Palace Skateboards’ Lev Tanju Interviewed
Lev Tanju and Palace’s success story is one that we’ve been dying to tell for a little while now. Beyond the fact that the dude went from selling random product at South Bank to running one of the most influential skate companies of all time, there’s something heartwarming about the way he took his whole crew with him. Especially when he humbly insists it’s the PWBC that got him to where he is today, and not the other way around. So why didn’t we do it earlier? I think we were probably a little scared of not doing it justice. But certain recent developments have basically forced us to get our shit together and give it a shot. The main one being Palace’s decision to build and pay rent on a FREE indoor skatepark in LONDON. When’s the last time an actual skateboard company did anything like that? Exactly, never.
– Arthur Derrien
Interview by Arthur Derrien & Will Harmon
Arthur Derrien: Where and when did you first start skating?
Lev Tanju: I started skating just by my mate’s house in Clapham around 1998. Then we started going to this skatepark in Hyde Park… (Nick) Jensen used to skate there when he was super-young as well. Then it was Fairfields as it was close to my house. After that I started going to South Bank.
AD: South Bank is where you met all the PWBC lot right?
Yeah I met everyone at South Bank. That’s when I properly started trying to skate all the time.
Will Harmon: You guys lived in quite a few skate houses… Which one did you move into first? When I met you, you were living at the Brixton Palace right?
I guess Snowy and me did basically live in the living room in that one. I was there like five nights a week, but I didn’t like pay rent. I didn’t have a job or anything…
AD: So the first one you properly lived in was Waterloo?
Yeah, that’s the first time I paid rent.
AD: Wasn’t the rent insanely cheap there?
Yeah it was… When I first moved in it was £130 a month. It stayed like that for like five years or something. It went up a bit over the years but at the end it was only still like £200 a month max.
AD: That’s ridiculous. What were you doing for money at the time? Like how did you pay rent?
I was on the dole or I’d get jobs in skate shops here and there… I was kind of doing just whatever to get money really. Then I started selling shit at South Bank… Like buying people’s boards and reselling them.
Will Harmon: I remember that.
AD: When Palace started did that completely stop or was there an overlap? Like were you still selling boards at SB after Palace had started?
Yeah I was doing both for probably about a year. There was no money when it started.
AD: What triggered the idea to start a brand? Were you just not stoked on what everyone else was doing at the time?
Yeah pretty much. I was buying American boards all the time and I was a bit like: ‘Why am I buying American boards?’ I mean I love American skaters and shit but there was nothing really stoking me out. You know what I mean?
WH: We should maybe talk about the MySkateOrDie blog you were doing before all that started.
Yeah, I just bought a ‘build your own website in a box’ basically for like 20 quid to chat shit about skaters. Then I started making the Palace Wayward videos… And then it turned into PWBC. It was kind of just something to do really. I knew I was into skating so I was like ‘I’ll just do this’. I don’t even know why I did it. I was probably just bored…
WH: So you were making PWBC videos way before Palace…
Yeah but it was called Palace Waywards though. We made like some weird little like skate team when I used to make iPhone – not iPhone, fucking like Nokia videos yeah.
AD: And this was before the PWBC news clips right?
Yeah that was like two years before that and then Palace Waywards kind of turned into PWBC.
WH: Who came up with PWBC?
Well we all came up with ‘The Palace’ obviously, then we met Stuart (Hammond) and he came up with Palace Waywards… We thought it was wicked and then he came up with Boys Choir so it became PWBC. Then Joey (Pressey) got it tattooed on him and we kind of just stuck with it.
WH: What do you think about the Skateline thing? Seems like a bit of a bite…
I don’t care for it. I don’t even watch it really. But I guess ripping off news programs ain’t my idea, you know what I mean? Everyone’s going to do it. But yeah… I like when it’s funny and that’s not funny.
AD: I bet making those PWBC news things was so time consuming.
Yeah it took long man.
And I used to film it off the screen and shit. I didn’t have the Internet either. Fifty episodes: no Internet. I used to go to the Internet café. Two pound all day pass! Ha ha, just sessioning the Internet, trying to find whatever. That for 5O episodes, ha ha.
