[Interview: Stefan Schwinghammer | Fotos: Conny Mirbach]
We are doing this interview in German, but can you express yourself better in English by now?
Probably. I think it’s a long process. My wife and children speak English and I have been over there for 20 years. That’s more time than I have spent in Germany.
Can you speak with a Bavarian accent?
Nah, I could never do that. I had friends that spoke Bavarian because of their parents, but they never did. Only when they were joking.
Where were you actually born?
In America and when I was six months old, we moved here.
Why did you move?
My father grew up in Kansas. His parents were born there, but his grandparents emigrated from Germany. My father learned German from them and our heritage is German and strictly religious – Mennonites. At a young age my father already decided to become a missionary and fulfill his Christian duty. He thought that Germany would be perfect because he could already speak the language. He moved here in the late ’60s with two children and stayed for about 15 years, and then they wanted to take a year off and went back to America. I was born that year and afterwards we went right back to Germany. My oldest Brother stayed in America and went to college. I’m the youngest of seven siblings, that’s why I barely know him.
Bernhard [Kitvarametha] told me that he was really happy about the way your career unfolded because back then you were in this crew of younger guys who couldn’t afford to buy the newest stuff all the time and were sneered at by the older ones.
"I think that it’s really weird. I’m jumping around on a board and getting paid for it."
Well, they weren’t really mean to us or anything, they just didn’t really want to skate with us or hang out. They were the older guys and already into drinking and stuff like that. Stefan Lehnert was already sponsored back then and Roland [Mosig
] always had good stuff as well and we were just some kids. But it was really cool anyways because they could skate really good and had a big influence on us.
Stefan Lehnert said that when they started to try certain tricks, you were able to do them the next day. He kind of recognized your talent back then.
] I don’t really remember it this way. But I remember how Lehnert did the carziest tricks when he skated the Euro park and how we always sat down and watched. That was really cool. He was a professional already.
Why did you go back to America afterwards?
Because my grandma was 92 and had health issues and my dad didn’t want to put her into some retirement home. My oldest brother Mark was making trouble at home, too, and my dad didn’t want to put up with that either, so we packed everything up and left.
How was it like to arrive in America?
It was totally different since it was another country and we also went straight to Kansas. There isn’t anything like Kansas in Germany. Kansas is almost as big as Germany as a whole and that’s just one state in America. It’s just a different world when it comes to culture and the people and all that. It was hard for me though. I was 15 and being 15 is not that easy. I think that kind of helped me to become as focused on skating as I did because it was the only thing I had.
Ollie Backside Grab
Were there enough spots in comparison to Munich?
There were around ten people who skated for real and the scene was completely different too. It’s just Kansas man, nothing going on when it comes to skating.
So basically it’s a big coincidence that you were discovered there.
Totally. Consolidated came by for a demo and Scott Bourne was really cool and said that he wants to help me get sponsored. He asked me which shoe sponsor I’d like to have and I said Emerica, and he knew Justin Regan and talked to him and he sent me a pair of shoes per month. Then one of the skaters from Kansas moved to San Francisco and worked for Deluxe and showed them my sponsor me tape and they started to send me some stuff. The Spitfire team manager helped me out the most. He told me that he’d send me a fat package with eight boards and a bunch of wheels, but I wasn’t supposed to skate them but rather sell them to buy a ticket for Tampa. That’s what I did to meet all the guys and skate the contest. I was so nervous, but it was fun and I did my best, so they said they’d put me on the team. I think they were worried that I’d go somewhere else.
Did you ever think that you could become a sponsored skater?
Not really. [ponders
] Sure, I was interested, but I didn’t put any money on it or had great hopes. I thought it would be cool to get free boards and I wanted to skate all the spots I’d seen in the videos. That’s what I thought about and how I approached the whole thing. Then they flew me to San Francisco and I thought: “Cool, I get to go on vacation and I’m allowed to skate.” Suddenly it got a little bit more serious, but I didn’t really think about it at all. Most skaters enter the game for a couple of years till they’re gone. I never expected what happened, but I’m not complaining. [laughs
] I just got really lucky and never took it for granted.
Do you think that all of this could’ve happened in Germany as well? Or do you think your life would’ve been very different if you had stayed here?
