Helena Long kindly spoke to us for our latest Offerings interview. Having not done one of these interviews for some time it gave space to think back to past Offerings, and the strange period of time which birthed the format as lockdown changed the world for everyone in different ways.
INTERVIEW BY JACOB SAWYER / PORTRAIT of Helena Long BY Markus Bengtsson
While things slowed for many it seems the past two years have been some of the busiest and most productive for Helena. She turned pro for Poetic Collective and has been involved in multiple video projects with them. She has travelled with Vans on a grip of European trips, and been a part of the Credits video and other Shari White creations. She has graced the cover of Grey Skate Mag, shot a bunch of other sick photos, finished an album with her band, and curated the No Comply exhibition at Somerset House.
By no means a lazy pro, Helena is an inspiration and we are proud to have recently welcomed her to the Slam team. Knowing how much she has going on made her a top choice when aiming to revisit this interview format. In keeping with her ever-prolific trajectory, she answered these questions at the tail end of a recent Spitfire Wheels trip to Portugal. Read on for the classic UK skate video, film, book, and album she has selected to enrich your existence.
Lost & Found – Blueprint Skateboards (2005)
This was released in 2005, what was happening in your life then, did you see it when it first came out?
At this time I had just started skating so I didn’t actually see the video until a few years later. I was probably spending most days after school learning how to flip my board. I remember thinking a kickflip was a heelflip and a heelflip was a kickflip. So I was spending hours learning heelflips while being told to try kickflips first because they’re easier. It does make learning kickflips easier afterwards I think.
Was this on repeat in your crew?
Someone got the DVD at some point, I can’t remember who. I think we’d gone to Slam City when it was in Neal’s Yard. It was one of a handful of DVDs we’d watch before heading out to lurk about central London on a £2 travel card.
Did you go to the premiere?
I didn’t go to the premiere but would have loved to. The premieres I had the fortune of going to were definitely memorable ones though. I remember seeing Lakai Fully Flared and Static III at the Prince Charles Cinema and those were epic.
What was the first video you saw?
It would’ve been a part unlocked after completing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2/3 with one of the characters. It might have been Geoff Rowley or Kareem Campbell actually.
What stood out for you about this video?
Mostly just watching UK skaters doing amazing things at London-based spots. As a grom, and to this day, recognising them when venturing about town and thinking how insanely talented the skaters are to be doing what they did there. Things stand out more these days than back then as I’m more familiar with the spots that were skated.
Scott Palmer’s lipslide on the Hyde Park Hubba in Lost & Found
What moments from this one are embedded in your psyche?
I love watching the Shell Centre footage and Smithy and Scott Palmer skating that Hubba in Hyde Park. I always thought it looked like such a sick spot.
Had your time on the streets coincided with anyone in it?
I remember seeing a tall, talented skater at South Bank at times and it was most definitely Nick Jensen. Later in the MFWTCB days, I would often see Tom Knox about town absolutely killing it too.
You mentioned Scott Palmer had your favourite part. Tell us about what he had going on which made an impact on you?
He goes really fast with quick pushes and as soon as his feet are on the board they’re immediately ready to pop the next trick. I just love the way the board seems stuck to his feet.
Did anything in here lead to you learning something specific?
I think I was more inspired to find and try and skate some of the spots he skated more than anything. But I do wish I could do front 180s like he does!
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle (2014)
You said it was hard to pick a film because you go to the cinema a lot. This title popped up pretty quick when you thought about it though. Is this a firm favourite?
I have so many favourites but I guess it’s quite a relevant one, my other outlet to skating being playing the drums. I just remember going to see it on a birthday of mine and coming out of the cinema having been blown away. The emotional dynamic between the drummer and bandleader just had me hooked. I found myself drawing comparisons between drumming and skating because of the obsessive nature of the drummer and the slightly masochistic characters in it. Haha.
As a drummer yourself what elements of the story resonated with you?
I think my determination to get beats and rhythms right when playing with others. Feeling the pressure but then also elation when everyone and everything is in sync, it’s such a satisfying feeling. But I very much resonated with that feeling of frustration and obsession that follows you at all times.
It focuses on an extremely strict bandleader who is basically a monster. Did your personal experience of learning involve any strong personalities or the opposite?
