It has been said before that if skateboarding is our language, Rodney Mullen created the alphabet. There isn’t really a better way of putting it. Not a video part comes out which doesn’t contain tricks from ‘the house that Rodney built.’ He is one of a few Jedi masters, his progressive mentality has had an impact on the industry, products, videos and of course what is now deemed possible. Rodney loves skateboarding for giving him a voice. He has recently been using that voice to inform the people who will be shaping our tomorrow about our mindset as skateboarders, in turn affecting how society perceives the thing we love. We couldn’t be in safer hands. It was a pleasure to meet up with Rodney at Southbank and ask him these questions.
Welcome to London, how is the tour treating you so far?
Couldn’t be better. I’m with genuine friends. Steve Black and Haslam, Appleyard, all those dudes are good people and that helps. It always makes a huge difference. Plus being in London. It was my very first trip which struck me yesterday. When I was a kid, what was I fourteen, fifteen? Fresh off the farm and it was my first trip overseas on the way to Swedish Summer camp and I remember the exhilaration that I felt.
Weirdly, yesterday I took a nap, jet-laggish, woke up, went out to find a place to skate and found myself in the middle of everything and had this exhilaration. I picked up my phone to call a friend and I was yelling “Ah it feels so good!” There’s something about that. It’s funny, I always relate it too that it is all through skating since I was a kid, now I am 48 and it just keeps giving.
What are your earliest memories of visiting London?
I remember, and it struck me again today, being in that shop. Of course in California and the people I grew up around, everyone loves skating, it’s not you more than me. But what I noticed being here the very first time and that I pick up again is the appreciation for not just roots, but what I can say having been involved so deeply for so long is a discernment that ‘these guys are special’ or ‘this was special for those days’ or whatever.
Most everyone thinks that the era that they grew up in was very special and it is to them but in the scheme of things how special can it be? It seems to me that the British have always been super discerning about the purist elements of skating, it’s just another thing I love and I picked it up back then, it’s never changed. I love being here.
Did you visit Slam City Skates years ago?
Yeah, how long has that been around?
It will be thirty years next year!
Yeah! That’s crazy and how it stood for being core that long ago and I suppose it still is today. To maintain that integrity you only maintain it if you stick to the purist things in skating. All the more edifying.
What is your skateboarding schedule like these days? Where do you go and do you skate with other people or still prefer to skate alone?
It’s always been alone. While there is a time I can enjoy going out with Haslam, as rare as it is and how fun it is going out with those guys. Daewon and all those memories of us skating together even though it is few and far between. But the part that I related to most, I guess being a kid was getting away from my house and learning about myself, It kind of gave me that voice. It gave me promise, hope, going places, again coming from a farm. I learned how to skate in a garage in a barn so there is something about that, that got bottled up inside of me that never changes and in fact only accentuates with time.
I go skating every night, usually from 1am to 3.30. I usually go mellow skating right when the sun is going down and catch the sunset along the beach but that’s just mellow cruising it’s not the intense stuff that is at night. Every night. I kind of average a day off every week or two.
That’s Redondo beach?
Yeah and then I go and skate in the back of Dwindle or some other spots depending on what I am working on. That’s just the time for me. It’s super hard on my girlfriend because I keep vampire hours but I always go back to them because it is the time when it is private and yours. Skating has always been that for me.
I keep vampire hours but I always go back to them because it is the time when it is private and yours. Skating has always been that for me
Rodney talking to fans during the Globe EU Trippin’ event at our Covent Garden store
My friend Chris lives by Redondo beach, we went out for food on that pier…
Yeah, I am actually much closer to Hermosa pier but it’s all the same. Some of my best memories were at that Redondo pier because it’s bigger and you can really skate there. Where Rocco and I lived, I lived with Mark Gonzales for a little while, it was the three of us. He had a little place on the esplanade toward PV, a little South.
