Max Schaaf interview – Assembly Chopper Show, London

Max Schaaf talks vert, Phelps and custom motorcycles at the House of Vans

Last week saw the Assembly Chopper Show take place at House of Vans London, with 40-50 custom motorcycles alongside artwork and tattooing taking place in the tunnel. This saw a wide array of people descend on the tunnels, including Real Skateboards vert legend and owner of motorcycle company 4Q, Max Schaaf.

The offer of an interview opportunity left me in the unique position of actually being slightly bummed out to be in Copenhagen, which I was at the time – luckily though, CJ was on hand to ask a selection of questions as well as take photos, with some motorcycle related questions offered up by Horsey. Therefore you are on this screen, reading my words and about to find out about living with Jake Phelps, being stoked on Sam Beckett, being less stoked on Steve Caballero, riding for Real literally ‘Since Day One’ and much more besides from the man himself…

Photography by Chris Johnson – Questions by Jono Coote administered by CJ + Horsey

What got you into the vert skating? It must have been towards the ‘vert crash’ when you started right? – Yeah, a couple of things – my dad lived in the suburbs and these kids there built a plywood one. They were a bit older and you always look up to that older generation, you know? So even though vert was dying, if I was 12 and then the 15, 17 year olds or whatever were in to vert – there were little vert ramps around, too. Everywhere I’d go downtown I’d get kicked out, while with vert you could go watch a Bones Brigade video, pretend to be Lance Mountain. So that was it, even though it was dying.

Once I started to get better at it, maybe around ’91 or ’92, that was really weird. I was friends with Mike Carroll, we’d go out street skating then I’d go home and skate vert because I lived with my mum in a warehouse and there was a vert ramp in there. So from when I was maybe 13 to 19, this is my bedroom door and here’s the vert ramp. It was never a chore, I couldn’t wait to do it. I knew there was a stigma against vert…

Max throws a Pabst powered frontside ollie – photo CJ

Did you ever struggle to get product that was big enough during that time? – No, I’d be riding 44mm wheels on vert at one point. All that shit seems silly now, but there were tricks that worked then that I couldn’t do on a big tank. Things like the noseslide to nosegrind – I’d see Henry Sanchez doing them at EMB, dipping the nose and then popping into nosegrind – the little wheels would pop up on a vert ramp. There was no filmer like there is now and if you shot a sequence…one of the first sequences I had was a kickflip backside disaster, I remember the first one happened within five rolls and that was quick for then! I remember shooting other shit and there would be 40 rolls gone through, you’d be apologising to the photographer and he’d be like “It’s ok, I shot someone backside flipping this double set the other day and it took 80 rolls”.

It’s so weird…we’re funny as skaters, it’s vert and it’s lame, it’s not as cool as street skating. That’s what the magazines said. But in any other part of life, punk or whatever, if it’s not as cool then you’re stoked because you love it. Like if choppers weren’t cool tomorrow there would be a lot of us that would be stoked, like “Cool, we can have it back now.” I had to do the X-Games and that shit and it was a chore. It was kind of embarrassing and lame, but you thought you had to do it to stay relevant – which you didn’t! I know that now. I don’t go to a lot of bike shows, there’s a ton…I go to Born Free because it’s seven hours away, it’s a big show and I can leave when I want. But I used to take it too seriously, like with skating, and it wasn’t fun. This year I went there to just have fun, not be in the show or anything. With skating it took me a long time to realise that it’s the same way – come here, have a good time, don’t piss anyone off and be respectful to the person putting on the show.

