Interview: Daewon Song

A Lesson In Longevity.

PHOTOGRAPH: ERIK GOSS

Earlier this year I interviewed Daewon Song for Highsnobiety for Daewon—a documentary about his career by adidas Skateboarding. You can peep that here if you want to catch up. Like his teammate Marc Johnson, Daewon is obsessive about skateboarding and everything tangential to it. As a pro in his 40s, he’s taken his ability to do pretty much anything he wants on a skateboard to social media, resulting in over a million followers and all the weirdly technical shit you’d expect for one of the most gifted to ever do it.

In 2017, I had a conversation with him about this new stage in his career and—like my conversation with MJ—we went into the serious minutia of skateboarding. What’s great about Marc and Daewon is that regardless of how talented they are and how long they’ve been pro, they speak to you as an equal. They speak to you like any person at a spot who loves talking skating to death.

Here’s a long one with Daewon Song.

How were the shoe and the board release this weekend?

It was good, it was definitely super fun. It’s cool to see the different vibes at shops. It's fun just watching and being around that. Pretty wild. I don't know how to explain it. It was amazing interacting with the kids and actually showing up and supporting the shops. They're so supportive. You're there to say thank you to the shops most importantly.

I was talking with someone about this yesterday. Whether you're in media or riding for a team or owning a company, people talk about “the kids” so much and then when you actually go out and see kids at an event or at a skatepark, it's so different than what everyone “thinks” kids do or how they interact with social media.

It is, it's so personal. You can be in LB shop in Long Beach—Long Beach is so local for me, it's right there but I've never been to that shop. Being able to go there and see so many familiar faces I've seen around and then going ‘Wow, I didn't even know that you were part of this shop.’

Then to see all these kids and they're locals to that shop that I've seen around all these little skate parks and stuff. You see where their heart's at, who they back. You just see all these crazy personalities. You just never know where a kid is headed or who they are. Honestly, it's all just skateboarding anyways and all these kids love to skateboard. When you just narrow it down they're just all skateboarders. Of course, we all have different personalities but to see that altogether all in one place and to see the love and feel the love and support from the shop the skaters and everyone… it's just something you can't really explain.

To me it never wears off, I was at this skate jam yesterday and I saw this kid who was probably 14 and he had such a sick style. Now you can follow that kid on Instagram and watch them progress.

For sure, there's a bunch of kids that I'll see at parks and they just catch my interest. They’re just them being themselves, doing what they love and being able to shut out what people think around them. I just had this conversation with some kids. Sometimes for me around kids—especially at demos—I'm a nervous wreck. Even in contests, my knees buckle and I'm like “Oh my God, I feel like I've never skated in my life."‘

I wish I could be like a dog—they can just walk up on a corner in public and just go to the bathroom. They're just peeing like ‘I don't care, this is me, this is what I do.’

I don't really want to do that, I'm just saying if I could just go to a park and not worry about what people are thinking and—just get in there and do my thing—I wish I had more of that.

Then you start to get comfortable. You start to say what's up to all the kids. You get to know them. All it takes is just to go up to a kid and see how they're doing and say ‘Hey, nice to meet you’ and you break the ice with everybody around the park. All of a sudden you're all at the skatepark having fun. Then I get to know these kids and I watch them and then I automatically want to find them on Instagram and start following them to see their progression through their skate career. Just to watch them develop and become their own is amazing.

We take for granted that we're still the first generation of the video era where you watch your favorite skaters grow up on video.

We had to wait like a year and a half and by the time that video surfaced and came out we were already a year and a half behind what was going on. At our local skatepark, somebody built a ramp that was completely wrong in the back and we took it, pushed it into a park and it would tip on the front end and it would cause the bottom to come up, so someone would stand behind it and hold it down. I love the fact that era that I was able to just skate and not know what was going on.

It was like a mystery box every time. By the time I saw a video I could not believe what I was watching. I'll never get that again but I love the fact that I did get that. Now something new is happening every two minutes on social media. I'm not going to sit here and be upset about that but it did take away a lot of what it was like back then. It was like watching something and getting that surprise like going to a magic show when you were a little kid and going ‘Oh my god I can't believe he did that.’

