Jake Johnson Interview – „Skateboarding is a disease“

I met Jake Johnson in July at the Cons Space in Berlin during Bright Tradeshow. His boardsponsor Alien Workshop just went down and he told me in advance, that he doesn’t want to talk about it. By chance he saw an article in our mag and things turned out differently. We sat down and talked for an hour and you can read most of this conversation below. It’s quite a long read for sure, but I didn’t know what to cut and I think it’s worth reading every single word of Jake.

[Interview: Stefan Schwinghammer | Portrait: Hendrik Herzmann]

Jake Johnson

[Jake flips through the pages of our magazine, sees an obituary to Alien Workshop and wonders why everybody is writing about the end of Alien, because, as he says, Rob Dyrdek still owns it. He still owns it?]

Yeah, they didn’t file for bankcruptcy or anything.

I thought Pacific Vector would be the owner and they are bankrupt.
Dyrdek bought it back.

The same time he bought Habitat. I’m in the dark, but I know it still exists. It could get better, it could get worse. If Dyrdek want’s to make it into a mall brand, he has the right, cause he owns it. If Mike Hill doesn’t want to make it into his life again, then maybe it’s done. I don’t wanna talk any further on the matter, but it’s a strange one. Nobody said good bye. Mike Hill didn’t throw in the towel. It’s strange. It was on the internet.

You found out through the internet, that you don’t have a boardsponsor anymore?
I don’t get paid by Alien Workshop anymore, that’s true, but I never quit. I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, cause I respect Mike Hill a lot. But I think that they are really ashamed at the moment about what happened and they’re not communicating with each other. Mike Hill and Dyrdek are not communicating very well. Because they are embarrassed and angry. Joe Castrucci was communicating very well with Pacific Vector and he was able to manage the transfer of the brand, Habitat to Tum Yeto. If Alien Workshop would become distributed by another brand, in theory it could still exist. But maybe the damage is done. It’s like a bad wound, maybe it won’t heal. But if they tend to it and spend some time, maybe there’s still some hope. But in the end the bottom line beeing, that Alien Workshop is never dead. It represents something that is fueled by a creativity of skateboarding, that’s not going to die. But it’s pretty sad. You can never sell yourself for money. You can’t give away something for money. If you don’t wanna be involved with it anymore, maybe just stop. But it’s sad when something gets bought and sold and bought and sold.

Is that the main reason for the situation or what went wrong?
The reason is actually pretty complicated. DNA (Distribution) was bought by Burton and things were going well. That was the first time that Alien took a risk and allowed another company to run and own them and at that point the owners, Mike Hill and Chris Carter, became employees. They were happy with that, but then Burton starts failing and wants to get rid of the brand and Dyrdek steps in. „I have money, I respect this brand, I came from this brand, I wanna support it.“ He buys it and then he and his partner, who is involved with MMA fighting, decided that it’s the best to bring it to this company La Jolla Group. And they were mainly interested in Habitat shoes and Alien Workshop soft goods. And actually originally there was a decision that Mike and Carter and Dyrdek had to made after Burton: Do we cut some employees and scale down our brand or do we going for a corporate ownership. And they took another gamble. The irony is, he was working with this MMA guy and they had this dream of bringing soft goods and Habitat shoes to a higher plateau. And in the end Dyrdek and this guy got into a fight about their vision and the guy drops out. So the ties to the La Jolla Group are burned, cause Dyrdek and this guy are fighting and the company isn’t managed right. So Dyrdek buys it again. And then he’s paying out of his own pocket for six or seven month and he’s getting pressure from DC Shoes, cause they say, he shouldn’t own a shoe brand, cause he rides for DC Shoes. So he’s feeling the pressure and he’s loosing money.

I heard he lost quite a lot of money.
I’m not sure, cause it’s in the dark to me. I only heard one story, about him getting anxious, because he wanted to get rid of the brand. Cause he didn’t want to be responsible. So they took another risk with Pacific Vector. They were saying, we’re going to make you a lot of money, cause we got 32 mall shops across the country and we’re going to make them DNA shops. So they’re betting on this, sold the warehouse in Ohio and got distributed out of a new warehouse in California. The entire spirit of Alien Workshop was dispersed into this new brand. A lot of the skateshops were unhappy, because there were new reps calling them, there was new paperwork. There was a hard time feeling the conection to the brand. Things started going downhill and then the mall shops didn’t happen. They closed them. Pacific Vector starts failing, owing Alien Workshop money. They’re not paying riders. For like six, seven month, there was all this drama and in the end I think it’s just like a bad relationship. Rob, Mike and Carter weren’t communicating. Rob is too busy with his lifestyle. I haven’t even spoken to him on a personal level once my whole life.