I would go skate every night up at that Redondo pier. It’s crazy how those years have passed and they still represent such a distinct time for me of importance. Especially being around those guys because it was advancing really fast back then.
If you don’t skate for a while do you notice that it has negative effects?
For sure. For me, unless I’m sick or really hurt. There was a time, I have talked about it when my bones fused together so for years I couldn’t skate right but at least I would go out every night. As bad as I was and as much as I sucked there was still the feeling. If I don’t do it there is this dis-connectedness and anxiety. If it is raining or whatever you are still used to using your body. What am I going to do? Go and run or jump rope or something?
Yeah okay I will do that sometimes if it’s raining and I have to but it is not the same. It’s that connectedness, something about the balance and the motion that is so deep inside of me. Even when I am working on something hard, some of the nerd stuff I’ve been doing, I can work for eight hours pretty easy, barely getting up. But there is something, stepping away, especially if I just go and roll where suddenly the ideas flow. Somehow it is connected with how I think, how I am so if I don’t do it for a while I feel less of who I am.
Are there any tricks that you find come naturally now which you once found far more taxing, and any you used to find super easy which escape you now?
Not that badly, but okay yeah a couple. It’s usually for pinpoint reasons like I am not practising them or I’m working so much, especially on the skating switch stuff. But that’s good, I’ve actually tried to do that but it’s not for any other understandable or linear or unexciting reason.
Are you working on anything in particular right now and can we expect to see any new footage?
George Harrison’s son Danny Harrison. I only present it that way because Danny is such a good guy, the point is he has access to very special people and I feel honoured, he is a friend. For a couple of years I have known him. He has access to this photographer who developed this, he calls it ‘a rig’ and it is kind of matrix like footage. I have shot with him now, two long sessions of three days. I am going to go back and start drilling through the tricks because for a little while there was a lot of experimentation so that will definitely come out.
I will probably do a couple of things with Ben Harper, he is a good friend and I like that I can tinker without a sense of expectation and I just like his spirit. It doesn’t lay out like it’s me and Haslam or it’s me and Daewon where there is expectation. It’s just me goofing around with a friend who doesn’t skate professionally. As I ease into doing things publicly again after tinkering with my stance and kind of getting my feet wet to the point where it feels like I’m getting somewhere. I’ll do a couple more of those and then do something with Daewon or Haslam small. Those are the next bits but I don’t expect the world because I’m getting older. The flip side is I’ve worked hard for something and if it manifests itself in the way that it seems like it is taking form then I’ll do more.
Which of your video parts was the hardest to film for and why?
It’s a good question and it’s hard to give one answer. I could give you an answer and then give you an answer tomorrow that would be entirely different and both would be as truthful as they could be to me, so they are relative. Of the videos that were hard, Questionable because I had only done freestyle. Mike T (Mike Ternasky) and Rocco, did you ever see Trading Places? Where they place a dollar bet for basically someones entire life. That’s what they did with me, they bet a dollar.
Mike T and Rocco, did you ever see Trading Places? Where they place a dollar bet for basically someones entire life. That’s what they did with me, they bet a dollar
They had already taken my board off the shelf so Mike could make me a ‘street skater.’ So they put me on this team, which I told them was a bad move, Plan B. They were like, no you are doing it, I’ve got a bet type of thing. I had the expectation and the feeling of being so small, like I had no type of ability to skate anything related to street and you have a time, and you have a date on it? I can’t do this. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and I kept digging deep…
Even going into the premiere, whereas everyones name came up. You know the beginning of the video Sheff, Rick, whoever, Danny. When my name came up it was silence! I sat next to Mike and that last trick, the Casper slide, I remember the crowd lifted, the crowd, the theatre. Mike just grabbed me and he said “now this is your beginning!” So the run up to that, feeling like I didn’t belong, wanting to run out of that theatre. All of it made it hard, I felt so small. By the time Virtual came out I was starting to get traction. To me in a way that’s one of my favourites. For me what that represented, like wait I can do this.
