Jake Phelps Interview

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Portrait photo – Maksim Kalanep

When the Thrasher Vacation blew through town a little while back we managed to get some time to talk to Jake Phelps at the House Of Vans. He set aside time to talk and even showed me through the retrospective show which was installed there. Years worth of history on display introduced by the late Fausto Vitello. With Thrasher, the whole spirit of the thing is pure and it’s mission from the outset unchanged. Jake Phelps thankfully hasn’t tired of putting that magazine out month after month. It was a pleasure getting a few stories from a man with many tell…

I remember getting my first issue of Thrasher, it was from 1985 and had Christian Hosoi blasting over a car out of a fly off…

Oh it’s the yellow one, Del Mar re-visited, Capitola corrupted. Gonzo with the CBS sticker, Gonzo’s ollie is in it too, MOFO some other bull shit.

That image is kind of burnt into my eyes

How old are you now?

Thirty six

That’s not that old, you’ve got time

The mag had some amazing covers…

At that time the people who worked there didn’t skateboard so a lot of them were jump ramps. It’ s different, skating now it’s countless stairs.

What’s your favourite cover and what’s the first one you ever picked?

There’s so many, I can’t think of that, it’s all a blur, eighties through to now. I know which ones are my favourite. The Bailey one is my favourite one at the Lost skatepark in Amsterdam. It’s 2001 in December. He is doing a frontside ollie over some stairs and it looks computer generated. There’s a radio on the bottom stair. Covers that I’ve picked that I like, Phil Shao 5-0 at Miley cos you have got to go there. You ever been to Fort Miley? You’d be like fuck he ground that shit? That’s impossible, you think you’ve got that? No you don’t! Oh that’s not gnarly? That picture on that day, there’s 300 people skating around and he’s the only person in the photo and he died right after that. That’s like a dead motherfucker for real. Yeah, really. I picked that one so I’m happy about that.

Phil Shao – Fort Miley. Photo – Ogden

I went there before, we walked in through the forest around the back

I’ve been there in the fog, with the trees and shit it’s spooky. It’s way spooky up there for people, I slept up there before. When I was a little kid we would sleep up there, camp and shit. My adventures now, we’ll sleep wherever we can sleep we don’t really care. We’d sleep here if we had to, we are going to go to Copenhagen after this. Me and Preston have been running pretty hot for the last five years. Good runs. If I can make customs, I can get in, I’m going.

Are you going to go to Christiana or Sweden?

That’s just druggy shit, who cares about that. That’s not freedom, you know what freedom is? That’s more or less bull shit. Utopian societies where people tell you about how perfect their worlds are, they’re lying. That’s the backbone of their existence? How they believe and perceive the world to be, like we have Ikea, we have Starbucks. That’s futuristic, consumeristic society. In a world that I would want there would be beds if you wanted to sleep, warmth, food if you were hungry and be happy because you only have one life man. The mathematical probability of there being a lord or a god is a pretty high digit. Everybody gets a chance to meet the old man and say I had a good time man then ‘Downstairs!” Nah I don’t think so, that’s what I think. But utopian societies where people tell you how beautiful it is, they’re lying. Next.

Which photographer has shot the largest amount of your favourite photos?

Well Luke shot a lot of the photos because I work with him. Mike has been very prolific, Burnett in the later years. Thrasher now, the renaissance of Thrasher coming back is a lot more Burnett. He counts the stairs and pays attention to how to spell Karpinski’s name and shit like that. Things I wouldn’t pay attention to although I might know it. Or I might say “That’s fucking gnarly!” and he’ll say it’s not that gnarly because it’s only 21 stairs and I’ll say “well it looks gnarly to me bud”. I’m old, I don’t pay attention to a lot of that stuff. As far as prolific photos and the most magical of them I would say Ogden or Kanights or even Mofo or even Thatcher. There’s 411 magazines out there. Fuck, that is a lot of goddamn magazines.

