As Erik Ellington celebrates the release of his latest collection with shoe brand Human Recreational Services, we thought it was fitting to publish our print interview from Volume V in which the man himself discusses the birth of HRS, sobriety and the future of skateboarding in the digital age.
*THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN WASTED TALENT VOLUME V,
The last time I saw Erik Ellington was Summer 2015. At that point Erik had been sober almost a year, having recently overcome a legal case involving a drunken confrontation in a bar.
One he barely remembers and if found guilty, could see him locked up for twenty-plus years. It seemed a defining point in his life; he spoke about overcoming a history of ‘destroying by example’.
Since that summer a lot’s changed for Erik. He’s remarried. Moved house. Turned forty. Left Supra. And started his own brand – HRS, or Human Recreational Services, to be precise. Some things are still the same, however. He still skates. He still runs Baker Boys – alongside longtime friends, Jim Greco and Andrew Reynolds. He’s still the raddest dude on the planet, but above all, he’s still sober.
On arriving at his new place in Burbank, the first thing that’s apparent is how calm the surroundings are.
“Oh man, I love it here. There’s chickens over there. I feel like I’m on a farm, except the freeway’s right there too. I always thought it sucked because it’s so slow, and then I moved here – this place rules.”
For a guy who spent the best part of two decades drinking, smoking and throwing himself down every gap and rail imaginable, Erik’s on top form. He looks healthy, happy and focused. There’s a vibrancy when he talks; his piercing blue eyes light up with enthusiasm, whatever the subject. As we sit down for coffee, I light a cigarette.
“Oh I quit smoking since I last saw you too.”
Having lasted a measly seven weeks into my New Year’s resolution before smoking again, I can’t help but feel ashamed.
Wasted Talent: How difficult has it been to stay sober since we last met?
Erik Ellington: About a year before we last met, I was sober for 14 months. It was my first time and it was a challenge. I relapsed one night because I couldn’t deal with some issues and my solution was to forget about them and drink. After that night, I started over and when I came back, I started working on what caused me to drink and do things the way I did. For me, not drinking is more about learning how to deal with life and my reactions to life. So as of right now, my sober date is October 6th, 2014. I have about four and half years now and since that night it hasn’t been that difficult. But…it’s been almost three and a half years not smoking and seeing you smoke right now…I kinda still want one. If you were having a drink, it wouldn’t even cross my mind. Cigarettes can still be challenging.
We’ve heard about your new shoe brand, HRS.How did the idea come about and how difficult was it leaving Supra?
We’d had the idea of starting something different for a while – to make a shoe company that wasn’t just for skating – it just took a while to figure it out. I’ve always been really passionate about skateboard graphics and designing skate shoes; that’s what I grew up doing and I love it. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve changed, and with that my world opened up and allowed me to appreciate so many different things that I used to not consider. I like to dress up, so I like to wear nice shoes. I don’t know of any brands that are recreating formal shoes from the perspective of skateboarding and the influence of our culture. Basically, I want to make quality shoes that are for when you’re not skateboarding. In the beginning, when we first started conceptualising HRS, it was a little different to how it turned out. It was going to be part skate shoes and part dress shoes.
As I was designing the skate shoe it dawned on me that Vans are the coolest skate shoes, Adidas and Nike make the best athletic shoes in the world, and they can all pay a lot of money to have the best people in the world working for them. I saw brands that I grew up on struggling – really solid skate shoe brands were having a hard time competing with that. Why would I be any different? To me it seemed like I was going in reverse at that point. I had helped start Supra and designed skate shoes for a long time. I wanted to do something new to me that I could take a chance on and feel excited about.
So for a minute I was in the middle of designing a skate shoe as well as a loafer and I just scrapped designing the skate shoe altogether. I went to the Dominican Republic and Italy and developed the line. I just figured if I was gonna do something different, I might as well do it as best as I could.
That opened a whole world to me where I could make shoes that are still inspired by our culture, inspired by my favourite skaters, by the places I’ve lived, my friends, music…but isn’t developed with a $20 target of getting it made because it has to sell for 70 dollars. Once I abandoned that concept, I could design without the limitations of disposability. That being said, a $200 or $300 shoe probably won’t get carried by 95% of skate shops, and that’s what I’m spending a lot of time considering. I’ve got the ideas for the future of the brand, we’ve got an amazing team of talented people designing, developing, and marketing.
