Chris Franzen Interview
March 2, 2014
The genesis of this interview took place about five years ago, when Chris emailed me after reading this post.
In the years between then and now, a certain subdivision of skate nerdery concerning who has done what over a Cali picnic table flourished. A legend grew of someone switch 360 kickflipping over one.
A few months ago, Chris posted a sequence on his instagram account of him switch 360 flipping over a picnic table. It was as if a new dead sea scroll was unearthed. It seemed like a good opportunity for an interview, both about the trick and about LA County. The video has earned status as one of the most celebrated #lowimpact vids ever, yet its creators are still shrouded in mystery.
In the following interview, Chris tells his story, provides a perspective into the inner workings of the industry around the turn of the century, and elucidates a window back in time to a definitive era in Los Angeles.
Where are you from and how did you get into skating?
I am from Breckenridge, Colorado and I started skating in 1985. I remember being infatuated with skating after seeing the movie Back to the Future.
Describe a typical day skating in LA in the late 90’s when the pit, USC ledges, etc. were all active spots.
Skateboarding’s funny; no matter where you go, it’s super territorial. My prospective was heavily clouded with drugs, but I remember it always having a heavy overtone of competition at all the popular spots. If you were able to ignore the competitive aspects and just enjoy the actual moments skating, it was amazing.
Who were you sponsored by in that era and how did you get hooked up with them?
In 1990 Rocco and Rodney started sponsoring me and that continued till about 1999. I met Shiloh in like ’92 at the World park (pre-graffiti period); I remember being star struck. They never saw me skate, it just happened somehow. They were just stringing me along, though. What happened was that I had decided that if they weren’t gonna pay me, I was gonna start my own board company.
So what happened when they found out that you wanted to start your own company?
In the skate game or whatever, let’s say you’ve come up with some crazy fuckin trick nobody’s done before. You need to keep that shit a secret, clump all your footage together, and then release.
So I’m trying to get a check from Rocco and them—cause I need money; everyone wants to live the dream. There were a lot if kids—including me—that were the same as this, and they’d go and show the footage and then Rodney would go tell whatever pro what trick was going on. Then you’d look like you copied that dude. It’s kind of like a big game. So I wouldn’t necessarily say blackballed, they just made sure nobody would work with me, plus I think the drugs were another major problem.
And then—skateboarding is no place for an entrepreneur. It’s not that there’s no place for it, it’s just that the guys before you think that they deserve to control you and make money off of you because that is what happened to them. Everything we thought we weren’t—like, we’re not part of society and this and that—bullshit, man. We’re just part of a big machine to sell product. So I made the mistake of letting Rodney and them know that I had these intentions. When you say you’re going to do a company, they need to make sure you don’t get released to the public—like run ads and this and that. I made the dumbass mistake of not playing dumb.I think when I realized this, I got super depressed and started using some fuckin’ heavy drugs. It was like Breaking Bad—except I wasn’t making it. I was like that Jesse dude.
After LA County came out, Julio De La Cruz gave me a couple pro models for Neighborhood and a clothing company out of XLARGE called XLA hooked it up as well. Transworld and Big Brother did release certain things of me, though; Transworld did because Julio’s part-owner was Larry Balma. I think he had a deal where he could run ads for pretty cheap or free. Nobody wanted to fuck with me; I remember the last thing I filmed was the switch fronside pop shuv-it at Lockwood in late 2001 and one of the magazines photographers refused to shoot the sequence.
Julio is rad, though. He was on the hustle; he was making a company. I still talk to him, actually. It was funny because I had quit, I was a full-blown druggie, and then he offered me a board. And because I was friends with Jesus [Fernandez], Dani [Lebron], and Alfonso [Fernandez]—moreso Alfonso, actually—he offered me the board and I was like “whatever.” I had problems; I had gotten fucked by Rocco and them. So he was cool, but they paid like shit. I remember I got a check for three dollars once. I think this is the way skateboarding works—you don’t know how many boards you sell. I didn’t really give a fuck at the time. I was making money building web sites and stuff like that. I do have to thank Josh Friedberg and Julio, who both offered me jobs when I was at rock bottom to try to help me out. Sorry guys, I was out my mind.
