Emerica – Showtime
I arrived in Whitechapel to meet the Emerica team on the hottest day of the year, so far. The streets were awash with melted Brits, scurrying home from work, glad to have something weather related for the dinner table chat. Leo Romero was halfway through a nollie heelflip battle and had amassed some onlookers, keen to see what all the fuss was about. The crew was splayed out across the wide street: some directing bemused pedestrians, others sunning themselves on the smooth tarmac but all heavily invested in Leo’s trick, which, try by try, was becoming more of a team effort.
Within minutes of my arrival Leo was rolling away from his trick as one onlooker, overcome with emotion and feeling a part of the same team effort, chased after Leo, hugged him and whispered in his ear, ‘I knew you could do it!’ Leo is a performer but manages to do so in a matter-of-fact way that is hard not to like. It helps that he’s gifted with a distinct and more than palatable style. We found some time to chat after the post-session Turkish dinner and explored his thoughts about the role of performance, presence and permanence in the changing world of skateboarding.
Leo Romero interview by Alex Irvine
Earlier, in the restaurant, you talked about growing up in a small town. Where was it? And what was it like growing up there? Was skateboarding a big thing?
Leo Romero: The town was Fontana, California, and it wasn’t a big thing. There weren’t many skaters. You would just get made fun of and get teased and beat up or whatever for being a skater, you know?
So quite like a jock kind of mentality?
Not really, it was more gangsters, I mean, there’s jocks too. It was kind of like a ghetto. The park that I grew up next to was overrun by gangsters. In the school I went to there was just like a bunch of gangs or whatever. So, they all just picked on anyone. You know what I mean? And skaters just looked different enough. They just basically thought we looked crazy. So, it’s like, ‘yep, those guys, let’s get them.’
Was it quite a difficult time at school then?
It wasn’t too difficult ‘cause I never really took any of that. I don’t really care about that stuff and it was kind of those things where people would talk shit. I wouldn’t ever care because it just didn’t bother me. It’s like, whatever, you’re insane. Who cares? You know what I mean?
When was that?
That’s probably like late-nineties. Yeah, like late-nineties, early two thousands, skateboarding was kind of almost on its way back up, but not super big. I’m trying to think… My first video was Misled Youth, so that was around that time.
Did you have a small crew then?
Yeah. A group of us. You know, classic, (we’d) film each other, talk shit to each other and go out and skate. See what kind of shenanigans we can get ourselves into.
Were you able to travel at that age?
No, I didn’t start travelling until I got sponsored by, like, a skate shop or whatever.
Was there ever like a plan for you outside of skateboarding? Did you have a kind of idea before it became a career?
I honestly never really thought about it. It was one of those things that, it was just a snowball effect, where things just kind of started moving and moving and the next thing I knew, I was on a shop and the next thing I knew, I was Am for a company and I was going on tours and going to Europe… There was no premeditation by any means, it just kind of happened. And yeah, going along with it. It was pretty spontaneous, as far as the chain of events that happened.
You mentioned earlier that you were 16 when you first came to Europe and London was the first place you came to.
Yeah. It was London then Russia. Then Germany and then France.
What was in your head when you came back to the US after that?
There’s something about architecture and ground, and rails, and spots… ‘Cause I was so, so consumed by skating then — like my mental capacity could only take in and look at skate spots and that stuff. I was so engulfed by skating that that’s all I thought about, you know? I mean, I had a fingerboard on the trips. I was sharing a room with Ethan Fowler and he was like, coming back from the bar drunk and I was just in there, fingerboarding, I couldn’t wait to skate.
Looking back, I think the thing I love about travelling so much is the weird things about cultures and people. The weird things about cities and towns, but the similarities are also something that I get a kick out of. ‘Cause no one really knows what the fuck they’re talking about. Even if you go out there, you realise those people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about — like, we’re all the same, we’re all human. It’s one of those things, like, even as a little kid, it’s like, ‘whoa, I’m getting kicked out by this lady in London, and she’s acting the same way that some dude would be acting in LA, you know? People are the same everywhere. It was pretty crazy; people reacted to skating the same in every country I went to.
A universal dislike.
Yeah. Universal dislike. But then, there’s also the old man walking by, smiling and trying to talk to you or whatever. It’s the same thing. It always stayed in my mind, like, damn, everyone everywhere is the same and it’s fucking wild. Like, you can go as far as you fucking can and you’ll find someone that hates someone skating down the street or someone that’s like, ‘whoa, what is that? What are you doing?’ You know?
