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Ryan Lay – Interview

CJ told me you’re quite interested in British skateboarding. What were some of the first videos you saw from over here?

Yeah, early Blueprint videos I was a pretty big fan of. Always liked Snowy, Paul Shier, Vaughan Baker… I’m still a big fan of British skateboarding too. I loved the Isle video [Vase], that was probably one of my favourite videos that came out last year. I’m a big fan of Tom Knox, Chris Jones and all those guys.

Are you aware that Chris Jones has been involved with the SkatePAL charity? As you are part of the ‘Skate After School’ organisation, do you pay a lot of attention to other charities such as SkatePAL, Skateistan, etc?

I didn’t know that. Skateistan for sure. A-Skate are good friends of ours too, they work with autistic children and do skate lessons for them. They’re based out of Alabama I believe. I’m not familiar with Chris Jones’ organisation, tell me more about that.

Chris doesn’t run it, but he was out in Palestine last year helping build skateparks in the West Bank. It’s really admirable to see people doing such positive things through skateboarding and it seems these sort of charities are gaining more momentum. It’s good to see skateboarding giving back in that way.

Oh, rad! That’s amazing. Yeah, of course, you’re starting to see that there’s a coalition of skateboarders that depart from what I presume would be the public’s ‘traditional’ view of what a skateboarder is, you know? A lot of our volunteers are college educated or are pursuing a career in education; they’re also just generally interested in giving back to their community. They want to share their passion for skateboarding and care a great deal about child welfare.

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Could you explain how you initially became involved with Skate After School?

About three or four years ago a friend of mine, Tim Ward, started collecting boards and old product; refurbishing it, building completes and then donating them to a community centre in a tough area. My friend Bobby Green, who runs Pyramid Country, helped take the reigns when Tim moved to Portland and asked me if I wanted to get involved. From there, we started doing consistent programming with a school in the area through a PE coach we knew. From there, we started working with a couple of other schools and quickly realised that it was evolving from just a community project into a full-fledged nonprofit project.

I went to what is essentially a business school for startups; they provide you with all of the infrastructure as well as a network of people to help your organisation. For us that’s school administrators, lawyers, people in the child welfare community, etc. I attended that program for six months upon which we received a pretty considerable grant for fifteen grand. We launched a crowd funding campaign as well, which raised another thirteen grand and a lot of awareness on our program. It kind of snowballed over the course of six months and we realised, “Wow, this is really turning into something.” We became a nonprofit through the Arizona Community Foundation and essentially started treating it like a business.

My friend Tim now works as a full time employee for Skate After School, he’s the Program Coordinator. I help run things and I’m a part time employee as well, I do most of the administrative work. Now we’re working with six title one, low-income, schools consistently year-round. Monday through Friday, we work with roughly two hundred kids. Beyond that, we do events and summer programming with local refugee centres and we also partner up with the nearby youth homeless shelters… It’s just grown into a remarkable organisation and I’m really grateful to be a part of it.

Q1

Working on that scale, I imagine maintaining equipment must be quite costly. Is that a difficulty or are there any distributors or companies in the States that help facilitate that?

Yeah we’ve had some support from Vans, etnies and some of my other sponsors. As far as the skateboard side of things we don’t really have too much trouble getting used skateboards. Trucks are more difficult to come by because skateboarders go through trucks once every six months. Through our insurance we have to require that the kids wear wrist guards and helmets, so we purchase most of our helmets through local thrift shops and the wrist guards we buy wholesale, so that’s a pretty considerable expense. They get burned through much quicker than the boards; a lot of our programs are indoors so the skateboards last quite a while. I would say we probably have two or three hundred boards in our storage unit right now.

On top of that we have twenty to thirty consistent volunteers we meet with once a month. Typically, they work at one school a week so I try and incentivise the program for them and let them know they’re valued. As a reward, they get free skate product; so we have support from companies to get new product for them. Welcome will send me ten boards and I can give out decks to the volunteers to thank them for their hard work and dedication.

Has being involved with the charity altered your perspective regarding either skateboarding or just seeing people coming from a very different background to yourself?

