The American Dream (part 4 of 6): Benny Fairfax

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.

Stereo Ad, 2009.

Interview by Arthur Derrien

So for you it all started with Jason Lee and Chris Pastras inviting you out there right?
Benny Fairfax: Yeah. I met them on a WESC trip to Sweden… We skated together for a couple of days and one evening they mentioned that they were starting Stereo up again and asked if I would like to show them some footage. So Chez (Neil Chester) – who I’d been filming with for the Sidewalk video – made a little mixtape. I guess he put some tune on there that Jason Lee liked, and they were like, ‘Let’s bring this kid out to the States.’ So I went to LA…

Did they pay for your ticket out there?
You know what I don’t actually remember… They must have. It was all very loose though… I remember thinking that just them inviting me meant I was on Stereo and stuff but that it was only after I’d been there for a while hanging out with them that they were like, ‘you know what, we like you – you’re on the team. You can stay,’ kind of thing.

‘Oh… I thought I was already on.’
Yeah kind of ha ha.

Where were you staying?
I was kinda living between both of their houses at first.

What was Jason Lee’s place like?
I mean he was a Hollywood movie star so yeah it was a nice place for sure… And he had this girl working for him, I guess she was his maid or his PA or something, and she’d just like sort out all his life and then make me sandwiches and give me a lift to the skate spot ha ha.

What?! Were you a bit like, ‘what am I doing here?’
Yeah totally… I mean also I didn’t know anyone there, had never been to America before… I had no clue what to expect. But they were both really nice and accommodating!

When did you get your own place?
Well uh what happened first is that one day I told Chris Pastras, who I’d been staying with at that point, ‘ah man I’ve figured out my flight, my travel visa, like I’m good for three months now!’ And he sort of replied, ‘ah cool man, where are you gonna live?

Ha ha.
And I was just like, ‘ahhhhh…’ I was not expecting that ha ha. So I said: ‘I met these kids that said I could stay at their house, so it’s cool.’ Just because I really didn’t want to go home. I’d met quite a few people at that point, I’d been there for a little while just skating all these spots I’d seen in the videos in the sun… So I was like, ‘ah don’t worry I’ll figure it out for myself’ sort of thing.

Where did you actually stay then?
I met this Armenian kid, Joe, who lived in an apartment with his mum and dad and sister… In a two-bedroom flat… His mom and dad would sleep on two couches together and I would just sleep on the floor in his room. And he was like, ‘don’t worry man, it’s cool, it’s all good, come stay.’ And this kid had a car and was just stoked to drive me around skating every day showing me spots and taking me to college house parties at night!

How would you link up with people?
At that point I didn’t have a phone but I had this little mini black phone book where Chris Pastras had written down all these filmers and photographers’ phone numbers… So my morning routine was: wake up, grab a coffee, go to the phone box with a big fist full of quarters and just like call all of these numbers. ‘Hi, you don’t know me but my name’s Benny. I got your number from Chris Pastras and Jason Lee and I’m just seeing if it’s cool if I come skate with you today?’

Ha ha. Was anyone just like ‘naaaaah’?
I mean the majority of people were cool but it was really like, ‘okay… What’s going on today?’ and before you know it you’re in some random car park with Ronnie Creager and Aaron Snyder ha ha. Or you’re in a car driving to pick up Terry Kennedy deeeeep in Long Beach.

Okaaaay… How was that?
I mean I don’t know if it was actually that sketchy or not but I was a little kid and all these people coming straight up to the car like: ‘give me some change’ and when you’d drive through you’d have these guys peering in going, ‘what are you doing here?’ so I was a bit like, ‘oh shit…’ At times it definitely felt like I was in an Eazy-E video ha ha.

Plus Terry showed me the bullet holes in his house. He was like: ‘yeah you know, from a drive by’ and it was not long after that his friend Black Mike – rest in peace – got shot and killed… And apparently they were after Terry… He wore a bulletproof vest the whole time on that first day I met him… I also saw him after he had been shot in the mouth and he had all kinds of wire and rubber bands keeping his mouth and face together, so messed up!

