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Little Fish, Big Pond :: James Kelch & Mike York on the DIY Skate Company Movement

Little Fish, Big Pond :: James Kelch & Mike York on the DIY Skate Company Movement

By Leland Ware

Over the past couple of years, the landscape of the skateboard industry has been changing. Small independent brands have emerged and are giving the larger more established companies a run for their shelf space at the local shop. While it’s hard to pinpoint why consumers are so receptive to the current indie movement in skateboarding, the imminent changing of the guard is undeniable. Two companies gaining traction during the onset of this new era are James Kelch’s Hella Cool SBC and Mike York’s Roller Horror. Both James and Mike hold pedigrees from Embarcadero—San Francisco’s fabled Mecca of skateboarding during the early and mid-’90s. Both were highly regarded pro skaters with elite sponsorships during their respective eras. Now the two are on similar trajectories with their companies—placing an emphasis on hand-drawn graphics, organic growth, and the fun factor that’s inherent in skateboarding. Armed with social media and fan bases that span decades, Kelch and York’s brands have been steadily growing at paces that surprised both of them. While neither may be moving hundreds of boards a month just yet, what happens in the future in this brave new world of skateboard brands is anyone’s guess.

JAMES KELCH

When did you start Hella Cool SBC and what made you decide to start a company?
JAMES KELCH: I started Hella Cool SBC on April 1st, 2013. I started it was because I was bored. Me and my girl fuck around on the iPad all of the time and make these little cartoons. We do all of this alien shit and weird stuff. The company is just based on a bunch of characters that we have and their crazy little lives.

How did you come up with the name Hella Cool and what’s the significance of it?
I came up with Hella Cool sitting on my couch with a notepad trying to write down names. They were all stupid, and most of them were negative. I got up from the couch to go upstairs and hang out with my girl and thought “This shit ain’t hella cool man.” I was like, “What?! Hella Cool, that’s it!” It was perfect, plus the whole skate community nowadays; they just think that they’re hella cool. That’s not where I go with it now, I don’t tell people that—but that first week I was telling people that it was making fun of everyone else because everyone acts hella cool.

From your perspective, what’s different about skating and the skateboard industry now from when you turned pro?
The main core part of it is not that different, man. If people are out skating and putting in all of that time and effort, that’s the soul part of it. There are a lot of kids now that only skate to get fame, money, or whatever; but they don’t have the soul anyway—so they disappear fast. The things that I do notice that are different are of course the money and the popularity, but the reality is that these kids are so good nowadays that it’s fucking retarded. They’re better than we were back then. I’m not saying they’re progressing the sport more, because everything was being made up back then; but kids can jump further and grind longer nowadays for sure.

Do you feel like there’s an element missing from skating or the industry right now? Is Hella Cool is bringing something that’s not present currently?
I don’t want to say that I’m different, cause we’re all the same; but I don’t even call new shops. I don’t even go out of my way to tell people that I have a skateboard company. If my friend sees it and he likes it, then he tells a buddy—it’s all word of mouth instead of me trying to constantly jam it down somebody’s throat. That’s the only thing I do different I think. And cartoon graphics of course, I just like hand-drawn cartoon stuff.

Talk a little bit about growing up skating Embarcadero and being around all of the creativity that was happening there and how that impacted your creativity now with Hella Cool.
I guess the main thing would be that they were coming up with tricks so fast and that’s kind of how I try to do my graphics. I try to do a new graphic every time, like how Henry Sanchez was trying to do a new trick every time.

Is there anything that you learned from riding for other companies and being involved in the industry over the years that particularly influences the direction in which you’re taking Hella Cool?
Yeah for sure! After I skated for Real, I skated for a bunch of other small companies and I noticed a bunch of things. For one, they had the company for the wrong reason. They just wanted to make money and pay their bills. Two, the way they went about it was all wrong. I just learned how to deal with the money. You can’t think “Oh, I just sold some boards; now let me go buy something.” That’s retarded. I watched people not pay people for ads, not pay for shit on time, and basically take a good thing and ruin it cause they didn’t control themselves. So what I learned from that is that nothing’s promised and this shit is all for fun right now. It could go away at any time real fast.

