INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
INTRODUCTION BY LANCE MOUNTAIN
PHOTOS BY GRANT BRITTAIN and GEORGE MEDINA
When it came to designing Chris Miller, he, as a skateboarder, has all the aspects of the best engineered most expensive sports car. His engine has the most power of any, his pump is solid, fluid and effortless, and his styling is the perfect design, taking all that came before and dropping any of the unneeded flaws of his predecessors, and of course the paint job is perfect. Chris Miller is as close to perfection of the evolved vert skateboarder as possible. Speed, style, lines, and look. Everyone who skated with him can vouch for this, and as you read on, we will find out that he has been blessed with the ability to move on into other aspects of his life and be just as impressive of a businessman and most importantly a providing and loving husband and father of two future sports cars. Chris always had his foot to the floor when he skated, making him a sight to see, but lots of times blowing up before he finished his run. It took a few years, but Chris has figured out how to drive in third gear finally, and as he still flies by everyone, it suits him well.“UPLAND WAS DEFINITELY THE PINNACLE OF BEING CHALLENGING COMPARED TO ANYTHING ELSE BEING BUILT BACK THEN.”
Hey, Chris. What’s up, man?
Hey, Murf. How are you doing, buddy?
All right, bro. What are you doing right now?
I just got back from a tradeshow. Now I’m back in my office.
You had a good time?
Yeah. It wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t there that long. I don’t have tradeshow feet or anything like that.
Nice. Let’s start from the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Well, my dad was in the Air Force when I was born, so we lived all over. We lived in Florida and California.
What year were you born?
Where in Florida were you based?
I was born in California, but then my family moved to Florida. We lived in Merritt Island when I was a little guy. Then we moved back to California and we lived in Culver City. We ended up in Santa Monica, when I was in elementary school. That was in the late ’70s, in the Dogtown heyday. In 1980, I really started getting into skating.
Were you into skating in Santa Monica?
I’d gotten my first skateboard for Christmas in ’78. I got a GandS Fiberflex with Road Rider Wheels and Bennett trucks. That was the ultimate, at the time. Skateboarding in Santa Monica was very surf influenced. At that time, I didn’t know who Jay Adams, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta were, but I was aware of the whole Dogtown aesthetic.
Who were you skating with Santa Monica?
I skated with kids from school. There was one kid I went to school with in Santa Monica named Bella Horvath. He was a pro skater at 10 years old. He was super rad. He was one of my friends. We would skate around at different schoolyards in Santa Monica. Santa Monica was the first place that I ever skated a pool or a ramp.
What year was this?
It was around ’79. I was in fourth grade.
Did you see any heavy hitters showing up at the pools?
No, not really. I only skated a couple of pools back then. The first pool that we skated was one that my friend and I found. We’d never skated a pool before and we just wanted to skate it. We came back later and there was some gnarly, older dude skating, but he wasn’t anybody famous. That was our first taste of skating any kind of transition or vert. We were skating a backyard pool on those little boards.
Were you stoked or what?
We were completely stoked. We thought it was the coolest thing.
Were you surfing at the time, too?
No. I didn’t really surf yet. I was influenced by it, but not completely. I was at the stage in life where you’re aspiring to be something, but you’re not really there yet.
You were just having fun with your friends.
We thought skateboarding and surfing were cool. I had an older brother who surfed. My perspective on skateboarding was different back then, it was more of a toy than anything.
Were you following skateboarding in the mags?
Yeah. I was starting to buy skateboarding magazines. There was “Skateboarder” and “Skateboard World”. I’d see photos of all the famous dudes from that area. In Santa Monica, the Dogtown guys were celebrities. Tony Alva was the ultimate skateboarder, along with Jay Adams and Shogo Kubo. Then I remember seeing photos of Cherry Hill. I was just going, “Oh, my gosh!” I’d never even been to a skatepark. Around that time, my parents split up and my mom moved to Claremont, which is the next city up from Upland. My sister and I were so bummed. We didn’t want to move. My mom said, “Well, there’s a great skatepark out there.” She found out where the skateparks were and took me to them. I didn’t end up going to Pipeline first. I ended up at this other park called Pomona Grand Prix.