Thrasher has weathered the storm. In a climate of disposable web clips, the mag in physical form is still on the shelves each month. What do you think is key to its longevity?

And it’s 200 pages, bank on that! I know for a fact the key is that it’s not worlds greatest skateboarding inside magazine, it’s called Thrasher because it means burn the fucking world down! It doesn’t mean skateboardings best tricks. Worldwide skateboarding web dot com I don’t care. It’s Thrasher! It’s the lifestyle that we’re selling, it’s the world that we live in and we see it every day. Every caption I write, I live, I sleep it in the dirt at night. That’s it, that’s the key to longevity.

Phelps at Victoria park. Photo – Maksim Kalanep

The face of skateboarding has changed a lot since you began. It’s popularity has fluctuated, going underground after a huge boom, growing again…

It’s died twice. It died in 78 to 81 dead, 82 and 83 dead. Then 85 Bones Brigade and then 91 dead again. Then now it’s like Right Guard want to make skate parks. Good luck kid! We’ll take your cheques

Do you see any harm coming from it’s current level of exposure or is it all for the greater good?

No,I get hyped on skating when I see kids and their fucking eyeballs are all shocked when they’ve made something and can’t sleep at night. I don’t have kids and I’m not married, I just live out of bounds. Skateboarding has changed, because it’s cool I think that more tricks are being made. When we were kids we only made twenty per cent of a hundred tries ,maybe which is still pretty air ball shit because we had jacked boards. Now with boards being good and Nyjah Huston and shit, they make like eighty or a hundred per cent of tries. Kickflip fucking hurricane down a hand rail? That’s ridiculously insane. But even goons do it now, even goons rip. When I was a kid if you skated, it wasn’t the weed dealer that was cool, the tagger, the guy selling drugs, the best people were always skaters, they always were. But now that everybody skates, there’s going to be a lot of goons. That’s the way it goes.

Jake meeting kids outside the shop. Photo – Maksim Kalanep

How do you feel about San Francisco?

As a city? It’s the end of the world, it’s the last place on Earth to me. 150 years ago there were Grizzly bears there, 150 fucking years ago 11 foot Grizzly bears, that’s gnarly, gnarly! What do i think about it? I think it’s fast. Now it turns out it’s pretty blown out, too hot. I was there for an earthquake, when you feel an earthquake, a real 7.4 shaker you’re like, fuck we’re leaving now! I was at the World Series, I was at the baseball game. It was like no way! The Bay bridge just fucking collapsed, thousands dead downtown. I went downtown, people in the streets with shotguns like, lets do this! Insane, it was like martial law. Hipsters will be the first ones to leave. Prices and values of the properties mean I can’t afford a house there. I’m successful but I can’t afford to live there. If I didn’t have my rent controlled apartment I wouldn’t live there. I’d live in some shack in the bushes far away. As a town it’s like outer space. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life and some of the most tragic. I was born there, my mother was born there.

Do you find it interesting what is going on in the European skate scene?

We were just in Portugal at that Volcom thing. We had hella dudes over there that were good. It came to the best trick, guy does a switch front blunt shuvit on a big fucking diesel rail, everybody is gnarly. Some random dude who works in the cafe goes out into the skatepark later and does a fucking varial flip 5-0 down the hand rail. It’s insane, everybody rips. So with all the gadgetry, it’s like look at this macho fucking frontside flip over that, who is this guy? Nobody cares, nobody knows who the fucking guy is, some random. It’s everywhere. It’s proliferated, it’s stuffed itself into every fucking crack.

What are some of your early memories of visiting Europe and the UK?

