The American Dream (part 5 of 6): Bastien Salabanzi

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.

1998. Ph: Pete Thompson.

Interview by Arthur Derrien

At what age did you start going to America for skating?
Bastien Salabanzi: The first time I was 11 I think, or maybe 12. It was in 1997. I’d won the French leg of a Warped Tour comp that took place in Marseille so Vans invited me to represent France in the World Championships in Ventura. I remember getting flown out there, all expenses paid with my brother, and I think it’s actually there that I was first seen by Rune Glifberg, which later led him to start speaking to Flip about me. But it’s probably not until I was 13 that I really started going out there regularly. I’d stay on Geoff Rowley’s couch in Huntington Beach for two or three months at a time to film for Sorry…

Thirteen… And this time without anyone from your family, right?
Yeah my mum signed some papers to make Geoff legally responsible for me while I was out there. I remember it feeling completely surreal… Just being in the van with Appleyard to my left, Rowley to my right, skating all these spots I’d seen in the videos, one minute I’m at the Lavar Mcbride manual pads, the next I’m watching these guys grind some famous rail…

Sounds so intimidating.
It was but also it meant that I was forced to step my game up. Plus things were happening so fast that I wasn’t really taking a step back to reflect on what was going on too much you know? Like we were constantly on filming trips or demo/promo tours to promote this or that…

Were you already getting paid then?
I properly started getting properly paid right after my part in Sorry came out, so when I was 15. That’s when I turned pro for Flip, Vans started talking to me about getting a shoe, etc.

But like… How? Like how do you receive large salaries from brands like that when you’re 15?
Flip had this accountant (that I’m still in contact with today) that would basically take care of all my money for me. The checks would go straight to him, all the money would go into this account that he’d set up and manage for me, and if I ever wanted money to buy video games, weed, fast food or whatever, I’d just ask him and he’d give me what I needed.

And what about if it was something bigger? Like you bought a house in Huntington Beach right?
Yeah I mean it would be exactly the same thing, like the house was through them as well. They literally took care of everything that could possibly be taken care of for me, whether it was normal life stuff like paying water or electricity bills to getting me hooked up with other sponsors… Everything. All I had to do was be in the van and skate. And they were like my family so it felt kind of normal you know, I really trusted them.

Backside noseblunt, Tampa, 2000. Ph: Pete Thompson.

And we’re talking huge amounts of money you were getting at this age right?
Oh yeah… I mean to give you an idea when I won the World Cup in Dortmund they just gave me an envelope with $25,000 cash inside it. I was 15. Although I think I just kept that one in a drawer though ha ha, ‘cause I remember just going back to it and taking little handfuls of hundreds every now and then when I decided I wanted something. It lasted a while!

Did that amount of supervision not make you feel a bit claustrophobic?
I don’t know… I wouldn’t say I felt claustrophobic, no. Or at least definitely not at that time. Just because it’s kind of all that mattered for me: I was going to be in Sorry and the most important thing in my life at that point was to have a part that would stand up alongside Rowley’s or Arto’s, and not for it the be the token ‘little kid’ part, you know? That’s all I lived for then and honestly, if at that point I hadn’t been in that kind of environment I don’t think I would have been flip front boarding 16-stair handrails. It’s because I was constantly around those dudes, putting pressure on myself to skate on that level that I was doing all that stuff…
What I did feel after a while though was that I was so immersed in skating that I started to need other things in my life to keep doing what I was doing and be happy.

Like what?
Basically I went on a Quiksilver trip with Stefan Janoski who’d brought along an acoustic guitar and as soon as I tried it I was hooked… It’s kind of hard to explain but discovering that was a bit of a slap in the face, like I just thought it was so fucking class. And that passion led to me becoming close friends with this luthier, a guy who knew absolutely nothing about skating, and that was incredible for me. Being able to speak to him about guitars and music, geeking out on wood or mics or whatever for hours, that really helped me get through the filming of my Really Sorry part and go on tour with a smile on my face.