I guess when vert had a resurgence around the mid to late 90’s with big comps…it’s kind of gone that way, kicked off by the X-Games etc., with massive air comps, kickflip 540s. Meanwhile, you’ve kind of gone the other way… – I was skating vert with a lot of street skaters, Joey Tershay, whoever would come by from San Francisco – which was only a ten minute train ride from where I lived – and you’d just be excited for those dudes to come over. I used to love to skate ledges, go street skating, it just never gave me the same rush as a backside smith or a backside ollie on vert. To tell the truth, it just came easier to me. It was just one of those things, you couldn’t make me not skate it even if there were only three people doing it. I’m not trying to sound so ‘core’ or so ‘punk’, it’s just so fun. The first time I heard the term ‘adult swingset’ I was like fuck, it kind of is. For me it was also trying to do a weird line – a backside lipslide setting up for a 540, into a smith grind, into a kickflip indy. Lip, air, lip, air. I see these dudes now and…you know sometimes, when a kid gets really good then they grow up and don’t lose their little kid style and it looks really strange? A lot of those dudes look like that. There’s no life in it, it’s like technical music.

It’s almost like they’ve learnt to skate for competitions, it’s training. Obviously there are exceptions in that world, like Jimmy Wilkins… – Yeah Jimmy Wilkins definitely – and your guy, Sam Beckett. Someone sent me a clip of him the other day saying ‘I think he took this from your book’. It was a line, with an alley oop frontside grind…it was a line I totally know. But not like a planned line, just a line I like to do. I’m 44, Sam’s in his 20s or whatever and the fact that that line is still legit now, that’s really cool. That’s the weird thing about vert, no matter how many 30 foot high 540s you do – I just watched one of them online, it did nothing for me [laughs]. I remember, not to brag, when I did a backside flip on vert, I only knew that Danny Way had done that. It makes you feel like that person, like “I’m at the forefront!” But I knew I should never do a double flip, I knew that would look fucking jacked.

There’s certain things, like when Metallica made that one album where you’re like “Oh god, why? You were so rad!” That’s something I definitely learned from street skaters – Mike Carroll’s front hand, his front foot, you just wanted to see a flip over something! Or the back tail, with the hand and the foot and it looked perfect. The long back tail on the ledge that was on top rather than flip in, flip out.

It seems like back then, there were less heroes and less influences because there was less output. Now, there’s so many…Beckett grew up skating with 45 year old guys when he was about 15, that’s what gives him his mature head and I think that’s what sets him apart. – Think about the videos he was watching too – he was probably watching old Rune parts, because that’s what he had. You’re not going to watch contest footage to get stoked, you’re going to watch the video part with the good song because it has some feeling to it.

Going back to your vert ramp, the Widow Maker, did it get many solo sessions or did you keep it mostly to when visitors were round? What was the gnarliest shit you saw go down there? – I skated it as much as I could, but I lived with Jake Phelps at the time and it was his ramp. I had to skate by his rules and if he came home and I had three friends from high school there he would blow a gasket. So I would skate there alone for sure, so much. In fact one of the first times I ever tried a 540 I was alone. I almost got my clock cleaned but I really lucked out, just by the way I fell.

That’s what happened to Ali Cairns, he had a vert ramp in his garden and he broke his leg and nearly died. – Wow! Yeah, I lucked out…so gnarliest things? No one’s going to know these fucking names anymore. I cut school to watch Joe Lopes and Fred Smith, they were the first pros that I met. I skated with Hosoi, he skated there one night which was totally crazy. Then there were just people rolling in, that had to roll in.

Did any people at the time known as ‘street skaters’ roll in? – Oh yeah, every single one man! There was a good slam on that ramp every single time there was a good session. If you rolled in and slammed, you got to skate. Jake wanted to see carnage.

Following on from that, you must have some good stories from living with Phelps? – You know, I just had to watch that slam of his and loads of people were like “That dude sucks, it’s good to see him slam.” I know a completely different Jake than most people know. We read Charles Bukowski, we read Hunter S. Thompson and we love them because they’ve been in the mix, they’ve been punched by Hells Angels, whatever it is…but when you’re in a room with that dude, you don’t like him. That’s what Jake is [laughs]. But when you’re alone with him, you get a different person. I watch King of the Road and I’m like, who is this dude? But I have a deep respect for him and his dedication to skateboarding. And he has a big fucking brain in his head! He has a vocabulary, he’s well read. I don’t think he really knew Thrasher was going to come around as much as it did and he never pumped the brakes.

