How have you and your family been doing with the Covid-19 situation?
Trying to keep my wife sane and my kids sane. I've been homeschooling and teaching the essentials like changing oil. We're not going to waste this time with them. I taught my 15 year old how to set up a skateboard the other day. Just cool, simple little projects that make it fun for them, because if not, they're gonna sit in their room and play video games all day.
I know you had a lot of cool shit planned for this summer. Can you talk about that, so we know what to look out for once things get back on track?
I had a film festival in Detroit that was supposed to happen at the end of April. They were debuting the documentary about hardcore Detroit Punk—Dope, Hookers and Pavement: The Real and Imagined History of Detroit Hardcore. That got cancelled, and was gonna showcase to like 100,000 fuckin' people throughout the course of the event. There's also an event in Albuquerque for the Native American community. It's a contest that we have during the Gathering of the Nations, which is the largest pow wow in the world. The money that we raise from that event goes to funding skateboarding on the Native American reservations and it's something I've done for 15 years—so that got postponed. I also do this thing for suicide prevention in North Carolina every year—raising money and awareness for suicide and mental health issues and that got postponed 'til October.
You started skating around 1973, right? Who introduced you to skateboarding and what stoked you about it most?
My big brother introduced me to skateboarding. We always had little skateboards in a toy box, ya know, steel wheels or clay wheels. When my brother graduated high school which was in 1972, he went down to Daytona Beach and spent $35 on a Bahne skateboard that had good wheels and good trucks on it, and he said, "I found this skateboard that's amazing to ride; hey Bill, do you wanna try it?" Well, as soon as I rode that thing I was hooked. So me and my older brother would go out and we'd play around in the street on it; just pushin' around and havin' fun. The skateboards we had that were in the toy box had roller skate wheels, and you couldn't do anything on them. We'd ride in our basement on a tile floor and you'd slide out all the time. It wasn't fun until I rode Bahne.
"Skateboarding became a culture and that's when everybody started hating us. And as soon as the punk rock fuckin' influence came into skateboarding, we were hated even more by everybody. How cool is that?!"
The following year I saved my money up and went and bought the exact skateboard that my brother had bought down in Daytona Beach, and from that point on, it was done! I never stopped ridin' 'em. As the equipment evolved, I evolved with the equipment and stuff got better and I evolved with skateboarding as a whole. Skateboarding became a culture and that's when everybody started hating us. And as soon as the punk rock fuckin' influence came into skateboarding, we were hated even more by everybody. How cool is that?! We were ridin' anything that had an incline, like a loading dock, just trying to emulate what we were seeing. This is later in the 70's, but we tried to emulate everything that these people had in California. in 1978, we were lucky enough to have skateparks that were starting to be built in Detroit, where I lived. We were just like, "Wow, oh my god, this is our high school, this is our fucking clubhouse, this is where we all hang out." It wasn't like all the same guys I went to high school with, it was like all the misfits from all the other high schools around that had love for skateboarding. I'm still brothers with every single one of those guys that are still alive. Skateboarding created a brotherhood. It created a bond between people that were dedicated to a wooden plank with 4 wheels.
From that point on, who were skating with?
Kids in the neighbourhood. Once they saw me and my brother skate around out in front of our house, kids came out saying, "Oh, I have a skateboard!" You'd see somebody skateboarding and you'd go outside and ride around with them. We weren't doing any tricks cause tricks weren't even really invented yet. We were just riding around the block. It wasn't 'till the equipment got better and the wheels got softer. We're talking about back in the day when they had loose ball bearing wheels. The precision bearing came in and grip tape came in, the boards got better and we learned to ride different things, like loading docks and banks and messin' around on curbs. The biggest influence was the skateboard magazines that came out around late '76, early '77, when you could go into your local convenience store and WOW, there was a magazine about skateboarding! You got to see what other people were doing, so it encouraged everybody—"Hey let's build a ramp! Let's learn how to do kick turns on a ramp." And then it was like, "Ok, I learned backside kick turns, now let's learn frontside kick turns, let's try to do 360s." The more the skateboard magazines got circulated, the more we got to learn. We'd see these janky ramps built somewhere and we're like, "Oh, we can do that, we got wood." Ya know, throw a little sketchy ramp up with some two by fours and a piece of plywood. Somebody would have a ramp and there'd be 15 people there, and so and so would say it was too crowded, and they'd build a ramp too. Now you'd be skatin' two ramps a day—then there was 10 in the neighbourhood.
