2018 saw Death Skateboards celebrating its 20th anniversary of injecting its own brand of anarchic, ramshackle fun into the pulsing veins of the UK skate scene. Nick Zorlac’s squad may have been through various incarnations over the years, but the overriding ethos of not taking things too seriously has always led the way; whether it be via mock-rockumentaries, Cates getting aquatic, the digging up of Dee Dee Ramone’s hip hop career or the filming of skateboarding hedgehogs, you can always rely on a Death video to act as the perfect antithesis to po-faced, overtly earnest portrayals of skateboarding as a very serious urban endeavour. “Banksy, Banksy, bollards…”
With the company celebrating this milestone with a couple of joint celebrations – one with The House Skatepark and one with Revolution Skatepark, both of whom are also twenty years old this year – and with a brand new video ‘Into the Void’ which premiered the weekend just gone at The House of Vans, we took some time to catch up with Nick Zorlac on a potted history of Death…
Words + Interview by: Jono Coote
Photography by: Various Artists
Death Skateboards has now been rolling for 20 years deep – way back at the beginning did you ever see it getting this far?
20 years…no I did not expect Death, or even myself, to be going for this long. Although the fact that I started it purely because I wanted to and wasn’t necessarily trying to succeed in a traditional business sense does lend itself to longevity. A lot of companies cease trading if they aren’t in profit, but if your main aim wasn’t to make big money in the first place it changes things. It’s a different motivation.
For those who don’t know, how did Death get started in the first place?
I had wanted to do it for a while, to start a skate company and do things completely my own way; even if no-one liked it, which I honestly fully expected. I didn’t give a toss if I sold a single deck. It’s the same as when you lock into a grind, a true skateboarder just wants to enjoy that feeling. They don’t expect anything else from it. That’s what I wanted, to get a buzz off making stuff that I like and to create this thing even if it was just for myself and my friends.
When I got injured and I couldn’t skate I went ahead and got things going. I was properly pissed off with a few things that had happened shortly before which gave me energy to put into the company – but I was also, as always, really stoked on skating which gave me another, different kind of much more positive energy. Yin and Yang, maybe that helped it move forward. All that energy, I suppose something had to happen.
From expecting no-one to like it at its inception to celebrating twenty years – do you have any other celebrations planned?
Yup, still here! Thanks to everyone that has supported it by buying our stuff or contributed in one way or another.
We celebrated joint 20th birthdays with The House in Sheffield and Revolution in Broadstairs back in July, perfect timing! It was great too because we have always got on well with both of those skateparks. Good people, good times! They always look after us and they help the skate scene so much in their area.
And then we just did the 20 year exhibition, ramp jam and ‘INTO THE VOID’ premiere at The House of Vans. They hooked it up! It was like a dream. So many photograpers contributed and so many people behind the scenes worked so hard to make it a night to remember. People travelled across the world to be there. What a night. Thanks so much to The House skatepark, Revolution skatepark and The House of Vans London.
Which I’m definitely hyped to see! How close is that to completion and how has it been trying to corral a heavily international team into getting footage together? Can you tell us who is going to have a full section in this one?
Cheers. What is cool is that some really good skaters come up to me and tell me that some of our early videos were an influence on them, nice to hear that stuff. Same as it’s nice when kids thank me for putting out a good quality product at a fair price.
People are really good about filming and contributing footage, the main problem is that everyone has their footage ready at vastly different times. Some of the riders don’t like older footage to be used but I actually like a mix of older and new, to me it’s rad whether it was filmed yesterday or two years ago as long as people haven’t seen it. Myself and Nicolson were talking about it the other day and we both like sections that have obviously been filmed over time, so that people are wearing different stuff or have various hairstyles throughout the section. We agree that it’s a richer viewing experience than something that has all been filmed in one week on one tour or whatever. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that but I don’t think it has as much character, especially for a full length video.
Zarosh, Adam Moss, Ronny Calow, Dan Cates, Rob Smith, Dave Allen, Patrick Melcher, Eddie Belvedere, Radman, Mikey Patrick, Blinky, and Mike Simons all have full sections. But some of them are pretty short and snappy sections. And some aren’t. Which works well due to it being a big team. This brings the running time to 45 minutes. Patrick Melcher’s part has a theme running through it that I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen on a skate video before. It’s pretty clever and original how he’s done it. A friend of ours called Phoebe Greenland composed and performed the music for this section. As it needed something specific to make it work properly. Its a really good, dreamy tune.
