SMLTalk with: Michael Sieben

Backside Stinkpick photo: SHAUN MEFFORD

Backside Stinkpick photo: SHAUN MEFFORD

Very Important: What’s your favorite cereal?

I hope this isn’t a deal breaker but I rarely eat cereal. I pretty much just chug black coffee until lunchtime every day.

Let’s get this very basic question out of the way: where are you from originally and when did you first pick up a skateboard?

I was born in Kansas City, MO, and moved to Seguin, TX, the day after my sixth birthday. I started skating in ’87 when I was 12 years old. I went from Freestylin’ to Thrasher and never looked back.

What were some of the skate videos you grew up on that inspired you when you were younger?

As a little dude, The Search for Animal Chin, Speed Freaks, Wheels of Fire and Streets on Fire—those were the only videos that me and my friends had. As a teenager and into my early twenties, I had Stereo’s A Visual Sound and Mad Circle’s Let The Horns Blow on steady repeat. Mike Daher’s part in A Visual Sound is still my favorite video part. Hokus Pokus definitely tripped me out too.

When did art come into the picture? It seems like a lot of your art is inspired by 80’s-era graphics. Was this era your first artistic inspiration or did you find art through a different channel?

I’ve been into drawing for as long as I can remember. When I was younger I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator and I tried to draw like Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry and others. But as soon as I stepped foot into my first skateshop, Zulu’s in San Antonio, TX, I was totally consumed with skate graphics and skate culture. This was the golden age of Pushead, VCJ and Jim Phillips and the board wall was full of bones, guts and gore. As a 12-year-old kid, there couldn’t have been anything more awesome as far as I was concerned. As I got older I tried to mash my two main interests, children’s book illustration and ‘80s skate graphics, into one cohesive style.

Why have you never moved to LA or New York for your artistic or skateboarding-based pursuits? Do you feel like you could have done more in either world outside of Austin or have you been able to manage these worlds outside of their respective hubs?

Occasionally I wonder if my career would have been different if I’d pulled the trigger and escaped Texas. But I just never felt the impetus to move someplace with a more-established art or skate scene. It seemed more pure to stay put and try to shine some light on my scene here in Austin. And luckily, the Internet popped up as I was starting my career, so it was really easy to stay in contact with people outside of Texas and to promote my work beyond my city’s border. For better or worse, I’ve just always been kinda stubborn about leaving Texas.

Has being in Texas ever affected your role at Thrasher? How often do you interact with Phelps/Burnett? Got any good Phelps stories?

Somehow I wiggled my way into the Managing Editor position at Thrasher without ever setting up camp in California, so I don’t think living in Texas has had a negative impact on my relationship with the magazine. If anything, I think it helps give me more of an outsider’s view on skate culture. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I talk to Michael Burnett all the time; we’re in constant contact. Phelps and I talk occasionally. The first time I met Jake he told me that I looked like one of my drawings. That’s probably not a compliment.

The Program has been going strong for a minute now - Tell us about the transition away from Roger and who else is involved in this new company.

Stacy [Lowery] and I ran Roger for five years with varying degrees of success. We never really had the perfect scenario in place for manufacturing and distribution, which is obviously crucial. Jason Celaya [owner of Welcome] approached us about doing something through his new distribution company [also called Welcome] and I was super stoked on the idea. I’d followed Welcome since it started and it was one of my favorite companies. We agreed that Roger would need some kind of re-boot to make it seem new and fresh. Through that discussion I threw out the idea of just doing something completely different. Welcome would have been our fourth distributor for Roger and it seemed like shops were already confused about where to buy our stuff. The Program was born during this time. Stacy and I co-own the company and my buddy Mike Aho is on board to help out with video work.

I noticed a quote at the bottom of one of the boards that read “I made them, yet they conspire against me.” I googled it and all that came up was stuff from the Bible. Do you consider yourself a religious person? What does that quote mean to you?

I’m not religious at all. That quote was from a journal that I found buried in my front yard. It was in the same trunk that all of those haunted puppets were in. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here: http://www.programskates.com/about/

Who all makes up the team for The Program? Any insight into who will have the first pro board?

