Vans 50th Interviews: Jeff Grosso

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Jeff Grosso, 2016. Ph. Maksim Kalanep

If you don’t know who Jeff Grosso is well then I feel sorry for you. ‘Do your fucking homework!’ I would imagine Jeff would say… Grosso is a man that shouldn’t need any introduction and he was in London last week for Vans’ 50th anniversary. That’s right, Vans is 50 years old! So I sat down with Jeff to talk about his history with the brand, his favourite era in skateboarding, calling people out and other interesting tales from this certified legend.

Interview by Will Harmon

Vans is 50, what does that mean to you?
It makes me feel old really. I got my first pair of Vans tennis shoes when I was four years old. I’m 47, so I’ve been wearing Vans for 43 years. I mean I’ve worn other shoes, I’m not some Neo-Nazi that says: “I only wear Vans!” I’ve had Converse on my feet; I’ve had Nike’s on my feet. I’ve even had Duffs on my feet… Remember Duffs?

Yeah totally!
I had a sweet-ass pair of Markovich’s. But Vans is family… I guess that would be the easy answer. I got on the team at 15 years old; it was one of my first sponsors… I rode for Variflex, so then I got on Vans. Except for about a year that I went to go ride for NSS, because Hosoi got out of prison and they gave him a shoe and I was all jealous: ‘cause I’m a bitch! So I quit and rode for NSS because they gave me a shoe. So I pretty much sold out my morals for 18 grand, so like I said, I’m a bitch! Other than that I’ve been wearing Vans since I was 15.

So what is your favourite era of skateboarding? And why…
My favourite era, I’m gonna go late seventies early eighties – because that’s my childhood. That’s when it was magic. I mean it’s magic today, but it’s really fucking magic when you’re eleven and ten years old. I was so… I hate words like ‘inspiration; I hate it. I hate new age bullshit… “I went to this art show and I was so inspired!” Fuck you! Die! But I was moved, I was touched; I was inspired ugh, by Brad Bowman with four different coloured wheels. I wanted four different coloured wheels! And Stevie Caballero skating Marina in the green Vans high-tops with the brown accent on them, fuck I wanted to be Steve Caballero with camouflage shorts and green Vans on. That’s what I was initially attracted to, the aesthetic of it. Because I was looking in magazines, and then my mom brought home my first skateboard. I learned to stand up on it and then I went to my first skatepark – and then I was hooked. I remember thinking too that this is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life. And I’ve tried to kill myself, literally, and I’m still here doing this for the rest of my life.

Since you’ve been skateboarding through a lot of eras, what has been the most surprising aspect of how skateboarding has evolved over the years since you started?

Most surprising? I think the trick explosion of the late seventies, early eighties – the progression at that time. Skateboarding was changing every six months; it was insane. It went from a whole group of pros that were gone overnight to a whole new group of pros. Names like Steve Olson, Duane Peters, Eddie Elguera, Dave Andrecht, Brad Bowman, so on and so forth right… All those pros, boom, it’s like they’re gone overnight and they’re replaced by Neil Blender, Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk and Lance Mountain. Every six months, it went from very surfy to very trick oriented, high airs, pool skating, and then pools to ramp… That era was real exciting and progression was snapping off. But then it got a little stagnant there in the late eighties, just back and forth on the swing set… ‘Another vert ramp fucking contest in another fucking arena!’ It started to become elitist and lame. And then by the time the nineties came, the street movement began. The advent of street skating as the dominant force in skateboarding… That kind of took me by surprise.

Yeah okay.
And all our sponsors were pushing us to street-skate… I mean all of us street-skated; it’s what you did in between the ramp or the park, the pool or whatever. I just didn’t see it coming. I didn’t adjust to it like some people did or tried to do.

Yeah I remember that, that’s when I first started skating. I remember seeing that transition. And I remember seeing an ad with Gator (Mark Rogowski) boardsliding a tiny handrail and thinking: ‘this is fucking weird.’

Yeah most people weren’t allowed to do it, like all of us that had been around so long. But somebody like Steve Berra, you know The Berrics ‘oh the guy is so wonderful’, no the guy’s a fucking kook! That guy was a vert nerd. He was a vert nerd from Nebraska and he adjusted and switched. Danny way was a vert nerd, but he was so fucking good he was like ‘ Oh you guys are going to street-skate now? Alright, I’ll go out and do that too.’ And if you watch any of Danny’s street skating you see it’s insane. And it’s weird too because a lot of the street skaters at that time Gonz, Ron Chatman, Mike V, they’re all known as street skaters, but all they wanted to do was be vert skaters. They were at the vert ramp with us all the time. The nineties was kind of a left hook out of nowhere that staggered most of us. It’s rough being 19 or 20 years old and being told you’re the king of the world and then having the rug being pulled out from under you the next day. And then: ‘oh not only do we not want to pay you or sponsor you anymore, but you suck! Go away, because all these guys are the cool ones now.’ Because that’s how fickle skateboarding is. It’s run by 14 and 15 year old minds.

It’s true.
I mean how do you stay relevant and cool in a 15 year old’s head?