Sometimes we like to talk about ourselves as though we are some kind of unique species, right? Like, skateboarders see the world differently or whatever. But I do think it gives you a mode of seeing the world, right? Something that ‘normal people’ maybe don’t get to experience.
Yeah. Like, people come here, for instance, and all they do is tourist stuff. And what we do is the same thing we do back home, and we still go to rails and stairs — the same exact thing we do back home — but we just do in a completely foreign land. It’s just funny because the architecture is different, the ground’s different and the rails are made out of different shit — the dimensions are different — but the people are the same, like, everywhere you go, when you’re a skater. And I think that, as you get older, you realise, like you said, skaters are like, this is the way it is — we’re unique and special — it’s not true. As you get older, you get into different shit. Like how we were talking about rafting earlier, rafting is like skating to some people. Some people probably come out here and they’re like, ‘oh, like where’s the fucking nearest, whitewater?’ You know?
We are just lucky enough to do it for our job, so we think we’re fucking cooler or better than most people ‘cause we do what we love, you know?
You play music too; do you find any similarities in that respect? It’s a pretty universal thing as well. Is it a different way of seeing the world? Do you play in other cities and towns and countries?
Yeah, I tour and do the whole band thing pretty frequently. There are a lot of parallels for sure. But it’s funny, just going back to how us skaters think of ourselves as tough or whatever, I have a band and I went on tour with them and, you know, as a skater there’s an obligation, you wake up early, you skate all day, you do a demo, then you probably skate after the demo. Or like you wake up early, go to the demo and then skate all day. It’s just like really physically draining, you know? You could be sore and it’s like, you still have a demo today. It’s a physical act — and music is as well — but travelling with some buddies of mine and they’re like, ‘oh man, I’m so hungover and we gotta drive to a city…’ I’m like, you don’t have to drive, you have nothing to do until sound check at six. And even by that point, it’s a song or two, and then you’re chilling until like 10 or 11. Like, there is nothing you have to do. And even that is like, ‘fuck, dude, like so gnarly!’.
I have friends that are in big bands — they sell out arenas and stuff — and they have tour buses and shit. They tour two weeks at a time and they’re like, ‘yeah, man, it’s pretty heavy’, and I’m thinking, you’re in a fucking charter bus, with catered food at your venue, you know?! And it’s just wild because we skaters spend our days in the fucking gutter for the most part. I mean, what they all do is super hard as well, to put that much of your heart out every night is a different type of exhaustion, you know. And there are a lot of parallels with the creative aspect, and even the travelling aspect — like you want to play in certain venues ‘cause they sound cool, or your favourite band played there or whatever, you know? Like, you want to skate fucking South Bank.
I think all creative things, like, it’s not just music and skating, it’s like art or photography… If you really love something, even if it’s like carpentry, there are similarities to skating. It’s all the same shit. Like, now I’m older, I can kind of articulate it better: all that matters is drive. If you have the drive to do something, then you can understand why someone would be want to build a fucking house the way they want to build it, or take two years to finish a painting. You can understand it now because it’s not about being a skater or musician: if you fucking love what you do and you have drive, and you’re willing to torture yourself, then that’s ultimately what all that is. Like drive is just another form of fucking torture.
Torture for a reason.
Yeah. Torture for a five-second clip that people are going to forget about anyways. But that’s the point, you know what I mean? It’s solely for that moment. That’s something that I’ve realised is getting older and with social media and shit, with music or anything. It’s like, you know what? It all doesn’t matter, like, none of this shit matters. Like, fucking, all that matters is I want to fucking land this fucking trick right now. It’s the funnest shit ever, and then you do it and it’s like, fuck, I need to go get another one. I need to chase that feeling again. We always joke about, on the Tum Yeto trips — because we’d go on ‘em for two months, three months at a time — how we get a trick and by the time we’re at the next spot, we’re already like, fuck, that was like, ‘that was an hour ago, I’m jonesing right now’. I was talking to (Daniel) Wheatley about it, he asked if my buddy Dakota (Servold) or I ever get on each other’s nerves and I was like, the only time there’s ever any type of friction is if someone’s just pissed ‘cause they haven’t got a trick in two or three days.
So they’re fiending.
Yeah. Fiending, fiending for that drug, you know?
You mentioned demos and I wondered about similarities between that performance aspect of skating and with music?
