Interview by Jacob Sawyer. portrait by 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 who even walked us through the retrospective show which was installed there. Years worth of history, on display, introduced by the late Fausto Vitello. The spirit of Thrasher is pure it’s mission unchanged from the outset. Thankfully, Jake Phelps hasn’t tired of putting that magazine out month after month and 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.
That image is kind of burnt into my eyes.
How old are you now?
That’s not that old, you’ve got time.
At that time, the people who worked there didn’t skateboard so a lot of them were jump ramps. Skating now, it’s different. Countless stairs.
What’s your favourite cover and what’s the first one you ever picked?
There’s so many, it’s all a blur – the ’80s through to now.
Steve Bailey one is my favourite, at the Lost Skatepark in Amsterdam. That’s December 2001. He’s 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’s 5-0 at Fort Miley because you have got to go there. You’d be like, Fuck, he ground that shit?” That’s impossible. You think you’ve got that? No you don’t! On that day, there was 300 people skating around, he’s the only person in the photo and he died right after that. I picked that one so I’m happy about that.
Phil Shao on the stop rode at Fort Miley courtesy of the Thrasher cover archive. ph: 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. I’ve slept up there before. When I was a little kid, we’d camp up there. My adventures now, we’ll sleep wherever we can sleep we don’t really care. We’d sleep here if we had to, we’re going to go to Copenhagen after this. Me and Preston [Maigetter] have been running pretty hot, for the last five years. Good runs. If I can make customs, if I can get in, I’m going.
Are you going to go to Christiana or Sweden?
Christiana is just druggy shit, who cares about that. That’s not freedom. That’s bullshit, more of less. 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 a futuristic, consumeristic society.
In a world that I would want, there would be beds if you wanted to sleep, warmth, and food if you were hungry and you’d 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 you get sent downstairs! But utopian societies, where people tell you how beautiful it is, they’re lying.
Which photographer has shot the largest amount of your favourite photos?
Well Luke [Ogden] shot a lot of the photos because I work with him. Mike [Burnett] has been very prolific so 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 [Ben] Karpinski’s name and shit like that. Things I wouldn’t pay attention to, although I might know it.
I might say, “That’s gnarly!”
He’ll say, “It’s not that gnarly because it’s only 21 stairs.”
“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, the most magical of them I would say Ogden or [Bryce] Kanights or even Mofo or [Kevin] Thatcher. There’s 411 magazines out there. That’s 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 magazine inside. It’s called Thrasher because it means burn the fucking world down! It doesn’t mean skateboarding’s 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 then growing again.
It’s died twice. ’78 to ’81 – dead; 82 and 83 – dead; then ’85 Bones Brigade and then ’91 – dead again.
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 with their eyeballs all shocked, when they’ve made something and can’t sleep at night. I don’t have kids, I’m not married, I just live out of bounds. Skateboarding has changed and because it’s “cool”, I think that more tricks are being made.
When we were kids, we only made 20% of a hundred tries which, maybe, is still pretty air ball shit because we had jacked boards. Now, with boards being good and Nyjah Huston and shit, they make like 80 or a 100% per cent of tries. Kickflip hurricane down a handrail? That’s 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 best people were always skaters. 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. ph: Maksim Kalanep
How do you feel about San Francisco these days?
As a city? It’s the end of the world. It’s the last place on earth to me. 150 years ago there were 11 foot Grizzly Bears there, that’s 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 and when you feel an earthquake, a real 7.4 shaker, you’re like, “Fuck, we’re leaving now!” I was at the World Series baseball game. The Bay bridge just collapsed, thousands dead downtown. I went downtown, there was people in the streets with shotguns like 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.
Are you interested in what’s 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 and the guy does a switch front blunt, shove-out on a big, diesel rail. Everybody is gnarly. Some random dude who works in the cafe goes out into the skatepark and does a varial flip 5-0 down the handrail. It’s insane, everybody rips.
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 Romford skatepark, which we went to today. We were trying to sell boards and wheels – living budget.
Six kids. I was with Arc, a bunch of randoms – no pros or anything. John Cardiel was with us but he wasn’t pro, just a skate rat. 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?” 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 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 kill it and are a huge part of how the mag is looked at by a new generation. Is there anyone you called was going to be the talent they are today before they’d had coverage?
This is a funny story right.
It was 1998 and Grant Taylor – 2011 Skater Of The Year, was six. I was skating this mini ramp by myself because I was waiting for my friends to get there. 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. It was a ‘Something Else’. It’s in the mag with Jeff Lenoce on the cover doing a 180 nose grind, 1998.
My board is in the background and I’m on the platform. This little kid who did this frontside ollie is thanking me. I didn’t think that these kids would take to heart the same things that I thought were special, that they would read the things we had done.
The Figgys, the Raven Thershys and the Grants are all out there and they’re gnarly! They are so 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.
We “fucked up” and we didn’t give Jamie Thomas Skater Of The Year – guess what? I don’t care.
Future SOTY, Grant Taylor circa 1998 with BGPs from Jake’s note and front hanger.
Who would you say is the personification of Thrasher?
Right now with Jay Adams just dying – Jay Adams.
All those photos in the old days were all bails, nobody made anything. Those photos of him with the [Glen E.] Friedman or the Wynn Miller, he couldn’t give a fuck. That made me want to skate. When you think of the faces of skateboarding, the people that rip – you see Ryan Sheckler and Nyjah and who cares?
They’re the people that are doing the gnarly shit but as far as Jay Adams and that whole spirit of, you know, “Fuck this, we’re in your backyard, drinking your beer and we’re skating your pool,” – that outlaw image of it has always been something that’s very rampant to me. 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 that came after us: Big Brother and video grabs, TransWorld and 300 page magazines, and all the other crap. People like Broach and guys like Preston 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!
Related: Michael Burnett Interview: “I couldn’t help it, I wanted to do it all day long”, Thrasher X Slam City Skates