You’ve said you were really influenced by the Z Boys of the mid/late ‘80s, especially Scott Oster. Those guys aren't too documented. What did you think was cool about them? It's very different from where you ended up in skating.

It all depends on where you grew up. I grew up in Gardena, California. When people would stay at my house and their parents would be like ‘hmmm,  where does he live?’ My cross streets were Crenshaw and Rosencrans. It was known for gang violence but it's not as bad as it sounds. It just happened that I lived by some extremely popular cross streets that are known for as soon as you get out of your house somebody shoots you. It wasn’t actually that bad but everybody was gang banging or they're out there riding.

I embraced this whole idea that the Z-Boys were a family they're all bangers but they’re going to skate too . Then I seen these guys in Carson—this is later—the second generation of Z Boys were all in Carson. I would see them around and go damn these guys, I swear to God I'd seen one of them skate with a brush in his back pocket to slick his hair back.

These guys had a reputation of just doing their thing. I just liked the aggression they had. I just felt like since they grew up in Carson which was neighboring Gardena, they were like they're like me. I was just attracted to that and thinking wow, ‘The Z boys, they're all riding like those trucks—Z Rollers—the noise they make, it's just crazy!’ It really captures you as a kid!

I loved Z Boys so I wanted to be a Z Boy. I instantly went and bought the shirt, got the board. I saved money because picked flowers from my neighbor's house, sold them back to them for $5 to make money. As a kid my mom and dad bought me one board—that was it and it got stolen at a doughnut shop which is ironic, how funny. Two weeks later it got stolen so I had to go out there and find a board for myself. I ended up getting hand me downs and used roller skate wheels just to get something set up.

I'm a little obsessed with that era because there's so little out there of those guys and what you did see was really cool. Growing up on the East Coast I didn't get exposed to it, it's almost in the way that I mythologize my hometown heroes. It's like a regional thing.

What skaters from your certain generation were you really big on—who your favorites from the East Coast?

It was weird because my favorites were people I’d see skating. They were above me but felt like peers. I remember seeing Jahmal Williams in a Molotov ad and knew he was from Boston. When I first started traveling to skate in Boston, it was Jamal Williams and Robbie Gangemi—they were like my age but they were so sick. You knew they were going to be pro. I wanted to bring this up because Dan Gallagher grew up a few towns over from me. Both of you get credited for making up the hardflip.

Oh yup, Dan Gallagher, the guy who I always mention when people are like ‘You have the first documented hardflip.’ I might have the first documented one but I remember Rodney telling me that this guy Dan Gallagher did the first inside kickflip. Me and Rodney [Mullen] had talked about that so immediately we wanted to learn it.  I finally documented it for that Love Child part that had come out in 1991. It was the worst, ugliest one. In fact, they should have never slow-moded it. I looked at it recently and I was like ‘Wow, you can even tell it bounced off the ground.’

Dan Gallagher that's insane.

It was funny because there was so little information and then he'd [Dan] come back from staying and California— we knew he was getting flowed from World—and he would be like, ‘Oh I've been skating with Rodney—he’s street skating now.’ We thought he was fucking with us until Questionable came out.

I mean it in the most respectful way but Dan kind of an outcast to skateboarding because everybody was skating differently—he was skating flatground trying to do wild stuff. It was crazy, kind of like New Deal. Chris Hall comes to mind, just filming wild flatground tricks. Skateboarding has been through some crazy times with what was okay to film in a video.

Now I feel like it's opened up to where it's just like you're out there, get creative do your thing, skate a cub do something on flat, use a crack, it doesn't matter. There's no real set standard where you have to follow. You just got to let everybody be themselves and go in their own direction. If it gets them up in the morning and gets them amped and inspired and motivated to get out and just go do their thing, why would you want to take that away from them? That's what skateboarding is.

We have the luxury where we can tune in and tune out to whatever we want. It's like the really ridiculous, I don't mean ridiculous in a negative way I mean when kids do these insane combo fly out tricks that get reposted on an Instagram channel. It’s incredible but if you're not into it don't watch it, who cares?

Yeah, you don't have to watch it. I have to admit got swallowed up into social media where I even caught myself going ‘Hey, what am I doing?’ I'm swinging around like I'm some kind of circus clown. I'm going to kick my board, I'm going to kick the hell out of it. I'm going to cross my fingers and it might do something like a 540—I don't know how many times it's going to flip or I just skate some random junk left at the skatepark. 