I’m really lucky to know some of the most talented people in the world through skateboarding. So all that being said…one day I was like, I’m gonna go for it!
I left Supra, which was a really difficult thing to do. I looked at it objectively – if I don’t do this now it’s like…when I’m old, do I ever want to regret not doing that? Even with the financial burden, I’ll do whatever it takes to do something I’ll never end up regretting, you know what I mean? I guess that was a long answer to your question but that was it, that was the motivation for me.
Was it a difficult phone call to make to Supra?
A little. They’re my friends though, so everyone understood. I was one of the co-founders and was able to witness and be a part of something that I’d never imagined would turn out the way it did. It was an incredible experience that shaped my life.
How did you come about getting Lucien (Clarke) involved?
Lucien and I met a while ago and became friends when we use to travel together with Supra. When we met, we clicked right away, he’s cool and I‘ve always admired his skating. When we initially had the idea for HRS as a skate shoe brand, I asked him if he wanted to be a part of it and he was down. Since then, the concept of the brand has changed from skate shoes and him not ‘riding’ for a team to being in a more creative role. So his involvement changed to being more behind the scenes, not just as a skateboarder but as a person, as a designer, and him being who he is. Similar to Bryan Herman, I can watch him skate flat all day but what he does as a person, his story of where he’s come from to where he is now is so inspiring and I’d like to highlight that.
Our goal is to build a community of people who are creative, positive, doing what they love and have a good style about the way they’re doing it, whether it’s skateboarding, art, music, or whatever.
Do you think keeping so busy and taking on so much responsibility almost works as distraction from relapsing?
I don’t think I would ever be able to take on the level of responsibility that I have right now if I wasn’t sober. And yeah, to that point, definitely. I feel like having two kids helps too. If I was looking at my life now from the perspective of myself 15 years ago, I’d be like, how does that work?! Getting up at 5am with tasks to accomplish…being an adult…would have seemed like a trip. It was little by little and there are a lot of things I’m challenged with, but I get to work on those things and improve now. So for me it’d be impossible to do any of this – it doesn’t exist without my sobriety. I also don’t want my kids to see me coming home from partying at eight in the morning; that’s motivation. I want to be responsible, I want to set a good example for them and show them what a solid dad does and what real relationships and family are. I wanna be able to wake up and do things with them with a clear mind and good intentions.
Where do you think skateboarding’s at right now with regards to how saturated it is? It seems in the age of social media everyone’s trying so hard to constantly stay relevant that there’s almost too much content out there now.
I was having this conversation with a friend of mine who I grew up with who’s an artist. He has to keep up with social media as well but he feels like he doesn’t do a great job, which I think is cooler actually. I think it can be good, and definitely has a place but I also feel like that there can be too much of something. Like, you have access to every person, every second of the day. What they eat for breakfast, what they wear, who they’re hanging out with, when they go to sleep at night. I think too much access makes it become less valuable, there’s less left to the imagination. Especially right now in skateboarding. Think about how many skaters and skateparks are out there now and how accepted it is from society’s standpoint. Therefore, there’s naturally gonna be 100 times more good skaters than ten years ago. So right now there’s probably a kid on this street that’s a better skater than most pros. If I go to a skatepark now, everyone can frontside blunt side big spin flip out or whatever…I’m numb to it. But then when you do see something like one of Jim [Greco]’s projects for example, he’s brought emotion back into a skate video. When I watch him dragging a bench for five minutes I feel it, like fuck yeah that sucks, I know that struggle. It actually gives you a feeling. I think that’s way more valuable than the instant social media gratification; to me that stuff is getting a little played out.
There’s no emotion to those clips either, whereas you watch Jim’s movies and there’s this aura to it.
Right! And along with Jim, I think Bill Strobeck & the Supreme crew shone a light on that. That’s been missing in skating for a while. To me it’s more than just the tricks someone does – I like that skateboarding is about personality and style as well. Growing up I didn’t like team sports where everyone had to conform, which is why a lot of us got into this. That’s what’s great about skateboarding and what makes it so special.