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Pro Skater Spencer Hamilton Talks Filming in Lockdown and his "Vancouver" Part

SKATE MOBILE 2
IG: @SpencerHamilton

Spencer Hamilton is a professional skateboarder living in Vancouver, British Columbia. I mention this because, historically, the path to forging a career in skateboarding starts and often ends in Southern California. It took Thrasher Magazine in 1981 to put a spotlight on Northern California, the burgeoning backyard ramp scene in the United States at the time, and later street skating, but with the industry centered in California, it was the epicenter and proving ground for most pros. This has dramatically changed in the 2000s. Without getting too granular, these devices in our pockets have become the gateway to consuming skateboarding and have assisted brands to grow globally, regardless of where they’re located. That’s a massively good thing. If you have good ideas, good terrain to skate and the seeds of a scene, you can have a career in skateboarding without having to move to Encinitas or wherever the fuck. You can also move to cities that were once considered tertiary in skateboarding and thrive. That’s kind of a new thing. Keep in mind, for all the shine New York City gets, there were like four pros calling the Boroughs their home in the early-2000s.

That being said, even with the Red Dragons and their distribution, Canada gets unfairly viewed as that cold place that hosts the Dime Glory Challenge® once a year (It’s actually in Montreal, not the entire country concurrently). Keeping a Vancouver zip code for most of his career makes Hamilton an outlier, and on top of that, he’s known as a technical skater whose craft is contingent on progression—constantly outdoing what he’s already done. It’s not a choice as much as how he’s wired and his view of skateboarding. This is not to say that those who value difficulty over other styles of skating don’t have an equal appreciation of other disciplines, it’s just how he rides a skateboard and as he gets older, it requires more attention to all the moving parts.

Having recently released “Vancouver” with sponsor Primitive Skateboards, I spoke to Spencer Hamilton about his experience during the pandemic, filming during the lockdown and how he navigates his career. 

ONE37pm: Before we go in, let's go back. Do you have any big takeaways from the past year?

Spencer Hamilton: I could go in a whole bunch of different directions for sure. The beginning of the pandemic for me started in Florida at the end of February. You heard about the virus spreading among some passengers on some flights. Me being in my thirties, I kind of remembered SARS and assumed that this would be some news, some headlines and not a big deal. That obviously turned out to be totally inaccurate, but I got back to Vancouver after Florida and things just kind of snowballed and gained momentum there and I was planning on going down to California in March. My girl was traveling to New York and Los Angeles for work and when she came back, she was a little sick and then I got sick. 

At the time there wasn't any real travel restrictions or anything, but people were starting to use the language that we all are accustomed to now, quarantining and like that. So we were basically just, you know, sick and laying low in our place. Then the pace really picked up so I postponed my flight because I was sick and didn’t feel like it was responsible to be traveling with symptoms. I waited a few days and then Canada put in travel restrictions—pandemic level… really restricting your movement. In a sense, I dodged a bullet because getting back into Canada would have been a real headache. We also moved apartments twice because we had a real fiasco living next to a real tyrant of sorts—a wanna-be DJ. You have to pick your battles so we just chose to get out of there. But ultimately we’re a lot happier where we are now.

I can relate. Rent was dropping in New York and I had a feeling this was going to last longer than expected. My lease was almost up so I decided to look for a spot that had everything I needed so I could just quarantine. I wasn’t expecting some bros to move in above me and throw COVID raves every night or some dude in a bucket hat knocking on my door at 5AM with a rack of White Claws, thinking the party was at my spot. Oh well, it’s New York, you deal with it and plus, there’s much worse going on. I think little things like that make you evaluate everything differently.

How’d you go about skating during the lockdown?

I don't think everybody had the same experience or feeling, but I was never really all that worried about the actual virus itself, to be honest. So I've kind of just maintained what I would do otherwise and go skate as much as I could. I know a lot of people were skating by themselves tripod style, but I felt comfortable meeting up with a small enough group of friends outside and Vancouver just happened to have a really nice year. The winters are classically wet, but from the beginning of the pandemic in March, all through the summer, it's just so nice out that everybody’s outside. Vancouver or British Columbia, has done just incredibly well by any statistical analysis on COVID death cases. It was probably one of the best places to be, honestly.

I don’t know if you’re an outdoors type, but it seems like having access to nature was really key for a lot of people.

Yeah, I am, I enjoy hiking. There was some time where trails were closed down, which really didn’t make sense to me but it didn’t last that long. I mean, they even put sand all up in the plaza to prevent us from skating, but that didn’t last long either. We had other spots to skate. It wasn’t too bad as opposed to being stuck in a metropolis like New York or Toronto. Toronto seems to be one of the worst places to be when it comes to COVID. Between all the hiking, cycling, and skateboarding, and just kind of refinancing your whole life, my girl and I just hunkered down on cooking meals at home. It’s kind of nice to have some perspective on where you want to spend your time and money.