As of right now: Will Blakley, Max Taylor, Ryan Holloway, Trace Saylor and we just put on two more Austin dudes: Tim Soeung and Zach Farkas. So we’ve got a Vancouver resident and five Texans. We’re not in a huge rush to turn anybody pro. Kinda need the board sales to justify a move like that. We’re still really small.

The Program recently started a new contest called "Pushing with the Program" which aims to hook kids up for a month based on their video submissions. You guys had a similar contest with the Roger of the Month program. Is this a way for you to lock in untapped talent or is it more of a reach out to keep people stoked on what your company is doing? What do you look for when you're looking over these submissions and thinking about giving free product to a kid whose sent you their tape?

Pushin’ with the Program works on a few different levels: it’s a way for us to actively engage with kids instead of just presenting them with stuff to watch, it gives us the opportunity to scout for talent and it’s a way for us to give younger riders a platform to showcase their sponsor-me videos. Previous Roger of the Month winners include Clint Walker, Ryan Spencer, Cole Wilson, Preston Harper and Patrick Franklin, so it’s a proven formula for getting footage in front of other people in the skate industry. As far as what we look for in a video, I personally watch all of them and I just look for skaters who appear to be having fun and look natural on the board. It’s one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it vibes.

Another one of my favorite companies when I was younger was Bueno. I had heard part of its downfall were some issues with the distributor, Giant. Care to tell us what happened with that? It seemed like you guys really had something going and then it was just gone.

It’s funny how memorable Bueno is for a company that was only fully operational for a little over a year. Stacy and I started Bueno through Giant Distribution in 2005. In 2007, Giant Distribution filed for bankruptcy and went out of business, taking Bueno down with it. We tried to get the name so we could keep the company going, but the powers that be were not willing to hand it over. Stacy and I started Roger a year later just as a side project and a reason to stay in touch with each other. And here we are seven years later, still making stuff and having fun with it. I’m a firm believer that tomorrow outweighs yesterday. You miss out on a lot of cool stuff when you spend all your time looking in the rearview mirror.

The Program is being distributed through Welcome Skateboards. How did that affiliation come about? Do you feel any wariness in going through a larger distributor?

I’ve known Jason Celaya for a few years and always admired what he was doing with Welcome. When he asked Stacy and I if we wanted to team up with him, it was a no-brainer, as far I was concerned. We launched the brand through Welcome last July and so far it’s been the best working relationship I’ve experienced in the skate industry. They run a really tight ship and do everything they say they’re going to do, which is a rarity from what I’ve seen in my ten-plus years dorking around in this microcosm.

How do you feel about graphics in today’s world of skateboarding? Would you like to see more skateboarders design their own graphics? Do the people that ride for your brands ever have a say in what goes on their board?

That’s a tough one; there’s not a lot of Neil Blenders in the world. With Bueno, I was young and didn’t want anybody to tell me what to draw, so Stacy and Shiloh [Greathouse] got whatever I handed them. With Roger, I talked with both Nates [Broussard and LaCoste] and got their input into their graphics. I’ll definitely be consulting The Program riders if and when pro models make an appearance. But back to your first question, I think it really depends on the brand and how the rider’s art would mesh with the direction of the company. Jason Adams doing his own Black Label graphics obviously works really well. But if he rode for DGK, it might look a little weird. I’m an illustrator so my personal preference is for hand-drawn graphics, but I’d never tell a kid what he should be stoked on being on the bottom of his skateboard.

I gotta say, that nosepick you reeled in for this interview is incredible. How often do you get to skate these days? After being in the industry for so long, does the act of skateboarding still have the same appeal as when you started?

I still skate pretty often. My son’s preschool is a few blocks away from House Park in downtown Austin, so I skate there a lot in the mornings. That nosepick photo was a battle. I’d never done a backside nosepick before. I was really hoping to grab behind my knee but I had to take what I could get: stinky but honest. To me, the appeal of skating never changes: it’s just fun to roll around with friends. The industry has no effect on that feeling.

I always loved the Texas skate scene, but what are some other skate scenes that you’re psyched on? How important is it to pay attention to skateboarding not happening in your state or in California?

It’s really difficult to be aware of everything going on in skateboarding, currently, without being plugged into your phone or laptop all day every day. That being said, I’m sure there are pockets that are killing it that I have no knowledge of. To me, the most important thing to pay attention to is what you and your friends are doing. It’s just as important as what anybody else in the world is doing. More so since you’re an active participant as opposed to a viewer. Your scene is the scene.

