Tommy Guerrero is busy. So busy that the legendary pro skater and original Bones Brigade member was unable to answer the question I emailed him: “What is the meaning of life according to Tommy Guerrero?”
It’s a simple question with a simple answer, but all Tommy was able to muster in return was a limp-wristed, “Life? Is now.”
I have no idea what that means. This was supposed to be an email interview, but after a couple days he relented and agreed that responding to my incessant emails would take longer than just getting on the phone and having a conversation.
So when I called him, the first thing I asked was, “What’s up? Why are you so busy that you can’t answer an email?”
“Trying to get ready for this European tour,” he said in a cheery, but slightly weary voice, “and I have a 10-year-old son, and I work at DLX, and I’m dealing with tax stuff, and all of these other things. But I’ve been trying to get this tour together since September.”
Back in the 1980s, Tommy Guerrero was one of the first skaters to go pro as a street skater.
The industry was dominated by vert back then, but Tommy, with fellow street skaters like Natas Kaupas, Mark Gonzales, Ken Park, etc., will be remembered as a pioneer in skateboard history because he turned the streets of San Francisco into his personal skatepark and – do we really need this history lesson again?
This is such a conspicuous period in skateboarding that I feel like I’m talking to children. Anyway, all the while Tommy was quietly making music, from the early punk rock of his band Free Beer, to the bluesy latin fusion groovadelic hues that would become his sound as a solo artist.
And the good stuff keeps coming. At the time of writing, he has just finished his seventh album, No Mans Land, “an ambient collection of beat-driven funk,” that he’s taking on his first tour of Europe.
Aside from the usual tour preparations, he’s also had to deal with a whole new band because every member of his usual group had to bow out of the tour for various reasons.
Luckily he’s found three competent musical stunt doubles – one of whom is Alfredo Ortiz, the Beastie Boys’ live drummer – but teaching and rehearsing the material has been taking up some time.
“So you’re real busy?” I said, laughing. “Not fake busy?”
“Yeah, exactly,” he replied. Fake busy: people who say they’re super busy, even though they’re not, but they feel they need to sound important because if you’re not super busy then you’re a fucking loser. I’m guilty of it, too.
“Oh my gaawwwd, I’m sooooo busy, like, seriously…” Next time someone asks you what you’re up to, tell them that you’re not busy at all. “I’m doing absolutely nothing.” They’ll congratulate you, that’s nice, but their expression will say, “Fuckin’ weirdo?”
TV series The Real Housewives is about a bunch of rich morons who are all completely bat shit crazy and fake busy all the time. A fake busy day for one of them involves going shopping for a red carpet event on Friday night, then meeting a friend for lunch and drinks at a swanky restaurant.
That’s not busy, that’s just a rich, white person schedule. Busy is when you have to get up at 4am to catch a bus to the first of your three jobs.
“Did you know that your tour poster has a typo?” I asked. I’m a snoot. He did not. “Mans is not a word. There should be an apostrophe in that: No Man’s Land.”
“Oh, yeah, I know,” Tommy said. “I spelled it like that because I kind of like to spell things wrong.”
“You’ve been working with Mark [Gonzales] for too long,” I said. “Exactly. I’ve been dealing with his art a lot. I don’t have that free-form expression with words like Mark does, but…”
Tommy’s day job is acting as one of the grand poobahs over at DLX Distribution in San Francisco where, among other things, he helps run Mark Gonzales’ Krooked Skateboards, the skate company/art empire that embodies Gonz’s wizard-like status.
Mark faxes over drawings and scattered thoughts, and Tommy (along with partner Jim Thiebaud) tries to make sense of them. And sometimes he doesn’t make sense of them. Which is why it’s so rad.
“What’s been cool is that, over the last year and a half, I’ve taken more of a backseat dealing with the physical side of Krooked because I was getting full carpal-repetitive-stress-whatever disorder. So I was like, ‘The reason I am on this planet is not to colour Mark’s art.’ I know that’s not why I’m here. So I took a backseat on that stuff and now I’m just art directing, as they call it.”