AD: Was the company always going to be called Palace?
At first it was going to be called PWBC. But people weren’t into it because some of the guys from the crew rode for Blueprint and Landscape or whatever. So I was like all right, fuck it, I’ll change the name to Palace last minute. It was a blessing though because now I actually prefer Palace. But it’s good, it still holds true to what it’s about you know. And it is about the house and where we all came from, living together. It’s nice to be able to bring your friends with you and do all that shit together. Well actually they brought me here really. All this is from hanging out with them and filming them, you know what I mean? It’s their skating. They’re just my favourite skaters. That’s all it is really. None of this would exist without them.
AD: How did the VHS come into the picture?
Basically I had a VX and it kept breaking and I couldn’t afford another one. It kept glitching all the time and I was like ‘fuck this shit man’. It was like 600 pound and I was like ‘I can’t afford to do this. I can’t buy another camera, what am I gonna do?’ So I just bought a shit one online. I was like I’ll try and film with that. So I went out and filmed Jensen to test it out and when I got home I watched it and Joey or whoever was in the room was like: ‘What?! Where’d you find this old footage of Jensen?’
‘I literally filmed it like two hours ago!’
And instantly in my head I thought ‘man, I love how it looks’. And the way you can’t see… It gets rid of all the fucking things you just concentrate too much on when you watch skate videos. Like what shirt someone’s wearing or like what shoes they’ve got on. It just gets rid of all that and it makes it solely about people’s shapes. You know what I mean? And that’s why I love it. So that was it really, just from that.
From then I started filming long lens loads and then I got my first filming job. It was a Carhartt trip yeah, and like they just linked me up with 1,000 pounds to film. I was like ‘fuck, are you mad? 1000 pounds? Yes!’ Like that’s a lot of money, you know what I mean? So I went there, and I was filming VHS long lens, then filming close up VX. And then two days into the trip, fucking Hjalte (Halberg) busted my lens off the camera. The camera broke in two and skidded off down the floor. And he was like: (pronounced in a Hjalte voice) ‘haw haw, I can’t believe it broke so easily!’ And I was like ‘yeah man…. sick’. Like, not stoked on it at all, ha ha. I was like ‘fuck man, I’m getting paid £1000; I need to make this video work.’ It was a two day old fisheye… Anyway so I was like ‘fuck it’ and I just sellotaped it on, pretending like ‘yeah its cool man’ ha ha. So all the footage has scratches on it and shit. But I was like, straight away, ‘this looks banging!’. The lens just fitted perfectly onto the camera.
WH: Is that how you guys have been doing it since? Just taping it on?
Yep just I’d just gaffer tape it up every single time. Then if someone’s like ‘oh I wanna film it long lens’ you have to cut it off. Then tape it back on it on again. Razor blade cut it off, film it, tape it back on again, etc. Sometimes halfway through the line you’d have to re-fucking tape it even because it would be falling off.
WH: Crazy that it actually looks clear… Like it’s not…
Yeah it ain’t wobbling; it’s got fucking like ten layers of tape round it.
AD: How many cameras do you think you guys went through?
The weird thing is the first one lasted like three videos, like three years. And then after that, ones broke and then we started getting new ones. And now we must have gone through like 30-40 cameras, maybe 50.
Yeah they get fucked straight away now. They’re really temperamental. Like I buy new ones online now to capture shit and they’re broken straight away. But it’s weird that this one OG one just lasted forever. The microphone cover came off on that one so on all the old footage the sound is really crusty. And I didn’t even realise that you have to have a microphone cover on it to stop the wind from blowing… Like all the footage changes throughout all of them, even though they’re all the same camera. But I love using them. I like the way different ones film differently and how different tapes look different, all that shit. Some things I record on a certain tape because you get a certain effect on it.
WH: I noticed that some of the colours look different with some of them.
Yeah that’s because it’s filmed on different cameras but also because when I capture it, I’ll capture it on a certain tape. Like I’ve got this shit ‘Henry the VIII’ film and everything I film on top of that goes this weird green colour. So everything I want to make look a certain way I have to film over certain bits of the footage – same thing with like titles and graphics. Every time there’s a glitch or something, none of those things are fake or made.