Nollie heelflip, Los Angeles, 2006. Ph. John Bradford

Fucking hell.
Oh actually also I skated with Terrell Robinson a few times – who was also from the South Central/Compton area – and on one day he showed up with a stray bullet in his leg/bum. They were waiting to remove it or something and I remember him being like, ‘yeah hey check it out, the bullet is still in there,’ just poking it ha ha.

As you do…
Yeah! Ha ha. Mental. They were both really cool though! But yeah just chatting to them you could tell it was a whole other world out there you know? I was 19 or something, coming from New Forest in the south of England ha ha, I was tripping.

Were you like talking to your family much when you were out there? Were they worried at all?
Yeah, they were definitely a bit worried but they were also really excited for me. This is what I’d been banging on about since I was 12 years old you know? ‘This is what I’m gonna do, look at this video mum!’ Actually I remember at the very beginning when she found out Jason Lee was a Scientologist and she was like, ‘don’t you dare ever get involved in that. I’ve heard about it, it’s not good.’

Ha ha, good advice mum.
Yeah, definitely yeah.

Did Jason Lee ever try to speak to you about any of that shit?
No. Although quite early on Chris did give me and Clint Peterson this little pep talk. It went something like, ‘don’t ever just mention Scientology… Don’t ever be like: “hey Jason what’s up with that Scientology shit” or don’t ever be like: “oh hey so-and-so’s a Scientologist or blah blah.” In fact don’t even ever utter that word and you’ll be fine.’ And Clint was just like, ‘honestly act like it never comes into your mind and everything will be cool.’
So I obviously never did, and it was all good. Because he was a nice guy; we were mates you know? When I lived just with him he had a key to this private park (Steve) Berra had before the Berrics and he’d drive me there in his little Mini Cooper to skate all night. Ah man he drove like a fucking maniac ha ha. But yeah I guess he hadn’t skated for ages as he’d gotten into acting so he was loving being back on it.

How long were you out there for in total?
I did three three-year P1 visas, which are for ‘extraordinary persons’ ha ha, or artists or whatever. But then I’d also come back most summers as well. To be honest a lot of the years blur into one big blob of a memory but it was the best part of ten years, long enough to get the piss ripped out of me by the boys at the Waterloo Palace for sounding like an American every time I’d come back ha ha.

What kind of money were you on at that point?
At first I literally just had 300 bucks from Sole Tech/éS and that was like my lifeline, BIG THANK YOU to Tony E and Mark Waters RIP. And then maybe some photo incentive every now and then or whatever product I could sell… But I didn’t care; I just wanted to skate. I was always fully like, ‘there’s no way I’m going to go home; I’m going to make this work.’ After a while it turned into 300 from Sole Tech and the 300 from Stereo but yeah it was still years of being skint. I mean I could still chip in on rent but yeah it definitely wasn’t much. But honestly as I said I was just so stoked to be out there doing it that I really didn’t care. And I guess it wasn’t ‘til the end of 2006-ish that I got my first box of adidas so things were like that for a while but I loved it…
But also: about two weeks after I got my first pair I dislocated my ankle and broke my leg. As in it was facing the wrong way… I fully snapped it off basically; it was hectic!

I remember trying to stand up and seeing that my leg was backwards… Then fire engine or ambulance noises… I went into shock and woke up in the hospital. Actually one thing I remember is that they had a whole fucking film crew with them that were from the Discovery Channel, and were like: ‘oh yeah we’re filming a documentary about paramedics in high crime areas,’ because this was like a few blocks over from skid row in downtown LA.
Anyway that took me out for a really long time… I had surgery, after waiting two weeks on painkillers, and I’ve now got a plate with like thirteen pins in my leg.

Frontside shove-it, New York City, 2008. Ph. Allen Ying

How did you pay for that?!
This is a good story actually… So I obviously had no health insurance, no travel insurance… I had my surgery done at a county hospital, which is basically where poor people with no health insurance go in America, there’s no NHS or anything like that… And that whole system is really not designed for people that don’t have a high income. Anyway yeah after I’ve had my surgery I was in the hospital and, oh man actually… I remember I was next to this kid, and we got chatting… And his story was that he’d basically been sat at home watching TV and a stray bullet from a drive-by had gone through the walls of his house into his foot, and when he stood up like ‘aaaargh I’ve been shot!’ his foot just shattered.

