The American Dream (part 3 of 6): Geoff Rowley

The American Dream is a series of six interviews with European pros, looking back at their experiences of moving to California to pursue skateboarding careers.

360 flip, Oceanside, 1994. Ph. Dave Swift

Interview by Neil Macdonald

So, you saved up and paid your own way to the US, as an 18-year-old kid, right?
Geoff Rowley: Yeah. I’d finished my fifth year of school and my last year’s results really weren’t great. I hadn’t been very focused because in my head I was wanting to move to the US to skate. I actually wanted to go earlier but I was kind of forced to repeat a year of school to keep things healthy at home, with my parents… My dad was pressuring me to get a job and I was breaking down a bit. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; I thought I was moving to America and then it wasn’t happening… So, for twelve months I was kind of in limbo, saving up money until eventually I went out.

Was your Transworld cover the first photo you shot in the US?
I think so, yeah. That was maybe a couple of weeks after I moved to the US. They were on deadline and Gullwing really needed a photo for an ad, so since I was right there at Transworld Dave Swift was like: ‘You ride for Gullwing, right?’ And I went, ‘Umm, yeah, I think so’, so we went skating and then they put the picture on the cover and I never got a Gullwing ad. Actually, I think I did get a Gullwing ad… A pop shove-it on the same day, but yeah that’s how they put the 360 flip on the cover.

Was California the first place away from home that you’d lived?
Yeah, absolutely. I lived with my parents until I got on a National Express coach from Liverpool down to Northampton where I stayed for a few days, and then flew from London to the US. I’d never lived away from home, so it was a big deal. I did travel a lot though, probably more than your average kid in England. Every single weekend I was at a different skatepark or city.
All the Liverpool skaters, to their credit, weren’t afraid to get on the train or the bus, and I still do it like that now. It’s the mentality of, ‘If you don’t go, you won’t know’. You have to jump in the van. Otherwise, you’ll be left behind on some quiet Sunday. Sometimes we would meet at the train station without even knowing where we were going…

You’d have known Wig (Worland) and Skin (Phillips) from the UK, and they both went on to shoot for Transworld. Did that help?
Yeah, it was helpful. The foundation of Transworld was well and truly set when I moved here, and they had some fantastic photographers working for them. Skin and Wig were contributing at that point. Wig is one of the best photographers ever. Wig’s so damn talented that it’s not even funny. I’ve been around a million photographers over the years, and Wig is special.
Some people don’t value imagery, they don’t value photography, they don’t value content. I’m around photographers and videographers every day and if they aren’t happy and doing a good job, I can’t exist. I could only exist to skate for me, which is what I’d do anyway, but I can’t do my job and I can’t do anything of what I do on a day-to-day basis without those guys being up and running. If we lose guys like that, where are we?
Since day one I’ve known that if those guys are in jeopardy, then I’m in jeopardy. If those guys are worried, what can I do to help them? If those guys are underpaid, how can we shift the scale? If a person like me who’s in a good, stable place, can’t say that Wig is one of the best photographers to ever come out of England, we’ve got a problem. He’s that good.

When people in the UK hear a Scouse accent there’s a bit of, ‘right, here’s a Scouser. He must be hard’, but did that exist in the US? Or were you just ‘British’ in general?
Stereotypes exist everywhere. Especially if you’re at a place where there’s alcohol. Somebody always thinks the English guy will be that movie stereotype with bad teeth who isn’t afraid to get into a fight. We know it’s not really like that, but when you get beaten up so much as a kid you have to stand up for yourself because you’re going to get beaten up anyway. That’s why the mentality is different in the US to the UK. If you threaten someone in the US, they’re going to start pushing and shoving you, if you threaten someone in the UK they think you’re going to hurt them… It’s slightly different.
I’ve been in bars before where guys have just walked up to me, put me in a headlock and walked me out the back of the bar, and I’ve never seen them before in my life. Just because they thought it was funny. So, there’s a little bit of that… You’ve gotta just kill ‘em with kindness.

Nosebluntslide, Oceanside, 1994. Ph. Dave Swift

Was there any hostility from skateboarders?
If you’re asking if people were hostile because we weren’t from around there, or we were new to the industry, then yes, absolutely there was. I’d go to contests early on with Jeremy Klein and Ed Templeton, guys that were already outcasts to some degree. A lot of the ‘cool guys’ during that period weren’t cool to Ed and they weren’t cool to Jeremy. They weren’t cool to guys like that because they thought they weren’t as ‘fresh’. And you know how that goes… It’s a joke, so you have to laugh. Kill ‘em with kindness.
It did happen a few times at comps, where some guy would be pointing at Jeremy and going, ‘why are you here?’ Big pro skaters doing that, guys you’ll know. Then pointing at me and going, ‘and who’s this guy?’, but I didn’t give a fuck. Would you have given a fuck if you were in that situation? I was skating with Jeremy Klein! Jeremy Klein rules!
I had a lot of fun skating with Jeremy. He took care of me and drove me all around. He’d pick me up to go skate at eight o’clock in the morning and we’d finish skating in the dark, at night. He was a hardcore skater, the same as Ed. I just wanted to skate with the dudes who did it for the right reasons, even if some of those guys were ousted to the side a little bit, or just different characters, individuals. And I wanted to be around that. That’s what skateboarding is to me. It’s for individuals and everyone is accepted.
Also maybe in the early days of Vans some people were like, ‘who’s this guy, coming in here and doing stuff?’, but whatever. I’m not there to damage someone else’s life; I’m just there living my own.

