Artists of Theory - Eric Swisher
Chopping it up with Chops
Interview by Isaac McKay-Randozzi
Photos by Jamie Owens and Eric Swisher
At last count, Eric Swisher aka Chops has talked to over one-hundred and sixty-eight skaters about their careers (with a couple of repeated subjects) during the past fifteen years. He’s talked with skaters, photographers, filmers and the artists that have built, through action and documentation, modern skateboarding. His work is that of a loving archivist who cares, deeply, about the subject. Taking time and care through research and attention to detail. But without the taint of a gushing fan, a touch of admiration, yes, but still able to bring up topics of alcohol & drug abuse and, let's call it what it is - behavior unbecoming of a rational brain. Skating has not traditionally been a rational activity and Chops’ pursuit to document careers that have not lasted more than a few catalog seasons has not been a rational pursuit. What seems random in his choice of subjects makes sense if you keep in mind when he grew up skating. He’s curated it with something in mind, probably only he knows it but I think if you look at his body of work you will see a method to his madness.
The quality of his night time proclivities is impressive, thorough as any legitimate piece you would see in a Rolling Stone (during it’s good years), Playboy during the era of pushing the political and social envelope or Studs Terkel would put his name on. Thoughtful moments during research, time and an insight that gets to the heart of the matter. His approach is natural but with agenda. So who has been funding him all of these years? There are no ads on the site, just the work and images of the collaborations that bare the Chrome Ball name. There is no way he’s paying a mortgage on Scumco & Sons boards sales and deadstock Nikes. Back to the point, how and why did he scan and post thousands of pages of skate mags and conduct all those interviews? Simply, he saw a need and filled it. At the time, there was nothing available online and he filled the desire we all wanted, to be able to look through all the mags we used to have and see those things that made us hyped as a kid. He still knows and holds onto that initial stoke, to feel like a hyped up kid at the newest mag again and has scanned them for us to remember that specific hype that helped push us out the door to go roll. Seeing the latest ads and sequences, getting a better idea of where to put your foot for a kick flip frontside nose slide.
The main supporter must have been and continues to be his wife’s patience and understanding. Because without that he might have ended up in some shack on Polish Hill in Pittsburgh surrounded by boxes of old Power Edge’s and moldy SLAPs. So from all of us that have benefited from his work, we thank you Mrs. Chops for having his back all these years and supporting while he toiled in the salt mines of the call center.
What was the first board that meant something to you?
My first board was a Jason Jesse 'Neptune'. I was ten years old, I liked the graphic and I thought he could do cool method airs to fakie… Unfortunately, this selection for a first board hasn’t aged very well over the years. But yeah, I had orange Gullwing Pro IIIs and giant Bullet 66s. Probably not the best set-up for a 10-year-old grom who’d never even skated a quarterpipe before. It was basically a vert board. And the damn thing must’ve weighed 20 pounds, probably not the most practical thing for a little kid.
Do you remember what year that was?
Christmas ’88. I had started skating earlier that year, but boards were so expensive. $100 for a complete set up seemed like Scrooge McDuck money back then. Luckily, my friend who lived a block over had Scrooge McDuck money and he’d get boards all the time, so I got his hand-me-downs for a while. The Jason Jesse Neptune board was the first board that was actually mine, so I could put whatever stickers I wanted on it or leave it out in the rain… all the goofy shit that 10 year olds do.
Was that year you got hooked on skateboarding?
100%. I was in the 5th grade and my friend Courtney’s older brother skated. Apparently, his brother brought home “Animal Chin” one night and Courtney watched it. The next day, he was telling us all his half-assed 10-year-old recollections of this awesome video, which didn’t make any sense. “They were searching for this Asian man named Animal Chin!”
We had no idea what he was talking about, but it sounded amazing. I remember him describing Lance doing the Nightmare Air at the Pink Motel and he made it sound like it was a real move. Unbelievable. So after school, we went straight to Courtney’s house and watched the video. I was totally blown away… even if a part of me was a little disappointed that the Nightmare Air wasn’t actually real.
