Thursday, October 13, 2016

Shredding Chords And Shredding Boards With Lucero's Brian Venable

The exchange between skateboarding and music is  as old as skateboarding itself, a cliche really. As a fanatical skater Lucero guitarist, Brian Venable is a part of that old story, but his evolution from skater to musician to musician/skater is a little different than the standard “skate rat starts band” trope. Venable didn't pick up a guitar until long after he had put hs board on the shelf, and even though his band shares a name with the godfather of slappies and enjoys a sizable following among skaters, Venable tracked a lot of miles on the road with the band before he finally put his feet on grip again. Now, he’s back in full-on obsessed skate rat mode. Skating has become a big enough part of his life that Lumberjack Outfitters put out a Brian Venable deck last year (which quickly sold out). Rediscovering skating has bled into Venable’s work, and how he balances and blends shredding a board with shredding on his guitar, illuminates the eternal realationship between skateboarding and music.

So, you started skating in the 80’s, and, in that era, you were either a skater who got exposed to punk because of skating, or you were a hardcore kid that got turned onto to skateboarding from punk culture. How did it work out for you?

In about 1985, a kid in my freshman shop class gave me a mix tape that had Seven Seconds and Flipside Volume 2 or something on the other side. The music was like something got in my brain. I didn’t start a band, but I started going to shows. Skating and that music was all kind of coming from the same thing: I hate School, I hate my parents. My friend was like: “Listen to this music” and I was like: “what the fuck!?”. All the hardcore kids were wearing vans and I had never seen that shit before. It was the whole thing, the denim jackets... I think I was wearing Roos and Hawaiian shirts, being a full nerd and all the sudden there was a group of people out there, this whole other world.

And the skating came after?

My first board was a full K-mart special. Thrasher, all that, I knew about none of it . That was the beauty of it.

We lived out in the country at the time and I had shotguns and my parents were letting me save up for a pistol. I took that money for the pistol and bought a Variflex skateboard instead. I skated it damn near to death. I would sand that board down, paint it another color, and I kept riding it until I saved my money for a real board. It was freshman year in high school, but by sophomore year I was a skater.

That is how it was in the midwest and the south. You started with a crap board that you might have for years and eventually got clued into “real” skateboarding and, if you were lucky, you eventually got a pro board. What was your first pro set-up?

I ended up with a freakin’ JFA board. I could have chosen any board in the world but I had a JFA shirt and I liked JFA.  I didn’t know who all the pros were, but I knew what JFA was, so if someone questioned me on what JFA was, I could answer.

I was so proud of that JFA. It was black and pink, and after a while I was so proud that I had skated it for real and the edges were getting worn. I was like: “yeah!” We were shoe repairmen in my family and I had my board at the shoe shop one day and my dad took black shoe polish and buffed out all the scratches. He though he made my board look better and I was like: “what are you doing! I worked really hard for all those scratches!”

So you start skating, and you are listening to hardcore music, but, back then, the two never came together to the point where you started to play music?

My dad tried to get me to constantly play in bands and I was like: “man, I just want to go outside.” I wanted to be a writer. I spent my 20’s hopping trains and riding Greyhounds and going places. I wasn’t thinking about skateboarding or music. I wanted to be a writer.  I was going to be Bukowski or Aaron Cometbus.

So by the time music came along, you had stopped skating?

My evolution was more: kid discovers punk rock, kid discovers skateboarding, kid skateboards then drops out of HS, works for a year, then starts doing the living in punk houses and traveling thing but I was still not playing music or skating. I was, just making zines and doing the living everywhere thing. Then, when I was 27, I just decided one day that I was going to learn to play guitar.

So even though you had not skated in years, were those years of skating still an influence on your music?

I think what skateboarding did for me, musically, was give me the same attitude for learning the guitar that I had  when I first saw someone on a skateboard. I didn’t say: “I can’t do that! That’s as dangerous as fuck!” I said: “I want to do that!” The thing is, I still don’t know how to play guitar, but 6 months after I got a guitar, I started a band. You take that same “we’ll figure it out” mentality that you need as a skater. I learned to play guitar like I learned to skate. I spent hours by myself trying the same thing over and over again.  

