The Chrome Ball Incident for ABD #6: Chris Miller

By Chops

If you couldn’t do McTwists back in the day, you weren’t shit in my book. Of course, this was when I was 10-years-old and my idea of “style” consisted of tight trucks, Powell sweatpants and the occasional beret. But you couldn’t tell me nothing. I’d managed to figure out this whole skateboarding thing in just under three months and the ‘twist was king. Case closed.

That was, until an older friend of mine took the time to sit my smart-ass down and make me watch Chris Miller.

And I mean really watch him.

Miller had yet to learn Mr. McGill’s gift to the world and needless to say, subtle nuance would usually be lost on a bratty kid my age—but fortunately for everyone involved, Chris was obvious. An aesthetic of beauty—the way it don’t take all day to recognize the sunshine.

The way he obliterated entire sides of ramps on one pass with the greatest of ease was something that transcended skateboarding. Sure he didn’t have that marquee trick at the time, but after going back and re-watching a few other former favorites with runs that did, I realized it didn’t matter.

“This is style,” my friend said.

I’ve never looked at skateboarding the same since.

So what do you think is wrong with vert skating today? Why has the halfpipe remained more-or-less dormant for so long, especially in the face of all these new tranny-based concrete skate parks popping up?
It definitely hasn’t been dormant in terms of progression and tricks, so I assume you mean “why isn’t it more popular?” To me, there’s nothing wrong with being a less popular style of skating. But as for it’s popularity, there’s a couple of factors: The first is that it’s hard and requires years of commitment before you can really get good and the second is that there’s just not that many vert ramps around so it’s not very accessible. Also, in general, people seem to do what they see others are doing because they are seeking validation. So I guess whatever the magazines show the most of, people want to do or wear or buy.

But there has been a bit of a vert revival recently. A small but thriving scene of amazing kids has been coming up. Guys like Pedro Barros and Alex Perelson are the start of this wave and there’s a ton right behind them. The cool thing about it is that it’s pure. The people who are skating vert are doing it because they love it, not because of what someone else thinks.

By the way, if you haven’t seen Alex’s Real Since Day One part, do yourself a favor and watch it.

That part is incredible. Now I remember reading an old interview where you said that vert skating was “the ultimate form of skateboarding”. Do you still feel this way with all the innovation in street skating over the years?
I don’t think there’s any ultimate form really. When I said that, the context was about what the terrain enables you to do. In vert, especially a big pool or bowl, the feeling of speed, inertia, g-forces and flying along or above the lip is pretty exceptional. It’s about riding the terrain versus manipulating your board or laboring to accomplish something “hard.”

I completely admire the innovation in street skating and the idea of skating out your door and turning the city into your playground through your own creativity. I like it when the terrain enables you to add another dimension to your skating. Personally, it’s a big vert bowl that is the most amazing feeling. For someone else it’s different, there’s no right or wrong. Do what feels good to you.

Do you think vert skating will ever reclaim its former popularity? As security guards and skate stoppers continue to impede on street skating’s accessibility (it’s greatest asset), this doesn’t seem like that far of a stretch in the future.
Yeah, there’s a bit of a myth to street skating. Just that concept of accessibility is great in principal but it seems that it’s just such a hassle everywhere these days. I don’t think vert will ever be the dominant form of skating, but I actually think that skateparks already are. Once in the parks, people discover the fun of transitions. Skating a perfect curved surface is so fun, even at its most simple form.

How do you feel about this daredevil Mega Ramp craze? Although entertaining to watch, do you think this further isolates vert skating, making it seem even more foreign to the average skater? And what do you think of someone that says that this type of skating is barely even skateboarding at all, but in fact, something different?
I find that people who want to define, categorize and criticize everything do it generally because they’re insecure in who they are. The Mega Ramp is crazy and certainly not for everybody. But if you’re denying how amazing it is then you’ve lost your sense imagination and wonder.

I’ve skated the Mega and it’s the scariest thing I have ever done. The first time I dropped in was crazy. I started to go and then inside was like “Wait, maybe not. What am I doing?”

But obviously you can’t go back. You just have to stay calm and get over the gap—then be prepared for a 40 mph knee slide, which is a shocker in itself.