WH: So none of it is done with After Effects?
Not one bit is After Effects. I’ve never used it before. All the graphics are made from filming off the TV.
WH: And then how would you guys edit it? Final Cut or something?
All done on iMovie. Every single film. Still done on the same iMovie from 2005.
AD: That’s so sick.
It’s like Fisher Price you know what I mean? Every single film to this day was made like that.
AD: Is it going stay that way or are you guys going to switch things up and start using different cameras, etc.?
Nah I’m changing. Ideally I’m changing everything but I’m just looking into it now… ‘Cause it just gets rinsed man, everyone does it. It’s just like it’s the ‘cool’ thing to do now. But I’m done with it. We did Palasonic, that’s everything we filmed on VHS so it feels good; now it’s time to do something else.
WH: Was the plan always to exclusively film it in London?
WH: Did that get hard at times? Did people complain?
That’s not my problem though is it? Ha ha. Yeah everyone had a go innit: ‘Why does he want it to only be filmed in London? It’s not possible…’
AD: It is pretty fucking difficult…
It’s difficult but not really man. And they did it. It’s like why not? Why not skate Victoria benches? Why not go and skate the same gap? It just looks good. There’s not gonna be the perfect ledge spot but there’s all these spots that are important to me because of where I started skating. I wanted people to skate Parliament Square. I wanted people to skate Big Ben. You know what I mean? It’s the best spot ever. Like it looks the best. It’s got fucking Big Ben in the background and there’s a high ledge. Iconic spots. Its just personal preference, like that’s what I want to watch people skate. It’s the only way I’d be able to sit through all that editing. And why wouldn’t we film it in London? We’re a London skate company.
WH: Is there a lot of extra footage?
So much shit.
WH: What are you gonna do with that?
I dunno man. Lucien had a like 37-minute timeline. He stopped drinking for a month and had it out.
AD: That’s mad.
He knew what he had to do and I told him like: ‘Man you’re gonna have the last part; do gnarly shit!’. And he did.
WH: And was a lot of his stuff right towards the end?
The last two bangers weren’t but I reckon 20-30% of his part was filmed in six months, when he’s had six years of footage. I just cut all that shit out because all the new shit was just better. Like ‘fuck it, and you’re getting better. So why would we use that when we could use this?’ But yeah Lucien more so than anyone else did most of his shit towards the end. I guess he’s gone into another level.
WH: Nominated for Skater of the Year…
Yeah, you know what I’m saying? That’s banging innit?!
AD: Was there a point when it became clear that Palace was going to be bigger than skating? That loads of people outside of skating were going to want to wear it?
Different types of people were into it from the start really… When we ripped off Versace tees and stuff like that, people that didn’t skate also liked it. Which is cool because I’ve never been that guy who’s like ‘you can’t wear it because you don’t skate’, you know?’ It’s made for whoever wants to wear it. I’m not making Chanel t-shirts to just sell to fucking skaters you know what I mean? I just made Chanel t-shirts because we wanted to make Chanel t-shirts. Everything we put out is just stuff we want to do, that’s it. If other people buy it, then they buy it. If a skater likes it, they like it. I don’t care like what you like, innit. If you don’t like it, lump it. That’s what my mum used to say. It doesn’t matter. Buy some other shit. Or don’t! All I care about is that the guys that skate for Palace, my friends like it.
AD: Is there anything you made that looking back on you were like: ‘whoa, that was pretty stinking’?
Uh yeah I guess, but it’s kind of funny innit? Stinking shit’s funny you know what I mean? I’m up for stinking shit.
WH: ‘Let’s see if people buy this’, ha ha…
Nah never like that! We’d never do that. Some people think we do though.
Of course they do! They’re like ‘surely you’re not serious’ and I’m always like ‘yeah I’m serious. I like fucking pink hats.’ Or whatever… You know what I mean? I dress weird. Everyone in the office wears dodgy shit. So we’re gonna make dodgy shit sometimes.
WH: Can you tell us a bit about Femi’s influence on the brand?