I had some suggestions for the team, but the problem was my first suggestion was, we have to get completely rid of Rob Dyrdek

You haven’t ever spoken to him?
Not on a personal level. I shaked his hand and before „Mindfield“ we ate dinner together as a team, but that’s it. From my perspective, this guy has no connection to the brand, except for his checkbook. It’s sad, because he’s not connected to you and me and all the skaters here in Berlin or in America. He doesn’t come to see these things, he doesn’t understand. He knows that it’s powerful, but it’s more powerful to him to be on television, to own a fashion sunglass brand or whatever else. I was excited when other teammembers left, because I thought, the company is small again and we can start all over. But in the end it was all the decision of Rob and I don’t know Rob and so it’s out of my hands. And that’s why it is ironic, because Rob still owns the company and if he want’s to give it back to Mike, he still could. The same way he gave Habitat back to Joe. But I don’t think these guys wanna do it anymore. I think that they’re pretty pissed off. They just want to retire and chill out. These guys are old men with families. They’re not skateboarding. They made their money. They’re living nice. They don’t care anymore. If they did, things would’ve turned out differently. It’s kind of shameful, but that’s part of life. You change, you lose your passion one day and the next day you hate it. I don’t know why.

I heard that after Dill and Ave left, you were supposed to direct the team in a new direction. Is that true?
No, but I was hopefull of this idea and willing to do this. The problem was the bad relationship with Mike and Carter. We don’t talk very much. I was thinking about moving to Ohio for a little while and I had some suggestions for the team, but the problem was my first suggestion was, we have to get completely rid of Rob Dyrdek. That was my demand. I actually told them at one point, you stop making Rob’s boards or you stop making my boards. And they said, we agree, we don’t want that image anymore. In the end they had the chance to take it away back from him and they still do. But once everybody got fired, i guess they just waited for that to happen. And afterwards it was their relief. Like, oh finally it’s over. But I didn’t get a phone call. Nobody told me it’s over. I’ve been working for this company for only six years, but I felt a lot of passion for it and stuck with it till the end, because I gave Mike and Chris the benefit of the doubt out of respect and in the end they didn’t come through. What can I do? Just move on and try to remember Alien Workshop in the best way possible. Mike Hill is a pretty smart guy and Chris Carter is a good businessman, but when your passion is seeing how much money you can turn into profit, it get’s in the way. It’s like you don’t have a connection to everyday life – skating and your friends and the kids in skateboarding. Skateboarding is for kids, to give them a cool idea and not to sell them products. Sure, we need to make money, but as they grow up, they become an individual, thanks to skateboarding. Mike Hill is an individual like no other. He always has the power to work with skateboarding, but I think he wants to take a year off and just forget about it and then maybe come back. But I never got any power to make big decisions at the brand. Because I don’t sign the checks, I’m just a skater.

Jake Johnson – Tailslide
Tailslide | Photo: Jonathan Mehring

There were rumors about you getting on Polar and now you visited Pontus and ride a Polar deck. Does that mean you’re on Polar now?
No, I’m just visiting Pontus, he’s a friend.

You’re not looking for a new board sponsor?
No, I’m pretty hesitant, I’m trying to find joy in skateboarding again. When I find it and when I find my passion again, I’ll find a brand that fits. I just wanna skate with my friends and they ride for different companies. I always liked Polar, because I look up to Pontus and his artwork and his ideas, but I never met him. So when I came on Converse I decided that I wanna go on a trip to see Pontus. He gave me some boards, but I’m riding Krooked boards and Anti Hero boards as well. Whoever wants to send me boards, I’ll ride them, I don’t care. I’m just trying to get healthy again. I’m recovering from a motorcycle accident.