I don’t know. Right before I moved, I came in first place in the b-group of the COS Cup [German Championships Series, editors note
] and won a new complete. I realized that I could win a lot of stuff at contests and I think I would’ve continued to do so and maybe something would’ve happened. My plan was to finish middle school and start an apprenticeship. I didn’t expect anything from skating.
Does skateboarding in the US count as a legitimate career path and do kids have it in mind as a realistic option?
I don’t know, there’s all kinds of things in America. There are guys like Nyjah Huston who work on it every day and have been going for it since day one – like in a real sport. And then there are people who just want to have fun. I think it’s more serious nowadays because even parents see that it might be profitable in the future.
How was that like for you, especially with your parents’ very religious background? Did they like that you were into skateboarding, with all the parties and drugs and all of that?
My parents didn’t really like what I did, but I just told them that I really like skating and that I don’t care for all the other things, and that was true for sure. That’s all changing though, skateboarding becomes more global and bigger and it is easier to have a real career because there’s more money in it than ever before. I think people see it and take it really serious and try to reach certain goals. From time to time I think that it’s really weird. I’m jumping around on a board and getting paid for it. It’s kind of strange and a lot of people see it that way and wonder how that even works. But basketball or soccer are just as pointless and strange. I think skateboarding is entering this world and I know people will get mad when you say that skateboarding is a sport, but the way I see it, it’s getting closer to being a sport for sure. Do you really want to call it an art form?
I’d like that, yeah.
Yes, it’s nice for sure, but for normal people it makes more sense as a sport. Silas Baxter-Neal always compares it to music, especially because of the way the industry works. It’s technology, technique, and practice, but that’s definitely not everything. You can be the best musician in the world and people give a shit about you, and you can be Justin Bieber and have the best time. You have the same in skating. Maybe that will go away with the Olympics and all of that and maybe it’s already over. It sucks, but right now there’s still more to it than just being able to do a trick that will be judged and when it looks nice, you’ll get eight points.
I just like to go street skating and meet strange people, to discover new places and spots, to take pictures, and when I come across a bookstore, I can just step in and skate on when I get out.
"I want to achieve something too, you know. I want it to be more than some nonsense"
No shit, I totally get what you are saying and that’s cool, but if you look at it from a professional perspective, it’s like: “Okay, I’m just gonna work.” And then you skate around and go to the bookstore, I don’t know…
I have the feeling it’s like that with Gonz.
But The Gonz is just The Gonz. [laughs
] But yeah, that’s a good point, that’s what we all love about skating. Lifestyle is a bad word for it, but it’s just that. [ponders
] But I want to achieve something too, you know. I want it to be more than some nonsense. From this perspective I like to handle it as a sport and that you have to put some effort into it. That gives me some kind of goal, to do some stupid trick.
Is that due to your German roots?
I don’t know where I got it from. I wish I could turn it off. [laughs
] But we all have that from the start. Everyone who knows how to ollie also knows that you have to fight for it, that it doesn’t just happen.
By now you live in Sebastopol. Another small town, kind of like the one you lived in in Kansas. Do you like the small-town life?
My wife’s parents live there and it’s pretty close to San Francisco, where we still go to all the time. I like it better now than I used to because I know that I don’t have to be there. If I want to, I can move anytime. We just did it so my parents-in-law can meet their grandchildren and because San Francisco is pretty tough when it comes to schools.
I read that Sebastopol belongs to the Cittàslow movement, which tries to raise the standard of living in certain cities. Is the life there better than elsewhere?
I’ve never heard of it, but Sebastopol is like a village with a bunch of old hippies living there.
Tom Waits lives there, right?
Yeah, I’ve seen him at breakfast once but didn’t want to bother him. [laughs
] Nature is really beautiful there though, all the redwoods, the big old trees. It’s 25 minutes away from the coast, people are environmentally conscious. I like that because I really care for our environment.
Would you call Sebastopol or rather California your home by now? Or is that still Kansas or even Germany?
Most of the time I say San Francisco because that’s what most people know and I also consider it my home.
Do you still keep up with what’s going on in Germany?
Not really. Obviously you hear about what’s going on with the Syrian refugees.
You don’t even watch the Bundesliga [highest division of the German soccer league, editors note]? After all, you skated in a Bayern Munich jersey.
Yes, but not because I’m a huge fan, but rather because I’m from Munich and because it pisses of Jascha [Müller, adidas global marketing manager and supporter of VfB Stuttgart, editors note
Do you miss anything about Germany?