I think of demos totally as a performance. Yeah, like even before I played music, I grew up seeing demos and going on trips with Reynolds, Spanky and Herman and everyone being professional, and putting on a good show. If you get people happy, you get applause, cheers and praise too: it’s a fucking mechanism, you know what I mean? So I definitely think of demos as a performance.
So, you get something out of them as well?
Yeah, I mean, I love putting on a good demo for kids, because there’s no substitute for a fucking great live show. You know what I mean? Like if someone is skating around, not really trying or they’re over it, people see that. I don’t want a kid to see me at a demo and be like, ‘you didn’t really skate that much’. Like, if you’re hurt or whatever, then obviously you just get a thousand kids asking, ‘why aren’t you skating? Why aren’t you skating?’ But having a great demo, I can just get a kid stoked on skating that was maybe just there, or like a dude that’s always wanted to see you skate.
I take demos very seriously, like, performing for kids and grownups or whatever. I mean, nowadays I’m 35, so people are like, ‘I grew up watching you’ and I’m like, fuck, that’s crazy. I definitely think of it as a performance and I think if you don’t try your hardest to put on a good show, then it’s just kind of wack. People are there to see you and shops are there to support you and, and kids buy your shit. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to.
Did demos have an impact on you when you were a kid?
Yeah, well, I saw a few demos, but I saw a lot of tour videos and I saw the energy. There’s also an energy with music when you’re playing a show and people are stoked, there’s an energy that you feel. And the same thing with demos, like you see your friend land a trick and you just want to get their back and everyone’s getting excited, you know? Watching tour videos growing up — which aren’t a thing anymore — and seeing that type of reaction from skaters and skate fans at a demo, it’s just rad. I remember watching those videos and you can kind of feel the tingling a little bit and then, I was there, and I’m like, my hair is standing up and I’m like, oh, that’s like what I was feeling, watching those fucking videos, you know?
It sounds like you enjoy being a part of that.
I do. I take that stuff very seriously because I think it’s important to show that to the shop that has you out there, to the kid that is a fan or is just there watching it. People can see through the bullshit if you’re not trying, you know what I mean? So, I think it’s very important.
By the sounds of it, you’ve been demoing since the beginning of your career. So, you’ve seen the waxing and waning of things like tour videos and huge demos. What are your thoughts on that?
I definitely have. And I mean, we still do demos. Like when we go on these long trips, we still do demos. But as the companies that I ride for have gotten smaller in size, demos have gone smaller obviously. People want to see the big Instagram follower people, and that’s awesome. Our Emerica demos, when I first started riding for Emerica, were fucking packed and they’ve dwindled down, but I think that not only has to do with companies getting smaller and like marketing, getting weird — skating, just turning into different things — it’s just no one really does demos anymore.
As a person that likes to show off for the kids that support your brand or your shop or the shop that you’re at, whatever, it’s wild to me that skating could steer away from demos. It’s bizarre to me when that’s an age-old tactic to get people stoked on your shit, you know? I mean, it’s just weird. And since we’ve been doing them, we go through the random, smaller towns and we have good turnouts and people are like, ‘dude, I didn’t know people still did demos anymore. The last time there was a demo here, was fucking Osiris team for The Storm!’ It’s just wild. It’s like a simple thing. Or at least I think it’s simple to just hit up a shop that sells your shit and skate for some fucking kids or do a demo.
I think when you’ve got limited access to live skateboarding action of a certain calibre, that can have a really big impact on people. I think that’s an often missed point. Maybe demos are seen as something more expendable.
I think so, and some don’t even try, like, I’m not saying you have to do the gnarliest shit, like just being stoked. (Bryan) Herman is one of the craziest demo skaters I’ve ever seen. He is one of the best skaters, naturally gifted and would kill a demo, but then sometimes he wouldn’t skate the demo, he would just hang out with the kids and they love him even more. Like there was a demo in Costa Rica where we were skating and people were cheering from the crowd. I remember looking and Herman was in the middle of them. He’s nailing the demo harder than all of us are and he’s just drinking with the kids. You know what I mean? So, there’s the folklore of, ‘dude, Spanky came and then they did a demo and he did like this sick ass frontside flip over the hip’ and there is like, ‘dude I hung out with fucking Kevin Bkkel and Collin and they were super sick’. All that is such a rad thing. And if you’re just trying to have a good time and be a part of it, it shows. It’s the whole thing that I think is very important. And it’s unfortunate that it’s not a common thing, maybe with social media kids don’t care as much. I think it’s easy not to care ‘cause it’s not happening.