 

The graphics and the whole vibe of Hella Cool definitely emphasize the fun factor in skating. Do you think skateboarding takes itself too seriously these days and is too competitive?
It’s way too serious and it’s way too competitive. I mean it’s just a toy that you play on all day long and you don’t even have any responsibilities hardly except for showing up and skating it. Curing cancer should be taken seriously, skateboarding is nothing compared to that. We’re not saving the world for sure. I’m not dissing, I’m just saying that you have to keep it in perspective of what’s really going on.
What’s the response from people and shops to Hella Cool so far, how have they been reacting to what you’ve been putting out?
Better than I thought it was going to be! With the first run, I thought it might be weird and I’d just have to keep it real small and just keep playing with it; but it’s been a way better reception than I thought I was going to get. I’m just real stoked on the whole situation. It works in a lot of places considering I don’t have any big name pros, I don’t advertise, and some of these kids have never heard of me.

What’s the biggest challenge to distributing a brand independently?
So much. Managing the money, making sure you can get the graphics done on time, making sure you can get boards in on time; sometimes I don’t get my shit ordered in time so I sit without boards. That’s the biggest thing, just being able to know who you are and how much you can actually sell without over ordering or under ordering.

Has your perspective on skateboard companies changed from when you were pro now that you own your own company?
Oh for sure man, when you’re pro you just take advantage and when you own your own skateboard company you try to nurture it and love it. When I turned pro for Real, I never once thought about how hard it must have been to contain all of those kids—pay everybody, come up with all of that shit, do all of that stuff that they’re doing.

Why do you think independent brands are working now more so than before?
In all reality, I think some of the independent brands work better because of the image and the graphics that they come up with, and also a lot of the skaters on those teams are people that real kids skating in the streets can relate to. They see shit that they could actually maybe one day do instead of seeing some shit that makes them think, “Oh my god, I can’t fuck with that!” I’m not saying that these small companies don’t have badass skaters, they just seem like you can relate to them more.

Where do you see yourself taking Hella Cool in the future? Do you think you’ll keep it small and independent, or do you see it growing into something that’s similar to a more traditional skateboard company?
Dude, that’s a hard decision. If someone called me and was like “We’re going to give you all this money, and you’re going to make all these boards, and you’re going to give them to us and then you’re going to make this much money profit and you don’t have to do hardly anything.” That’s hard to turn down. I mean I don’t know what to say about that. Nobody’s coming at me, so I could easily sit here and say fuck that; but if they called and offered me millions of dollars—fuck, what’s a dude to say? I’d probably sell to those motherfuckers, but right now independent and small. I love the way that it is.

Do you have any words of wisdom for the youth of today on professional skateboarding or starting a brand?
For professional skateboarding, just skate. If you’re good enough to be pro and you have the right attitude and personality, you’ll be found. It’s the Internet age; you can’t hide from people. As for starting a skate brand, this is the only thing that I tell anyone—if you have fifty dollars and you buy fifty dollars worth of product, how much is it going to cost you to replace that product when it’s gone? It’s going to cost you fifty fucking dollars. If you can’t at least get your fifty dollars to redo it again and sustain your business, then you might as well not even start it.

MIKE YORK

When did you start Roller Horror and what made you decide to start it?
MIKE YORK: I started it a couple of years ago. I always skated because I love it. I really do ... with or without a check, fame, or a picture in a magazine. I tried to get a regular job in the industry working in the back packing boxes. I was kind of in a grey area because people were like “You’re Mike York, you can’t pack boxes!” No one was mad at me, but no one was trying to hire me either. I’ve always been drawing, and then my son started getting into it too at age three. He was drawing rad stuff. I really like little kid’s lines, they’re just wild and don’t know a shape. My son was doing a lot of art that I thought was kind of incredible and that sparked an idea. I decided to do a couple of fun shapes because I was really into the Gonz boards with the pointy noses. Shaped boards are more fun to look down at. I stopped worrying about how I was catching my kickflips or if I bailed. I just let all of that go and started having fun.