What was that all about?
It was at a go-kart track. It was like a recreation center. They had mini golf and go-karts. In the skatepark, all the pools were painted. Every pool was painted a different color. My mom took me there because she thought it looked the coolest. She had driven by Pipeline and she was like, “It’s all gray and ugly. The other place was colorful.” So I skated at Pomona Grand Prix for a long time.
Was it a good park?
No. It wasn’t. It was pretty bad. They needed to paint the bowls to make it look like something was going on there, but it was still fun. As a beginner, there was plenty of stuff for me to do there. Then I started meeting other kids there that were like, “Have you ever been to Pipeline? You’ve got to go there. That’s the place.”
When was this?
It was probably around 1980. I went to Pipeline and it was just like mecca.
Did they have the combi pool then?
No, they didn’t have the combi yet. In the middle, where the combi was, there was just a big, banked reservoir. The first time I went to Pipeline, there were at least half a dozen pros there. There were like, 10 or 15 kids that were ripping Ams. When you go into a place like that, you can’t believe it. I was in awe. We had the best time. From then on, I was going to the skatepark every day.
Were you riding the full pipe or the 15-foot bowl?
At first, we were scared of that 15-foot bowl. We didn’t want to go anywhere near that thing.
[Laughs] That thing was burly, man.
Yeah. We skated the banks. We skated all the back bowls. Those were really fun. There were 6-foot, 7-foot and 8-foot back bowls, and snake runs. I was with the younger kids that hung out in the back and rode all the little stuff.
Did you see Salba coming through there?
I saw Salba, Micke, Scott Dunlap and Kevin Anderson. There was a whole crew of local pros. Steve and Micke Alba were the best guys. Everyone rolled through there. Skating that park, at one point or another, you saw every single person that was pro. When the Hester Series and then the Gold Cup contests came to town, we got to see all the pros.
What was it like when they started to build the combi pool at Upland?
They built the combi pool, and filled it with water. No one knew how gnarly it was yet. We used to swim in it. It was so hot there. As kids, we were there all day. We got there in the morning and didn’t leave until it closed. With my mom being a single mom, the skatepark was the babysitter. I was there the whole time, non-stop. I was a full skatepark rat. I don’t know how long it was full of water while they cured it, but it seemed like it was practically all summer. It was only a month or so, but it seemed like forever. Then they drained it really slow. I remember opening day. Every pro from everywhere was there. Salba was there. Duane was there. All of the top guys from that era were there skating.
What do you remember about that session?
I just remember it being super-gnarly. I remember how hard it was for some guys to skate it. Salba was ripping it. Micke was ripping it. Duane was killing it. It was one of those intense, gnarly snake sessions.
When did you finally get the guts to roll in?
Once the pool was drained and we saw how gnarly it was, we didn’t even skate it for a little while. We were really intimidated by it. We would just sit and watch these gnarly snake sessions go down. We were like, “Whoa!” During the day, none of the pros or gnarly locals were there, so all of the kids would go down and start skating it from the bottom. As soon as someone that was any good came, we would just get out of there and go to our little snake runs in the back.
Who were you skating with back then?
I mostly skated with the younger locals like Chris Robison, Eric Jueden and Billy Braden. There were a few other kids, too. Chris Ortiz was around.
What about Eric Nash?
Nash and Grosso were around, but they lived in Arcadia. They were a closer to Skate City than they were to Upland.
Was your mom taking you to the other parks, too?
Yeah. There used to be so many Am contests. There was ASPO and CASL, so I started going to all the contests. We would travel during the spring and summer season every weekend. It became like a community in terms of the am series. We’d go to Whittier and skate with Neil Blender, Lance Mountain, Lester Kasai, Grosso and Nash. We’d go to San Diego and skate with Tony Hawk, Billy Ruff, Ken Park and Owen Nieder. The Hoffmans, who were the owners of Pipeline, would take a whole crew. They’d pile everyone into a van and drive to the parks. We’d go to Reseda, Whittier, Marina Del Rey and Del Mar.