Femi (Bukunola) influenced me man. So I guess that’s going to have an effect on the brand. But you know I always loved Ralph shit. Femi used to always wear gnarly Ralph shit… And tracksuit bottoms with mad shoes on. I definitely took some shit out of that.
WH: I mean you two are the first I ever saw wearing tracksuits with like penny loafers.
Yeah he used to wear boots so I’d be like fuck it, I’ll wear my nice shoes with this shit. But yeah he dresses crazy you know. Femi would show up at South Bank with a massive Ralph (Lauren) bag with like 2000-pound boots in it. Like some weird next boots, they’d look like women’s boots or some shit like that. And I’m like: ‘What you saying?’ You know he’d get his mental health check and go straight to Ralph and drop two grand on a fucking moleskin pair of trousers or something. Like back in the day when two grand was fucking two grand! And we’d all be just laughing. He’d fucking like eat a bag of crisps a day but then buy some crazy garms. (Laughs)
He’d show up stinking of piss and I’d be like: ‘How have you got that?!’
‘I get invited to the sample sale.’
‘Invited to the sale?! Like I’ve been buying Ralph for so long and I’ve never been invited to that shit!’ You have to be spending like ten grand a month or something! It’s some special list. Like ‘oh, come to our sample sale’. He was living on the street half the time but he was on the invite list, so he’d turn up and drop thousands of pounds on some sketchy leather jacket with some moleskin shoes or whatever. And then run it at South Bank. Like borrow someone’s board and try and nollie flip in some like five grand duck boots or something, ha ha. You know what I mean? I was like ‘Yes! Banging.’
AD: Any other influences? I remember Nugget (Gabriel Pluckrose, one of the designers) once mentioning La Haine and how much he liked how they dressed in that.
Yeah but that’s just one thing… It’s not like we sit and look at that shit. Nugget will be influenced by something and Gareth (Skewis) or me might be influenced by something else but we won’t sit down and specifically think about these things. It’s more like ‘aw that’s sick, lets do that’ or ‘lets do that.’
AD: It’s not like brainstorming sessions about stuff…
Nah man. It’s like totally normal. It’s not really a company; it’s just a load of mates making t-shirts, or a jacket or whatever. Or making something you see Femi wear. You know what I mean? We ain’t done that yet but that’s probably a good idea.
WH: I can’t wait for the Femi capsule collection!
AD: You guys are kind of notorious for treating your employees really well. Like when Tom Tanner fucked his knee up, he said that he got sick leave and he got the commission as if he was still in the shop. Plus all the filmers that worked on the vid would get day rates to film… Nobody else in skating is doing that.
Of course we’re gonna look after everybody in the end!
AD: Absolutely. You just don’t hear of people in ‘skating’ treated like that very often.
I mean maybe they don’t have the opportunity. I ain’t finding another Tom Tanner anyway. That’s important to me. I love the fucking little scouser kid in the shop; he’s fucking hilarious. I don’t want to go in there and have to look at someone boring and not have a laugh with them.
AD: That probably comes with just employing your mates as well. Like if they’re your mates you’re going to treat them like your mates.
AD: When the brand first started growing I bet a lot of people hit you up to ride for Palace…
AD: Who hit you up then? Anyone we wouldn’t expect?
It’s a long list man… Everyone hit me up.
Everyone… Like a gnarly amount of people. Like 30 or something. Actual pro skaters. I don’t wanna drop people in the shit though… But that included like three of my favourite skaters in the whole world… Like ever.
WH: And you turned them down?
WH: Even though they were you favourites?
Yeah because they were my favourites then and this is now. Like would they be able to sit in a van with Chewy (Cannon) and not look like a bellend? I don’t want everyone else to be uncomfortable. It’s about the synergy man; it has to be nice. Everyone has to be happy and cool with each other and want to skate together. And to be fair, loads of my favourite skaters are now fucking knocking on 40. So it’s like, do you wanna sit in a van with Jamal (Smith) smoking weed? No? Then fuck off basically. I wanna look after what we have. I’m not trying to get someone to skate for Palace like just because I wanna sell boards in fucking wherever.
WH: Of course, you want to have it so everyone’s cool with each other.
