The Geoff Rowley retrospective: interview + video part
A special thanks to Lost Art for providing this intro as well as inspiration for some of the questions.
Geoff Rowley needs the wild like a human needs water. I’ve driven, cycled, trekked and flew many a thousand miles witnessing his psyche through voyages of this kind. Geoff needs skating like an old weathered couple needs their cup of tea in the morning. Geoff loves where he’s from and how it all started for him with skating. And he never forgets the sketchiness that lies ahead in any given city because he’s been stained with Liverpudlian street skating and the madness of what’s around the corner. -Jimmy Boyes.
Can you start off by telling us a little bit about growing up skating in Liverpool?
Growing up skating Liverpool was awesome, we had a really good scene. We had guys that were into hip-hop, punk, rastas and we all skated together. We got a lot of crap from the scallies (Liverpudlian “rude boys”) in the city and a day didn’t go by that somebody wasn’t throwing water at us or shouting at us, but that’s probably no different to anywhere else in England during that period.
The scene was really tight. We we essentially grew up all together so we learnt to take care of each other, and although we weren’t necessarily into the same things, we all respected each other. For instance guys that were into hip-hop were hanging out with guys that were into punk music a little bit more than in a lot of other places I know. Liverpool’s very diverse and I think in turn that kind of nurtured a pretty unique scene, with a unique progression in the skaters that lived there – we had Howard Cooke, Brian Sumner, John Dalton, Mackey… We had a lot of really creative people. They didn’t all skate the same either, even though they all skated together. There were definitely a lot of different styles, we were influenced by a lot of different dudes. I’d say the best thing about it was that everybody was just stoked on skateboarding. So when anybody came into the city and met up it was never a question of “why do you have dreads?” you know, it was just “let’s skate!”. That’s what was so rad about it.
What about you? When you were younger did you lean more towards the punk scene or the hip-hop scene?
I was just into skateboarding man. I was into skate mags and skateboard stuff. I listened to a lot of Dinosaur Jr., Black Flag, Minor Threat and all kinds of stuff… But mostly man, I was just into skating. The whole time I lived in Liverpool up to the time I moved to the United States, all I wanted to do was skate. That’s all I was interested in.
Do you have any stories of running into scallies back then?
Where do I start? I was lucky to be on the smaller side because it meant that I was always hanging out with guys that were older and bigger than myself, so most of the time when we had problems it wasn’t me getting my ass kicked, it was the person sat next to me. Fights were definitely a daily occurrence: a lot of guys we’d go skating with would get beaten up by scallies and just keep walking on. You’d keep walking while you’d get hit just to get away from it. Yeah we definitely had a lot of that stuff in Liverpool, but it builds character right?
Did they purposefully pick on skaters or were they just randomly looking for fights?
Both. I started skating in the late eighties and England at that time was a pretty rough place. Everywhere was like that but Liverpool was definitely on the rougher side. Manchester was pretty bad too. You definitely had to be careful when you were going skating and there were lots of places that we didn’t go to for that reason – or would get to once and realise ‘uh-oh’ this was a bad idea. Hordes of scallies would be ready to steal everything off your back and beat the crap out of you for no reason other than to just do it. You had to watch yourself when you were skating, it was not accepted, but half the time the guys that were out to glass the skaters were just running through the city beating up the first young kids they’d get around to.
An example of that if you want a story is that I had a knife pulled on me when I was 15 years old. I was with my friend and I think he was 17 or 18 years old. We both put our boards up straight away to protect ourselves and my friend went to hit the guy with his to stop him stabbing him with the knife. It was two guys who were probably in their late twenties and we’re talking about a 15 year-old and an 18 year-old kid. We were scared shitless, they chased us all over the city with a knife. They were speedheads, on drugs, so you can imagine what that feels like at 15 years old. I was probably 5ft 1. It wasn’t always that sketchy but I did watch some friends get hurt really, really bad and it was just sickening. Sickening to see, to deal with and to be on the brunt end of. I don’t think any of us got away scot-free from that. Everybody that skated in the Liverpool scene from that era had to deal with it, every single one of us.
What triggered the move to the States? How did you decide you were going to go there?
