Dave Bergthold Blockhead Interview
Dave Bergthold started Blockhead Skateboards in 1985, and with it’s enigmatic feel went on to become one of skateboarding’s more revered brands of the late 80s to mid 90s. So we recently caught up with Dave to reminisce over some Blockhead history and his plans for celebrating the brand 30 years later.
Thanks for taking the time Dave. To rewind 30 years, what made you want to start Blockhead back in ’85? And where did the name Blockhead come from?
I guess the same as most kids my age not knowing what the hell to do with my life, I was going to community college and had decided I was going to be an architect, so I took a couple classes. I ended up interning for this wolf man looking dude in an office with no windows and I was just, “what the hell am I doing?”. I was 20 years old then, and I’d been skating nonstop since I was 10 and I liked to build things. I’d never worked at a skate shop or had any experience in the skate industry (which was all but dead at that point), just a pizza delivery dude! I had $2500 saved up and I decided I just wanted to work in skateboarding, and the only way in was to do it myself! My parents let me use half of the garage and were super supportive, they thought even if I failed it would be a better education than school. So I bought some decks from Uncle Wiggley and got a full page ad in Thrasher, which everyone advised me against saying I should just get a quarter page for starters, but I thought the only way to be taken seriously was if you had a full page. I just did everything myself for the first year, screen printing, sales, shipping, graphics, ads.
Oh, the name Blockhead? I’m just going to say that it’s a mix of Charlie Brown and Devo. I was always into the underdog, outcast aspect of Charlie Brown, and that he was always knocked down but got right back up… and then we were listening to Devo a lot then and the song Blockhead just stuck in my mind I guess. It could have just as easily be named Space Junk or Clock Out!
So how long was it before things started to get rolling? Was there any one deck or decks that jumped off for you in those early years, or was it just steady growth?
Well, I was ordering batches of 60 boards at a time and had three models, Rebel, Chaos and Streetstyle. I went through a couple batches of boards and then I called AWH distribution and they were just, “give us 100 of each board”, I about shit my pants! It grew fairly steady and we started attracting a good local following since there really wasn’t any other companies in the area, we were just out on the streets skating, hustling and putting on contests and demos. Oh yeah, after about 6 months I got Sam Cunningham on the team and that really helped cement the local following… he was the best dude in Sacto. After about a year I was able to move from my parents garage into a shitty old dentist office right behind a skate shop called Skates Plus.
Can you talk a little about Ron Cameron’s involvement or imprint on the company? His art was such a perfect fit and appeared to give the company quite a push.
Around that time I moved into the dentist office I started sponsoring a young kid named Ron Cameron, he would always modify his graphics and do paint pen art on his grip tape. One day he showed me his sketchbooks of doodles and I was just “damn, yeah come up with some new stuff, this is what I need”, it started with a couple logos and collaborations like the Notch Nose model, and then I think the “Sam Face” was his first complete graphic. It didn’t take long before I phased myself out of doing the graphics because he was just way better than I was, and it left me more time to concentrate on other things. Ron’s iconic style would definitely go on to define the image of Blockhead, we just both agreed on a fun, weird and sometimes wacky approach to things, we didn’t want tough skulls and daggers and to take anything too seriously, skateboarding is just fucking fun! I think Ron did an amazing job of bringing out the personalities of the pro riders and just the company as a whole.
From an artistic or branding standpoint, what are some other companies that you’ve admired or been inspired by over the years?
Right now probably my favorite is Ben Horton and Slave, Ben’s art is retro inspired but it’s not retro and it’s just sarcastic and fun… original and amazingly talented. Then Lucero is a legend… pro skater becomes one of the best and most prolific skater artists of all times! John’s just got a great knack for bringing out the riders personalities into the graphics and making them fun. Along with Lucero, I really think that Ron Cameron was drawing the best and most unique graphics in skateboarding during that 86-90 era.
Another thing that seemed to push Blockhead was it’s barrage of early 90s videos. What was the process like behind those videos? And what’s the story behind that Beastie Boys lip sync at the end of Debbie Does Blockhead?