"I graduated high school, got in my car, drove to California and went out there and proved myself. I came back and went to College for a couple semesters, realized I had a future in skateboarding, and I bailed college to go out and pursue skateboarding."
It just progressed from there and in '78 when the skateparks were startin' to be built, all those people came together and congregated in the same area because they were all doing it before the park was built and it was big news. We had a world class skatepark in a shitty little town in Michigan—Endless Summer Skatepark in Roseville, Michigan. That was my favourite park. We had a good scene, and eventually all the skateparks bonded together and formed this thing called the Great lakes Skateboard Association, which was a contest series. That was something where we travelled to these different skateparks; teams would compete and it was also individuals competing against each other. We got the notice from the skateboard manufacturers of California, and they're like, "Wow, you got a really good thing going on, can we sponsor you for this?" So we were startin' to get product. Slowly but surely, they were picking up people in the Midwest to be sponsored, and luckily enough, I was able to get sponsored by Tracker and Madrid because they saw that skateboarding was so big outside of California, that they needed to tap into that market. Fuck, that was the turning point in my life. I was like, "I'm going to continue entering all these contests, I'm gonna do what I can do by supporting Madrid and Tracker." I graduated high school, got in my car, drove to California and went out there and proved myself. I came back and went to College for a couple semesters, realized I had a future in skateboarding, and I bailed college to go out and pursue skateboarding. Up until this very moment, my passion and my life is dedicated to skateboarding. I did 3 semesters; basically just to appease my parents. I got one brother that's a doctor and one is a lawyer and I'm a FUCKIN' skateboarder! The whole time I went to school in Ohio, I lived across the street from the guy that started Alien Workshop. I was always surrounded by skaters. We had ramps, we had our own little contest series, but it got to the point where Madrid was flying me to California for the weekend to go skate some contest. I knew that this had legs under it. They wouldn't fly some fuckin' kid from Ohio to California for a fuckin' weekend unless they were interested in wanting me to pursue a professional career. When I moved to California I got a job at Tracker right away. Transworld magazine had just started and they were in the same building as Tracker because they were owned by the same people. I was the first darkroom assistant at Transworld. I was developing film and printing pictures for Grant Brittain. I walked into a perfect job at 18 years old. Two weeks before that I was in a fuckin' lunch line in a cafeteria in high school. Two weeks later I'm working for a fuckin' skateboard magazine at night and assembling and shipping trucks at Tracker during the day—living at the Tracker factory! I lived in my car most of the time out there, but I had a key to the Tracker factory... at 18! What dream! I was doin' algebra just the other day and now I'm assembling trucks—well, that's got some algebra in it. I was skating Del Mar everyday, having sessions with people like Tony Hawk, Billy Ruff, Owen Neider, Allen Losi, Gator, you name it. We all met as kids. Del Mar at that time was like the all-star skatepark. I went out there with the fuckin' Detroit attitude—I'm not gonna take any shit from anybody. I'm not a big guy, but I can stand my ground. I didn't take shit from anybody out there, and they weren't used to it. Everyone's like, "Hey, Shaka brah, have a good day," and I'm like, "Ahh fuck that!" Let's fuckin' skate. Life isn't a beach." It made people notice me. I was never a dick to anybody, but if somebody crossed me, I was the first one to stand up for myself. I was there alone, I didn't bring a bunch of my buddies with me, and I made a hell of a lot more friends out there, just bein' cool, goin' like, "Hey, I'm not trying to invade your scene, I just moved here." I was just there to go fuckin' skate. Everything just fell into place. I worked hard all day at Tracker, then I'd go skate Del Mar and I'd go hang out and skate with everybody. I witnessed some of the skateboarding that never got covered—some of the most epic sessions, EVER! Everybody that you would consider a legend now, all rode Del Mar. There would be a vast array of different generations. I can't even describe the sessions.