“Are you sure that’s not the reason you’re here?” I asked. “Because I kind of prefer that response to the first question. The meaning of life according to Tommy Guerrero: Colouring in Mark Gonzales’ drawings.”
“Yeah, awesome,” he replied with a delightful sardonic tone.
“I don’t want to say you sound bitter,” I began, “but I’ve heard you say on a number of occasions that you don’t like sitting at a computer. Ultimately, I guess what I’m asking is, are you trying to transition into a full-time musician and out of DLX?”
“I don’t know yet,” he said thoughtfully, all trace of sardonica absent from his voice. “I’m not the one that’s built like [Jim] Thiebaud’s built. He’s such a workhorse and he works literally every second he’s awake. That’s what he does and that’s what he’s good at. I’m the opposite. My asset to DLX is doing what I do, which is being out there and connecting with people… Whatever reason I am here – whether it’s for music or, hopefully, inspiring people to do whatever they wanna do – I know it’s not sitting in front of a computer. You know, I just had a studio built and I bought an old Tascam 388 – it’s basically an 8-track tape machine – because I don’t want to sit in front of Pro Tools editing WAV files. It completely diminishes the moment within what music is really about, you know, the spontaneity of it. I just want to take a backseat to some degree on the computer scene.”
“I need to take a backseat to a lot of shit,” I said. “Sometimes when I say I’m busy, what I really mean is I’m busy being lazy. Leisure and doing nothing is really important to me. I’m like you: I’m not a workhorse. How important is leisure and doing nothing in your life?”
“I’m not one of those people that’s like, ‘I’m so busy!’” Tommy replied. “I make time for my life. Because shit is short and you only have one go at it. And to not actually enjoy the life you’re trying to have is retarded. I’m sitting in my backyard right now, and I live on the water, almost in this estuary where the bay comes through in Alameda, and it’s ridiculous. It’s like a permanent vacation.”
“That’s rad,” I said. “I trip out on people that just work all the time, like Gordon Ramsey and Martha Stewart. I enjoy working hard as well, but I also like not working. And occasionally, sleeping. When do these people sleep?”
“I don’t know what people do that makes them super busy. They’re doing all these things,” Tommy said, “but does any of it enrich anyone’s lives? Does it add anything positive to this global bullshit we all exist in? Does it make life better?”
“That’s a question that I don’t think enough people ask themselves,” I said. “Because we’re all too busy adding to this global bullshit.”
On the subject of global bullshit, I asked Tommy how he handles self-promotion and social media. I hate it.
When we were growing up, the cool kids didn’t walk around saying, ‘Look at me! I’m cool!’ That’s what kooks and claimers did. The cool kids just exuded cool and did cool things.
And, most importantly, they didn’t engage and mingle with the losers. But now it’s the opposite: you’re a kook if you don’t engage. (And I mean “kook” in the original sense of the word: only “crazy and eccentric” people aren’t connected.)
“How do you work it?” I asked. “As a musician I would imagine you kind of need to do that whether you like it or not?”
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “There’s a real fine line between looking like a kook and not. I don’t know how to do it. My friend helped me link all my social media bullshit together, like Facebook – I didn’t interact on Facebook until recently. And I don’t care for it, I don’t even really know how it works, but it’s a way to get the message out, like about this tour. I want people to show up and I want the tour to work because, one: I’m already going to lose at least five grand and do not want to lose any more. I’m just doing this because I want to celebrate this record and have fun. It’s just a reason to go get in the van, you know? Go on a journey, just like skating. Same shit. Road trip. So in that sense I’d like it to be successful.