So his dedication to it, the level of shit he puts in his body and how hard he still goes – how he can still grind a deathbox in a pool…he comes from educated people and he chose to be the mess that he is. I think everyone who’s semi-famous thinks that there is going to be a documentary made about them one day and there possibly will be one about Jake, you know what I mean?

“Think about the normal 54 year old’s day, he’s not fucking bombing a hill, without a doubt.”

I always think about his funeral. When I watched that footage, I’d just been thinking about having to speak at his funeral because he’d been telling me about this head injury that he had. He always compares himself to a cockroach or a sewer rat, but I do think about what I’ll have to say then. He was like an older brother or father figure to me at one point, so like I said, I know this part of him that no one’s ever seen and I’ll have to tell people that.

That being said, I’ve never wanted to punch somebody in the face so badly. I’ve never wanted to beat someone with a bat as much as him. But as I’ve got older it’s nothing but respect, because no one can live that life!

Exactly – if Phelps is going to go and bomb a hill when he’s 50, it doesn’t matter whether you like him or not! – Totally! And you think about the normal 54 year old’s day, he’s not fucking bombing a hill, without a doubt. And even if they did…I surf, there’s a lot of older dudes that surf and they’re kind of reminding you all the time, it’s a strange deal. Jake’s always done it, he’s doing it because it’s what keeps him alive. Nothing but respect for that. Thrasher started as this hardcore thing, they started trying to freshen it up through the 90s, tried to get more street – not just more street skating but, you know, more ‘street’ [laughs]. And then it came back around to exactly what it should be.

You’ve been with Real right from the beginning – how did that first come about, and what’s kept you there for so long? – Well I’ve tried to quit or retire, but you know Jim’s a friend, Tommy’s a friend…it’s cheesy to say but it is a family. I’ve been there since the beginning, I skated with them when they were forming the team and the question came up. I’ve always dug Real. There have been times when I haven’t always agreed with their ideas, like when Zero was really popular our graphics got really ‘Zero’…like what I was saying about Thrasher, there are these dips and then they get to breathe again.

I got extremely distracted by bikes, I would skate but I don’t have the proper personality to be focused on one single thing. Financially that’s a really fucked up way to live. If you skated, did contests and promoted your sponsors you’d at least get your $5000 a month to live. I don’t have many sponsors, I don’t even know who to call at Vans anymore – I just go to the store and buy them. I don’t care about it so much, but I said to Real years ago I wanted to retire. They said how about, when you come up with an idea for a graphic or we want to do something with 4Q, we just do it. I’ll see footage of Ishod and Kyle and those people and think fuck, I can’t be on a team with these dudes! It’s funny – and I’ve said this in so many interviews – when I skated every single day, broke bones and skated my ass off, at the end of the day I was a vert skater. That was accepted, but I know it was a struggle to sell a vert skater’s board. But then when I got into the bike thing, there were all these 30-somethings that are into bikes and they knew me from skating. They were like cool, I want that board! So all of a sudden my board started selling [laughs].

And you’ve got the ‘wall hanging’ generation…reissues, kind of like the one you’re skating now. – Oh the Thiebaud board? Yeah, there’s all these silly shapes. I don’t ever ride a shaped board, I just thought that (points at his board) would be way different. I thought I’d just head out here, cruise and then have the ultimate excuse when I suck [laughs]. But the Real thing, I don’t really understand how I get to be a part of it still because they have one of the best teams! Also I always travelled with Anti Hero which was kind of weird; I didn’t go on Real trips but I’d go on Anti Hero trips because Julien would invite me. Obviously with Julien et al, any kind of gesture or ‘fucking yeah, come on’ is huge, so I would travel with those dudes a lot. And Real was cool with it, I’d be riding a Real board and promoting both brands. But it’s a mystery in a sense that it still works!

“I’d rather be poor and build my own bikes, skate this vert ramp with my buddies and not have to wear a Red Bull shirt or do any corny shit.”