I mean, that video is tailor-made for a 10-year olds… with all the crazy colors and music. And they skate Wallows, too, which just looks incredible. And, of course, there’s the giant ramp. Like, what even is that? So good. They have all the crazy slang going. Caballero is wearing a Misfits skull shirt and I remember wondering what that meant? Oh, it’s a band?!? I wonder what that sounds like?
I was basically blindsided by an entire culture that day.
Drop your six all-time favorite skate vids.
1. Questionable is my all-time favorite video. The combination of Duffy in the rain and Carroll at Embarcadero. I was 15. Big pants, small wheels and everything else. It was perfect.
2. Video Days
3. Memory Screen
6. Welcome to Hell
Who are your top six skate photographers:
1. Grant Brittain
2. Spike Jonze
3. Daniel Harold Sturt
4. Matt Price
5. Tobin Yelland
6. Mike Blabac
What prompted you to start scanning old skate mags and putting them the web 15 years ago?
At the time, I was doing a little graphic design stuff. And like any skateboarder, you have all this history floating around in your brain and you end up being inspired by or referencing a lot of the imagery you saw in magazines growing up. As a kid, that is your world and you dissect every page. So I had all this shit in my head and I would go online to see some of these old ads that made such an impact on me back in the day, and they wouldn’t be there. The specific ad I was looking for was the 101 ad with Gino lighting the cigarette with a $100 bill. It says, “101 supporting Gino and the lifestyle he’s accustomed to.”
It’s all black except for him and the flame. It bummed me out that I couldn’t find it. And then the more I looked, the more it seemed like so much of this stuff was lost. This is pre-Instagram, obviously.
I don’t even really know why I started doing it. It just became this weird little side project I did, but within a month or so, it seemed like people were starting to notice it. I honestly don’t know how that happened because it’s not like I advertised or anything. And if I had known then that I’d still be doing this 15 years later, I would’ve done some things differently.
But yeah, within a month or so, I received emails from Andy Stone and Andy Jenkins about this weird blog I was doing. It was pretty mind blowing. I immediately thought to myself, “Well, I guess people are digging this. I should probably see where this can lead.”
Not that I had any idea that it would basically change my life.
What did you post first?
A World Industries ad. The one that said, “Skateboarding is Dead” with the little tombstone. Not that I was saying modern skateboarding is bad or anything. Sometimes I worry that people think I’m some sort of old codger, yelling at the clouds. Constantly yearning to go back to 1992. That’s not the case at all. I just thought that ad would be a good place to start… even though I didn’t know how long I’d continue to post at the time. Maybe a week? Who knows. It was just this one-off thing that kept snowballing over the years. Never much of a plan.
Was your day job back then in graphic arts?
No, I was working at a glorified call center for a real estate firm. Me and a bunch of old ladies. I remember when the Chrome Ball shoe came out for Nike, I told a few people about it and nobody believed me. They called me a liar. But that day job functioned to pay my bills while being lax enough to where I could disappear for an hour, interview somebody while sitting in my car in the parking lot and come back relatively unnoticed.
Yeah, I had similar positions where I could get away with something similar to that. What did you call it? My “Harvey Pekar” phase?
I love your Harvey Pekar phase because I’ve been there too. Just working some bullshit job that you have to do while doing what you’re really passionate about on the side. I feel like that’s the story for most people. Not everyone is lucky enough to have their passion become their sole means of income. Not that I’d want Chrome Ball to be my sole means, to be perfectly honest with you. I’ve been smart enough and probably cowardly enough to keep this right where it needs to be for me to do my best work. Once money gets injected into things, it can get a little weird.
You transitioned your career from the call center to copywriting. How did that happen?