What did your sponsors think of this new passion?
I wasn’t always very well understood if I’m honest, especially as I’d suddenly spend days working on B.B. King’s blues licks rather than my backside flips, but I think they could tell I needed it. I was now 20 or something at this point, so for five years my entire life had solely revolved around Huntington Beach and the Flip van, that’s a long time to be straight going for it you know? And it had been nonstop: always the gnarly gaps, always that same Californian concrete… I just wanted something else. So the music was one side of it and the other was that I started going back to Europe more, eventually getting an apartment in Barcelona. I really missed Europe but also I genuinely thought I’d be more productive out there; I was so sick of always getting kicked out, spending ages in the van… In Barca you’d just stick a backpack on, walk out the door and skate from spot to spot all day you know? Plus I had the whole Lordz thing going on and with Flo, William Phan, Luypa, JB and stuff; we had such a sick crew! All I wanted was to be skating at a Spanish plaza, with a coke, a little joint and my mates.

And then what happened? Because you ended up moving back to the States right?
Yeah, I went back for a bit but I’d seen the benefits of going back and forth between the two places, so I ended up asking Flip if they’d be okay with me spending six months in Barca and the other six in the States. I knew it’s what I wanted so I kind of gave them an ultimatum.

And they were straight up like ‘NO. That’s not going to work, we need you here and that’s that.’ For them Huntington Beach was the mecca of skateboarding you know? That was it. And I hated being told that things had to be a certain way and ‘that’s that’, no negotiations… So I basically told them to fuck off and went back to France! And I don’t regret it.

And so I’m assuming it’s just before this that you filmed all the footage that would later become this ‘lost part’?
Yeah, it’s that period when everyone thought I’d quit skating and disappeared to play the guitar or whatever. Really we’d already started filming for Extremely Sorry, but since things were going a bit sour between us I started skating with them less and less.

What still confuses me is that they had so much mental footage of you at that point, like that ‘lost part’ was nuts! Why didn’t you try to take that with you? Or was that not really an option? I always thought it was weird how that thing was branded a lost part, obviously that stuff didn’t just get ‘lost’.
It’s a weird one. I think part of it was that I was quite productive at the time so I didn’t really realise what I’d been sitting on, but then also I was still really confident in my abilities so I didn’t really care what I’d filmed with them. I was convinced that I’d be able to film new stuff that would create some hype around whatever I was doing. I don’t think taking those clips with me really even crossed my mind, I just wanted to close the door on that whole thing and move on. And to be honest with you it’s not until Ewan Bowman got in contact years later asking me if I was okay with him releasing that part – which I was, of course – that I started thinking about what I actually had.

Given how much of a supportive ‘family’ they’d been when you first moved out there, was it weird being completely on your own to start a new life back in France?
Yeah of course. And obviously when people take care of everything for you like that they mean well, but when all of a sudden there’s no longer that cocoon, and you’re alone with yourself out there struggling to sort the paperwork for a house or even the most basic adult human stuff, it definitely feels strange… You think to yourself ‘great I can tre flip, but what’s the point if I can’t do this’. It’s motivating though, like when it hit me I instantly really wanted to prove to myself that I could do all this stuff, and I learned to.
But beyond that, I also realised that that whole part of the industry is like a friendly mafia, you know? The kind that you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of…Because since they’re all friends if you have beef with one of them it affects everything around you. And as I said they’d found me my accountant, my real estate agent, but also pretty much all my other sponsors, so the domino effect of quitting Flip was gnarly. Suddenly I was off Venture, Quiksilver didn’t renew my contract after three months despite me obviously fulfilling my duties, Diamond started blanking me, I got in a really bad argument with Pierre-Andre Senizerg (head of Etnies) although admittedly that one was my fault… So yeah, when I got back to Hyères, where I grew up in France, I fully had to start from scratch.

Switch ollie, Los Angeles, 2003. Photo: Oli Barton.