So when did you start rolling again?

It’s been in the last five or six years. My neighbor he is 50 and he skates with me. We are in a dad gang and we still send texts and pictures to each other about skating. Everywhere we look it is like:  “look at that curb...boom! There’s a weird bank by planned parenthood…” Everything we see is a spot. I like that. I like getting up in the morning, me and a couple other guys, drop off our kids at school, get em ready, move em out, and then we meet up at about 8 o’clock and go to a DIY park called Altown here in Memphis and roll around while nobody’s there. It’s just nice  when everybody is headed one way for work and we’re headed to the skatepark. That’s the feeling, that’s just feeling like a kid. There’s something about having five dudes between the ages of 38 and 52 skating in a parking garage at 9:30 at night and the police coming and the policeman being 24 years old and looking really fucking confused at all these old gnarly dudes rolling around.

So many people have come back to skating in the last few years, and they have this new love, but a lot of times the changes are too much for them, or they are intimidated because they are not as good as the young kids everywhere.

The problem I had when I was younger was that I was terrified of all the older skaters, I was like: “Oh, I’m not good enough…” Now I’m older and I’m terrified of all these young kids… but the young kids are stoked. “You are a fat old dude covered in tattoos and you ride the biggest fucking board I’ve ever seen and you are going for it”, and I’m just carving and doing my thing.

What people who don’t skate don’t understand is, man, if you can roll across the parking lot you are addicted. I can’t slappy for shit but it don’t stop me from trying. Every 8th time that I make it it’s like I pulled a 720. Its like: “fuck yeah!”

I go to Hernando (Pigeon Park in Hernando Mississippi) and I cant’t get up on the pink tile, but I still go down there and have fun. I like dumb things like putting a piece of plywood up ...the other day I got a can of clear spraypaint and spraypainted the entire curb in front of my house. Waxed it, it’s still rough as hell, but still, I’m in front of my house skateboarding. I can’t ollie anymore. I just now got to the point where I’m bonelessing again. Its fun as hell.

The kids are awesome. You have to stop and let go of all these hang ups and that’s a big problem. Half the poeple I ask “let’s go skate”, they don’t want to because they can’t kickflip anymore. Who cares? Let’s just go skate, and then they are like: “These kids are showing me up!” No they’re not. You can’t do it, they’re not out-tricking you. They don’t care. Just have fun. Appreciate it.

The best thing about starting over skating, I’ve learned, and its the same for being in a band, is that if you do it long enough and you realize: “I’m not going to be a metal gutarist. I’m not going to out-shred someone. but I do what I do and I do it well and I’m comfortable with it.” That’s what skating is  about: I don’t care what you think.

A lot of guys who came back can’t get their heads around the fact that Punk and Hardcore music is nowhere near as central to skate culture as it was in their day; that skaters are more likely to listen to Rihanna and Drake than Black Flag and Dinosaur Jr.

In a lot of ways, that hardcore scene, it was a protective thing… back then you were getting beat up for being a skater...back then, music was a way you found other people.You would be like: “If I see a kid with a DK shirt on and I’m carrying my board, I’m going to talk to him.”  I’m also going to know the right people are going to find me.

Now, a skater might be a lawyer type dude. Nobody is getting beat up for being a skater anymore. With skateboarding now you are seeing it become more universally accepted and that’s why you don’t have as much of that same scene.

As much as I love that music and enjoyed those times, I can’t help but think that maybe it is a good thing for skateboarding that we no longer have a culture where every skater in the world has the same 10 or 20 cassette tapes in their car. Lucero is a great example of that. If you guys just listened to hardcore, Lucero wouldn’t exist. There’s as much country, roots rock and even soul influences as punk in your music.

