Photo: Oliver Barton. Skateboarder, September ’02
The Chrome Ball Incident for ABD #2: Scott Johnston
So damn clean. An adjective so commonly applied to Scott Johnston’s April-fresh skate career that it’s actually transgressed from talk of tricks to where even mere mentions of his overall lack of sweaty attire or a seemingly invincible laundry prowess have become utterly cliché. But the ability to look good on a skateboard was only part of the secret to Scott’s legendary fifteen-plus year career, as it had as much to do with the clean conscience in regard to his respectful treatment of skating itself that never allowed SJ to lose his luster. So while Scott may have never landed that big bucks sponsor that the true heads would’ve questioned, the thing is, I doubt he ever wanted to.
Many people cite you as having one of the best styles in skateboarding. How would you define style?
Aw man… it’s first thing in the morning. That’s a tough one.
I would say style involves things being done, not only clean, but with an original finesse or personality. Maybe style is personality through physical movement—how someone does their skating. And its not just limited to one specific way. Like there’s dudes with that super fresh smooth style, like Julien or Alex Olson, but then that’s not to say I don’t love John Cardiel’s sickest wild style, and Vincent Alvarez too—just aggressive.
An interpretation of what styles you like are a matter of taste, but for me, definitely Julien Stranger, Alex Olson and Gino Iannucci. Smooth, fresh skating and not too timid looking. There’s aggressiveness to it. I don’t like timid looking skaters. I like dudes that go real hard.
How were you introduced to skating and what was your first “real” board?
I first started skating when I was 14 mainly because it was just the trend at the time. There really wasn’t much thought put into it. Like how kids are into Transformers at age 12—that’s what you get for Christmas. At 14, everyone was getting Bones Brigade boards so I was like “Yeah, I’ll get one of these!” And from that point on, I never put it down.
My first real setup was pretty much Tony Hawk’s set up—his classic Powell board with Tracker Ultralights and Rat Bones.
How would you describe growing up in the DC scene back in the day? Seemed like you moved to SF right before it really blew up.
Yeah, it was happening but it just wasn’t on the radar yet. It was a huge scene, though. I think being a part of this scene is what really catapulted my career ‘cause I was down there skating with the best dudes around. Dudes like Chris Hall, Steve Teagues and Pepe. I got to be on a good playing field.
I was part of that era before it ended up being super-publicized or blown-out. It was amazing. I’d go down to Pulaski and there would be 75 kids there. We’d skate all day long and have no problems with cops. It was probably one of the best times of my life, actually.
You’re an admittedly shy person when it comes to meeting new people. How did this factor into moving to SF back in its golden age and skating EMB, one of the most outspokenly critical spots on the planet?
I just got lucky. If there were any vibes, they were minuscule compared to how those dudes embraced me. Think and Venture are very SF brands and skating for them helped, but I mostly just let my skating speak for me. I think that’s what helps a lot of socially awkward skaters—the fact that they can work it all out on the board. I heard the stories, but I met a lot of guys who immediately befriended me. Guys like Mike York, Karl Watson and Greg Hunt made it real easy to get right into the mix and focus on skating without having to worry about who likes me or who’s gonna steal my board.
Your first real breakout part was in the FTC’s Finally. Was it decided beforehand that you were getting a full part or did you just happen to be filming with Meza at the time and it just worked out?
Yeah, it just kinda went hand-in-hand. When the concept of the video was coming together, I was already filming with Aaron a lot and I was also building a good relationship with FTC. Things synced up perfectly.
I’ve heard most pros took a more-relaxed approach to the FTC videos by saving the best clips for their board sponsors. Was this the case for you as well? Those videos, especially Penal Code, have gone on to be such cult classics. Was there any idea they’d become such big deals?
Nah, I had no idea they were gonna be part of skate video history like those videos are. They seemed like such small-scale things. When I was filming with Meza, I gave him good footage but I was actually holding my best stuff for the Mad Circle video. Like, if I was doubling up on tricks, I saved the one I liked more. So yeah, I was approaching it the same way everyone else was. It really wasn’t a big thing. It was just footage. We weren’t going all out for it.