Ah man so bleak…
And I was sat right next to him when they came in and told him they wouldn’t be able to put his foot back together and they were going to have to amputate.

Yeah I was just there, when this kid found out that news. It was the most devastating shit. So gnarly.

I bet at that point you were like, ‘get me out of this place; I want to go home now.
I mean yeah it was like fuck the dream’s over. It’s done. This isn’t just a broken leg, this is a full-blown injury; I was on crutches for six months. Brian Brown, Tony Silva and all the boys that were out skating that day later told me that the whole thing really fucked them up too… As in seeing what happened to me that day led to them being scared to jump down stuff. Like they all got PTSD from that shit.

Man it sounds so traumatic… So go on then, how did you pay for the medical bills?
Oh yeah. Well after I’d had my surgery this hospital worker woman came to see me, doing her rounds, asking about my situation, if I had insurance, my financial situation, my immigration status, etc. and I was just like: ‘here’s my passport I’m from the UK, I don’t have any money or insurance…’ you know. And she goes, ‘well, you’re not going to be eligible for any kind of aid so you’re looking at about 47,000 dollars plus another 5k for your ambulance ride.’ I felt like she could see that when she said that my whole world had ended… But then she comes in close and she goes, ‘look don’t show anyone your ID, don’t tell anyone the story you’ve just told me, I’m going to put you in our system as a homeless person, and all you need is a handwritten letter from some person saying they provide you with food and shelter and that’s it, you won’t have to pay anything. My son’s a skateboarder…’

It was this woman’s job to go around and assess people’s situations, so it seemed like she’d seen the healthcare system fuck over so many people, every single day, that she just felt pity on me and she hooked me up! Nothing ever came of it. No bill, like that was it. I obviously bought her son loads of boards, bought her flowers, I told her she was my guardian angel and thanked her a million times… But yeah, that was it.

Were you pranging that your sponsors might drop you and stuff?
Yeah I thought it was all over but Chris and Jason were like, ‘look man, we know this is horrible for you, just get better, get stronger, do all your rehab, come back, we’ve got your back and you’ll still have a sponsor at the end of this.’ And the same with adidas! I was really lucky…

Which is crazy because not only had you just got on but it was also the very beginning of their skate program right?
Yeah… And when I came back I was nowhere near skating like I used to… Like on tippy toes I could barely do kickflips… I was just terrified of my fucking matchstick twig of a leg snapping again.

But eventually you did get better… And even somehow ended up in that first Battle Of The Berrics… And obviously The Berrics is super neeky now but those first games of S.K.A.T.E. were a massive deal. How did that even come about?
Yeah man when it started it was quite a big thing over there. And the people that were in it were legit you know? Fucking Mike Carroll was in it, Jeron Wilson, Heath (Kirchart), Erik Ellington, (Andrew) Reynolds… And obviously I wasn’t on that list initially; I definitely wasn’t cool enough to get in there, at all. But at that point I lived around the corner from The Berrics in this warehouse with this BMXer – actually do you remember Toy Machine’s Welcome To Hell? The BMXer that faceplants in the slam section?

Yeah… Ha ha.
Well I lived with that BMXer in a warehouse around the corner from The Berrics when it first opened. And we’d always go to this pub that Giovanni Reda would go to quite a lot… And I remember going up to him, after I’d had a couple of pints and being like: ‘Get me in there mate, I’ll take someone out, trust! ’Ha ha!

And the rest is history!

Okay I’m not too sure where this sits in relation to what we’ve just discussed but do you maybe want to do the Ethan Fowler story now so it’s out of the way… If you still feel comfortable telling it obviously.
Yeah ok fuck it, he deserves to get called out. So this is quite early on when I was over there…Actually maybe I need a beer for this, one sec (goes to the fridge)… Also before we get into it I want to make it very clear I met so many lovely people there, made so many good friends and overall had the best time. This is just one of the more negative things that happened to me when I was there…

I know…
Okay. So um… Obviously Ethan Fowler – OG Stereo legend – I looked up to his skating so much… Always thought he was a steez guy etc.