There is a point where some of the stuff on Instagram is a little wild even for me. I give it up to them I'm like you know what they're doing their thing. There are just crazy little limits in our skate world. It's got this weird wall that people do not see that you have to like... It's in a sense to get over that wall it takes a certain thing. Then once you're over that wall you have the freedom to do whatever you want.

Still, the “industry” doesn’t accept a lot of talented kids. If somebody… if they're gifted beyond belief and they're doing a quadruple sex change flip to this and that and then they're developing a following, you’ll have people who respect that and then there are the people out there that just cannot stand it. They could be amazing but no company wants to hook them up. There are so many companies out there but no one will touch a kid with a million followers if they feel like their tricks aren’t cool.

Did you ever feel that in your career? Did you ever feel like you had to skate a certain way?

When I was growing up in the 90's skating I remember filming a whole part from ‘90 to mid-91. It was never able to be used because before Love Child came out I was watching the footage and knew to myself that those combo tricks I filmed or impossible variations were done. They're not relevant anymore, we missed the window of these tricks being relevant because we waited a year and a half. I’d film a 360 flip noseslide to crooked grind because you wanted to do the newest shit but then I realized I needed to tone it down—do it with a little more speed and just keep it relaxed. Just do a 360 flip noseslide. Forget the crooked, you don't need that to it.  

Just keep it clean and that's it. I remember some of the old footage I was sitting on had a lot of that stuff, like boardslide to 5-0 back to boardslide and come out with a body varial. People were like ‘No, we cannot use that.’

How crazy is that though? People are still judging you that way but I think people are just doing their own thing. Skating is more accepted than it ever has and everybody wants to stand out in a different way. There were a lot of pro skaters in the 90s but now there’s so many. When I was a kid buying a board there were maybe 20 pro models to choose from. In the ’90s there were like 200. Now it’s insane how many pros are out there—dudes you never heard of. 

I would hope to meet somebody who could name every single pro that's out there right now. If they could I would shake their hand and be like ‘Wow, you're on it, you know everything!’ But back to what you said, you had to skate a certain way [Back in the ‘90s]. You didn't have to but you followed a certain direction of where skateboarding was going in order to ...

You want to feel accepted and connected to it.

I remember a point where we were in a room and everybody was watching somebody's video part—I'm not going to say the name but a big name in the industry. The part was filled with late flips and shit. This was back in like 94/95 and we were like ‘He's still doing late flips? Oh my god man!’

It was just weird that we were judging. A lot of kids out there they don't know how much craziness was going on back then. Triple late flips, you had Damon Byrd doing a triple straight pressure flip off of a loading dock. I don't take anything away from that. I see late flips now and I've even filmed one for my Instagram. It's like you said, if you're going to do something you have to back it 100% and say ‘Hey, I'm doing this because I want to not because I'm trying to be somebody else—I'm trying to pick this route and I'm going to try and do late flips and make myself known from that.’ But then they go, “Shit, the late flip thing didn't work, I'm going to go all-terrain, push faster.’ You've got to let it be natural.

I was listening to an interview with him Mike York recently and it really hit something. He was talking about how he's like ‘You've got to understand at a certain point in the 90's we never even had marks in the middle of our board because it wasn't cool to do a boardslide. You wouldn't do it. Those were out, it was the nose and the tail, the middle of our boards would look brand new.’ Then he went on to say how now he doesn’t give a fuck and does what he wants but back then he wouldn’t do those tricks. 

Exactly, there's a lot of guys too nowadays that don't even count lipslides as tricks. It's almost like putting your board in a position where it's sleeping, no matter what it's going to stay up there. You really don't need any actual weight distribution as long as you're just standing on your board. Honestly, it's not like that. There's still a level of skill that's involved with that. But like you said, some tricks were illegal.

 I remember how uncool the feeble grind was. It was just like “Yikes, he just did a feeble grind on the ledge that is disgusting.’

Then, all it takes is somebody who is super cool and they feeble grind down Hubba Hideout. Well, that just got cool. Mike Carroll did that trick and he was one of the guys in the forefront of innovating at Embarcadero and when he did that, he changed things—he just made wrong right. It's wild that that can just happen.  