Tony Alva, Olivia & Bill Danforth
How did you get hooked up with Tony Alva out in California?
It was the Oceanside 1985 street contest and I got 3rd place in it. I was riding for Madrid, still workin' at Tracker and I was livin' in the warehouse. Tony came up to me and he said something like, "Your skating is a little nutty, but there's something I really like about it." I remember writing to my friends goin', "Man, Tony Alva just said this shit to me." So the following year I go out to the Oceanside contest, got 3rd place again, and I saw Tony, and he said, "Hey, we're gonna go skate a pool, you wanna come with us?" I said, "Ya, I'll go, but don't lose me!" They didn't lose me. That's the old California trick—"Hey, follow us to this pool," and then they lose ya. I went out there and skated a pool with these guys and obviously made an impression. I went on tour for maybe 2 months and I came back. I was having trouble with Madrid at the time and I ran into Tony and Tony's like, "Hey, I want you to meet my business partner, are you gonna be at the trade show?" I said, "Ya, I'm gonna be at the trade show." So I met his business partner. He asked me to come to the warehouse in LA on Monday morning after the trade show. I walked outta there with my first Alva check, and I was ridin' for Alva. I had been ridin' that Madrid board that was gonna come out that I had been riding the entire time on that summer tour, and I said, "Look, I'm gonna take my board apart, just make this shape and that was the Circle of Skulls, the most famous Alva board. My Alva career started and we really took it far from there—we became the fuckin' greatest "B list" team. We weren't Powell, we weren't Santa Cruz, we weren't G&S; we were fuckin' Alva! We had 10 people on the team. Fuck everybody else! Fuck the world! That was our attitude, and that's how we succeeded. I was with Alva for four years and I left at the point when the whole industry was changing from vert riding and pool riding into street skating. B.B.C. which was Life's a Beach—they had Jeff Philips, Monty Nolder and Bryan Pennington.
"Fuck California, we're not playing by their rules, we're gonna do just what we wanna do and run a fuckin' skateboard company."
We had a lot of these old vert riders quitting their companies and going to B.B.C. I was the first clothing rider for Life's a Beach and rode for Life's a Beach throughout my career. They made me an offer, matched my Alva offer and I switched because I knew the direction that Alva was taking and it was not the direction that I wanted to go. I wanted to maintain my board shapes that were going to be pool and vert boards. I didn't want anything to change; I just changed names on my board. Basically the first time I retired, I retired with B.B.C. I packed everything up and moved back to Detroit because I thought the whole skateboarding industry was a joke—it was dying, but I had a good 4 years at B.B.C. I did a bunch of cross country tours with 'em. Nobody gave a fuck about all these old riders—all they wanted see was somebody with small wheels and baggy pants ollieing shit. Nobody wants to see anybody ride bowls or vert. They knew skateboarding was tanking at the time. That's when I sat down and busted out a sparrow notebook and I wrote the entire plan for American Nomad Skateboards. I held onto that thing for 20 years until I started it with my partner up in Connecticut. I opened up the original notes and I'm like, "This is how a skateboard company needs to be run." It was like my bible; I never threw it out. I had planned it years ahead of time and I only tried to shop it to a few people in California, and they're like, "This is never gonna work." I said, "Oh really, go fuck yourselves, I'm gonna make it work!" I sat on it for 15 years and I did other small companies in between. I was in the basement of my house printing skateboards, 'cause I'm a fuckin' screen printer—how much more hardcore does it get? I was printing my own skateboards and selling them out of my trunk at the skatepark. It was about integrity. I wasn't gonna fuck it up with these California companies and come out with fuckin' street boards. I was gonna come out with boards the shape I wanna ride, and at the time, nobody could find a square tail. People were like, "Wait a minute, Danforth's making these; he's got a square tail." During those times, the older guys that were still skating were looking for these products that they could not find, and I supplied 'em.