What did you think of all those places compared to skating the combi pool? You were a Pipeline local, so every place else must have seemed really easy, right?
Everything else seemed pretty mellow in comparison. You also have to remember that those skateparks weren’t really built perfect. Nowadays, when you skate all the new concrete that’s being built, it’s so smooth and perfect and good. Back then, almost everything was hard to skate even if it wasn’t super-gnarly like Upland. Upland was definitely the pinnacle of being challenging compared to anything else being built back then. Outside of Upland, Skate City in Whittier was my next favorite place to skate.
They had a killer full pipe, too, right?
Yeah. That big keyhole was really good, too. That clover bowl was really fun. They had some other smaller stuff that was fun to skate. There were always good sessions there because of all the locals like Lance, Lester, Neil and Lucero. There was such a good crew of people there. It was always fun. Del Mar was good, but it was mellow. The pool felt not vert enough and it was slick. Marina was good though. Marina was really fun.
What was it like going on these road trips? You were probably like, 13 years old. There was the influx of punks and serious partying going on. Did you ever catch wind of that or were you isolated from that with the Hoffmans taking you around?
Well, being on Santa Cruz, I definitely had an idea what was going on. My first sponsors were Santa Cruz and Indy. One of the first contests I went to was at Big O. I had lunch with Salba, Duane, Micke and all these guys that, in my eyes, were pretty gnarly guys.
Were they down with you because you were on the team?
Yeah. They were totally cool with me. They were doing their own thing, but they were looking after me. I didn’t think of myself as a little kid, but they did, so they were watching out for me. It definitely made an impression on me to be hanging out at the skate contests with Duane, Steve Olson, Salba and those guys.
How did you get sponsored by Santa Cruz?
Steve and Micke Alba started flowing me product. The first free product I ever got was a set of Indys and a Kryptonics skateboard from Salba. I was always skating with the older guys, but as a young kid, I was too intimidated to even say anything. I just kept quiet. At some point, those guys noticed me, and started hooking me up with stuff. It grew from there. Eventually, I got on Santa Cruz and Indy because of the Albas.
That’s killer, man.
When I was a little older, the first skate contest I went to where I was going to stay overnight was this contest in Lakewood, CA. They had the Am contest and then the next day was the pro contest. I was supposed to stay with all the Santa Cruz and Indy guys. I was only 11 years old. I remember my mom was really worried to have me gone overnight. The team manager was like, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of him.”
Did she know who Duane was?
[Laughs] No. She didn’t have any idea what was going on with those guys. So I was at the skatepark, and those guys wanted to party and they didn’t want the little kid around. They were like, “Go and see if you can stay with somebody else.” So I went back in the skatepark and I’m asking all these people that I didn’t really know if they had a place I could stay. I went back out to the parking lot to tell them that I couldn’t find a place, and they were gone. I was like, “What am I going to do?” I’m at the skatepark, just freaking out. It was getting late and the park was getting ready to close. I had no idea where I was going to stay, but I wasn’t going to call my mom. I knew if I called my Mom that I’d never get to go to another contest ever again.
You’d be busted.
Yeah. So I was strategizing how I was going to sleep in one of the bowls. Right before the skatepark closed, Neil Blender, Billy Ruff and the GandS guys came back. They were like, “You can stay with us.” That weekend is when I got on GandS. They were like, “Dude, you should ride for GandS.” So I ended up quitting Santa Cruz to ride for GandS.
That must have been a hard decision to make as a little kid. Or was it like, you were hanging with these guys and they were cool and mellow and you didn’t have to deal with the Santa Cruz aspect of things?
It was just different. With Santa Cruz, everyone on the team was older. I was hanging out with Duane, Salba, Steve Olson and all these guys that were, in my eyes, men. GandS had a really good Am team. With Neil and Billy, it was a different generation. The guys on GandS were closer to my age. I would go to contests and to other skateparks, and those were the guys I always skated with and hung with. For me, it was more like being on a team with my friends.
Did you catch a lot of crap from Salba? Was there a weird vibe, like you’d abandoned the team?