Because my kids have started to go to school, I miss the German schools. I think they are a lot better than most of the American ones. I miss the German thoroughness and just speaking German. But at least you can find German food in America and can watch the media via internet nowadays.
Is there anything from back in the days that you still like to watch?
I showed Pumuckl to my kids.
Is there something that you always have to do when you’re back?
I always have to eat a poppy-seed cake because you can’t find that one in America. And I always get a Spezi. [classic German soft drink which basically consists of orange soda and cola, editors note
Mezzo Mix… [laughs
] That’s kind of a b-grade, right? But that’s what I always used to drink as a child.
Do you still visit friends from back then, like Bernhard?
Yes, I see him most of the time I’m here but besides that not too many. My sister lived here for a while, but she just moved to Greece. I just like to look at the city and the people. I like smelling it too. Every city has its own scent, but it means a lot to me here because it reminds me of my childhood and you can never forget about that. You know what they say: smell has the best memory of all senses.
Is there a spot that you wanted to skate back then but were lacking the skills and that you skate now?
There was this eight stair behind the Wertkauf [German grocery store chain, editors note
], which I always wanted to 360 flip, but I’m not going there now. [laughs
I don’t know, because it’s just eight stairs. Memories are sometimes better when you just leave them that way. I have no score to settle or anything. It would be funny if it made me mad and I’d call Jascha like: “Hey Jascha, I have to skate that stair set in Germany!”
Did you ever think about moving back to Germany?
My wife likes Berlin a lot and we have talked about it when our oldest son was close to his first day at school. But I think my wife couldn’t handle it, because she doesn’t speak German and that’s pretty hard and I didn’t want her to face the culture shock. And what’s worst in my opinion, is that it gets fucking cold in Germany and my wife grew up in California. They don’t know what winter’s like.
What if Trump wins the election – would that be a reason to move to Germany?
I wouldn’t go that far. Many Americans say that they’ll move to Canada. I don’t really worry about it, but maybe I should. I’m still hoping that he won’t win, that Clinton will make it. And I still hope that when Trump wins, it won’t be too horrible. But my wife can get a French passport because of her mom and we could get into the EU. I might pressure her a bit into getting it if it’s necessary. But that would have to be an emergency. There’s already some crazy stuff going on in America. But sure, it can get worse.
What things aren’t going the way they are supposed to in the USA?
"I don’t plan that much and adidas always has something lined up that I’m supposed to do and I just go along with it"
Gun laws. Americans are nuts. They say that they need their guns to protect themselves. Hey man?! That was the case in the times of George Washington when you had a weapon to protect yourself in the wilderness. But it’s not too wild nowadays, because we have the police that protects us – supposedly. That’s a whole different thing. Cops are shooting everyone these days. That’s something I don’t understand at all. People are shot every week and nothing changes. Trump says when he gets voted into office, the first thing he’ll do is cutting the waiting time for guns. At the moment you have to wait a week to buy a gun, so people don’t go in there furiously and do stupid things. Strange enough because Americans don’t exactly live under a rock. There are statistics and they see how it is handled in the rest of the world, but they just don’t want to comply. “No, we’re America.”
But at least in Sebastopol life’s filled with a peaceful hippie spirit and you have your own skatepark in your backyard.
I wouldn’t call it a skatepark, but I poured some concrete to fool around a bit. My kids like it, they can play soccer there.
So it’s soccer over football?
I don’t understand football and my wife forbid them to play anyways.
Are they allowed to skate though?
Man, skating for sure. She’s into it herself.
Right, she even can do kickflips.
Not anymore, but she used to kickflip for sure. She can skate a bit, but she doesn’t really do it anymore. The kids can skate as much as they want though.
You’re leaving tomorrow. What’s next for you? Is it true that you only plan two weeks ahead of time?
I don’t plan that much and adidas always has something lined up that I’m supposed to do and I just go along with it. My wife does that for me, she tells me what’s going on.
So you prefer being at home rather than being on tour?
Well, it’s cool to spend time at home with my wife and kids. They will only be kids once and I don’t want to be a father who’s gone all the time. Everyone has to work, but I try to travel the least I can. And I try to not be on tour for more than ten days straight. [ponders
] Man, I can’t tell you what will go down in October, but I’m supposed to keep on filming for the 10th anniversary adidas part. I’ll do that at home in San Francisco. And I know that I’ll be going to New York in November.