I was working that dead end job in Pittsburgh for eight years, doing Chrome Ball on the side for five of them. And I was fine with that, you know? It was what it was. It’s not like I had any crazy delusions of grandeur. But then Mark Whiteley hit me up to work for Nike SB with him in Portland in 2012. So my lot in life suddenly came down to deciding between staying in Pittsburgh and scraping by at this job I hate, or I can take this job at this giant company in skateboarding that might lead to other things… and in the meantime, I’ll be able to work with Whiteley, who’s always been a hero of mine. It was pretty much a no-brainer. And I owe it all to Chrome Ball. I’d still be in Pittsburgh at that call-center if I hadn’t started participating in this admittedly peculiar thing. But I worked for Apple for a bit and now I’m in California, working for Stance. It’s all because of this free blog.
You don’t have any advertisers; you’ve never had any, have you?
I support the brands and people I like just through what I post, but taking money for ads, I really can’t because of the “blogspot” platform. I honestly think it goes against the Google terms and conditions. But even beyond that, even if I wanted to accept ads, Chrome Ball is a copyright infringement nightmare. I don’t have permission to scan any of this stuff. I don’t have permission from the magazines or the photographers to post these things. But luckily, this project isn’t about money for me. It’s just something that I enjoy doing. I’m not trying to sell people their nostalgia back to them… I’m a terrible businessman. I just want to stoke people out.
This was just some goofy project that I started doing in my spare time. I started this as a way to repay my debt to skateboarding, in that it meant so much to me and I want to pass on some of that stoke to whoever I can. It’s weird because there are like nine-hundred nostalgia Instagram accounts now, but back then, you couldn’t find this shit. It just wasn’t there.
How has this “goofy project” impacted you?
This blog has changed my life. I’m no longer working a dead-end glorified call center job in Pittsburgh. I’m living in California. I’m able to interview my heroes and ask them anything I want, which is strange to think about. I’m careful to not lose perspective in all of this. It’s really pretty extraordinary that I’ve been able to do this; that people have given me their time and there are readers who give a shit. I’m very lucky.
You said it was sort of a side project at first. I recall checking the site weekly and seeing new things up often, maybe a few times a week? How many hours a night would you scan mags?
For the first few years, it was daily. As it gained more momentum, I got more hyped on doing it and posts got larger and larger. Towards the end of the scan posts, I’d spend about three hours a night digging out material, scanning and resizing. It was a lot of work, looking back on it.
How many of those nights did you first spend at Gooski’s and then go home and scan?
There were a few of those… There were definitely a few of those [laughter].
That was fueled by our mutual friend Nick Teodori of ScumCo & Sons. It was never crazy late or anything… but there were definitely a few nights where the fluids ran interference at the bar, for sure. There’s one night specifically where I did a Beryl Banks post and I’m admittedly a little fuzzy on how that one came together. I remember waking up the next morning like, “Oh shit! What exactly did I post?” But it was fun. I miss Gooski’s.
Why was John Drake your first interview?
John Drake and Don Pendleton worked at the nearest skate shop to me growing up. Don actually taught me how to do griptape when I was 11. Don and John were sponsored at the time. They were the local heroes.
Was Don on Motobilt Trucks at the time?
Yeah, Don was on Steadham and then ACME, I believe… and Motobilt. They were both on Gouge Thrashwear, too. But John was always amazing. He was on a few different companies back then… H-Street and Assault. Ride Free. But going back to the interview, John was literally the only pro I knew. He was the only guy I had access to that even made sense to interview at the time. So yeah, when I put him down as Chrome Ball Interview #1, I didn’t know if there was going to be a Chrome Ball Interview #2. John, and then later Don, they were the extent of my interview resources at the time. But it felt good giving John some shine because he’s always been a favorite of mine. I’m not sure he ever got his proper due back in the day. He was amazing.
You’ve been able to track down some cats that made brief-yet-powerful impacts on skating. From Ryan Hickey to Mike Daher, Satva Leung and Rick Ibaseta. Not to mention many others of similar stylistic ilk. How do you track these people down?