I wanted to be a skateboarder; I loved it so much. I always looked at the American magazines and skate videos. I always wanted to grind those curbs. They looked so shiny and grindy… I just wanted to come out here and experience what it felt like to be the at the epicentre of skateboarding. Skateboarding (at least as we knew it at the time) wasn’t really as global. It was all about California and to a lesser extent the East Coast. California was where all the magazines were, where all the videos were made. Danny Way, Matt Hensley and the guys I looked up to and wished I could skateboard like all lived here. They weren’t all necessarily from the area, for instance Rick Howard was from Canada, but they all moved to Southern California to skate those amazing skate spots, so I did the same. It was definitely weird for a while, it took me a couple of years to adapt. I didn’t really feel like I was progressing like I was back in Liverpool. When I was 15, 16, 17 years old I was just going for broke and then when I moved here without any of my friends around me, without that same influence and inspiration that I got from the local skaters – it was different. I essentially moved to a foreign country at 18 years old with no friends and that’s going to affect anybody. It wasn’t like it is now, where you come to California, you know the skateparks everywhere and it’s really easy to get skate product – it wasn’t like that at all. There were limited places and you needed a car. I didn’t have a car so I was just skating around the streets where I was staying and it was weird. It took me a while to get used to it.
Pro skater life before the internet…
There were home phones. We couldn’t afford to have a pager, you were blinging if you had a pager. I remember first getting a pager and thinking “ok I’m professional now,” if I need to get in touch with somebody I give them a page, go to the nearest payphone and give them a call. It was a totally different experience and a very weird one for me at first.
Were you hanging out with that whole Huntington beach crew straight away? Or were you on your own at first?
It was pretty quick but I guess I gravitated towards guys like Ed Templeton who liked that same kind of music that I liked. When I moved here I wasn’t drinking. I drank booze right up until I got on the plane but when I got here I wasn’t 21 so I couldn’t buy drinks and I didn’t really even know many people so it wasn’t like I was going to go straight to the bar. I was more interested in the guys that wanted to skate anyway. So I spent a lot of time with guys like Ed Templeton. I also skated a lot with Tom (Penny) when we first moved here. In fact we all skated together a lot, the whole Flip team. We skated around the streets together, went to the supermarkets together and built a foundation together. We were all into different stuff so ended up hanging out with different people, but there was definitely a crossover. I definitely appreciate how welcoming some of the dudes from Huntington beach were. Some were straight up just really good to us… Ed and I got on really well, he had a really twisted sense of humour. Being English, you have a certain sense of humour that you don’t always find in Southern California, but Ed did so we got on like a house on fire. Plus we liked the same music, skate videos and stuff. We skated differently but we definitely liked similar kinds of skating – skating fast, skating raw, finding spots, getting out there and riding down the street as opposed to getting in the car and driving somewhere. Without him being around I probably wouldn’t have felt at home or felt comfortable enough to start progressing again. Then I got a girlfriend and she didn’t drink either so I continued to not drink for quite a few years… I wasn’t a part of that whole bar scene when a lot of the other guys were drinking loads. I do have a lot of good memories from that period though and I’m definitely thankful to Ed Templeton for being such a good dude.
Being sober at that time and seeing all of those guys going heavy on the party scene, were you ever worried for them? Did you ever think they were going too far?
Yeah but you know what, guys like Rune (Glifberg), Tom and all those guys, they skated like maniacs. They weren’t all about just getting hammered. All of us were definitely skating like crazy. At one point I was even going to bars (not drinking), but the focus was definitely on skating.
What happened in the next part of your life then? When did you discovered this passion for hunting and the wilderness?
When I moved here I didn’t know where I was moving to, I didn’t know what was up in the hills or up in the mountains. So it started with just going up into those places and seeing what was there. I didn’t understand how stuff worked here with different designations and different plots of public land, all with different laws and rules. So it took a little while to figure out where I was at, what I could do and what I wanted to do. But that’s one of the reasons that made me really like living in the United-States, I lived by the beach so I could wake up, skate like a maniac all day long and the next morning go up into the mountains – it’s only 2 hours away – and I can be in one of the most remote areas of southern California at 12,000 feet. It was perfect for my lifestyle as the things I’m into are skateboarding and hunting, watching, pursuing and learning from wild animals. I wouldn’t say anything in particular got me into that other than my friend Fez who now works for the forestry commission and does a lot of work for the Lake District. When I moved here and got comfortable he started coming out and we’d skate a little bit but we’d mainly go up into the hills and hunt.