No, not really. I don’t really know if those guys knew the whole story, but in the end, I think they realized that they blew it by leaving me at the skatepark. I don’t even think it was Salba. It was the team manager. What was kind of ironic about it was that at that contest I did pretty well in the Am event. I ended up getting the cover of “Thrasher”. That was only the third issue of “Thrasher” ever.
I remember that cover. You were riding Indys.
Yeah, I was riding Indys and a blank Santa Cruz board with GandS Stickers all over it.
It was kind of funny.
I didn’t realize you had two covers. In the late ’80s, you got the cover again when you were on the Gullwing team, but you were riding Indys. The story I heard was that the only way you could get a cover of “Thrasher” was to be riding Indys. Was that true?
I don’t think so. A lot of the guys that rode for Indy, Santa Cruz and the Nor Cal companies got photos in “Thrasher”, but I think it was always more of a conspiracy theory than it really was. Those guys were hanging out with all the photographers for “Thrasher” because they were based in San Francisco. I don’t think it was really like, “If you’re not riding Indys, you’re not getting the cover.” I think if you were riding Indys, it helped, but it wasn’t a requirement.
When you rode for G&S, did you automatically get hooked up by Gullwing? Or did you ride Indys for a little while before you went to Gullwing?
I rode Indys for a long time. It was the same kind of thing as switching to G&S. All of my friends rode for Gullwing, so I wound up getting on Gullwing. Indy and Santa Cruz were more like pro teams. G&S and Gullwing were really involved with the Am contests. I’d go to Am contests and those guys would always be there. The Indy team manager and the Santa Cruz team manager weren’t even there.
They weren’t sweating it.
If I’d been pro, I would have been totally stoked on Santa Cruz and Indy. With Gullwing, the trucks were never that good. They were pretty good towards the end, but the original trucks were heavy and didn’t turn very well.
Did that compromise your skating? Or did you just tough it out and ride them anyway?
I think I was just stoked to ride for Gullwing because my friends rode for the company. The Gullwing trucks definitely weren’t as good. There were times when I was still riding Indys, but I’d spray paint them white. Later on, they made the Gullwings better. They actually got pretty good towards the end.
When did the Gullwing Army start?
That was later, when Randy Janson or John Hogan was the team manager. Gullwing got pretty good later on, as far as the guys working there. Randy Janson ruled. He was super cool. They were doing a really good job. They had the Gullwing Army. They always had good graphics and cool looking ads. The trucks were pretty good at that point, too.
What was it like hanging out with Neil Blender? A lot of people have seen him skate and dig his style, but they also dig his personality. What was cool about hanging out with Neil?
Neil Blender is just the funniest, most creative guy. He has such an offbeat sense of humor. Hanging out with him was the best thing ever. The guy was total entertainment. As a skater, he was super amazing. He did his own thing and had his own tricks. He had a cool, powerful, unique style. Personality wise, he is just one of the best. I wish Neil were a little more available nowadays. His art and design ability are amazing. I respect his artistic talent so much. I think he got burned on the industry politics, but he’s just a brilliant artist. I’d like to see more of him and more of his art. He’s still around, but he’s just really low profile. I see him at Clairmont every now and then, and get to skate with him. I had some great times growing up with that guy. I have nothing but respect and good things to say about him.
Right on. So let’s go back to GandS. As things evolved in the mid ’80s, skateboarding went underground and skateparks were going under. Out East, we were doing a lot of backyard ramps. What was it like for you when you saw Skateboarder go to Action Now and Thrasher kicked in? What was it like for you out there skating?
Well, Upland stayed around for a long time. We went from having 20 skateparks to having three. We still had Upland, Skate City and Del Mar. Eventually, Skate City went under, but for a while, we still had those three parks. It was a pretty good scene. Upland got to the point where, if you came Monday through Friday, it was free. They still only had like, 12 people a day skating. They were just hanging on. They had the shop, but even that wasn’t doing very good. They started doing other stuff to stay afloat. They tore out the snakeruns and built a BMX track. BMX was huge at the time. It was all racing. We all had BMX bikes, too. We’d ride the track like everyone else. The BMX track kept Pipeline in business.