Well, before then there wasn’t too many other skate videos and most of them were done by the big dudes…Powell Peralta, Santa Cruz and Vision. We had to take it low budget style and just take the camera out in the streets with us every day instead of a full on production like most other videos were at that time. That was when 8mm and Hi-8 cameras just came out and it was finally somewhat affordable(and portable) to have a camera… no more “Dad Cam”. I filmed the bulk of the videos, but riders from other areas would send us their(usually filmed shitty) footage.
I’m not sure about the Beastie Boys thing, I’m sure we were just hanging out at the Blockhead house and someone had the idea and we just did it on the fly. My house was out in the country and we didn’t have TV reception, so it was just skate, watch skate videos and skate some more… then some mischief of course.
So how did Tracker enter into the picture?
Well I was riding Thunders at the time but Sam, Jim and Partain were all on Tracker. Jim was doing some other business with Larry and somehow the idea came up to try and license Blockhead. Tracker was looking to expand the empire and Blockhead was outgrowing the building we were in and needed more resources to be able to travel, tour and grow the brand. I was 24 and living half at my parents house and half at the warehouse. Moving down south allowed me to buy a house and build my dreamland in the backyard!
Dave fakie carves the corner. Image taken from Homeboy Magazine. Photo by Spike Jonze.
How did the Blockhead Ramp start? You added a bit to it over the years, but how was that ramp planned out?
It was just kind of an evolution from ramps that I built even before Blockhead. In 1982, I built a corner on a ramp in my parents backyard in Nor Cal. In I think 1987, we had a ramp that started as a 12’ wide mini ramp and then we hipped it into another 12’ ramp, and it had one corner and banks with parking blocks. It was the basic shape that the one in Bonsall(Southern CA between Oceanside and Fallbrook) had in 1989, but then we just took it to another level. It was partially because I wanted to skate it every day, and partially because I thought it would be great promotion for the company to have the biggest, craziest backyard mini-ramp ever built… and it was, I think it had 3 magazine covers and a bunch of other editorial and ad photos. Once we finished Splendid Eye Torture, I had time to fully bowl in both ramps. I still have the coping from that ramp on my current bowl in Oceanside, which has now been skated for 10 years. This one I had space restrictions, so it’s smaller and tighter, but still just as fun.
I saw the ramp firsthand as you began tearing it down, and have to say that thing was even burlier than it looked. With you having witnessed countless epic sessions, I wonder if you could give us your top 5 of guys who absolutely destroy it?
All time destroyer was of course Omar, who had something gnarly for every inch of that ramp, he definitely had the most tricks on the weird double coping corner transfer. Zak Grove lived at my house and was pretty rad on that thing at the time as well. Then guys would roll through and just kill it like Wade Speyer and Ben Schroeder, grinding farther than anyone. I remember Chris Miller just clearing the deck with face high airs over the hip, traveling 12’ in distance. Most people would pop off the hip, but he’d start 6’ before it, and just sail over the deck.
Do you have a funny story or situation you can share from those Blockhead house days? I imagine some classic stuff went down there…
Well of course there was when JJ Rogers and Jay West came out when the ramp was just completed, they by choice made a fort under one of the decks and lived there for a week or two. JJ hunted lizards, I remember finding a skinned one on the kitchen counter. Another thing is that we didn’t have TV reception or satellite for the almost 10 years I lived in the house, and when Zak Grove and Rick Howard lived there, we would ritualistically bring a portable TV up on the roof to watch the Simpson’s every Sunday night because that’s the only place you could even get a fuzzy signal.
You really had a knack for finding up-and-coming ams, and over the years farmed quite a few future legends. Can you name a few influential riders or guys Blockhead turned pro? And how were you finding these guys?
Well, some guys were friends of the team riders(Sam, Omar, Laban, Dill), some we discovered at contests(Berra), and some just fell in our laps via “sponsor me” videos (Wray, Howard).
Of course, on the flip side of that, you also had your share of riders who left or got stolen. And I imagine as an owner, that’s gotta be tough every time, but was there any one guy that hit you the harder than the others?
I’d have to say the one-two punch of losing Omar and Rick not too far apart. Omar was kind of Jim’s prodigy that he nurtured and dragged around to skate spots, they lived just a few blocks apart. Jim had pretty much run the course of his pro career, and when he started Acme it was just a matter of time that he’d take Omar there. I’d have to say the biggest hit though was Rick, with street taking over vert at that time, he was becoming our main dude. It’s hard when you open your home to these kids, and let them live there rent free for months or a year, and then they bail… it’s like losing family.