It’s really bizarre to me that companies would steer away from doing demos because I think that overall — like followers, likes, people tagging, links to shit — that is the way you change people’s minds. You come into town and they’re like, ‘fuck, we didn’t carry that much Emerica, but they were fucking actually really sick, they skated the entire demo, they hung out after and they signed posters.’ They’re like, ‘let’s fucking hook ‘em up a little more. Like, you know what? This dude skated the hardest and he was super sick. I’m going to buy more Kevin Bkkel boards or something’, you know?
I mean, that’s why bands still tour. They’ve got to ‘cause there’s like no money in music, like how there’s barely any money in skating, but it’s such a rad thing.
I’m lucky enough to have been around such talented skaters in my entire life and everyone’s always been like demo prone and I’ve been lucky enough to skate with someone like Jaws. I see him and I’m like, he’s doing rails and jumping stairs and he’s doing fucking fives, he’s like the ultimate demo dude. I see that and it excites me and I want to be a part of it ‘cause it’s so fucking rad. Not only does he do that, he hangs out with the kids and smokes joints with them and goes to their house parties or whatever. You’re just like, dude, you’re the ultimate demo guy. You rage with the town and then you like, shut down the demo, and you hang out at the shop. I just think it’s a great thing.
What do you think turns skaters off doing demos?
I’m sure some people struggle with skating in front of people, you know? Or they feel the pressure and they get anxious and freak out, which sucks. I mean, it sucks for them because I think it’s such a fun thing about skating. Obviously it’s not for everyone, but I always think about it like, if that’s not your thing, regardless of any of it, like the shop’s still supporting your life, if you think you’re too cool for the check you’re getting then you’re just on your own tip, which is a different thing from not being too keen on demos or skating in front of people. People just want to see you out there and having a good time and being stoked.
A demo is kind of about projecting something, right? It’s about saying, look how good this can be, look how stoked everyone is. Part of the reason you’re going there is because that place sells your product. Part of the reason you’re going there, is ‘cause the people that buy your product are going there. So, there is that element to it as well, obviously. But there’s also an aspect of it that’s genuine. What’s the word I’m looking for… It’s like, as much as it is selling and marketing and people getting paid or whatever, there’s a genuine appreciation. Like, fuck, I mean, I get paid to skate; this is fucking crazy. Selling something sounds a bit crass and bold for some people but, bottom line is, that’s what’s going on. But at the same time, it’s like, everyone knows that and people want to support something that’s fun and rad to be around. I don’t think about it like, ‘I hope I sell like a shitload of shoes here.’ I just hope I stoke someone out. I hope I stoke the shop out.
Some of your sponsors have been consistent for quite a long time. Is that something that’s important to you?
I’ve definitely been fortunate enough to ride for some of the raddest brands, I think. It’s not like a conscious thing where I’m like, ‘I’m going to ride for these guys no matter what!’ I’ve never chased any type of — and I don’t mean this in a bad way — trend or money, ever. So, I think it’s just kind of a natural thing. Like, I’ve always done something just because it felt right, which is why I tell younger dudes that are being sponsored now when they ask me, ‘what do you think I should do here?’ I’m like, man, if you think it’s wack, then maybe you shouldn’t do it, but don’t let anyone else tell you or try to convince you it’s wack ‘cause at the end of the day you have to live with yourself. So, if you think it’s wack and you still want to do it, fuck it, do it anyway. We all got to make a living, but if you don’t want to do it, ‘cause you think it’s wack, then don’t do it.
I’ve always had the thing in me where I’m happy where I am. I’m allowed to do whatever I want… and I’m not getting any offers… No, I’ve been fortunate enough that the companies trust me and let me do what I want ‘cause I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’ve kind of been self-sufficient. That’s a luxury that you can’t really get anywhere other than when you have been doing what you do the way you do it and producing for such a long time.
It’s definitely rad. It’s something I think about. And I’m proud that I’ve kind of had that thing where I’ve always been on these brands. Some people jump around. Some people have to. Some people like to, and that’s fine. Nothing against them, everyone’s got to make a living. Some people just like one thing and they want to go and move on. But I don’t know, for me, I like where I’m at. Everyone that I skate with is awesome. Everyone that I work with is super fucking awesome. They let me do what I want because I’m a hard worker and they trust me. So I don’t really have a need to go anywhere else or do anything like that.
Click the gallery below for more of Rafski’s Emerica pics