Let’s Go Skate: Tommy Guerrero
Tommy Guerrero. Photo: Claudine Gossett
In my earliest teens I had so many friends who I had no idea at the time were just a couple of years away from the end of their lives. It felt like every year I lost another friend and skateboarding was what kept me out of the troublesome things that they had all gotten into. Though my first deck was a Hosoi, the first deck I bought was a Powell Peralta Tommy Guerrero model. Watching the Bones Brigade videos and reading the mags, guys like Tommy Guerrero were the ones I could relate to the most. Skating the streets, hopping off of jump ramps, and just using curbs, ditches, and pretty much any terrain we could find, it always felt like Guerrero was the one Brigade member I wanted to emulate the most. When I reached out to him, I had no idea that I’d actually hear back. Though Guerrero literally helped shape my teens through his skating, he’s been a busy guy since that time and he never really seems to look back. Co-founder of Real Skateboards, an accomplished and critically acclaimed musician, and former art director for Krooked Skateboards — under the Deluxe Distribution brand who distributes Spitfire Wheels, Thunder and Venture Trucks, as well as Krooked, Anti Hero, and Real Skateboards — Guerrero doesn’t ever seem to slow down. It’s refreshing to see someone who just lives in the moment and who incorporates all of his past and his present into his future. Free Press Houston was more than thrilled to sit down with him and talk about all he’s done, all he does, and all he has in the works for the future.
Free Press Houston: You grew up in San Francisco where Thrasher is based, do you see San Francisco as the birthplace of street skating?
You won the first street contest as an amateur, and you and Gonz both had pro models come out in 1985, but which one came out first?
Tommy Guerrero: I don’t think San Francisco is the birthplace, but because of Thrasher being here they just reported on it more. Things are happening simultaneously throughout the world, so who’s to say where the birthplace of street skating is. We never really had a skatepark here after South Bay closed in 1980, so we just skated the streets cause’ that’s all we had. Not many people in San Francisco have backyards or at least yards big enough for a ramp, so we skated street just based off of geography and necessity. The terrain alone of San Fran made us ride street more than anything else.
Mark and I were the first to turn professional for street skating specifically, but I don’t know if his board came out before mine or not, so I don’t know who was first. But you know, Lance [Mountain], [John] Lucero, and Neil [Blender] were all skating street before us. They were just known more for vert skating.
FPH: I know you don’t really get nostalgic, but when you were doing the Bones Brigade stuff, as it was happening, did it seem as revolutionary as it became known for?
Guerrero: We weren’t conscious of it at the time, we were just skating. Thrasher and Powell got behind it so hard, which is what really pushed it. I mean, when things happen, you’re in the moment, so it didn’t seem revolutionary at all back then.
FPH: I’ve heard stories about skaters saying “Tommy bought us beers” or your (Mike) McGill smoking hash story. I know the other guys were seen as “choir boys” by some of the other skaters of the time, but you guys drank and smoked out, right?
Guerrero: No one did hard drugs, but we weren’t “choir boys” either. Mostly just beer and occasionally weed, but that’s it.
FPH: You and Jim [Thiebaud] started Real Skateboards in 1991, how big of a leap of faith was it to start your own brand back then?
Guerrero: It was huge. We had no idea what we were doing in the beginning other than to just skate and stick to what we believed in. Fausto [Vitello] and Eric Swenson gave us the money to order like our first 300 boards, or maybe it was 100, I forget. Coming from Powell, I was paid off of royalties at a dollar a deck and that was it. So coming into Real and taking a two thirds pay cut wasn’t easy, but I did it because I wanted to stay in skating for the rest of my life and it was important to do.
FPH: You guys have a pretty stellar team including possibly one of the greatest street skaters currently riding, Dennis Busenitz. I see Busenitz and you having a lot in common where you both are tying two eras together, have you ever seen that as a common thing between you two before?
Guerrero: I’ve never really seen that, but the guys today stand out in two big ways being that they’re so technical and that they’re so consistent with their tricks. Some of these guys are gnarly and effortless in how they come up with different variations of tricks. When we first learned kickflips, we figured there were about thirty different ways to do them, These guys today blow me away with how they can just keep taking things to the next level. Because so many of them came into skating so recently, their starting point is off the charts already. It only makes sense that they’d have the green light to just go nuts with it.
FPH: I know you do art direction for the brands of Deluxe, do you still do graphics work or is it just taking what the artists work on and getting it to have the overall look that you want? Who’s idea was it to do the Trump deck?
Guerrero: I was doing Krooked hands on where Mark [Gonzales] would just send me the art and I’d handle the layout and the marketing of it all with the overall look and feel of the brand. But the repetitive stress in my arms and in my hands along with being in front of the computer all day is not my place in this world. So that all took a backseat years ago, and we have a really talented team of artists today. So Jim will show me stuff and I’ll put in my two cents but that’s about it.
Jim came up with that one. He really likes to fuck with establishment.
Tommy Guerrero in Japan. Photo: Claudine Gossett
FPH: Your grandfather was a jazz musician, you and your brother had a punk band that played with Bad Brains, DOA, and more; does it feel like music has helped shape who you are in more ways than one?