Yep. I mean… Tincan Folklore
Yeah… But I was maybe not as aware as until I went out there just how much all those guys idolised him, how much he was like the fucking guy.
Anyway so I didn’t have a licence or a car so you know, once I was out on the sesh I was kind of at other people’s will… And one afternoon the guys I was with were all excited like: ‘hey dude we’re gonna BBQ at Ethan’s house and then we’re gonna go to his psychedelic rock show, it’s going to be fucking sick dude! Ethan’s the fucking coolest!’ You know like the sun shone out of his arse for them basically. Everyone loved him.
So we go to Ethan Fowler’s house, we have this little BBQ then it’s all ‘we’re going to the bar now like, Ethan’s band is going to play dude, sick’. So we were in some little basement bar in Downtown LA, and you know he plays his show – everyone’s had a few beers – whatever… It was really loud in there and so he just kinda cornered me like: ‘hey man, not too many n****rs in here is there? You must feel super out of place dude, look around.’ And I just, I just froze – like what the fuck? He knew that I was the little kid on the team, the new guy coming over here from England, and that he was in this position of power. Like I’m fucking Ethan Fowler, like I can say whatever I want to you. So yeah, ‘not too many n****rs in here, you must feel pretty out of place man.’ And I’m just like ‘errrr’ and I’ll never forget he looked me in the eyes smiling and said, ‘you probably want to punch me right now don’t you? But you’re not gonna are you?’ And then he walked off. I was left there frozen like, ‘oh fuck…’ I didn’t know what to do. I just left and got a taxi to wherever I was staying that night and that was kinda it.

Yeah I wanted to ask, did you not tell Pastras?
I actually never spoke to him about it, they’re really nostalgic about Stereo, Chris and Ethan go way back together and I knew that it would really upset him so I didn’t want to rock the boat and make an issue out of it…

Did you speak to anyone else about it?
Yeah I remember telling some of the other friends what happened and they were like, ‘ah Ethan probably just like had a few beers man, he didn’t mean anything by it…’

What the fuck, how could you brush over something like that?
Yeah they all pretty much swept it under the rug because it was Ethan and they all looked up to him. No one wanted to hear that shit. And looking back at it now I’m like – mate I’ve seen plenty of guys have plenty of beers but they don’t go whispering racist shit in little black boys ears after they’ve had a few…

I can’t help but feel like the power dynamic just makes it extra disgusting as well.
Yeah it makes it a little bit more ugly – it wasn’t just a weird back-handed comment that came out of nowhere by accident, he cornered me to say that.

Did you tell your mates in London about it?
Yeah and they were obviously like, ‘what the fuck?! Fuck that guy!’ you know… It was definitely a power trip for him. The look on his face… He enjoyed it… So yeah… Not very cool.

Did it make you consider dropping everything and going home?
No way, because it was quite early on in my time there and I was loving life, like I said this was just one bad thing that happened and one shitty person that I encountered. I was very much like the little new kid at that point, what was I going to say or do about it? So I tried to shrug it off I suppose… And growing up here in England, it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to me at all. It was definitely the first time from someone I looked up to that was a pro skater… But it was not the first time someone’s said some racist shit to me, not by a long shot.

How did you feel about it all when Lev (Tanju) hit you up about putting it in that ad?
I don’t know… It’s different now I’m an adult, and not in that circle where anything could happen to me – I’d relish someone saying that to me now… But I was a kid at the time, so yeah it was a very different situation.

Backside tailslide, Los Angeles, 2004. Ph. Mike O’Meally

Well at least now the full story is out there… Is there anything else you‘d like to say about that or shall we move on to some of the slightly fonder memories you might have of your time out there? Like Mike O’Meally bitchslapping you into landing this backtail maybe? Ha ha.
Ha ha yeah let’s do that one, it’s good. So it was at that point when Skateboarder magazine was going and that one was always my favourite: Bartok (Oliver Barton), O’Meally, Bryan Gaberman had loads of photos in there every issue… It just had the best shit. And I guess O’Meally was one number in my little black book so he got the classic ‘hey man, you don’t know me but can I come skate?’ And he took me to this out ledge in Compton… And Cairo Foster was with him! I was so gassed on Cairo Foster at this point, I’d watched The Reason a million times and he had crazy pop, he went fast, always did simple tricks but he did them proper.