It was different back then. Skate videos weren’t so make-you-or-break-you. It was more casual. Maybe I could’ve had some crazy career financially if I got strategic about going all out with Meza, but that’s not how people did it back then. We did it when we felt like doing it. Today, its big business and people get psyched up like they’re going to the Super Bowl or something.
Scott Johnston Pro Files. 411 VM Issue #3.
Wallenberg, Black Rock, Brown Marble ledges, EMB, Pier 7 …. Seemed like you ran ’em all. What’s your favorite SF spot from back in the day?
Brown Marble was great. That was a good time. Obviously EMB, but Brown Marble was one of my favorites—a lot of fun.
You were the fourth pro to get on Mad Circle. Was it difficult leaving Think? I can’t remember if Think or Mad Circle turned you pro?
Think turned me pro. The reason I left Think definitely wasn’t because of Greg Carroll. I love that guy. It’s just that they were really going after that whole rave thing and making all these ravey-type graphics. I hated it. It wasn’t at all what the brand was to me and I was really bummed. Justin Girard and Mike Cao approached me and I was really psyched on what they were doing with Mad Circle.
It was really hard to quit Think. I mean, I hear about dudes leaving teams via e-mail these days and it just shocks me. It’s such a major break-up. I had to sit down at lunch and meet with Greg face-to-face. It was tough. I actually ended up not quitting at first cause I felt so bad. We tried to work out some stuff, but a month later, I didn’t see the art direction changing yet and I was really realizing that I wanted to part of Mad Circle, so I made the move. I’m happy with my decision, but it was pretty rough at the time.
Your Let the Horns Blow part is one of my all-time favorites—classic style and a perfect way to end such a unique video. How long did you film for that one and were you happy with it?
It took me about two years to film the part. It was one of those things, that when it was ready, it was ready. There was no real deadline. We just hooked up and filmed. There was also some Think footage in there, too. Just a nice stack of footage.
Whose idea was it to have you skate to Steely Dan?
Justin’s. He originally had a different song picked out. When he put me on to that stuff, I went out and got the whole album and listened to it a lot. I just liked that song “Peg” more. I can’t even remember the original song he picked out.
You famously got up and relocated to NYC in the mid-90s. I always wondered what prompted the move because you were so heavily associated with the Frisco scene.
At the time, I was going out to New York a lot and trying to film out there. Many of my close friends are New Yorkers and I was just enamored by the whole scene. They all just had such great style. I was pretty psyched on what everyone was doing up there, like Ryan Hickey and Mike Hernandez. Also, it just happened to be that I broke up with my girlfriend at the time and I really just wanted to sever that— like make sure we wouldn’t go back together. I knew if I moved 2,000 miles away, that would guarantee it, so I went out there. It was a good time.
I ended up only staying there for seven or eight months. I moved there in October, which is probably the worst time to do that because it got progressively harder and harder to skate due to the weather. It really didn’t make sense so then I moved out to LA.
Winter’s no joke. What were some of your favorite things about skating in New York compared to SF?
I just loved pushing around. In SF, there are so many hills that you kinda get stuck in certain areas. Once you’re down, you can’t get back up. In New York, you can cover so much ground—just pushing in the streets and in traffic. I remember coming home exhausted some days from skating and after thinking about it realizing I barely even did any tricks. Just on the board pushing and ollieing—popping some flip tricks in between traffic. It was fun, but when you’re trying to film a video part or have any kind of competitive spirit as far as keeping up with everything, it’s a really hard place to do it. You gotta give it up to all the dudes that live there and really put it down for New York.
Definitely. So while you were filming for your part in 5 Flavors, did you have any idea that Mad Circle was about to disband? It was such an amazing company. Did you get a real sense of closure with the Circle coming to an end or did you feel like there was some unfinished business?
I didn’t fully realize what was gonna happen but I felt the vibes. That was when I was living in LA and could go out to Orange County and see how much more attention Giant was giving towards Element and New Deal compared to Mad Circle. It just seemed to be fading. Justin was kinda losing focus and to be honest, I was losing interest and starting to think about other options. I could see the writing on the wall.
So how did Chocolate enter the picture? Always seemed like such a perfect fit.