**Is there any truth to you paying Big from Fancy Lad for the term “Avant-Gnar”?

Hah! If I told Big I was going to pay him then I’m a liar because I never sent him any cash. But yes, he did indeed coin that term and I borrowed it for a write up in Thrasher about The Golden Egg video. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and trip out for seven-and-a-half minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BkCa4VtUMQ

What’s the hardest part about running a company? Would you rather be in the art department working for someone or is there something to be said about working for yourself?

To me, the hardest part of running a skate brand is properly executing the boring stuff: sales, distribution, shipping—crap like that. Luckily, with The Program, the guys at Welcome take care of all the backend stuff and I’m freed up to just work on the fun stuff like graphics and video content. And yeah, it’s obviously way cooler to work for yourself instead of having to answer to somebody. I’m sure I’d make more money if I were to have an in-house art job with a larger board brand, but that would mean executing somebody else’s vision instead of working on my own thing. I’d rather make less money and pursue my own vision than plug into somebody else’s dream.

What are some companies right now that have an art direction you’re psyched on?

I’m still a big fan of Welcome. It’s rad that Todd Francis is doing stuff for Antihero again. I’m psyched to see what Sean Cliver’s brand, Paisley, does. I’m an illustrator, so I’m definitely more drawn, no pun intended, to hand-drawn graphics on boards vs. photos, logos, collages, or type treatments.

You’ve done a tremendous amount of work in the skateboard industry but you have a pretty lengthy resume outside of our little bubble as well. What was your favorite non-skateboard project that you worked on and what was your least favorite?

Favorite: seeing my work animated on Nick Jr. in between cartoons. Least favorite: designing a poster for a beer company and later seeing them put the art on a crappy longboard without consulting me.

Did you attend art school? Is this something you recommend for people seeking careers in the arts? Would you say going/not going helped or hurt your career?

I have a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of Texas at Austin. In hindsight, I probably should have attended an art school and studied illustration and design based on where my career has taken me, but I had no idea what I was doing in my late teens/early twenties. I’d definitely recommend getting a degree if it’s within your means to do so. There’s no such thing as having too much education.

Let’s talk about your home base of Austin, Texas. Though I’ve only been once, it was definitely one of the coolest places I’ve traveled to. I was also lucky enough to skate a couple of the ditches while I was there. What is the best ditch spot in Austin and why?

My favorite ditch in this area is either called C-Tech or C-Fan depending on how old you are. It’s next to a big factory that was named C-Tech back in the ‘80s/early ‘90s but that has since changed names to C-Fan. I also have a soft spot in my heart for Alexandria ditch because there was a good three-year period where it was the only spot I skated. Heavy local vibes.

Name the top-five skateboarders from Texas.

Jeez—heavy task. I’d probably get the boot if I didn’t start with Jeff Phillips. Okay, four more: Raney Beres, Ben Raybourn, Nate Broussard and all the TX dudes that skate for The Program. There’s no way to please everybody, so if you don’t like these answers please write your own list on your phone or computer screen with a Sharpie. You win.

Any current shows/art things you’re working on that you’d like to plug for the masses?

My buddy Travis Millard and I have been doing a bunch of collaborative drawings lately and we just put out a zine compilation of some of them along with some screen prints—all printed by our friends at Industry Print Shop in Austin. You can check that out here if you’re so inclined: http://bigwhoop.bigcartel.com

And lastly, what do you think about the state of skateboarding today? With Street League, televised video parts, talk of the Olympics etc., do you think we’ve gotten away from the core values of skateboarding? Do you think these still exist? Will skateboarding’s current place in mainstream culture last forever?

As long as I can go skate a ditch with my friends, skateboarding seems okay to me. And I honestly believe that no matter how big skateboarding gets there will always be weirdos out there doing it for no other reason than to have fun. I’d have to assume that skateboarding’s position in mainstream culture will ebb and flow, but with a public concrete skatepark in almost every town in America, I don’t really see it disappearing. But maybe that’s what they said in the ‘70s…

*Special thanks to Mike Laybold and of course, Sieben himself, for taking the time to do this.