Pressure flips, I used to love pressure flips. Then I got to a point where I was like I cannot stand that trick. It's ruining my board. I have one side of my tail that I could completely sit there and cut a sandwich in half with it and cut my leg. It was one of the worst tricks ever. In an instant pressure, flips went out. Then we had a few people still running it and we're like “Whoa, somebody hasn't been watching any new videos.’

It's funny. Then there were guys who kept doing it, all the respect to them man, they didn't let anything stop them. That’s what I love about skateboarding now is you just get on your board, you just do your thing. 

What do you think changed so much that you can have the type of career you have or Mike Valleley could have the career that he's had or Mike Carroll or yourself? How this longevity can keep going?

I don't know, I don't know what changed. I turned pro when I was 16 and I was thinking ‘Whoa, I don't know what I'm going to be doing when I'm 20 because that's game over.’

I would hear that a pro turned 25 and think that was crazy. I was thinking at 25 I was going to be some sort of architect. I pictured myself in a workman's helmet doing some hard construction. I was ready for it, I was down… or hoping to be a fisherman on this big vessel. Skateboarding had become—in a sense it changed so much. I started riding the nine-inch board and people were asking me how I can skate it? I was telling them that it still feels skinny to me. When we filmed Love Child those boards were still over 8” and we were flipping them. I think what changed is that people realized there was more to learn than what was considered cool. What kept me motivated is I just wanted to keep learning and learning and I just didn't want to fall behind. Videos were coming out more frequently and pushing things [in the ‘90s]. Things were going bigger, getting faster, getting more technical. There was more fuel for me to burn, fuel for me to eat off of. Now you think look at the new generation. They're insane. Sometimes I watch things I can't even believe that that just happened.  

I love the fact that I see through Instagram and through social media… you see the older generation, the oldest generations and everybody—the newer generation—everybody just out there still doing it. It inspires you, it keeps you going.

Of course, there are the few that are out there that I grew up skating with that I wish they were still skating as hard as they did. Everybody has a different way of what moves them and what motivates them. For me, it's my skateboard. I still dream about it. I had a dream last night that I did something and I woke upset about the fact that I can't do it. 

A lot of people realize that as you get older you have to adjust your skating because your body can’t keep up. Is there anything that's more difficult for you now?

What's more difficult for me is I used to always skate picnic tables like there are little ledges—just get out of my way table you're so little. Now I go ‘Damn this table, I don't know whether to skate or sit down because Jesus, it got higher!’

I almost think to myself when I get to a picnic table I should have just brought a lunch down, just hang out here on the table and eat. You've got to force yourself and say ‘Hey I can still get on this table’ and you'll be surprised.

I'm hoping to find like an invisible bump on the schoolyard—a big bump to help me that you can't see on video. That and then jumping off stuff. Jumping off super big things. There was a point in my career before my first video part where I used to love skating double sets but then board smacked my face and did a lot of damage. Also, I broke my foot back in 1990 and I never got it fixed right.

I never went to the doctor after I broke it, just used crutches and I let it heal by itself. On the side of my leg, there's a bone kind of hanging out and it scares me when I jump off stuff that's too big I’m so afraid it's going to break. 

It seriously is inspiring to think that I'm not a kid anymore but I'm still here and I'm still enjoying myself and I'm still trying to get myself to just be that same kid who just wanted to jump off anything, jump over anything and jump onto anything. I don't know, you get this feeling in your heart with skateboarding—it just keeps growing and growing and growing no matter how old you get the love for it just gets stronger. It's just a little too crazy for your body do you know what I mean?

Yeah, you can't be a Zero guy you're whole life.

When I was younger I chose a different direction—the more technical type of skating, where it's not going to be so hard on my body. I felt like I could do it longer. I think it helped me to maintain and go with where I am with skateboarding. I just need to do some leg exercises to get my pop back man. I want to be able to just approach a table and be like you know what? First try, boom.

It's not like that anymore. I'm quick to admit that I've lost a lot of tricks through time but I've gained a few here and there. I can look back at how much I've lost, I can look back at how much I've learned and I can sit down and say hey you know what? ‘Why stop? Why ever stop when you can still learn and learn.’

