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Friday, September 14, 2012
EMB's James Kelch


The mayor of Embarcadero, James Kelch, has a guest board out on Real Skateboards, the company that turned him pro two decades ago. The Ohio native who was a fixture at San Francisco's most iconic spot (EMB) during its heyday, was known for keeping the peace there at any cost, just as much as he was known for displaying his deep bag of tricks. Kelch also battled and overcame personal problems and eventually found his way back to skating. Over the years Kelch maintained a great relationship with Jim Thiebaud who manages DLX and Real Skateboards. On September 11th Kelch celebrated his 42nd birthday and the next day Real released a commercial celebrating Kelch's guest board. He talked with ESPN.com by phone to discuss how honored he is to have a guest board, some of his fondest memories riding for Real and why skateboarding is turning into the movie, "The Matrix."

ESPN.com: How fun is skating for you today, compared with twenty years ago?
Kelch: Compared to twenty years ago skating is harder and hurts way more. But as far as fun -- it's never been better. I feel free as a bird.

In 1992 and you turned pro. What was your life like back then?
Life was perfect then. I'd skate all day and party all night. I was skating mostly with the Embarcadero dudes. There was this cat called Wing Ding and of course Mike Carroll. Also there was Rick Ibaseta. Jovantae Turner, I was skating with him a lot. There were some not as well known guys like Scott Thompson who was a really good skater back in the day. He skated for Dogtown for a minute I think. Also my friend Jake Vogel, it was just those dudes I skated with basically.

Life back then was just chill, man. My parents moved back to Ohio when I was 13. When I was 18 I came back to San Francisco on my own. I stayed at my friend Scott's house but I'd sleep wherever. Sometimes I would sleep at Embarcadero. I mostly just raged around, do whatever, sleep all damn day type of lifestyle.


The EMB crew in 1993 with James Kelch in the middle.

Did you have any idea that the people you skated with at Embarcadero would become big-time pros, and some might even own their own companies?
I had a few notions on who might turn pro from Embarcadero. But it was way easier to tell who wouldn't turn pro. There were people who skated everyday but there were others who skated with a purpose. I could easily tell Mike Carroll was going to be one of the best skaters around. I could tell Rick Ibaseta was going to be unbelievably good. Jovantae Turner, when I met him he was already sponsored so I knew he was going to make it. We'd always say that Henry Sanchez was going to turn pro. Chico Brenes was the illest of them all. All Chico did was skate and be hella nice. I never saw him do anything stupid. Chico was on top of his game the whole time.

Nick Tershay was a really good skater too. He was honestly super good at skating. I thought he was going to turn pro, but as soon as he started his company, which was really small with a couple bolts and shirts, even then you could tell he was pretty set and he had it on lock. But before he started Diamond Supply Co., I thought he was going to become a professional skateboarder.

In 1995 Tommy Guerrero called and asked if you were still skating and you said, "No." Then an ad for FTC [skateshop] came out the following month that read "No, I'm not retiring." What exactly happened there?
After the first few years of Real everything was cool. Then I started partying a lot, but even when I first got on they sat me down and told me they'd like me to mellow out a little bit, but I don't even think they knew about how much I was really partying. In the middle of 1994 I had cut out from this tour and disappeared and ended up meeting this girl, Leeann, who is now my girlfriend of 18 years.

They were sending boxes to my house and I was living upstairs and the backdoor was my door, but the delivery guy would leave my boxes on the front porch. The people downstairs, this crazy lady, she was taking my boxes and I had no idea. This was going on for like six months straight. The only reason I found out is because my girl's mom was at this bar and my downstairs neighbor was in the bar asking people if they wanted to buy skateboarding sweatshirts. I ended up bashing the lady's door in and taking all my stuff back. She had it all, stacked. It was like 15 sweatshirts and over 20 boards. It was crazy. It was months worth of boxes. But it was a come-up for me because I got it back all at the same time. I was looking at it thinking, "Goddamn, I got a lot of stuff."

So Tommy called me and asked me what I was up to. I was skating but I wasn't in the mood to do any [demos]. I knew what he wanted me to say but I didn't feel like doing it anymore. Tommy said that they'd put out a retirement board for me so I could get a check and I was really stoked on that. That's when they put out the "One fell off" deck graphic based on a child's tale where there are too many children in a house and the bed got too full, so one of them had to go. I wasn't really trying to retire. I was just trying to skate but not try to be big-time. I just wanted to get my skills up and skate around and just be mellow. The FTC ad came out right after that and I knew I was getting an ad but I didn't come up with that line. You know how it works. Most of the time the people featured in the ads don't write what's actually in the ad. FTC put that out and I wasn't trying to diss Real, but it kind of came off like that.

I ended up bashing the lady's door in and taking all my stuff back. She had it all, stacked. It was like 15 sweatshirts and over 20 boards. It was crazy.

--James Kelch

How did you reconnect with Real after that?
I didn't talk to them for a while. I felt embarrassed and I started riding other boards for a little bit. Then after my brother got killed I didn't even look at a skateboard or read magazines or anything. I just worked at a car shop. Then when I started getting back into skateboarding, I needed some product so I called Jim and asked him if he could send me some stuff and they've been basically sending me boards ever since.