I remember Keenan who was this huge soul, rest in peace. He came up to me privately and he goes “you know Rod” and it was almost in whispered tones, taking me aside and he said “I want you to know, I know some guys are making fun of your part but I wanted you to know that I thought it was good. You did a good job.” And I remember thinking, I can laugh about that’s as good as it gets but it was, that sort of honesty. Those things made those parts hard for me because I felt embarrassed. Then Marc Johnson, when I was filming for enjoi which turned into the Opinion part. That was where I kept trying to play catch up. That was after I was skating with Jeremy for Second Hand Smoke.
That was a special video for me. I was staying at my uncles house in Canada and it was really cold. I rented that video from the local shop every other day for $3 and skated in a car park at night
At that time I thought that was going to be my last video part. We were all doing it. The reason it was named Second Hand Smoke is because Mike died at the beginning of that video and it was like he affected us like second hand smoke. You know how they say it has a more heavy effect on those around them. That’s what he was for us, he had this heavy effect and we were all like ‘this is for Mike, this is for Mike.” I had gotten to know Jeremy and he was always pushing me, not that I was some special project, he showed me respect. They all did, Danny and everyone did, they never disrespected me but he showed me particular care like “come on Rod, step it up, do this! It’s 8 stairs ollie it, kickflip it.”
I remember that meant a lot to me and Jeremy picked that song for me. I remember thinking, this is perfect because this may be my last video and the song talks about getting old, and it was Mike’s death we were doing this for, this might be my last. That was what that whole freestyle part was for, I don’t care what anyone says, I’m going to do this because this is who I am. I remember just doing that for me because it wasn’t so much about me before and people responded in the way they did so in that way it is a very special video for me because I stopped caring like “Oh crap I’ve got to learn to street skate.”
I remember thinking, this is perfect because this may be my last video and the song talks about getting old, and it was Mike’s death we were doing this for, this might be my last. That was what that whole freestyle part was for, I don’t care what anyone says, I’m going to do this because this is who I am
Likewise with Marc Johnson I asked him what he wanted me to do because I wanted to do good but I had so much fun doing that freestyle bit that I wanted to do more. He was like “Rod, be you. Of all people I want you to be free to be you. Not to catch up, no expectations.” That was like a green light and that of course turned into Opinion. So in many ways that has been my favourite part because that was the first time I thought okay, I can kind of sort of street skate but I’m going to do it with what I have always loved. That has a special meaning to me which made it in a way the easiest video.
Which was the most enjoyable?
The Rodney Vs Daewon’s were because of the camaraderie and the love. I love Daewon, he is like a brother to me but they also have an expectation and he is like a real guy and people say Vs. You can’t say we’re BFF’s that sounds ridiculous so alright Vs. Those are fun because of the bond we have but no matter what there is a weird little competitive thing. If he comes up and says “Rod I’ve got this.” I feel like I’m sinking in the middle of the ocean with none to help me so there is terror pushing you!
SO those are fun but there is that element which makes them not quite as fun. Maybe that Opinion part and I love the Hill brothers, how they have always been to me. I love them, they are good people. They’ve supported me through hard times and they show character. Matt Hill is a super close friend so is Gary, so that combined with enjoi still may be the video I have enjoyed the most.
What is your advice for longevity? Do you have practises you keep up to maintain a physical level?
I can give you the trite answer. If people have been saying something for centuries there is probably a reason why but you discount it because you’ve heard it so you don’t really hear it. But it really is love what you do, love what you do, there is tedious stuff to everything. No matter how good things seem, or you wish you had something, talk to anyone in that position, it is my guess that they will say it gets old. So likewise, skating at that level does get old and I have seen so many gifted people, far more gifted than I could ever hope to be have the thing snuffed out and they don’t even know it.