Guerrero: Yeah, completely. Because skating and punk were still new back then with outcasts in both worlds. With punk you didn’t need lessons, you didn’t need to learn “Louie Louie,” and you didn’t need a past in music, you just need that DIY energy. When you’re a kid, when things are just fucked up, skating and punk back then were like saying, “fuck you” to the jocks and the people who beat you up. Because when they’d come into our world, they were the outcasts, but we were the outcasts in the everyday world. I can’t say this enough, but back then, skating was not cool. The two worlds go hand in hand because skating and music are both built off of acceptance from your friends. Music was another form of expression, and in a way, we’re all fuck ups. But when you’re with your kind, things are just better. Skaters see the world in a different way just in how we look at a red painted curb. Every one else sees it as a red curb and that’s it, but a skater sees it as fun for hours. We have seen friends die young while we grew up throwing ourselves into the ground for fun. We’re different. Not many people wanna’ fall down for a living.
FPH: Your solo work feels like my impression of who you are in everything you do. There’s a flow to it, especially on this last solo album, 2015’s Perpetual where it feels like who you are in that moment while embodying the vibe of the bay area. Is that the goal, for it to be a flowing entity that exists in that moment and time?
Guerrero: To be honest, a lot of the time I have an idea of how to approach it. On that one, I wanted to steer away from making an album in front of a computer, moving wav files around. So I bought an eight track Tascam, and worked within the limitations of what I had in front of me. The album before that one was darker and less open, so I wanted something with a sixties drum machine, a floor tom, and a surf almost desert rock guitar sound.
FPH: The most recent album, Concrete Jungle from your group with Ray [Barbee] & Chuck [Treece], Blktop Project is all improvised correct? Was that the plan from the start, to just go in and see what comes out?
Guerrero: We had a day and a half to record, because Ray is super busy, so we worked loosely on ideas and grooves. We set up in a live room of the recording studio and the foundation of the album we did like it was a rehearsal. We wrote a bunch on the spot, but that made it better I think because it was a challenge. I go back and listen to it now and there are things on it that are really great moments.
FPH: I know you just toured Japan doing solo sets and DJ sets, do you see the DJ sets becoming something you’ll start doing on the regular?
Guerrero: I’ve been spinning records for a long time now. I have a friend who has a killer record collection who lets me borrow things, and since I turned 45, I decided to only spin 45’s. I don’t use a Serrato or anything, but I wanted the tour to have a party atmosphere. So I did the solo sets with just me and some looper pedals. I wanted to spin the 45’s with a social type of gathering where I could do something different to change it up and keep it interesting for me and the crowd. Because I go there alot and I really just wanted it to be a different experience for them so I don’t wear out my welcome by coming back again and again and doing the same ol’ things. I also wanted to challenge myself by mixing it up.
FPH: How did BS with TG become a thing?
Guerrero: I’d been talking about it for a while. I love a good story, just BS ing with characters, especially skaters. I love Steve Olson, and I’ve gotten to where I can get someone to just tell me story. Originally I had planned to do it in a bar, you know how people will tell a bartender anything? That’s the look I had in mind and I had a friend who was gonna’ let me use his bar, but it was complicated so I just got a camera and Frank [Gerwer] and we just did it. He’s such a funny guy and so it made sense to use him for it. It’s hard to have consistency because all of our videographers are all out shooting skaters.
FPH: Are there dream guests for you or is it just a shoot from the hip thing on who does it?
Guerrero: Well, I’ve kind of gotten them all already. I mean getting Mark [Gonzales], everyone in the skate community knows that there’s no one else like Mark. He’s such a good guy and I’ve seen him give people the shirt off of his back before, literally. He’s so funny and he has such great stories, plus knowing for so long I’ve gotten to see him through all of the incarnations of his life. Back when he’d come to my mom’s house she’d even be like “your friend Mark is a funny guy.” I mean, I got Natas [Kaupus], the white unicorn of skating who never does interviews, Eric Dressen and Tony [Hawk], too. I’d like to get Neil [Blender] and I really wanna’ do Ed Templeton but I wanna’ go down to where he is to do it. [John] Cardiel is someone else I’d like to interview and [Geoff] Rowley just because he does what he does and just doesn’t give a fuck. I went and did that one with Matt Hensley and we didn’t really talk about Flogging Molly, so I’d like to do a second one with him. I mean, there are too many people in our history that I’d like to do but I’m unprepared. I’m so fucked and I’m not the most organized person.
FPH: You’ve lived a life under a lens, you come off as a guy who looks forwards and never backwards, but if you had the chance to go back and tell your younger self anything, what would it be?
Guerrero: Don’t be so stupid.
It’s insane and inspiring that Tommy Guerrero never seems to stop. Between recording albums, playing shows, and running a skateboard company he still has the time to live in the moment without ever looking back. You can find Real Skateboards at pretty much any professional skate shop, you can find his solo albums and work with Blktop Project in all of the digital outlets, and you can catch new episodes of BS With TG here on Youtube. While he’s not one to relish the “good ole days,” he definitely doesn’t look on all he’s done without humility and grace. Possibly one of the most humble guys you could meet, he’s definitely someone to admire as much today as he was thirty years ago.