It sucks that it had to come to that, especially given where we’re at today with so many successful brands and pros being based in Europe. But I guess all that is thanks to people like you trying to break that mould…
Yeah… It was such a different time. I remember thinking about all this when I was at MACBA once… Sarmiento had just showed up, said hi to everyone or whatever, still looking half asleep… And then when I looked over to the ledge I saw him do a back three tailslide cab flip out, and then he just sat down and chilled for the rest of the day. I remember thinking like ‘what the hell is going on here?!’ That dude has always been an absolute skate god, but it’s only really when he’d go to the States and do some shit on their spots that he’d suddenly be ‘the shit of the month’ for a bit but then he’d go home and that would be that. I always felt like even if I’d only put in 30% of the effort, if it was on American soil it would count for twice as much. Even with contests, like I was going for it in Europe, skating my ass off winning loads of them in France for years, but it’s only after I won this Vans Warped Tour Final in Huntington Beach that suddenly I mattered. Like after I got down from that podium and had beaten Eric Koston, Andrew Reynolds and Jamie Thomas IN AMERICA, that’s when my phone started blowing up with the craziest offers from every brand… Suddenly it was all like ‘okay you’re going pro for this or that company, we’re already talking to the factories about your shoe, then it’ll be a world tour with all these pros, etc.’ And I couldn’t help but feel like… ‘So before last weekend everything was normal, and now this?’ Like, ‘ everything else I did before, did that not count or something? ‘Cause I’ve been skating the same.’
And I honestly think we’re still not ‘in the game’ like America is but we’ll get there and things are changing. The days of having to go to your friend’s house to watch a VHS because he’s the only person you know to have it are long gone, everything moves so fast now. If you film an NBD it doesn’t matter if you’re in India or wherever, if it goes viral on Instagram everyone’s going to see it.
Also yeah it is crazy that it came to that but it at the same time it made complete sense for me. I remember thinking: ‘going on missions with Geoff Rowley, constantly skating rails, that always have to be longer or higher than the previous ones… That’s cool, but why did I start skateboarding? Because it was playful and was something I enjoyed doing with my friends. And it’s not because I don’t have a board sponsor and that I’m in Europe that I’m not a skateboarder and I can’t enjoy this.’ And reconnecting with the friends I started skating with at my local park felt amazing! Plus I learnt tons of new tricks during that period; it’s when I got into all the double flips and stuff… Going back to the basics is what I needed.

Looking back on all this, is there anything you would have done differently?
I’ve actually thought about this a lot… I don’t know if I would have done anything differently but I do sometimes wish skaters weren’t so harsh or quick to judge people about certain things. It’s tricky when at the age of 15, because you’re put on a pedestal, people expect you to have the maturity and wisdom of someone who’s 25. That’s simply not possible, no matter how fast you’re growing. And it took me a while to realise that what was asked of me was not just to be a good skater, that actually people read my interviews, looked closely at how I came across as a person in videos, and that all that mattered. People analyse how you behave, if you seem respectful, if you’re humble… But people aren’t born that way; you grow into that. Or at least I wasn’t born that way. I’ve always been someone who thrives off pressure and being seen, which is why sometimes I’d have these explosions of joy – for instance after contest runs or tricks where I’ve bottle up so much of it – and I don’t regret them, but it also meant that if things didn’t work out I’d flip, you know? Now I know that I don’t have to be so dramatically black or white about things, but I didn’t then, nor did I think about how that might be perceived… I was so young that I just didn’t care. I wasn’t at all self aware or able to take that kind of distance about things then.

I mean that probably wasn’t made any easier by the fact that you were completely surrounded by people that would do anything for you to ‘just skate’.
Yeah, like none of the other stuff was really expected of me or explained to me until it was obvious that it was something I should have been aware of, if that makes sense. And when I see old footage of myself in certain situations now sometimes I can almost see how people could think I was a certain way… But yeah there was just a huge gap between what was going on in my head, how I thought I was being perceived and how I was actually being perceived. And you know what? To this day I still sometimes meet people that are like, ‘I always assumed you’d be really cold, just because you seem so in the zone when you’re skating, but you’re actually really nice!’, which is cool… I guess? Ha ha.

Classic ha ha. Thanks for making time to chat about all this!

Fakie flip, Los Angeles, 2003. Photo: Oli Barton.