I don’t get paid for skating anymore unless we do one of those boards and shit sells, which is how it should be. I see people like Steve Caballero, I’m sure they make a ton of money from skateboarding and now they’re into motorcycles because that’s what is popular. Someone like that is into whatever is popular, I don’t ever want to be that person. I’d rather be poor and build my own bikes, skate this vert ramp with my buddies and not have to wear a Red Bull shirt or do any corny shit.

Horsey: Can I ask – you did that picture or video of you, your dirty hands, saying “Steve Cab’s hands won’t look like this at Born Free”. Was that just a joke because you’re friends? – Not at all, that was a dig. That was a dig just because I’m kind of sick of a red carpet being rolled out to this person, I think it’s really off balance. “You can race in this race, Indian sponsors you” – some of us have spent the last 15 years bleeding over these things. Now that Pearl Jam is popular I’m going to start a grunge band, now this is popular I’m going to do this, it just kind of waters down what we do. None of that comes easy, but you can go buy Chase’s knucklehead and ride around and look cool now. I know I’m fucking with a legend right now, but I so believe in Lance Mountain, the legends I looked up to, I love Grosso because he has an opinion.

There were skaters at Born Free, like Jimmy Wilkins came up to our stall, bought a 4Q t-shirt and skated with it on during the contest. But Steve, and the same with Christian, once came up and said, “Hey man, we’re into bikes, it would be good promotion if you built me a bike.” It’s that entitled mentality, that’s what I have a problem with. I don’t want to race flat track because I don’t want it to feel like skating where you wait to go; like how the X-Games was, everything skating shouldn’t be. That was a dig only because…she knows, she’s gone to bed and just the frame is there, then it was put together and it was a hard night. Then we go to watch the Wall of Death and we’re in a fucking line a mile long. Steve Caballero waves as he goes past and they walk him right to the front, give him a hot dog and a coke. I’m like, “fuck you, man!” I’ve been here for eight years, a part of this since day one driving down in a car with no air conditioning to have something to put in the show from the time it was in a parking lot. But it’s cool now so here’s your per diem, here’s your handout. I just disagree with that.

I think about it like this; I surfed 160 times last year, in a year period. This year I’ve surfed 85 times since January. You’ve never seen a surf post, you’ve never seen me promote surfing. Elissa Steamer has this towel company that I surf/skate for, but I’ve never showed up anywhere and asked for anything from surfing. I think if it was that dude and that mentality it would be like, “OK, I do this now – where’s the free wetsuit, where’s the free board?” I don’t want to come across as a bitter asshole judging some legend, but I do have a problem with it. Kooks like kooks, that’s what someone said to me recently. If someone’s really popular and they’re kind of a kook, it attracts the dude with the sunglasses on the back of his head. Then holy shit, we have this many more kooks in it.

Horsey: But it’s good to know that maybe kooks attract kooks, but people do see it and people do know who’s real…the people who matter.

It seems as if Darren Navarrette’s Rumble in Ramona has been instrumental in the return of, for want of a better word, ‘fun’ vert contests – how important has Ramona been in breathing new life into the US vert scene? What kind of people does it attract and, on the flipside, does it informally not invite anyone? – I mean Darren knows, he’s been in it as long as myself. You want to have a party, you invite these people. He’s not trying to exclude anyone, I mean Bucky skates it, he shows up. Danny Way skated it. It’s always interesting to see some of these big air dudes show up too because you actually get to see their real style on this fucked up little vert ramp. It sometimes doesn’t look so good because they’re just so used to the long, slow transition. But that’s a great event; you might be underwhelmed if you went for two days, it’s just a vert ramp in the middle of this junkyard, but it’s bitching. It’s super fun to be there. There’s no money involved, there’s some silly trophy that you get sometimes made out of some rusty bar. [Laughs from all}.