What’s the significance of the name Roller Horror?
A Roller Horror is like a beast, if you’re really good at something you’re like a monster or a beast. A Roller Horror could be someone that’s killing it on a skateboard. Like everywhere he goes, he’s just killing it—he rolled over there and killed and he rolled over there and killed it. You can kill it by doing a lot of stuff. You can skate the best or you can kill it cause you skated through somewhere that someone wouldn’t skate through—like “Damn he killed it, he just pushed right through that!” So, the name is a compliment.

From your perspective, what’s different about skateboarding or the skateboard industry now from when you turned pro?
A lot has changed; just the Internet alone has changed life. I’m so glad that I was able to film video parts and put my all into them in an age where there were no Internet comments. It was all real life interactions. It’s rare for you to meet someone in real life and have him or her come up to you and say, “Fuck you” or “I hate that song that you skated to.” Nobody ever says that to you, it’s rarely even whispered to the homie on the side. People aren’t mean. Everyone lies on the Internet, so a lot of these dudes that are mean and are gangster are probably the ones that are getting bullied.

I think the progression of skateboarding is fine; it’s where it needs to be. The skateboard progression is always amazing. No time period is any different from any other one, because the groundbreaking shit is amazing. I think that it sucks for skateboarding to be overexposed, because I think that some of the best memories of my life were the mysterious things. Like Neil Blender is kind of mysterious to me. He’s amazing, but I don’t know him more than those couple of G&S videos and that street contest in Tempe, Arizona where he draws the face on the wallride.

Do you feel like Roller Horror is bringing anything to skating that’s currently missing?
I don’t even know what other people are doing. What I’m doing is organic. I was honestly thinking “No one is going to be feeling this.” I just want to skate curbs and fuck around and have fun. Everyone wants to have the best tre flip or the longest grind; I want to have the most fun. I just appreciate things like that—things that people take for granted. I just didn’t think people would understand it, but I started it and people got it and I was really stoked. It’s not some elaborate plan that I’ve been working on for years. It’s like “Make some fucking skateboards and go out and ride 'em dude.”

How did growing up skating EMB and being around all of that creativity influence what you’re doing now with Roller Horror?
It gave me enough confidence to say, “I’m doing this, and I’m putting it out.” You have to run your shit up the flagpole and see who comes and salutes it. Embarcadero installed that in my brain from day one. I saw dudes that couldn’t speak English that were confident as fuck, getting girls, skating around, getting sponsors. There were people from all walks of life, everybody. Just being a little kid around that, I carried it over into my everyday life.

Is there anything that you learned from riding for companies or being involved in the industry over the years that particularly influenced the direction in which you’re taking Roller Horror?
Yeah, in a sense because I’m going the other way, I’m not rolling down those streets whatsoever. I’ve been with brands when they started. I’ve watched them have fun at first and then kind of pick up their look and stick with it. With my brand, I see that I can have fun and kind of play with the graphics. I have my drawing theme, so they all look similar; but there’s really not a plan—it’s all kind of on a whim.

A big part of the aesthetic of Roller Horror is the fun factor in skating. Do you feel like skateboarding takes itself too seriously these days or is too competitive?
Yeah, but it’s always been competitive. I remember going to demos and trying to kickflip back tail some little box or something and there’d be a dude right next to me doing it too and we’d be battling for the land. For what? We didn’t win anything. I wasn’t even trying to compete, I was just trying to skate a demo. It’s just ridiculous. Competitive dudes are just like that, and then skating is taking itself so seriously that it’s almost like dudes want to quit skating. It’s like, “What do you even like about it?” That’s why I do the graphics and the brand the way that I do. You’ll see our first ad, it wasn’t even a team ad—I grabbed guys from the skate park and was like, “I’ll give all you guys a T-shirt if you take a picture skating down the street with me.” I drew all of the characters from the boards over their faces. It looked like an infection, like when you get infected by zombies. Once the fun movement infects you, it’s hard to go back to that nollie heel crook to nollie flip out—you’ll be over it.