When did that happen?
Three months ago. It was pretty stupid, I got hit by an elderly driver. I hurt my knee pretty bad. It all happened at the same time. You know, in life when it rains it pours. I just wanna recover and be in a good place in my head and keep skating and showing the world what I can do with my board. I don’t need too much money right now, cause I’m on Converse and they’re helping me. I’m just trying to pay my taxes and live a simple life and try not to worry as much about the skateboard industry. I guess I’ve been hurt a little bit by the industry. Every brand I’ve been riding for has gone out of business and left me in the cold. So I’m afraid to work hard for a brand. It’s all about the relationship with your board. If you’re not having a good time skating, you maybe have to tap some space from it. Maybe I’ll go back to college. I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. But yeah, Pontus’ boards are good. You all should buy some Polar boards. I support small businesses in skateboarding. I think there’s a new era coming. The big brands are failing, because they stretched too far and the small brands are growing. It’s just the same shit. It’s gonna happen again and again. I just wanna see skateboarders around the world, all with one goal. Rob Dyrdek is not the most evil person in the world. He’s just a skateboarder who had the opportunity to become famous in Hollywood. Just like Jason Lee or other skateboarders. The problem is, that he became less clever about ways to help skateboarding and he became a little self-centered. He wanted to help Alien Workshop get more money and he did that. The sales of Rob’s boards funded Mindfield. There wouldn’t be Mindfield without Rob and Big. So he thought he could do it again and make Alien get a lot of money, get the riders paid well and it all continues. But if your going on your own, with your own goals, it could succeed, if you push really hard, but I think it’s more about communicating with your close friends and finding common ground. I think that’s what was wrong with Alien, it was a dysfunctional family. Nobody was communicating.

You talked about loosing your sponsors, because they went out of business…
Well, they didn’t go out of business, they just decided, that skateboarding was no longer worth their money or time. So they dropped skateboarding.

I’m seeing nothing from skating. I don’t see a fortune. I don’t own a house

Working for a brand is not that easy. How is your point on that? Do you see yourself as a spokesman for the company or the company as a tool to make your visions possible, which helps the company creating an image? How do you handle that, or how did you decide to get on Converse?
I always followed the sponsors based on my friends. At Gravis, my friend was Dylan and I looked up to Arto. Now me and Dylan, you know, relationships change, we’re not friends anymore. With Quiksilver it was Alex Olson. I guess with Converse I did it because of Pontus. I’m not a very good example of this, because I don’t think about it like that. I go on the tour, I skate, I do my best, talk to the kids. With Alien Workshop I got on because of Dill and because I wanted to be a part of Mindfield and Mike Hill’s vision really bad. The role of a skateboarder is just to skateboard. That should be enough. But in this day and age I got into some judgement from my sponsors, like Gravis, saying: „You don’t fit the image as much. You’re not wearing the vulcanized shoes that we’re selling.“ They want something more and I think it’s pretty stupid. And right now the sponsors ask the riders to put more stuff up on Instagram, you have to have more followers. We’re gonna buy you followers. It’s becomming so blatantly obvious that it’s just like a high school. If you’re popular, you’re cool. If you’re not, you suck. It doesn’t matter how you skate, it really doesn’t. There are a lot of skaters out there that skate way better and with more style and creativity then the ones that are getting paid. With me, I was in a strange place, because I didn’t have to try hard at all to get sponsors. I just moved to New York City because I wanted to and I lived there for a year and after that I had every sponsor. I didn’t have to do anything except to skate and that’s the hardest part for me. Skating is never a job. Never, never, never. You can’t think of it like that. It’s like becoming a cultural phenomenon and it’s making money for a lot of people, but when you’re actually skating, it’s not a job. It’s like a sacred place in your mind. It’s personal for everybody. For me, it’s childish. It’s like having no responsibilities. And when you start to work and you get paid and your sponsors start telling you, that you’re responsible for something other then skating and keeping a good mind, it becomes really stupid and really stressfull. I never thought about making a career in skating or thought about the next ten years. Now I’m 26 and there’s more pressure to do that, but I still don’t feel that way. I could take a sponsorship from Red Bull or another clothing sponsor or I could get an Instagram or Facebook or enter the Street League – but I just don’t care. I’m seeing nothing from skating. I don’t see a fortune. I don’t own a house. I just have tax debts, because when I was young I thought, ah, I’m making this much money now, I’m gonna keep making more money the next ten years. I didn’t think critically about my future. I thought the moneys coming now, fuck it, it keeps coming. So when it stopped, I had no money to pay the taxes and I’m not getting the same money this year, so I get into debt. It happens again the next year. I was actually lucky, cause I only lived from my paycheck from Alien for one year and I got on Converse one month before Alien Workshops paycheck stopped. I was thinking at the time, maybe I should get a job. Maybe I just should go back to college, or just go back to our small town and see my family more. Hold down a relationship for real. Beeing a regular person. Because it’s too much anxiety when you feel like skateboarding is your livelihood. Skateboarding is more pure, when you do it in your sparetime. So I’m kinda jealous about all the people out there that don’t have to do it all the time. I don’t have to do it all the time, I don’t have a schedule, but skateboarding is like a disease. It’s a disease.