Horsey: Going on to bikes, what is your process when you start a new build – do you start with a tank, an engine, a frame or is it a conscious plan in your head beforehand to imagine the bike and make it happen? – I don’t know man, I feel like I’ve changed a little bit. I saw a bike out there today, a blue frame with a chrome tank. It’s got a pan or a knuckle? That’s the weird thing – I used to be like, “Holy shit, a knucklehead” and now I’m like, I like the pan. I mean this with no disrespect, he put in the formula and it’s a winning formula, tried and true. I always like to make something on the bike – like those pipes on my shovelhead, those are two pieces because it was a smaller bar and I had to open it up. The tank is narrowed and the sissy bar is a 69. There are too many bikes that are built with crescent wrenches now because you get the superior pipes and the flanders, you can basically put the thing together with three wrenches and they’re really attractive. That’s kind of a little bit of the problem with me – the dude at EMB that could do a back tail and a really good kickflip got sponsored, because he was at EMB doing a really clean back tail and catching his kickflip nice. But then there was the other dude killing himself out there somewhere in the city that didn’t quite get recognised because he was in the wrong spot.

So yeah, I always frame, think of the fork and the wheels and try to look at that, then think about which tank. Rachel knows, I want to do Born Free this year and build a barrier style Frisco chopper but with this Fresno influence, which would just mean a taller wheel on the back. That’s kind of how I start it and I have enough parts at the house. I’m not someone that buys and sells all the time, I’m kind of a hoarder, though not as bad as some people. If I need a springer it’s there, if I need a wide glide it’s there. I start to dress the thing up and just go from there. Even this bike, I started to put the silver leaf on but not for the show or for anything, I just want to see what it looks like. And I put five days into making that tank. I always try to make a few major pieces on it. But it’s fucked up, that formula that is so popular now is pretty much bolt on.

And if you look on EBay you’re going to find Tom Fugle’s old sissy bar, or something, that’s nuts! I don’t blame anyone for it, in Japan they do that a lot and some of those bikes were survivors from America that they ended up with, put seats on and changed the bars. I also paint my own bikes which is a whole added element. It’s a scary moment when you get to that point because paint even makes or breaks something. The orange bike last year for Born Free, every single thing was massaged. Andy Pangea is a much better fabricator, mechanic, whatever…I don’t always think the most talented people – and this has nothing to do with Andy – I don’t always think the most talented people build the best bikes. There’s this fine line there. But then again, there are people that don’t really know what they’re doing that can put a pretty good bike together now.

Horsey: And obviously social media plays a big part now, people can portray that image of ‘now I’m a bike builder’. They’ve got a million followers and they’re just bolting bikes together. – Totally! That was the one thing about this show, when I showed up to shoot the bike I had the only shovelhead, it was only knuckleheads. And that bike was built twelve years ago basically. That bike was ridden 700 miles in two weeks, which is another really special thing about it.

Horsey: Was that the one you did from San Francisco to New York and back? So many people have said that’s their favourite. – Yeah, that one. That’s nice to know, it’s how it sits, you know?

Horsey: Do you not have any stoppers on purpose? – No, I just never wanted to put things in to stop it. I’ve never had that happen to it either, like you might with a Springer. At that time bike building was a lot different, it felt like there was only about six of us.

When did you put that one together? – I think 2004 or 2006, I always mix those years up but around that time. It was a different colour, it was blue first with a white seat and then when I rode to New York I painted it black and put black seats on it. I wanted it to look tougher because I was kind of worried about who I was going to run into. Just a more classic bike. It’s a really different time in choppers, it’s so skateboarding related where it’s at a peak right now. It’s nice to go to Born Free and be able to sell a ton of shirts, that’s the benefit, but the downside is that it gets watered down.

That’s the thing – when we talked about vert skating being unpopular, that’s why I liked it! And when I got into choppers it wasn’t popular. I’ve been vibed by people that are here for being a skater into choppers – “Oh, you’re the skateboarder now”. It’s different now we’re here at the show together, it’s a handshake. That dude’s not going to get into the bowl. I’m not proud of my performance in there, it hurts today and I’ve got jetlag, fucking ten other excuses, but I can still do that and it’s really important to me.