Did anyone ever switch 360 flip off a picnic table off flat?
Not that I know of. There was a rumor I did it because people saw me break hundred’s of boards trying it. I am sure the kids nowadays can do it.
I did it off a little bump made by a lil’ tree stump that went under the pavement; Billy Valdez said it is pretty much flat (Yeah BILZ!) [ed. note: the spot is here—where Rodrigo Petersen switch flips over the table].
It happened at like seven in the morning. I was smokin’ twak all night, and I ran out, right? I ran out of drugs, and I knew I had to shoot a sequence for Stamina—Julio’s company. I went out with this dude [Mike] Blabac at like seven in the in the morning, and I think on the sixth try I broke my nose. On the seventh try I did it. I remember just being so fuckin’ surprised ‘cause I never land shit.
Everyone thinks I did it off flat though. Even my favorite fuckin’ skaters that I grew up looking at came to me going “Dude, I can’t believe you did it.” The switch tre was, like, an urban legend.
I remember how some of the companies were dealing with it, because the rumors were flying around that I did it off flat. So they went and had their riders put super ramps up to the fuckin’ tables and shoot it from the front—making it look like they were doing it off flat–to make sure that I wasn’t gonna come out with this sequence first. The strategy was to make sure the skater with the entrepreneur spirit does not start to gather a following and start selling his/her own products–pretty simple when you think about it.
This was the game. It was like war. I remember the shit out of this stuff, and I learned tons.
Who is the most underrated picnic table assassin from that era (late 90s early 00s)?
I thought there was a lot of good skaters killing those things. I have no idea.
Tell a little bit about LA County — a legendary video (amongst “menace tech” skaters anyway). Who filmed it/what, the filming process, what the initial reaction was etc.
This was Fernando Garcia’s brainchild. I met him in late 1996 at Fairfax High and just became friends. The people that know him know he is probably the most laid back/no pressure guys ever, thus why everyone filmed something with him. The video was not premeditated; it just happened naturally. He was able to depict these moments and feelings because he has a solid observational perspective and it was reflected throughout the whole video.
Fernando had one of those silver VX:somethings with a pancake lens and would pick everyone up in his turquoise Ford escort wagon.We would just cruise around film whatever. I have great memories of everyone who had parts in the video having a good time hanging out and filming. It feels like L.A. to me.
La County was 100% independent; we were just a bunch of rejects from the industry. Axion was the only sponsor that we had; if you look on the back of the box there’s an Axion logo.
It was all footage that Rodney wouldn’t use. Enrique was a footage machine,though, not like me—spending a month trying to get one stupid trick.
Jesus, Dani, and Alfonso were all trying to do the World thing at the time, but Rodney wasn’tgiving them any love because he already had a Spaniard–Enrique.
Just like me, they’d go and release some footage, show it to Rodney to try and get on, and he would show somebody else, and then that person would come out with the trick. So you’d have to come out with tricks that nobody could do—some fuckin insane shit.
When the video was released I quit skating to pursue full time meth consumption and don’t remember much about the reaction. It kind of kept me skating, though.
What happened to “lost dog productions”/the dude/dudes that filmed it?
Lost Dog consisted of Fernando who filmed and directed, Walter Lohr who backed it financially, and Bobby Lei who did all the editing. After L.A. County was released Fernando and Walter had a falling out. I still talk to Fernando via instagram and he seems to be doing good. Walt I have talked with numerous times over the years and he is doing a wheel company. Bobby I have no idea, but hopefully he is doing good.
What happened to that dude Marco Romero?
He is amazing, have not talked to him in over 10 years, I heard he had a kid. Googie if you read this “HIGH FIVE.”
How did you find yourself moving from LA to Brazil?