Certainly, I would say on one hand, just on a personal level, working with people outside of the skateboard world has been a really great experience. We have a board of directors composed of people from a variety of backgrounds – lawyer, principal, social worker, philanthropist, etc. You realise they are all extremely invested in our program, which feels really special. They want to make an impact in their community and see Skate After School as a vehicle to do that. I wouldn’t have had those interactions if I had just stayed in skateboarding, so I’m thankful for that.

Beyond that, it’s been a privilege being able to help kids who come from some tough and/or diverse backgrounds. We’ve got probably fifty to a hundred kids who are refugees from all over the world; Somalia, Thailand, Burma, Iraq… That has been a really profound experience. It’s kind of a trip but you really do learn more from the kids than they learn from you.

You mentioned being involved with people outside of skateboarding on somewhat of a business level. I guess that for the most part, skateboarders only really have those sorts of interactions if they have a corporate footwear sponsor. So, to have that involvement is this sense is really interesting.

Yes exactly, almost all of them have never had any experience in the word of skateboarding but they see the value in it that it brings to kids. Skateboarding, much like basketball, is a really affordable sport so you give a kid a skateboard and even if he has nothing he can still learn how to skate and can easily progress. We have a few kids who have become really involved, one of which I’m gonna pick up in about an hour. I’ve kind of come to ‘mentor’ him and help him grow. I think he’s twelve or thirteen, has been skateboarding for three years and grew up skating in Skate After School. Now he’s fully hooked up with etnies, Welcome, Altamont and Pyramid Country stuff. He is just totally immersed in the skate world and goes filming too.

The community has really welcomed him and it feels cool for me to show him the rich skate community Arizona has. He’s just figuring things out so that’s really rad. Our intention was never to breed the next generation of great skateboarders, it was just to provide kids with a fun and enriching activity to do when their parents aren’t at home but certainly, a few of the kids have really taken to skating and go skate eight hours a day in the summer, (laughs). Especially, as they start to immerse themselves in the culture, you see that shift where it’s more than just an activity. It becomes a lifestyle at that point and they’re interested in the art form aspect of it, pushing themselves, finding new spots, filming and taking photos. That’s exciting to see as you kind of carry that with you for pretty much your whole life even if you end up quitting skating.

Thanks for the insights, Ryan. Moving on, you were in England for the first part of the ‘Tea, Tapas and Tres’ tour and also to film for the upcoming etnies video. Mike Manzoori is etnies’ main cinematographer and also handling this video. Were you aware of Mike’s position in UK skateboarding before this trip?

Yeah, without a doubt, (laughs). I think that out of all the people who are involved with etnies I was most excited to meet and become friends with Mike because he’s the person I looked up to more than probably anyone else on the team.

As Mike has been a sponsored skateboarder himself and obviously spent a good amount of time on both sides of the camera, do you feel that gives him a different eye for spots or provides a certain atmosphere when you’re out filming with him?

Certainly, and that’s kind of a skateboarder’s dream; that when you go skating you don’t have to curate the content you are producing. You don’t need to say, “Oh, this will look interesting because I’m gonna hit this thing here…” He gets it immediately. He has been filmed and he has been filming for years so he always just gets it right away. The little thing that’s interesting about a spot or the nuance that a typical filmer might not notice.

Do you feel that Mike having been in your position before takes any of the pressure off?

A little bit but also sometimes I feel on the contrary, it can be a little stressful, (laughs). Because Mike is still a really good skateboarder so when you’re having a bit of an off day it can feel a bit funny. There are photographers who are retired pro skateboarders and it kind of brings an interesting dynamic where you almost feel a little insecure. “Oh man, this guy is better than me and he’s filming me”, you know? (Laughs). But when I go to film with him in LA, he takes me to the spots that he wants to get people to skate because he knows that I’ll be into the weird crusty spots. He will be stoked to show me around and be like, “Oh, you should skate this thing!”

Q2

In the tour article there was a photo of you doing a backside 5050 on some sketchy rail which Chris described as being pretty grim. What’s the story behind that spot?