Tough one. You’re known to be very outspoken, and I think that’s a good thing. If it’s lame, you call people out. Have you had many repercussions due to this?
Most people just shrug it off. ‘Oh Grosso, there he goes again!’ I don’t man, fuck, I’m not much of a filter guy. It would behoove me to be better filtered, and maybe keep my fucking mouth shut sometimes… There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the world and a lot of stupidity. You know some things I say… You know everyone agrees with me, they just don’t wanna say it. I mean it’s like I said when we started, I hate this new age ‘I’m so grateful to be here. Isn’t it great that we’re all here!’ So if we keep saying that enough I guess the theory is the universe will make it true? But is it really true? Are we really grateful? Is it really great? I’m being very existential or esoteric or whatever the word is right now, but you know I try to tell my truth. It’s my truth; it’s the way I feel. And everybody knows I’m a hypocrite; everybody knows I’m a contradiction, everybody knows, because I’ve tried to be honest. I try to be a fucking human being. Because that’s what it means to be a human being: to contradict yourself and be a hypocrite, but also to learn from your hypocrisy and try to be a better human. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life; I’ve burned a lot of bridges and I’ve hurt a lot of people. I’ve hurt myself; I’ve wasted so much time doing dumb shit… And you know every day I wake up and try to be a little bit better version of myself. But I still cling to the idea that I should try and be honest about things. And yeah it gets me in trouble sometimes; people don’t like to hear it. Back in the day Dave Hackett got real mad at me… I’ve had a war with Tony Alva in the past. Tony Alva has gone in print magazines and said, ‘Fuck Grosso and his ilk!’ Because there I was as a young professional skateboarder going ‘fuck T.A. and the old guard, dig the new breed baby! We’re here; it’s our time. We are gonna make our mark.’ Just like Mike Carroll and James Kelch and all the guys at EMB came along and knocked Hosoi and Gator and me and Hawk and everybody else off of their high-horses at the time… ‘Fuck that shit! Dig the new breed baby! It’s about 38mm wheels, brick surface ground and backside tailslides on fucking ledges.’

Congratulations on saving Southbank by the way!

Yeah it’s incredible! Have you been to London or the UK before? What have been your experiences?
I came here for a demo… Dave Allen could probably tell you better. Uh ’87 or ’88 something like that, we did a demo and skated Latimer Road ramp. That was one of the best ramps I ever rode, great ramp, but sketchy gypsies. Somebody tried to push me off the bridge into the Thames River one night… Skated some badass demo in some Boys Club or some shit. I remember we did a demo for Converse; Converse brought us over so we had to wear them. We got really drunk on snakebites… That was fun. And then that was my first time in Great Britain properly and then we came back on a Black Label tour in the nineties and lost all our money, got all fucked up on ecstasy, and slept in the bushes in front of churches. And then we all went down to Southsea. There was a contest down there and we fucked around there. So that was the nineties, and then I came here on the Indy tour in ’08. We went to Bath and skated that metal vert ramp and a drainage thing in Bath too. Bath is beautiful. I fucking love England; England’s badass!

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Jeff Grosso, London, 2016. Ph. Maksim Kalanep

Do you see any difference in skateboarding in Europe than the way it is in the States?
I don’t travel enough to tell you. You’d have to ask somebody like Chris Pfanner or somebody that travels a lot would be better equipped to answer that question. But me guessing, I’d say no, there’s no difference because everything is video, app-driven nonsense these days. It’s Hellaclips, Instagram and Snapchat and everything’s video-oriented. So it doesn’t take any imagination anymore because all you do is hit ‘play’ and actually physically watch what the guy did and then mimic it. And then maybe if you’re really good you can expound on that guy’s idea, which he’s you know expounding off of someone else’s idea and so on and so forth. That’s more of a math equation than it is inspiration. Whoa that actually rhymes! (Laughs) It’s like a Modest Mouse song or something.

Ok so for the last thing I’m going to say a few names… Can you say the first thing that pops into your head when I say them – either one word or one sentence?

Eric Nash
Better than me.

Allen Losi
Fucking Godhead.

Neil Blender
Pretty neato. I saw Neil the other day… He was way too stoned to even hang out. But he was showing me all these little slalom boards he’s been making. He’s like; ‘It’s so great ‘cause there’s no nose or tail!’ He was really impressed he had no nose and tail on his skateboards.

Bod Boyle
Fuck Bod Boyle! ‘England’s answer to Hawk.’

Mark Rogowski
Ah fucking Gator man…

Tony Hawk
Tony Hawk’s badass!

Rob Roskopp
The barn! (Laughs) ‘The flying Ohioan’ I think was his moniker at one point.

Tony Alva
T.A. is badass.

Steve Olson
Steve Olson is the greatest human being on Earth; know this.

Jeff Phillips
Dead.

Mike Frazier

Mike Frazier is fucking awesome. Frazier is fucking ripping and he tells the greatest stories on Instagram. And if you bet him: ‘Ah I bet you can’t ride your bike 7000 miles in one day!’ He’ll get up at 3am and he’ll do it. He’ll ride his bike across Florida and lose 25 lbs. in the process. He’s gnarly.

Grant Taylor
The best. The very best of the best. There is no better.

Dennis Busenitz
Fast. I think he wears magic underwear.

Nyjah Huston

He should be nicer to his neighbours. If you wanna have a fucking all night rave 24-7 at your house, then fucking move out into the country. Why torture the people that paid 1.2 million to live in their homes? Quit being a fucking dick you entitled little bitch! Sell your house and move somewhere where the noise problem isn’t a problem so I don’t have to read about you in my local paper.

Arto Saari
Arto’s the best. Arto’s the sweetest, most kindest, gentlest… I love to snuggle with him.

Check out Grosso’s Loveletters to Skateboarding on the Vans Youtube page.