It’s really subtle, like the devils sense of humour. The subtleties of whatever you fall in love with, whether it’s getting footage because believe me I relate to that. My projection of self, my self worth was only as good as my latest footage. It becomes an addiction and that is the devils sense of humour in a way, gotcha! If you fall in love with getting footage so much then you will become a slave to it, and there will be a day when you will start to hate it and when you do, you will hate that which brought you there. Everything you have come to love. The simple act of having to get footage will rip apart your love for skating.
That’s very common and to some extent it happens to everyone at some time. Keep a balance, step away. Do you love skating or do you love skating with friends? Because maybe if your friends stop skating you won’t love it as much. It’s easy for you to get those wires crossed so always stay clear of what it is that drew you to it to begin with and keep that carved out for yourself. Sometimes I think becoming a pro skater is the worst thing that could happen to really talented people because the other stuff can creep in. It doesn’t mean you’re not pure, it just means you’re human if these things happen to you. No one gets through unscathed, no one. Everyone has weird times, I certainly have but it all boils down to just loving what you do for the sake of it, just the feeling. Keep the other stuff in balance.
Obviously they were an integral part of your formative years but how do you feel about competitions and their place in skateboarding nowadays?
That is a relative question. Knowing who I am, meaning what am I about, what is my perspective right? I can’t pretend to be able to answer it for other people. But for me, having been a guy who was led by contests. Like the Bones Brigade, if people have seen that. Contests were the most important part of our lives as skaters. They had to be, it was more regimented back then, there weren’t video parts. That was the only way to get in the mags basically. Not the only way but it was like the tip of the spear, it’s what got you in and kept you relevant. Having done that and having won all those contests or titles I can safely and honestly say that they militated against my progress. I spent time as a slave to repetition so that I didn’t blow it during my run.
That was never what drew me to skating to begin with, I don’t even like to be watched when I skate because it is so private to me but it’s like having to pay the bills. We’ve all got to pay bills, that’s what it felt like. The role of contests back then, yeah they were important and there is a part of it that is always important. There’s public awareness and they make people rise to a level but they should be quarantined to just a segment. I think skateboarding does that in a way, we know that the best contest skaters are rarely the guys who represent.
There are certain exceptions like Nyjah or Chris Cole. What are you going to say? I so look up to them in every way but in general as far as board sales and their standing in the community, it is not proportional to contest results. I think it should stay that way, unless of course you can do all of it in the way that those guys do.
I think that sometimes the standardisation of it that we see can create a sporty mentality which is what we are not. So if that’s where the money goes and that’s what drives people towards the money and sponsorship then those are all forcing functions that take us away from what we really are. Then there is a loss of who are we really? Maybe what I think we are is something of the past, it changes. So what is the role of contests for me? They have a role but that role should be quarantined to a slice.
Skateboarding has informed how we all think. What has it affected in your daily life that you are most grateful for?
It’s simplicity. That it’s up to you. That there’s a weird chase instinct that is built into our animal nature. Meaning in conversations, someone can dominate a conversation. There are subtle things, if you study body language or neuro linguistic programming. How you phrase things, simple things you can do to dictate what other people do, eye movements, facial expressions, the kind of words that you use can dictate how they respond. This relies on the natural chase instinct in all of us, we respond to people. What skating has taught me so much is that in order to have the purest part of my skating it is okay to do that with other people and enjoy that but always step away so that your own expression can come through.
That is what draws me back in life and in general in all things. Whatever you do, don’t let others affect you. In fact, put up blinders because you will be doing what they are deciding for you even though you don’t know it. Skating has taught me that. Be yourself. In order to be yourself it takes stepping away and breaking step I think. I love it’s honesty, there is something about the falling, there is humility built in. The best guys I know tend to be the most humble people I know.
With Uber construction and designing Tensor trucks you have managed to create alternatives and improve the products you use. Do you still feel there is room for innovation when it comes to skateboarding hardware?
I think there’s always room. As anything evolves there will always be something to help you go further but things are pretty highly evolved so I don’t expect anything drastic any time soon.