I met an investing partner on a completely different subject. I was flown up to Connecticut to film a movie about skateboarding and tattoos—it was a movie called Skinned Alive. I flew out there and my partner Jay Kelly—we met, we skated, they filmed all the stuff, he tattooed me and we got talkin' and we got to be friends and I said to him, "Hey, you build tattoo machines, I tattoo also, I'd love to have one of your machines." He's like, "Well, just stay in touch with me." So we stayed in touch. I had mentioned in that first meeting that I had this idea for a fuckin' skateboard company, and that I had been dying to do it. Jay, as an entrepreneur, thought about it and was like, "Fuck, you've been one of my fuckin' heroes since I was a kid, how cool would this be if I ran a fuckin' skateboard company with Bill Danforth?" 8 months later, we had a company, we start producing boards and we've been doing it ever since. It was all just Jay and me saying, "Fuck California, we're not playing by their rules, we're gonna do just what we wanna do and run a fuckin' skateboard company." We don't play by anybody else's fuckin' rules, we just do what we wanna do. We come out with some extremely offensive decks and don't care. We've gotten so many cease and desist letters from people and we fly 'em like a flag. Mountain Dew wants to fuck with us, Anheuser-Busch wants to fuck with us—ya whatever, fuck those guys. We've been on their radar because of social media. Someone posts a board and it'll be a direct rip off of Mountain Dew or whatever and it says American Nomad instead of Mountain Dew and we're like, "Let's knock it off, make 100 patches." It means more to our guys than the profit that we make from it. We basically run our company to keep our guys happy and we never make much profit, but that's not the point. The point is to control our own destiny and keep it ours. These big time distributors, they wanna hit us up and carry our product. We have the right to say, "No, we're not gonna sell to you." I'd rather make 50 boards rather than 500 and lose a profit on that to make sure the boards end up in the right hands—people who really want to support what we're doing. I'm not a mass marketer and I never got into this business for that reason—everything is limited edition. That's how I like to run the ship—close and personal.
Did you ever run into any problems out in California?
Punks have a tendency to pretty much stick together. There were bands that were over produced and over blown in California—the Detroit scene was hard, the new York scene was hard, DC was hard. I got into more conflicts about punk rock than I did with skateboarding. Everybody can be partial to their own music scene. There were times that bands from the Midwest would go to California, they'd play a show and they'd get their ass beat, and there were other times that bands from California would come to Detroit and they'd get their ass beat, cause they'd be running their mouth about their hometown and how great California is and how it was the birthplace of punk rock and we're like, "No it wasn't!" Let's go beat Social Distortion up tonight (laughs). That's how it was back around '81 'till about early '84. There was a really strong influence between east coast punks and west coast punks. That was the only thing that really showed its face when I was out there. I'd be wearing a Negative Approach shirt or I'd be wearing a Necros shirt or even at that time, a fuckin' Minor Threat shirt, and I'd get vibed by people, especially at shows. I was like, "What's the fuckin' point, we're all here to go see some bands. It wasn't that way in the Midwest until these outsider bands which we called the west coast bands would come in and demand to be the headliners and we're like, "No, you're not headlining, you wanna play this fuckin' show, you're goin' on like second or third and the Necros and Negative Approach are headlining the shows, fuck you! Get in your fuckin' van and drive away with your tail between your legs, and go fuck yourself!" We didn't give a shit, we were there to see Negative Approach and the Necros and any other local bands that played. We were that hardcore dedicated to our punk rock scene.
Negative Approach | The Freezer Theatre (1982) | Photo by Davo Scheich
What's the story about you and Ian MacKaye clashing back in the day?
It was in the 80's at the Freezer Theatre and Minor Threat was playing there for $3. Keep in mind, the Freezer only had a stage and a front door. I was probably 17 years old and I had met Ian on several occasions. Everybody kinda knew about each other 'cause the shows were always filled with skateboarders. I hear him talking to someone and they're talking about skateboarding, and of course I walk in and stick myself in the conversation, and the one guy that Ian's talkin' to says, "Hey Bill, who do you think is the most innovative skater in skateboarding right now," and I'm like, "I'm honestly gonna have to say it's Tony Hawk." Ian got this scowl on his face. So I continue talkin' to this guy and I said, "He's creating these things that nobody ever thought of and he's a little kid. Watching him skate is pretty fuckin' amazing." Ian says, "Hey, the most true skateboarder in the world is Tony Alva!" Well ya, back in the 70's, and I said, "Don't get me wrong, I love and respect Tony Alva, and he is and was a revolutionary in this, but the question that was posed to me was, "Who's the most revolutionary in skateboarding at this time?" I had to say Tony Hawk! We talked for about 45 minutes. He didn't wanna have it. He was like, "You don't know nothin' about style!" I'm not sayin' Tony Hawk has great style, he's got that janky style. People like Jay Adams, David Hackett and Tony Alva—they got original, true Dogtown, rad style. I don't take anything away from them, but I'm just looking forward to the future of skateboarding. He's like, "You don't know nothin', you're just a stupid little kid!" So guess what—I didn't even stay for the show. I was pissed.