So speaking of the outdoors, you rode for Expedition One. The brand was sort of known as a tech brand in a sense, but then the aesthetic really changed at the end and leaned into fishing and shit. How’d you feel about that?

Interesting question. Wow. I don't know. I'm sure I subconsciously thought about at the time, but not really paid much attention to it. I always chalked that up to basically (Rob) Welch’s influence. I'm not a hundred percent sure if that's accurate. I don't want to throw him under the bus if that wasn't him, not that that would apply to anybody going under a bus, but that definitely came about as he was becoming more and more active with the brand and design and all of that. If anybody's followed the evolution of Welsh, that's kind of what happened with him—going full outdoorsy, and I think Joey Pepper was obviously along the same lines too.

Makes sense, both of them being from New England… Maine… it’s in their DNA. So Expedition went under and then more recently-ish, Supra went through massive changes. After getting checks from them, taking all those trips, how did that play out and what do you think about the situation now?

Skateboarding definitely wasn’t a big piece of their sales pie. But going to their sales and marketing meetings, of course, it was always presented as such an important part of the brand. But you could tell that the people saying that were kind of just saying it because they felt they should. When it came to new presidents coming on that you're like, ‘Well, you don't know anything about skateboarding.’ They’re telling you the brand was born from skating and will always be in the space, but you know they don’t know the difference between an ollie or a kickflip, let alone care at all. 

As time went on it was obvious there was a divide that was growing between the team manager and the team and just everyone working there. I mean, the main shoe designer, Brandon, was awesome and the people working there were cool, but as you got higher up, the presidents didn’t care or know anything about skating. It’s almost a surprise the skate program lasted as long as it did. Companies get bought and sold and bought and sold and the team changes, the classic riders are no longer with the team, so you have a different identity. At some point, it’s not salvageable anymore. I was actually happy with the team and the program towards the end, but it just wasn’t sustainable. They got sold one more time to Xtep International Holdings Ltd, who bought Supra and the global rights to K-Swiss and some other brands and that holding company wasn’t interested in Supra or the skateboarding side of it. So that’s how it went down… a slow death.

Did the experiences with Expedition and Supra inform your decision to go to Primitive? I mean, who knows, in five years Primitive could get sold to a holding company, but at least you're at the beginning of the funnel…

I haven't thought of it like that at all. Anything is possible. I don't see that happening with Primitive but it could. The situation with Expedition/Kayo Corp. was different because Expedition and Organika weren’t making money. Everything they did over there was noble until the end when communication broke down. But yeah, any company can be bought and change overnight. It’s the risk you take. It’s not always bad, too. Sometimes it’s just an infusion of money that allows you to do X, Y, and Z. Not all deals are the same, so sometimes you maintain operational rights and some you don’t.

Right, I think HUF is a good example of selling the company but then being able to fund more trips, content, and pay riders. Sure, they stopped making shoes but the shoes weren’t generating money anyway. So let’s talk about the inverse of that, what do you think about fashion or couture brands getting into skating, rather than stealing from it. For example, Virgil Abloh putting Lucien Clarke on Louis Vuitton and releasing a shoe?

Do I think this is a game-changer for skateboarding? No. Are they going to be producing skate shoes and put a bunch of people on a skate team? No. To a certain extent. I'm like, God, how are these shoes making him better at skating? I don't know, but the fact that he scored that deal and it looks like he’s doing everything right with it for himself, I couldn't be happier for him. It's just awesome. It’s such a unique opportunity that he grabbed by the horns. You could kind of see things leading up to something like this happening. It’s great for Lucien.

I wanted to get your take on this. I grew up playing hockey and I remember our travel team playing a tournament in Montreal. We got smoked and on the way back the coach was like, "Oh, by the way, those kids were a level lower than you.” Real salt in the wounds type shit.

Anyway, you think of hockey and how it’s played and part of the culture in Canada. It’s almost an analogy for skateboarding in the US or historically, California. Obviously, that’s changed, but I think it’s interesting that the industry never shifted. You have huge brands out of Europe or the UK, but that never happened in Canada and the path to be pro has always been that you come to California to prove yourself. Dime is changing that of course, and there’s always been a rich skate culture in Canada, but I’m curious about your take and experience.