Experience too, going to these parks and talking to all these kids and seeing how good they are and how fast they're progressing. It's so inspiring man, 

Along with being a part of that progression you’ve been able to start companies and design products, how do you approach that?

When I started Deca it was fun. I had a lot of talented friends and got to put them on. You get them in there and they get to design their own shape. They get to put their own graphic on a board. You become more in touch with what exactly you want—the specs, the size, the concave, longer tail, bigger nose, these things motivate you. It's like a personal touch that you get to put in on everything.

Putting your name on something means you have to back it 100%—there's a lot of guys out there that endorse products and they don't even ride them. That gets under my skin. It's like you ride for this certain truck company but you ride a different truck? I get it that's fine, I get it. That happens in the industry. But for me, I don't want to endorse a product if I'm not going to ride. I rode for all the weirdest truck companies. I didn't ride for any of the cool ones back then. It was like god the cool ones are like Indy, Venture, and Thunder. I was like ‘Oh I'm riding for Grind King.’

People would ask why and I’d go, “They've got these weird nuts that go in from the other side; That little indention that was supposed to lock you right into a rail.’ If you think about that lock mechanism that was terrible. I’m not putting them on blast, they were great trucks though, honestly, the designs were great, the trucks worked great. They weren't the coolest truck companies at the time but I backed it, I backed it proud. I put them on my board and people would be like ‘What kind of trucks do you have?’ and I would flip my board and I would be like ‘I have Grind Kings. They’re super light, they feel good and I really back them.’

Then I got on Tensor because Rodney and I were so close and I still ride Tensors to this day. It was all personal like ‘What do you like about a truck? What do you want?’

Rodney even took old trucks that I rode and helped me to get that same feeling—the lightness and the weight. How crazy is that to be able to just do that? From scratch from nothing. You can do it this way. We're going to make it lighter. We're going to make a truck that's lighter than the lightest truck you just had. He made a truck so light where there was a point that it was almost too light for Rodney and he would use these weights to put on his trucks. That's so insane.

That's crazy.

He would glue weights on each truck so they would feel right. You know him, everything was precise. For me, I was just like ‘Hey they're light damn it, let's see what happens.’ Being able to put your name on something and design something it's amazing. You get to be involved with what's on your board.  

Despite having such a long, involved career, you did take a break for a minute, right?

Dude, I'm telling you I had a year where I didn't skate, maybe two years because I had an injury and then I was slow to get back into it because I got into the wrong shit. If you go back and you look at my history, you watch the videos, you see me and there's a point where I'm hungry—Love Child, New World Order. Then 20 Shot Sequence, you can kind of see me and think ‘What's going on with him? He didn't even have a full part he shared a little part.’

‘96 it was just, he's gone, I was invisible, I got caught up with racing cars and hanging out in Long Beach and doing stupid stuff… dropping people's cars for them. I stopped skating.

Rodney still backed and trusted me during that time. You had all the World riders leaving to start Girl and later Chocolate. It was just me and Rodney in a sense. After 20 Shot, I just had a fire under my ass. I got up and I started filming and then I tried to do a video part and I did Trilogy. If you watch Trilogy, it's me getting back into skateboarding. People are skating ledges and in my part, I skate a curb. I'm was like, ‘I hope this kind of slides past people's eyes like a magic trick.’

That part was me trying to come back from quitting and really led to everything I’ve done after that.

I feel like social media is almost a new chapter in your career—post-video part Daewon.

It is and I get to be more involved than ever. Being able to still be out there with the kids and to progress with them. A 14-year-old kid can look at me and see me out there still skating, still slamming, still sweating, and still trying to learn something.  

I want them to look at that and think to themselves that you can keep doing this for as long as you want. Skateboarding is like a fountain of youth where you can just keep doing it and never stop no matter how old you get. Yeah, of course, you're going to be stuck with injuries here and there but don't let that bring you down, just get better, heal up and get back out there and do it.

I want kids to look at me and go ‘Hey Daewon is still out here, he's still trying to get better too.’ I want to look at that and say, that inspires me or that gets me hyped or gets me motivated. There's nothing better than that. To inspire someone… that's the best feeling.