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Beyond Board 

Tommy Guerrero's budding music career makes us wonder: Can you teach an old skateboarder new tricks?

Wednesday, Jul 9 2003
It's a hot Saturday in a ramshackle neighborhood in West Oakland, the kind of afternoon when you want to walk around barefoot, but you can't because the asphalt's melting into molten black goo. It's a summer day -- the longest day of the year, in fact -- and the neighborhood is celebrating: Kids hunt for fun in packs like hyenas, old men sit on sidewalks playing cards on milk crates, and a world-famous ex-professional skateboarder by the name of Tommy Guerrero lounges in a chair on his front lawn. He is taking in the sun and drinking Mexican beer.

At first glance, Guerrero seems utterly relaxed, as if sunbathing were his primary occupation. It is not. That would be running his own skateboard company, followed closely by playing music, and when the conversation meanders its way to the latter topic -- specifically, an upcoming gig that essentially amounts to his solo debut -- Guerrero gets a little less chill. "I can't stand the idea of being one of those bands that goes on tour and plays, like, 300 gigs a year and plays the same set every night," he says.

A skinny guy, Guerrero is shirtless and generously tattooed, sporting a straw hat, black horn-rimmed glasses, and a tidy goatee. While not the visage of rebellion he once was, Guerrero at 36 is still a kid in many ways, even if these days he reads design catalogs instead of Thrasher.

Signed to the most prestigious skateboarding team of the mid-'80s when he was 18, Guerrero spent the better part of a decade touring the world. When the cumulative deleterious effects of skateboarding caught up with him, he began devoting his creative energies to his second love, music. Not surprisingly, the jazzy instrumental hip hop songs he writes -- especially those presented on his latest solo LP for Mowax records, Soul Food Taqueria, released in May -- are the perfect soundtrack to the loungin' stage of a life formerly spent globe-trotting and life-risking.

From the dirty drum fill that opens the slow-rolling "Abierto" through to the album's closing song, the lethargic "Falling Awake," Soul Food Taqueria is a Fourth of July barbecue on Quaaludes. Whiny wah-wah guitars toss funky chords to and fro like Frisbees, as drunken bass lines wobble through each mix. Soulful vocals show up to spike the punch from time to time, and everything is locked into place by some junk-kit drumming. It's no wonder that both Guerrero's label and his fans have been urging him to play these tunes live, with a full band -- something he's always tried to avoid doing.

Guerrero has an aversion to the notion of playing his original compositions live, let alone on tour. When pressed, he lists a number of reasons. There's the work involved in touring, the awkwardness of leading a band of trained musicians when Guerrero himself is self-taught, and, perhaps most important, the prospect of becoming bored with the material.

As he shares his thoughts on his upcoming gig, it's hard to tell if logistics, integrity, or simple fear is what's been holding him back. The one thing that seems clear is that he is second-guessing his next move. In the world of skateboarding, a moment's hesitation can mean bruises, breaks, or worse. What it means in the world of music is something Tommy Guerrero is about to find out.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Guerrero picked up skating from his older brother, Tony (also a musician), and began trying out for skate teams when he was just 9. With his father out of the picture and his mom working full time, Guerrero was blessed (or cursed) with the freedom afforded a latchkey kid. When he wasn't skating the city streets, he was playing punk music with his brother at local clubs.

"It's interesting when I do interviews [for articles], because I read them, and it's always, "Skateboarder turned musician,'" explains Guerrero, "and it's like, Huh? I mean, I've been in bands since I was 12."

Like it or not, it's for skating that Guerrero is best remembered. When he was offered a deal by the Powell-Peralta team in 1984, he was the first street-style skateboarder (the pros of the day mainly skated ramps) ever to sign to a major company, let alone that company. The next decade found Guerrero and his teammates -- collectively referred to as "The Bones Brigade" -- traveling the world and earning bundles of cash. They also appeared in countless films and videos, including the Debbie Does Dallas of skate flicks, The Search for Animal Chin.

When Powell-Peralta's momentum waned, Guerrero left the team and founded his own company, Real Skateboards, in 1990 with partner Jim Theibaud. Earning a decent living and not in the market for any more asphalt beatings, Guerrero gracefully retired from professional skateboarding in 1995. Three years later, the skater-turned-entrepreneur-turned-multi-instrumentalist/producer released his debut album, Loose Grooves and Bastard Blues, on a small independent label called Galaxia. The record introduced the world to Guerrero's evolved style, which is influenced by artists such as John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, and Chicago post-rock pioneers Tortoise. While many of his early recordings are on tape, Guerrero has since developed a studio strategy that's an analogue to skateboarding.

