Tony Alva Interview – House Of Vans

Tony Alva's birthday celebrations and documentary showcase at HOV

At the tail end of last week, House of Vans London threw a belated birthday celebration for Z-Boys OG and pool skating innovator Tony Alva. With his actual 60th birthday a couple of months in the past, this was more of a showcase for the documentary on TA put together by filmmaker Alex Baret AKA Mayol and a general evening of appreciation for one of the people responsible for moving skateboarding in what was, at the time, an entirely new direction. Of course, chuck in a large amount of free booze, half of the London skate scene and the fact that the weekend was fast approaching and it took no-one much prompting to celebrate like it was a birthday.

The statement “We used to mix our booze with drugs” got a huge cheer from the crowd during the Q&A, a bunch of people’s Alva boards (printed specially for the occasion) got lost or nicked during the evening’s partying and we ended up in the tunnel next to the venue once it closed, half twisted and doing slappy grinds through broken glass and head swimming levels of paint fumes.

California it ain’t, but London definitely still gave Tony a solid welcome – even if he was almost certainly sick of fielding questions about 80s skateboarding by the end of the night/my interview…

Photography by Chris Johnson – Interview by Jono Coote

Hi Tony, we’re here as part of your 60th birthday celebrations at HOV…

Yep, my actual birthday was on September the 2nd but we’re still going, carrying it on through to the end of the year. I was born in 1957 so it’s 60 years, 46 of those as a professional skateboarder.

And you’ve been taking the celebrations around the world?

No, this is the first one we’ve really done. We did a documentary of the last seven or eight years, travelling and doing promotional stuff for Vans, so we decided to show the film that Alex Mayol and I made from those adventures – first for a sales meeting that happened a couple of days ago and now for the public. My band plays all the music in the film too. We’re kind of a bluesy, psychedelic rock band that I play bass in.

And who are some of your favourite musicians from the skateboard and surf scenes? We were talking about JFA earlier…

JFA, all those guys are real skaters, that’s for sure! The two of those guys who I’m really close with and who have always been connected with that skate rock thing are Brian Brannon and Don Pendleton. Really, really cool guys, they don’t do it to be trendy or popular or any of that fashion oriented stuff – they’re in it because they love skateboarding.

“Robert Trujillo who plays in Metallica now, he loves surfing. I skate with his son all the time”

Let me think…I just talked the other day to Ian Mackaye. I’ve always had a deep love and respect for what Ian’s done, not only for music but also for skateboarding. He really loves it. Tim Kerr from the Big Boys, he’s an amazing dude and a super spiritual, really cool cat. Robert Trujillo who plays in Metallica now, he loves surfing. I skate with his son all the time, he’s part of the next generation of rock musician skateboarders and surfers. There’s an endless list though. Most of the guys I hang out with are from Los Angeles, but those are a few of the guys I see around who are still doing it.

Christian Hosoi had a big birthday recently – he’s ten years younger than I am, he had a couple of bands that I hadn’t seen play live in a while come and play at the party. The Drunk Injuns played, you know with Mofo, and he had TSOL playing – pretty much the original line up apart from the drummer. Jack Grisham, Mike Roche, Ron Emory and I’m not sure who was on the drums, but they had someone who was pretty good.

You’ve spoken before in interviews about surf skating and how people with those styles are instantly recognisable. Who on the scene at the moment with this kind of approach gets you stoked? How do you find that your surfing influences your skateboarding and vice versa?

One of my favourite surfers in the world right now who rides those asymmetrical boards, makes his own boards and everything, is a kid named Ryan Burch. He’s unbelievable and he’s a good surfboard shaper too. The other guy I really like, more of a ‘surfer’ surfer but definitely with a skate style because he’s so retro, is a kid named Tyler Warren. These kids shape their own boards and everything, this new generation is just unbelievably talented. There’s a couple of kids – I call them kids but they’re probably in their 30s by now – that influence me in surfing. One of them is Dave Rastovich, he’s sponsored by Patagonia and is a spokesperson and activist for ecological issues and sustainability. He’s an amazing surfer, and a musician as well. His roots are in the Maori culture, he’s lived in Australia for a while and he’s into a lot of acoustic instruments.

There’s a bunch of amazing surfers out there these days. They’re not maybe what the kids look up to because they don’t travel around the world competing in contests and trying to make money, but they definitely have an ability to go out and ride and make it look beautiful. These guys all have a connection to something that is important in surfing, which is that connection with nature that is a part of the human experience.

Ivan Federico celebrates with a banger of a kickflip body jar – photo CJ

And, on the flipside, whose skating at the moment do you see as being very surf influenced?

I think there’s a bunch of really good guys out there who are ripping. Daniel Lutheran, his style’s really cool and has that surf feel to it even though he’s a kid from Albuquerque. I’ve said it before, some of the guys that are really influenced by surfing were never really daily surfers. Guys like Bennett Hirata, he’s a Venice local, I love watching him skate. Pat Ngoho, a very underrated skater on a competitive level and just a really smooth, fluid style. I love skating with Pat and watching him skate.

