Alex Olson – Leave A Message

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“Leave A Message”….That is what I heard when I tried to call (917) 692-2706, I didn’t leave a message but I wanted to, just to see if anybody would listen to what I had to say and maybe “they” would even call me back, it could still happen, they could still call back, right? I wonder how many people called the number, in the beginning, the mailbox was probably full but do people still call nowadays? I wonder what people were hoping to hear the original message was “You have reached Bianca Chandon leave a message.” Now it is just, “leave a message” maybe that is because Bianca went in another direction and the number faded away before coming back in a new form. Just what kind of form? That seems to be up to the reflective mind of Alex Olson.


Let start at the beginning how did you start of 917?

We started at the beginning and now we’re here (laughs), but really we started out by introducing Bianca Chandon via the number, we put out the number and if you would call the number you would get an answering machine that said hello you have reached Bianca Chandon. So once we started releasing Bianca Chandon (BC) stuff we abandoned the number because it had lost its function. We released some board under the BC name but as the company was taking form I did not want it to become a skate company. I was like no team none of that stuff but I met some kids and I wanted to support them so I brought the number back so I could make some board and give it to those guys. It is kind of like how Ralph Lauren has the brand Ralph Lauren and he has Polo by Ralph Lauren. So 917 started to take shape slowly, it took some time for people to get to know the brand, understand the brand, and for us to build a team around it. Now it is somewhat of a skateboard company not fully.

Why not fully?

Because we are still not on schedule, but this year it will be a company instead of an experiment.

Isn’t it nice to have Call me 917 be just that, an experiment?

Yes… I try to avoid the rhythms of a normal skateboard company but that is kind of hard because there is a formula that people are used to. It is a give and take situation, the hardest part that we have to figure out right now is the video aspect. because you want to come out with your own style, which is hard because a lot of things have been done and you don’t have full control. Developing a style that is our own without having to copy thing is a challenge.

It seems to me like making a video is also a kind of make or break thing for a company, it starts with the smallest things like kind of music you pick.

That is difficult, certain team riders might want to skate to a certain song… I mean all three of us here probably have different tastes in music (it is Conny Mirbach, Alex and myself). Back in my Girl and Lakai days I would get really frustrated because they wanted me to skate to a like a Fugazi song and back then I really didn’t like that type of music, I wanted to skate to a Public Image song and it did not work for them, now I don’t even like that song anymore but in the end it was their company.

Do you think they were maybe protecting you from making a bad song choice?

I don’t know, I was really into King Diamond at the time and nobody had skated to that music, his music is difficult to edit to because of the changes in tempo but they seemed to like that song more than my other picks we ended up going with that one.

So would you be open to having riders pick their own song?

Well, we haven’t made a video yet so, I really like Antihero video, to me they make the best videos because they don’t have parts everybody is just mixed in together and their videos are not that long. I always liked their videos it felt like it could have been you and your friends out skating, and that is a big thing in making people relate to a company, it makes is tangible, so you feel like you can participate.

What about the designs for the company, does everything come from you?

It is pretty much all me, I’ve learned like the necessary skills to work with tools like Photoshop to create the graphics but if I can’t I’ll ask someone to facilitate those needs. Most of it is coming from my head, which is annoying because it takes up a lot of time because you have to sit with it for some time and see if it’s good or not. I’ll run it by some people so I can get some feedback but most of the times I know what kind of emotions or response something will get and if that will be a good or a bad thing. Right now I am trying to shift my way of producing things, I want to do it in a way that is comparable to when an artist has a show at a gallery. I want to start thinking more in terms of themes so that everything ends up correlating with that theme in some way or form, so those are the new parameters I am trying to work with. To give you an example lets say we have the term food, all the stuff will have to do either directly with food or the things surrounding food. That makes it easier to create because the theme you picked creates the boundaries for you and makes it easier to make things cohesive.

So do you get a lot of time to skate yourself?

Not really, between the two companies, I have to spend a lot of time in the office. 917 is a lot more fun, there is more room for mistakes and happy accidents, people contribute as well sometimes I also feel like I know skateboarding better so I can get stuff done faster. It is still me in the office looking at books thinking “what are we gonna do?”. With Girl, there would always be the one off series where each pro got their own graphic, but none of them correlated and at the same time those big six board series are a thing of the past.

So will still you do random drops? Or will your drop in seasons.