Was the thought of having to pay for your own healthcare an issue?
Healthcare? I only wanted to make sure I had cereal, cheese and bread. I wasn’t thinking of my health one bit. I’d moved to a foreign country, and I was foreign. I was a headless chicken and I just wanted to set my foundations and feel comfortable, and I didn’t for a while.
So, it wasn’t all, ‘I’ve made it out, let’s go!’
I’d moved all the way across to the other side of the world, and it did feel weird for a while… I didn’t settle straight. My skating sucked for the first two years. That, I do know. I remember thinking, ‘why do you keep doing the same tricks every day? What the fuck’s going on?’
Before I moved to the US I was progressing so much. For the last two years before I moved, I really felt that every time I’d go skate I’d be trying and doing and learning stuff all the time, and it was because I was getting stronger as a person, you know? My ollies were getting higher every day because I was growing. I didn’t even recognise that. And then I moved to the US and I didn’t really know how to ride down those streets, or how to pop my tricks, and I started thinking about that, so I got into a really weird rut. That happens to a lot of people when they move to the US from somewhere in the world, with big dreams. They have a few months of just getting the tricks out and then just go, ‘what do I do now?’ because they want to keep progressing and the environment’s not the same. Then they go back to their hometown and they never really do it. There was definitely a crazy breaking-in period where I was just not learning any tricks.

Kickflip, Poway, California, 1996. Ph. Dave Swift

It’s been talked about quite a lot how you basically thought the stuff in videos and mags was normal skating, and when you showed up you could do all those tricks, but did that only last a couple of months?
Kind of. I just know that my progression slowed down as soon as I moved to the US. In the last two years before moving to the US I wasn’t filmed a lot, but I shot a lot of photos with Percy Dean, or Nicky Ryan or Kingy. But no one had a video camera. The video guy we had in Liverpool, Kevin Banks, had kinda stopped shooting for those last two years before I moved to the US. I would love to see footage from then, if anybody had filmed it. Just to see what an innocent, fragile teenager looks like on a board! Ha ha! Shane O’Brien filmed some footage, he filmed Tom and I down at Southbank, but the footage was lost. We were doing stuff there that was on the level of what we were doing when we moved to the US, but that’s long gone.
So those first couple of years were exactly what they were: kids moving to a foreign country and not knowing what was going on but trying to skate. That was all I had. What else did I have? I didn’t have a girlfriend; I was only just getting into that stuff. Honestly, I give all of my thanks and love to Ed Templeton because he just wasn’t a dick. He wasn’t a dick and he poked at young Geoff and basically went, ‘hey, whoever the fuck’s inside that skull, get him out!’ and I appreciate that. That changed my life. He could have been a dick, or just not available. Same with Jeremy Klein. They didn’t have to accept this guy with a ridiculous accent from Liverpool, but they knew I was a skater and all I wanted to do was get my head down and skate. If I didn’t have those influences around me I’d have probably just come back to England and taken a different path.

At that time in the UK, if you met another skateboarder, you’d almost automatically become friends with them because they were a skateboarder. I imagine it was different in Southern California.
I didn’t hang out with anyone when I first moved here. I’d only skate with Jeremy Klein and Ed, and whoever they were skating with. So if they were skating with Bam, I’d skate with Bam, then become friends with him and be able to skate with him on the weekend, or go visit him.
It happened slowly like that. I didn’t gravitate towards anything, and I didn’t have any foundation until I made the foundation.

It’s important that people know that being good at skating isn’t all you need.
I was terrified, Neil! Living with 13 people in a little shitty two-bedroom apartment that smelled weird and was mouldy. I wasn’t getting paid properly, nothing was down on paper and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was scared. When I came home at night, I didn’t have anything to comfort me, and I came from such a great, loving family, and then all of a sudden, I didn’t have anybody around me. I just had a skateboard, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
I rode really wide boards and big wheels as well. I remember thinking when I went to the US, ‘I want the biggest wheels, the widest board and the biggest trucks, and I want to do the biggest shit!’

Ollie, Huntington Beach, 1996. Ph. Andy Horsley

How hard was it to keep in touch with your family? And with UK skateboarding?
At that point there were no cell phones or pagers, and not even a home phone. You’d have to use a payphone, with a pile of quarters? And where do you get quarters? To get quarters you’d have to have a bank account! So, I’d save quarters like crazy, then skate to the nearest quiet payphone late at night to call my parents until my quarters ran out then I’d get sad and go home. Then it’d be another week or two before I could afford two dollars to make a phone call. It was quite lonely.

People don’t need to move to California to make it in skateboarding anymore, do they?
No. It’s different now. That was a different time, and the skateboarding world wasn’t global. The world wasn’t connected then, but that time has gone.
The culture was born here, in Southern California, so if you like that history and what it represented, you should move here, but you can make your own decision now. Beforehand, you couldn’t. If you’re smart, you can (make it in skateboarding and) live wherever you want.

What would you say to anybody thinking about moving their life to the other side of the world?
If I think of a kid sitting at home in his bedroom with a dream, I don’t want that kid to lose that. Whether he fails at it or not. I want people to know that I was that fucking kid. I was terrified. I loved skateboarding but I didn’t know if I was good enough to do it, but I did it, and that’s all. Don’t be afraid to fucking go for it.