Once you finally get over the terrifying first few jumps and make it, then you have to deal with the quarter pipe, which is like a whole other factor of terror.

All you have to do is see that Jake Brown crash to know how gnarly the Mega is. I’d say unless you have been skating a lot of vert, don’t even try hitting it.

But besides how scary it is, it’s also the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in skating. I think I did a 17-foot frontside air on it. I have nothing but respect for Danny, Bob, Jake and all the guys who ride it.

When did you start to realize vert was in trouble? You were out in the streets early on as well, even boardsliding that rail for an early Billabong ad. Was there ever a point where you thought you’d switch your focus and concentrate more on street skating?
I’ve always skated everything but I gravitated towards vert and pools because that’s what is most fun for me. I’ve always skated what I thought was fun, not what might be good from a career perspective.

Keep in mind that when I got into skating, the whole sport wasn’t popular at all. We just did it because we loved it. It was a rad scene.

I had friends from all over and the reason we went to contests was because you got to hang out with other skaters. Then it got bigger and more popular and all of the sudden we were making money doing this thing we loved. It all started to slow down in the early ‘90s, not just vert, but the whole industry.

For me, it was not about vert versus street, but about survival of the skateboarding industry. All the big companies were in trouble and it kinda went back to the way it was before. But at the same time, it was a really exciting time in the industry because all these skaters came in and took over with their new companies. That was right when I focused on starting my own company and getting more into the business side of things. It was small but we loved it. Creatively there was so much energy going into it. So my focus was on that level, not really thinking about how to be a pro anymore.

Vert skaters of the ‘80s are always seen in retrospect as these “rock star” types: wild, fast-paced lifestyles with lots of cash and women around. Is that really how it was or has that been distorted overtime? Is there any real difference from the top vert skaters of ‘80s and the top street skaters now, in terms of lifestyle and extravagance?
There was a bit of that with a few individuals for sure, but to say it was the whole scene is pretty overstated. I’d say it was pretty tame compared to now.

Skaters are getting paid so much more now with greater mainstream fame and recognition. Those are the influences that people get out of control with: money, fame and ego. For the most part, pros are pretty mellow and sometimes even uncomfortable with it … but there’s always a few that take it to the next level.

True. Now with Planet Earth, you were able to shine some light on a lot of young vertical talent in the early ‘90s before that style of skating went out of vogue. Who were some vert rippers that you feel fell victim to timing, that never really go their due as the rug was kind of pulled out from under them? For example, Buster Halterman maybe would’ve been twice as huge had he come up just a few years sooner.
For sure Buster and that whole early ‘90s vert generation kind of had bad timing as far as making money and all that. But then again, why do you skate? For fun? For money? Or to get a reality show on MTV? It would’ve been great for those guys to have gotten more recognition but in the end, Buster is known as one of the most stylish vert skaters of all-time. He’s not going to retire on it, but if you are into vert, you already know that.

Crossbone air or fastplant?
Probably a fastplant.

Since you basically cut your teeth at Upland, one of the gnarliest parks in history, have you always considered yourself a pool skater first and foremost? Was it difficult going from the freedom that bowls allow to the more restricted back-and-forth of halfpipes? How important was that park to the development of your style … your “whole side of the ramp” approach?
Particularly in the ‘80s, ramps always seemed like a substitute for pools. The tradeoff was that ramps were perfect and easier to skate, so you could progress more with tricks. Coming from Upland, it took me a while to get used to skating on small ramps.

The early vert ramps were pretty limiting but by ‘88-‘90, they started getting bigger and more interesting. I also think I started to become more trick-oriented, especially with lip tricks: back lips, bluntslides, ally-oop cab 5-0’s, sugar canes… all that stuff. But I was always inspired by going as fast as possible and doing everything as big and long as I could.

Learning to skate at such a merciless locale with some of the best pool skaters in the game, do you think this gave you a leg-up on most with your ability to adapt? What influence did other Badlands locals like the Alba brothers have on you? And how does the modern Vans Combi-pool compare to the original?
The whole scene at Upland—it’s terrain and locals—shaped who I am as a skater and person, for sure. Everything was so gnarly. A lot of people were intimidated by the locals but I always found it to be a simple respect thing.