And you can’t be cured?
[laughs] No, not me. I can’t get outside of the mind of a skateboarder. So I’m getting judged by society. You’re not saving your money right, you’re not this, you’re not that. Then when I try to do the right thing with my money, I get told I’m not skating enough. I can’t do both. I can only be a skater. If I go to college, maybe then I could be good with my money. But skateboarding is different. There’s no schedule. It’s free, it makes you like a child. And if you’re like a child, you don’t care about money. You give me icecream? Great! That’s how I see it. I take what people give me and I’m thankful, but I don’t take it that serious. It comes and goes. I don’t think about it like I earned it, it just happend and I had money. It wasn’t a plan. When I was young I thought it would be cool to be a pro, but I was just young an dumb. I didn’t know what it meant to be a pro. It’s fucked.

You once said in an interview, I give skateboarding my best years and then I try something else. Do you see it like that and what have you planned?
That’s true. Maybe I go back to college and try to become an engineer or study industrial design. Try to use my creativity in another industry. Because that’s why it is so fucked. Skateboarding is becoming a part of our culture, but our culture is fucked. Skateboarders are influencing our culture good, but only to a certain degree. That’s my passion. That’s why I love skateboarding so much, because it’s changeing the world slow. And whenever I feel uninspired by the way skateboarding is going, I wanna change the world from another perspective. I wanna design buildings or public space. Become an engineer for life underwater or life in outer space. I wanna see humans to their full potential. I guess that’s what skateboarding makes me feel when I do it. It feels like I can do anything. When I accomplish that on a skateboard, I feel like I can accomplish that anywhere else. That’s why I wanted to go into the industry of skateboarding, to show kids this feeling. Take skateboarding and do it for this love that you have for yourself. Learn to love yourself more, even when you’re hurt. That’s my passion, but it’s becoming more and more of a social status instead of your personal relationship. Skaters are becoming very popular in cultural advertising. So the kids are already having an image of themselves when they start and think I‘m gonna be this cool, I’m gonna wear those clothes, these shoes, the girls are gonna look at me. I’m going to parties. Even in high school it’s different. Everybody always talks about that, but it’s true. There was a time when you got beat up, because you were a skateboarder, but now you beat kids up, because they’re not skateboarders. It’s like we’re becoming bullies. It’s not cool. We look at people and say, they’re not dressed right, fuck them. This guy’s lame, fuck him. We ride past each other and don’t even say, „Hi“. Skateboarding is less a community and we’re becomming a community of judgemental, materialistic bullies. I lost my friends because of that. That’s what hurts me the most. I looked up to skaters and slowly started to see some of them as bullies. And I saw their passion turning to greed and then I separated myself from them. Now I’m just back again with my skateboard. It’s just me and I’m trying to find happiness again as an adult. Trying to be responsible, trying to get the stress out of my life. Then I can decide what to do from this new plattform.

There was a time when you got beat up, because you were a skateboarder, but now you beat kids up, because they’re not skateboarders. It’s like we becoming bullies. It’s not cool

Does it help, when you see, that you inspire a lot of people?
It feels good, but I think everybody has to learn for themselves. I’m glad to have respect from people, but sometimes it’s dangerous to have too much attention. Everybody is pulling your energy, but they need to have their own energy. You need to love yourself and find enthusiasm without idolizing people. It’s nice, but I never fully understand it. I don’t think about it that much, how many people are following me. I haven’t had the opportunity to be really proud of something in skateboarding. I’m glad that I was skating and got to film some good tricks with great filmers and I keep doing that. But if I’m not happy, if I’m not proud of skateboarding as a whole, I’m not that proud. I see a lot of people, they dress nice and cut their hair like Dylan. They go to the club, get laid. They talk about it. That’s all nice, but I don’t respect that. I think skateboarding is supposed to be anti-social. It’s supposed to be anti-culture. It’s supposed to be hated, cause it’s so different. It’s supposed to be extreme, not because it’s advertised that way, but because it’s extreme to be masochistic and hurt yourself.

Do you think you’d be more happy right now, if you never became pro?
I think I would be more happy now, if I was closer with my family, if I had a strong relationship, if I had more stability, if I had no debts, if I had a schedule. That’s why skateboarding is a disease. It’s a disease of the mind. For me it’s a childish disease. It’s hard to remain a child in a culture of adults. You start to judge yourself for it. It’s kind of stupid to say, but I’m kinda feeling like the innocence is lost in skateboarding. Maybe it happened a long time ago. I’m just starting to see more clearly what the industry and the culture are and I just don’t relate to it that much anymore. Maybe it’s time to find something else, go back to school, find inspiration from some other things.



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