I had such lovely teachers when I had drum lessons. My first experience was quite regimented. Learning to read, wrist techniques, rudiments and rolls which I’m so grateful to have put the time into for how it’s helped me play now. I had a teacher who was playing for the West End show Wicked pretty much most nights. He showed me the score and how tight everything was and I thought it was incredible. He also made me a mixtape with tracks ranging from the E.T theme tune to ACDC, Count Basie & Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, and The Police. This is probably 18 years ago now but I can still remember most of the mixtape tracks.
It has the sports film formula with extreme discipline, power struggles, and a lonely rise to greatness. Would you link the mindset you need to learn to skate with the one you need to master an instrument?
Totally. I think the ‘lonely’ side of it is something very in keeping with skateboarding. While you might find yourself skating with a gang most of the time, your experience of skating is very much down to your own personal approach to it. ‘Lonely’ not necessarily being a bad thing. But also the determination and discipline to not give up on learning or trying tricks aligns with very similar mindsets.
“I found myself drawing comparisons between drumming and skating because of the obsessive nature of the drummer and the slightly masochistic characters in it.”
The main character can perform ‘Whiplash’ from memory. Are you able to play full drum parts from songs unaccompanied?
I’m not surprised he can play ‘Whiplash’ from memory. I wish I could! Haha. I often reflect on how crazy it is that humans have the ability to organically remember song lyrics or melodies to hundreds of tunes. Having played the same songs so many times in practice I can play full drum parts from memory too. There are always triggers and parts of songs that have guitar, bass, or vocal queues that remind me of what beat I’ll be playing next. The muscle memory always kicks in too.
I suppose there aren’t too many films about drummers. Did you see that Sound of Metal film?
Good point really, unless they are documentaries about musicians. I did see that film and really enjoyed it, Riz Ahmed is incredible. Although from a drummer’s perspective I always wear some sort of ear protection. I was quite bummed out on the idea of his character going through such self-inflicted trauma having suddenly lost his hearing. I always remember one of my teachers telling me how tinnitus has driven musicians to insanity, to the point where they take their own life. So I always try to avoid that at all costs. Also, the actual drumming in the film wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen. The plotline didn’t really revolve around actually playing the drums so much so I still thought the film was a good one for other things. Mogul Mowgli also starring Riz Ahmed playing a rapper really blew my mind though. I would highly recommend that watch, it’s up there with some of my fave films too.
Half Of A Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
This seems like a poignant tale. Tell us about this novel, what is the setting?
It’s set in Nigeria in the 1960s and follows the paths of two sisters, their partners, families, and close friends who get caught up in trying to navigate their lives and relationships during the Biafran War.
Is this a recent read or an old favourite?
I read it relatively recently but always remember Lois Pendlebury saying it’s one of the best books she’s ever read. She gave it to me to read but I didn’t get round to it until a few years later. Then I remember being incredibly immersed in it.
It seems to me that in this age of information where we are bombarded by war reports it’s often difficult to fully empathise but literature can put you right there. Like fiction can sometimes convey more truth than facts.
Despite it being fictional, it was written based on very true events and first-hand witness accounts from the writer’s parents, her close family and friends who were there during the Biafran conflict. The way it dips into so many scenarios with such natural detail really put me, as the reader, right there. I felt it gave me a greater understanding of the conflict on an emotional level rather than feeling distanced from an understanding of the war like I would feel based on reports or historical facts and figures. The beautifully balanced perspective of the characters really brought to light what the reality of being caught in such a situation might be like on the ground.
“The beautifully balanced perspective of the characters really brought to light what the reality of being caught in such a situation might be like on the ground.”
Is Britain’s role in the war called into question?
It is in many ways. For instance, there is a British white male character called Richard who’s a writer and has fallen in love with one of the Nigerian Sisters. His character’s perspective on his relationship to the sister, her family and friends during the conflict sheds a lot of light on the realities of being a white male. The privileges, and the almost immediate protection from the violence and poverty. The book also dips out of the narrative and into a book called The World Was Silent When We Died. That describes the larger political forces at work in the war with Britain supplying arms to the Nigerians against the Biafrans.
What did you learn from reading this and what parallels are there right now?
There’s just such an overload of information we see and absorb every day. It makes it really hard to filter through, and at times empathise with certain situations we may hear about across the globe. I think it’s taught me to really focus on trying to stay true to how I feel. How I can help from what I choose to read, watch, and believe. Also who I hang out with and how those choices benefit me on a daily basis.
Horses – Patti Smith (1975)
This was another one you selected with no hesitation. Is this a longstanding part of your musical landscape? How were you introduced to Patti Smith and what was the instant appeal?
