and I want to keep evolving with it. Of course, I think that the 90’s were awesome, but I don’t believe things have to be run as such in 2018, based on that belief. Because I would’ve much rather walked into that Wells Fargo with a check bigger than $3,000. And I think it’s a good thing that most skateboarders can do that now.

As long as kids are attracted to skateboarding for the same reasons we were, which is being represented by these brands and the kids want to associate with them as a result, I’m okay with being part of that.

So after a lifetime of paying dues in making it all work for yourself, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment and biggest regret? 

I’ve had so many situations where I’ve traveled the world with dudes for years, talking to them on a weekly basis as I watch them accomplish so many of their dreams… and then the checks and boxes stop rolling in and suddenly, the relationship falls apart. It sucks. And that’s always been the most regrettable part of my experience.

On the other hand, I am proud that I’m still involved in skateboarding at such a high-level, 25 years later. I’ve been in the front row for so many iconic moments in skateboarding and most of them were not as a professional skateboarder. That’s pretty insane. I’m very fortunate, without a doubt, but I also put in the work, so hopefully there’s something to that in our world as well. The prodigy stories are the ones that get romanced, and for good reason, but the fact that you can have this kind of run in skateboarding without being the most talented skateboarder is less chronicled. So thanks for taking the time to sprinkle in a story like mine. There should be more of them.  

Thanks to Salman, Jim, Tommy, Mickey, Jeff, James, Fausto, Swenson, Ken, Damon, Tim, Rick, Mike, Meg, Rob, Drake, Pitre, Carter, Schmelzer, Fallahee, Mel, Pip, Hunter, Gabe, Lance, Luke, Skin, Swift, Mom and Meg B.

Thanks, Bird! 


D Howman said...

Amazing. Favourite one of late for sure

Unknown said...

Wow, thank you for this. I grew up in the area where Bird went to high school. Skaters from Dulles High and Clements would meet at this Target in Sugarland, Tx. That's where I first saw Bird and this dude he was with named Jason DeYoung. This was such a good time for skating, we had this spot and there would skaters everywhere. They were the sickest skaters, ever. And they were so cool, always laughing and cracking jokes. Bird soon went off to college and when he would come back for holidays I would skate with him sometimes. I knew he was going somewhere with his skating, and to see him being so humble about it was awesome. I remember when his New School board came out, it was terrible. The flattest board ever with a felt 8ball on it if I remember correctly. Bird was not happy about it.
Aw man, such a good dude. I hope he's doing well.

zgold said...

One of the best ones so far, and I've read them all. Keeps me going at work. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Loved this one.

Keith said...

Suit guy under water slick board and graphic still is amazing. Nice interview. Different perspectives is always interesting.

Anonymous said...

Genius interview. So many things I'd never heard before.

Hassan Abdul-Wahid said...

Met him in 95 when I worked at SLAP. Such a funny and amazing person and a total ripper. So stoked he's still involved with skateboarding because he's exactly what skateboarding needs. Dirts forever.

Beverly d'Angeleno said...

Such a great read! Thanks Eric and Bird!!

Piri said...

Bringing that deep insight/insider knowledge as ever, great interview. We live in blessed times as far as getting the inside scoop on skate history, between you, Epicly Laterd and the various podcrews. Ever consider doing a pod? You've clearly got the, ahem, chops.

street skate kings said...

Wow, that was the best read I've seen in a long time. Thank you. I didn't know all that information, great stuff overall. Thank you for posting. Great stuff here.

The Secret Tape said...

really, really great.

Nonickname said...

The Toronto Real tour/demo he referenced was at Rudy's...the amount of fat-striped polo shirts bought in the Toronto/Mississauga area after watching Salman kill it was crazy. Kelch made an appearance as well and I remember thinking "this guy can't land much"...until someone said he's only skating switch today and he's incredibly hungover from drinking with Weiss,Kelly and Bokma. Fun (ancient) times

Anonymous said...

please keep them coming. i love these backstories!

Matthew said...

This was a really cool interview, spanning the early dirt days to pro rider to TM and brand manager. What a great ride. Keep it rolling!

Rubbish Rubbish said...

“...but the fact that you can have this kind of run in skateboarding without being the most talented skateboarder is less chronicled. So thanks for taking the time to sprinkle in a story like mine. There should be more of them.”

This sums it up perfectly. Great interview. Thanks for this one.

WShelton said...

To bad you cant interview Jay Adams. That would be dope, but we still got Shogo Kubo, TA, 'Mad Dog' Mike Muir. Those would be dope interviews to read. Js. These are all dope as well though. Keep kickin ass and takin license plate covers.

todd said...

Crazy but awesome story! Went to school with him and bought my first total skateboard setup from California Dreamin two weeks after they opened. We always knew he was going to do big things!