You hadn’t turned pro yet, right?
No. We were just Ams. All the Am contests were still going on, so we still had our scene going. In high school and junior high, there were only one or two other skaters in my school. Even those guys got to the point where they weren’t really skating much anymore.
Did you get into the backyard scene out there?
That was a little bit later. Lance had his ramp. Schroeder’s ramp came a little bit later. Upland was open the whole time. There weren’t too many ramps around there. That was happening elsewhere, like in Arizona and other places in So Cal. We still had our skatepark scene. It was smaller and tighter, but it kept going. In our minds, as far as a career in skating goes, we didn’t care. We were just having fun skating.
You were sessioning the combi pool a lot, huh?
Yeah. We weren’t thinking that we were going to make a living being pro skateboarders but, around that time, we started traveling. We’d gone out to Kona a couple of times.
What did you think of Kona?
It was cool. It seemed like such a big deal.
Is that when you first met the Texans and the skaters from the East Coast?
Yeah. We went out for the Kona Nationals.
What was that like to see all those different styles of skateboarding?
It was great. I loved it. It was a little hard for me, because I was still skating pools mostly. Skating a little ramp like that was somewhat confining to me. We stayed at some hotel around the corner. There were five or six of us in a room. It was just a bunch of kids at the hotel. No one had a rental car, so we’d walk over to the skatepark every day.
Were you around when Chris Baucom threw the TV set in the pool?
Yeah. I was around when he threw the TV set in the pool. I was around when he took a turd in the pool, too. Baucom did some damage, man.
Yeah, he did. You skated the pool at Kona, too, right? You must have shown up and thought, “I’ll skate the pool. Why am I even bothering with the halfpipe?”
The halfpipe was funny. It was all slippery and fiberglass. It was fun, though. It was just so small. The cool thing was at Kona, you had the California people, you had the Texas crew and you had the East Coast guys. I don’t know how many people were there. It couldn’t have been that many, but it seemed like a lot to us. It seemed like a big deal. That’s where we first met Jeff Phillips, Dan Wilkes and Craig Johnson. We met all the Florida guys, too. It was good.
So it gave you a perspective going back home that there was skateboarding going on other than California? There was a family growing.
Skateboarding already seemed big to me. There were magazines covering it. It’s funny. Looking back at old Thrashers now, they were so thin. They were black and white, and it was on newsprint. It looked so innocent. But at the time, Thrasher was a big deal. I didn’t even realize or care that it was on newsprint. We were just so stoked to have a skateboard magazine. After Skateboarder turned into Action Now and they had pictures of people horseback riding in it, we had nothing. We didn’t even mind that they had snowboarding and BMX, but it gradually got worse and worse, until finally they went out of business.
Then Transworld came on with the “Skate and Create” versus Thrasher’s “Skate and Destroy.”
[Laughs.] Yeah. Looking back at it now, it all seemed so simple and innocent.
It wasn’t jaded.
It wasn’t all slick marketing. It was like, “Hey, we’re into skateboarding, so we’re going to make a magazine about it.”
It was like, “We’re going to make it or die trying.”
Yeah. That was cool. I’m glad that I got to be involved in skateboarding at that time. I got to see that evolution.
In the mid to late ’80s, skateboarding started taking off and you had to make a decision to turn pro. Or did you graduate from high school and think about college?
Well, skateboarding was small enough at that point that the contests were still Pro/Am events. They ran the Pros and the Ams together. I think my best finish in those contests was 7th. I was still an Am, but I beat a few pros. It wasn’t like the pros got that much money, but if you’re 15 and you get $500, it seemed like a huge amount of money. Then I got to a point where I was winning most of the Am contests. It was like, “Okay. The next step is being pro.” By then, a lot of my peers, like Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi, were already pro. They’d been pro for maybe a year or two. I graduated into being pro. I wasn’t really thinking about my future. I was always into drawing and art. I wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t thinking about skateboarding in terms of a career. I was just having fun. Then I turned pro at Del Mar. Lester Kasai and I both turned pro at that contest, and we both did terrible. I was just going to all the contests and did better the more I entered. Later, when GandS came out with my pro model board, it was pretty exciting. I was making a little bit of money. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to have a car and get around to all the contests. That was cool. By the time I was 18, skateboarding had gotten bigger pretty quick. It went from being underground and then it kept getting bigger.