"My whole approach is just plug in and go," he says, alluding to the miracle of music software, which allows for pristine recording at the touch of a button coupled with maximum editing capabilities. "I'll improvise, mess around, and something will just strike me, like a cool melody or something, and I'll record it and I'll listen back and say, 'Oh, I like that.'"

The resulting tunes reflect the streamlined comfort presiding over not only Guerrero's home-recording environment, but also his life. A veritable collage of "Oh, I like that"s, his songs are relaxed and spacey, a collection of riffs and beats hastily recorded but carefully stitched together. In sidestepping many of the conventions of downtempo instrumentals -- live drums replace beat boxes, earthy guitar solos stand in for vacant synths, a jazzy urban spice flavors it all -- Guerrero manages an aesthetic that's mellow but not monotonous, that chills you out without leaving you cold.

While some criticized the "generic" and "laconic" simplicity of Guerrero's 2000 release A Little Bit of Something, his Soul Food Taqueria easily jukes these barbs. Offering a vibrant salsa beat here, some densely hypnotic guitar/bass interplay there, and the occasional vocals of longtime friend and collaborator Gresham and Bay Area hip hop mainstay Lyrics Born, Soul Food is consistent in its quality, yet varied in the styles it navigates. Clearly, after five years of developing his vision, Guerrero is hitting his stride. Despite reservations, even he admits that getting a band together to play live -- at least in his hometown -- is probably the next step.

"I've never truly done it here," he concedes. "People are always like, 'When are you gonna do the band thing?'"

But translating his homemade recordings into arrangements for a live act hasn't proven easy.

"What's funny is that I'm practicing for the show, I'm teaching my friends and stuff, but I'm relearning it, too, because I've never played it other than when I recorded it," he says. "It's weird, because they look at me and they're like, 'You don't know your own songs?'"

In addition to reviewing his own material, Guerrero is also dealing with leading a band, something he's not thrilled about.

"Being a dictator [is something] I cannot stand being," he explains. "The fact that you're trying to tell all these people what to do and how to do it -- musicians who are better than you -- it's like, wait a second, that's bullshit."

Worst of all, Guerrero seems downright paranoid about getting stuck in the rut of touring. In addition to the frustrations of travel -- cramped vans, long drives, etc., most of which Guerrero dealt with as a pro skater -- he's afraid of sapping all the life out of his songs through constant repetition.

"The more something is repeated," he says, "the more it is diminished. It loses its fucking point, it loses the reason why it even exists."

Of course, it's certainly possible to keep the tunes fresh. That's what improvisation is for. In fact, both Guerrero's other band, Jet Black Crayon, and the solo performances he sometimes gives with just a bass guitar and some effects pedals are all about improvisation. But there's clearly something about performing these songs -- his songs -- that has Guerrero nervous. Ironically, it's this attitude that has the risk-taker breaking one of the most important rules of his life.

"With skating," he explains, "you're not thinking about five walls ahead like, 'OK, I'm gonna do this here, I'm gonna do that there.' When you're skating, that doesn't happen; it's very spur of the moment. When you see something, you do it. And I think that's definitely transferred into music and just my life in general. I mean, just having that kind of spontaneity, having that type of decision-making, like in a millisecond saying, 'OK, that's it!' and not second-guessing yourself ever. Some people that I know always second-guess themselves about everything, and they never do anything."

Ready or not, Guerrero is done with the excuses and is delivering the goods. And he's in good shape, too. His band -- he's joined by multi-instrumentalists Quinn Luke and Charlie Hall, the three of them taking turns on guitar, bass, drums, sampler, and didgeridoo -- has been practicing for weeks, and its leader has even managed to learn his own songs. What's more, it's clear that the skateboarder inside him -- the guy hardwired to try something, fall on his ass, then get back up again -- will never disappear.

"You gotta try," he says. "People always ask me [to play live], the label always asks me, and it's like, fuck, I guess I gotta try. It's nice enough for people to be into it, for them to put it out and all that, so I guess this is just the reciprocal aspect of it. Maybe when they hear it they'll be like, 'Don't play live, Tommy.'"

Then again, maybe not.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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