“And, two: I’d like it to be successful so that maybe I can come back and do it again sometime – like, have the venues and the promoters all stoked because everyone came to the shows and dug it. So using those social vehicles to spread the word, in that sense it’s great. I use Instagram mainly to just share old skate photos with people. I have bags and boxes full of skate shit. There are a lot of photos of me floating around, a lot of them I’ve never even seen, and they’re interesting to me because it’s like looking at someone else’s life to some degree. And people respond in really cool ways. It’s very flattering, you know?”
I follow @tommyguerrero. It’s rad to revisit all the classic photos of Tommy shredding legendary San Francisco spots like Fort Miley, the BART station, Casting Ponds, China Banks, all saturated with that smooth Tommy Guerrero style. But I’m always taken aback by how different he looked back in the 1980s.
“You look weird to me with no facial hair and no glasses,” I said.
“Yeah, me too,” he said. “But the self-promotion shit is really hard. I’ve always had a hard time with it, especially with music because people put it out there as though they are the end-all-be-all. And you’re like, ‘Dude, there are so many people better than you at everything,’ you know? It’s incredible. That’s the hard part. And I’m an idiot, right? I didn’t graduate high school. I obviously never went to college, no sort of background whatsoever. You once asked me if I had a real job? I worked at a skate shop before I turned pro.”
Tommy grew up in San Francisco under less than ideal circumstances in the 1970s and 1980s, but he was at ground zero for one of the most influential and notorious skate scenes in history.
Thrasher magazine, still based in San Francisco, had just begun and northern California became the epicentre for the future of skateboarding. Unlike other magazines that preceded it, like Action Now, Thrasher showed the reality of skateboarding: it was punk rock and brutal.
It was not about sidewalk surfing and spinning 360s under the palm trees in sunshiny Southern California. In Thrasher, and the NorCal scene the mag covered, skateboarders looked and acted more like Hell’s Angels than pretty-boy athletes.
As a little kid, it was enthralling: to be a skateboarder was to pillage and plunder drainage ditches and backyard pools – ‘Skate and Destroy’ was the magazine’s motto.
I didn’t have to fantasise about being a cowboy, or a pirate, or an outlaw, I could actually be one: a skateboarder.
It was hardcore, and Tommy Guerrero was an early influence because he got a lot of coverage back then. Not only did he skate at 100 mph and destroy everything in his path, but he did it with one of the coolest, smoothest styles to ever pilot a land sled.
His skating didn’t go unnoticed because after only briefly working at Concrete Jungle skate shop with Jake Phelps (who would become the current editor of Thrasher), his only job ever, Tommy became a professional skateboarder at a very young age, going on to pioneer street skateboarding.
I’ve always liked to joke that Tommy has never had a real job, because he’s only been a pro skater and a professional musician, but then I think I’m just jealous.
“So, yeah,” Tommy said, “I have no skills, none. No fucking skills whatsoever. I could never get a job doing anything. So therefore I just rely on what I know which is really DIY, which is what skateboarding has taught us, if anything. Just like punk rock: do your stuff. That’s how all the music shit started, it just started out of necessity. So now you find yourself as a fuckin’ old ass man and I’m like, you know, I’m still interested in doing these things – making music, creating art, or whatever it is – but how do you sustain yourself financially on these things you love to do? I can’t get out there and skate any more on a professional level obviously, so that’s not gonna do it, so I gotta figure out something because I’m not going to get a job. I would be fired the first half hour I walked in the office. The boss would say some shit to me and I’d tell him to go fuck himself. It’s true. People are harsh. People are frequently unkind. People are self-centered. People are egotistical, angry, and it’s gnarly. Most people I cannot deal with. I cannot deal with the masses like that.”
Tommy has a lot of skills, but most importantly he has that drive and ambition that all successful skateboarders possess. And you can’t teach that.
No one taught Tommy how to do frontside ollies and there was no reward for learning them other than a feeling of accomplishment. And if you have that kind of internal drive, you can be successful at whatever you put your mind to.