I can still do sporadic drops, I guess, but I would like to drop stuff when everything is cohesive. I will probably be breaking that rule and become a hypocrite, because if the right opportunity presents itself we will probably still go with it. It is all in the moment.

You said 917 is more fun why do you feel like Bianca Chandon is harder to do?

Because we are going a different route with Bianca, I feel like I am also a little more protective of the company. We are trying to carve our own lane so we can reach a certain group of people but, in comparison to 917, I feel like the demographic we want to reach with Bianca is a bit harder to please. So it takes more time and it is more of a challenge.

When it comes to getting inspiration, does that process differ between Bianca and 917?

Of course, it started as one so in a way they intertwine, and because it is just me doing it, I wish there would be more people but it is just me. I try to make then different, as much as possible but I feel like you can always tell it came from one person. Like with Natas Kaupas’s work where you can immediately tell it is him, unfortunately, I feel like I don’t I have a distinct style. At the same time it can be a good thing because if you look at the work of people like Lance Mountain or Mark Gonzales in a way their style boxes them in, people expect that and it can be hard to break out of that, so not having that style can be a benefit.

It can become harder to experiment because people want a certain thing from you.

Exactly, so maybe I didn’t create such a style out of fear of being boxed in. At the same time, it can be nice to have and build your own strong style but I don’t have that.

I imagine you take inspiration from different things, like visiting art shows, museums, and books.

Books…A lot of books right now, are you familiar with the work of Tibor Kalman? Or Paula Scher? I like mainstream graphic artists right now. I find fine art interesting but in a way it can be elitist, to me the way graphic designers deal with their inspirations and the way they think about the way the mass will deal with their work is more interesting to me than a fine artist. Because some fine artists can be full of shit, sometimes you go to a show and you can tell that they didn’t work that hard on creating the work but they try to be very articulate with their presentation, it just makes me disconnect. That’s how I feel this week, though…Lately, I have been education myself more on different big graphic designers, knowing who did what and where it is kind of like knowing all about your favorite skater. The thing is I can name a lot of artists, graphic design is all around us but most of us rarely know the people behind the designs. Fine art seems to be taking this whole new shape, there is more stardom in it know. I do like that people seem to be taking a bigger interest in art, it is a good and bad thing.

As far as music goes, I am always trying to find new music, I am into finding Prog rock music lately do you know Steven Hillage from the band Gong? Lately, I’ve been into a lot of early seventies German fusion and Krautrock music. I have also been looking at album art and that also helps, Album art is something we don’t really get any more.

I remember buying records just for the cover.

I am sure that was a whole thing where they were like “Oh.. the album is not that good but let’s make good album art so it will sell.” I’m sure you could google bad album great artwork and something will pop up.

Coming back to the beginning, what are some of the problems you ran into at the start?

A major thing was that I went into this kind of blind, which is good and bad, it is good because if I would have known what I was getting into I would probably have not started those two companies in the first place. Another big thing is learning to work with a calendar. I missed a flight once and I bought this book “How to get work done” it was this small book harper college book, and remember reading it and thinking “I cannot believe I have been running my life without a calendar!”. The thing is that every computer and phone has one so it is so easy to use, you get way more stuff done if you schedule it, it makes things less hectic in your mind. Learning how to work with the calendar was definitely a life changing thing. The thing I don’t yet do is have a starting and a finishing point.
You German folk are much more efficient than us, I wish I was more efficient.

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Well if you are ever in Berlin stop by the office.

I am sure the whole office is clean, I am sure you guys have a beautiful space, a lot of books and you guys speak 5 languages.

It’s almost exactly like that (laughs).

Coming back to the scheduling , when we started our attitude was “Let’s see how things go, this is an experiment”. Then things took off…like really took off and we were just sitting in the office playing grown up until we finally got a grown up in the office. We needed to get more situated and to learn how things work, like having a description to go with the product makes things sell better. That’s what I learned from the Grace Jones board, it had a clear reference and of course it is a Grace Jones board that helps. Everybody like to learn something and if somebody likes the company anyway that story helps them understand and get behind those ideas even more. Another thing is being selective with who you put on and what you put out but the biggest thing is still working with a calendar. What is the biggest thing you learned working at the magazine?

People management, working with other people, what to do yourself, knowing the strengths of your colleagues, not taking on to much at one time, delegating work and making stuff together in a balanced way.

People management! Something I am terrible at, I should probably read a book on that. Everybody has to struggle with that part of the work, from the biggest down to the smallest company. I feel like I am bad at communicating altogether, it doesn’t make for a good boss, it is something I need to work on desperately. I didn’t get any complaints but I just know.