With so much going into Blockhead, what was the hardest aspect or challenge for you in running a company?
Well just rolling with the changing times, changing riders, changing trends… all that. You just can’t get lazy and you also can’t forget to make it fun. You’ve got to be business and get shit done, but I’d rather be a part of something small and manageable than some big corporate machine and have someone telling me what to do.
What happened to Blockhead towards the end there? What was it’s ending attributed to?
Well, a lot of it was just the state of the industry and skaters attitudes at that point, they didn’t want to have anything to do with anything that was considered “old school” at all. Anyone who was into skateboarding then knows that Powell, Vision and Santa Cruz were the top dogs in the late 80’s, but all of a sudden were barely holding on and had almost their whole teams quit… Blockhead just kind of got lumped in with all that. Skating vert and bowls was out at that point, so all of a sudden nobody gave a shit about the Blockhead Ramp. Tracker, who was backing us at the time couldn’t throw any money at getting new team riders, so it seemed best to let Blockhead die and start something new that the team riders felt an ownership in because they were the first riders… thus Invisible was born with Laban Pheidias, John Reeves and a new unknown kid named Jamie Thomas.
Now that all-terrain and vert skating are making a resurgence, I wonder your thoughts on skateboarding’s current landscape? What do you see as it’s biggest pros/cons?
It’s amazing right now, you can just about skate anything, do anything and be anything you want. Tons of skateparks everywhere but still a great backyard scene at least around here. Man slappies are trendy right now! So weird, but still great. I am glad though that I started Blockhead and grew up in a time when skateboarding was dead. We owned skateboarding, we knew what we had and it was all ours, our little outcast underground society… jocks hated us, corporate America didn’t give a shit about it. Somewhere along the way the question changed from “How high can you ollie?” to “How much money do you make?”. But the good thing is you can just disappear on a backyard ramp with your buddies and beer or get some deserted parking lot slappies and ignore it all.
With Blockhead holding such a special place in skater’s hearts, I have to ask what the company meant to you, or maybe how you’d like it to be remembered?
Well, to me… it saved me from having to get a real job, and then to be immersed in the only thing I’d ever loved, I got to just do whatever the hell I wanted to do with nobody to answer to. We were all just a bunch of friends and we had a pretty tight skate scene, and I think the stoke that I was feeling, and then in turn Ron Cameron and everyone who worked with me was feeling came across in our ads and graphics and the way Blockhead was perceived. Whether it was conscious or not, we just tried to make skateboarding fun. Other people had their tough guy image, but we were all about fun and creativity, just creative expression whether it was Ron’s artwork or building crazy ramps. Even in the later days of Blockhead, Jeremy Wray was doing his own art and Laban was starting to get into filming skits and stuff.
Well congratulations on creating something that we’re still talking about 30 years later. Do you have any re-issues or anything planned to commemorate the 30th?
Thank you. Yeah people have been asking about re-issues for years, but I had always resisted and just dabbled in occasionally making some boards over the past 12 years. I just wanted something I could ride, Sam could ride and whoever, so the boards I did were more hybrid between 80’s shapes and modern ones. Now this time Ron and I are going to take it seriously again, and do a bunch of reissues and then also make some more hybrid boards too. Look for the Hard Times wheels to come back and also Ron is doing his Skart Planks line of super limited edition, or one-off hand painted art boards. I tracked down 30 original uncut epoxy/glass blanks from 1985 and there will be an ultra limited run of the Streetstyle boards, so I’m pretty excited about that. The first run of reissues will also include Sam Cunningham, Omar and Hard Times decks. The website is getting a complete overhaul, and you’ll be able to buy things right there. We’ll be in shops again, but some stuff will only be available on the website. There will be a reunion party/art show this year, or possibly multiple events. We’re just going to have fun and get weird with it, and hopefully that comes across again in the products and the image… I’d love to be able to be a full on, full time Blockhead again!
Interview by Kevin Hulem
For more on Blockhead re-issue decks, visit their re-vamped website.