You mentioned that you and your son draw all of the graphics. What influences the look of them, what do you think about when you sit down to draw a graphic?
Monsters are the easiest things for the imagination for anyone to draw. Just draw a blobby bubble and put an X eye and a mouth with a sharp tooth and you got a monster. So being Roller Horror, I like to use the monster theme; but I want to keep it monster like the Muppets are monsters, like Elmo’s a monster, like Cookie Monster. Those dudes aren’t scary, you go to bed with a cookie monster doll and that’s your security. I want to do that. That’s why my graphics are very “little kid.” Plus when we you’re a little kid, that’s like the funnest, freest time that you have. There are no bills, no worries, you could bust your tooth out and you’d still go to school the next day—you didn’t give a fuck.

What’s the response been like from shops and people since the brand came out?
I was real surprised. I didn’t have expectations at all. I had a lot of doors closed on me, more than were opened, so I was kind of used to that situation. I was just playing it by ear. I was able to have a very small amount of product and sell it out of my online store and that was enough movement for me to be able to flip it. That’s how I ran it at first, and I literally didn’t attack any shops. I wanted it to be organic. I believe that Roller Horror will be one of those brands that’s in every shop—they’ll be one or two Roller Horrors everywhere soon. I don’t know when, but I just know that with this brand. Yesterday I shipped my first big order to Japan. We landed a distribution out there and a lot of shops have been starting to pick it up.

What’s the biggest challenge with distributing a brand independently?
Being able to know how to ride the wave. Everything gets popular, then it’s unpopular and you have to know how to navigate that. I basically just do one model at a time instead of putting out a whole line. I’d rather add on than not have inventory. I just think the waves; even big brands go through it. They’ll go through January and February not selling as much as October and December. The big brand knows that and will be like, “ok, we’re not going to do a big run of stuff right now.” For a small brand that’s selling their stuff to flip it and get more boards, when those two months come and those boards are two months old—that’s hard on an independent brand.

Has your perspective on skating or skateboard companies changed now that you have your own company?
Not really, I always knew that the business and the skateboarding and all of that didn’t mix well when it’s talked about. Skaters don’t understand that they might not have gotten a raise, but they traveled the world for free. A lot of skaters don’t realize that there’s work for their plane ticket to be there, and the hotel room for them to stay in, and their package of product. They just think that they deserve it because they got a mean switch heel. It’s the same as it’s always been, there’s awesome brands and then those brands get kind of old and they revamp with new dudes and the new dudes don’t live up to the expectations of how the fans enjoyed it in the past. Then the new brands come up and the strong survive out of the big brands. Like Vision had to dip out, but Powell and Santa Cruz stayed around the whole time. I just feel like here it comes, it’s going to happen again—we’ve seen this shit a million times.

Why do you think people are so receptive to new independent companies right now?
I think it became a trend to where it was the new thing and everyone wants to be onto the new thing. It’s like new music or new shoes; you always want the new thing. Also, when you’re a big brand; it’s hard for you to change your look. Like Dill could go in a completely different direction with Fucking Awesome and it’d still be rad because it’s so new. If Girl did it, it would look weird. Right now I could do a totally serious board graphic and it would still be Roller Horror because it’s so new. The look isn’t stapled into your brain yet.

What’s your vision for the brand, do you see it staying small and independent or do you see it growing bigger and becoming a more traditional style company?
I think it’s going to get a lot bigger. I have ideas on what I’d like to do; I see avenues that I could take if I get to that fork in the road situation. I can make it work in a few different ways, like do I want to go with an established distribution that’s already doing something or do I do the Baker Boys thing and say fuck it and do my own distribution and bring brands in under that. I don’t know, it just has to make sense, but I do want the brand to get bigger and be like a normal company.

Do you have any words of wisdom for the youth of today on professional skateboarding or starting up a brand?
Whatever you do, do it from your heart. I know I’m going to sound like a complete cornball because the world has turned all of this positive stuff into being corny. So I am the corniest dude eating corn chips with cornrows in a cornfield, but just believe in yourself. Don’t worry about other people’s opinions, good or bad. Don’t let other people get in your head. If you were gung-ho about doing something in the beginning, give it a shot. I just tell people to go for it and be cool along the way. Don’t think you’re fresh because you’re good at skating right now. Some of these fools think that they can back tail to bigspin flip out and all of a sudden they’re a better human. Just be cool, that’s all that I can say—be cool and be nice. You’ll go further in the industry and the world if you’re nice.

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