How did the team come to be?

Well, we all knew each other because we were already skating together, this was probably in the summer of 2013 and that turned out to be such a fun summer! We were skating together every day, and then Johnny Wilson’s video “SURE” came out and when I saw Cyrus’s part in that I was sure that he was trying to become sponsored. He went from Hopps to Polar
Cyrus (Bennett) was on Hopps… every wanted to get some guys on but I wasn’t sure that people wanted to get sponsored but

An important step was when I got Logan Lara onboard, I told him why don’t you quit Welcome and I’ll pay you to be the team manager. I kind of knew that if I got Logan on board things would happen because there is something about him. Once that happened everybody else slowly started coming around, so we started flowing people boards and that turned into a team basically. Balance is important, some people wanted to get on but other team riders didn’t want those people joining the team, or it wasn’t the right fit. That is when people managing is hard because the team might say yes first but opinions change and so I have had to make a call and tell people sorry! because, in the end, I don’t want to throw the team under the bus. It can be hard because those people are your friends too.

You even have an international team rider now.

Yeah Vincent (Touzery), I met Vincent out in Paris when we were out there to film Swoosh for Supreme. My friend Jack Greer who does Iggy Pooped was staying out in Paris to do art and he befriended all those guys(The Blobys). I met them all and was impressed with their skating, oddly enough Vincent didn’t seem to have a sponsor and the other guys did, even though he was skating as good if not better so we put him on.

You recently added Nik Stain as well, which I feel is not a very obvious pick.

He is friends of friends, so he got on via that connection. I never wanted to have a team where you have two opposite type of skaters that never skate together but are on the same team. I feel like that makes for bad chemistry. Coming back to my point about Antihero or even the old Girl videos in those videos you see they obviously skate and hang out together even when they are not on trips. with 917 it is me, I am the outcast on the team, I just don’t hang out as much, I have to work.


Do you hire interns to work on the company?

I have, but interns are a little hard to work with, I have had amazing ones but a lot of them just want to be around, you know. For instance, I had some “art kids” that skate, but their views and ideas about aesthetics are often very analytical, they tend to think too artsy and that makes things more difficult for all of us. As I said before, I think the right person will come.

I am thinking if we missed something…

I don’t know, ask anything you want.

It is kind off a weird one but is there any question that you wanted people to ask you?

Uhm.. I don’t know. I am sure I have thought of that before but obviously, it is a hard one to think of right now. You know skateboarding is moving in a weird direction right now, but it is a good direction…. The thing I can’t stand is all those people that cry about “core skateboarding” and the Olympics, the Olympics is the newest thing for those people right now. That’s evolution, why do you care? Skateboarding could have been in the Olympics in 1970 and could you imagine people crying about that now? Obviously, there weren’t that many tricks back then but skateboarding evolved, you don’t see anybody crying over that evolution. Skateboarding in the Olympics doesn’t personally affect anyone, the only thing the Olympics will do is spend money and that money will help skateboard companies make money. I don’t think the Olympics are going to be goofier than for example the X-games or the Dew tour.

I never understood why people can’t just ignore that side if they don’t like it, they are not forced to watch.

The whole core thing is just weird people are often misinformed and think Vans is a core company but they are owned by Vanity Fair which is a publicly shared company so don’t be fooled by an image. No disrespect to Steve van Doren he’s a great guy but in the end, he is not running the company, it is more like he is flipping the burgers. But people chose to believe an image and feel like they are a part of that.

It is like people saying fuck Nike, I am going to buy Converse.

Exactly.
Recently I got ridiculed because I made a comment about Etnies and Emerica not having the same quality product because they don’t have the same amount of money as the bigger companies do and I got a long angry response from somebody that probably worked for one of those companies. I am not saying because I want to see those companies go under but this is just what I hear from people all the time. At the same time, those big companies have a long history in the shoe making business so they have the factories and the know how. I just can’t stand this extremist view, move on and evolve the dinosaurs died of a long time ago and they are not coming back and that is the reality for a lot of “core” companies. I just don’t see things changing direction. The “core” thing seems like a made up thing and it comes in at a time when skateboarders finally can make a decent living of off skateboarding. Maybe it is a Republican-Democrat thing.

In comparison to the music business, skateboarders don’t even take care of their legends, If a musician makes a great album with some classic songs he can make money of his publishing or performance but in skateboarding it seems like we don’t take care of our legacy.