Thats the joke for us. We’re uncategorical. But, See, here’s what’s crazy and what a lot of people have forgotten about: There was this huge weird influence of country in punk in the 80’s and 90’s. It was ok to listen to The Blasters. Dwight Yoakam came out… X made country records, Drunk Injuns...these were country influenced punk in the same way The Big Boys were influenced by funk. Some of those bands were a kid’s first taste of country and they didn’t even realize it. There was a whole lot of stuff that fell into a weird sub-genre on those Skate Rock comps. It was not Reba Mcentire, but there was some weird stuff that kids could listen to and think: ‘I’m going to start a country band’.  Stuff like Social Distortion.  In 1988 they got back together and covered Johnny Cash. You had 15 year old kids thinking “I like that ‘Ring Of Fire’ song” Not knowing it was a cover. If you told them it was Johnny Cash they would have been like: “Ugh! That’s old people music.” Put a different face on it and they grew up listening to country music and they didn’t even know it.

Mike Watt once told me that punk was never supposed to be a genre, but a way of doing things.

Rebellious music is rebellious music no matter what it sounds like. That was always our thing, kind of our joke forever: It Doesn't matter if you like country, metal, hip hop, if you’re a punk rock kid, whatever you are, you get your heart broke. You get sad. You want to jump around.

Punk rock was how I learned to pick people up and be nice to strangers, or that you can do something even if someone tells you you can’t. That gets caught up in the music. You can have any genre, any group of people be punk. You’re not supposed to be doing a genre, it’s a way of life. How i’m raising my kids is from what I learned form punk rock shows.

So, has starting skating again changed your music or your approach to how you play?

I think me skating again is part of a new lease on life in general. I’m enjoying everything more because I don’t feel so shitty. I was up to 274 pounds and feeling like crap. I don’t get tired playing now, i’m just having more fun. You get up in the morning and you go skate for an hour and the rest of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, you skated that day. You live off that shit.

Once you are not looking to impress anybody and you dont have anything to prove you just have fun. I’ve lost 40 pounds in the last year from skating and not drinking. I’ll skate everyday for a while, and then I may not be able to skate for two weeks but i’m always thinking about it.

The intensity I put into the early days of my skateboarding, of learning tricks, getting lines and thinking “I’ve got to pull this”, that’s what I put into my music now. I treat playing guitar Like I used to treat skating.

The basics of skateboarding are really hard to learn, but learning them, just rolling around and messing aroud doesn’t feel like work or practice. Is it as hard to learn the basics of playing guitar? It doesn’t seem like there is as a much of that element of learning coming about through just messing around… like, with music you’ve got to actually be more disciplined with it. Its “practice”.

If your holding a guitar and you put a finger down and you just play a note, you’re going to be stoked. You put three fingers down and get a whole chord, that’s awesome. Time to start a band. In that way, it’s the same as just rolling around on a board. You are having fun. There are guys who will just mess around with like 30 different effects pedals and thats what they do, and all they do. Technically, that is playing a guitar. You may not be doing it well or correctly but you are making noise and having fun.

With music though, isn’t there an element of having to focus on learning specific things before you can really have fun and get creative? You’re trying to learn to play songs, or organize how you play into a song of your own. You may not ever intend for anyone to hear you play, but there’s still a structure you have to follow to even get to the point of writing songs even for yourself. That seems different than skating, where, from the very start, you just go out with no real rules or structure.

I can sit in my room and play guitar all day long and never join a band and never let anybody hear it. I can go outside and skate for days and have a great time by myself.  I don’t play music for people, and go: “I hope people like this.” This is where it’s like skating. If nobody in the world liked our music in Lucero, we enjoyed playing it. We are very lucky that people do enjoy our music and we can play for them, but if nobody ever came and saw us, we’d all have real jobs but we’d probably still get together and play on Thursday nights. There’s plenty of people who do that. Thats the beauty of both. I started skating because it was fun. I started playing music because it was fun.