We were given the oppurtunity to do a software “start-up” here in Brazil. So we moved down here. My wife is from Sào Paulo and I met her when some Brazilian skaters randomly moved into my house in LA. When my first son was born she made me go to drug rehab for my problems in Pasadena. You know, it’s funny because when I smoked glass, I’d be like “I can make this company. I can make my board company.” And then as soon as I’d run out of meth, I’d hear Rodney’s voice saying [in Rodney Mullen impression voice] “it’s impossible and a lot of work to make a board company.” I would not necessarily call this brainwashing, but when your hero tells you something face to face, it is pretty persuasive. Why should anyone be scared of hard work, anyways? Now I understand this was only a strategy to keep people from taking market share and actually rather common practice in business. I meet programmers all the time that work for major software companies that are deterred from starting the same thing because of this same practice.
When I got out of rehab I started using again and she said if we don’t move out of LA she would take the kid to Brazil. We moved back to Colorado for three years to be closer to my family. Everyday I am thankful for her taking charge of the situation like that, because I would have for sure overdosed out there. It has been ten years since I have smoked meth.
Describe the skate scene in Brazil—some of the spots look amazing, like that one really big, open plaza-type skatepark in Porto Allegre.
It is a harsh environment for skateboarding. The government is extremely/blatantly corrupt and you see nothing going back to the community. Instead of the government using tax money for creating and maintaining public sidewalks, skateparks, and even worse public schools it goes directly to the politicians. I know political corruption is everywhere in the world, but here it is really in your face. The lack of spots coupled with extremely high-priced boards/ skate shoes gives Brazilian skaters a sense gratitude which is spawned in such rough conditions. It reminds me a little of the 90’s—like, “nah we’re not gonna let it go!”
The fact is when they get to the perfect spot with the right equipment Brazilians are unmatched with hunger. Look at the talent that comes out of here. Skateboarding is amazing in Brazil. ESPRAIADA!!!!!!
Do you still skate/follow skating, etc? Who are some #current skaters whose footage you get psyched on?
I am so amazed at the level these kids are skating at–it makes me smile. As for footage that gets me psyched to actually pick up the board, I would prefer watching the more approachable spontaneous skaters having a good time. Don’t get me wrong, this high-achieving perfection style is amazing, but it’s not a motivating factor to roll around and have fun. As for #current, my friend showed me a Berrics video the other day of Chaz Ortiz skating to Frank Sinatra and all I could think is this kid has too much style/ talent. I also like Alex Olson’s skating, and I think it takes a lot of balls to try to make a company at this point in his career. I hope his company is extremely successful. I like that British one [Palace]. I like startups. But in skateboarding, you have big companies that are gonna make sure that there are entry barriers.
Just one last thing about start-up businesses and skateboarding: If you’re a skateboarder and want to make your own company, just fucking do it. You are going to learn a lot from making a business. For instance, if you need graphics, learn the software, if you need a website, learn how to build a website, if you have problems with a monopoly trying to eliminate you, take a class. There are tons of skills you will acquire, and in the end you will be satisfied knowing you tried. Who wants to be a alcoholic or drug addict reminiscing about the “Good ol days.” If your start-up works try not to be a shit bag to the next generation wanting the same independence.
I could talk about this shit for days.
What’s the craziest thing you ever saw go down at The Pit?
“The Pit” was the pinnacle 90’s spot. I use to laugh to picture the architect sitting down to thinking he /she was designing this wonderful family picnic / social area, when in reality it was the perfectly enclosed location to defecate, smoke/shoot drugs, tag, skate etc. At the time with all my issues I thought it was heaven. Trickwise, I remember I saw SAD do some tricks on that big ass wall, I think it was a noseslide or tailslide.
Best Axion shoe?
I liked the ones I think they were called “Aries”.
Who killed the USC ledges the hardest?
My favorite was Daniel Lebron
What are you up to these days? Anything you want to plug?
I am building / managing web applications for start-ups down here. I am enjoying skating on the weekends with my son down here at some local skateparks (Espraiada and Praça do Fina…..AE!!!). Thanks Jason for taking this trip down memory lane with me. I would like to thank my beautiful wife Luisa and my 2 boys. I love you guys and I am truly blessed.
Thanks to Chris for taking the time and for the #rare photos.