Tommy’s musical career is a perfect example: he has no long-term label backing, no tour manager, and yet he’s touring Europe with his seventh solo album – just like skating, he’s figured it out on his own.
“Let’s talk more music then,” I said. “Do you prefer the studio or live?”
“I like all of it,” he said. “I really like the creative process of messing around in the studio. Because my process is different: where everybody does demos and slap tracks and all that shit, I don’t do any of that. What you get on the recording is what you get at that moment. My process is much more spontaneous and of-the-moment. I really enjoy that. And I like playing with other people because that’s like having a conversation, you know? Instead of a constant masturbatory existence of loneliness.
“I get tired of myself. So it’s good to have that balance and other ideas and thoughts in the mix. And live is great, except for right now just gearing up and having to teach these songs. I prefer improvising – having a couple of set ideas and just going for it. I like that more than anything because you don’t know what’s going to happen and every time you do it it’s different. It’s not the same laboured song you played eighty billion times where you’ve taken the life of it.”
“I’ve always found a skate session and a jam session really similar,” I said.
“Yeah exactly,” he said. “How many frontside grinds have you done? And every time it feels just different and every time you’re like, ahhhh, a little farther, a little faster, a little something. You’re never going to stop doing frontside grinds because that moment in time, that feeling, it’s fucking amazing, but it’s so fleeting. So you’re like, ‘I gotta get that feeling again,’ you know?”
“I’ve always grudgingly accepted that contests are a part of skateboarding and they’re fine, whatever,” I said. “But I realised recently, no, fuck that, contests are stupid. I realised that what I liked about contests was that it was the only time all the pro skaters we wanted to see would assemble in one place, and ultimately that made an epic session. That to me is the amazing feeling: when everyone is ripping and feeding off each other. Just like when you’re jamming.”
“I tried to watch Street League once,” Tommy said, “and I was like, ‘Wow, this is fucking weird.’ But I totally agree, it’s the only time when you can get together and there are a lot of people you get to see that you rarely get to see and you just skate and have fun. I know me and Jim [Thiebaud], when we first started doing Real, we changed how we did demos. Instead of showing up like a monkey in a cage jumping around, we made it all inclusive, everybody could skate with us. We wanted everyone to be part of it. Contests should be more like a jam format: everybody show up, get paid a couple hundred bucks, or five hundred bucks, or whatever the purse is, split it, skate, and then you’re going to see a way gnarlier session. Because I know how it works: you stay on your board, be consistent, and that’s how you do business in a contest. Unlike Mark [Gonzales]. Mark was always the one that had the gnarliest thing in the contest, he would go for it, but place 10th. But everyone remembers how rad Mark was because he didn’t adhere to that notion of playing it cool.”
“Have you seen that video of Neil Blender and that contest run he did where he takes a can of spraypaint out of his pocket and paints a face on one of the obstacles?”
“Yeah, Arizona,” Tommy said, remembering that early street contest in Tempe, Arizona in 1986.
“That, to me, is the essence and the spirit of skateboarding right there,” I said. “He’s like, ‘I’m supposed to do this? Well fuck you, then I’m going to spray paint a face on the wall and make art.’”
“That was the best,” Tommy says laughing. “That was seriously one of the raddest moments. If you watch it again, he kicks his board into the wall, and then he kicks it again like, ‘Hey!’ It’s so fucking awesome. It’s the spirit of skating. Where it’s like, ‘I’m not conforming to your fucking notions of what I should be doing and how I should be doing it.’ That spirit is never going to go away.”
“It’s funny you noticed that part with him kicking the board. The part I’m infatuated with is when he raises a sarcastic fist in the air.”
“Oh yeah, the slow hand rise?”
“He’s like, ‘Fuck yeah, bro. Check out how gnarly I am!’”
“It’s so good,” Tommy said laughing.
It is so good. And so is Tommy Guerrero.
Find out more about Tommy Guerrero.