Oh fucking Tennents Super! Those were the hammers. We got jumped by a bunch of kids one time at the skate park at Romford which we went to today. We were trying to sell boards and wheels and shit, living budget. Six kids. I was with Arc, a bunch of randoms no pros or anything, Cardiel was with us but he wasn’t pro or nothing just a skate rat dude. They came at us and they fucking jumped us, punched us. This thirteen year old kid was grabbing one of my wheels. His face said no and my fist said yes. I was like wham! How’s that? Hammer. They took us for two shirts and a wheel but we beat back this army of little kids. U.K’s tough. I always thought the English skate scene to be like, just get it done. Just like Aussie people, I made it myself. I made these trucks, I made these wheels, I made this shit! It’s called going for it. It’s called gumption, elbow grease.

You have a whole crop of younger guys on this trip who all kill it and are a huge part of how the mag is looked at by a new generation. Is there anyone on this trip you called as going to be the talent they are today before they had any coverage?

This is a funny fucking story right. It was 1998 and Grant was six, Grant Taylor, 2011 Skater Of The Year. I was skating this mini ramp by myself because I was waiting for my friends to get there and Grant shows up and I’m skating the ramp with this little spud head kid. I said to Luke take a photo of this dude and he does a frontside ollie, he’s got his little elbow pads, knee pads, Vans, helmet and shit. He was like this little spud head kid. It was a Something Else. It’s in the mag with Jeff Lenoce on the cover doing a 180 nose grind, 1998 magazine. In there is this picture of Grant. My board is in the background and I’m on the platform. This little kid is thanking me who did this frontside O. I didn’t think that these kids would take to heart the same things that I thought were special and that they would read the things we had done. The Figgys, the Ravens, the Grants are all out there and they are fucking gnarly! They are so fucking gnarly it’s shocking and they all want to hang out with us! We did it right. It gives me the ultimate satisfaction and the pride of knowing that we did it right even though we slept in the dirt and we didn’t do it right and we fucked it up and we didn’t give Jamie Thomas Skater Of The Year, guess what? I don’t fucking care.

Grant Taylor-Frontside Ollie

Who would you say is the personification of Thrasher?

Right now, with Jay Adams just dying, Jay Adams. Because all those photos in the old days were all bails and nobody made anything. All those photos of him with the Friedman’s or the Wynn Miller’s, he could just give a fuck. That made me want to skate. When you think of the faces of skateboarding, the people that rip. You see Sheckler and Nyjah whatever, who cares? They are the people that are doing the gnarly shit but as far as Jay Adams and that whole spirit of, you know what, fuck this, we are in your backyard drinking your beer, we’re skating your pool. fuck off! How’s that? That outlaw image of it has always been something that’s been very rampant to me. So I couldn’t say one per se. Jimmy Moore, people that I know, you never knew him but he’s gnarly.

What would you say your proudest moment as editor of the mag has been?

That we survived. We came through it all. After everybody came after us Big Brother and video grabs and all the other crap and Transworld 300 page magazines. People like Broach and guys like Preston they heard what we were doing and they wanted to be a part of it and we were there for them. That’s the fucking proudest moment.

What’s the last thing you saw done on a skateboard that blew your mind?

I was in Portugal and this guy was eighty fucking two years old dropping in on this quarter pipe. He had a coach, someone who was helping him. He started skating at seventy. It was ridiculous, I sat down. In my geriatric condition with skateboarding, I skate when I want to. Nobody tells me like, come on Jake skate. My body is fucked. But this guy wanted to start skateboarding at seventy years old! It can be just as fresh to you at seventy as it is when you’re fourteen and you’re like I want to go skate man! He was fucking hyped, you could tell he was scared as fuck too. One hip or break his fucking neck and he could be dead. It would put him out, later. I mean those are greeting card moments but what is the gnarliest thing? When I was skating with John, when John came back after he broke his back. He has been such an inspirational part of my life and then it was on March 16th. John 3:16, a verse in the bible which is something totally alien to me and it all added up. I did the math, John 3:16, skating with me in the street, in the dirt and I was like aaarggh! Just shocking, I just did the math, too special!

Interview by Jacob Sawyer