Well it is sort of happening now, Adidas has Mark Gonzales, Nike has Lance Mountain, Converse has Jason Jessee and Vans has a bunch of guys they support. I don’t know of any of those smaller companies doing that, back in the day 88 did it with Neil Blender but you don’t see it that often. Maybe it has more of a history now to take care of but yeah that is a good point.

Similar to music those old video parts still can inspire skateboarders today, so they are not irrelevant.

I agree, I always felt like a making a video part is like making a solo album, it is a thing you can watch and re-watch over and over to get inspired. I do feel like I don’t do that as much… well I guess I do. I am contradicting myself in saying that I don’t like parts, I think montages work better.

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But back then it was more about parts, I mean there were montages but in a different way.

Most montages were really bad back then, because it was just one trick by a random skater followed by the next. But there were some good ones, Jeremy Wray had a couple of good tricks in Transworld’s The Reason and I almost would consider that a part just because of the quality of the tricks. I don’t know but feel like skateboarding is in a good place right now. People have gotten to a such a high level in terms of ability that style, trick, and spot selection are things that are becoming more important. There are some superior beings out there, like the street league guys, we need a new compartment for those guys. I mean I am a pro but I will never come close to some of those guys they are like the elite that will be remembered forever. Then again there are some random guys in the contest, I don’t want to name any names but Cody Mcentire, I never even heard about that guy up until a year ago and he is just grinding everything with a toothpick in his mouth and he looks very Canadian but I heard he’s from Texas.

He is a Red Dragon, though.

Well, that’s good for him. So what is the German equivalent of the Red Dragons?

I don’t really know.

It doesn’t exist, right? Most Europeans seem to be less jockish, they don’t seem to have that Grrr mentality.

That is changing, though, skateboarding has become quite big, skaters in Germany can live of skateboarding.

So it is like the European NBA, Players move to those countries so they can still have a career?

Like playing for Barcelona instead of the Lakers.

Maybe that will be a thing, US skaters will skate for European companies. I thought about that when Blueprint was big, I thought it would be good to skate for them because the Pound was worth more than the Dollar so if I changed teams I could earn a little bit more money.

(laughs) I don’t know how you thought of that but I guess it could work and the company was sick back then.

At that time that type of skating was not that big in the US, it was underground still but I remember Cairo Foster saying Waiting for the world was his favorite video.

Do you notice any European influences that make it out here?

It depends, some stuff get talked about but not that much can you think of one?

Polar is pretty big.

I wouldn’t count that as a European brand though they are global.

One final 917 question, you talked about doing team boards, did you consider turning anyone pro for the company?

Oh yeah I have already considered it, I gave myself one, I feel like I should take it away, though. There will be pro’s on 917 but I can’t tell you any names. I want to do some shaped boards so our pros can have their own recognizable shape so you can tell from a distance who’s board it is, similar to the way it was in the 80’s. I think that idea got lost somewhere with the overflow of graphics and I like it when a pro shapes their board and skates it, but of course we will still give them “normal” shaped board as well.

That idea is nice, it makes the pro board a little more special, it makes it stick out.

Well then it becomes more of an object instead of just an image, there is something really nice about it. I mean you made it, you thought about what you wanted.

What about the wood?

Well, we can make what we want, we worked with P.S. Stix a lot but different people like different wood I want to start working with different woodshops.

I can imagine that it is not that easy to find a person like that.

Well.. it is tough because you need a skateboarder because he or she knows skateboarding but at the same time skateboarders often have one way of thinking, maybe more in the US than in other parts of the world and that kind of scares me because every time I went out to visit the workplace it has had this certain skate mentality, the people working there have a strong idea of how they want skateboarding to be, and that is very much a one track mind. I want to move away from that and do things differently. It is hard, because in a way you want that outsider perspective so you can have a new perspective… I guess with time the right person will come.


Do you still have time to skate?

No, that’s why I hope I can push some of my work onto a graphic designer so I can create some time to skate. It reminds me of hanging out with Keith Hufnagel when he just started HUF and still skated for REAL. He would always be on the phone and I remember thinking “Why is this guy always on his phone? Just stop!” nowadays the kids on 917 are like “Dude why are you always on your phone?” and I have to be like “No…I am trying not to be!” . But I don’t have a choice, up until the company gets big enough and I can hire someone that I trust. Maybe a Japanese guy or a German guy.

Photos by Conny Mirbach
Interview by Roland Hoogwater

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