I like this. To bring it back to the hockey analogy. I never thought of it that way until you brought it up. Growing up in Canada, you’re always thinking, ‘Aw man if we just lived in California we’d be skating all year round.’ Right? In every neighborhood east of British Columbia, there are outdoor hockey rinks for most of the year. In that same sense, there’s an obvious advantage in being able to participate in something more often. 

And where are the scouts going to be? They’re not at some rink in Orange County looking for the next Mario Lemieux or whatever.

No, and they're not going to be in Ottawa in the dead of winter looking for the next big skater. As a kid growing up in Ottawa, I would walk to the local rink and play hockey every night that I could during the winter because it was available to me. It’s a cool observation. 

So when you got into skating, how’d you deal with the harsh weather? For me growing up in New England, you pretty much knew when the first real snow fell in early November it was a wrap until March, so you had to find a parking garage, especially as a kid with no way to get to an indoor park… and there weren’t many of those anyway.

Yeah, it wasn’t much different for me in Ottawa. There's definitely a lot of parking garages. To be honest, there wasn't a lot of skating in the winter for me. You’d fill your time occasionally in the parking garages. Eventually, there were some indoor parks in Ottawa that came and went. I think there was one that was called Capital that was around maybe for two or three years. That was pretty awesome to have because it was something that the owners would let you kind of escape when it closed and skate without pads. Montreal always had something going on. 

There was a park called the Taj Mahal that was a two-hour drive from Ottawa. We’d day trip a few times a winter. This was me juggling school and sports and whatnot as a teenager. As far as being pro in Canada, what I’ve done or what Wade (DesArmo) did isn’t totally the same as say, Mark Appleyard or T.J. Rogers or Ryan Decenzo—going down and living in the States and making a name for yourself. I guess it’s less important now because everyone sees everything on the internet.

For me personally, establishing myself in the States over the last decade, but always living here serves as an advantage because I’m representing brands in a place that isn’t always served by America. It’s helpful to have someone local representing your brands, not just locally, but on an international scale as well. If I lived in Los Angeles this entire time, I might not have the same career. Who knows, right?

Do you like that Vancouver isn’t a skate tourist destination like Barcelona? You know, fewer people coming through to prove themselves on spots, etc.? I think about what it’s like being pro in New York City and having to go through a mental list of every trick that’s been done on a spot before you even think to film or take a photo.

To be fair, Vancouver has had well-established pros and spots for decades and there were the Slam City Jam contests, so people have always been coming through. But you’re right, people aren’t saving up money to live here for months like Barcy. But as far as tricks, I feel like the younger generation doesn’t really care what’s been done before at a spot. They don’t think of it in the same way. 

For me, I don't really want to do the same thing as someone else and I don't want to do something worse. I'm trying to progress to a certain extent. So with limited spots, and over the years, so many good skaters skating them, it does get tough trying to one-up yourself and others constantly. I see younger skaters not really giving a shit and that makes me feel a number of different ways. On one hand, I’m like, ‘Do whatever you want’ but on the other, I think, ‘You just filmed a backside flip down those stairs that someone switch flipped 15 years ago.’

Building off that, I wanted to ask about your approach to skating. It’s really progressive and I assume that gets harder as you get older. You essentially chose a harder path, is that fair?

I mean, I'm not jumping down 15 stairs anymore, but I can still jump down some stairs. And over the last several years, I'm like, you know, I feel like I'm progressing and ledge skating more than I was before. Whether it’s manuals or ledges, you can learn other stuff that helps you progress. It seems to be more where you’re at, where you’re body is at. You have to adjust, but you can always find ways to challenge yourself.

It seems like taking care of your body is the key. If you weren’t concerned about progression, you might not be thinking about diet or wellness. It’s like, ‘Fuck it, I can pound some beers and do some slappys, whatever!’

Totally. And you can see that. It's pretty obvious what people are taking an active role in their health. The difference is glaring. Look at (Andrew) Reynolds. He’s probably the main example people bring up. And obviously P-Rod (Paul Rodriguez) and his comeback. I've seen some of the workouts he does and the amount of time and effort that he puts into getting himself back in shape is just inspirational. 

It’s almost underrated. What he’s doing at 36-years-old. And if he can maintain that? It almost opens up a different career arc. It’s not just good for “his age,” it’s just great footage.

I mean, it's almost inevitable that somebody is going to say that, “Oh, it's really good for your age" or “Oh, that's really good for a girl or whatever," but I think those attitudes are changing a bit. But sometimes it is true. I have some buddies Rene and Randy who are in their 40s who skate the plaza a lot and seeing them switch flip or nollie back heel… it’s just awesome. When they were learning how to skate, a lot of people in their generation didn’t even skate switch and they’re switch flipping onto this manual pad.