That’s all it is really. And also those skaters, when I liked them it was a long time ago. Like when Alien Workshop was Alien Workshop. And now it’s different. People ain’t the same anymore.
WH: Your favourite guys from your youth may not be the best for the team.
Exactly. And they’re not necessarily my favourite skaters now. There was a time when they were, when I had posters of them on my wall. When I Idolised them, wanted to be like them, dress like them… But those were different times.
WH: Do you guys have people you flow boards to?
I mean if someone needs boards, I’ll just give them boards. There’s no official flow team, it’s like one way or the other. But I’m not scared of sending someone 20 boards if they need skateboards. Even random people that I meet, if they skate sick, I’ll happily be like ‘yeah take some boards’. That’s what skating’s about innit. Well that’s what I think it’s about. So there’s no flow team really. Just because I don’t see the point. And you know what? The only reason people set up massive flow teams sometimes is to sell stuff in that area. You know what I mean?
WH: And that’s something you don’t need to worry about…
Not even that. I’d love to sell more things in certain places but I think it’s a bit snide when people sponsor people like that. American companies do it so much with English skaters. They lead them on, like ‘oh yeah you’re gonna ride for fucking Popwar or something’. Then they lead them on and lead them on and lead them on… ‘You’re on the flow team but we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it.’ So many American companies do that.
WH: Then when the video comes out; their name’s nowhere to be seen.
Exactly. Or they have one trick. Why are you gonna do that to someone? I don’t wanna give some kid boards and for him to think ‘maybe one day I’ll ride for Palace?’ When to be honest with you, you probably won’t unless like you live near London and you’re fucking hilarious and I love you. You know what I mean? If I don’t wanna hang out with you and all the skaters don’t wanna hang out with you, it’s never happening.
WH: So are you not really bothered about trying to hook anyone else up?
I’d love to man! Send me those sponsor me’s! No one sends them.
To be fair I don’t check the email really. But you know what actually? You know that black kid that skates for Fucking Awesome? Massive pop…
AD: Sage (Elsesser)?
Sage yeah, when I met him in New York a year ago this is what he said to me:
‘Hey man. I sent you a sponsor me tape once!’
And I’m like: ‘What? Did you? Are you sure?’
And he was like: ‘You replied man! You sent a really nice message!’
And I was like: ‘Really? Saying what?’ I was like what the fuck? I was thinking about it like, I swear to god, I’ve only ever replied to one sponsor me tape, ever. And it turns out it was him when he was a little kid! And he was sick! The only one I ever replied to was that one.
Mad that he turned out to be an amazing skater. I still remember the footage of this little kid doing frontside tailslide shove-its and all these sick little tricks. But he lived in LA and we were in London…. It’s weird that I replied to him innit. No one else, just one ever. He literally was like fucking 4ft high. Same height as you (Arthur)!
AD: Oi! So how did the idea for MWADLANDS come about?
Now that’s the shit I wanna talk about! I want to hype people up about the skatepark. We wanted to do it last year but couldn’t find a space. December, January, February, no one on the team has anywhere to skate in London. And I want them to get better at skating. So originally it was a little shitty space we were gonna do. With like a block and stuff. Then we found a bigger space and then we just thought to ourselves ‘why has there not been a skatepark in London since like for ever?’ Since London Bridge, (editor’s note: Ewer Street, it was only open for about 10 months, and that was in 1991) you know what I mean?! Gareth and me are fucking skaters; so we were just like ‘fuck it let’s make a skatepark’. It fucking cost an arm and a leg to make but like everyone has somewhere to skate. It’s good for kids that are skating. It’s like the dream innit? Like why wouldn’t you?
Like anyone that has a skate company, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t do that, if they could. It’s my dream from when I was a kid.
AD: It got me so hyped.
That’s the point of it innit. Get people hyped and shit. We had a skate video coming out so I was like fuck it, let’s do the whole thing together. And I was always really into doing something that would give a nod to Radlands, like trying to redo it. It’s just nice to give something back.
AD: How did it feel to watch Penny and Rowley skating it?