Salba was always cool to me and flowed me stuff when I was younger. At the same time, it was always clear that there was a pecking order and if you wanted respect, you had to earn it. You learned to let your skating do the talking. Aside from any local vibes, the terrain took care of keeping you in check.

I can’t explain how many times I’ve gotten worked by the Combi. You couldn’t get good in that thing without paying the price. Broken elbow, broken wrists, split chin, broken nose, slipped disk, endless hippers, multiple concussions, chipped teeth—so much flesh and blood.

After Upland, almost everything else seemed easy.

The modern Combi is amazing and a walk in the park in comparison. The basic shape of the Combi seems to have endured the test of time and enables some amazing progressive skating.

Dissatisfaction with previous results and a DIY-spirit led to you being one of the first pros to do their own graphics, churning out some real classics. How receptive was G&S to you and Blender’s artistic endeavors? Did they pretty much let you guys do whatever you wanted? And what are your favorite graphics that you’ve done?
Neil pretty much paved the way for skaters to do their own graphics. It was just self-expression, we had no idea what the results would be in terms of sales or marketing. I think Neil’s stuff did really well though, so maybe G&S was open to it because of that.

But from my perspective—and I think Neil’s—we weren’t even thinking of it from a business point of view. I provided creative direction on my first few pro models while someone else did them, but they didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Neil encouraged me to do it all myself, which was amazing in retrospect. The one with my face was the first graphic that I did. I was a junior in high school.

I think my own favorite graphic was either the G&S lizard or my first Planet Earth cat graphic.

I remember being pretty shocked when you left G&S, just because you’d been there for so long. What made you leave for the Vision-backed Schmitt Stix?
I was 12 when I got on G&S and probably 19 when I got on Schmitt. I made the switch because the whole industry started to grow and G&S was still pretty small. Schmitt had all the good things about being small but also with the benefit of Vision’s distribution. Also Paul [Schmitt] was very innovative in terms of board construction and making the best boards at the time. It was hard to leave G&S because of the friendships there and growing up with them, but the company wasn’t keeping up with the industry anymore.

Your first Schmitt Stix model is credited as having the first kicknose concave. Was that your idea?
That was Paul’s idea but it worked really well for me in terms of where I wanted to take my skating. I was already doing back lips on vert but with no nose. Paul comes along with this idea and I can’t explain how much my skating improved after I started riding Paul’s boards. That design just opened things up.

Now comparatively-speaking you really weren’t on SS all that long. Did you have any idea that team was about to implode like that? Was there ever any talk of you going to New Deal?
No, I had no idea. The thing is that Vision really got into trouble and that’s what took Schmitt down. I wanted to stay with Schmitt Stix when my contract was up and Paul had already agreed to renew my deal, but Vision vetoed it. It seemed like they were screwing over Paul because once my deal with Schmitt expired, Vision made me an offer to ride for them. My loyalty was with Paul, so I ended up leaving to start Planet Earth because he couldn’t renew my deal.

Basically after that and partly because of it, Andy Howell, Steve Douglas and Paul left Vision to start New Deal.

So what made you decide to go out on your own and start a new company? What were you trying to accomplish with Planet Earth? I know it’s had a very strong eco-friendly stance over the years.
It was more just about personal expression than sophisticated business terms. Trying to make the stuff I liked, putting my art on boards and doing a whole line instead of just my own graphic.

I didn’t think of it at the time as being eco-friendly, but I did do stuff like donate a royalty from the Animal Kingdom board to WWF. Not that it was official or even part of our marketing, we just kind of did it because that’s what I wanted to do.

How did H-Street enter the mix? Was the H-Street affiliation with Planet Earth always supposed to be a temporary thing or did you guys just end up going solo during H-Street’s more turbulent post-Plan B time?
H-street and World Industries were the first skater-owned companies of that era. All the big guys it seemed had lost touch with skateboarding. It was refreshing dealing with Mike and Tony after my experience with Vision had left such a bad taste in my mouth. Antony Moltini and Dave Andrecht were old G&S guys doing sales for H-Street and it just seemed like good energy. And it was good for a while, but then it became clear that Mike, Tony and their other partner George weren’t all seeing eye-to-eye. Once Mike left to do Plan B, it all came to an end.