Frontside grind nosegrab for the crew – photo CJ

Horsey: I think there’s some jealousy in that half the people out here used to skate and there’s also people here who still do skate.

CJ: And you can still do two things well! It’s not like you went into bike stuff and then didn’t skate at all. – I’ve seen people walk into my old shop, see a gas tank in three pieces and be bummed because they would rather think that I was the rich kid paying for it all to be done, or I had my crescent wrench and was just bolting it all together. There’s this quote we just heard, a Japanese saying, about your craft and what you do – being totally involved in it, not looking at the person in front or the person behind you but just being absorbed in doing it and doing the best you can.

I’ve always tried to do the things that I do the best I can, with my own personal taste. I get emotional talking about it because it’s a struggle. It’s not always easy, it’s not financially beneficial. We have a really cool house but that’s only because a long time ago in Oakland I saw that it was going to go crazy and San Francisco was going to invade Oakland. I didn’t know that techies were going to happen but I knew that I lived in this beautiful place and it wasn’t going to get any smaller. With the chopper thing, I used to buy knuckleheads for $10,000 dollars and ride them home and I knew that one day that wasn’t going to be an option. I’m blessed with a foresight on certain things and it’s really lucky.

But it’s awkward to be 44 and totally comfortable in my own skin, totally happy with what I’ve done and the direction I’d like to go…and still have a meme made about you that talks shit, or have someone vibe you. I have succeeded at two things completely on my own. Skating, your companies can help promote you but no one’s going to land the trick for you. With the bike thing, I’ve kicked a bike so many times and not been able to start it, especially in the beginning when I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I’d have to go to old Hells Angels and ask them. They’re leaning over me in a threatening way, I was in some pretty sticky situations in the beginning because there was no one else to go to. I know that some of these dudes will never have to go through that!

It’s like skating – your generation pioneered things while with the vert kids coming up now, the 900 has been done since before they were born. – Totally. The kickflip is the perfect example – I remember my first kickflip and I’d probably been trying it for a year and a half! Just because I didn’t know anyone who really did kickflips. It was on the Tommy Guerrero board, the dagger board. We’d find handicap handrails and hold either side to do this thing. But if I went to the park and this kid was doing it in front of me, his friend was doing it, there wouldn’t be this madness in your head that it’s such a big deal. Or yeah, go on to YouTube and type ‘backside tailslide’ and have how many videos to choose from?

So to wrap it up, with the resurgence of big transitions, bowls popping up everywhere and with people like Grant and Ishod who can skate everything, do you think the barriers have closed down now? Obviously there were you and Rune on more street-focused companies, but it’s more common now – like Sam Beckett doesn’t refer to himself as a ‘vert skater’. – I relate to Sam so much dude, I see him street skate and he’s good. He doesn’t look like a fool…but we’re all going to say that Sam is an amazing vert skater. If you had to introduce him to your parents you’d be like, “Look at this footage” and it would probably be on a vert ramp. Just because he’s so much better than 99% of the skaters out there – and how many street skaters can say that they’re 99% better than the other street skaters? So it makes you ‘this’, which is kind of a curse for Sam. Not to anyone that really gets it. I wonder if Sam never let anyone know that he can skate vert, I mean he’d be really respected still. But he has got that really clean style. There’s that thing with a lot of vert skaters, when they skate pools and other things, it just doesn’t look aggressive. Cardiel on a vert ramp was completely entertaining, but if they’re going to start putting little plus symbols after his run he’s not going to do so well.

So it has all blended together for sure but you’ve still got that wacky Street League shit, you’ve still got X-Games, there’s still these dark sides of it. But I think for those of us who just want to enjoy it then there is this amazing…send Raven Tershy to a vert contest and someone’s going to be impressed with something that he does. Send Sam to a street contest and he might see a line that no one else sees. So I think that it’s not quite there, but it’s getting there for sure. I mean the padless vert shit, that’s pretty fucking insane!

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