When I’m on trips and we go to spots, sometimes you’ve got to go to the token spots because you don’t really know anything, people are tour-guiding you and there’s also a range of skateboarders who have totally diverse approaches. I think we were at that spot with the big three block and ledge into the bank and I always just feel like I don’t really have the talent to skate those spots because they have already been crushed, (laughs).

My ‘move’, that all of my team managers know, is that right when we get to a spot I’ll just take off skating around and find some shit because I feel I’m not good enough to film anything on those kind of spots that is even gonna be worth doing. I just skated around for like twenty minutes and happened to find that thing. Hopped the fence and found out it was covered in syringes, it just looked like a drug zone, I don’t know… The landing was just completely covered in trash so I spent probably fifteen minutes cleaning it out. I went back and waited for everyone to finish skating and said, “I’ve got this spot down the street”, so we skated about a quarter mile away, hopped the fence and it was all good but those guys were kind of tripping, (laughs). Obviously for the photographer and filmer they have to get kind of get in the action and they’re just like, “There’s heroin needles everywhere, this is crazy.”

What was your impression of the skate scene here and how do you feel it compared to previous visits?

I will say that just in the time since I was there last, which was probably four years ago and before that two or three years, just seeing the influence of Palace and obviously Polar, to some extent. It’s just crazy, seeing how it has seeped into all of the cities. Not only in England but Europe in general. That was pretty wild to see because the last time I was there the skate scene was completely different. When we went to the parks it’s just interesting, the same thing happens in the States, but you see kids like twelve years old who are like fully decked out and have the whole ‘fit, you know? (Laughs), it’s a trip.

You can see that it is a worldwide thing that there has been a shift towards the more lower impact, creative and general style of skateboarding that the smaller brands put across. Would you say that’s any more prominent in the UK than it is back home?

No, it just depends. If you travel to the middle of the country there are pockets that kind of are… All those older brands that we grew up on are still huge as they should be, like Baker and stuff. I feel like in England, because the skateboarders are so much closer to some of those brands – I mean just through proximity those brands are really close to skateboarders it makes sense to me that they have a little more influence. I think that Instagram has been the great influencer as well, so the trends just come quickly and they’re all consuming, you know?

It can feel like a lot people in the States view British skateboarding as just what comes out of London when there’s much more to it. So, it’s good to get an outsider’s point of view.

I definitely see through that. For me, Vase was the best video that came out last year and the best video that came out in the last few years, just in terms of offering a fresh perspective on skating without feeling too contrived or trend orientated. It’s perfect timing too because as certain brands get bigger, people start to look for something new.

Q3

What do you believe will make Welcome, and the other brands of that structure, stand the test of time?

We’ve kind of been dealing with this at Welcome. I feel like it comes down to just supporting a really great skate team and putting out quality videos. I think of Baker as one of those brands that has stood the test of time and they’re still bringing on people like Rowan (Zorilla) who are a perfect fit for Baker but also feel current and relevant. They have really moved through that gracefully because Reynolds and whoever has created this culture keeps Baker relevant.

You were officially welcomed to the etnies team quite recently and their video is set to be released next summer. Is it daunting picking up a new sponsor when that sort of project is already underway?

Yeah, I got on in January and my ankle was sprained the first month or two. I filmed a little ‘welcome to the team’ clip in pretty much five days so that was kind of my intro. It is a little daunting but I don’t really think there is this expectation that everyone is going to have a full part in the video. As a lot of companies are moving away from feeling everyone has got to have a full part and an hour and a half long video with fourteen full parts. It’s nice because it removes the pressure from that. Still, we have another seven/eight months, which for me is quite a lot of time. If I’m not injured and I’m travelling I don’t feel too much pressure.

When you first became involved with Sole Tech you were riding for éS. How did the transition to etnies happen?