There is another surprise in the video too. Some people know already as they were at the London premiere but there are still a few premieres to go so I’d like to try and hold back from telling people and let them just watch it and find out. The video means a lot to me. There are people in it that have been in the team for years. 20 years in some cases. And the music which is by people that we know, in some cases for a long time. Brandy Row I have known and skated with since he was about 13 years old. So even though its a new video it feels nostalgic. We have a great network of creative friends. It’s like the pieces of a puzzle have been put together. I’m happy with it and when we watch it I feel good.
Rad, that sounds suitably intriguing – I guess him and Richie are basically skateboarding’s prog rock duo! Following on from that question and due to the nature of having footage sent in, how much importance do you place on uniformity of camera formats?
Without the 10 minute drum solos. Actually that works a couple of ways as they have progressively skated many a rock in their time! I love how they always come up with completely unexpected stuff, and am happy to be a home that offers the creative freedom to do this. Hopefully even a catalyst for it. The first watch of their footage is always a highlight.
As long as you can clearly see what is going on I’m not too worried about the uniformity of camera formats. Yes, Nicolson really does have his work cut out putting it all together which he does a sterling job of, but if we were too stringent on formats we would not be able to get all the footage in that we do from all over the place.
As someone who has been involved in all aspects of skateboarding for a long time now and an obvious proponent of the more DIY, grass roots side, how do you feel about skateboarding entering the Olympics? Following on from which, is Dibble on a strict training regime?
It was going to happen eventually, I remember talk of it maybe 25 years ago; Wade Speyer getting told he was committing career suicide by not showing up! Skating is becoming more mainstream currently. Peaks and troughs. I’m not worried if it’s in there or not, a frontside grind will still be a frontside grind (although a frontside air may now be a frontside indy haha). We have a huge scene now, it’s not going to be destroyed by the odd bit of media attention. Dibs has been training hard for this every day for the last 20 years. He’s got the world by the tail.
Moving away from the arena lights, you’re not afraid of a lengthy drive to hit somewhere for a skate – what’s the furthest you’ve ever driven to skate somewhere for a couple of hours before heading back? What fuels the fire to hunt down crusty obscurities and have you ever thought about making a book of ‘Death Approved Skatespots’?
You are right, I’m not. The journey is part of it! Drinking loads of coffees and all the stories on the way. I can’t remember the furthest single mission, there have been so many mad ones. Maybe Cornwall from London or something. We used to do Manchester or Liverpool regularly and come back the same day/night. It’s so good to have that freedom to just jump in the car and go anywhere.
What fuels the fire? The love of skateboarding, spending time with friends and the buzz of skating insane terrain. I suppose we have normally favoured videos over books but that would be sick!
What have been some of the best/weirdest/least expected spots you’ve hit in the British Isles over the years? The backyard pool in Shoreham stands out for me as a heavy session at what seemed at first to be a not very skateable transition…
Yeah that was killer!
I could go on and on, but to name a few
- The Penguin Pond in the grounds of a derelict castle.
- Rotherham banks was always sick.
- This lad inviting us to skate his garden after we did a demo somewhere or other (maybe in Kent, I forget). Anyway his Dad was a carpenter and had built him a massive wooden skatepark in his garden, it was mental.
- An indoor transitioned pool (the one Dave Allen got the Sidewalk cover in).
- A full pipe in a cement works that was suspended pretty high off the ground, we had to climb this super sketchy ladder to get in it.
- That massive underground storm drain.
- The service station ditch.
- Milton Keynes ditch.
- The North Circular ditch near Golders Green.
- The reservoir outlet that took us the best part of a day to scrape the moss off so we could skate it.
- I always think it’s rad when they have mini ramps in pubs and night clubs, which there have been a few of over the years. Speaking of pubs, the first time we went to visit Bingo (RIP) and the Mischief lot, the Calow brothers were sponsored by a pub and they were allowed to skate the tables and stuff in there. I think they even got free beer, I always thought that was incredible.
- Dave’s ditch, the one in Ware; smooth as glass and went on as far as the eye could see.
It’s mad what you can find pretty close to home if you are willing to put in the work to make it skateable.
It’s probably a tough one, but what have your top five moments been over the course of running the Death Skateboards ship?
- When new product arrives! I’m lucky to have worked with so many talented artists, designers and quality manufacturers. It even smells good.
- 2. Showing someone their first pro board and seeing how stoked they are.
- When I see new footage and photos that the riders, filmers and photographers produce. The peak of this being when we premiere a new video. So much energy, anticipation and then relief!
- When people tell me that us being around has helped them keep skating or inspired them.
- Still being here after 20 years! And still doing it my way.