Of course, for an actual working band, you have to be on it at a specific place and a specific time. It’s not like a skater taking a whole year and a 100 tries to get one trick for your edit.

We been doing this 18 years and we still critique every show. Every show we are like “oh shit, let’s see what happens.” I’m going to miss a few songs… we don’t work with a set list...there’s a whole range of things that can happen. Like going skateboarding. You may make all the tricks. You may make none of them. You may break your arm.You are going to try again.

I never throw my board when I am skating. I just try and try again and then sit down and leave it, but there are guys like that in music who just smash up the drums or break their guitra when they can’t get something right. Musically you get to go somewhere and practice, it’s the same thig in skating, you can spend 27 days learning to mctwist at some halfpipe and when its time for the contest you have to make it even though you know you have missed it more times than you have made it.

There’s a rush to it, like before you can do a variation of a trick, you’ve got to learn the parts of a trick. Same with the guitar. Like I tell my kids when they just want to make noise on the guitar, I tell them, “great”, and they talk about Jimi Hendrix and I tell them they all had to learn how to play guitar before they unlearned how to play guitar. You got to learn to drop in before you go do a backside air. Dropping in that first few times is scarier than a backside air.

photo: Peter Koeling/Soundspike

Does music fade as fast as skating if you have to stay away for a bit?

Not quite as fast. I play seven days a week every day of the year for at least two hours. If I quit playing guitar for two weeks, its not going to go away. It may fade a little bit, if I skated as much as i payed guitar...who knows. Last summer I was getting pretty comfortable on my board again. We were skating two or three hours a day, and then all the sudden we were going back on tour. Then it was like twice a week… hopefully it will come back quicker…

Of course skating lacks the collaborative element of being in a band too. It’s just you on that board, bust or bail.

In skateboarding you don’t have 5 people trying to do a trick, sure, but one thing I’ve realized from the collaboration in music is that I miss skating with people who are better than me. It’s the same with music as it is with skating: the people I play with make me play better. Sure, music is different because theres an element of playing in a band that means you get to blend four voices or styles to make one bigger thing… but there is also the intensity of pulling something off that is like skateboarding: “I learned a chord”, “I wrote a song, or “I played a whole set and didn’t mess something up”, there’s a whole intensity in doing any of this stuff whether its music or skating, or juggling or playing with a Yo-Yo, I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who is a professional yo-yo guy.

With a band you’ve got people depending on you though. If you took a bad slam and couldn’t play would you get in trouble? Do your bandmates get nervous because you skate so much?

Every person in my life is like: do you really need to get on that board? I’m a bottom dweller, I still don’t drop in in the pools and I have this illusion that what I’m doing is not dangerous: “I can hit that curb, I can roll around in the bottom of that pool, it’s fine”, and them I’ll watch some dumb ass video of some guy rolling and falling backwards and hurting himself and I’m like: “fuck!” So, again, it’s like a lot of things… do you know drinking is bad for you? Do you know eating sugar is bad for you? Yes, but you’re still going to do those things. I haven't been hurt yet.

If I broke my arm skating I’d get in so much fucking trouble. There’s no doubt about it. I would get a severe talking to or maybe I wouldn’t be allowed to get on skateboards anymore.

Do you get time to skate when you are on tour or is it just too hectic?

Thats the best thing, all of the sudden, being in this popular band, people can’t wait to take me to their secret spots, I see Bill Danforth pretty regular now. That’s insane to me. I was in Atlanta and I had a friend take me to Grant Taylor’s secret spot out in the woods. I had to give up my phone so it didn’t  get geo-tagged, then there’s the Lost Bowl in Richmond, I went to Kona...people are like: “hey you got 30 minutes?” I bring a board everywhere. Half the time I’m skating in the parking lot at the show.

Do you use skating to blow off steam if things are going bad in the studio or at practice?

At the end of the day I have never got to the point where I have said “fuck this, I’m going skating right now!” I’ve never been in a place where I can do that, especially in the studio or on stage… I can go in that other room for five minutes but I know at the end of the night when I go home I can go outside and roll around before I go to bed.