“Eric Dressen is pretty interesting, he’s got a lot of original moves and he isn’t a ‘follow the leader’ kind of guy”

Eric Dressen is pretty interesting, he’s got a lot of original moves and he isn’t a ‘follow the leader’ kind of guy – he’s always had his own approach to things, which is very spontaneous. I did a trip to Japan with him recently and we had a great time, it was cool to see him out there still skating. He does a bunch of stuff on the road with Vans now, he’s one of those guys who is a part of the family and definitely feels like a positive addition to the team. He’s been a professional skateboarder since he was about 12 years old and it feels like he’s going through a renaissance right now, which is pretty neat. He’s no joke, he’s a very fast and fluid skateboarder.

Jon Horner hides behind his handiwork

You were last here for the HOV opening night, but you came here properly back in the day and hit a few 70s parks right? Do you remember much about that visit?

We documented that whole trip, so I remember pretty much all of that stuff. It was great, I think I was the first American to come out and actually do demos and skate in England. I feel really grateful for that experience and that I was able to come out at such an early stage in the evolution of skateboarding.

Too many legends in the House! Nicky Guerrero sweeper on his OG Powell board. Top marks! Photo CJ

Have you been back to any of those parks since?

No, and the funny thing is, after skating that park the other day – Stockwell – that took me back to that experience with the texture of the concrete, the graffiti, the cold weather. It was neat! I haven’t had the chance too much when I’ve visited England lately to get much beyond the city limits of London. It’s not bad though, I feel like there’s so much going on in this city that I would have to spend some more quality time here to really break away and do some skateboarding and surfing in other parts of the country. I’m definitely interested to see what’s out there sometime though.

You started Alva Skates fairly young, what prompted you to do that? How did you go about choosing riders for the team back then? It seems to have been made up of pretty raw, punk dudes – ex Zorlac skaters, Fred Smith etc…

Well that was in the 80s and that was the second generation of the team. The first team was when I started Alva Skateboards out of my garage – we always started out of garages and it would grow from there. It reminds me of that song The Clash did, ‘Garageland’ [laughs]. We gathered some momentum, the first team was guys like Dave Hackett, Cara-Beth Burnside and Steve Alba. I had a bunch of good riders in the 70s, actually Eric Dressen rode for me back in the day. Then when it evolved into the Alva Posse thing it completely changed and we ended up with this kind of pirate ship vibe going on. We had a lot of good riders then – Bill Danforth, Fred Smith, John Gibson, Craig Johnson, Eddie Reategui, Dave Duncan, Jef Hartsel, Chris Cook, John Thomas, we just had some amazing talent on that team. Besides the Bones Brigade, I don’t think there’s ever been a team that versatile. I mean they were mostly vert skaters, but that was what we saw happening at the time anyway – the big name vert skaters were the ones selling boards. Guys like Jim Murphy, he was a big part of the team.

“Then when it evolved into the Alva Posse thing it completely changed and we ended up with this kind of pirate ship vibe going on”

We sold big runs of boards for those guys – I think Fred Smith never even turned pro, and he sold a minimum of 10,000 boards a month when it was popular. It was good, because it taught us a lot about life as well as skateboarding. Eventually and like anything that gets that big and popular it imploded on itself, but I think that had a lot to do with the rise and fall of the business part of skateboarding. It’s always been that kind of thing where people lose track of where they came from and where they’re going. If it’s not a long term financial arrangement it starts to fall apart, so unfortunately a lot of those guys moved on to other things. And it never really was greener pastures, that’s about as green as it got. For me, I can look back and say that I’m proud of those guys and that I think what we did had a significant impact on skateboarding; nothing but good really came out of that.

Jef Hartsel’s recent interview on The Chrome Ball Incident made the Alva House in Venice sound pretty gnarly – do you have any particular favourite stories from that house and period of time?

Definitely man, some rough shit went down! We were lucky we lived through that [laughs]. A lot of drinking, a lot of partying. But then a lot of really good trips as professional skateboarders, heavy sessions, it was really cool.

How was the experience of the Alva Posse being involved with legendary skate flick/cheese fest Thrashin?

That was pretty much that era of the team, they took a few guys and used them as characters in the movie as ‘The Daggers’. That’s where that whole Daggers thing that’s still going on in California came from, it stemmed from that. But the Daggers are a fictional part of skateboarding, for me I can’t really live in the past with things I do. I like to progress, move into the future and let life evolve organically. So The Daggers are a thing of the past for me, and Thrashin’? Hmm, not one of my favourite projects to have worked on, but at the same time I can look back on it as a growing experience. My favourite film project was the one Stacy did about us as kids, which I feel proved itself not only in its innate creativity but also in the accolades it got. I mean to win the Sundance Film Festival Best Documentary category is a huge thing for us. It gave a shot in the arm to all of us with regards to extending our livelihood another decade or two, I know I’ve used it as a commercial vehicle to extend my career in skateboarding.

“The Daggers are a thing of the past for me, and Thrashin’? Hmm, not one of my favourite projects to have worked on”

I think that the documentary format to me has always been truer to life than the feature film version of skateboarding – it’s always given skateboarding a better image as well, to really tell the story rather than adding all these elements of fiction and surreal elements which take away from the integrity of skateboarding. Stacy knew what he was doing, he had a great vision and I think he achieved his goal. I’m still in touch with Stacy, he’s like a brother to me – a really good guy, I love that dude.

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