Even during the period in which I was vegetarian I was going and doing that. I was vegetarian not because I didn’t like hunting but because I just felt like it. Your body changes as you get older and eventually I just wasn’t getting what I needed out of that diet. I was doing it because I felt good but also because I wasn’t recovering from injuries as quickly as I used to. So I started asking myself: “could it be what I’m eating?” I had a lot of nutritional tests and they came back saying that I wasn’t lacking any minerals. I was good, healthy and in shape, but I still couldn’t recover from skating. There was something going on, my muscles wouldn’t recover and I felt like I was weak. So I started eating fish and I felt fantastic, started getting my stamina back. I’m not sure how many years ago it was that I started eating fish but I immediately felt better. It sounds a bit cliché but my body was asking for something else and wasn’t getting it from all the meat-based protein. Most of the meat I eat now is game meat, which is very lean, very clean, very ethical. And it really feels and tastes that way when it goes through your body. So once I started changing my diet and feeling like that, there was no way I was going to go back. I could skate better, I could skate longer and that’s pretty much it.
When I go back to England I still love to go to the Lake District so it’s not just a US thing, I like pursuing wild animals all over the place. I woke up at 2.45am this morning to go up into the mountains and set up some trail cameras, walked up a completely vertical incline for three hours – an hour and a half up, hour and a half down – in 92 degree weather to set a trail camera for sheep. I’m guiding a big sheep hunt this year. I definitely push myself doing it, I want to know everything there is to know about how those animals move through that land. I find it fascinating.
You are lucky to have something else that you are that passionate about. You’ll probably appreciate it even more when your body will no longer be able to cope with skating…
Well it’s actually something that makes me skate better. It’s not something that’s easy on the body whatsoever, it’s incredibly demanding physically. A lot of the guys that look like they’re in shape couldn’t go to a lot of the places that we go just because they’re not conditioned for it. It’s like skating in the sense that it’s all muscle memory. If you want to regularly walk through mountains or very tough areas you’ve got to be in very good shape. When you are on those lonely ridges one false move and you’re going to slide down the whole thing. No messing around. You can’t go into those situations with injuries. It adds hugely to my stamina, which adds to my skateboarding. I can skate for long periods of time now, before it wasn’t the case… It adds strength to my legs, it’s of huge benefit.
Instead of going to the gym and working out to keep fit or keep the body moving I just do it the natural way and I’m stronger than if I did go into that gym. It’s a lot more peaceful too.
So it helps the mind as well as the body?
It’s beautiful for the mind and body and lung and the whole nine yards. Fresh air is something we really need more of in long beach.
Having been a household name for name for so many years I’m sure you’ve had offers from energy drink companies and other random brands trying to cash in on that skate credibility. How come you’ve always turned them down?
It’s never really sat well with me. I don’t drink those drinks and I’ve always said that if I’m going to support something and have a sticker on my board or whatever then I’ve got to be into it. You’ve got to support the brand and the people behind that and I just never felt comfortable getting involved with that. But there’s value in it too, and a lot of those energy drink companies don’t really take anything away from the industry. They don’t come in and start making skateboards. A lot of the time they want to sponsor contests and they want to sponsor tours and that’s not a bad thing. They’re not coming in with a formula of what they think skateboarding should be, as some other people have in the past. They just come in and say: “a lot of kids are buying our drinks, we want to be all over this.” It’s definitely a tough one when you’re a dad and those drinks are so gnarly, so bad for you and they’re so dangerous for kids. But in the same light, there’s a lot of bad things – Coca-cola’s absolutely brutal for kids, let’s face it. But it’s not for me, I never felt comfortable doing it and a lot of guys from my generation were like that. Like Jamie and Andrew Reynolds, those guys never did it and it’s probably for a similar reason.
When you said “they’re not coming in with a formula for how they think skateboarding should be”, who were you referring to?