And so yeah it’s me and Cairo skating this out ledge and the drop off was kinda tall… I was back tailing that thing, to the end, but I kept getting there and kicking it away… And this was before digi so Mike O’Meally’s there burning through medium format Hasselblad film. On so many tries I could have done it but I was just being a bit of a pussy… And on one after I slid it perfectly to the end but kicked it away, O’Meally just bitchslapped me. Like he fully open hand slapped me on my face, really fucking hard… ‘Fucking do it cunt!’ like BAM ha ha. So I’m a bit like ‘aargh’ but also not forgetting that I was gassed to have O’Meally shooting me and I’m skating this thing with one of my favourite skaters. And yeah I think I was just so excited that the bitchslap fucking worked ha ha. I don’t know if it was the next try – but soon after I landed it. The bitchslap made me fucking do it.

At what point did you decide to quit Stereo then, and did it have anything to do with you wanting to move back to England?
So basically I always knew I wanted to skate for Palace way before I did. Obviously I’m so close to Chewy, Lucien, Lev, Brady and all the boys… And it could’ve happened a year or so sooner than it did, but I was hanging on with Stereo for some paychecks and royalties that were promised that never came… I knew I was going to do it but fuck they owed me a bunch of money and I was pretty skint so I held out for it.

What made you do it in the end then?
I guess at one point I realised it was never gonna happen, so just had to be like, ‘sorry boys, see you later.’ But at the same time all these guys had done so much for me, they let me live in their own homes and fully gave me a life over there. They’d gone far above and beyond, so no grudges held whatsoever.

Of course…
Looking back on your whole experience out there now, is there anything that turned out to be completely different to how you’d imagined it?
I mean one thing is how much trouble you can get in with the police for skating out there. Because even to this day I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of someone getting a fine for skating in London.
Over there things could very quickly get pretty scary. I remember once when we were skating downtown at night, the streets were completely empty so we were just cruising around, bombing through intersections… And at one point when we were on the pavement this police car screeched in right in front of me and I literally rolled over the bonnet and fell to the ground. Then he got out and he pushed my face down into the curb. Luckily all we got was a stern telling off and roughed up a little bit, but the whole time the officer had his hand hovering over the holster of his gun and yelling, ‘keep your hands where I can see them!’, it was scary.
And yeah like I said we didn’t get fined or arrested that time but it’s not uncommon for kids to do jail time because they couldn’t afford to pay tickets they got for skating. Because the way it worked then was that if you couldn’t pay by your court date, they’d issue a warrant out for your arrest. So if they’d then catch you again and see when they run your ID that you haven’t paid, then you’d pay it off in jail time. So all these like young kids – like 18, 19, 20, would be like: ‘ah yeah I did ten days for that skate ticket’. Imagine that! Doing ten days in jail with who knows… Loads of mentalists… Just for skating?!

(Interrupted by phone ringing, it’s Chewy.)

Hey mate! Oh Nice… Can I call you back in a little bit? I’m just finishing up this Free interview with Arthur. Actually can you think of any good stories from America that I could tell? Oh the Shiloh one!!! Ha ha ha that one’s gnarly, I don’t know…

(Conversation continues a little bit before they hang up and Benny’s just cracking up.)

Ok well obviously you’re going to have to tell me this Shiloh story now ha ha.
I dunno… It is pretty funny though.