It was the gnarliest day ever man. Before it opened we got all the team there skating. We got Rowley and Penny coming, and everyone’s in there smoking weed, getting mash-up. And we’re just skating with Rowley and Penny – you know what I mean? It’s like a dream you know.
Penny’s at the top of the ramp like talking to Brady like (Lev puts on a pretty good Tom Penny voice): ‘What are the ramps like? What’s the driveway like?’ He’s got boots on, classic, and he’s borrowed Rory’s board. Brady’s like ‘aw, it’s really hard to skate actually…’ and as he’s saying that, Penny drops in and does an early grab or some shit over the driveway first try. Everyone was like ‘ohhhh!’ Brady was like ‘fucking hell!’, as he’s like trying to explain to him how hard it is to skate and Penny just boosted some shit over the driveway ha ha! He did all this other shit in the park as well, I’ve got all the footage – I haven’t put it out yet. I haven’t had time to do it but I’m gonna put it on the Internet soon. Imagine just skating with Rowley and Penny in your own skatepark!
AD: How did you get them to come?
We just rang ‘em up drunk. We’d been at the skatepark and me, Joel (O’Connor), Torey (Goodall) and Charlie (Young) were pissed out of our faces and Gareth was there and we were like ‘rah, let’s get Penny or Rowley to come’. Actually Penny was already coming, ‘let’s get Rowley, lets get Rowley!’ And Joel’s like ‘go on then, I’ll fucking give you his number, text him now. And Gareth’s steaming like texting Rowley like, ‘are you up for coming to our skatepark?’ Two minutes later he replied ‘yep yep I’m coming’. We booked him a flight in the pub. Comes over three days later. Fucking dream world innit.
At the same time every single penny from that skatepark (donation box) goes into getting South Bank back to what it was. We’re not selling shit out there; we’re doing none of that. So when you tell Rowley that story, of course he wants to save South Bank, of course he wants kids to have somewhere to skate. It’s just skating innit. When you do something good for someone, they help you back. Rowley was instantly down. He came to the skatepark straight off the plane, like super jet-lagged. He just showed up, drank some Stellas and skated the park. It was banging.
AD: Who came up with all the branding?
Ferg (Fergus Purcell) drew it all up. I said to Ferg I want the skatepark to look like Radlands did back in the day. So I sent him a few things, but then he went off the chart. Ferg is like the most talented person ever. Like I sent him the Workshop logo yeah, and we were pissing ourselves laughing ‘cause the guy on the right looks like Rory yeah. He’s got the long head and shit. And I think Ferg like traced it and clicked his hair blonde. And in the skatepark Rory was like ‘that’s me innit?’ and I was like ‘nah look at the actual original logo. It just looks like you mate.’ That’s just one, ha ha.
WH: The Toy Machine one is too good.
Toy Machine one is the one innit. I was so stoked on that and the Spitfire head. Everything really, he just went in on it.
WH: Did any of those companies say anything about them?
Everyone loves it. I was worried about Spitfire and all those people that actually still make money.
AD: But it’s basically free advertising though… And it’s just a nod.
Yeah it’s a nod innit. They could have been pissed off about it, but they sent such nice messages. Jim Thiebaud and all that lot being like ‘whoever did that is a genius, thank you so much’. Like really nice about it. I remember being all hungover and seeing the email come through and think ‘fuck I hope it’s not a lawsuit from Spitfire’. Clicked it, and it’s just him being safe. It’s skating innit.
WH: It’s not like you’re selling t-shirts…
Exactly. Well actually a few through the back door… Ha ha, I’m joking.
AD: How long are you gonna have it there for and what do you reckon could be done to have it for longer?
It finishes in March. Fucking raise loads of money to pay the rent, it’s through the roof! But I wanna do something else further down the line, so it’s cool…
AD: You going to try to do another one next year?
I’d love to man. I wish the skatepark could be there forever but then I’m kind of like ‘fuck it’, it’ll go and then hopefully we’ll make another one, one day. But it’s shown us that it’s the sort of thing we should be doing. If you don’t get off your arse and do it, nothing happens. The community and the government should be helping us do these things though.
(Click below for a Palace photo gallery)