I heard that your involvement with the making of Trilogy was quite hands on and you team managed the project to a certain extent. Making sure the team put out the footage you knew they were capable of. What was that like?
There is a lot of truth to that. It wasn’t great. I don’t have the personality of Stacy Peralta or Mike Ternasky. There are guys I know like Daewon, we are like brothers because we are so similar. We formed a spacial bond because we are built the same way. I know what it is like to push myself and I know what it is like to be pushed. It is really an intimate thing to get in peoples space that way and it was super uncomfortable for me. I felt it was an intrusion you know, like walking up to someone with a camera in their face when they are trying to talk about something personal. I always felt like that, it was hard for me, I didn’t like it.
Do you have any specifically intricate set up requirements we may find interesting?
I’m not sure if they’re interesting. I always use a Magnesium baseplate but I don’t like Magnesium trucks overall because they are just too light. I do like the Uber’s because of the way they respond even though they are too stiff when you first get them. As they decay a little bit, to me that’s my favourite board.
I always like hearing about that stuff. I read that Ronnie Creager puts extra washers on the inside of his wheels to push them further to the edge of the board…
I can see that depending on the width of your board. Little things like that for Ronnie. Ronnie is one of the most gifted people I have ever known in skating. Jamie Thomas said that at one time too, he has a magic touch and is one of my favourite people. He really has a natural genius to him. I’d actually be curious to know what else he does. I used to do all kinds of little things in the freestyle days. If we were filming something there are all kinds of little things I would do.
I would duct tape a bunch of ball bearings and put them under the truck because they would weigh it down. It’s hard to land nose wheelie back to nose wheelie because the back tends to twitch, so a little weight right there would slow it down but you need it right in the centre
If I was doing a nose wheelie, nollie flip nose wheelie. With Tensors, I’m sure with lots of trucks they have a little hollow pocket underneath. I would duct tape a bunch of ball bearings and put them under the truck because they would weigh it down. It’s hard to land nose wheelie back to nose wheelie because the back tends to twitch, so a little weight right there would slow it down but you need it right in the centre. I would load it up with ball bearings and tape so it wouldn’t make noise. There are all kinds of little things I would do for that table and bench stuff, pencils and toothpicks placed here and there to get the right angles and stuff. All kinds of cheating hahaha
Do you view skateboarding as a kind of meditation? Does it fulfil an almost spiritual need?
Yeah it does, that is exactly what I would consider it, a meditation especially as I get older. It always has been, I don’t know if that’s true. If I were a young me right now I’d be irritated listening to me right now because just because I am older doesn’t mean I am any wiser. It’s just to say that maybe I had more on my mind back then with contests and stuff. I don’t care, I don’t have to prove anything whereas before maybe I did.
That’s the only reason I can say I appreciate it more as a meditation. But the truth is I am a deeply spiritual person. I pray twice a day and a huge part of my skating is just that, which is part of the reason I like to do it alone, I don’t want people watching me. It’s part of my thing, always, since I was 10 years old it’s been the same.
From your first Ted Talk many others have followed. We enjoyed the footage of you on the roof of the Smithsonian. What elements of your experience do you hope the communities you have addressed have taken away and what have you gained from the experience yourself?
That is a great question. Where I am right now in skateboarding, though I am not out doing videos and I miss that and it took me so long to get over that. It was a huge part of my self worth, ‘what have I done? What have I filmed?’ That was hard for me to get past and I genuinely felt that I wouldn’t have the same place in the community over time. That’s natural. What was in my heart when I couldn’t skate especially, I was having a really rough time, again with my bones fusing. I thought that was it for me and I just fell into this. What struck me is that even though I may be unknown in skateboarding in a matter of years, where kids don’t recognise or don’t care or whatever. At least I could go on and show the purity of skateboarding.