I don’t want to go into that. I just hope you get my point about them putting money and resources into the skate industry. We need them to create some of those bigger events and also to keep the wheels turning. There have been a lot of contest circuits that have come in and tried to present skateboarding in the way that they thought it should be or tried to be true to it but didn’t know what that was and I don’t see the energy drinks companies really doing that. A lot of the guys that work for those companies have been nothing but nice to me, supportive and respectful. A lot of them know their skateboarding too, are actually part of it. That’s a good thing, it means that they’re hiring people that actually skate. It wasn’t like that in the late nineties when skating was picking up – you’d get approached by some guy and you’d look at him and be like ‘who the heck’s that guy, he looks like he came from space?’ It’s different now. Some of those companies are in a manner of speaking “doing things right”.
Can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with Flip, what’s your role if there is one beyond being a rider?
I’ve been riding for Flip since I was 15 years old, 20 odd years, since before I moved to the United States. All the Flip guys moved here around the same sort of time so we’ve all played a role in building the brand. These days I have my hands a lot more on the video projects, the inner workings of the business and I am an owner of the business so I do have a little bit of a different role, but at the same time it kind of always has been like that. But first and foremost I’m a rider for Flip so I have to act like a rider. I don’t have to act as if I own the whole brand and it’s all about me. I was never about that. I definitely have a role in those videos we made, bringing them to fruition and editing them in my house; we made all of Really Sorry in my house with Ewan. For the Sorry video I had Fred living with me during the editing of that. But even with all that I was always very clear that I’m not trying to be the superstar of the team. I was never like:”I have to have last part, I have to have first part.” I always felt the opposite way; there is no first part, there is no last part, it’s a team. It’s about everybody in the video and everybody helps each other.
You’ve been filming video parts for a very long time now. How many do you think you’ve still got in you? I heard you took a pretty bad slam filming for Propeller…
Yeah that slam didn’t change me at all. As soon as I was back on the board the very first trick I did was the trick that I slammed on. As soon as I landed the trick that was it, it was gone.
What was the trick?
Just a backside 360 ollie. I slammed pretty bad. It’s in the Raw Files. You can’t really see where I land but we had to get out of there pretty quickly because I had internal bleeding. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but I was in so much pain that I knew I had to get off the roof quick before I either went into shock or passed out. It was all in my stomach, my elbow went into behind my ribs, bashed against my kidneys and they bled into the whole back side of my back. If I’d gone to sleep that night I probably wouldn’t have woken up. Luckily I was in so much pain that I went to the hospital and stayed in there for three and a half days, which is a long time for something like that. You’re usually just in there until the bleeding stops, but this was too painful and it could have started bleeding again at any moment so I had to be somewhere where somebody could help me if something happened.
That slam didn’t change anything though, my Propeller part definitely won’t be my last one. I wasn’t filming it like it was my last video part. It was the first video part where I actually had the injury problem. I had two surgeries pretty early on in the filming and then right at the end of the video I had that slam, so I ran out of time to film. I was out for eight months with that kidney bleeding slam and then as soon as I came out from that we had five or six months left before the deadline so I’d only really been filming for a year on and off. I was skating 100% but I wasn’t able to film 100% because I was recovering from my ankle and knee surgery back to back, which is just what happens when you skate. I’ve always had those kinds of slams, this is just the first time it happened three times during the filming of a video. So I just had to deal with injuries, my body isn’t breaking down or anything like that at all. I’m in good shape, I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt. Usually with Flip videos I finish my part a year before the video comes out and save a few tricks to film close to deadline just because it’s fun to have a few last bangers to get, but this was the opposite.
Because of the bit at the end of the section with me hi-fiving my son I had people saying “is that it? Are you done skating?” and I was just like “what would make you think that?” I just wanted the part to start in England because that’s where my heart lies. I wanted the first visual of me in that video to be a complete full circle representation of where I’d been and where I am. The first clip in the scene is where my mother and father met and got married. In the background of that skatepark where I slammed, those terraced houses, are where my parents grew up, where I grew up. It meant a lot to me and I thought my parents would get a kick out of it if when they came to the premiere and the first thing of mine they saw was the housing they grew up in…
And did they?
Yeah. They did.
What have you got lined up for the rest of the year?
Well I filmed a bunch of stuff after the deadline for that video, so I’m already working on new video stuff. We’ll see, I’m just stoked on skating. Just rolled up to a skatepark right now…
I’ll let you enjoy your skate then. Thanks for this.
No worries. I wish you the best with the mag, if you need anything else let me know, I’m totally down.