I was super removed from skating, going to school full time and starting to run Skate After School. Kelly Hart hit me up when they started éS and I was thought it was perfect. It was pretty low expectation, I was getting stuff from Vans at the time but just getting flowed shoes on the low and wasn’t really trying to do anything over there. éS restarted and that grew really quickly, I think people liked the heritage aspect of the Accels and stuff. We did a few little campaigns for some of the shoes and that was really fun, I met Don Brown and just got involved there.

Pretty quickly I think those dudes realised they wanted éS to be more of a sporty, hip-hop brand which obviously is not really my aesthetic. I was totally understanding and had met Oliver Barton on some éS stuff we had done and he basically asked, “Do you want to try and ride for etnies?” There was a spot that had opened up; it was really strange how I got on. Since Axel (Cruysberghs) quit to ride for New Balance Numeric they were like, “Hey, we can put you on but through etnies Europe.” I was just trying to do anything and was super down but I don’t think that ever really happened, I don’t know how it exactly worked out for me. I think it was October when I left éS and started skating in etnies. I skated with those guys a few times and they decided to move forward with me. It worked out well and there’s a little more opportunity to travel which is nice and they’re working on a full-length video which is really great.

There is also a Welcome video coming up, how has it been handling both at once?

I’ve been filming for that video for the last year so we’re pretty much done, or at least I am. There are a few dudes who need to get some more footage but I pretty much wrapped up filming around summer, we just went on one last trip, I might go up to LA in August to film a little more for it but I feel like they are two totally different beasts. Filming for the Welcome video has been very DIY, independent video style, going out with a VX. I skate mostly with my friends and it’s super low budget. Whereas filming for the etnies video has almost exclusively been on trips, obviously it’s a much bigger production but it’s fun. I’ve definitely put everything I have into the Welcome video so I feel there’s a little less pressure filming for the etnies video because there’s not an expectation to have a full part and it’s mostly done while travelling. We go skate and if we like the spot we will film a trick, feels like very low stress, which is nice.

As you took a few years out to go to university, would you say education is something that a lot of skateboarders take for granted?

Yeah, I really do. I think that a lot of the conversation about education, at least in the United States, is that it’s expensive but I can say from experience that I went to school and didn’t incur any debt. I got my whole degree through grants and scholarships. If you are under a certain income bracket you get most of your education paid for, aside from the last two years at university. If you have a scholarship that is on top of your grant, you can find a way to go to school for pretty cheap. I think there is something important about an interdisciplinary education. The purpose of school is really to teach you responsibility and accountability amongst other things. It has added a lot of value to my life and I always advocate for people to go to school. Especially people who are just skating because you do have so much down time and you get injured. Also with online school it makes it really easy. I was travelling quite a bit during my senior year and just doing stuff. You have all sorts of free time, so why not?

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s totally necessary, and obviously spending a lot of money on your education can be dangerous. There is certainly a system in place that draws people into debt under the guise of finding a job quickly out of school, which is not always the case. But in my case I kind of knew that I had a place in skateboarding and some other opportunities outside of skateboarding and didn’t exactly need my education but it helps. It helps that worse case scenario, to show somebody I have a degree to throw in the mix.

Q4

Having already stepped away once, is having a plan for life after skateboarding really important or are you just trying to enjoy things more this time around? Has being part of Skate After School made you consider going into teaching or something similar?

I’m trying to enjoy skating as much as possible but also, I stay really busy with my life outside of skateboarding as well. I get injured a lot so by necessity I dabble in different things. There’s a lot of anxiety coming with being an ‘older’ professional skateboarder I guess. I’m twenty-eight, not super old, but definitely a few serious injuries could be catastrophic to my career. I think it’s important just to build the kind of muscles that you’re going to need when you have to go work at a normal job, (laughs). You don’t want be in the position where you have never even experienced it.

For sure, I have a lot of connections in the education sector and even just what we have done with Skate After School, it might be that in a few years time we have grown into a statewide or national organisation and I can do that full time.

Sorry for keeping on the phone for so long, that’s everything. It’s been real pleasure talking to you Ryan. Any thanks you want to throw out there before we finish?

No, it was great; I had a lot of fun. Thanks to everyone in England for showing us around, we had a good time.

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