I wonder how that conversation would sound now, and if he remembers that night?
He may not even fuckin' remember any of that even though he was so straight.
Speaking of DC guys, you were friends with John Stabb, eh?
There a lot of guys from the DC scene that I was really good friends with like John Stabb, the singer from GI [Government Issue]. We used to write letters and send flyers back and forth to each other. I always had a connection to DC in the old days—it was always fuckin' cool. No, I never wrote a fan letter to fuckin' Ian MacKaye, I wrote a letter to John Stabb 'cause I met him one night at a show in Detroit and he was in the crowd and pretty much introduced himself. I was like, "Dude, I know who you are, you're gonna play here in like 20 minutes." I told him I'd save all the Detroit flyers and send them to him, he said he'd send me all the DC flyers—so we had this flyer exchange program. Everybody wanted to get hard mail back then because there was nothing else. He passed away a few years back, but he was one of the good guys.
Bill Danforth |
Redding, Pennsylvania | Photo by Chip Morton
You were straight edge back in the 70's/80's weren't you? Was that a conscious decision?
I was straight edge 'till I turned 21—I lived it. We had our friends, we had our skatepark, we had our punk rock bands, we had our shows and our parties—they weren't keggers. I'm not saying that it was the entire Detroit punk rock scene that was straight edge because it wasn't. We had our fair share of people drinkin' forties and shit, but it didn't matter to us. What we chose to do was focus all our energy on riding the skatepark. We wanted to be healthy as fuck to be able to ride the skatepark. We didn't need to go get a six pack on a Friday night, we weren't into that. We wanted to go to a punk rock show after we skated the skatepark, or to somebody's basement to hear a band rehearse. We had better things to do than just sit around and get loaded. That's what everyone in high school was doin', and we didn't want to be like them. Straight edge was another form of fuckin' rebellion!
"I'm happy I got to kick his ass in my hometown. Now I see 15 year old kids wearin' fuckin' GG Allin shirts—I've got scars older than that... from GG Allin."
How did drinking become a part of your life?
Ya know, being asked to parties and stuff like that. By the time I was 21, I had put my body through a lot of shit; a lot of injuries. That's when I started drinkin' beers and smokin' weed. We've seen a lot of professional skateboarders in the past go through the drug wringer. Either they've been put in prison or they're dead. Everything in moderation—I smoke pot and drink beer! By the way, I'm still gonna get a picture of me wearing that Raw Cult Famous Wino shirt in front of Disney World. Maybe you'll get your first cease and desist order. I just love it, 'cause when I wear it around town here, they look at it and say,"Where the fuck did you get that?!—that's fuckin' rad!" They always gotta give it a second look. My kid tried to wear it to school, and I'm like, "Naaahh, you're not wearing that one to school." That's one of my prized possession shirts—that Raw Cult fuckin' Disney wino-world. I love it when you can slap corporate America right in the face.
You kicked GG Allin's ass back in '93, didn't you? What's the story?
I went to see GG Allin just to beat him up. I saw him several times and beat him up in front of Salba (Steve Alba) one time. 3 months later he's in Detroit and I beat him up there in front of my ex-wife. She's like, "I thought he was bad in San Diego, but he's even worse tonight!" I'm like, "What do you want me to do, go beat him up again?" She said, "Well ya!" So I beat his ass up there, he cut my fuckin' head open with a glass ashtray and then he was dead 6 days later. One more dead douchbag—whatever. I'm happy I got to kick his ass in my hometown (laughs). Now I see 15 year old kids wearin' fuckin' GG Allin shirts. I've got scars older than that... from GG Allin.