It’s a lot easier now with Instagram. You can just send them a message. But a lot of the earlier ones came from supporters of the site hooking me up with their friends. They would happen to know some of these old pros, so they’d randomly hit me up and ask, “Are you interested in interviewing this guy?”
I’m so thankful for that. In particular, I owe so much to this Embarcadero local named Jon Constantino. You know that one classic photo of Cardiel and Henry Sanchez standing at Embarcadero? If you look in the background, Jon’s standing in between them in the background. That dude hooked me up with so many people when I was first doing interviews. He just liked what I did and hooked me up. And that’s when I cut my teeth and was able to prove myself with these interviews. I’ve got a few others that hooked me up, but if you look at those first thirty, the majority came through Jon. He’s the best. This whole interview thing would’ve never worked out for me if it wasn’t for his help.
What made you decide to do interviews? What is something you wanted to do with the site from the beginning?
I never thought about it when I first started, but it was kind of the natural evolution of the site. Within the first month, I was already starting to hear from people, and over the course of interviewing, it felt like a good way to add dimension to the site. There weren’t a lot of people doing interviews back then, just a handful. It’s not like how it is now.
You are highlighting people that had short careers and others that never got their due. That’s what’s so cool about Chrome Ball, we get to hear their stories.
Thanks. I’ve been pretty unapologetic about my nerdiness with the details. I will be the loser dude that asks about that one ad they did twenty-five years ago. I have no shame when it comes to that. And I don’t think a lot of people were really doing that back then… So I don’t know if I’ve raised the bar at all or lowered it significantly. That’s up for you to decide.
It’s funny because a lot of those pros back in the 90s, their careers really only lasted maybe two years. Maybe. Like, we still talk about Dan Peterka; he had one video part and two boards. That was it. But skateboarding has always attracted interesting people and everyone has a story. Interviewing felt like a challenge and ended up being something that I really enjoy doing.
Your work is very detailed, which you describe as nerdy. It’s mainstream journalism in that it’s very researched, and I’ll just put it out there, you’re the fucking Terry Gross of skateboarding, man. Do you have stacks of back issues of old PowerEdge, Thrashers and Transworlds you read to keep it in your brain? What’s the process before the interview?
Thanks, bud. It starts out by just hitting someone up to see if they’re interested in doing it or not. Someone who I think could be interesting and hasn’t been interviewed to death already. Someone who I think I can maybe do a good enough piece with. I usually have a loose idea of what I’m going to ask them, and then after they agree to do it, I’ll go through all of their video parts and ads. If they’ve been on the Nine Club or Bobshirt. I’ll check those out to see if there is anything I can follow up on or possibly approach differently. Research usually takes about four or five days. Because you want to do right by them and do right by your audience; you don’t want to waste anyone’s time. It’s not serious, but I take it seriously. Just for my own OCD, you know? I don’t want to blow it. I want to do a good job.
Top 6 you’d like to interview that you haven’t? If you had unlimited access.
Daniel Harold Sturt
Have there been interviews you’ve decided not to publish?
There have been a few. I’ve decided against a couple and the subjects have decided against a couple. Maybe the person was a little lubricated at the time of our conversation and let a few things fly that maybe they shouldn’t have? That’s a happened more than once, resulting in a pretty awkward call from that person the next day.
I get it. I’m lucky to get to talk to these guys and I don’t want to burn them in the end. They’re the ones being generous with their time here. They don’t really get anything out of this… but I’m totally stoked, you know? And if I burn people, I may not be able to interview people anymore.
There have also been times where someone didn’t want to answer the majority of my questions. That’s fine, it’s their right and I respect that. But at the same time, I also have the right to not put out an interview that I believe is sub-par.
You started the blog in ’08 and not too long afterwards, you started doing some freelance writing. Where did you first see your name in print?
I think it was a Thrasher piece about Don Pendleton. One of those little artist spotlight things they do. [Mark] Whiteley asked me to do it. And, of course, I was down… because you can’t not love Don. He’s a genius artist and just such a nice dude. I was more than happy to do it.