Vert skating started getting bigger and they were doing all the ramp tours.
Skateboarding really blew up. There was a vert contest at Trashmore, and it was the first contest that I remember where pro skateboarders were signing autographs.
Was that the year that Gator got arrested?
I think that was the year before. I wasn’t at the first Trashmore contest. I remember hearing about it because everyone was coming back going, “It was crazy. There were so many kids. People were asking for our autographs.” It was a very quick turning point. We went from making nothing to making a decent amount of money. I was 18, so I moved out of my mom’s house. I was living with my friends down at the beach. I was traveling all the time and skateboarding. It turned into something. It wasn’t planned.
Okay. There’s one thing we have to talk about and then we’ll move on. Let’s talk about the infamous combi pool backside corner air lockup. I just want to hear it from your perspective. Was that a trick that you’d made before or was that your first go at it?
Well, that was my first year being pro. I was doing okay at a lot of the contests. I’d had some decent finishes, but it was hard for me coming from Upland with all of that vert and then adapting to these other parks with hardly any vert. At the other parks, I was good, but not that good. So the tour came to Upland and it was finally time for me to prove myself. I was skating really well in the contest. I qualified really high. In the video, the only thing they show is me hanging up. It’s like, “Here’s Chris Miller!” I rolled in, did a backside air in the corner, hung up and got knocked out. Done. That was actually the finals. I ended up getting eighth place. I couldn’t take another run, obviously. I was last out of the group of finalists. There had been two other days of contest. There was qualifying and the semis. I’d been skating all day. I wish the video showed one of my runs that I made. My line was backside air into the corner, frontside air on the flat wall and then go up on the hip. I had the line. I’d been doing that run all day. I used to get so nervous and amped at contests. I would have so much energy from the crowd and the music and everything that was going on. I was going to make it or slam. I was hanging on no matter what. So I rolled in, and because I was so amped, I had more speed than I normally would. And when you’re doing a backside air into a corner, it’s so gnarly because of the trajectory. You can’t go too fast. If you go too fast, you’re going to hang. That was it.
You’re totally blind coming in.
Yeah. So I knew I was going to hang, but I thought that I was just going to bump my wheels. I thought I was just going to suck it up. So I’m coming in and I did the suck up thing, but there was just no chance. When I look at the video, it’s like perfect destruction. In my mind, it didn’t seem that gnarly, but it was gnarly. I slammed. I hung up. I hit my head. I was not out cold, but I remember laying there on the ground, thinking, “I have to get up and finish my run.” But I couldn’t get up. I gave myself a good concussion, that’s for sure. I couldn’t come back and skate anymore. In the video, that’s the only thing they show of me. Every time I see Don Hoffman, I’m like, “Where’s the other footage?” The other thing is I don’t have any footage of myself skating Upland at all.
Who’s holding all that film?
Somebody’s got footage of it. Eric Nash has a few things, but that’s from when we were kids. It’s footage that his dad filmed. I don’t have any video footage of that era of skating at Upland. That’s always something I wanted to get.
I remember that slam, though. It was legendary. Every time your name was brought up, that trick was brought up and so was the amount of guts you had to skate that pool, because everyone knew how gnarly it was.
It was gnarly. The crazy thing about it was that even though that slam was caught on film, that wasn’t even my gnarliest slam in that bowl. The year before that, I was actually supposed to turn pro at a contest at Upland. I was practicing for the contest, and I was doing inverts on the middle hip. Tony Mag was running out of the round and while I was in the invert, I looked over to see where he was. I was like, “Okay. He’s out of my way. I’ll make it.” Then when I landed, I don’t know if I hung up or I slid out, but I fell forward into the transition going up into the shallow end.