Why I couldn’t skate is because my father, being a doctor said I would become a bum that I couldn’t do it because of that. He had the authority to do so. If I can go to people of that calibre, doctors, lawyers, scientists, university professors, a fields medal winner. If I can go to them and express why skateboarding is special and that they in fact could have something to learn from it, then that would be a gift that i could give to skateboarding. Skateboarding has given me everything I have including my identity. It would never have to know me, it would be my way of saying I want to give that impression to all the parents, whoever it would be to show some respect to those kids who are just trying to learn. Even if they suck, even if they are getting broken up, even if they are having a hard time, show some respect.
What they have given me in return has been, both from the community and it’s acceptance toward me, that I have done that. I never expected that, I never even expected that. Alongside that as I am in these forums and I can say very specific ones, Poptech. I stated this on the Berrics and I can go on but they are great examples. A Yale law professor coming up to me and saying they train these high level students at a huge expense to be great at what they do which is law. They graduate them and they won’t put in the research into the unknown for the sake of doing it, because of billable hours. They shoot with a certain target in sight, they are afraid to fail or don’t have time for swishing around into the unknown which makes them bad lawyers, or not as good as they could be, or not as true to the spirit of the thing. Him saying ‘thank you for showing that, I’m going to show this in our law class inside of Yale.’
To me, I can cite a half dozen examples just like that. Another MIT big data ethics professor, Australian. Another doctor an oncologist, a researcher who had both an MD and a PHD in science. In terms of research they have the same basic ideas. They are saying from what I am giving them that they wish more skateboarders would become doctors or lawyers or researchers because they would be better than those they are training in their best institutions. When I hear that, I get no greater sense of gratification for what that can give.
Rodney signing an iPhone which is apt if you keep reading
Has it opened up any new directions of personal research?
That’s a good question. Absolutely, it opens up. I speak at a medical school in September so I know they will test me in a way. I’m surrounded by doctors, even setting up the flights, they call me doctor because they aren’t used to people who aren’t doctors, Mr’s. I have to study up on medical terminology and understanding cognitive sciences and dealing with them. I always research that way. When I’m speaking with some big data guys who have been great to me I need to learn about doing big data. I’m supposed to talk about the human element. Injecting the human element in this overly, potentially analytical community that sometimes forgets that we are humans, we don’t always obey algorithms.
They inspire me to brush up on statistical analysis or big data practises. I’m going to speak at Apple so now I’m reading Jonny Ive’s biography to understand basic design elements because that is so much of their perspective. Fusing hardware and software and design as it’s based around what we think and feel from that personal intuition. How do I relate that to skateboarding? These are constant studies for me which I love. I couldn’t ask for anything better, a constant challenge and I’m being challenged by ‘THE guys.’ What more could you ask for? It’s humbling because you walk in feeling stupid but they also give you respect.
What are you looking forward to this coming year?
I look forward to that feeling I’ve always gotten when you know you have given something hard like getting footage, I actually want that. I couldn’t do that for so long and I’m going to New York and work with Stephen and Danny and get footage. Maybe I will do another thing with Ben and Daewon and Haslam. I want that feeling of being sore at the very end of the day and taking a shower and being exhausted and knowing you got it. I want that, I want more of that. I love being afraid. Before getting on stage, my heart is about to jump out of my chest and I love that feeling of ‘Shit! am I going to fail?’ and then coming off stage to relief.
I have come off stage a few times thinking ‘I screwed that up.’ But I like that, that propels me. I’m looking forward to travelling a little bit and meeting different personalities. I like being that no name guy. My girlfriend works with a bunch of big actors so Woody Harrelson is one of her really close friends. I’m going to be in New Orleans around Woody and all these guys. Believe me I’m not dropping names it is just a completely different community and I am nobody in that. I like that, seeing how they behave. They are very special, it’s good to see what makes them so special. I’m going to that in a few months which will be fun. I love being in New Orleans. Talented people and what a weird culture the movie culture is. I like being uncomfortable if that makes sense, I’m always afraid of being too comfortable because then I feel like I’m failing.
Interview by Jacob Sawyer. Photographs by Maksim Kalanep