Did you do anything for The Skateboard Mag before it ended?
They did something on me, but no. I did stuff for ABD Magazine, Transworld before it ended and Color Magazine.
So, your career in journalism has been entirely self-made and you operate on a platform that you cannot earn any ad revenue from. Holy crap, you really are bad at business and I admire that. I think you’re my new hero.
[Laughter] I think if I wasn’t writing about something that I hold so close to my heart, I’d be trying to juice it for everything I could. Skateboarding is just something that’s always been pretty sacred to me. It’s honestly the only thing that’s ever clicked for me in my entire life. I don’t want to pimp that out. Call me sentimental… or stupid, probably a little bit of both.
Your approach is informational. Do you think that style has differentiated your work from other keyboard jockeys?
The internet doesn’t need another guy talking shit. Because at the end of the day, who the fuck am I? I’m just some guy with a ton of magazines and a computer. But there is an inherent personal bias in Chrome Ball because it’s solely based on whatever I want to do at the time. There are definite themes in who I’ve showcased and who I haven’t. And sometimes this bias comes out when I press someone a little harder on questions than I would somebody else… because I feel like I have to for the sake of the interview and the audience. It’s scary. There are some questions over the years that I still can’t believe I’ve asked. Like Ryan Fabry, for example. But it always comes from a level of respect. I am a fan of their skating, first and foremost. I’ve never tried to be some shitty tabloid click-baiter.
How did you get involved with Closer Magazine?
Jaime Owens has always been a supporter of mine, even back when I was living in Pittsburgh. We’ve had a good relationship over the years. Just two skate nerds who grew up in the middle of nowhere that have now found themselves in this crazy position to actually do stuff in the industry. And it just so happened that when I moved to California, I moved a mile down the street from his house.
Jaime is just the best dude. He has been a really good friend to me, through all kinds of crazy shit… even down to taking me to the hospital on Christmas Day two years ago when I broke my arm skating. I had a bone sticking out of my arm and panicked, obviously. So, for some reason, I call Jaime and he’s the one who took me to the ER. I didn’t know what else to do. (laughs)
But yeah, I had done some stuff with him for Skateboarder and Transworld, so when he decided that he was a going to start a magazine, he’s my friend, so of course I’m going to help him. And it’s cool because with Chrome Ball, it’s just me in a bubble. Working on Closer, it’s nice to plug into something different and do something on paper versus that terrible out-of-date blogspot. It’s been great. Plus, Jamie can get me guys I haven’t been able to get for my interviews.
I tried to get John Lucero for five years and Jamie made it happen in no time. Seriously. And I tried to get Gabe Morford even longer than that for Chrome Ball and Jamie got him in, like, ten minutes for Transworld. Most of the interviews I do for Closer are guys that I couldn’t get myself. And Jaime gives me pretty much free range to do whatever I want.
You record and then transcribe your interviews. Has your method and work pattern varied over the years or has it always been the same?
I’ve had a lot of friends try and get me to use those transcription services with the interviews but they just don’t know the technical skate terms yet, so it doesn’t really help, you know? Half the time, you end up having to do it all over again. I’ve also found that transcribing helps me with editing, in general, because I have a better idea of what’s all in there.
I don’t have nearly the aversion to transcribing like I do with that fucking scanner. I want nothing to do with scanning anything anymore. I hate it. After five years of scanning shit every night… ugh. I’ll begrudgingly do it, for interviews and shit. But I don’t know how I did it for three hours a night for five years. And I honestly don’t know how my lady Tara stuck with me during that time, either. [Laughter]
“I love ya babe, but I gotta scan some Ocean Howell photos tonight because his Next Generation part from 1992 is amazing!”
But she’s still here somehow. I’m pretty lucky.
Last question: what’s your current set-up?
An 8.5 Quasi Prototype, Ace Trucks, which I’m a big fan of, and Spitfire 52 Lock-Ins… because Spitfires are the best.
Agreed. Thank you, Eric.