When did you get back into skating?
I got back into skating in 2005. For a six-year span I didn't pay any attention to skating at all. Since my brother was killed I came out to Ohio to live with my parents and make sure everybody was legit. Plus there were other reasons to come back here like things going on with my girl's family. For the first few years out here I worked on cars and worked at a place that sold car paint until I got bored with it. Then I figured I should try and go skating. The first day I started skating again in 2005 I put my board together and I bought these junky sneakers, skated in them and tore ligaments in the back of my ankle. I didn't get to skate for another six or seven months because of that.

How did the idea for you to have a guest board come about?
I called Jim for some advice because some other people made me an offer to do something, but I'd barely get anything out of it. So I called Jim for advice and asked him, "I shouldn't do this, right?" He said, "No, man. You don't want to be doing that. Plus anyway we're about to do this." And he told me about my guest board. I was like "For real?" He was like, "Hell yeah." Receiving that news from Jim was amazing. I've had about three guest boards on Real, which is cool and Krooked gave me a guest board too.

What was it like seeing your first pro board and is your guest board a tribute to one of your first boards for Real skateboards?
Yes kind of. My guest board is based on my first wood board with Real. My first Real board actually was a slick bottom with a graphic that featured a kid in a field. The first time I saw my first professional skateboard we were on tour at a skate shop in Michigan. Before that though, I had been waiting for this box with my board in it, but we never got it. Then we showed up at the skate shop in Michigan to do a demo and we were looking through the clothes when I saw my shirt. I told Jim and he started looking around the store with me and that's when we saw my board. I was more than stoked.

The ad that shares the same design now as your tribute deck, was that your first ad ever for Real and how did you get to see it for yourself?
I'm pretty sure that was my first Real ad. They had me come down to the warehouse and write a story and then they took a picture of me scratching my ass at Embarcadero, just standing there. The way I saw the ad was I think someone showed it to me because I didn't have a subscription to Thrasher.

Would you rather be a kid coming up skating today, or would you prefer the way you came up?
I prefer the way I came up. Today's mass media has changed everything. I don't know if it's easier now or if it was easier then but it's like a rat race now because everybody is good at skating. There are a lot of good people. And the way they flood the internet with videos, constantly taking out the next dude, you can't even catch your breath. Back when I was skating, you would kill a spot. Word of mouth would spread and in six months people would hear about what you did. You'd be that dude and that was your spot and there weren't a hundred thousand other dudes trying to take your spot from you.

It's gnarly now. I watch all the videos. I stay on top of it. I know who is who. It seems so crazy  like the movie, "The Matrix."

James Kelch in his heyday- 1994.

Skateboarding is turning into "The Matrix?"
Yeah. It's non-stop. Everything's connected. It's all wired together. Some of these kids are robots. You can tell they're good but you could also tell that they're not trying to flow or have fun. I'm not saying all of them, don't get me wrong. With some you can tell, they know they're good and they're going to keep skating. But once they're no longer good they don't skate anymore. It's too gnarly.

What are some of your best memories of Real with regards to how you were treated as a Pro, touring the country doing demos and your impressions of your first video part.
The best thing for me was being taken into the warehouse where they had stacks and stacks of boards. It was like Willy Wonka land to me. I was fired up. Plus everyone was giving me props and juice so I'd just walk around and take mad boards. I'd put hella wheels in a box and no one would say anything.

The tours were fun too. They were low-budget and we'd be staying at somebody's house, and skating the most ghetto parking lot demos I've ever seen in my life. Some of the demos would draw pretty big crowds. Being out there feeling like I was a big-timer, and us rolling around doing tours in the van -- those were my best memories.

My part in "The Real Video" was whack. It was their first video ever. I thought they did a great job of editing it and the music of course was unbelievable. I liked a few of my tricks but I didn't really like my part all that much. People liked it and that made me like it, but the little wheels and the big pants and some of the shots I didn't like. I felt like it was all lameness that I tried to squeeze out for them in the moment. I felt like it didn't represent who I was. I guess it represented who I was at the time of filming, but maybe I didn't like who I was, during the filming of that video.

What do you think of the Real team today?
I think the Real team is sick. They've got a bunch of good skaters. Dennis Busenitz is hella nice and skates the right way, meaning he doesn't do tricks he doesn't feel like doing. Other people try to do every trick even if it doesn't fit with how their style works, yet they'll still do it anyway. But yeah I like the Real team. I think it's sick. Of course I ain't going to say it's wack.

Tell us about the idea behind the "Mean Ol' Dirty Kelch" commercial you shot for your guest board's release.
The commercial is supposed to be paying respect to the old Mean Joe Green Coca-Cola commercial. He played for the Steelers and in the commercial he's leaving the tunnel and a little kid tells him to cheer up because he looked sad. Mean Joe Green has a dirty jersey on his shoulder and the kid offers him his soda which he accepts, and when he's done chugging it, he throws the kid his jersey. So he ain't mean no more, he's "Nice Joe Green" now.