Do you feel like you’ve reached a point where you’re really content with your career in skateboarding?

Definitely. I kind of wish I could do it all over again, to be honest. Not that I didn't have fun but I just look back on traveling—the balance of having a really good time partying and having to go to events, but also skate and film. It’s super fun, but when you take that to an extreme, it’s really hard on your body. But you can get away with it when you’re younger. Nowadays, it’s so much more fun to travel because I’m not really drinking and smoking like that—I do both just not on that level. You wake up earlier, you feel better, you do more with your day and you feel steady. You aren’t coping with the ups and downs of scraping yourself out of bed, hungover, knowing you need a few beers, or else you’re not moving. Sure, I’d do it differently, but I’m not one of those guys who's diehard about “No regrets!”

Oh yeah, anyone who claims that has the most regrets. Speaking of pounding beers, you’ve mentioned before that you used to have a bunch of beers during a session and I know that’s not uncommon, but it still blows my mind that people can skate that well buzzed or even blackout. What’s the drunkest part you’ve filmed?

That’s the weird thing about those Supra trips. We were constantly going on tours and putting out tour videos, so I didn’t really have an actual part during that time. 

They eventually put out an accumulation of all my footage from years of traveling on tour, so yeah, that would be the one. I don't think I really skated at all on trips because I was more occupied preoccupied with "enjoying myself," I guess, air quotes on that. But then I think about it, and look at the footage and I feel like I generally looked ok even though there are tricks where I’m not even sure how many beers I drank that day. 

It worked out, but at the same time, I would have been so much more productive if I wasn’t drinking like that. I’d end up having my go-to tricks and just sticking to my mold… applying those tricks everywhere we’d go. Yoga really helped with my body mobility, but also, just not drinking and not having that extra inflammation and having all your joints sore, you're able to think outside the box a bit and try different tricks that you wouldn't normally try. Sometimes I wouldn’t have much faith that I’d land a trick, but your body feels good enough that you’re willing to throw it out there.

You just put out a part with Primitive titled “Vancouver.” I really liked how balanced that part felt and the overall rhythm, can you tell me a bit about making it?

Thank you. I appreciate that. It was really the combination of a bunch of different things that made it turn out good or made me so satisfied with it. I mostly film here with Chance Swainson in Vancouver and he filmed most of this new part. We had previously done a part for my Supra shoe which he worked on. 

Alan Hannon over at Primitive ended up editing it at my request, which was a really nice gesture from him. After that, we thought to have Chance handle filming and editing the part to get rid of the back and forth and to have him show his stuff. I’m really happy with the two songs—I chose the first one and he chose the second. They really balance each other out. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I think of parts as an escalator where you may not be starting out with your best shit but you build up to it. Chance took more of the approach of starting out with some bangers, then more lines towards the middle, and then ending up with a bang again. At first, that kind of caught me a little bit off guard and I was a little bit resistant to it, but I'm ultimately super happy that that is how it went. I don't know if it's just born out of the internet age and grabbing your attention—how that actually is effective within the way that our brains work and the way that the internet works.

I’m stoked on the editing and then, to have it all Vancouver part skating at mostly classic spots that have been skated for over two decades, trying to shed some new light. I hope I didn’t do anything that’s been done, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was like, "Ted DeGros kickflipped that in ’99." I’m pretty good at watching old videos, but I’m sure I haven’t seen it all. I had been filming VX but it was nice to have the extra motivation of not being able to travel and get it done in one place. I didn’t really expect it to get the positive feedback it’s received. The idea was to just put out this VX part low key, but then Primitive showed interest in promoting it and took it under their wing, which was awesome. 

Are you gonna watch the Olympics now that they’re happening and skateboarding is going to debut?

Fuck. I’m pretty neutral on the whole thing. I’m taking a Switzerland approach. I’m excited for the participants because it’s such a bucket list thing for so many people. If I were skating it I’d be thinking how proud my grandparents would be or something. I think of it that way. I don’t watch Dew Tour, I don’t watch Street League. I’m not against it, that sport side doesn’t get me excited to skate. I don’t really watch sports in general. 

Maybe I’ll watch it because it’s so groundbreaking, but I don’t know. I have feelings about organized sports in general and countries competing against each other in that fashion, but I’m a fan of competition. Seeing who is the best or who gets the most points from these judges on those obstacles, it’s a lot different from any street skater’s perspective on skateboarding, but maybe I’d watch it to see how it plays out.

I was planning on watching, but when I found out you could bet on it, I suddenly got invested. 

[laughs] I hadn’t thought of that. That definitely adds another level of entertainment. 

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