So even though it wasn’t ideal, I left H-Street and started doing it on my own. Anthony came over to do sales and my father-in-law helped me out financially. This was the low point of the industry in 1991. I was 21, married and had a kid. I had no choice but to try to make it work.

Was Now ‘N Later your vision? Did Mike Ternasky play any role in the making of that one? Whose part is your favorite?
That video wouldn’t have happened without MT. Creatively I influenced it but Mike made it happen. It was really his project.

There’s so much good stuff in that video. I like Buster’s part to Operation Ivy and Lotti’s part. Lotti was so innovative. I think that was the first big spin in a video. The kid crashing his bike and all the nature footage is rad. I like the box cover, too. VHS!

You seemed to back out of the spotlight after that part came out. An incredible section, but did you set out to make it a “retirement” part or did it just happen that way? What role did your new-found responsibilities as company owner play in your decision to give up your pro board after the video came out?
I had no intentions with my video part other than to just make it as good as I could. After that, I was still skating but not going to as many events because it was too expensive. I was paying my own way and even if I won, it would barely cover expenses. The funny thing was that ‘90 to ‘92 were, by far, my best years as a pro, skating-wise. But it just seemed like my only way to survive was to make the company work so that’s where I put all my efforts.

Of all the projects you would start over the years (Rhythm, Mercury, Adio, etc) is Planet Earth still your favorite because it was first? What ultimately ended up happening to your involvement with it? I know it’s transitioned from boards to just clothing.
I like Planet Earth because it was the most personal, especially at the start. But it’s hard to choose because in many ways, Adio was much more refined and done right as a business. Adio was a case of having all the resources in place at the start and seeing how far we could go with the right backing and planning. Earth was a labor of love, it had a life of it’s own that was very organic.

The evolution of the brand from decks to clothing was simple. We just started selling more and more clothing until we got to the point where we felt we could be better as a company by focusing on clothes exclusively. As far as my involvement, I left because our parent company got bought by a much larger company and I was very concerned about the direction they wanted to take things. I haven’t been involved for several years now and although both Adio and Planet Earth are still around, I am not sure how they are doing.

What’s the vibe like for you now at these Masters Division contests? How different is it competing against those same guys now as to how it was back in the day? I realize you guys are older now but there’s still that spirit of competition, plus I think on average, you guys are actually competing for more money now.
It’s funny; I have won more prize money in the last six years than I did in the previous 10. The thing is that we’re all competitive, but thankful to just be skating at this level still, which makes it much more relaxed and fun. Most of us are still trying hard, but just not too serious about it.

It’s strange to me; I never thought I would be skating like this at 40. There were no older guys around when we came up so I just never thought about it. But now look at Bucky Lasek: he’s 38 and at the peak of his career! At this rate I feel like Cab will be shredding in his 60s, contests or not.

Why do you think you do better in contests now than back in the ‘80s? Do you think this was largely due to the McTwist craze back then? That trick must’ve cost you more than a few contests—all these flawless runs discounted because of that one move. How frustrating was that for you? Were you even that stoked on it when you finally learned it? It doesn’t even seem like that fun of a trick …
I turned pro in 1985 and I was so young that it took me a few years to figure out the whole contest deal. I started doing better and won my first contest in ‘88. After that, I got on Schmitt and things really started happening for me. I learned 540s and all these new lip tricks and started placing in the top three at almost every event. 540s are a scary mental trick but once you can do them, they are fun for sure.

Over the years, I’ve also figured out the mental aspect of contests—just dealing with all the nerves and stress. Once you know that, it never goes away. I mean, I still get nervous, but I know how to handle it and have fun anyway.

Having had both vantage points as an artist and company owner, how do you feel about the current state of skateboard graphics? A sea of heat-transfer team logos where very few are remembered.
Has the financial success of skateboarding sacrificed its independent artistic identity at all? Why do you think there are so few skaters doing their own graphics today?