Definitely, my Dad introduced me to Patti Smith when I was younger and I’ll never forget hearing Gloria for the first time. A female punk singing lyrics as if from the perspective of a guy looking at a girl out the window and after singing that intro line ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine’. I just think it’s pretty iconic really. I bought the album on vinyl when I went to New York too. Stemming from the last question about good reads, Patti Smith’s book Just Kids is also up there as an all-time favourite.
What about her approach to writing songs do you find inspiring?
Just her pure poetry that’s vocalised in such a raw way. Very much a female Bob Dylan vibe but with a more punk and harmonic tone to her voice and songs.
She is a great lyricist. What song on here would you play the most or is this one you’d play from beginning to end?
I definitely just play this record from beginning to end, the album takes you on a journey from the first to last track. But Free Money, Gloria and Horses are up there as faves.
“My Dad introduced me to Patti Smith when I was younger and I’ll never forget hearing Gloria for the first time.”
Have you ever seen her live?
I’ve seen her quite a few times actually. Most memorably at The Round House in Camden when her set was playing the Horses album from beginning to end and then a couple of other bangers too.
As a drummer do you find when you’re listening to songs that you immediately hone in on the percussion or can you disassociate yourself from that and enjoy songs as a whole?
I usually hone in on everything but particularly little riffs or licks that come in on certain timings that are really accentuated. There’s this call and response bit in the breakdown of the song Free Money when the guitar comes in. There’s this high-pitched riff after Patti sings “And when we dream it…’ followed by bass and drums fill. I love those timings of percussion and vocal queues.
PJ Harvey has often been compared with Patti Smith. Are you a fan of hers? I know she did that Recording in Progress exhibit there while working on The Hope Six Demolition Project album.
I’ve been working at Somerset House for the last few years and I was there when PJ Harvey was recording that album. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see her play. It was a very exclusive opportunity for people to buy tickets and come and see her record that album. I know that building pretty inside out and they’ve had some incredible exhibitions and gigs in those crypts.
Helena Long’s boardslide announcing our Spitfire Formula Fours. PH: Henry Kingsford
We were so stoked on you being in the Spitfire X Slam City Skates ad which officially announced you as part of the Slam team. Is that something your teenage self would be tripping on?
Massively tripping on it. I was always intimidated going into Slam as a kid. It was just such a haven for all things skateboarding that I didn’t know what to say or even buy! Being a born and raised Londoner it can’t get much more real than skating for Slam.
You recently organised the No Comply show at Somerset House which evolved into Skate The Strand. What was the response to the whole thing and is there scope for further events involving the skateboard community?
That was an incredible experience. It kind of weirdly fell in my lap. I was already working at Somerset House as well as being a skateboarder interested in the arts. I was quite nervous about it all and felt quite a bit of pressure as the skate scene is so precious to me and so many. By putting it on display in such an institution and on such a platform for a potentially very estranged audience, made it quite the challenge. We had to condense the UK scene and all of it’s influence. I just tried to include as many amazing people in the skate world as possible in three rooms.
I worked with such an incredible curator who really listened to what I had to say and what the skaters and artists had to say. I think it worked out pretty well. Especially considering it was in 2021 with Covid still playing a hand in preventing crowds and the opportunity to come and see the show. I think around 17,000 people came to see it over the course of a couple of months. So I was pretty stoked on that to say the least. Hopefully this’ll lead to more exhibitions and skate-related events in the city centre in the future.
What do you have going on with your band Upset Stomach right now?
At the moment we just finished recording the drums for our next album and our genius Ed (Bassist) and his genius bro Tony are producing it.
How is the album coming along?
We actually managed to record the drum tracks for I think 11 songs. So we’re hoping to get the other parts down and edited for release by the end of the year.
Do you have any skate trips on the horizon?
I’ve got quite a few this summer with Lizzie Armanto’s Vans shoe launch. Some trips planned for filming towards a couple of videos and magazine projects too. I also just got back from a Spitfire trip in Portugal with some of the loveliest skaters the UK has to offer. We met up with some wicked locals too including Rafaela Costa who is such a legend. The future looks super bright with her.
What’s happening in the skateboarding world right now you are excited about?
I think just seeing so much more inclusivity within the skate scene. So many more skaters from smaller communities within skating getting some light shed on them with skate videos, magazine articles and photos. I’m just looking forward to seeing a lot more of that really. Especially those scenes hitting the streets more than anything.
Always just a massive thank you really.
We would like to thank Helena for taking time out of her busy schedule to do this interview for us. We hope you get to enjoy some of her recommendations