It was a little difficult at first. The way they run it, they have everyone from Girl and Chocolate vote who’s on and I think there was some resistance at first. It wasn’t really certain. It’s such a tight-knit group, so it took me a few months of going out.
Then one day in the warehouse, Rick just said it like it was no big deal. Like, “Oh yeah, you’re on. Feel like grabbing some boards or something? We’re gonna get graphic for you too.”
It was so funny. I was so excited to get on and he made it seem like it was no big deal. It was hilarious. He made it a totally nonchalant thing.
It seemed like you got really into designing shoes at Lakai shortly after joining the Choco squad. Was that always a hobby for you?
Yeah, I got one of those colorful iMacs when they first came out—spent like $1300, which is ridiculous thinking back on it. Being involved with Mad Circle, I’d watch Justin work graphics out and became real interested. When I moved to LA, I had my little computer and I tried to teach myself how to use it and just started to draw shoes, just see if I could do it. For fun, ya know?
Again, it’s a funny how things work out. I remember Mike [Carroll] was laying out stuff for Lakai and I had this drawing that I thought was pretty legit. It wasn’t necessarily the style of shoe that I wanted but it was what I drew, so I showed it to Mike and he goes “We should make that.” And I just thought, “Wow, you’re gonna make the shoe that I drew. That’s cool.” But then he said, “Do you want that to be your shoe?” I was like “I’m getting a shoe?” So again, this nonchalant approach. It’s pretty rad how those dudes are just so cool about things—like giving me a shoe on Lakai.
Over the years, I would go into the office and get excited about what the designers were doing. They were always real cool about involving me as much as possible—like letting me to draw and adjusting things according to my vision. I’d always think I had this great idea but they were always two steps ahead of me. So I wanted to be in there more and see what they were up to, like on-the-minute. As time went on and my involvement grew, I expressed that if there was ever an opportunity, I’d be interested, since I had so much of a history with the brand. Things just worked out.
What are you some of your favorite all-time skate shoes?
I really like the Soca. But if I had to say, my all-time favorite is probably the Half Cab.
So what made you decide to give up your board and call it a day? Were you a victim of the Fully Flared hype or did this decision just happen to fall within the years of filming for it?
I’ve always given myself these benchmarks … like, “When I turn 30, I have to quit. That’s old. I gotta get out of the van. I can’t do this forever.”
I felt I had to get my foot grounded into the next thing because I didn’t want to get dropped on my ass while still chasing the dream.
Filming that video part, I really set out to film a retirement part. I intended to get more but while I was filming, all my reasons for retiring kept coming through. Those moments of getting psyched to have the balls to do these tricks were getting few and far between.
There were so many times when you’re looking at the spot and its good but you still end up having to be like, “Next time I’m gonna come back and get it.”
And sometimes there would be a next time, but all these things just started spreading out and I started feeling that I was going out to do things but getting nothing done. I started to lose the spark. I felt like I was going through this mundane routine of not working enough and it started weighing on me. There are some dudes that can hang out and get paid to do nothing, but it made me worry—big time. So I lined things up to overlap with that video so when it finally came out, I was already working at Lakai.
A friend and I were talking about your overall career leading up to this interview and we honestly couldn’t find any weak spots. Not to be on your nuts or anything, but your shit was always on point. You never had any goofy sponsors and you always seemed real productive. It’s all pretty bulletproof, man.
Ha, I wish you’d tell my wife that. I’ll put you on the phone with her. She was a marketing major and she’s always telling me that I should’ve marketed myself better.
I just did exactly what I wanted to do and I did it how I wanted to do it. It was all with respect to skating. Maybe I should’ve retired earlier? I don’t think so.
I had so much respect for skating and for my sponsors that I didn’t want to be that dude that milked it and bled it dry. You have to go out while its still good. I hope I did that.
I actually don’t think people were ready for you to retire when you did. Is there that wish you would’ve done differently?
Nah, it all got me to where I am. You make decisions and you think about what could’ve happened otherwise but I have no regrets. I’m stoked on my career. I mean there could always have been more … whatever. I’m pretty happy with how it came out. I got to skate for who I wanted to skate for, got to travel with some great dudes and made some decent money. I never really had to sell myself out to do what I wanted to do and that’s all that matters.