Do you play better if you’ve had a good session?

I’ve Never thought about it. Getting on that stage is such a nerve wracking thing sometimes, but I play better when I’m comfortable. It’s hard to say. I think skating makes my life in general better, which bleeds into everything I do.

Being on that stage, actually performing for others, that must be a lot different than skating where, unless you are a pro doing a demo or contest, there’s no performance element, it’s so internal. Has skateboarding had an effect on how you perform?

Going out and doing things in front of people, I don’t get nervous because I’m concentrating on my hands, on not fucking up. It’s like when we used to go right into the center of downtown Memphis to skate on a Friday night. We were in front of every drunk and frat kid in the world. As far as I was concerned they weren’t there. I was there thinking: “can I ollie up that third step?”

I remember when Bill Danforth came for a contest and every kid in town was like : “I’ve got to be good”. Now it is like: “J Mascis is in the crowd and I’m about to play shitty guitar in front of a god.” My butthole gets knotted up, I get sweaty, but you just do your thing. You learn to tune out the distractions. You pull it off and they cheer. It’s great. Just being a skater in the 80’s, walking around with weird hair and a jean jacket getting the shit kicked out of you by football players, will tecah you that you are tough enough to deal with this shit.

It’s funny to think about the opposite scenario. If you went to see J Mascis play, you aren’t going to be sitting in the crowd with your guitar playing your own music along with him, but in the world of skateboarding, even today, when the pros come through, they go to the skatepark and you get to actually skate with them a lot of the time, as long as you are not being an idiot.

We did an interview for Tony Hawk’s radio show and I got to roll around on a Boom Boom Huck jam ramp for a bit, and he came out and started skating for a little bit and I was like: “Nope.” I flipped my board over and just started watching. It sucked though because really, he didn’t care.

Yeah, I’m sure you could have skated with him. He would have been stoked.

Yeah, but I did just want to watch. There's a picture on my Instagram of him doing a nose grind on some thing higher than my head. I was like: “hey , bet you can’t do that”, and after, like, 19 tries, he did it.

Do you have things you dream about doing on a guitar the way you might dream about pulling a trick?

The thing about playing music is, I think, with the guitar, I am pretty confident that I can learn anything new with enough time. A jazz chord, whatever. I can learn a whole Metallica song with enough time…

But no matter how much time you had, you probably couldn’t backside lipslide a handrail..

Exactly, and I don’t know that I would want to. I would love to be 24 years old and 100 pounds lighter and have knees of steel and rubber and just fly…

Whats the equivalent of a slappy for the guitar?

Sometimes when you just are soloing in this one position and you are like (makes shredding guitar noises with mouth) and then you slide down and you are like (more shredding rock noises) and you bend that note and it’s rock and roll and it’s metal and it’s (wreeeeeeee-OWWWWWW) and its just “‘AHHHHHHHH! I could do that all day long.” It’s that kind of thing, it’s simple, you are not tapping or nothing. It’s just a bend and it’s pretty much just like a slappy. I just throw it out there and I get this look form my band mates sometimes and I’m like “What? It’s fun.”

What’s the tre flip to handrail then?

That’s another band. That’s playing for Rush or something. I don’t know. It’s not in my wheelhouse.

If you had to live without one, the skateboard or the guitar, what would it be?

Right now I would have to keep the guitar, because that’s how I make my living, but in a way that’s why I love skateboarding maybe more. I love playing guitar but I do it for a living. Can you imagine getting up and going “ugggh… I have to skate…” “I have to go get video content…” Just imagine that. Music is my job and it’s a wonderful job, I’m not curing cancer but I get to play guitar for a living and that’s pretty fucking sweet. In then end it is still a job though…but with a skateboardIi can build them and give them away, I can go skate, it’s like a pipe dream; “I get to go skate today, yeah!” I get absolutely no monetary gain out of it. I get nothing but the pure joy and it is still pretty awesome.

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