On the whole, I am a huge fan of graphics right now. I agree that the transfer process and high turnover make it a little less special but there is some amazing art being created now. I love the art coming out of Girl / Chocolate as well as all the Workshop and Habitat stuff over the years. I think that the whole industry is just so professional and business-oriented now that things are more formulaic and methodical. Even though there aren’t that many pros doing their own graphics, it’s not so bad because most of the artists in the industry are skaters.

I don’t know … I ‘m not cynical about it, but it is less personal and more commercial.

So what are you up to these days? I know you’re still killing it on Stereo and you’ve had your hand in more than a few projects over the years.
Career-wise, I am working as a creative director on the media side for Allisports. Alli is a joint venture with NBC and MTV and is the owner / operator of the Dew Tour, amongst other things. I also do the broadcast commentary for the Dew Tour on NBC.

Ever since skateboarding was first shown on television, I’ve always wanted to see it portrayed in the right way, with care and respect. So when the opportunity came along, I got involved.

I’m still skating a ton, surfing and doing art too. Skating for Stereo, Bones, Thunder and Converse. I am also a partner in Signal Snowboarding, helping the business, designing outerwear and just having fun.

Good to hear, Chris. Anything else you’d like to add? Any words of wisdom?
I am entirely grateful that my love for skateboarding and art has evolved into a 20-plus year career that has provided for my family and friends in many amazing ways. If there’s anything I have learned along the way it’s that if you can operate from a place of love instead of ego, you will be blessed with happiness and abundance.




12 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Wow.

    I think I just CBI-cum.

    Great post chops, Miller RULES.

  2. Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Favorite skateboarder ever. My fondest memories of skateboarding are the early-Planet Earth years.

  3. Posted May 17, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes… great interview!

    I never understood why in that first Schmitt Stix advert posted at the top they used the slob pic as the main photo… the little inserted crossbone photo is so so sick.

  4. Brad
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Had the pleasure of working 4 great years for Miller. Remember first time sitting in his office, and having that “holy shit this is chris miller” moment.

    the thing was, Miller was never that guy. so down to earth and treated everyone as a peer.
    is, and always will be, the essence of style & cool.

    big ups miller & good luck this weekend!

  5. Posted May 18, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Crossbone air or fastplant? Haha! That’s classic!

    One of the all time best styles. Remember seeing a lein air where he basically laid his front knee down on his tail, totally blew my mind.

  6. Cameron
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    i rode vision MG’s for years. i must have had 30 of them.

    when chris came out with that board, i switched instantly. we used to do what we called “chinese ollies”, basically, banging your front wheels into >1″ cracks in the pavement to get pop, and with his new board, i could bang them up to a foot high. so much fun. plus, i think that that board was close to 32″, and i’m a very tall dude, so i was stoked for the extra length, along with the scoop nose, i kept the front foot on and had fewer ankle rolls.

    there’s a coupla ads in the post that i stared at for hours. that “high time” one ran for a long time on my bedroom wall.

    chris is a hero. he always came off as low-key and surfer-cool, and that’s all i ever aspired to… i just wanted some style. i’m a gangly six-and-a-half foot dude, got ugly ron whaley style, but a big part of surfer-cool is not giving a shit and having fun no matter what.

    i hope that i at least got that part down.

  7. Andy Stone
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Had the pleasure of riding for Planet Earth for a little bit and my dealings with Chris were always a treat. He’s one of the best guys on a board out there and truly a great person.

    Hats off,

  8. Posted May 23, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Kudos. Great piece. Crazy thing is I was saving this one for a minute, and just this past weekend Chris won the 2011 Pro-Tec Pool Party. Indistinguishable.

  9. Posted May 25, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much for one of the best interviews ever.
    Chris

  10. Posted May 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Looking at all these photo s completely takes me back to the day I studied the mags . His ads were by far the best style vert ever has ever seen.

  11. jagger
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks!

  12. Squat
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Chris was never considered one of the top riders in his heyday, so it’s nice to see the respect he receives today as a 40 year old. He dominates the Protec Pool Party (look up the runs) and has developed a few brands which has earned him a few bucks. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

    Skating used to be rather vicious, so Chris learned to snake some runs out of Duane, Salba and lots of other punks from the era. All Miller ever did was ride with style at 100 miles an hour. He earned his respect.

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