Go oooon…
Alright… So this is when I lived in Long Beach and I used to hang out with John Bradford (the Skateboarder photographer) quite a lot. Our little crew was like Raymond Molinar, Nick Trapasso, Tony Silva and a few others and after our day of skating one time we decided to have a little BBQ at John Bradford’s house. He shared a balcony with his neighbours – these fixie riders – who were also having a BBQ evening, and Shiloh (Greathouse) was friends with them so he’s there with his bird… And he’s shitfaced ha ha. And he sees us and is like, ‘oh no way you guys are here what’s up?’ So we’re obviously like ‘hey Shiloh what’s up, cool!’ Just hanging out you know… But then at one point he turns to Bradford and is like: ‘you never fucking call me back! I got shit to film! I got shit to do!’ and his girlfriend was like ‘yeah! Shiloh’s got tons of tricks he wants to shoot, why don’t you ever call him back?!’ ha ha. And then – he was pretty mashup – he just starts going around the room ranting at us all like, ‘Trapasso you skate good but you dress like a little bitch. And Raymond you can skate ledges good but you’re a fuckin’ hipster with all your stupid cameras! I’m an innovator, I made up all this shit!’ ha ha. And then he turns to me and starts going, ‘Benny you tell them: who’s your favourite black skater from back in the day? WHO?!’
So I’m like, ‘Uh… Keenan? Drake Jones? Uh… Kareem’
‘Yeah yeah those guys are alright, those guys are alright… But…’ And then it escalated a little bit…

What, like, was he actually kicking off ha ha?
Ha ha well yeah kind of… We ended up having to trick him into thinking he’d called himself a taxi to get rid of him.

Ollie, San Francisco, 2003. Ph. Skin Phillips

Don’t meet your heroes, the slightly funnier edition.
Yeah ha ha. He had a point though! He was an innovator! Just needed to work on the delivery of that a bit, ha ha.
I guess that’s another thing that I had no idea about, which kind of ties in to why Ethan probably thought he could say what he said to me. Skateboarding’s a big deal over there. I remember once Nike had the whole side of a huge building painted of a mural of P-Rod doing a kickflip right in downtown, that kind of thing would never happen in England, mental! But yeah, they’re like Rock Stars out there you know? And I guess some of them act like it…

Years and years of everyone around you constantly telling you you’re the shit does tend to make some people think they’re untouchable.
But then also not everyone had egos like that you know? A lot of dudes would be completely normal, just like the nicest guys. It’s just a few where you could tell it was like ‘don’t even make eye contact with me ‘cause I’m the fucking shit!’ ha ha. I guess it’s because some people really do freak out when they see them. Some pros over there are just really famous.

Have you got any stories or examples of famous dudes being really safe/down to earth?
I don’t know, (Danny) Montoya and Rob G (Gonzalez) were always legends… I guess I was blown away by how nice Guy Mariano was. It’s hard to think of a specific example but a lot of people definitely went out of their way to make me feel good and comfortable when they could tell I was just a bit of a nervous kid…
Actually I do have a good one!

It’s about Luypa Sin. It didn’t happen in America but to me he was an ‘American Pro’ because he was in 411VM, if you know what I mean?

Ha ha fuck it go on then.
This would have been a bit before I went… And I think Lev or someone had just shown me a 411, with Luypa, Stephane Larance and loads of French dudes. I remember thinking Luypa was so steezy… He instantly became one of my favourites.
So basically Luypa came to London on one of those Emerica Wild In The Streets comps where you hit a bunch of different street spots and then it ended at Playstation Skatepark, and he won the whole thing. This was when I was a full on grommet, like I probably had an afro coming out of a visor or something lol…. And I saw him kickflip the shit out of that SOAS gap where Knox does the gap to back lip! Anyway that day I did this tre flip out of the kicker over the oil drum and Luypa, after he got given his cash envelope, came up to me and was like ‘yeah man, that tre flip was so good, here you go’ and handed me £60! He absolutely did not have to, I’d never met him or spoken to him, I’d literally just seen him skate that day, that’s it. Keeping in mind that I was sleeping on the floor at the Brixton palace or somewhere, totally skint… So that was my train back to the Forest sorted, my meals for a few days, maybe a few beers… I just couldn’t believe it. Like, ‘what are you…? Really?! Thank you, thank you, thank you. ’ He just fully went out of his way to be the nicest guy ever and really didn’t have to.

Aw man hearing that makes me so happy. And it’s hardly like he would have been earning loads as a ‘Euro’ pro skater back in the day either, what an absolute legend.
I love how we’ve somehow managed to finish on something that has nothing to do with your time in LA ha ha. I guess you choosing that example in a way says something about it all though…
Yeah what an absolute legend! Ha ha, some good life lessons in the right way to behave and the wrong one in all this. If I can get close to that level, help people out and give whenever I can then I’m happy.